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Sunday, December 8
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, December 5
Thursday 5:15 p.m. Evensong
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Sunday, December 1
The Advent Procession
First Sunday of Advent 3 p.m. Procession
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Sunday, December 8
Decolonize Your Mind!
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing…” (Romans 15).
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“May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing…” (Romans 15).

What is the good news of John the Baptist?

  1. In every conversation lies an implicit promise that we will be informed, entertained, expanded, perhaps even appreciated, loved or saved. But this is not always how things work out. This week I found myself at the most elegant Christmas party of my life. Original paintings by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), James Tissot (1836-1902), Claude Monet (1840-1926), Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), René Magritte (1898-1967), David Hockney (1937-) and others surrounded the guests in every room. Near the end, feeling exhausted, I took refuge alone on a sofa in the front room when a gracious older man approached and asked if he could sit with me.

He seemed so familiar! We talked as if we had been loosely acquainted for years.[1] And then he told me this story about when he served as a community liaison for the police force and Jim Jones, the charismatic cult leader, invited him to Sunday worship.

Jim Jones told him the time to be there and the uniform he should wear. When my friend arrived Jones had two hulking bodyguards with him. He never took off his sun glasses and looked away at the wall as they talked. After the police officer gave his lecture to a thousand people in the congregation he sat enjoying the choir. Although the service wasn’t over and he wanted to stay, the two bodyguards flatly told him it was time to leave. My friend didn’t know what to do but really he had no alternative.

That week someone else who had been there told him what happened after he left. Jim Jones took the stage and told his followers, “Did you see that police officer, he came when I told him to come, wore what I told him to wear and left when I told him to go. Stay with me because I have power.” Within a couple of years Jones murdered 918 people in Guyana. My new friend wonders how many of them were at church with him that day.

  1. So what is the difference between John the Baptist and the cult leader Jim Jones (1931-1978)? At first the two might seem to have a similar image and message. Depictions of John the Baptist in this Cathedral and elsewhere often make him seem angry and unstable. For centuries the most identifying features of John have been his uncombed hair and rough clothes. In the Willets stained glass window John seems to be shouting as a lightning bolt strikes from heaven.

John exclaims, “You brood of vipers who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come.” And we feel condemned. As the axe lies “at the root of the trees” we might even worry that we have the “unquenchable fire” as our destiny (Mt. 3).

This is the second week of the new Christian year. For the next twelve months on Sundays we will read through the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew cares about faithful Jewish people. He constantly tries to show us how Jesus fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament. The word gospel means “good news” and the point of this art form, of these stories, is not to record ancient history. It is to provoke us to really see.

John the Baptist’s camel hair clothing and leather belt, his life in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey – these identify him with the prophet Elijah and Isaiah’s promise of a time when the “earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11).

Jim Jones ruled through fear, intimidation and violence – a more extreme version of what we experience in the news from leaders every day. In contrast, John the Baptist offers the opposite. He gives us an inclusive vision of hope for all people. We have the chance to experience lasting joy and he doesn’t want us to squander this opportunity.

Every time a word is used its meaning becomes slightly altered. You can see this when we repeat something that has already been said. Words change meaning. They also wear out over time. “Awesome” used to be a serious word with religious content before it became a meaningless cliché.  The most important word for Matthew in this passage and perhaps even the whole gospel is the Greek word metanoia. It means to change your mind or soul, to be transformed. The worn out Christian word for this is “repentance.”

John the Baptist isn’t scolding us, or imploring us to be good, like some finger-wagging Puritan. John wants to change our entire orientation to the world. We are in chains and John wants to set us free. He wants to free our minds.

Let me point out three signs of hope in his message. First, this is a radically open invitation. He addresses everyone. Each person has dignity and he baptizes Jew and non-Jew alike. With even the temple leaders everyone flocks to the wilderness to see him. He says your race, nationality, religion is not the most important thing about you. Not being related to Abraham will not hold you back when it comes to God.

Second he says that everyone has a chance, because this is not about our identity: who our father was, or our income, status, political party, race, etc. What matters is the fruit that our lives bear. This is simple. Do our actions lead to indifference, violence, manipulation and destruction or to love, healing and wholeness?

Finally, comes the most difficult part to explain. Because identity matters so much to us we feel a stubborn compulsion to misinterpret John’s most frightening metaphor about the wheat and chaff. This is not a metaphor about righteous or evil groups. John does not mean that some people are valuable and should be gathered into the warm barn while others deserve to burn. He is using a metaphor of purification. The fire is a refining fire that burns away impurities. The Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) writes that the line between good and evil does not run between various groups of people but through every human heart.[2]

We all have a kernel of goodness, wisdom, bravery and value that deserves to last forever. We also all have imperfections in our character that are fundamentally incompatible with life in God. We know what impurities need to be rooted out of our lives: the hounding negativity, unkindness, anxiety, self-centeredness, indifference, insecurity, greed and fear of those who are different. This chaff exists in every human soul. It includes the bitterness of homophobia, entrenched white supremacy, persistent misogyny.

