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Sunday, March 17
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, March 14
Thursday 5:15 Evensong
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Sunday, March 17
The City that Kills the Prophets
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord" (Luke 13).
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St. Patrick died just over fifteen hundred years ago today. Born in Britain, as a young man he was captured by raiders and first arrived in Ireland as a slave (for the druid priest in Slemish).[1] After six years a dream inspired him to escape and he went home. Later he returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary and a bishop. The Celtic style of Christianity matters here and you can see him in the nave stained glass window closest to the north transept.

Patrick carried a staff of ash wood and preached wherever he went. He would drive the stick in the ground upright and just start talking. At Aspatria he preached for such a long time that when he finished, he couldn’t pull the stick out of the ground. It had sprouted roots and grew there.[2]

For me the miracle was not that he could talk that long but that anyone would stay around to listen. There is no preaching without a congregation and I’ve been worried that talking about the news this week might make you want to get up and leave. So many horrible things happened that we just want to forget.

The people of the United Kingdom failed to agree about leaving the European Union. The president’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted of fraud and conspiracy against the United States (in his work representing pro-Russian foreign interests). He received a mild sentence totaling seven and a half years.[3]

A family from my daughter’s high school paid a consultant who photo-shopped a picture of their child’s face onto an athlete’s body in order to get her accepted at the University of Southern California. The long-term former soccer coach at my son’s college received bribes so that he would fraudulently admit students.

By far the worst of all was Friday when 50 people were shot to death and more than 40 others were wounded at two mosques in Christchurch New Zealand. Our brothers and sisters were worshipping God when a white supremacist rushed in and killed them. In human history we have never experienced a tragedy quite like this. The shooter filmed and broadcast this murder in real time to get attention on the social media that had done so much to inflame his hatred.[4]

People ask Jesus why tragedies like this happen. In the beginning of Luke’s thirteenth chapter Jesus is on the road to the Temple in Jerusalem. The people refer to a strikingly similar incident in which Pilate murdered visitors from Galilee while they were worshiping in the Temple.

Perhaps the crowds want to know if this was a sign from God, perhaps they wondered if it signaled a future divine retribution. Jesus answers that we should never use the suffering of others for our own purposes. We should not ask if they deserved it or if constitutes some kind of message (as if God were merely using other people’s lives to get our attention). Instead we should take all suffering as a reminder to repent, to make ourselves right with God.

Jesus goes on with another example. He says that the tower of Siloam fell and killed eighteen people. “Do you think that they were the worst offenders in Jerusalem? No I tell you; but unless you repent, you will perish just as they did” (Lk. 13). Every natural disaster or illness or act of violence should inspire us with greater reverence for all life. These horrifying events should remind us how precious our existence is. They should always motivate us to deeper love for others and God.

Jesus continues his journey toward the Temple and the story goes on. The Pharisees, the most faithful people in his society, warn him to get away. They say that Herod wants to kill him. But Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem and nothing will deter him. He says, “tell that fox… I am casting out demons and performing cures.”

Then in a moment of deep emotional power he says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” The city, that place of unique human culture and violence, elicits Jesus’ profound affection. It draws him not just to his death, but to his resurrection.

Human beings and cities evolved together. At some point in history agriculture made it possible for a few people in society to work at something other than gathering food. From the very beginning in Mesopotamia and Egypt, in Asia and the New World, cities were defined by the concentration of wealth. This made possible the flourishing of human culture. The cities were the home of the market, the garrison and the temple, of kings, generals and priests. The history of the city is the history of the lordship of one human being over others. It is the story of power and inequality.[5]

The oldest city excavation in Palestine is at the biblical city of Jericho (Tell es-Sultan). It was founded between 10,000 and 9000 years ago, more than six thousand years before the first books of the Bible were written. Archaeologists discovered that the defensive walls were built before the people there had been introduced to pottery. It almost makes one ashamed to be human. We learned to build walls to protect our wealth before we learned to make bowls and jars to preserve it.[6]

One could read the Bible as the story of the city. From the beginning God seems opposed to the concentration of human power and the oppression to which this leads. God confuses human languages at Babel and washes away the cities of the earth in the time of Noah. God destroys the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Our faith all started with a rich nomadic herdsman named Abram. In the hill country of Cana, God asked him to “look toward heaven and count the stars… So shall your descendants be” (Gen. 15). From that point on, the people of God suffered at the hands of the centralized power represented by the city, but they also undermined that force.

