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Sunday, May 19
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday 5:15 Evensong
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Sunday, May 19
The Dream of God
Preacher: The Rev. Kristin Saylor
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See, God is making all things new. Amen.

“I was in the city of San Francisco, praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw human beings in costumes of every kind, zombies, mermaids, and superheroes. I heard a voice saying to them, ‘get up, and run from the Embarcadero to Ocean Beach.’”

Happy Bay to Breakers Sunday! As a relatively new San Franciscan, it is my first time experiencing this particular expression of local culture and, I have to say, it feels a little like I might be in a trance…or still dreaming. This level of chaos and randomness is exactly the kind of thing my subconscious might conjure up. The veil between dream and reality feels particularly thin today – if thousands of people dressed as tacos and penguins can run freely through the streets of San Francisco, then what else could happen?

Perhaps you, like Peter in our reading from Acts this morning, have had an experience where the line between dreaming and real life starts to blur. Maybe it was a dream that felt so real, you woke up panicking that you really did forget to study for the exam, or you really were supposed to be on that 4:00 am flight to Sydney. Or maybe you had a waking experience so surreal, you had to pinch yourself to make sure you weren’t still dreaming.

The boundary, the thin space between what is real and what is imagined (and I don’t mean imaginary, as in fictitious), the boundary between what is actual and what is possible, is a very unnerving place to be. It is a place without landmarks, a space where the usual rules for how the world works don’t apply. It is the realm of dreams and visions, which we sometimes glimpse in transcendent moments of art and music. It is the Holy Spirit’s very favorite place to dance in our lives.

And it is everywhere, surrounding us, in these Great 50 days of Easter, this blurring of distinctions, not just between what is and what could be, but of binaries of all kinds. Peter’s vision in Acts is a prime example. Outwardly about the distinction between clean and unclean foods, it raised the question of whether Jewish dietary laws still needed to be observed in a young Church that was growing to include Gentiles as well as Jews. But the meaning of Peter’s’ vision and the events that follow extend far beyond food, and point to a deeper question that we continue to struggle with today: what classes and categories of people do we see as unclean?

Less than? Not worthy of a place at our table? And how do we treat those people when they come knocking on our doors?

The sheet in Peter’s vision, full of the every imaginable kind of animal, clean and unclean all jumbled up together, is an evocative image of the holy, messy, radically inclusive community that God dreams for us. We catch a glimpse of it when Peter, prompted by the Spirit not to make distinctions, follows a group of Gentiles all the way to Caesarea, where he baptizes an entire household of new Christians. Rigid categories of clean and unclean, sacred and profane, Jew and Gentile are blurred by the hand of God. Suddenly, everyone is clean, everything has the potential to be holy, everything is made new. It takes Peter a minute to wrap his mind around this new reality but, to be honest, he recovers faster than I imagine I would. In this passage, we witness Peter’s movement from an indignant, “by no means, Lord!” to a surprising stance of, “who am I that I can hinder God?”

Peter is swept up by the boundary-breaking grace of God – and we are invited to join him. Peter’s conversion of heart raises a crucial question for us as the Church today: how do we react when the way we’ve understood and made sense of the world for our whole lives no longer applies? How do we respond when we are invited to risk vulnerability by opening our doors and our hearts wider, without knowing who all might wander in? How do we react when the entire rulebook suddenly gets thrown out the window?

Because, my friends, that is exactly what the Resurrection does. By rising from the grave, God in Christ is breaking all the rules and blurring the most fundamental binary that we live with: the distinction between life and death. The Risen Christ challenges the most basic assumption of how the world works: that dead people stay dead because death is final. Suddenly, with the Risen Christ wandering around Jerusalem, passing through closed doors, showing off his scars, cooking breakfast on the beach for his friends – anything seems possible.

And a world where anything is possible can be a very confusing and even threatening place. And when we are threatened, often, our first reaction is to retreat to safety. We make ourselves smaller, tighten the circle of who and what we let into our lives, and then, if necessary, we fight to defend our bastion of security. Fight or flight. We see this tendency at work across the globe, in the waves of xenophobia, white supremacy, and oppressive misogyny that are racking our world with violence rooted in fear – fear of the other and fear of scarcity. If everyone is welcome, if everyone is equal, then will there be enough left for us? Will we still matter? We fear what we might lose, what we might have to give up if we loosen our grip on the labels that define us, on the armor, the entrenched opinions that (we think!) will keep us safe.

The truth is, we will lose something in this new reality that God dreams for us, be it power, privilege, ego, or certainty. Resurrection does not happen without the Cross. But what we gain when we dare to look beyond divisive, narrow categories is beyond anything that our human minds can imagine. What we gain is nothing less than the dream of God, breaking into our world and flooding everything with light and grace. We see it in this dazzling promise in Revelation, where the heavenly Jerusalem descends from above and God’s abiding presence with humankind is established forever. Where death, mourning, crying, and pain will cease to exist. Where the highest law will be the new commandment that Jesus gives his disciples, “that we love one another as Christ has loved us.” Where no one is unclean and everyone belongs.

We’re by no means there yet, but even in a world as full of brokenness as ours, we catch glimpses of this divine dream just as Peter did; swells of grace, love, and beauty that take our breath away and leave us hungry for more. We see a lot of them right here in this Cathedral. The groundwork has been laid in the Resurrection, and we are invited to participate in ushering in the fullness of God’s dream. As we do that, we must ask ourselves: are our religious beliefs and moral values like a barbed wire fence, employing threats and fear to separate us from the unclean and dangerous other? Or are our values more like an open gate, urging us to push the boundaries of our imaginations and discover how what we label as “other,” or “unclean” might show us the face of God in fresh ways. After all, “what God has called clean, we must not call profane.”

