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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, January 17
Justice, Marriage and the Wedding at Cana
Preacher: The Rev. Tyrone Fowlkes
Sermon from the Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sermon from the Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist

Sunday, January 10
What Is Blessing?
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"Do not fear... When you pass through the waters, I will be with you" (Isa. 43).
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The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.

“Do not fear… When you pass through the waters, I will be with you” (Isa. 43).

What does it mean to be blessed or to bless?

Beth, of my old neighbors, left her job as a law professor to work for the Obama administration in the State Department as a human rights expert. She once told me how much energy it takes to establish and maintain the rule of law. Since 1789 the average life expectancy of national constitutions is only 17 years. In human history our 218-year-old national constitution represents a remarkable accomplishment. [1]

What makes this kind of social stability possible? I know that it has something to do with resources, economics and good luck, but it also concerns a kind of underlying philosophy. Behind a society’s outward way of doing things lies an idea of what it means to be human, how we are connected to others. A system of values, myths and symbols fund every social interaction.

The current film The Big Short tells the story of investors who predicted the 2008 global financial meltdown. It heavy-handedly repeats that values like honesty, integrity, fair play, reasonable reward for socially productive work, refraining from exploiting poor or ignorant people, even acting against one’s own interest when justice requires it – these are all that stand between us and terrible human suffering.

Still it can happen. Through cataclysmic disaster, through plagues, environmental collapse, enemy invasion or just the erosion of values like love and justice, the stories about how to be human can cease to make sense to us. They can die.

The prophet Isaiah faced exactly this situation. After his people had been utterly defeated, the leaders had been exported as slaves to the enemy’s capital, after the crops failed because no one was left to tend them – the people came home. After they had lost everything Isaiah tries to give life to an ancient idea that had been forgotten. The idea is that God has called us by name and redeemed us. When we pass through the waters and through the fire, God will be with us. Nothing shall overwhelm us. The word for this is “blessing.”

I want the idea of blessing to fully belong to you. I want it to become part of your inner emotional landscape, to be a word that you speak out loud and use to understand what the philosopher William James calls, the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of reality.

Blessing is the assurance that we exist as God’s beloved children. The Old Testament word for it is b’rah-chah (berek). It was originally connected to the fertility of crops, livestock and human beings. Blessing refers to the bridge between human life and the mysterious beauty that lies beyond it. It is God’s voice that says to every faithful person, “You are my child, my beloved.” Through baptism we recognize that our identity comes from our relation to others. Baptism is central to the Christian experience of God’s blessing and how we become a blessing to others.

So my message this morning has three parts: Finding Blessing, Being Blessed and Becoming a Blessing.

1. Finding Blessing. We have to find blessing because quite often we cannot see it. Luke’s account of Jesus baptism differs most starkly in two ways from the others. First, unlike Mathew, Mark and John, the spirit does not descend on Jesus while he is being baptized but afterwards as he is praying. Setting aside time and space matters when it comes to experiencing the holy. You can make yourself too busy to see almost anything of consequence.

Second, Luke differs from the others when he writes that the Holy Spirit came down “somtatiko eidei” or, “in bodily form like a dove” (Lk. 3). Luke writes this because although in some very rare occasions human beings unequivocally hear God or see Christ, we usually experience the spirit in more subtle ways.

Most people have difficulty hearing God. Why is this? The former Episcopal priest and philosopher Alan Watts says that each one of us is like a hole in a vast sheet of fabric through which the light of God shines. [2] Despite this we do not often experience much of our life as a blessing. This morning I brought with me a cowry shell. Its smooth curves and the color and spacing of its spots could not be more beautiful. You might even say it is perfect.

Do you think that the creature living in it looks at its cowry neighbors and thinks to itself, “I have way too many dark spots” or “I wonder if this shell make me look fat?” A beautiful creature worrying about being uglier than the others sounds ludicrous but this is what human beings do this all the time. An enormous amount of our conscious life is dedicated to feeling anxious about how we look – gaining weight, losing hair, turning gray, getting wrinkles, growing into a different body shape. This is not restricted just to our appearance. We want others to think we’re successful, confident, attractive, capable, thoughtful, kind, strong, a winner…. We have strong feelings about how others perceive us.

