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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, November 29
Beginners’ mind and enders’ mind
Preacher: The Rev. Andy Lobban
When we allow ourselves to experience life as being brand new or in its final stage, we uncover the glorious mystery of how much we matter in God's economy.
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When we allow ourselves to experience life as being brand new or in its final stage, we uncover the glorious mystery of how much we matter in God’s economy.

Sunday, November 22
Are you the King? Pilate’s Question and Ours
Preacher: The Rev. Jude Harmon
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sermon from Sunday’s 11 a.m. Eucharist.

Sunday, November 15
The Place Where We Are Right
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds encouraging one another as you see the Day approaching" (Heb. 10).
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The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.

It is hard. It is hard to understand what happened in Baghdad, Beirut and Paris this week. Ordinary people like you and I casually went to see friends at a stadium, at a funeral, in a concert hall, cafes, restaurants and streets. [1] Total strangers indiscriminately killed them. I guess that is the point of this kind of violence. One person shows how intensely he cares about politics by murdering someone who has almost nothing to do with his grievances. The very arbitrariness of the act is intended to strike fear in the hearts of whole groups of people.

Do not forget that each of the ones we lost was a perfectly unique child of God. Each was filled with beauty, grace, goodness and potential that came into being just once in the history of the whole universe. Their mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, children and friends will never forget Friday. They will never be quite okay ever again.

We find ourselves in that moment when we have to choose what events like this will mean to us. Again we have to decide what we will do, how we will live and who we will be.

Twenty years before the birth of Jesus, King Herod the Great began reconstructing the Temple in Jerusalem. It cost many fortunes and became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The Temple stood on a great platform of more than 900 by 1,500 feet. This made it twice as large as the Roman Forum with all its temples. It was four times as large as the Athenian Acropolis and its Parthenon. The retaining walls included forty foot long white stones the remains of which you can still see today. [2]

The ancient historian Josephus writes that the 150 foot square front of the temple had so many gold and silver decorations that on sunny days it nearly blinded anyone who looked at it. Pilgrims approaching the temple could see it from miles and miles away.

You can imagine how this might strike one of Jesus’ disciples. A peasant from rural Galilee would have been amazed. He would regard the temple as God’s dwelling place at the center of the world, the very symbol of the Holy One’s connection to the people. How shocking it is for Jesus to respond to his awe saying, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mk. 13).

Later Jesus goes on to warn “Beware that no one leads you astray… When you hear wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place but the end is still to come.” [3]

As Christians we have to decide what these words will mean to us. I think that there are three obvious options. First, one might interpret this passage simply as Jesus’ prediction about the Jewish Temple. In the beginning of August in the year 70 Titus conquered the city of Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. We could regard Jesus simply as someone who understood human nature and groups well enough to make accurate predictions about the future.

Second, many other Christians believe that these statements are about the end of the world, when everything will be destroyed to make room for God’s new creation. Some American Christians make predictions about the end. They let their imaginations run wild taking them far beyond what the Bible actually says.

I do not know if the point is that Jesus accurately predicted the results of the First Jewish-Roman War or how the world will end. I do believe that there is a kind of ongoing destruction over time that happens as God’s Word continues to permeate human experience. God’s Kingdom breaks down every structure, every human institution, every form of oppression until we are free. Jesus unleashed a power into our world and we still can barely fathom all of its implications.

I wonder if you can answer this question: what was the most controversial Christian doctrine at the beginning of the church during the first centuries? [4] From those years we have different historical accounts of what their Roman neighbors thought about Christian teachings. So what do you think offended them the most? You might be thinking about conflicts over whether Jesus was essentially divine or human, miracles, Mary, divine healing, the body and blood of Christ, infant baptism or bodily resurrection.

According to the Romans the most radical and controversial Christian doctrine was the idea that every person matters. Even after twenty centuries of proclaiming this truth it still is incredibly controversial. ISIS does not believe it. Our modern democracies only partly believe it. Even today the spirit unleashed by Jesus leads to surprising, radical revolutions.

