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Sunday, July 5
Independence in our Interdependence
Preacher: The Rev. Heather Erickson
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Independence in our Interdependence

 

Last week I was on the phone with my grandmother. She’s 93. She’s lived alone since my grandfather died a couple of years ago, and in the past 3 and a half months I’m pretty sure she’s only left her house once. I’m grateful she’s safe. I’m grateful for her friend who’s been bringing her groceries. I’m grateful for my family who have been by for physically distanced porch visits. My grandmother asked me, “When will this all end?” And I wanted to be there with her, to see her in real life and give her a hug. When will this all end?

It’s been 112 days, I think, since I left my office on a Monday afternoon for what I thought would be 3 weeks of working at home. Back in March I remember talking with a friend about how resilient human beings are, and that we can do anything for a short period of time. The next few months are kind of a blur of emails, zoom meetings, distance learning schedules, some complicated art and engineering projects, lots of hand-washing and a drive-through preschool graduation. Right now, in my household it feels like things are on hold – there are promises that playdates and birthday parties and piano lessons will happen at some point when it’s “safe” – when will this all end?

It seems like something has recently shifted, though. I’m still confident in our resilience. And now I’m even more grateful for our ability to adapt and endure. And I’m frustrated with our short-sightedness and inability to take responsibility, to work together. The work of endurance is hard, though, especially amidst the uncertainty and the absence of predictability.

We’re also in this constant process of letting go – of plans, of hopes, of assumptions and expectations, of the illusion of control, of a naïveté about the systems of dominance that have shaped our modern world and perpetuated horrendous oppression and injustice.

Yesterday was Independence Day, a 4th of July unlike any other, where many of us held the celebration of the Declaration of Independence and its promises of equality, and the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, alongside the hypocrisy and abomination of chattel slavery and its effects which continue to reverberate today.

Frederick Douglass’ gave an important speech in Corinthian Hall to white members of the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society on this day in 1852, 168 years ago, in which he says, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?  I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” These words were offered about a decade before the Civil War, and as the Black Lives Matter Movement reminds us, are still relevant today.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, in an article published in The Atlantic last year, offers a lens through which to honor the 4th of July. He writes, “We should be celebrating our disobedience, turbulence, insolence and discontent about inequities and injustices in all forms.”

In her book, Disunity in Christ, Dr. Christena Cleveland writes about power and privilege and she offers an insightful reminder of “Christ’s cross-cultural, privilege-abdicating example in the incarnation.”

The incarnation. The Holy One, birthed into this world through Mary, the Theotokos, the God-bearer.

I keep thinking that we are in the midst of birthing something new. I have hope that we are in the process of shaping a new way of being a country, and a new way of understanding and sharing power. I believe the church is being transformed as we discover new ways of connecting with each other and expressing our life in Christ. Education is changing. For many the way in which we work is changing. Our world has fundamentally shifted, and – we’re not quite there yet. The future is not quite clear. The process of laboring a new creation into the world is not usually easy, either. From my experience, there’s an intensity to it, and uncertainty. Each labor unfolds in its own way and there’s an ease that comes with working with it, responding to it and following its rhythms. During my first experience of labor, I remember reaching a point and thinking – I can’t take much more. I’m not going to be able to sustain this. The intensity is too much, and it’s constant, and I need a break but there’s no way to pause this process. It was happening whether I was ready for it or not. And just when it felt like more than I could bear, it was over. And my life has never been the same since. During my second experience of labor I remember all of a sudden realizing that I was holding back, I was fighting against it and while the intensity didn’t diminish, once I chose to work with it, there was an ease, an acceptance of the unfolding experience and once again, my life has never been the same since.

Imagine this new creation. What does it look like to you? Jesus saw a world where the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Imagine a world where everyone has enough food to eat and a bed to sleep in every night. Imagine a world where we recognize our interdependence and put our neighbors’ needs ahead of our own. Imagine a world where everyone has enough. Imagine a world where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

We have a responsibility to each other, and we’re in this for the long-haul. Leaning into the discomfort, renewing our minds, opening our hearts, taking action that makes our interconnectedness – our interdependence – visible, this work is tremendous and important. It is holy. And I believe that this work will change us, it will transform us, and we will become a new creation, a beloved community. This work will also exhaust us and deplete us if we approach it alone. Jesus invites us: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Years ago, when I first started paying attention to this invitation, I imagined picking up a harness of sorts that I expected to be heavy, only to discover it became lighter as I lifted it up onto my shoulders. Then at some point, I began imagining a yoke built for two, with Jesus shouldering one side as I took my place next to him, teammates working together side by side, knowing that when I grew tired, he would be there to support the weight and carry me through. Recently I’ve been imagining a different kind of yoke – one that doesn’t make any sense or seem in the least bit practical – it extends out in every direction connecting person to person – a bit like how I’ve been envisioning church during these last few months of virtual gathering –  a network of sorts, each of us connected to each other. An interdependent chosen family of people linked together. There are so many of us, connected in all directions, the yoke stretching beyond the limits of our vision. It’s massive and yet there’s a lightness, an ease and flexibility to it, because it’s the body of Christ. The church – where together, with Christ moving in us and through us and among us, we can do far more than we could imagine.

Sunday, June 28
Pride Sunday
Preacher: The Rev. Altagracia Perez-Bullard, PhD
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From today’s Psalm:

1  I will sing of your steadfast love, My God [O Lord], forever;

with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.

2  I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;

your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.  AMEN.