In this season of Easter, we are invited to make God’s dream our own. To partner with our God, who longs to erase the human divisions that keep us isolated and afraid and usher in a new order of grace and love. To let the power of the Resurrection soften the prejudices and fears that keep us small and open our hearts to the wild inclusivity of our God. In God’s dream of

enormous possibility, what will we dare to create? Who will we dare to include? Where will we let the Holy Spirit dance in our lives? See – God is, at this very moment, making all things new – beginning with us. Amen.

Sunday, May 12
Tell Us Plainly
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want” (Psalm 23).

“Stories surround us like air; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in our personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell [us] what to do.”[1] Rebecca Solnit said this in a commencement speech at Berkeley. Although she may be over-optimistic about our ability to transcend unconscious forces she makes a good point. We need to pay greater attention to the stories that guide our lives and form our picture of reality.

The first Mother’s Day was celebrated in 1908 at a Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. They honored Anne Reeves Jarvis a peace activist during the Civil War who cared for wounded soldiers on both sides. Her daughter campaigned to make this a national holiday.[2] We have holidays for great individuals and occasions. Today we honor one of the most intimate relationships human beings can experience.

In this place you will find such an extraordinary variety of relationships that people have with their mothers. Our mothers are nurturing, nagging, inspiring, indifferent, self-sacrificing, punishing, wise, fragile, resolute, faithful, dissatisfied, forgiving, controlling, heroic and loving. Some of us feel such a profound sense of gratitude, we miss our mothers so much that it feels like a kind of deep pain. Others may have a hard time forgiving our mothers for the grief that they couldn’t help but pass on to us.

We are responsible for these stories and all the stories we tell ourselves. The Bible helps us to make sense of our most important stories. The Holy Spirit works through Scripture and changes who we are. My sermon has three parts: 1. a longer section on what Jesus teaches us, 2. a brief observation about modern life and 3. a spiritual practice.

  1. Time and place always matter. Every moment in time is unique, even singular, and yet also in an almost mystical way connected to other particular moments. Each place also has a presence and symbolic power that we often don’t fully appreciate. We know what a place evokes. Think of Rodeo Drive, the Lincoln Memorial, the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, Boston’s Old North Church, Times Square, the Las Vegas Strip, and Castro Street here closer to home.

During the Festival of Dedication, which we call Hannukah, Jesus walks in the Portico of Solomon – both this time and place have enormous symbolic meaning for first century Jews and for what the word “messiah” means.

After Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) conquered the region a severe conflict emerged between cosmopolitan Greek culture and the local practices of Jewish people. During the second century before Christ, King Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Syria continued to brutally suppress Judaism. In 167 BCE he built an altar to Zeus in the Jewish Temple (Dan. 11-12) and mandated sacrifice to Greek gods in every city. When soldiers tried to enforce this edict in the village of Modein a priest named Mattathias killed the royal official presiding at the ceremony.[3]

This led to a massive revolt and a guerilla war launched by Mattathias’ five sons from the Judean Hills. Against all odds his son Judas Maccabeus (“the Hammer”) succeeded. In 164 he rededicated the Temple. This is the event that Hannukah celebrates.

The place is significant too. Solomon’s Portico was constructed by the last leader with a family connection to the Maccabees. Herod the Great married the last of the Maccabees and ultimately killed her and his own sons. Of course history doesn’t end there. The first readers of John would know that during the Jewish uprisings in the year 70 CE, the Romans completely destroyed the rest of the Temple.

Hannukah at the Portico of Solomon, this time and place symbolically stand for desperate hopes that end in disappointment. In the face of our human tendency to put ultimate faith in armed struggle, Jesus changes the story. He moves us beyond the military hero that the people have in mind to a different picture of what it means to be the messiah.

In the Gospel of John people disagree about who Jesus is. For some he is a demon-possessed fraud and to others he is the savior of the world. This conflict builds as Jesus welcomes sinners, teaches and heals the sick. The leaders come to Jesus and say, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (Jn. 10).[4]

Why do the opponents of Jesus then and today fail to see who he is? Is there some idea, concept or perspective that would help? What argument would convince them to believe?[5] This is Jesus’ point. There is already plenty of evidence available on both sides. Signs can always be doubted. Arguments have counter-arguments. Believing is not simply a matter of accepting certain intellectual propositions. The faith Jesus speaks about is not an argument but a relationship.

Instead of a Warrior Messiah Jesus gives us the image of the Good Shepherd. He says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (Jn. 10). Jesus teaches that we can have the most intimate relationship with God. We can find meaning serving other people. With this, we are drawn to him both by his willingness to die for our sake and our experience of his resurrected presence.

On this Mother’s Day imagine a child with ideal loving parents. In everything this child has a sense for their love. She is not objectively weighing the evidence. She does not need some form of the scientific method to understand this relationship. Her experience of their love is not even a matter of a verbal description she can offer. It rests on her experience. She knows that her parents care about her and want the best for her. She feels it in all her interactions with them.[6]

Jesus says that faith is like this. It is a trusting relationship with the God who created us and continues to care for us even when we are oblivious to this fact. This unity and intimacy with God and our neighbors is what it means to have “life abundantly” or the peace “which passes all understanding.”

  1. We need God’s peace more today than ever. Last week at the Conference of North American Deans we heard an extraordinary lecture on the Seven Deadly Sins. The list includes: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony and Lust. It originated in fourth century desert monasticism. Instead of thinking of these as discrete actions (like cheating on your taxes) it is more helpful to see them as a way of recognizing that humans going wrong in predictable ways, according to reliable patterns. They are tendencies that lead to sin.[7]

Our speaker Thomas Williams pointed out that these days our whole society has a particular problem with wrath, that indignation has become normal for us. We are encouraged to be angry all the time (If you aren’t angry you aren’t paying attention). He asked if anger is ever justified and pointed out how easy it is for us to slip from feeling angry about social injustice to being furious over slights to our own ego. Although being envious is miserable, anger just feels so good. The problem is that it blinds us to our own faults and to others merits.