This weekend Alan Jones and I were talking about the tendency to romanticize Greek and Roman culture. Alan cites a letter from Hilarion, an ancient Roman man who moved away from his wife and child for work. The author (a laborer at Oxyrhnychos) clearly cares about his wife. At the end of the letter he tenderly writes “You told Aphrodisias, ‘Do not forget me.’ How can I forget you? I beg you therefore not to worry.” But he also writes about what she should do if it turns out she is pregnant. He orders her, “If it is a boy let it live. If it is a girl expose it” (P.Oxy 4.744). There was no place in his heart for a girl, or for the idea that his wife could have any voice in this matter.

The Romans enjoyed watching people get torn apart by wild animals and gladiators. They owned slaves. The family patriarch had absolute control over those under his authority in matters of sex, life and death. The Romans would crucify hundreds of slaves along the road just to intimidate the others. But Alan pointed out that what most offended the Emperor Julian (331-363) was that in a Christian assembly a senator might find himself sitting next to a slave.

In this context the idea that who you are as citizen or foreigner, free or slave, male or female, rich or poor is of secondary importance to being a child of God – this idea is still revolutionary. Human beings have not completely discovered exactly what this means. We are not very attractive and certainly do not deserve it but God is madly in love with us. Alan said that the monks at The College of the Resurrection (Mirfield) talked about “how disgusting it is that God so lacks taste as to really love everyone.”

David Bentley Hart (1965-) is a contemporary theologian who writes about the contrast between Christian thought and modern atheist philosophers like Friedrich Nieztsche (1844-1900). Hart points out that in the modern postmodern world many sophisticated people believe that there is nothing more than power. When you probe how they think and talk you will discover that they believe that power is what we all long for, that power and those who have it write the stories that ultimately determines what is true. For them, beneath power, there is nothing more than power.

Hart writes, “the difference between two narratives: [is] one… finds the grammar of violence inscribed upon the foundation stone of every institution and hidden within the syntax of every rhetoric, and [the other] claims that within history a way of reconciliation has been opened that leads beyond, and ultimately overcomes, all violence.” [5]

I love what Hart writes later. He says, “We are music moved to music… partaking in the inexhaustible goodness of God… the restless soul, immersed in the spectacle of God’s glory, is drawn without break beyond the world to the source of its beauty, to embrace the infinite.” [6] The twentieth century writer Dorothy Sayers describes Dante’s Divine Comedy as the drama of the soul’s choice between good and evil. She writes that we put ourselves with God or far from God, and where we are tells us who we are. To quote Alan once again, “we become what we are by choosing and the Good News is that God chooses us.”

Mahatma Gandhi says my religion is kindness. The New Testament states that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8, 16). Every moment we have the chance to choose love, to choose God.

So how will you live in that love? How will you prevent yourself from becoming another kind of terrorist, that is, a sort of mirror image of the terrorist – someone who merely differs in one’s belief about who needs to be protected and who is dispensable?

People who try to be citizens of God’s kingdom begin with humility, with letting God be God.

The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) expresses this in his poem “The Place Where We Are Right.”

“From the place where we are right

Flowers will never grow

In the spring.

The place where we are right

Is hard and trampled

Like a yard.

But doubts and loves

Dig up the world

Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be hear in the place

Where the ruined

House once stood.” [7]

It is hard. It is hard to understand what happened in Paris this week. It is difficult for us to move from the place where we are right, the place of easy answers, the place that is hard and trampled. It is hard when we feel like our world is being dug up, and not one stone will be left on another.

But a way of reconciliation has been opened. And we can hear the whisper in the place where the ruined house once stood.

