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Sunday, October 6
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, October 10
Thursday 5:15 p.m. Evensong
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Sunday, October 13
Why Worship?
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17).

  1. Why is it important to go to church? Why do we worship God? We know the answer to this question in an instinctual and subconscious way. But if we are going to talk to anyone about what really matters to us we need to put this into words.

We should be able to talk about why faith matters today as Turkish forces kill our former allies in Northern Syria, as the branches of federal government war against each other, as rolling power outages somehow surprise us into remembering that humans are altering the climate in every place on the planet. Jesus in the Gospel of Luke says a great deal about faith.

In today’s Gospel Jesus travels the last part of his journey to Jerusalem. At the beginning of this trip Jesus and his friends were refused hospitality in a Samaritan village (Lk. 9:51-56). In their humiliation and anger the disciples said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus reprimands them. Obviously they have a long way to go. Worship is not about setting apart good people like us from bad people like them.

Jesus got into trouble in his hometown when he said this at the beginning of his public ministry. That day in the synagogue Jesus alluded to a story about how the prophet Elijah healed Naaman, a foreign general suffering from leprosy. The crowd became so angry that they tried to kill him (Lk. 4). For Jesus worship and faith are not primarily about national or religious identity.

Jesus is clear about this and frequently refers in positive terms to the people his wn nation regard as the enemy – the Samaritans. Who are the Samaritans? They are the northern people who are descendants of intermarriage between Jews who were left behind after elites were exiled in Babylon and the conquering Assyrian invaders. Samaritans shared a similar culture and even some overlapping scripture but worship in a different temple. Although the Samaritans and Jews seem to share so much, the two peoples regarded each other as enemies.[1]

The comedian Trevor Noah in his autobiography Born a Crime points out how our worst conflicts are not with people who we see as completely different from us. We have our most bitter disagreements with people who are somewhat similar but who we perceive as having somehow betrayed our basic principles. This dynamic characterized the situation when Anglicans in Africa condemned the American church for embracing LGBTQ people ten years ago. Our similarities made it a hotter conflict than if we had been completely different.

  1. In the Gospel of Luke As Jesus passes through the borderland between Samaria and Galilee, between his ministry in the countryside and the temple, ten lepers come to meet him. Keeping with the normal practice these outcasts stop at a distance from Jesus and lifting up their voices they call out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Lk. 17). Jesus tells them to go to the temple and present themselves to the priest. As they go they are healed. Nine of them go on but one audacious Samaritan who has been ostracized and cast out does something remarkable. He praises God, comes right up to Jesus, throws himself on the ground and thanks him.

Before we go further I want to point out something that is easy to miss. This language of turning and praising God comes up at important points in the Gospel of Luke as an indicator of faith. At the birth of Jesus, after meeting the holy family, the shepherds “returned glorifying God for all that they had heard and seen” (Lk. 2:20). Then at the very end of the Gospel the disciples, “returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the temple blessing God” (Lk. 24).

This turning and praising God are also what set this foreigner apart. Jesus points out that the others did not return and give praise to God. Jesus seems moved by this courageous Samaritan. He says, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (Lk. 17).

All ten lepers heard Jesus’ instructions. They trusted him and obeyed. But faith is more than hearing, trusting, obeying or even receiving God’s healing. It has something to do with returning and praising God.

  1. Many of us have memorized the summary of faith. We call it the Great Commandment and inherited from our Jewish brothers and sisters (Deut. 6:5ff). It has two dimensions. The first is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.” And the second dimension is that we are to love our neighbor as we love our selves (Lk. 10:27).

When a young lawyer asks Jesus what does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus tells him the story of the Good Samaritan. You remember it. A man is beaten nearly to death by thieves and left by the roadside. His people’s religious leaders pass by on the other side of the road. But the one who his people regard as an enemy, a Samaritan, picks him up and nurses him back to health. A neighbor is one who risks crossing social boundaries to help. In this way Jesus explains the second dimension of the Great Commandment.

If the Good Samaritan is Jesus’ explanation of the second dimension, this story of the Thankful Samaritan is his answer to the first dimension of loving God. We probably hear about the Good Samaritan more often because we live in a society that at some level recognizes the importance of helping our neighbor even if we mostly fail to do it. In modern San Francisco there are plenty of people who would encourage us to be merciful or kind to our neighbor, but far fewer who see why worship, gratitude or praise for God matter.