  1. So instead of that old language we hear from street preachers about repentance, listen this morning as John invites you to decolonize your mind. I have learned so much on this subject from the Kenyan author Ngūgī Wa Thiong’o (1938-). Ngūgī grew up in a Kenyan household with a father, four wives and about twenty-eight children. They spoke Gīkūyū as they worked in the fields and around the home. Before attending school he inhabited a harmonious world held together as all are by stories.

Ngūgī writes that English was more than just a language it became the language. If children spoke their own language in the vicinity of school they were beaten, fined money that they didn’t have or made to carry a metal plate around their necks that said, “I am stupid.”[3]

Ngugi writes that the “real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth; to control, in other words, the entire realm of the language of real life.” This comes about through what he calls “the cultural bomb” whose effect is to “annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as a wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland.” [4]

Hawaiians had one of the highest rates of literacy in the world during the 1800’s. But then after Americans criminally overthrew the government it became similarly illegal to teach the Hawaiian language in schools. For three generations local people say the “white is right” movement dominated official culture. If you are my age and native Hawaiian you are very likely to have been entirely cut off from your own language, cultural practices and a large part of your own self. Ngūgī says it is like being made to stand outside yourself to understand yourself. Being a Christian today is a little like this. You can’t help but feel such hope for the new generation coming of age in Hawaiian immersion schools.

Here in North America if you are a gay man, you have to struggle so that our culture’s demeaning and dehumanizing stereotypes do not remain part of your picture of yourself. This is true of white supremacy and misogyny too. These demonic pictures distort our inner landscapes. They divide us from each other and from God. They are the chaff in every person’s heart that needs to be incinerated by the Holy Spirit so that we can be our truer selves.

In every conversation lies an implicit promise. At the party I gradually recognized that I was talking to Frank Jordan. He served as mayor of San Francisco in the 1990’s when my wife and I first moved here. In that conversation his humility and graciousness showed me he didn’t need to belittle others for the sake of his ego.

About one quarter of the New Testament is attributed to the Apostle Paul. You might say that his whole message can be boiled down to this statement. In the impenetrable ambiguity of human life when we seem like slaves of the messages that we hear, God offers us freedom from our compulsive preoccupation with human authority.[5]

It is time. It is time for the earth to be full of the knowledge of the Lord. It is time to decolonize our faith and free our minds. And that is the good news of John the Baptist. “May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing…” (Romans 15).

[1] He told me about growing up south of Market Street, joining the San Francisco Police Department about the Season of the Witch years in the 1970’s when mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were murdered by their colleague Dan White.

[2] Matt Boulton, “Change Your Mind: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary on Advent Week Two,” SALT, 3 December 2019. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/12/3/change-your-mind-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-advent-week-two

[3] Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (Nairobi, Kenya: Heinemann Kenya, 1988) 11.

[4] Children growing up in this setting “exposed exclusively to a culture that was a product of a world external to [themselves]… being made to stand outside of [themselves] to look at [themselves].”  Ibid., 16, 3.

[5] “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28 NRSV).

Sunday, December 1
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus
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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, September 29
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
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Thursday, September 26
Hear the message of the angels
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
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Sunday, September 22
Two Masters
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Thursday, September 19
Dancing with All Our Might
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“Then the prophet Miriam… took a tambourine in her hand and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them (Ex. 15).

We called our second floor Cambridge apartment Happy Woods. The light filtered in through the canopy of the oak trees and friends were always around. I was a stay-at-home dad during our son Micah’s toddler years. Through hot summers and snowy winters the two of us would check outCuban dance music from the local library, come home and dance with all our might. I can imagine heaven must be a little like that with Tito Puente, Ibrahim Ferrer, Buena Vista Social Club, and the people I love, we will all be dancing with all our might.

Dancing made our children love weddings – and we went to a lot of them. Then in elementary school at basketball practice one of Micah’s teammates told him that dancing was for girls. I was so proud of our son for speaking right up about the beauty and joy of dancing for all people.

I didn’t realize it but “dancing with all their might” is how the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible describes the way that King David and all of Israel danced when they brought home the Ark of the Covenant. When Michal daughter of Saul saw King David dancing, “she despised him in her heart” (2 Sam. 6:16). She thought dancing demeaned him in the eyes of others (particularly “the servants’ maids”).