 

At a primal level, there almost seems to be a choice that we have to make between our freedom, and access to the wealth of the city. Joseph and his brothers had to decide. They went down to the Pharaoh’s city in Egypt to avoid starvation and their children lost their freedom. When the Hebrews escaped Egypt and gained their liberty in the desert, they constantly complained because they missed Egypt’s wealth.[7]

 

Jerusalem became a political and religious center. Throughout the monarchy the authors of the Bible write mostly about two experiences of this city. They point out first, the injustices committed by the powerful against their own people. Second, they describe the impending threat of Ninevah and Babylon, the human cities and powers that were even greater than those in the Holy Land. (To put this into perspective, Ninevah was a city of 1,720 acres. Jersualem covered only 33 acres).[8] The prophets speaking on God’s behalf are slaughtered in the very city that they seek to warn. To make matters worse, the prophets end up being right. When the Hebrew people put their trust in the city instead of God, invaders from larger cities over-run it.

Today’s Gospel continues this story of the city. Jesus is a rural Galilean on the road to a place where human inequality thrives – Jerusalem. In the city, people have the strongest beliefs in the stories that justify political, economic and religious inequity. Jesus goes to reveal the truth – that God loves every person without exception.

Over the passage of centuries the dynamics of human social life have not changed so much. When we stop looking for ways to condemn others, this week’s news becomes especially horrifying because we recognize our darker self in these stories. Our false philosophy of scarcity and our habit of regarding a person’s identity as more important than her humanity cause real harm.

The Manafort sentencing reminds us how far we have to go to achieve equal justice. The Brexit debates show our desire to tighten the circle of our concern, to ignore the stranger and care for only those who are close to us. The college cheating scandal exposes another effect of living in an ungenerous and increasingly unequal society (exacerbated by tax, education and healthcare policies that shrink the middle class). Our anxiety about falling into poverty makes us more likely to always put ourselves first and to cheat.

None of us would consider murdering another person online. And yet we hold onto racism, prejudice and judgment in our hearts. We are part of the bigotry we see around us. It is a rare person these days who has not in some way bent or stretched the truth on the internet, who has not manipulated reality for their own purposes.

Two nights ago I dreamed that I was preaching in a massive ornate English Cathedral. At first I kept worrying that I didn’t have a stole. Then they asked me to split my sermon up and to preach multiple times in the service. Then I lost my notes… Finally someone pointed out that I was sitting in the queen’s chair. I don’t know why I was so afraid of getting this wrong. Perhaps it is especially difficult to talk about inequality and bigotry because I have personally benefited from these forces.

When Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem what he is really doing is going into the heart of danger, into the place where human beings are at their worst. He moves without relenting into the pain and the darkness. He refuses to use any person’s suffering for his own purposes. He brings the light of resurrection. He gathers fragile little chicks like you and me under his wings so that we can live without fear. May this good gardener plant us like St. Patrick’s staff so that we might flourish with new life.

[1] Michael D. Lampen, Grace Cathedral Source Book (San Francisco: Grace Cathedral, 2019).

[2] Matt and Liz Boulton, “A Brief Theology of St. Patrick’s Day, SALT 12 March 2019. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/3/12/a-brief-theology-of-st-patricks-day

[3] https://www.vox.com/2019/3/13/18264011/paul-manafort-mueller-sentence-amy-berman-jackson

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/15/world/australia/new-zealand-mosque-shooting.html?action=click&module=Spotlight&pgtype=Homepage

[5] These five paragraphs about the city come from 2 Lent (3-7-04) C.

[6] Harper Bible Commentary, “Cities,” 171.

[7] The Bible depicts the time of the Judges as a golden age. The Judges are not kings. They do not hold court in a capitol city. But the people beg God to give them a king so that they can be like other nations. When they ask for a human ruler, God fully understands what this means. He tells Samuel, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” Samuel tells them that having a king means losing your sons to the king’s army, losing your daughters to the king’s service. “He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers “(1 Sam. 8).