  1. We can move closer to a personal experience of God but it is hard because of deeply ingrained habits like anger and envy. So what are we to do? How can we do more to invite holiness into our life? For homework this week I recommend that we memorize Psalm 23. In this abundant time of exaggerated scarcity we need to be reminded that, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want” (Ps. 23).

The Psalm begins by referring to God in the third person. “He revives my soul and guides me.” Then as we, “walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” it begins to refer to God in the second person. “You are with me… You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me…” Over many years Psalm 23 has helped my relationship with God become more personal. It has increased my desire to “dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

Before closing I want to tell you a brief story from Trevor Noah’s autobiography Born a Crime. Although his parents loved each other their relationship as a black woman and a white European in Apartheid-era South Africa was illegal. Trevor grew up being forbidden by the state to even acknowledge his parents in public places. As a young child he went to his Swiss father’s house every weekend. Then during his teenaged years his father moved from Johannesburg to distant Cape Town.

Noah writes, “When a parent is absent, you’re left in the lurch of not knowing, and it’s easy to fill that space with negative thoughts  [like] ‘They don’t care.’ ‘They’re selfish.'” Because his mother always spoke in such positive terms about his father he writes, “I knew [my father’s] absence was because of circumstance and not lack of love.”[8]

By the time he turned 24 he began to have some success as a comedian, radio DJ and children’s television personality. His mom insisted that he become reacquainted with his father. Noah did not have his father’s address and it took some time to find him. Not knowing what to expect or if he’d even recognize his own father he went to visit. His father cooked the food that was his favorite as a thirteen year old. As he ate his dad got out an oversized photo album. It was a scrapbook of everything Noah had ever done from the most minor club dates all the way through to that week.

Noah writes, “For years I’d had so many questions. Is he thinking about me? Does he know what I’m doing? Is he proud of me?” And in that instant Noah knew. He says, “Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give another human being.”

Stories surround us like air. What will the story of you and God be? In this time of wrath and indignation are we so busy searching for a good argument that we can’t hear the Good Shepherd?

 

[1] Rebecca Solnit, “Break the Story,” in Call Them By Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2018) 157.

[2] She also bitterly resisted the commercialization of Mother’s Day. Theologian’s Almanac for the Week of May 12, 2019, SALT, 7 May 2019. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/5/7/wjx6b4l32tpx06yt0a4o8ka04m1ewy

[3] These four paragraphs are influenced by 4 Easter (4-29-07) C.

[4] Jesus seems to be saying that actions mean more than just words. “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me: but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep” (John 10).

[5] Matt and Liz Boulton, “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter 4,” SALT, 7 May 2019 http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/5/7/szzwsi6kvgfyedq0mg23rkw8qbv0ba

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Seven Capital Vices began to come into being with Evagrius Ponticus (345-399 CE). John Cassian developed the list and Gregory the Great (540-604 CE) made it more widespread in the Middle Ages. Thomas Williams (University of South Florida), “The Seven Capital Vices,” The Conference of North American Deans, 3 May 2019.

[8] Trevor Noah, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (NY: Random House, 2016) 108-10.

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Sermons from the last six months are available below. You can also listen to our sermons as a podcast, Sermons from Grace, wherever you get your podcasts!

 

Sunday, April 14
What Sleeping Rocks Dream
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (Lk. 19).

 

What is the nature of existence? Three hundred years ago Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) addressed this question in his essay “Of Being.” He wrote, “The mind can never… conceive of a state of perfect nothing.”

The reason for this is that all things are connected. To be, is to be in relation to something else and to God. To use Edwards’ language there is nothing shut up in a room completely apart. There is nothing that has no effect on, or relation to, the whole. We are connected across vast distances of space and time. Edwards said, “[T]here is not one leaf of a tree, or spire of grass, but what has effects all over the universe.”[1]

On March 28, 1965 Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about this idea in this very pulpit. He said, “All [people] are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”[2] The moments of greatest joy in my life have arisen from a glimpse of that infinite web of connection.

I was fortunate enough to have a job after college but it didn’t start until the end of summer. After graduation everyone went off to the rest of their lives but my friend Scott and I still had about two months free. On a lark we went to the travel agent and fourteen hours later we were on the plane to Kenya.

We hoped to surprise our friend Nick at the most remote Peace Corps site in East Africa, but we had no idea how to find him. We had a vague recollection that once a week Nick went to a market town called Nunguni. We thought it might be on Thursdays. The day after we arrived was Thursday so we went through the streets of Nairobi repeating, “Nunguni. Nunguni. Nunguni.”

We had no idea what this word meant. We wondered it if might somehow be offensive (like the word cesspool) because when we said it people seemed to walk off in disgust. Someone told us to go to the Machakos Airport which oddly enough was the bus terminal. And there we met someone who reminded us of the safari salesmen that used to wander the streets seeking out hapless American tourists.

He took us through a maze of streets and put us in the back seat of a tiny Peugeot 405. He demanded payment and then disappeared forever. The tiny car filled up with Africans, fish wrapped in newspaper, and a pair of chickens that kept pecking my friend’s ear. It was almost like they knew he was from L.A. and had never seen one before. When there were thirteen people in the car we started driving and realized that the man who had put us in there was nowhere to be found.

We worried about being in the wrong car. We’d say “Nunguni” to the other passengers and they would nod or shake their heads in frustration as they got out of the car.

Finally my friend and I were the only ones left. We even wondered if we might be murdered. After driving through the most deserted wilderness the car slowed to pass through a crowd of hundreds of people. It was like a photograph from National Geographic. In that surging sea of brightly dressed Africans there was one mzungu, one white person. It was our friend Nick. We waved casually to him. He waved back and kept walking.