 

Good Morning and Happy Pride Day!

If this were any other Pride Day, this would be the point where we would have hooting and hollering, we’d be cheering with the festiveness this day has come to represent for the community of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, and other sexual minorities, also known as the LGBTQIA+ community.  I trust some of you are shouting in your homes, and I know that my heart is filled with memories of Pride Days gone by…especially my first Pride March: the beauty and the spectacle, the empowerment and of course, the music and dancing.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first Pride March, the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, held on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in New York City. And although for all of our well-beings, we are not having Pride Marches, we are indeed witnessing, and some of us participating in various ways, in the ongoing struggle, the ongoing movement for human rights, as people march in the streets across the nation and the world, demanding that black and brown bodies be treated with the dignity and respect that is the right of every person.

And for those who know history, we understand that the demand for equal rights and protection under the law being made today is another manifestation of that demand made in the Village 51 years ago. The Stonewall Inn catered to the most marginalized in the gay community, a description that sounds painfully familiar: people of color, gender non-conforming folks, homeless youth and transgender people, who survived on the streets hustling what they could, even their own bodies. Faced with yet another violent police raid, where the primary transgression was their very existence as LGBTQ persons, the queens rose up, as others before them sat-in, and fought back, leading to three days of rioting, which galvanized and organized LGBT societies into activists. Today we remember and celebrate Marsha P. Johnson, who was part of the Stonewall Riots, an advocate for justice and equal rights, and Sylvia Rivera who together with Marsha established STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) to help homeless young drag queens, gay youth and trans women.

They represent a prophetic move embodying God’s truth, a self-evident truth declared although not yet realized in this nation’s founding documents, that all “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  And as Jeremiah attests to, and we ourselves have witnessed, a prophetic word is not welcome when it calls us to account for our transgressions against each other, when it calls out injustice and unfaithfulness to God’s word and will for us. False prophets may declare prosperity and peace, but while God’s children, and especially the least of these, the marginalized and the oppressed, are crushed with reckless disregard for the sanctity of their lives, we will know no peace. No justice, no peace.

For those of us who believe, who know and understand the wisdom and the power of Jesus, who seek to live in a Kin-dom of abundant and everlasting life, where justice and righteousness are the watch words and peace and love are enjoyed, we have our marching orders here in the 10th chapter of Matthew. I invite you to read it to understand the times in which we are living and the call of God to live as faithful disciples, students of the Good News.

In today’s gospel reading we are both encouraged and challenged. Jesus after describing the hard road that awaits those who follow him, encourages them, reminding them that as they seek to speak and practice justice, heal and care for the wounded, be and learn from the marginalized, they will be a blessing and they will be blessed. They will be blessed by those who welcome them, providing hospitality, however basic, even offering them a drink of water, which in the desert is no small thing.

The gospel lists this triad: the prophets, the righteous and the little ones, and they can describe different members of the community, but they also describe the interrelated aspects of our discipleship. One scholar describes them this way: the prophets bring “proclamation and miraculous demonstrations of divine power,” the righteous demonstrate an “enduring pursuit of justice and of the healing and restoration of relationships,” and the little ones, the vulnerable, discounted, devalued, show that this whole enterprise is God’s mission, we are “wholly dependent on God’s power and presence.” (Saunders)

That last group, the little ones, might come as a surprise. We might have expected “the wise ones,” or “the holy ones,” (Saunders) but instead it reflects reality, how God’s mission is lived out in the world: change does not, and never has come from some hero, some eloquent speaker, some person in power. What was true in 1857 is true in 2020, in the words of Frederick Douglass: “Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.” Or in the words of June Jordan, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Here lies the encouragement and the challenge. Reading this gospel in today’s context, we are invited to understand that this is about us coming and going. That we are to live into our call to be prophets, speak truth, show miraculous power, what God can do through us; to be righteous and give ourselves to the enduring pursuit of justice and healing; to be the little ones, vulnerable, learning, growing. And that although it will not be easy we will be welcomed and refreshed, those who will minister to us will be blessed as we are blessed by their ministrations.

But we are also invited to understand that we are called to welcome and minister to the prophets, the righteous and the little ones. Those who have felt the movement of the Spirit and are encouraged and bold, demanding their humanity be recognized and accorded the dignity and justice that are their inalienable right as the children of God.

Welcome those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, who seek justice from the systems that are sworn to serve and protect, welcome those involved in the Poor People’s Movement, who seek to unite us across lines of difference as we demand good and just salaries, health care, education, environmental care from institutions created to serve the common good, welcome those who continue the fight for LGBTQ rights, because the right to marry, and now, thank God, the right to work without suffering discrimination, is only the beginning of insuring equal rights.

We are to welcome these prophets, these righteous, these little ones:  Not tolerate, and not suspect, or judge, or fear, but welcome, because we who seek to live into God’s will understand that by welcoming these strangers, we may be entertaining angels unaware. (Hebrews 13:2)

In these welcoming and refreshing encounters we, “us and them,” we, will be blessed and we will be a blessing. These relationships will strengthen us, feed us, and help us to grow. Together we will learn to live more fully into God’s call for us, that we would be fully human, humane in our treatment of one another and of all God’s creation, that we might have life and have it more abundantly. (John 10:10).

So today we remember and celebrate those who have gone before us and all those who journey with us in seeking justice. Let us remember and celebrate our call to be righteous and prophetic little ones, relying on the power of God to transform us and through us the world. Let us welcome one another, and keep the feast. May the party begin!