[8] Harper Bible Commentary, “Cities,” 171.

Sunday, March 10
Lent 1
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Past Sermons

Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.

Sunday, January 8
Baptism at Nuremburg
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“We who are many, are one body in Christ” (Rom. 12:5).

What message is God communicating to you at this moment? If you are like me this is a difficult question. But to help I hope to consider an easier one. What is it that we are doing when we worship? What is happening here? What is this all for?

Before really beginning I need to warn you about my state of mind. Late Friday night I heard some tragic news. Before my first day at Grace Cathedral I chose my friend Fritz to be the senior warden, the leader of our old church until they could invite another priest to be in charge.

On Friday afternoon his eight year old grandson fell through the ice on a pond in Kansas. His mother (Fritz’s daughter) rushed to save him but both lost their lives. Her husband tried to rescue them and survived. Our old church is a family church. Fritz’s daughter was the church secretary and the leader of our church youth group. The whole community is in shock and I ask you to pray for them.

Let me be absolutely clear. I do not believe that in any way God caused this. I do believe that God is with them all and that God will carry them through this to the other side. I spent time with Fritz’s whole family many years ago when it looked like Fritz himself was going to die. God was present then too.

When it comes to God it is hard to say anything that makes sense. This is not a problem with God. It is our problem. It is not just that God is bigger, more just, more loving and more complicated than us. It also arises out of our deep tendency to use the name of God in anti-God ways. We cannot stop ourselves.

In the year 1215 while criticizing the ideas of Abbot Joachim of Fiore, the fourth Lateran Council made an important statement. It said, “Between the Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying a greater dissimilitude.”[1] Again, the difference between God and us is so great. Any time you compare the divine and the human, you cannot help being more wrong than right. We have to be careful when we talk about God or worship because we so easily change the meaning of these words into their opposites.

The spirit of Jesus, still alive in our own time, constantly turns our expectations upside down. Jesus shows us the real God even as we fall short and put our trust in false gods.

In our Gospel this morning Jesus comes to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. John argues with Jesus. You can imagine him saying, “You’re the Son of God. You should be baptizing me!” The first words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Matthew are his reply. Jesus says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3).

After his baptism the heavens open (the Greek word also means unlock) and a dove, the sign of peace, descends upon him. A voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The first people to hear Matthew’s story would immediately recognize that he is referring to the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah promised that a new kind of leader would arise (God says, “in whom my soul delights”). God’s spirit would rest in him and he would establish justice on the earth – not through violence (“a bruised reed he will not break”) but by suffering himself (Isa. 42). We experience this truth, it begins to be fulfilled, when we draw closest to Jesus.

We baptize our children and adult friends in the name of Jesus so that they may have a share in this power and so that evil, the violence of the world, will never fully own them. We want them to be so full of God’s love and power that they do not have to define themselves by hate or fear. When the time of tragedy comes, as it will for each of us, they will rest secure in the confidence of God’s love.

What are we doing when we worship? First, I want to point out that worship involves more than merely thinking about God. We are making space in our lives to encounter this holy one. We open the door to the unknown and the unimagined, so that God can make us more perfect.[2]

I received an email on Wednesday from someone who attended the Christmas Eve service. He was upset because I said that faith is not primarily a matter of believing the right things. When Christianity becomes a way of declaring who is righteous and who is a sinner, who is on the outside and who is one of us, it has taken the violence of the world into itself and become the opposite of what Jesus teaches.

We have a deep tendency to project our categories, our tribalism, onto the transcendent. Don’t forget, “Between the Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying a greater dissimilitude.” Because we are like this we need worship in order for God to communicate to us. Its purpose is to change what we desire and how we live. Worship puts us in the presence of God.

Let me try to say this in another way. As a gay man the contemporary theologian James Alison has an acute sense for this “us versus them” mentality in which we try to feel stronger by uniting against a common enemy. He points out how our many social rituals are false worship which instantiates this sensibility. You can see it in professional sports, the newspaper opinion page, reality television shows, fraternity hazing, the cult of celebrity, perhaps even the agenda of your company’s offsite meeting.