Nick did a double take, then a triple take, then a quadruple take. His eyes were coming out of his head. For the rest of the afternoon he was literally shaking with excitement. He had been feeling lonely and depressed. He couldn’t believe that we’d traveled from the other side of the world to see him. We spent the day shivering with the joy of connection.

God is full of even greater surprises.  God chooses an inconsequential, powerless and ungrateful group of slaves to be his chosen people.  God names the youngest, least promising of Jesse’s eight sons as the greatest king of Israel.  God even changes the heart of Paul, the most zealous Jewish persecutor of the early church and he becomes the one to bring its message to the world.[3]

Palm Sunday is the Feast of Divine Unpredictability. Jesus rides a colt into Jerusalem. Huge crowds begin cheering and chanting joyfully. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven” (Lk. 19).

I want to leave you here to rest in this moment of rejoicing for a little while longer. There are so many times when I see myself in the Pharisees. They say, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop” (Lk. 19). I don’t know why they do this but I want them to stop too because I know what is coming next and it hurts.

Every year reading the passion narrative on Palm Sunday feels cruel to me. This is because we have to face a truth that we usually avoid. It forces us to see ourselves in each of the people around Jesus during his last days. The disciples seem impossibly blind to reality, incapable of facing what is about to occur. In them I see myself trying desperately just to think happy thoughts instead of coming to terms with what is real.

I am the disciple who cannot stay awake. In my own way like Peter I deny that I even know Jesus. Violence is so deep in me that when the moment of truth comes I too look for my sword. I’m like Pilate and want to just expedite the process. Like Herod I’m curious and long to be popular. I’m like the crowds taking strength in numbers and deluded by hate. I am the thief and the Centurion who realize too late who Jesus is. With the women who love Jesus we watch from a distance in horror unable to help.

Last week Nadia Bolz-Weber talked about practicing yoga every day.[4] She clearly loves yoga. But at the same time she complained that the yoga she has encountered is, “a tireless font of affirmation.” She says that ultimately it leaves people hollow inside. It becomes a way of “pawning off narcissism as spirituality” by refusing to acknowledge what Christians call sin. She said that people secretly know they are missing something but that it is so much easier to receive the affirmation than to acknowledge that everything is not just all about us. She said that if we repeat to ourselves the line, “You are a divine being; let go of whatever doesn’t affirm you,” if we really do abandon everyone who doesn’t affirm us then we will find ourselves alone and unable to work out our own history.[5]

W.H. Auden ends his poem “Leap Before You Look” with a simple line. “Our dream of safety has to disappear.”[6] In short to be healed we need to recognize human sin. A flourishing human being has to come to terms with the fact that sin is not remote from us. Mostly we deny it, but in our own ways we contribute to the cruelty and hatred in the world.

The Bible often seems horrifying because it shows us who we really are. But Jesus knows this. He predicts that Peter will betray him. He sees that he will face his persecutors alone. Looking around the table at his last meal he understands just what the disciples are like, and what we are like too.

At the heart of the Christian journey lies a promise. It is not a reassurance that nothing bad will ever happen to us. It is a pledge that through our own crucifixion God will be there with us. God is not shut up in a room far away, pure and perfect. God is not unaffected by who we are or what we need. God is here.

What is the nature of our existence? At the end of his essay Edwards writes that to conceive of nothing we must think the same thing that “sleeping rocks dream.”[7] We are so connected that we can hardly imagine anything else. When the Pharisees ask Jesus to silence the disciples he replies that it would be impossible. The truth the crowds speak is so powerful that if they were silent “even the stones would shout out” (Lk. 19).

Across the vast distances of space and time, the spires of grass, the leaves of the trees, African chickens, old friends and sinners like you and me shiver with the joy of connection. In this inescapable web of mutuality let us celebrate the Feast of Divine Unpredictability. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”

 

[1] In this essay Edwards also says, “Space is God.” Jonathan Edwards, “Of Being,” The Collected Works of Jonathan Edwards: Scientific and Philosophical Writings, Vol. 6 ed. Wallace E. Anderson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980) 202-7.

[2] I’m not sure if these are the exact words but Martin Luther King said something close to this in his sermon here 28 March 2965. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=so8kSH8IwIA

[3] Palm Sunday (3-24-02) A.

[4] Grace Cathedral Forum 7 April 2019.

[5] My friend’s recollection of this conversation. ” She spoke about the “tireless font of affirmation” leaving people feeling hollow inside (I remember this because I thought to myself how I wish she extended the metaphor and said it left them “thirsty for the truth in the drought/desert that is narcissism lol) like secretly they know something is missing, but it’s so much easier just to receive the affirmation than acknowledging that it’s not all about us. She did talk about the memes that are like “you are a divine being; let go of whatever doesn’t affirm you” and that at the end of letting go of everyone who doesn’t 100% affirm us, we’re left isolated and alone, incapable of knowing how to really work through our shit with someone who cares enough about us to do that…”

[6] W. H. Auden, “Leap Before You Look.” http://web.mit.edu/cordelia/www/Poems/Leap_Before_you_look.html

[7] Jonathan Edwards, “Of Being,” The Collected Works of Jonathan Edwards: Scientific and Philosophical Writings, Vol. 6 ed. Wallace E. Anderson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980) 206.

Sunday, April 7
Extravagant Love, Intelligent Bodies
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

What did Mary of Bethany see? What did she recognize in her friend Jesus as the house “filled with the fragrance of perfume” (Jn. 12)? The Puritans used to preach sermons with three parts. These were: Scripture, Doctrine (or a church teaching) and a study of how we apply this knowledge in our life. This morning I am using the same three parts.

  1. Scripture. All four biblical gospels include the story of Mary’s extravagant love. At the end Mark adds, “Truly I tell you wherever the Good News is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (Mk. 14). And Jesus was right.