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 19
Leaving Sugar Mountain
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20).

At the age of eighteen, when I first lived on my own at U.C. Berkeley, I had all my classes in the same vast lecture hall and the room across the corridor from it. I have vivid memories of sitting on the benches by Strawberry Creek among the sycamore trees, outside Dwinelle Plaza, listening to a folk singer dressed all in white.

His name was Julian. He had long flowing hair and was only a little older than me. He often sang a song by Neil Young called “Sugar Mountain.” “Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain / With the barkers and the colored balloons, / You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain / Though you’re thinking that you’re leaving there too soon, / You’re leaving there too soon.”

“It’s so noisy at the fair / But all your friends are there / And the candy floss you had / And your mother and your dad. // Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain…”

At those moments, with such exquisite intensity, I missed my mom, my dad and my brother, and all those county fair moments of my other life. Something inside me resisted growing up and yet I knew I had to.

Many forms of Christianity emphasize a dramatic conversion experience above all else. In some churches you might even feel pressured to think that someone can’t be a Christian without a singular, defining mystical experience, without being “born again” in this way. The idea that a particularly moment might change everything certainly has a role in our tradition.

But I believe our form of faith focuses more on slow, steady progress over long periods of time. Coming to church, singing hymns, praying, trying to change how we treat people around us every day, working for a more just society – these actions ultimately shape our inner landscape so that we begin to respond to the world in a new way. Faith is this process of growing up. Luke describes it as, “knowing the ways of life” (Acts 2). John calls it having life in Jesus’ name (Jn. 20). Paul writes that, “all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:22).

Growing up can be painful. But Jesus promises that we can embrace change with equanimity, with a kind of deep, centered peace. This morning I want to study what it looks like to grow in faith. I’m using the Puritan sermon structure with a section each on the text, doctrine and application.

1. Text. Each reference to Jesus’ resurrection seems so unique and yet there are familiar patterns. For instance in the Gospels of John and Luke, Jesus’ closest friends have difficulty recognizing him. After the Roman Empire executes Jesus as an enemy, the disciples feel so disabled by fear that they will only gather behind locked doors.

Fear and surprise make Jesus invisible to his friends. They can only rejoice after seeing his wounds. He says, “peace be with you.” He breathes the Holy Spirit into them. He teaches them that they can forgive the sins of others. But Thomas was not there and he feels shattered when his friends tell him that they, “have seen the Lord” (Jn. 20).

I don’t think of Thomas as primarily a doubter. He just wants to experience what the others saw. Perhaps he feels alone or guilty for abandoning Jesus or missing the meeting. But even in bitter despair Thomas keeps showing up to be with his friends.

In English a double negative (like “ain’t no”) is bad grammar but in in Greek it adds emphasis. Thomas does this when he says that unless he sees Jesus’ wounds, “I will [absolutely] not believe.” A more literal translation of Jesus response would not use the word “doubt” but would be “do not be disbelieving but believe,” or, as my friend Herman Waetjen translates it, “do not be faith-less but faith-full. ”

Jesus is not against doubt. The theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) is right to point out that doubt is not opposed to belief but an element in it. Jesus is talking about the kind of believing that involves a trusting relationship with God.

Thomas feels full of such awe and joy that he uses the same expression that Romans used for Emperor Domitian (51-96 CE). He exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus says, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.” And John writes that his book’s purpose is that through believing that, “Jesus is the Messiah… you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20).

My point is not that Thomas failed to grow in faith. His experience shows us that there is far more to faith than believing that a certain event, like the resurrection, happened in the past. There is indeed a believing that comes from seeing. But there is also a way of looking forward and seeing a transformed future because of what we believe. We see to believe. But we also believe in order to see. This is the advanced course, the deeper insight into reality that Jesus helps us to realize.

2. Doctrine. My next question has to do with doctrine. What is faith and why do we need it? The answer has to do with what Christians call sin. The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes that each person has a unique moral code. Almost inevitably this collection of rules about how the world should be is biased in our favor and we go about trying to impose it on everyone else.

Barth also believes that most of the time we live by the delusion that we can help our self. Our ego craves security, power, the admiration of others. And so we rush, grasping for things, “striving and fighting.” But every success is hollow, everything we get turns out to be only a symbol for the real thing that we will never win on our own. Christians have this idea of original sin. For me it means that there never was and never will be a golden age. There is something in us as human beings that drives us toward chaos.

And yet through Jesus a kind of peace is possible. To friends who had just betrayed him this peace says that whatever separated us before is in the past. This peace is the inner freedom that belongs only to someone who seeks and accepts help from God. It is the peace that is more than absence of conflict. It is the peace we experience when we move beyond the question of what happened in the past and into an exploration of what faith in God might mean for the future.

That’s what the disciples did. Through believing in Jesus they went from expecting the enemy and hiding in fear, to being witnesses of God who changed the world. Faith isn’t just an idea of what is real, it is a way of living, of encountering each other with an openness to being helped by God. Religion is less like a form of knowledge and more like a longing for closeness with the origin of all things. Faith is simply wanting what God wants for the world.

3. Application. My last section concerns the danger of a certain kind of disbelieving. Yesterday was the anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It happened on Wednesday of Easter week. You can imagine a few days earlier the fanfare at the largest, grandest church in the city on Easter Sunday. Little did they know that day, the hundreds of our predecessors at Grace Church, that they would never step foot in that magnificent church again.