Yes, we are music moved by music as the inexhaustible goodness of God draws us to embrace the infinite. So let us, by choosing, become what we are and live in God’s love.
[1] Adam Nossiter, Aurelien Breeden and Nicola Clark, “Paris Attacks Were an ‘Act of War’ by ISIS, Hollande Says,” The New York Times, 14 November 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/world/europe/paris-terrorist-attacks.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=span-abc-region&region=span-abc-region&WT.nav=span-abc-region

[2] These three paragraphs from A. Katherine Grieb, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, 11 November 2015, 20.

[3] “[T]he sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven” (Mk. 13).

[4] I’m very indebted to conversations with Alan Jones (November 12-14, 2015) for most of this sermon from Hilarion to Yehuda Amichai.

[5] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2003), 2.

[6] Ibid., 195.

[7] http://daysofawe.net/shebotzodkim.htm

Sunday, November 8
Hiding Death
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on" (Mk. 12).
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The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.

“She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk. 12).

Your heart beats seventy-two times per minute for 1,440 minutes a day. That is 103,680 beats per day, 37,843,200 beats per year, 2,936,632,320 in the average person’s lifetime. [i] This small part of your body, this fist sized piece of flesh, can never rest. Without it we quickly die. Life is precarious and fragile. Death lies so near to our bodies, and yet strangely, so far from our thoughts.

When the Buddha was born, prophets told his father that he would either be the world conqueror or the world savior. As a king himself the Buddha’s father longed for his son to be a conqueror. But he knew that this would only be possible if his son never awakened.

So the father gave his son everything – unimaginable wealth, palaces, music, art and luxury. But to prevent his son from waking up spiritually, the father hid from him all evidence of poverty, disease, old age and death. He knew that if his son never experienced suffering he would never gain spiritual insight.

In his secret visits to the town outside the palace walls the young Buddha saw a diseased person, a decaying corpse and a religious ascetic. These experiences in themselves were not enough to awaken him spiritually but they did provoke him to leave home and follow the spiritual path. This led ultimately to the bodhi tree under which he sat when he attained enlightenment. The Buddha discovered a new relation to suffering.

In many respects our culture functions much like the Buddha’s father. It hides death and suffering from us. Our hospitals have special corridors and elevators so that we do not ever have to encounter a dead body. Modern American life is so segregated by age that unless young people are part of a church they will not even know an old person who is not related to them. We hide death from ourselves and we are unenlightened.

This week I was talking about how sad it is to see severely mentally people on the streets in this city. It breaks my heart that we cannot do more to take care of them, to provide them with food, clothes, healthcare and safe shelter. At the same time I wonder if seeing them on the street in part upsets us because so much of the other suffering in life has been hidden.

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) composed his requiem between 1887 and 1890. Someone has called it a “lullaby of death.” The beauty of this work allows us to hold death in a different way. It reminds us of those who went before us so that we can more honestly consider what it is that we are leaving behind.

Death reminds us that we have choices when it comes to deciding how to live. In the gospel Jesus compares two kinds of people. These are really two paths each of us take at different times.

On the one hand he warns, “Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues” (Mk. 12). These are the people who crave attention and respect. They long to be regarded as superior to other. All of us have an ugly voice in our thoughts that looks for ways that we can feel offended.

In the readings for Ash Wednesday Jesus emphtaically teaches us to do good things for their own sake and not “in order to be seen” by others (Mt. 6:1). We should linger a little over the Greek word for “best seats.” It is protokathedrias, literally the first chair. A cathedral is built around that first chair. This hierarchy is a pretty deep part of cathdral culture and we need to be especially conscious of it. We should not be mistake all human life has variations of the first class lounge.

In contrast to this Jesus commends a widow who puts a few pennies into the temple treasury. This woman does not care about looking good. She gives because it is the right thing to do and she gives generously. Jesus says, “For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk. 12). In Greek she gives “holon ton bion.” We know the word bios from our “biology.” This widow not holding back anything, gives her whole life.