This act captures our imagination. It moves us. It shows us Jesus. It reminds us of the importance of extravagant generosity in our life that makes holy places like this Cathedral possible. The Love Window on the South Aisle includes one of the most beautiful female images I know of and shows Mary drying Jesus’ feet with her hair.[1]

The story begins outside the frame of this reading. John writes, “Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him” (Jn. 11). In the shadow of this danger Jesus visits the house of his friends Lazarus, Martha and Mary.

As Martha serves them, Mary astonishes everyone by anointing Jesus’ feet with oil that costs a full year’s wages. If this were not enough she then wipes his feet with her hair. The Pharisees in the Gospel of Luke call her a sinner. In all the gospels the men around Jesus denounce her with talk about how the money should go to the poor. But Jesus defends her extravagant love.

The philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE – 50 CE) writes about the ordination rituals of Moses. These involve washing the feet of a priest. He writes, “Now by the washing of the feet the walking is no longer on earth… For the soul of the lover of God is towards truth leaping upwards towards heaven… joining in the dance with the sun and moon and the all-holy, all-harmonious host of the other stars.”[2]

Mary anointed Jesus as a kind of priest and king. She could see two truths which should have been obvious to everyone but weren’t. First, because she really hears Jesus she understands something his male friends simply cannot face. She knows that Jesus, the one who changed her life, the one she loves so deeply, is going to his death in Jerusalem. Have you ever been with someone who you knew would soon be dead? She sees this purpose in their shared meal.

Second, she understands the importance of honoring human bodies, particularly the body of Jesus. What we say with our bodies is usually far more powerful than what we express in mere words.

  1. Doctrine. Although most Christians say they believe in the resurrection of the body, a lot of other extraneous pictures have confused what this means. The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 BCE) believed that we all have an immortal soul that exists before our body came into being and continues after we die. In Phaedrus, Plato describes this soul as Reason or a kind of chariot driver not so successfully trying to control two winged horses (one of which has a moral nature and the other is our unruly desire).

The French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) lived during a time of unparalleled religious conflict.[3] Scholars estimate that up to three-fifths of Germany’s sixteen million people were killed during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).[4] Descartes wanted to find a basis for religion that would be universal and available to everyone as opposed to appeals based on tradition, scripture or earthly authority.

And so he famously sat by a fire and began by imagining that he could doubt almost everything.[5] He could imagine his senses deceiving him about what the world was like. He doubted even about having a body. But he knew that doubting had to stop somewhere – for him it was with the part of us that makes these decisions. He writes famously, “Cogito ego sum,” “I think therefore I am.”

That “I” was the basis for all of his reasoning. It led him to regard the world as composed of two kinds of things: what we might call body and mind, the physical and the spiritual. Descartes believed that only human beings have this spirit, that the rest of the world is effectively dead. Although animals seem to have feelings and emotions, Descartes regarded them as nothing more than machines.

This dualism, this division between the material and the spiritual is not the Christian picture but it has a profound hold on how we experience the world and even our own bodies. I believe it leads us to mistreat other species, to be insensitive to the effect of our actions on the natural world. Instead of “being” a body it makes us talk about “having” a body as if we could do without it.

The idea that we could just download our consciousness onto a machine or the fantasy of a singularity when machines advance beyond human beings and effectively take over the planet, come from this picture of a disembodied human essence (of having intelligence without a body).[6] For me believing in the resurrection of the body as opposed to an immortal soul, means taking seriously how we treat other bodies and the natural world. It is a way that we fully realize the extraordinary uniqueness of every life.

We cannot separate body from mind. My former teacher Margaret Miles writes that we are intelligent bodies.[7] She is right. I was surprised that when I started coaching my son’s basketball team, my body remembered perfectly how to shoot a jump shot from the top of the key. This is true of casting with a fly-fishing rod, playing the harmonica or clarinet, catching a baseball, cross-country skiing, or singing the doxology. We say, “it’s just like riding a bike” to describe the uncanny way our whole self remembers practical, physical things.[8]

We respond to bodies. A newspaper article this week referred to a 2017 study.[9] 110 people were selected and exposed to electric shocks while being connected to an MRI machine. One group of subjects held hands with a spouse, lover or friend. Another group held the hand of a stranger, and the last group were shocked by themselves.

It turns out that holding hands with your spouse significantly reduces the physiological stress of the shock. Holding hands with a stranger has no effect. Our intelligent bodies know who is close to us.

  1. Application. Faith is not something that just happens in your head. We experience it with our whole selves. Each person is unique. We can be put into groups and categories but these will never perfectly fit us. We are bodies who have been given the chance to care for others.

Yesterday we had eight hundred faithful people here for the last Why Christian conference. My friend Cameron gave a presentation that just rocked me. I was the pastor of Cameron’s family church while he was in college. We stayed loosely in touch as he followed exactly in my path through the same seminary, doctoral program and then ordination in the Episcopal Church.

Cameron spoke about his experience as a trans person in the church. He talked about making the transition during the ordination process, about his bishop Tom Shaw who asked him to, “Be patient with me as I learn.” He talked about discerning, “how might God be calling me to embody my gender.” Although being trans has put him in danger, he talked about the way he feels God walking with him.

Cameron quoted the First Letter of John, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him” (1 Jn. 3:2). I knew all the pieces of the story before he began, but when I saw his vulnerability, his courage and his faith it almost moved me to tears.

On Friday Nadia Bolz-Weber told me a story about a woman who came to another one of these conferences. She had been a conservatory musician but the further she advanced as a trombone player the more conflict she experienced with her teachers. She played music moving her whole body and they wanted her to stand still.

One day the professor came up behind her stood on her heels, put his hands on her shoulders and literally weighed her down. Although she said that she had loved making music that was the last day she ever played the trombone.

That night Nadia searched the whole town to find a trombone. In the middle of the service the next day in front of hundreds of people Nadia presented it to her and asked her if she would like to play again. The woman played Amazing Grace. He whole body swayed and the room echoed and swam in the beauty of her music.