Many don’t believe in God. They might say that God does not need our prayers. So why do we worship? Why should we return and praise God? For many years psychologists mostly studied various forms of illness. About twenty years ago psychologists like Dacher Keltner in Berekeley began studying happiness more closely.[2] One of their primary conclusions is that happiness and gratitude are intimately connected. In some senses we were created to give thanks. It is our nature to glorify God if you will.

My friend Matt Boulton explains it this way.[3] Imagine a child receiving a meal as a gift prepared by her parents. She might consume it simply as fuel, or take it for granted as a privilege. It might be a matter chiefly of sensual pleasure for her. It might be all of this at once. But if that is it, she has missed something essential. She has not received the gift. She does not understand what really happened.

It is only when she recognizes the meal as a gift and thanks her parents for it, that it becomes what it really is – a blessing for her. Her thanks is part of receiving the gift and understanding their love. It completes the gift, it makes the gift what it really is. Matt says that, “gratitude is the natural echo of grace.”

And that is why we worship. We have received our existence as a gift and it becomes more complete in our recognition of this truth, in returning and praising God. The theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes that keeping the Sabbath day, honoring God in church has two benefits.[4]

First, it allows us to be free from our selves, to rejoice and be in God. If you work a hundred hours a week at Facebook Mark Zuckerberg in effect becomes your god. If you work for yourself you make yourself a kind of god. The Sabbath reminds us that we cannot trust in our own powers but only in the God who is for us. Church helps us know ourselves not in what we do, but through our faith in God.

Second, keeping a holy day, participating in church makes us free for God. It gives us a chance to hear God’s Word and understand what it means for us. Martin Luther writes that the Word of God is a sanctuary above all sanctuaries. Through it Jesus shows us that we are God’s beloved children.

Barth points out that some people say that they find God on the golf course, in nature, a museum, reading a good book or attending the symphony. But all of these are forms of escape. When you come to church you are not merely a passive listener. You become part of this community that God has gathered. Look around you. You didn’t choose these people. God did. Coming here you make yourself open not just to God but to unpredictable contact with others. This experience of worship will change who you are all week long.

Yesterday we had the funeral for Dr. Ron Johnson who has exemplified this ideal of joy and worship and community more than almost anyone. He was the gate of love through which many of us arrived here and the gate of compassion for countless people who died of AIDS. A few weeks ago I saw him. He radiated joy from his deathbed. He said he felt ready to be with God. Deeper than word in his smile I dropped into a mystical understanding of how much Dr. J loves us.

Why do we go to church? We know the answer to this question. At some level we understand the lesson of both the Good Samaritan and the Thankful Samaritan. We come here because living is more than breathing and eating and being respected by others. We come here because we depend on God’s love, because we long to experience the joy of being fully alive. We were made for gratitude. The gift of our life becomes more complete when we rejoice and thank our creator for it. So let us turn and praise God.

 

[1] A great deal of this sermon comes from Matt Boulton, “Thanking is Believing: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for the Eighteenth Week After Pentecost,” SALT, 8 October 2019. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/10/8/thanking-is-believing-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-eighteenth-week-after-pentecost

[2] Dacher Keltner, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (NY: Norton, 2009).

[3] Matt Boulton, “Thanking is Believing: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for the Eighteenth Week After Pentecost,” SALT, 8 October 2019.

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4: The Doctrine of Creation tr. A.T. Mckay, T.H.L. Parker, H Knight, H.A. Kennedy, J. Marks (NY: T & T Clark, 1961) 47-72.

Sunday, October 6
Francis and the Dream of Chivalry
Preacher: Brother Desmond Alban
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‘Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone and anvil is the true-born King of all Britain.’

 I am very grateful to have been invited back to Grace Cathedral this morning just a day after a celebration here of the 100th Anniversary of Franciscan friars in the Episcopal Church.  But why, on this St Francis Sunday, am I opening, not with the scripture, or a quotation from Saintt Francis, or from our own founder Father Joseph, but with a snippet of British folklore?