Of all the possible examples Alison chooses Hitler’s Nuremburg rallies to show what false worship looks like. Between 1923 and 1938 the Nazi party gathered in Nuremburg for parades and speeches. If you doubt that these displays of power had nothing to do with religion you should see clips from Leni Riefenstahl’s (1902-2003) film “Der Sieg des Glaubens.” Yes, the film’s title could be translated as “Victory of Faith.”

Alison points out the expertise of the people who designed these rallies. You bring half a million people together for worship with rhythmic music and marching. They hear slogans. They see thousands of flags, lots of people in uniforms. People lose a little bit of their identity but you give them a new united purpose, a collective persona.[3]

You build pressure and make people wait for the moment when the Fuhrer appears. The great leader points out how this huge gathering is a sign of a new unity and change, how God has chosen him. He shares a myth about how they have been victimized. He talks about how good hard-working people have been tricked and shamed by their enemies. He promises revenge, that he will not be afraid to use power in order to bring in a new day when we can be proud again. After this the people find it a lot easier to feel contempt for their Jewish neighbors even though they never seemed particularly frightening before.

James Alison says that true Christian worship is the opposite of this. It feels like when someone who cares for us and maybe even is standing next to us at the rally tells us that we don’t need to be afraid anymore, that there is enough for everyone, that we can work out our differences. Church is where we can learn to see every person, even the most bizarre of us, as a child of God.

During Christian worship, instead of being the victim, we are met by the victim. God approaches us in the person of Jesus, the one who suffered for our sake. Jesus teaches that we do not need to be afraid of the truth. Instead of scrambling for power and security, we can give God the glory. We can abandon the myth that we must be defined by who we are against. We can be free from the power of death.

In our world of hacked elections, Arctic oil pipelines, of victims and fear and blame and fake news, in these days when our well-beings seems to depend on the New York Times, this is very good news. Coming to church week after week we are receiving a new self, we are becoming a child of God. Our inability to say anything true about God is overwhelmed in Jesus’ embrace of us.

When I first arrived at my last church they fought over everything. My main message to the congregation for the first two years I served there was “we are one body in Christ.” This week my friends at our old church sent out a difficult letter announcing what had happened to Fritz’s family. It closed with a prayer that Fritz used at all the vestry meetings since I left and the reminder that they remain one body in Christ, united with the miraculous power that even frees us from death.

How will your life be transformed by worship? What message is God communicating to you this morning?

[1] James Alison, “Worship in a Violent World,” Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In (NY: Continuum, 2006) 33.

[2] Alan Jones email 6 January 2017.

[3] James Alison, “Worship in a Violent World,” Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In (NY: Continuum, 2006) 36, 44.

Sunday, January 1
Holy Names
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Dr. Randal Gardner
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sermon for Holy Name Sunday

Year A
January 1, 2017

Randal B. Gardner

A father stood with his daughter admiring the artwork her Sunday School class had put up on the wall. Her piece was very well drawn, but a bit odd. The image was of a man leading a donkey, on which was a woman and her baby. Behind the donkey was a giant bug. He finally had to say, “Tell me about your picture.” “That’s Joseph and Mary and Jesus going to Egypt.” “Hmm. So why is there a bug in your picture?” “That’s the flea, Daddy.” He still looked a bit puzzled, so she continued, “You know. The angel came to Joseph and said, ‘Take the mother and child and flee to Egypt. That’s the flea!”

As the new year turns we mark the passing of time. As St. Paul wrote, “Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away. Now, it looks as though they’re here to stay.” Not St. Paul of the New Testament, but St. Paul of Liverpool – who, by the way, was not a flea, but a Beatle.

Most pop songs about passing time are a bit wistful and nostalgic, looking back as if passing time is an enemy of the better life. Most biblical references to time, though, are forward looking, anticipating a positive completion of time in a perfect ending. The biblical vision for the world and for the passing of time is a vision of waiting for the ultimate renewal and redemption that God intends. The best is yet to come, and we live in anticipation and waiting for that day.