But you are even more beautiful, more intricately constructed, more wonderfully fashioned than the most exceptional shell. Realizing this is the beginning of experiencing blessing.

This morning I want you to ask yourself, how much pain in your life is caused by self-criticism or worse by those self-judging thoughts that have been directed outwardly and surface as criticism of other people.

Last week someone asked me to respond to a Facebook post from The Pew Research Group about why according to many measures millennials are not as religious as their forbears. So many people wrote that people are too smart for religion these days. Perhaps in order to understand religion people like this need to have blessing be more a part of their life. Maybe they just have unrealistic expectations about what it feels like to encounter the Living God.

Sometimes you might experience the Holy “in bodily form” but more often than not it happens through the words of a hymn, the smile of a child, the smell of incense, the Cathedral bells, a friend’s story, the unexpected smoothness of the Bay at sunrise, a connection between what you love and the world that you had never noticed before. On the outside, the discipline of church may seem empty: coming here faithfully in the rain even when you don’t feel like it, attending long meetings, giving money, volunteering to help people who make us uncomfortable. Someone on the outside may not recognize it, they may not see God obviously there, but these ordinary things, this bread, wine, smoke, light and water create the path of perfect blessing that transforms us.

2. Being Blessed. When you believe, or at least are open enough to the possibility, you become a seeker of blessing. You will find it in the most surprising ways. Late on Monday night I was turning off the lamp in my study when my sixteen-year-old son hugged me from the side in the way that you might tackle a quarterback just after he released the ball. He had had such a hard day and he was seeking comfort and I felt this incredible depth of emotion, a huge shot of the feeling that I remembered from when I first became a father.

By Thursday night I thought that I had forgotten it. At Evensong the fading light outside shined so faintly and the stained glass window became an impossibly dark shade of blue. The choir sang right into my soul. Concentrating on that magnificent color I began to imagine myself sinking into sleep for the last time, into my own death. In that moment I felt so grateful for my life, all of this, all of you. It felt as if God were embracing me in precisely the way that I had held my son. The strength and presence and love of God overwhelmed me.

Being blessed is that simple and that profound. It arises out of an ordinary moment and it is the purpose of our life.

3. Becoming a Blessing. My last point is that we also are given the power to bless. We bless each other and we bless God. No matter how you may have come up short in the past, whatever terrible things you have done, how badly you think you compare with someone else – you can be someone who goes through life pronouncing blessings on what you experience. The theologian Martin Israel writes that there is nothing in the world that is unholy, only that which has not yet been blessed.” [3] You can be that blessing.

This does not apply merely to the bright, shiny, happy parts of your life. You can also be a blessing because of what you have suffered. The tragic things that we have gone through can actually open new paths of grace for the people we encounter. This week I talked to a friend who as a priest went through a terrible time of conflict with his congregation. I don’t know if they fired him or if he just went off quietly into the night. But it was enough for me to feel like he would have been justified in quitting the church. Rather than just trying to forget about the whole thing he got a PhD in the study of conflict and has dedicated his life to helping people in similar circumstances.

My question for you this morning is this. Can the word blessing become such a deep part of your vocabulary that it comes to order your whole life? Can you receive these words: that you are a blessing to God? It is your essence to be a channel for the blessing of God’s light and love? [4]

This week I offer you an optional homework assignment. It might be more challenging for some than others. First, try using the word blessing in public one time, that is, you might try telling someone that they are a blessing or sharing an experience of blessing that you have had. Second, do something just to be the kind of blessing that God loves.

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you…” Amen.
[1] Joyce Shin, “Living By the Word,” The Christian Century, 6 January 2015, 20.

[2] This paragraph and the next come from Alan Watts, Out of Your Mind: Essential Listening from the Alan Watts Audio Archives (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2004).

[3] Curtis G. Almquist, The Twelve Days of Christmas: Unwrapping the Gifts (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2008), 94.

[4] Ibid., 95.

Sunday, December 27
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Elizabeth Grundy
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sermon from Sunday’s 11 a.m. Eucharist

Friday, December 25
Christmas Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Jude Harmon
Sermon from the Christmas morning Eucharist
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Sermon from the Christmas morning Eucharist.

Thursday, December 24
Christmas Eve 7:30 Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
Sermon From the Christmas Eve 7:30 Eucharist
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Sermon From the Christmas Eve 7:30 Eucharist.