In our time we think of it as a devastating earthquake. But the shaking lasted for only a minute while the subsequent fire raged for three days and did far more damage. Three thousand people died, 28,000 structures were destroyed. Half of the city was homeless – over a hundred thousand people were forced to camp out. Five square miles were completely obliterated making it the greatest urban fire in history before the aerial warfare of World War II.

As a young priest I remember hearing stories from survivors. One woman told me that this time camping in Golden Gate Park included some of the happiest days of her long life. People rescued and cared for each other. Money or social station didn’t matter as much anymore. Everyone helped in whatever way they could.

In fact, the natural disaster was not nearly as catastrophic as the human disaster. Rebecca Solnit writes that Frederick Funston the commanding officer of the Presidio simply took over the city. His lack of faith in ordinary citizens meant that his men shot people for trying to help in the catastrophe. Out of fears of looting, that never really materialized, they kept away citizens who could have stopped the fires. In short this was a terrible spiritual failure. The leaders cared more about protecting the property of the few than about what the community might accomplish together.

As a nation we are in the midst of another terrible crisis of faith. At anti-government protests in Lansing Michigan, Huntington Beach, California, Austin, Texas and elsewhere we are seeing people taking to the streets because they do not trust the scientists, civic leaders and government officials who are trying to protect them from COVID19. In our case growing spiritually means becoming wiser about what we disbelieve. But it also means caring about what God loves and not squandering this opportunity to build a more equal and just society. We were made for this.

I remember the last Sunday before the Cathedral had to close. It was the first time we knew that we shouldn’t touch each other but before we realized that we couldn’t gather together at all anymore. That day a visiting family sat in the first row. We looked each other in the eyes as we passed the peace. I realized that when I say “the peace of the Lord be with you,” it means, “I want what is good for you and I believe that God does too.” That is what faith means.

Every disaster is different. Unlike the earthquake and fire of 1906 the structures of inequality and the walls that separate us from each other are growing. We know that when life begins to return to normal, we will not return to the same jobs, schools and favorite places. They will have changed and we will have changed too.

At eighteen I understood that we all have to grow up, in our life and in our faith. But we do not decide what to believe on our own. God offers us help. Jesus cannot be prevented by any locked door from calling us to a deep centered peace that passes all understanding. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe. May the peace of the Lord be always with you.

Sunday, April 12
Easter Sunday Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
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Sunday, April 5
The Plague on Palm Sunday
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Palm Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus… who emptied himself…” (Phil. 2).

  1. Death grips us. In these COVID19 days something within us is passing away. The former world with its sureties and distractions suddenly has dissolved and we are left to face ultimate reality. I read Albert Camus’ book The Plague because I wanted to see more deeply into what is happening, to understand how we might be saved.

Camus published The Plague in 1947. He started writing it while he lived in an apartment with in-laws whom he despised in the Algerian town of Orans. Suffering from tuberculosis he wandered the streets with terrible, disorienting attacks of fever. He ended up leaving the city and crossing the Mediterranean Sea to recover in the French Alps. But during this time the Allied armies retook North Africa and the borders were closed. Camus missed the last boat and found himself stranded, separated from his beloved wife Francine and, trying to find a way to be useful to the resistance in Nazi-occupied Paris.[1]

So the plague is a way for Camus to write about a painful war and separation from loved ones. He points out that we are surprised by plagues and wars despite how often they recur in history.[2] We simply don’t want to believe what is happening to us and so government officials refuse to face the magnitude of the problem and offer lying reassurances that ultimately make everything far worse.

Camus writes about quarantine as the military seals off the city and train service stops. He writes about auxiliary hospitals in former schools and the medical system being overrun, about patients being separated from their families by police and then dying alone. Funerals happen with maximum speed and minimum risk. At first the dead are treated like individuals but before long the bodies are merely slid into quicklime pits and then finally a street car line is dedicated to transporting bodies to a crematorium.

Most of all Camus writes about the inner lives of people experiencing appalling events. He writes “great misfortunes are monotonous” (169) and explains how we become desensitized, chronically cynical and isolated from each other (165). The plague killed the ability to love or even to have friendships (171). The most hopeful element of the novel concerns a community of volunteers who take risks and try to alleviate suffering even when everything seems hopeless.

Still there are moments of beauty in the terror. Two friends experience transcendence swimming in the harbor at night and are possessed by, “a strange happiness… that forgot nothing not even murder” (239). At the end of the plague the survivors see the smoke from the first train to visit the city. It comes into the station platform and the feeling of exile vanishes, “before an uprush of overpowering, bewildering joy” (274). One man’s wife has jumped into his arms before he can really see that it is her. “He let his tears flow freely, unknowing if they rose from present joy or from sorrow too long repressed… For the moment he wished to behave like the others… who believed, or made believe, that plague can come and go without changing anything in men’s hearts” (274).

The point that Camus makes over and over is that nothing can really take away the pain that everyone suffered or undo its damage. They may be able to experience joy, but it is always mixed up in that misery. And this makes it like the Palm Sunday story.

  1. On this day Palm and Passion Sunday we both celebrate the fanfare of Jesus’ triumphant arrival in Jerusalem and observe the horror of his betrayal, isolation, humiliation, trial, torture and death. What Jesus suffers changes our story of what it means to be human, what we are created to strive for. God calls to us especially during this time when so many meanings are changing.