Today is not only New Year’s Day, but it is also the eighth day after Christmas, the day of the Holy Name, when the bible teaches us that the child born to Mary would have been circumcised and given his name, Jesus. It is part of a string of stories about the infant child. Later this week we have epiphany, the story of the wise visitors from the East. And in a month, we have the story of the Presentation, when the parents take their child to Jerusalem to make the ritual offering of thanks and dedication in the Temple.

We draw two names into the story of the Holy Name. One is from the prophet Isaiah, who told of a child who would be named Emmanuel. One is from the angelic messages about this child to be born, who would be called Jesus. The names have meanings – they’re not just sounds. Emmanuel means God is with us. Jesus, or Yeshua, means God saves us. Both names were given at times of fear and oppression.

Isaiah spoke to a people watching their nation being taken apart by foreign powers, and the reminder of Emmanuel – God is with us – expanded imaginations and gave endurance a hopeful purpose. The birth of Jesus came into the midst of a time of oppression and disruption, and the name “God saves us” was a rebuttal to the claim of Rome that it was the savior of the people.

In fact, most names have meanings. For example, my name – Randal – comes from the Germanic Randolph, which refers to the wolf who protects the edge of the city – the Rand Wolf. Malcolm comes from the Gaelic as a follower of Columba, one of the great Celtic saints of the church. Our deacon, Doe, has the given name Dorothy, which comes from the Greek meaning of God’s Gift. Peggy Lo is our lay assistant this morning, and Peggy is a derivative of Margaret, which carries the Greek meaning of a Pearl. But Peggy’s given name, Pei Han Lo, so far as I can render it without knowing the Chinese language, refers to a brave and courageous comet.

I have a friend who is a college football coach, who told the story of one of his players who went by the name Bum. It was, of course, a nickname, but my friend wondered if it wasn’t shaping this young man’s life in some odd ways. Bum was good enough to get by, but it seemed he had more talent and energy than he often showed. His grades were often on the edge, his appearance was often a bit shabby, and he didn’t seem to think that he mattered much. My friend had a long talk with him one day and asked what his real name was. Richard. The coach said he was going to start calling him Richard, and he encouraged the young man to start going by that name himself.

It had an effect. Richard began to get better grades. He bought nicer clothes. He showed up on time. Years later he told my friend that he had never thought his name would matter, but that Bum had made him think he wasn’t worth much. My friend, he said, gave him back the name that made him feel important, worthwhile. Richard, by the way, means brave and powerful.

When I was in seminary I had a friend, an older woman who had been divorced for a couple of years. She had not been at peace with keeping her former husband’s name, and she didn’t feel good about taking back her father’s name, her maiden name. One day in the chapel as the communion service focused on the feast of Michael and all Angels it suddenly came to her. At the end of the service she declared to all of us – “I have a new name. From now on I am Barbara St. Michaels!”

Names have meanings, and names are important. We mark the Holy Name of Jesus today, but we also mark the holiness of your own names. Regard your name as sacred, for that is part of the beauty of our faith. One of the scandals of our faith is that it takes each person as important, each person in a personal and intimate relationship with God. Each of us is saved uniquely, and without a requirement to become something else. We are saved as we are to be who we are. God knows you by name, loves you as you are. As Jesus taught, God knows the numbers of hairs on your head, you are so important to God. When the people of Israel, in a dark and hopeless time, wondered if God had forgotten. “God has left me,” the people cried. “My Master has forgotten I even exist.” And God replies, “Can a mother forget the infant at her breast, walk away from the baby she bore? But even if mothers forget, I’d never forget you—never. See, I’ve carved your names into the palms of my hands. I can never forget you.”

No matter where you are in your life, whether these are the best times for you or the darkest most oppressive days of your life, Jesus Christ is for you, God is with you. God has never forgotten you, any more than a mother could forget the baby at her breast. Your name is holy. Your life is a treasure. God is with you. God will save you.

May God bless this new year for you.

Sunday, December 25
Christmas Day Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. William E. Swing
Sermon from the Christmas Day Holy Eucharist
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The Rt. Rev. William E. Swing’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Sunday, December 25
Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Dr. Randal Gardner
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In 1956 Truman Capote wrote a short memoir from his childhood called A Christmas Memory. It looked back to his early childhood, when he was sent to live with relatives after his parents divorced, and he lived with these older aunts, uncles and cousins until he was nine or ten years old.