I was probably about 10 or 11 years old when TH White’s story of Britain’s mythical Once and Future King became my favorite childhood book.  That my middle name, Arthur, was shared by its hero added to the magic.  About the same time, a slim volume of prayers passed on to me by my lay preacher father, introduced me to the magnetic attraction of Saint Francis of Assisi.  This was also, roughly, the close of an era in my life when my otherwise positive school report cards tended to lament a propensity for daydreaming.   

There is a lot more to Francis than birdbaths, animal stories and the words of a beautiful Peace Prayer which, though true to his spirit, he certainly didn’t write.  It is a shame that some of the things he actually did say or write are not better known.    But one remarkable discovery for me as I began to learn more of the lesser-known Francis, was that he and I shared a common subject matter for our childhood dreaming! We both loved the world of true-born kings, knights, minstrels, heralds and heroic quests.  The writings of Francis bear direct witness at certain points to the inspiration he found in the legend of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, as do his early biographers.  Francis’ life reminds us that God can speak to us in our dreams and visions, both literal and metaphorical.  But it reminds us too of the power of the Gospel to transform and rework those dreams in ways that we might never imagine.

A statue of St Francis outside his basilica in Assisi can rather surprise the casual pilgrim.  It does not portray him as the famous, charismatic friar.  Nor is this the fashionably well-dressed youth who was the heart and soul of the of parties of his age-group and social class.  And this is not the young warrior who once set out proudly from Assisi with the best armor and attire that money could buy.  That had happened in Italy in 1204 or 5, not of course in the England of the 1970s, and the dream of actually becoming a knight was for him a credible one.  Francis set out to join the forces of Count Gentile of Manipullo, fighting for the noble cause of the Pope against the Emperor, and it was actually feasible that if he had acquitted himself well he might have been made a knight by the Count, right there on the field of battle.   In a sign, however, of the traits that had always been present in the character of this young man, when he had found an actual knight, but one shabbily and shoddily equipped, Francis had given away his own armor and finery.  Subsequently in two night-time dreams in the city of Spoleto, Francis had received, first, what he thought was a glorious confirmation of all that he had dreamed of ever since he learned the French ballads that told these tales of chivalry: a dream of Francis himself, feasting in a fine castle with knights that were somehow his knights.  But the second dream challenged him to a radical reinterpretation of what that glory and call really was, a challenge to let go of all that he thought was his deepest desire and hope for his future.  The statue depicts Francis returning to Assisi having never reached the battlefield, slumped over on his horse, lacking the finery with which he had set out, returning covered not with glory but with confusion and bewilderment, engaged in a process of  radical disillusionment, the literal loss of an illusion that had been cheered by his family and friends as he had set out earlier.

That was just one of a series of incidents that turned Francis’ life upside down.  But through them all, he began to realize that the fashionable ideal of knightly chivalry that had gripped the wealthy young men of Europe was a poor shadow of a far greater spiritual reality.  According to the modern Franciscan author, Brother Mark of Whitstable, Francis ‘re-invented the ideal of chivalry through a kind of inversion’.  Feudal pride was subsumed by the ideal of humility.  Knightly quests were replaced by long and hazardous journeys across Europe preaching the gospel.  The sword was displaced by a message of peace and reconciliation. And the very status of knighthood itself gave way to Francis and his brothers calling themselves the Friars Minor or Lesser Brothers, identifying themselves firmly with the underclass, the minore of medieval Italy.  Unlike the rich young man in our Gospel, who turned away from the call of Jesus with such sadness, the rich young man of Assisi found perfect joy in giving away everything to live in the freedom of the gospel.