Dancing and opposition to it are more ancient than the Bible. When the people of God escaped from slavery in Egypt they couldn’t contain themselves. They danced with all of their might. The psalmist sings about praising God’s name with dancing (Ps. 149). In the story of the Prodigal Son the bitterness of the elder brother is magnified when he is coming in from the fields and hears the music and the dancing.

I think that despising dancing is a way that we hate ourselves. It is how we reject the joy that lies at the heart of our being. Today we honor the ministry of Alonzo King and LINES Ballet. Frankly it is in large part because their work brings us closer to God and to the gratitude and joy that we were created by God to share.

This year as our Artist in Residence Alonzo has become a kind of spiritual teacher for me. He has taught me that music, movement and light are the most primary way we experience creation and respond to it. He has shown me how physical gestures are often more profound than words, that what we do with our body has a fundamental effect on our spirit.

When Alonzo says, “my real work is the transformation of the self,” he says this as a dance teacher in the deepest sense of the word – as someone who teaches us how to in his words “move through the world.” Dance helps us to pay attention to that transformation. The movements of dancing make us who we are. They are one way our body becomes an instrument for discerning the truth.

On your way out have a closer look at the largest figure in the stained glass window of the North Transept. That is David and although he carries a large gold harp, don’t forget that he is a dancer. As you go your way say a prayer for Alonzo King and LINES Ballet. They are teaching the world to dance with all our might.

Sunday, September 15
Joy in Heaven
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk. 15).

 

At my last church I had a former cathedral dean as a mentor.[1] He told me that

good preaching is like the three-step process for candle making. First, you heat the wax, then you mold it and finally you harden it. This is what Jesus does with us today. The wax is our time-hardened picture of God. The process of heating and breaking down this idea may feel painful. After all, our understanding of God will always be close to our deepest assumptions about what the world is and what we should do in it.

Do you know the difference between a myth and a parable? A myth is not a fiction. It is not the opposite of fact. Instead, myths are about our identity. Myths explain who we are and where we come from.

People often ask how my wife Heidi and I met. It is a factual story about how we came to recognize each other, and how our very different stories became one story. We have myths about what it means to be an American, or an employee of Apple Computer Company, or a San Franciscan, or a white person, or any other identity. They show us how we belong.

Parables however, at least in the way Jesus uses them, overturn what we take for granted. They challenge our picture of ourselves. They force us to look for truer ways to understand who we are and who God is.

Sinners, sex workers, tax collectors, the collaborators of the occupying Roman army come to be near Jesus, to hear him teach. This deeply offends the religious people of his time. In Greek they diagonguzo, they mutter and murmur. In response to the complaints Jesus says, I came for the very people who offend you.

There is an old Celtic story about a monk who died.[2] They buried his body in the wall of the chapel. Three days later the monks heard sounds coming from inside the tomb. They took out a brick and were amazed to find the monk alive. He exclaimed, “Oh brothers, I’ve been there! I’ve seen it! And it’s nothing like the way our theology says it is!” So they put him back in the wall and sealed the tomb again. People who try to change our idea of God can expect resistance.

Jesus tells us strange parables about seeking something small and insignificant, finding it and then having a celebration wildly out of proportion for the occasion. He turns the familiar trope of searching for God on its head and instead talks about how God seeks us. Rather than a religious community defined by its morality, he gives us a picture of a church as a kind of celebration for sinners rejoicing in new life.

“Which of you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the desert (eremos – like our word for hermit) to go after the one that is lost until he finds it” (Lk. 15)? Of course, the answer is that no one would do this. No supervisor at Intel, no water resource civil servant in Sacramento, no PG&E manager, no superintendent of schools, no reasonable person would put ninety-nine percent of her assets in danger to save one percent.

If this were not strange enough, the shepherd carries the dirty, cantankerous old ram home on his shoulders rejoicing and then tells everyone what happened. “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Would anyone else really care the way that the shepherd does? The word for rejoicing repeated over and over here is xaris, as in the Eucharist, the rejoicing meal we share every week in which we are for a moment elevated to the presence of Jesus.

Or imagine a woman who only has one hundred dollars and loses a ten-dollar bill. She searches for it by burning a two-dollar candle and then invites her neighbors over to celebrate. The party probably costs more than the money she found. Three things stand out in these pictures of God.

  1. First, according to Jesus, we cannot comprehend God in the sense of being able to see all the way around the divine. At one level this is obvious. The duration of our life, what we are capable of experiencing is such a tiny crumb of everything. God has been at work making and sustaining the universe for 13.75 billion years. The edge of the observable universe seems to be 46.5 billion light years away.