For the most part these relatives were not that well suited to raise a child. The depression was at its worst, and the house became a home for an extended family, including this child Truman. Of all the adults in the house, Truman felt at ease and at home with an elder cousin he called Sook – a child-like adult who was innocent, free of ambition, and content except when the other adults were angry with her. The two fashioned a bond of loving care for each other until Truman was old enough to be enrolled in a military school. In Capote’s words:

Life separates us. Those who Know Best decide that I belong in a military school. And so follows a miserable succession of bugle-blowing prisons, grim reveille-ridden summer camps. I have a new home too. But it doesn’t count. Home is where my friend is, and there I never go.

And there she remains, puttering around the kitchen. Alone with Queenie. Then alone. (“Buddy dear,” she writes in her wild hard-to-read script, “yesterday Jim Macy’s horse kicked Queenie bad. Be thankful she didn’t feel much.”) . . . But gradually in her letters she tends to confuse me with her other friend, the Buddy who died in the 1880’s; more and more, thirteenths are not the only days she stays in bed: a morning arrives in November, a leafless birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather!”

And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.

 

At the heart of the Christmas message there is joy. But joy is not a kind of durable happiness or optimism. Joy is not a relentless good mood. Joy only exists if there is also pain, also loss.

Christmas, for many of us, is that time of year when, in the midst of the long nights and cool days of the winter, something of the fullness of life comes into focus. We may become nostalgic, as Capote was, for the better days of bliss that only childhood can offer. We may become devoted to our family and to blessing others, especially the children. We become imaginative enough to consider what peace and harmony and equity might look like. We are knitted together with wider humanity in such a way that generosity comes to the surface.

With each of these reflections, on the bliss of childhood, on the hopes for the future, on the peaceable kingdom — we may often feel the pangs of the places where life is hollow. We note the absence of those who made our childhoods blissful. We note the absence of peace. We feel again the sorrows that accumulate in this life.

And so, the tension of the faithful life comes into better focus. In this year past we have been reflecting on the idea of home and how it might be that we can make Grace Cathedral a home for some, a place of belonging – without exception. In the gospel we hear that the expression of God’s own mind, the essence of God’s imagination and desire – the Word, the logos – took on human flesh and made a home among us, within this realm of earth and cosmos. That Word, whom we know as Jesus of Nazareth, made a home among us.

Even as we declare that as true, though, the tension is reiterated. It is not enough to give thanks for the fact that the Word lives in our midst. John tells us he came to his own, and his own rejected him. He came into the world that existed because of him, and yet the world could not see him or recognize him. BUT, the gospel exclaims, BUT, for all who do receive him, for all who do recognize him, he empowers, gives, transforms those people into children of God, no longer to be at home in the realm of earth and humanity, but now at home and alive as part of that spiritual fellowship described as being at one with the Word, at one with the Father and the Son. No longer limited to the life of the human family, but now transformed to share in the life of the divine family, to share in the essence of God’s own being.

This, though, is where joy comes to life. Helen Luke described joy as having confidence in the happy ending that would become the final reality. C.S. Lewis described joy as having confidence that the luminous, numinous moments of life, in which the transcendence of God connects with human experience were glimpses into the greater reality toward which we move.

Christmas is imbued with joy because it offers the story of the greater reality, of the unwavering happy end to all things. Christmas is imbued with joy because it reminds us that this child about whom we sing is the expression of God’s willingness to be at home among us, to dwell in the midst of the sorrows, gladness, and losses that you and I know so well. Christmas connects with joy because it reminds us that this child has come to invite us into that greater life in which we are one with God and the creative center of all things.

Joy comes into the midst of sorrow and pain, not as a replacement of it. Home is offered in contrast to these earthly homes that can never satisfy, giving us instead that longing that Paul described for the time when we shall be at home in the Lord. Joy comes from a deep seated awareness and trust that the sorrows and injustices of this life eventually give way to the blessing and redemption of the greater life.