Matthew refers to prophecies in the Books of Zechariah and Isaiah about the arrival of a conquering king whose “dominion shall be from sea to sea” (Zech. 9).[3] Crowds cut palm branches, and lay cloaks on the ground. They shout, “Hosanna in the highest.” Matthew puts before us a symbol that we still recognize today – the arrival of victorious armies. Think of Roman Emperors, the Arc de Triomphe, Hitler’s arrival in Paris, or the lines of tanks and missile launchers parading through the streets of communist Moscow or today in Pyongyang.

“The whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”” (Mt. 21). And Matthew answers this question by completely changing the meaning of victory, kingship, and what we should do with our lives. Jesus teaches that the goal of our existence is not to be safe, or feared, or to have power over others, but to serve them.

Paul writes about how he came to experience Jesus alive in himself, how his whole system of values was overturned. In a letter to friends in the church of Philippi he writes, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form a slave… he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even on a cross” (Phil. 2). This may be one of the most important verses in all scripture but it is more abstract and theoretical than Matthew’s story of how Jesus is betrayed and tortured.

  1. So much in the world has a different meaning to us now. Grocery stores and restaurants used to seem like safe places, people crossing the street to avoid being on the same sidewalk used to be rude, visiting senior citizens used to be compassionate. Now staying home and covering our faces is responsible. An aircraft carrier in the most advanced navy in history used to be a symbol of military dominance but has instead become an emblem of danger, confinement and terror. The captain ready to do anything for the sake of his crew and powerful governors, who publicly beg for medical equipment, have become heroes.

The body means something different to us now. Our own bodies feel more vulnerable and isolated. They consume vastly more of our attention. In this city we see bodies lined up outside stores around the block in the rain to shop for food or be tested for COVID19. We feel the absence of others’ bodies acutely. In the news we see bodies stacked up in Italian churches, refrigerator trucks and makeshift morgues. Every two and a half minutes another person in New York dies as fear grabs the city by the throat.

And with all of this our stories are changing, stories about poor people, what the economy is for, our political identities and what really matters. These stories have life and death consequences. For instance the story that COVID19 was just another way that liberals were trying to discredit the president, the myth that the disease was only a problem for faraway people, even the idea that reality is a made up of competing peoples rather than a single interdependent, interconnected human family – these stories are causing terrible suffering. There is an awful, demonic kind of pride in the destructive story that religious people are entitled to gather large groups of people because what they do is so important.

  1. We only partially choose the stories that give us meaning. In many ways eventyally reality forces itself on us. When we open ourselves in prayer, God comes and changes the story of our life. This happened to the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881).

In 1849 he and other revolutionaries were dressed in their funeral clothes and marched out to be shot. The firing squad took their positions, the drums beat and at the last second a messenger arrived on horseback with the news that the Czar had pardoned them. This moment changed everything forever. Suddenly Dostoyevsky could see the truth. Within days he wrote a letter telling his brother how much he loved him. He felt determined to no longer get mired in little insecurities and pettiness.

Dostoyevsky writes, “Never has there seethed in me such an abundant and healthy kind of spiritual life as now… I shall be born again in a new form… Life is a gift. Life is happiness, every minute can be an eternity of happiness…”[4] And this changed him. It was the beginning of a radically different life in which he tried to empty himself as Christ did.

In another context the contemporary poet Christian Wiman writes, “Religion is not made of these moments, religion is the means of making these moments part of your life rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even so fearsome that you can’t acknowledge their existence afterward. Religion is what you do with these moments of over-mastery in your life.”[5]

In these days when the structures for meaning are most fluid Jesus shows us what it means to live in the knowledge of God’s love for us. This humility, this submission to God, looks different for every person. For me it is a sense of connection to a transcendence and beauty that seems almost always to be available when I am able through prayer to move beyond the dramas of my ego.

This week a friend sent me a poem by Wendell Berry about this experience that continues to recur in my life. It is called “The Peace of Wild Things.”

“When despair for the world grows in me / and I wake in the night at the least sound / in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, / I go and lie down where the wood drake / rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds, / I come into the peace of wild things / who do not tax their lives with forethought / of grief. I come into the presence of still water. / And I feel above me the day-blind stars / waiting with their light. For a time / I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”[6]

Death grips us, but we are still free. Christian Wiman writes, “There is no way to return to the faith of your childhood… for faith in God, is in the deepest sense faith in life.”[7] Something within us is passing away, but God still abides. The plague has arrived but you are God’s child, and life is still a gift. May the triumph, the blessing, the self-emptying and the resurrection of Christ be yours today in the grace of this world and always.

 

[1] I benefited from listening to Alice Kaplan’s Yale University course “The Modern French Novel,” on 2 April 2020 with Camus translator Laura Marris as a guest.

[2] “Everyone knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise… When a war breaks out, people say, “It’s stupid; it can’t last long.” But through a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.” Albert Camus, The Plague, tr. Stuart Gilbert (NY: Vintage Books, 1972) 35-6.

[3] “Lo your king comes… triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey… his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zech. 9).

[4] David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life (NY: Random House, 2019) 50-51.

[5] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) 70.

[6] Wendell Berry, Collected Poems 1957-1982 (San Francisco: Northpoint Press, 1984) 69.

[7] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) 7.

 

Sunday, March 29
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Between the words that are spoken and the words that are heard, may the Spirit of God be present.

 

What is your greatest fear right now? Is it the loss of someone you love who is vulnerable, the loss of your own job and any vestige of financial security, the loss of your own health, or the loss of the world as it used to be just a few short weeks ago? My greatest fear is coronavirus getting into my mother’s senior home in England and her dying without me having any way to say goodbye.