In Jewish theology the word yetzer refers to two competing tendencies, inclinations or impulses. One yetzer, yetzer ra is to selfishness, pride, the desire to satisfy one’s own needs without thinking of others. This is not evil, It is merely the tendency that makes us long for special treatment and honors. The second yetzer is yetzer tov. It leads us to empathy, compassion and righteousness. The purpose of God’s law is to remind us which of these tendencies we should encourage. [ii]

I have a friend named Russ Toll who seems to always live out of his yetzer tov. Like the widow he does not hold anything back but shares his holon ton bion, his life, to every noble activity he undertakes. This hulking man who seems so gentle with his toddler and infant sons served as a tank commander in Iraq. He saw terrible things there and still feels haunted by the friends he lost.

He once talked about visiting the body of a fellow soldier in a funeral home. “The strangest part is, you’re looking at his face and thinking about all your memories, and a smell hits you. It’s not the burning grass, rain, livestock smell of Iraq, but old formaldehyde. It really blurs your memory and your reality.” [iii]

Russ rarely talks about this pain. These days he is a doctoral student in neuroscience at Stanford. God has done so much to heal him. Russ’s message now is simply, “If I were to give a recommendation for what people should do on Veteran’s Day, I would say to take five minutes to just sit on a bench somewhere and look around you.” See what God has made and what what those before have added to creation. Give thanks.

This week I hope that the fear of death will not prevent you from coming closer to enlightment, to knowing how blessed this life God gives is. I pray that in a moment of sanctity between you and God you discover something worth giving your life to. I pray that your yesher tov prevails over your yesher ra.

I pray that in the busyness of these days you have the chance to listen to your heart.

[i] Assuming a life expectancy of 77.6 years.

[ii] From Jack Crossley and http://www.jewfaq.org/human.htm

[iii] Niuniu Teo, “Veterans Day Vignettes,” The Stanford Daily, 11 November 2012.

Sunday, November 1
Teach them Gratitude
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"See I am making all things new" (Rev. 21). "Unbind him and let him go" (Jn. 11). "Let us be glad and rejoice" (Isa. 25).
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The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.

“See I am making all things new” (Rev. 21). “Unbind him and let him go” (Jn. 11). “Let us be glad and rejoice” (Isa. 25).

What does God want for you and for the children we baptize today? What stands in our way, how are we constrained or bound up, unable to be free?

My friend the Bible scholar Herman Waetjen has a wonderful interpretation of that moment in the Gospel of John when Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.” [1] After Lazarus has been in the grave for four days, after he has been brought back to life, he still needs help from the community of people who care for him. He needs to be unbound. At many points in our life we do too.

For me religion is not so much about dogma or doctrine. It is not a requirement to think or believe certain things. It does not oblige you to feel sorry for what you have done in the past, nor is it mostly a promise to make better choices in the future. Instead, at its very heart, faith frees us. It is a gropu of people who help each other to become unbound. This happens in the experience of thankfulness to the Holy One, to the power which brings us into being and sustains us in love.

Religion at its best gives us both a direction to be thankful and practice in cultivating gratitude. In this way faith helps make it possible to receive the gifts that otherwise might be invisible to us.

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saint’s. We give thanks for all the people who came before us, for those who personally nurtured and sheltered us spiritually. We even bless God for those forgotten people who wrote scriptures, created art and built sacred spaces like this so that we would know God. We bless those who in their lives and words preserved the knowledge of God that enriches us.

So the short answer to my first question is that God wants us to be happy. Strangely enough we lay claim to this in our gratitude. I am not alone in this conviction.

Six years ago I first met Christine Carter a sociologist at UC Berkeley. [2] She taught me that for decades social scientists studied individual and social problems like mental illness and persistent poverty. For years they were so dedicated to solving questions about how to heal suffering that they did not ask about what conditions make people thrive. Then they realized that not suffering is different than being happy. And so less than twenty years ago they began studying the causes of human happiness.

This research led them to the conclusion that less than half of our happiness comes from our individual genetic predisposition. In other words the the choices we make have a huge influence on our sense of satisfaction and joy. We can establish habits that bring out our better selves. We can live the stories that give meaning and help us to make the world better.