Thursday, December 24
When Do You Say, “I Love You”?
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined..." (Isa. 9).
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The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined…” (Isa. 9).

Sometimes it is hard to say “I love you.” Perhaps this is because walking in darkness may seem like the most obvious thing about us as human beings. Darkness means that no one can see really well – either themselves or each other. It is why we do not really know where we are going, or what will happen to us, or for that matter were we stand right now. We experience darkness in every kind and level of conflict. [1]

Because understanding this darkness matters to me, this fall I read a book called Tiny Beautiful Things. It is a collection of advice columns by Cheryl Strayed whose pen name is simply “Sugar.” People who usually write this kind of thing for newspapers sound official. They seem detached and in full control. They speak with a definitive, often judgmental voice. They call in expert advisors, use civil language and say almost nothing about themselves.

Sugar does just the opposite of this. Most shockingly she writes vividly about absolutely awful things that have happened in her life including her experience of sexual abuse, addiction, infidelity, divorce, stealing and promiscuity. Like the waitresses I used to know at Denny’s Restaurant she expresses her affection for these desperate letter writers and calls them “sweat pea,” “darling,” and “honey bunch.”

Let me read a quick example of a question that Johnny asked her. He writes, “Dear Sugar, My twenty-year marriage fell apart. Whose fault? Mine? My wife’s? Society’s? I don’t know. We were both too immature to get married… and we both worked hard to avoid dealing with the unhappiness that was hanging over us.”

Since the divorce and after dating a few other women Johnny has found someone whom he “click[s] with very nicely.” But he goes on, “I’m afraid to say it out loud, as my experience shows that the word “love” comes loaded with promises and commitments that are highly fragile and easily broken. My question to you is, when is it right to take that big step and say I love you?” [2] Yes, Johnny knows about darkness. [3]

I do not know where and from what directions you face darkness in your life right now. But let me share a summary of Sugar’s advice to all those who contact her in case it might be useful. First, seek out that friend who shows you some affection and sympathy – you may find that just being called “sweat pea” changes the whole picture. Next, recognize that a sense of entitlement, and the implied superiority behind it, makes us weak and dependent. It cuts us off from the resources that could help us to weather the storm. Chief among these is an extraordinary inner strength that most of us fail to see in ourselves. Finally, recognize that you cannot change other people. The best you can do is to set up healthy boundaries that show you love yourself too.

Sugar points out that two kinds of people write to her: those who have the answer already and those who are genuinely lost. Incidentally, most of us fall into the first category although we do not realize it or are afraid to act on what we do know.

You may be wondering why I am bringing this up on one of the holiest nights of the year. The reason is that in your hearts I want you to touch something real tonight and this doesn’t happen when we deny the dark parts in our life, or only bring our best selves to church.

After the emperor’s decree, after the journey to Bethlehem, after the baby, the angels, the shepherds, the fear, exhaustion, amazement, and joy – there is a quiet moment I especially appreciate. Luke writes, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Lk. 2). Although I love this translation it conceals something that you might not otherwise notice. More literally one might say instead, “Mary preserved these words.” Then for the word ponder the Greek is sumballousa. It means meeting, comparing, considering, bringing together. Mary brought these things together in her heart.”

Sumballousa is also the Greek word for symbol. Mary is the only adult from the stories of Jesus’ birth to have a role in the rest of his life. She puts things together. Most importantly she possesses the special gift of holding on to the meaning of things as others just go back to business as usual.

The linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson have a particular interest in symbol and language. They point out that we live according to expressions, symbols and ideas that lie beneath our conscious awareness. This is the reason we act (to use their words) automatically in so many situations. [4] Our feelings and emotional life are so much more powerful in relation to our rationality than we recognize. We are metaphors that we have not always consciously chosen.

The biggest problem with this is that the meanings of these symbols will not stay fixed. I remember first hearing Adele sing “Chasing Pavements.” Her voice sounded so fresh and different. It seemed like I would never get tired of those songs, but I did. When my mother was in college she listened to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony so many times that it completely lost its magic.

This is the same problem that we have with Christmas and Christianity in general. We are creatures in time, and meaning will not stay still. Perhaps that’s part of Johnny’s problem with saying, “I love you” to someone he cares so much about. I do not want you to miss Christmas so let me tell you about two symbols in particular that have lost their meaning and make this sacred night confusing to us.