What did Mary of Bethany see? She really saw the person she loved. She saw Jesus and the power of the human body. God is calling us to real resurrection right now, not just to believe in our heads, but to live our faith with our whole selves, with our unique desires, with our particular way of building up the people around us.

So leap upwards. Hold hands. Dance with the sun and moon. Make music with your whole body. Let this house be filled with the fragrance of perfume as God blesses us now and in the life to come.

[1] This window includes images from three different Mary’s as if they were all the same person (Mary Magdalene). Michael Lampen, Cathedral Sourcebook (San Francisco: Grace Cathedral, 2005) 19.

[2] Philo, de Specialibus Legibus I, 207. Translated and cited in Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 288.

[3] 5 Lent (4-10-11) A.

[4] The conflict involved Germany, Bohemia, Poland, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and France. Margaret Ruth Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 325.

[5] René Descartes, Discourse on Method.

[6] Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (NY: Penguin, 2005).

[7] Margaret Miles gets this language from Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, Corporeal Turn, 20. See Margaret Ruth Miles, Recollections and Reconsiderations (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2018) 18.

[8] 5 Lent (4-10-11) A.

[9] Benedict Carey, “Beyond Biden: How Close Is Too Close?” The New York Times, 4 April 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/04/health/psychology-metoo-biden.html

Sunday, March 31
Donald Trump, the Prodigal Son
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Lk. 15).

 

Have you ever wondered how Jesus has changed you from what you might otherwise have been?

In case you have not noticed by now, I am an older brother. This is more important for understanding me than knowing where I grew up or went to college, my Myers-Briggs score, zodiac sign or what I own. It matters more than almost anything else about me. I am that oldest brother all the way down to the invisible depths of my soul.

Parents dream that their children will love, protect and care for each other.[1] We hope that long after we have left this earth they will be the best of friends. They will be the only ones who remember the ordinary days that we shared together as a family, the way that we all laughed together at bath time, or our family visits to Santa Cruz in the spring. But this is not possible unless older siblings and younger ones understand themselves and how they are related to God.

There is so much about younger siblings that I admire. So often they seem so independent and unencumbered. They appear to be so much more free of the burden that I always felt to be pleasing my parents.[2]

As the older one, I felt proud that my brother Andrew admired me. Growing up I always thought I should be teaching him something. One spring day, I taught him how to tackle people – by repeatedly tackling him. I still long for those days in high school and college when we used to come home from rugby practice together talking about our days.

But the relationship was more complex than this implies. I’ll never forget one hot July morning when we were in elementary school. Before anyone else woke up my brother went out to our vegetable garden and pulled up all the squash plants and stomped on them. Oh, I’ll never forget that stern tone of righteous indignation in my voice. “Andrew what have you done!”

All the while in my heart I was rejoicing. Where do we get the primal sense that if our parents are mad at our sibling, then they will love us more? If only I had known then that my brother was destined to become a vegetarian. See I’m still doing it, all these years later!

The Bible says so much about the relationship between siblings and what this means for God. The Bible seems pretty realistic when it comes to brothers. It gives us a very mixed picture of this relationship. Biblical brothers compete for attention and fight, they also cooperate and forgive each other.

The tension between the first set of brothers rises to the point that Cain kills Abel. Crafty Jacob with his mother’s help cheats his brother Esau out of their father Isaac’s blessing. Joseph’s brothers resent their father’s favorite son so much that they leave him in a ditch to die. The good news is that both Jacob and Joseph eventually become reconciled with their brothers. Despite terrible differences, faith in God makes it possible for them to cross the bridge of understanding.[3]

In the New Testament Simon and Andrew, James and John represent the ultimate example of cooperating brothers. None of the gospels mentions conflict between them. Knowing what I do about families and the unreliability of disciples, I think that this might be the greatest miracle Jesus performs.

When the religious leaders complain that Jesus spends his time with the sinners, rule-breakers and outlaws he proposes a fundamentally different philosophy of life. He does this through three stories about God’s love. He describes the effort God takes to seek out the lost. God is like a woman looking for a coin, or a shepherd seeking a sheep. Then he tells one of the most important stories in the Bible, the Prodigal Son.

Jesus talks about the mysterious God through an example that we understand – family life. But we often misinterpret this story. It begins abruptly. The younger brother seems to be saying to the father, “You are dead to me now. I want my share of the inheritance so that I can move to the Near Eastern equivalent of Las Vegas.” And that’s what he does. He burns through the money quickly with adult film stars. Then in order to stay alive he lives in shame among unclean animals as a pig keeper.

I don’t believe that we are supposed to see ourselves as this younger brother. This may sound controversial, but for me the younger brother is similar to how San Francisco liberals picture Donald Trump. At no point does the younger brother repent. He never accepts that he has done anything wrong. Because of bad choices his life just becomes unbearable and so he goes looking for a more regular meal. The younger brother rehearses the story that he hopes will convince his father to take him in, but he doesn’t believe it himself.[4]

The father sees him at a distance because in one way or other he has been looking for his son ever since he left. I tell my daughter that a father will do any embarrassing thing just to get his child to smile. And in this spirit, the father doesn’t care at all about what people think of him. With no dignity, just sheer joy he hikes up his robes and goes off running to meet his child. Before the younger son can say his rehearsed speech the father has embraced him with unconditional acceptance.

Later we realize that the older brother cannot stand this. He thinks that his father has been deceived. He understands that nothing has changed in his brother’s heart at all, that the whole repentance is a con. So he skulks outside and refuses to go into the party. He confronts the father with such bitterness. “You never gave me a party.” But my brother, “devoured your property with prostitutes,” while I have been working like a slave for you.