 

It seems like anyone who isn’t afraid at the moment isn’t awake. And, to be clear, fear and distress are allowed, expected, even healthy in situations like these. God’s people have always expressed the full range of their very human emotions to God. From the rage and despair of the psalms – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  – to Jesus weeping, maybe even ugly crying, at the grave side of his friend. We are a people who know what it is to walk through wilderness, to walk through despair, to walk through death and to be accompanied by God for every single step. We are a people who know what it is to walk through the bleakest shadow and to find new light on the other side.

 

I’ve always thought there is something deeply ironic in today’s readings coming at this point in the church year. We’re still deep in Lent, we haven’t even reached Passiontide yet, let alone the new life of the resurrection. But God’s promise of new life doesn’t wait for us to get to the crucifixion or to the empty tomb, It doesn’t wait for the end of a pandemic. it comes to surprise us with joy before we could ever expect it. It breaks into our quiet time of discipline, preparation and separation with a shout of new possibility, new hope, new life.

 

Our Hebrew scripture reading and our gospel tell us of two different ways that God gives new life, each of which we need to hear and cling to in the midst of this pandemic.

 

Lazarus first. He is called out of the cool quiet safety of the cave in which he sleeps in death into the fierce light of life, into the painful joy of his sisters, into noise and hubbub and renewed responsibilities and relationships and life. Let’s be clear Lazarus was not taking physical isolating to extremes, he was dead. God’s fierce gift of life in Christ reaches across that narrow barrier and calls this man to return. To return and then one day to die again.

 

I do not think we can expect ourselves or our beloved ones to be called back to this life from being dead three days. That sharp divine focus on one life seems now to be a broad divine panorama of all lives. God’s voice doesn’t now call one person back from death – but calls all of us back from the many small deaths that keep us from living free, loving, joy-filled, purposeful lives. The death that is despair – I doubt I’m the only one who has woken in the night to cry into my pillow, the death that is indifference – surely those old folk don’t mind dying so that my prosperous life is secure, the death that is hate – let’s make this virus an excuse for yet another brand of racism. Hear Christ’s voice calling you to come out from those small deaths, follow that voice into the light of hope, of cherishing the other, of deep love for all fragile humanity.

 

And then there is the new life that comes to that valley of the dry bones. That wasteland of a society that had turned away from God’s call to justice and to love and had lost its claim to humanity in the process. A society that no longer has the softness of flesh, the vulnerability of blood, the potential of muscle; one that has been reduced to hardness, to scarcity, to the unyielding breakable insufficiency of bone.

 

Ezekiel may have been speaking of what he saw in his own time and people. A people defeated by their own inner demons as well as by outside forces of oppressive, aggressive empires. We need to speak of what we see in our own time and our own people.

 

We are a profoundly broken society, broken long before Covid-19 came along to highlight our deficiencies. We choose leaders for ourselves who consistently put the economic prosperity of large companies above the basic needs of the poor. We rate our own safety as more important than the well-being of others and use fear as a reason to hold children in cages. We fail to weep whenever we see a fellow human being sleeping in dirt on a street corner. This is us – me as well as ‘them’ as well as you. Our society. Our responsibility. Our loss of humanity to become bare cold bones.

 

But we are not a forsaken society. New breath, new gentleness, new vulnerability, new life can come to this bleak valley, to these stripped bones.  Can these bones live? Yes they can, now as then! It is beyond time to open ourselves to God’s breath in us. To the breath that brought us life in the first place. To the breath that speaks words of love and forgiveness. To the breath that breathes in every human being, every living creature, and that unites us more closely more fiercely than our shared vulnerability to Covid 19.

 

How to do that? How to let the prophetic breath of God into our society’s dry bones? How to let the life-giving voice of Christ into our personal little deaths? It is only through the second that we can do the first. To let Christ call us from our small deaths of selfish choices, our small deaths of fearful living, our small deaths of hopelessness. To decide to live as if each person mattered as much as we do. To decide to live as though we truly believe in a God who can bring forgiveness out of judgment, abundance out of scarcity, hope out of despair, life out of death.

 

And to live like this without denying the storm of emotions that sweep through us on a daily basis. The fear, the despair, the anger, the longing for life to be otherwise. Bring these to God. Speak these to others. Know your humanity, and in knowing your own, know the humanity of every person who shares this world with you.

 

I’ll leave you with the words of Australian poet Michael Leunig

 

When the heart

Is cut or cracked or broken

Do not clutch it

Let the wound lie open

 

Let the wind

From the good old sea blow in

To bathe the wound with salt

And let it sting

 

Let a stray dog lick it

Let a bird lean in the hole and sing

A simple song like a tiny bell

And let it ring

Thursday, March 26
Giving Your Life
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Thursday's 5:15pm Evensong Service
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“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” John 12.

 

This poem is called “Ask Me,” by William Stafford (1914-1993):

“Some time when the river is ice ask me

mistakes I have made. Ask me whether

what I have done is my life. Others

have come in their slow way into

my thought, and some have tried to help

or to hurt: ask me what difference

their strongest love or hate has made.

 

I will listen to what you say.

You and I can turn and look

at the silent river and wait. We know

the current is there, hidden; and there

are comings and goings from miles away

that hold the stillness exactly before us.

What the river says, that is what I say.”[1]

 

Is what you have done your life? What difference have those who love you and hate you made?

Jesus says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (Jn. 12). He puts into question what it means to live or die. He makes us less certain what our life really is. I believe that it takes someone with the power of Jesus to dispel our most persistent illusions. Some fantasies can be so widespread within a culture that it can take generations to understand the truth.