Ironically, that greater life is seen in this frail child, born to a family of refugees driven from their homes by an oppressive empire, sheltered in a stable among the beasts of burden. Ironically, poignantly, marvelously, that life is also the life John proclaims in the opening song of his gospel story.

In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him. The Word was in the world that had come into being through him, and the world did not recognize him. He came to his own and his own people did not accept him. But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, who were born not from human stock or human desire or human will but from God himself. The Word became flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that he has from the Father as only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Sunday, December 25
Midnight Mass Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
Sermon from the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass
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The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus’ sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Saturday, December 24
Paths Home
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“… prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa. 40).
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“… prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa. 40).

 

We move through the world on paths laid down long before our birth. We follow career paths, artistic paths – philosophical, ethical and political paths.[1] Like a trail through the wilderness they both guide and constrain us. They lead us from a beginning to an end. Without them we would be forced to cut our way slowly through brambles, repeating the same basic mistakes and reinventing the same solutions.[2]

 

Our way of parenting is such a path. On December 22, 1998 I began my journey as a father. That day I spent an unseasonably warm morning at Lamont Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At lunchtime the weather turned and I stepped out into a gathering snowstorm. At our apartment I heard the surprising news that my wife Heidi was pregnant and then immediately rushed in to spend the rest of the day at her office.

 

I cannot even find words to describe the joy we felt. We were young and so in love. We longed to share our daily happiness with another being. In those days every moment felt deeply significant, consecrated by God as holy. On that Christmas, the angel Gabriel’s message to Mary came true for us too. Despite the obvious and inescapable darkness of the world, at moments like this, God’s joy eclipses everything else.

 

This week the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asked a simple question of the evangelical author Tim Keller.[3] Kristof asked if he could be called a Christian if he did not believe in the virgin birth or the resurrection. Tragically, I believe, the pastor said, “No.”

 

For Keller there can be no compromise and no real mystery. He thinks that if you do not see the world in the same way that he does, you cannot call yourself a Christian. I could not disagree more. His test leaves out some of the most faithful people to Jesus in history.

 

Keller begins with the wrong metaphor. Christianity, or to use a better description, the way of Jesus, is a path not a belief. It encompasses a set of traditions, stories, rituals, prayers and other actions that, through the spirit of Jesus, help us to find our way home to God.

 

Christmas celebrates the origin of this divine path. It begins when the angel first appears to Mary and she says yes. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word” (Lk. 1). God acts in human history through the person of Mary and now, if we can say yes, through us.

 

The angel announces the birth of Jesus to shepherds saying, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people” (Lk. 2). The English construction, like the Greek, is so strange – it is overly joyful. Calling this good news is not enough; it also involves great joy. Make no mistake about it this is exactly what every person longs for. We all want to be happy.

 

Our culture and education focuses almost entirely on the external world, on material things. So we try to be joyful by having more: more money, success, power, credentials and possessions. We assume that succeeding will make us happy and forget that happiness comes from here – from our heart.

 

Happiness is elusive. You don’t get it by just saying, “I’m going to be happy now.” The truth is that we do not find joy. It finds us. We most reliably experience joy when we live in gratitude, when we are spiritually connected to our creator, open to the gifts that might be hard to see. We experience joy when we travel the path of Jesus.

 

Jesus’ teaching is so simple. He says love your God and love your neighbor. Sometimes our ego might fight against this. But the Christmas miracle is that the truth of Jesus, and the spirit of Jesus, have come into the world and help us when we need it most.

 

Through our children we see the familiar with new eyes. This fall my son Micah read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s last book The Brothers Karamazov (1880).[4]

 

In it the monk Zossima tells the story about a period in his life when he lost sight of the way of Jesus. When he was a young officer in the Russian army and was away, the woman he loved married another man. When Zossima came home he crudely insulted his rival and challenged him to a duel.

 

The night before the duel Zossima flew into a senseless rage at his butler. For no reason he punched the servant twice in the face so that the man was covered in blood. // Waking up early the next day Zossima went to the window and looked out at the garden. He saw the beauty of the rising sun as the birds sang. He wondered about the meaning of it all.