1. Sin. Today when you see the word sin it almost always refers to something like chocolate. For us, sin means indulgence in a harmless pleasure – lingerie or ice cream or a cocktail. The only dimly remembered ancient associations of Adam and Eve, the idea that we are doing something that we shouldn’t, only makes it more fun. This is what sin means in our consumer society. That is why normal people find it impossible to understand why Christians would care much at all about sin.

When Christians use the word sin it means to screw things up, to break what we really care about, often for the sake of some far less important and more temporary feeling. It might mean anything from saying something clever at the expense of someone’s feelings to Johnny’s experience with his twenty year marriage. We are the people who walk in darkness. Sin is another word for that darkness, that world of addiction, abuse, broken relationships, hurt feelings, self-defeating behaviors, thoughtless remarks. Self-reflective adults recognize the way that we come up short, that contradictions lie at the very heart of our thoughts and behavior. But we no longer have as rich a vocabulary for recognizing this darkness.

2. Another word that we do not understand today is Christianity. I think that those who never moved beyond a child’s faith and those who never had it at all regard Christianity as a kind of theory about the universe, a child’s story of something that could never happen. Christians might seem like a club of self-righteous people forcing themselves to believe something that is obviously unbelievable.

Francis Spufford in his book Unapologetic writes about a sign that atheists put on London buses a few years ago. It read, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” [5] You see what the problem with this is don’t you? Think of how that sign sounds to my friend whose barely surviving as he takes care of his mentally ill wife, or my other friend who never knows where her homeless and addicted son is sleeping that night, or yet another friend whose partners summarily fired him and took his shares after he put years of his life into the company. Really – just enjoy yourself. What that bus sign says is that if you are in darkness there is no hope.

My point is that the normal state of things is not peace but a surprising amount of darkness. This is why John Lennon’s song “Imagine” has always bugged me. You remember the song, “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try…” He makes it sound as if without religions and countries and possessions everything would be perfectly peaceful. Nothing in my experience confirms this. Living together in peace is not our default condition. Peace is an achievement attained when people are at their wisest and inspired by something great.

For me, church is a bunch of people just like this. We are the ones who screw up. We gather together try to repair what is broken. We depend for help on something beautiful and mysterious lying beyond ourselves. This is what gets us through the darkness. This is the light of Christ, the one whose birth we celebrate tonight.

Luke constantly describes Jesus as a kind of alternative to the Roman emperor, as someone who would risk everything for the sake of love, who would change what it means for all of us to be human.

You may be wondering how Sugar responded to Johnny’s question about when to tell someone that you love them. Sugar said that “love” was the last word that her mother had said to her before dying. She writes, “Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about… It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor, and “loaded with promises and commitments” that we may or may not want to keep.” [6]

In short Sugar tells Johnny to say, “I love you” and then talk about what it means. Don’t try to protect yourself from the junk that comes with love by withholding or avoiding.

This is my first Christmas at Grace Cathedral and it has been magical, like the most extraordinary dream. Today the baby Jesus was fussing in her manger and so I got to hold her for the whole Christmas pageant. She called me off the script and that little baby made time stand completely still. And there I was with light streaming through these stained glass windows, with thousand of others standing simply in the presence of holiness. It was the perfect symbol for how Jesus has interrupted my life.

In the darkness of this night as the symbols around you constantly change, as you mess things up and then try to set the world right, remember Mary’s gift of holding on to meaning over time. Hold on to the hope that Jesus is always with you, then say it, say I love you with your life.
[1] If you are a person who prays, darkness is what you pray about. If you are a person who does not pray, you probably stopped for that same reason. This paragraph is a paraphrases from Frederick Buechner, “Come and See,” The Hungering Dark (NY: Harper, 1969) 50.

[2] Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (NY: Vintage, 2012), 13-18.

[3] Others write to her with agonizing questions: Should I break up with my spouse? What do I do about my “icky” sexual fantasies? Should I continue to support the adult children who live with me? How do I handle parents who reject me because of my sexual orientation? How can I ever by okay after the death of my child?

[4] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980).

[5] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (NY: HarperCollins, 2013), 7.

[6] Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (NY: Vintage, 2012), 15.

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