This older brother is like the religious leaders of the day. They see through the kind of people who flock to Jesus, the scammers, frauds, liars and manipulators. They think Jesus does not know what they are like because they share an assumption with the older brother. They think repentance works like this: First, a person has to change his or her ways and then say sorry. If this is convincing enough the offended person might grant them forgiveness.

What the religious leaders, and for that matter we ourselves, fail to recognize is that Jesus has a completely different philosophy. Jesus points out that by its nature mercy is not fair. Like love or joy, it exists on a higher plane. It is above fairness.[5] God is like the father who loves so deeply that he ceases to care about how he looks, his reputation or just about anything else. God simply loves. We have been loved into existence.

For Jesus who welcomed deceivers and thieves, and for God, grace does not come after repentance. Grace makes repentance possible. God invites everyone who feels offended by the others who have been called. God says to us, “Celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Lk. 15).

I heard a story this week about a woman’s relationship with her father. She said that when she was growing up there was always one occasion when she felt especially close to her dad. During family parties with all of her aunts, uncles and cousins there would usually come a time when someone would start playing polka records. After awhile they would play the “Beer Barrel Polka.” Every time they did this, her father would come up to her, tap her shoulder and say, “I do believe this is our dance.” She had the fondest memories of how they would whirl across the floor.[6]

At one of these family parties she was a teenager and in attendance against her will. She was in a dark teenage mood. When the “Beer Barrel Polka” started to play, her father tapped her on the shoulder and said, “I do believe this is our dance.” She glared at him and said, “Don’t touch me! Leave me alone!” He turned away and never asked her to dance again.

Through high school the woman loved to go out to parties. She would come back home so late and it infuriated her that her sleepy father would be sitting on the couch in an old plaid bathrobe. Disdainfully she would say, “what are you doing?” And he would say, “I was just waiting for you.”

The woman was glad to move out of the house to attend a distant college. For years she didn’t even call, but over time she began to miss her father. When a new job brought her closer to home, she actually decided to go to one of those family parties. As you might expect someone put on the “Beer Barrel Polka.” She drew a deep breath, walked over to her father, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “I do believe this is our dance.” He turned to her and said, “I was just waiting for you.”

I am the older brother. But Jesus has changed me from what I otherwise would have been. He has helped me to more often let go and to exist on that plane that is above fairness and keeping score. Jesus has helped me to see that the wildly irrational love I have for my children lies at the heart of all things.

 

God is just waiting for us. God says, “everything that I have is yours. Come into the party. Your sins and your accomplishments are less important than my love.”

[1] At the ages of five and three at Christmas time our pot-bellied children put bubbles on their faces and in the deepest voice they were capable of they would to us, “Ho, Ho, Ho. What do you want for Christmas?” Our answer was always the same. “We want our children to be nice to each other.” At that point they would hold out a handful of bubbles and say, “Here is your children being nice to each other.”

[2] I believe this makes my brother even more creative, more bold about taking risks than he otherwise would have been. When I was seven we moved to the city. My parents still laugh about my brother striding up to our neighbor and saying, “Hi my name is Malcolm and I’m seven.” “That’s my brother Andrew, he’s only four.”

[3] When Joseph’s brothers realize that he has become ruler of Egypt, the Bible says “they could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence” (Gen. 45). They expected revenge not love. Joseph completely lets them off the hook. He says God was the one who sent him into slavery, so that their family could be saved. Joseph believes so strongly that God is present when brothers meet each other in love. He is right. But it is difficult to stop being an older or younger brother.

[4] Much of this interpretation of the Prodigal Son comes from Matt and Liz Boulton, “Lost and Found: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary on 4 Lent,” SALT, 26 March 2019. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/3/26/lost-and-found-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-lent-4

[5] Matt and Liz Boulton, “Lost and Found: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary on 4 Lent,” SALT, 26 March 2019.

[6] Thomas Long, “Is There Joy in God’s House?” Day1, 21 March 2004. http://day1.org/471-is_there_joy_in_gods_house

Sunday, March 24
What Cannot Love You Back
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt" (Ex. 3)?
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“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt” (Ex. 3)?

 

Never give your whole self to someone or something that cannot love you back. A couple of weeks ago standing in line for the ODC/Volti Path of Miracles performance I struck up a conversation with a group of visitors to the Cathedral. We talked for quite a while and afterwards the older woman said with a knowing smile, “I bet you’re the youth minister here!”

I could not have been more pleased. I love talking to young people. More than adults they seem ready to veer out of the realm of the superficial into the profound. When you say, “never give your whole self to someone or something that cannot love you back,” they know that we’re talking about much more than just boyfriends and girlfriends. This has to do with money, reputation, identity, work, popularity, security, even how we read the news.[1] Do you belong to God or to the New York Times, to Jesus or the Democratic Party, to the Holy Spirit or your boss at work?

So much is asked of us. We live with the constant temptation to treat the wrong things as our gods, to act as if the purpose of our life is to merely pamper our own ego. Isn’t that what most people mean when they say that all they want is to be happy?

The theologian James Allison writes that although it may seem counterintuitive Lent is primarily about abundance.[2] Most people associate it with renunciation. People ask, “what are you giving up?” But the purpose of a Lenten discipline is to more fully receive God’s gift of life, to abide in God’s joy through gratitude.

We have a difficult time imagining how something can come from nothing but that is what God does. Scarcity has no meaning to God. And yet for us it is everything. This unquestioned assumption that there is not enough money, not enough respect, not enough love – threatens to kill us, or worse to dull us so that we are never really alive.

We could do something about this but somehow we don’t get around to it. In the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus talks at length about this problem. Giving our whole self to God, living joyfully with a constant sense of God’s abundance comes through what he calls metanoia. This Greek word means to change our mind, our soul, who we have come to be. We translate it as repentance, but it is not so much about correcting one mistake as it is about a whole new way of living.