 

For a moment Zossima did not even know why he felt dissatisfied. But a deep sense of shame arose in his heart as he remembered what he had done to his butler. In his mind’s eye he saw how the man quivered straining to not raise his arms as he was struck. Zossima immediately ran to the servant’s room bowed his head to the ground and begged forgiveness of the terrified man. After this he felt an amazing lightness, a confidence evident to everyone.

 

Later, at the duel, the men marked out twelve paces. Zossima’s adversary shot first. The bullet grazed his cheek and ear. At this point he astonished everyone throwing his gun away and shouting, “Thank God that no man was killed.”

 

To the man who had just shot him he said, “Forgive me… for [insulting] you and for forcing you to fire at me.” The men from Zossima’s regiment were horrified by the apology and blamed him for dishonoring them.

 

But from Zossima said, “Gentlemen, look around you at the gifts of God, the clear sky, the pure air, the tender grass, the birds. Nature is beautiful and sinless, and we, only we, are sinful and foolish… we don’t understand that life is heaven, for we have only to understand that and it will be fulfilled in all its beauty.”

 

As he described this moment Zossima says, “there was such bliss in my heart as I had never known before….” For the rest of his life Zossima brought to others this peace that he found in the way of Jesus.

 

And that’s the amazing secret of Christmas isn’t it. We discover joy not by seeking it for ourselves but by bringing it to other people. In fact no matter how miserable we feel, we always have the power to be Christ’s presence for others. We come closest to our spiritual home in those moments when we are full of gratitude and love for the people around us.

 

The paths we follow through life have beginnings and endings. Here I am, coming to the end of my path as a parent of children. Next year my son will be on the East Coast at college. Everyone in our family has been acutely aware that this is our last season of Advent with him in our home. I believe that this intense love I feel for him is not unlike the love that God feels for us.[5]

 

I am glad that he will have had two years at Grace Cathedral and that this will always be a spiritual home for him. This year we have been celebrating the theme of “Home.” We learned that home does not just refer to this magnificent building. For generations people like us have made this their home. It has become home through the sharing and healing, the hoping and striving – the learning, singing and praying of all the people drawn here by God, and following the way of Jesus.[6]

 

Tonight this sublime music, the warmth of our feelings for each other, our memories of past Christmases and our hopes for the future – make God’s presence feel so tangible. Look around you. Each of you is so beautiful. You seem to be shining with the light of God’s love. This is heaven.

 

We move through the world on paths. As you travel and seek your home in God, I pray that you will experience the good news of great joy. I pray that the spirit of this holy night and of Mary’s son will always inspire and sustain you. Merry Christmas!

[1] There are paths that teach us how to treat our body and ones that inform us how others see, or fail to see, us.

[2] This is a paraphrase of the Epilogue in Robert Moor, On Trails: An Exploration (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2016) 297. “We move through this world on paths laid down long before we are born. From our first breath there is a vast array of structures already in place – “spiritual paths,” “career paths,” “philosophical paths,” “artistic paths,” “paths to wellness,” “paths to virtue” – which our family, society, and species have provided for us. In all these cases, the word path is not applied haphazardly. Just like physical paths, these abstract paths both guide and constrain our actions – they lead us along a sequence of steps, progressing toward our desired ends. Without these paths, each of us would be forced to thrash our way through the wilderness of life, scrabbling for survival, repeating the same basic mistakes, and reinventing the same solutions.”

[3]Nicholas Kristof, “Pastor, Am I a Christian?” The New York Times 28 December 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/23/opinion/sunday/pastor-am-i-a-christian.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share&_r=0

[4] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov Tr. Constance Garnett (NY: Modern Library) 308-314.

[5] We will soon embark on a very different and new path as parents of adult children.

[6] It has been amazing. This year we met doctors who greet refugees on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and lawyers seeking equal justice for people of color. We studied how politics, inequality and racism undermine the experience of home. We worked on alleviating the suffering of homeless people here in San Francisco. We learned how important spirituality is for young people and how the spiritual diversity of this country may be one of our greatest assets. We discovered a new appreciation for the vast estuaries that make this Bay our home. Most importantly we came together to feel the glorious presence of Christ.

 

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