Christine claims that happiness is not an emotion but a skill that we can learn. Happiness is not something that simply happens to us when we are lucky. It is more like a muscle that we keep strong through exercise. It is a learned behavior, that arises out of habits we decide to cultivate.

The practice of gratitude – to family, strangers and God – lies at the heart of happiness. I do not know how she measures these things but Christine claims that people actively practicing gratitude feel better than others. They are 20% happier. They exercise more, sleep better, and are more likeable. They are more supportive, attentive, persistent, stronger, and socially intelligent. They have a higher sense of self worth.

Christine has very practical suggestions for how to cultivate gratitude. For instance, she says that having meals together as a family is more important than reading to your child. If you are a single person, look for ways to break bread with other people, maybe even those who you meet here. Over meals we weave the stories that make sense of our lives. These can be gripes about minor ways that others have inadvertently offended us or life giving accounts about how God continues to bless us.

For entirely secular reasons Christine recommends that people say grace together before meals. Our brains are giant filters of the world and saying out loud what we are thankful for helps us to attend to blessings that we might easily overlook. When we thank God our blessings become more real to us.

We live in a crazy time and place. Sometimes it feels like we are trapped in the abundance paradox. That is when the more you have, the more disappointment you feel when you don’t get what you want. In many respects gratitude is the opposite of entitlement. It leads to the kind of compassion that social scientists say is so close to happiness that your body reacts to it in almost exactly the same way.

Even more important, gratitude is the way we live in the presence and reality of God. I’m new here and received very stern instructions that with all the baptisms I should preach for only half as long as I usually do.

But before closing I want to tell you about my favorite film. It is called Here and Now. The trailer says, “The average wave lasts six seconds. The rest of the day is spent getting there. This is that day.” The producer Taylor Steele enlisted more than 25 surfers and photographers to record a single twenty-four hour period on May 2, 2012. In hundreds of of seconds long clips we see the surfers sleeping, waking, eating, training, making music, laughing with friends in places around the world.

Two of them arrive by boat at a remore location on the south shore of Maui to find almost no waves but good fishing. Others compete in a Southern California contest. Another surfs barreling, left-breaking waves alone just beyond the woods in British Columbia. I love the idea that at every moment somewhere someone is riding a wave.

It took me a long time to realize it but surfing is not even about the waves. [3] On one day it might be a line of pelicans coming through the fog, or the light on the water at dawn or a dolphin in the coolness of the water at the beginning of a hot summer day, or the way a million rain drops can seem suspended above the ocean in the semi-darkness of a December day.

People ask me if I write sermons out there. I don’t. All I think about is getting into position for the next wave. The most important thing in surfing is the present moment. It is being able to see and receive the gift that God is giving you right then. It is the practice of gratitude that opens the door to the mystery of our being.

I want to conclude with a quote from the theologian Kallistos Ware. He says, “It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.” [4]

“Let us be glad and rejoice” (Isa. 25)!

[1] “Lazarus has responded to Jesus’ bellowing summons, “Come forth.” But in order to be free he needs the gracious aid and helping hand of those around him. Jesus’ liberation from the death of the living and the death of the dying requires a two-fold response: the act of Lazarus himself to hear and exit, but also the caring involvement of his community.” Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005), 283.

[2] Christine Carter, “Raising Happiness,” Lecture at Christ Episcopal Church, Los Altos, California, 20 October 2009.

[3] I learned from Mike Lawler that surfing is not just about the physical act of riding waves. It is about history, culture, music, science, meteorology, art and style that surfers pass down between the generations.

[4] Cited in Donald Schell, “Treasures New and Old, Tradition and Gospel-Making: Reflections on Principles Learned at St. Gregory of Nyssa, and How These Principles Might Apply in Other Contexts,” Forthcoming lecture at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, November 2015, 8.

Sunday, October 25
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Dr. Randal Gardner
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sermon from Sunday’s 11 a.m. Eucharist.

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