On August 18, 1967 at Boston’s Fenway Park Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigliaro was at the plate facing California Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton. On the first pitch Hamilton threw a fastball that crushed the left side of Conigliaro’s face. Conigliaro never completely recovered from his injury. He left baseball in 1975 and died at the age of forty-five. That moment changed Jack Hamilton forever too.

In 1990 when Conigliaro died, Hamilton gave an interview with the New York Times in which he recalled what happened that day. “I’ve had to live with it,” He said,”I think about it a lot. It was like the sixth inning when it happened. I think the score was 2-1, and he was the eighth hitter in the batting order. With the pitcher up next, I had no reason to throw at him.” Hamilton remembers visiting him in the hospital that afternoon. He also remembers wondering whether he should return to Fenway for the next series of games that season.

Although Hamilton probably thought about this day many times his recollections were almost completely wrong. The accident didn’t happen in the sixth inning but in the fourth. The score was not 2-1 but 0-0. Conigliaro wasn’t the eighth hitter but the sixth. It wasn’t even a day game so Hamilton couldn’t have visited him in the hospital that afternoon, and there were no other games in Boston that year for him to wonder about whether or not he should go back there.[2]

It should come as no surprise to us that our memories are unreliable, that we get important details wrong. A cognitive psychologist asked forty-four students the question, “How did you first hear the news of the space ship Challenger explosion.” He asked them the morning after the explosion and then two and a half years later. Although they described the memories as vivid during this second interview, none of their memories were completely accurate and one third of their memories were what the researcher called “wildly inaccurate.” Many of these students couldn’t believe that their revised memories were wrong. “This is my handwriting, so it must be right,” said one student, “but I still remember everything the way I told you [just now]. I can’t help it.”[3]

In modern times there are so many subtle ways of not believing in God. One of them is to understand ourselves as a kind of videotape that summarizes our past, to think that in a significant sense we are our memories. If this is the implicit picture that someone has of himself, a psychologist’s claims that the tape is unreliable can seem like an attack on a person’s identity.

For me this way of understanding our selves is in contrast with the Bible. According to Christian tradition we do not have an existence that is independent of God. Who we are does not derive from who we were. Our life is not something that came about accidentally because of the lust or love of two other human beings a long time ago. We don’t earn our life. Instead we constantly derive our life from God. Who we are is a gift from God that we receive every day.

This means that you are fundamentally safe. You do not need to worry about losing your job, your spouse, your health, the respect of the other kids in school. The self that you are is not something that you achieve through some kind of work. It is not something that comes into existence because of what you think. This self is safe from the world

Perhaps what Jesus means is that the part of ourselves we are so afraid of losing isn’t really us anyway.

The novelist Ernest Hemmingway writes about a father in Spain who wanted to be reconciled to his runaway son. The father takes out an advertisement in the Madrid paper El Liberal. It says, “Paco, meet me noon on Tuesday at the Hotel Montana. All is forgiven! Love, Papa.” Paco was a common name in those days. When the father showed up he found eight hundred young men looking for their fathers.[4]

The way that Jesus speaks through the Bible is like this. Right here we have a whole sworld full of Pacos, of children returning to their father. We are not our memories, our thoughts or even our actions. Like California pitcher Jack Hamilton we will make minor mistakes and some terrible life-changing ones.

But none of this changes the truth. You can ask me if what I have done is my life or about the influence of people who have loved and hated me. But that is not what I am. We are children of God who Jesus calls to return. And one day he will lift us all up into the fullness of divine joy.

 

[1] Published in Twentieth-Century American Poetry, Ed. Dana Gioia, David Mason, Meg Schoerke (NY: McGraw Hill, 2004), 530.

[2] Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketchem, The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 75.

[3] Ibid., 91-2.

[4] Thomas Tewell, “The Things We Dare Not Remember,” Thirty Good Minutes, 16 November 2003. http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/tewell_4707.htm

Sunday, March 22
Seeing, Belonging, Becoming in the Days of Coronavirus
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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Malcolm Clemens Young 1 Samuel 16:1-13
Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, CA 2A14 Psalm 23
4 Lent (Year A) 11:00 a.m. Eucharist Mostly Online Ephesians 5:8-14
Sunday 22 March 2020 John 9:1-41

Seeing, Belonging, Becoming in the Days of Coronavirus
“For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of the light…” (Ephesians 5).

How do you see things differently now? As coronavirus fear takes hold, and society shuts down, what is changing in you? I have three chapters on seeing, belonging and becoming.

1. Seeing. Annie Dillard writes that, “Seeing is… a matter of verbalization. Unless I call attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it. It is as [John] Ruskin says, “not merely unnoticed, but in the full and clear sense of the word, unseen.””

Dillard describes what happened when surgeons first learned how to perform safe cataract operations to give sight to dozens of people of all ages who had been blind from birth. Many doctors tested their patients’ sense perceptions before and after the surgery. They found that the vast majority of patients had no sense of space at all. They fundamentally did not understand the idea of form, distance, size or depth. The world just looked like flat patches of vivid color to them.

Before the operation the doctor would give the patient a cube or a sphere to hold. After the surgery they were showed the same object, but it seemed unrecognizable unless they could touch it. When the doctor asked a girl how big her mother was she held her index fingers a few inches apart. One newly sighted person played a game with herself of tossing a boot on the floor and then trying to guess how far away it was.