To a crowd of thousands Jesus strains to express the terrible urgency of repentance. Because it is personal and about us, because we do not want to change – we find it very hard to hear. So in order to wake us up Jesus uses a rhetorical strategy of flooding us with a score of different images and metaphors. He seems to be saying, “it’s like this, or this, or if that won’t work for you try this.”[3]

He says repentance is urgent because nothing will remain secret. What we thought would remain unspoken will be shouted from the rooftops (Lk. 12). He says do not be afraid of people who kill the body but of losing your spiritual life. God knows even the number of hairs on our heads. Do not worry about the scarcity of food and drink because God cares for the ravens, the grass, and the lilies of the field.

Then Jesus tries this. He tells the story of a self-satisfied rich man who contemplates building a new barn. This man says to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink and be merry.” He seems to have it made but he dies that night in spiritual poverty.

Or think of it like this: we are servants of God who need to keep awake with our lamps lit so that we will be ready when our master comes at an unexpected time, like a thief in the night. Or, like this: we are walking to court with our accuser to meet a judge who could imprison us for the rest of our lives. Wouldn’t it make sense to work out an arrangement between us rather than to take this risk?

The Galileans killed in the temple and the Tower of Siloam that fell killing eighteen people are near the culmination of this flood of images about the urgency of repentance. Those people did not die because they were sinners but something far worse will happen if we do not change our ways.

Finally Jesus says it. The truth. Our life is a fig tree. The owner wants to pluck it out because it has borne no fruit, but the gardener wants to give it just one more year to see what we might achieve. We do not have forever to start living fruitfully.

The point of these provocative, staccato images is not to get stuck in philosophical questions like who is the owner or judge, or what do the barn and lilies of the field stand for. The point is to follow the path that Jesus describes in all these stories, to urgently repent with our whole lives.

We need to live with integrity so that we are unafraid of what would happen when our secrets are shouted from the rooftops. We must become more concerned with justice and righteousness rather than just endlessly and selfishly accumulating wealth. We need to be always ready with our lamps burning to do God’s good work. We should be so alert for opportunities to be reconciled that we are acting as if our freedom and very life depends on it.

These stories come from this world. They are not about God magically striking people down through the hand of a tyrant or in an accident. Last week I spoke at length about never using someone else’s suffering to craft a story to make ourselves feel better. God does not afflict other people with pain in order to get our attention.

When we meet someone who is urgently repenting we see it. Today’s Forum guest Earl Smith grew up on the rough side of the tracks in Stockton, California.[4] At times his mother treated him cruelly. Perhaps because of this, or to get attention, or because their weren’t many opportunities for a young African American man, he began to get into trouble.

First, he stole little things. Then he sold drugs. By the time he was nineteen he lived a double life as a normal college student and as the leader of a network of gang members. He was intimidating and harming innocent people.

At the age of nineteen one of his drug dealers who owed him money came to the door with another young man. The gun Smith usually kept with him was still in his golf bag in the closet but he let the two of them in. For the sake of a few hundred dollars his guests shot him six times. He writes about what it feels like to be shot. It’s like having hot pokers driven into your body.

As Smith hovered near death in the hospital he heard the voice of God. It said, “You are not going to die… You’re going to be the chaplain at San Quentin Prison.” It does not seem to me that a calling could get any clearer than that and yet the remarkable thing is that for a while he did nothing about it. Perhaps he felt like he had all the time in the world.

But God was pursuing him and he could not resist for long. Eventually he became a chaplain at San Quentin. During his first Christmas there he was delivering Christmas cards for inmates to send home.

The prison was entirely segregated by race and gang affiliation. When he got to cell 66 the inmate was leaning against the door gripping the bars. Smith’s stomach dropped and he broke out in a cold sweat. He said to the inmate, “What’s your name?” Then suddenly the man recognized him and jumped away from the bars. It was the man who had shot him six times.

Although eight years had passed and Smith knew that in order to be healed he had to forgive him, Smith had not been able to do it. He slid the stack of Christmas cards between the bars of the one who had come so close to ending his life. As he walked down the cellblock he wept.

Smith continued his task and after forty more cells he turned around and went back. Part of him wanted to just terrorize the man but when he got there he knew exactly what to say. In a low voice that no one else could hear he said, “Hey, I want to thank you for shooting me. God used you to get to me.” Although these were the hardest words he had ever spoken he felt released, freed from hating this other man.[5]

 

We sometimes forget that Moses was a murderer and a humiliated fugitive. He only survived by tending sheep for his father-in-law in a distant land. When God appeared to him in the burning bush, he could not believe what he was being asked to do. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh” (Ex. 3)? We call this a theophany, a moment when God appears to us.

 

It is true that what cannot love us back has a strange kind of hold on us. But we can be free. God did not just speak to Earl Smith or Moses. God is talking to us too. Jesus uses dozens of images about rich men, rooftops, servants, barns, judges, lilies, towers and fig trees. He is trying to convince us that right now is the time to change our lives, to repent.

 

Who will we belong to? What fruit will our lives bear? May this Lent confirm our faith in the abundance of God, the one who creates everything out of nothing and brings us home through his son Jesus.

[1] “[N]ever give the best of yourself to someone or something that cannot love you back.” Emily C. Heath, “Living by the Word – Third Sunday in Lent: Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9,” The Christian Century, 9 February 2016. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-01/february-28-third-sunday-lent

[2] James Alison, “Living by the Word – Sunday, Marcy 3, 2013: Isaiah 55:1-9; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9,” The Christian Century, 19 February 2013. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-01/sunday-march-3-2013

[3] Matt and Liz Boulton, “Life and Death: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Lent 3,” SALT, 20 March 2019. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/3/20/life-and-death-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-lent-3

[4] Earl Smith with Mark Schlabach, Death Row Chaplain: Unbelievable Stories from America’s Most Notorious Prison (NY: Howard Books, 2015).

[5] Ibid., 63-7.

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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