We live in a strange world of surprising evolution, mathematical elegance, seemingly universal physical laws and unexpected beauty. God is unfathomable, extravagant, unbound by our understanding of reason. God’s ways are strange to us. They do not conform to our self-interested understanding of fairness.

  1. Second, Jesus seems deeply concerned about the way our ideas of fairness endanger our relationship with God. The parable of the laborers who work for a different number of hours and yet receive the same pay, the parable after this about the prodigal son who squanders his inheritance and comes back home and these two parables in which the ninety-nine unlost sheep and the 9 unlost coins seem superfluous – these all upset our ideas about God’s fairness. God does not conform to our idea of justice. At some level it bothers us that God loves people who are so much less lovable than we are.

Make no mistake, faith in God is not about belief, or analyzing evidence about a proposition. Our life is not a trial of God. Neither is it a process of earning rewards. More than anything in our time we worship success. If the tragedy of Jeffrey Epstein teaches us anything it should be that today in America you can do pretty much anything you like. As long as you are successful people will respect you and make excuses for your behavior. This makes Jesus especially hard for us to understand. One of our most deeply held, unexamined beliefs is our conviction that love is a reward for being good.

Faith means letting go of being offended that God is not the way we expect God to be. Really faith means beginning to see our self as one of the lost things in the universe, and trying to find our way home.

  1. So we do not know much about God. We have no idea how God creates matter, sustains the massive, complicated universe. We have no clue how God hears the prayers of all creation. But we do know one thing – that God is a determined seeker. It is in God’s nature to risk everything to recover what is lost. It is in a shepherd’s nature to herd sheep, it is in a householder’s nature to put a home in order and it is in God’s nature to seek us and then to rejoice at our homecoming when we change our heart.

This is good news for us, because even if you are on the right path at this moment, you know what it feels like to be lost. I am certain that you have friends and family who are lost right now. It could be the result of poor choices, sheer bad luck, or addiction. It could be because you desire something that is bad for you, or because you want something good too much. It happens for the teenager who cannot fit in and for the person facing her own death wondering what the world will be like without her.

The Kentucky farmer and poet Wendell Berry has his own parable about being lost. Berry writes about abandoned homesteads far out in the country. Every part of them that is not made of stone has rotted away. Foundations, chimneys, and cellars are all that is left. Often there is just a well.[3]

We can imagine a hunter out from a faraway city, leaving a job he does not like in order to be alone in the country on a Saturday. On a perfect fall day, he feels free. He leaves behind his constraints, worries and fears. Nobody knows where he is. Anybody who wanted to complain, accuse him, order him around or collect a debt would not be able to find him.

Then he steps on the rotten boards covering one of those old wells and falls through. He disappears suddenly out of the lighted world. It happens so quickly that he does not even have time to wonder what is happening. He hits the water hard, goes under with fragments of rotten wood. He comes up, swims and clings to the wall with his fingers between the rocks. You can imagine how he would feel – the autumn sky so expansive and free only seconds ago is now “just a small picture of itself, far away. He calls out… and hears himself enclosed” in the echoes of his frightened voice.

So how does this story end? Does he save himself? Does he manage to climb out? Does someone pass by and hear his cries for help? Does he just give up and drown? In his despair does he pray the first true prayer of his life?

A person of faith believes that this man is not lost. A person of faith does not believe this easily or without struggle and doubt, or even a certain amount of pain. This belief is beyond any way of knowing. It is the faith that no one will remain totally lost to God – not the person in despair, not the one who believes that success will save them, not Jeffrey Epstein, not the monk in the wall, not you or me.

I remember a relatively young woman who was dying of cancer. She told me her fear of the dark and the cold that will come upon her as her life ebbs away. God brought us together because I firmly believe that she will not be lost either.

Jesus teaches us that life is not about earning love or a reward from God, or keeping the good ones in and the bad ones out. At the heart of our miraculous existence is the experience of being lost and then found, perhaps even coming to see ourselves as part of the way that God goes about the business of finding people. So “rejoice with me,” celebrate, take pleasure that, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk. 15).

[1] John Buenz was the Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Washington. 16 Pentecost (9-12-10) 19C.

[2] Parker J. Palmer, “Taking Pen in Hand: A Writer’s Life and Faith,” The Christian Century, 7 September 2010, 25.

[3] From Lisa Keneremath, “Lost and Found” (Goodpreacher.com). The next four paragraphs closely paraphrase Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow (NY: Counterpoint, 1984), 356-8.

Thursday, September 12
Thursday Evensong Homily
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus
Sermon from Thursday's 5:15 p.m. Evensong
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