Some patients were terrified by the tremendous size of a world that previously seemed manageable and touchable. They felt overwhelmed by the effort required to comprehend everything new. Others experienced an uncomfortable new self-consciousness. They felt ashamed of what others had been seeing in them all along.

A disturbing number of patients wanted to return to being blind or simply refused to use their new sense. One girl, whose father had longed for the operation, never seemed happier than when she would carefully shut her eyes as she walked around her house. A doctor wrote about, “the rapid and complete loss of that striking and wonderful serenity which is characteristic of those who have never seen.”

At the same time many who gained their sight so profoundly relished their new visual experience that they help us to not take its wonders for granted. Althought our hnds are mostly invisible to us, one patient marveled at it. She described it as, “something bright and then holes.” A little girl visiting a garden paused, speechless standing in front of a tree. As she touched it she called it, “the tree with the lights in it.”

A twenty year old girl was so dazzled by the world’s brightness that she kept her eyes shut for two weeks. At the end of that time she opened her eyes with an expression of such joy and astonishment, as she kept repeating, “Oh God! How beautiful!”

2. Belonging. What we see arises out of how we belong. This is true of what we see physically and what we see spiritually. We might forget that this is part of the philosopher Plato’s (423-347 BC) point in his book Republic. He gives us that memorable image of prisoners confusing shadows on the back of their cave for reality. Plato wants us to understand that the ruling elite construct our shared reality and maintain it for their own purposes. They try to determine how we will all see.

Just prior to our Gospel story, Jesus has come into severe conflict with the authorities over exactly this issue. The argument gets so heated that they try to kill him right there but he escapes into hiding (Jn. 8:59).

Then walking along Jesus meets someone who is invisible to nearly everyone, a blind beggar. Like us, from childhood he has been socialized. He has been taught to believe in a particular picture of the world, that our health is determined by our own sinful actions or those of our parents. His society regards him as unclean and he probably sees himself in that way too.

We might think that we have grown out of this way of thinking. But as events unfold around the coronavirus I am sure we will continue to hear people who want to blame and scapegoat others for our suffering. I refuse to believe that our Chinese brothers and sisters are responsible for this no matter who it is that accuses them.

The religious leaders ask Jesus, “who sinned this man or his parents that he was born blind?” This is not just about politics. It also reminds me of people who cannot believe in God because of the suffering that they see. Jesus replies that it does not help to ask why the man was born blind. Instead we should be looking for a way to do God’s work.

Jesus spits in the dirt, makes it into clay, puts it on the blind man’s eyes and asks him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. Through this baptism this man is completely transformed. He is reborn not just physically but spiritually. For him the world is no longer a place in which God punishes people with blindness, or where we have to accept the judgment of leaders who continually assert their own superiority over others. His identity has changed too. He’s not the blind man any more. He’s not the beggar, but a new person who can see the truth and has the confidence to confront authorities. And this makes him unrecognizable to nearly everyone.

There is too much to say about this. To maintain their false picture of an all-embracing sacred order the religious leaders threaten the parents with expulsion from the synagogue. Ultimately these authorities give up their argument with the blind man. They want to put him back in the box saying that he was born in sin. They excommunicate him. But by this time everything is clear.

Jesus finds him and points out the obvious. Jesus has come, “for judgment so that those who do not see may see and those who see may become blind” (Jn. 9).

3. Becoming. Seeing and belonging ultimately lead us to the truth, the Holy One, the source of all things. As the coronavirus threatens our souls, as fear grips the people around us, as the foundations of the social order appear to be melting, people of faith have an invisible source of consolation. The Christian tradition reminds us what it was like when we went through times like these before.

About once in every generation from the 1340’s to the 1600’s Christians faced the plague. Imagine life for St. Catherine of Siena when between early spring and the end of August in 1493 four-fifths of the population died. Someone wrote, “for this illness seemed to strike through the breath and the sight.” There were not enough survivors to bury the bodies.

Great mystics of these dangerous times have contributed to our spiritual DNA. At the gate of death, in an almost fatal illness, Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) came so close to God that we still remember the words that moment inspired. She wrote about the power of divine love to be everything for us saying, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

The great preacher Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) taught that the, “seed of God is in us,” that we were created for union with God. He believed that the capacity for outer vision is so nurtured by the distractions of life that it is over-developed. While our inward or spiritual vision is correspondingly weak.

Eckhart believes that we identify ourselves with the wrong things – with our status or reputation. Our ego needs seem insatiable. And our soul is so busy with frivolous details. But God’s love draws us toward the Divine. And when we strip away the clutter we find ourselves at the self that understands its being is from God. He writes, “Grace is not a stationary thing; it is always found in becoming.”

Finally, Eckhart says, “when this birth really happens no creature in all the world will stand in your way, and what is more, they will all point you to God… Indeed, what was formerly a hindrance becomes now a help. Everything stands for God and you see only God in all the world.”

A month ago coronavirus seemed like a problem for far distant peoples. Today we are sheltering in place, talking constantly about superspreaders, flattening the curve, social distancing and the supply of ventilators as the global economy melts down.

Stay at home. Prepare yourself and those around you for the worst. But also, remember that we do not experience the world as it is but only through the stories that give us meaning.

Be baptized. Be reborn. Use this sabbath time to see more deeply into reality, into this vast, beautiful and colorful world. Stretch your picture of belonging more widely to recognize what we did not quite notice before, that without exception the whole human family is one. Become more fully alive in God.

We did this before. So let God’s works be revealed in you. Live as children of light. All will be well.

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