Now part of the attraction of the legend of King Arthur, for me as for Francis, was the fellowship of the Round Table, the wonderful solidarity of those brothers in arms, celebrating the heroic deeds of each and all, holding one another in mutual honor and respect.  But what a limited fraternity, not least in the restricted, gendered sense of that term!  In English at least, it is very difficult to find a truly inclusive term for a concept like Fraternity or Sorority.   By the end of his life Francis’ vision of who, or what was his Sister or Brother had expanded to include… everything.  Not just those close to him or sharing a faith with him.  Not just human beings.  Not even just animals.  It is appropriate that we honor the Christ-light in animals by bringing them to Church today for a blessing, but not only because there are some cute stories about Saint Francis and the animals.  For some years as a Brother I had on my wall poster that had been issued to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, portraying a kind of evolutionary family tree linking the whole variety of animal and plant life.   It became the subject of contemplative reflection for me.  I believe Saint Francis would have loved the theory of Evolution, once he’d got over the shock of it.  All living things really are, in effect, sisters and brothers.  My own scientific field was not biology – I used to teach High School Physics and Astronomy – but many who have followed Francis, especially those writing today, have explored our connection, our common origins, not only with all living things but in stars and galaxies as well as the connectedness of the tiniest particles in the quantum behavior of matter itself.  Francis himself, writing in the last years of his life recognized not only living things as his sisters and brothers but also Mother Earth, Brother Sun, Sister Water, Brother Fire, even Sister Death.  His great poem – the first to be written in vernacular Italian – is best known in English as the hymn All Creatures of our God and King.  The relevance to our present world crisis needs no further exposition.

But loving Christ in the whole created order is sometimes easier than loving other people! That is why I also want to highlight one other incident in the life of Francis, one that took place a few years before the end of his life, and one that is again highly relevant to the social and political currents of our present culture.

One truly terrible consequence, in part perhaps, of the idolization of chivalry in the time of Francis, was the appalling ideology of the Christian Crusades.  But these terrible events provided the context for one of the most significant quests of Francis’ transformed chivalry – and one that illustrates how having your dreams challenged and reformed, is not something that happens just once, but is rather an ongoing process.

When Francis arrived in a Crusader Camp in Egypt in 1219, he did not do so, like the Cardinal Pelagius who was also there, to urge the soldiers on against the Muslim enemy.  He was done with holy war!  Crossing the front lines with a companion, at enormous jeopardy to both of them, his mission rather was to seek an audience with Sultan Malik Al Kamil.  Now actually, I don’t believe that when he set out Francis was motivated, 800 years ahead of our time, by some progressive vision of interfaith dialogue.  But that is partly what makes what happened next so remarkable.  His dreams had, indeed, already changed at least once.  He no longer had a vision of military glory, fighting for the forces of God against the powers of darkness.  But I do believe that the dream with which he set out to Damietta was not the same as the vision with which he returned.  On setting out, either of two outcomes would have been OK for Francis.  The best, his first intention, would have been the conversion of the Sultan and his people.  The crusades would surely end when everyone had become Christian!  The second, a very real possibility, and one fulfilled in some of his brothers in Morocco the following year, would have been the spiritual glory of a martyr’s death.  But the Sultan was not converted.  And Francis was not martyred.  From the perspective of those dreams, the quest was a failure.

The historically attested story of the Sultan and the Saint was told in a 2016 film, screened last year on PBS and produced by the Unity Productions Foundation, a team of American Muslim scholars with those from other faith backgrounds.  It describes how the Sultan allowed Francis to preach freely, and how the two spent some days together.  One of those who speak in the film is Franciscan friar and historian Michael Cusato, who comments, ‘I believe… watching Muslims pray, men and women, five times daily… really struck Francis unexpectedly. I believe it profoundly moved him.’  Sister Kathleen Warren adds, ‘The respect they had for each other spoke volumes to Francis that this, indeed, was not an enemy, this was not a beast, but this was truly a brother.’

The siege, tragically, and to the disgust of Francis, continued after the meeting between the two men, with the Crusaders wiping out 80,000 people in Damietta, and the Sultan forced to retreat.  The balance of power was dramatically reversed later when the Crusaders found themselves bogged down in flood waters and mud, surrounded and starving.  The Sultan could have let them die, or sent his soldiers in for an easy kill, but instead he sent his enemies food, and feed for their animals.  Many lives were saved and both sides returned home.  What we know as the love and mercy of God revealed in Christ was not confined to just one of the men in this encounter.

I mentioned earlier that there are prayers and devotions written by Francis which are not well known.  I thought it beautiful when I realized that some of those prayers, and some of the particular devotions practiced by Franciscans and later by other Western Christians, show the clear possibility that they were influenced and inspired by the devotions and practices of Muslims observed by Francis in Egypt.

At a time when so many leaders in our public life seek to make political capital by stirring up our fears of those who may be different to ourselves, we need that discovery of the primary unity of all people as our sisters and brothers.  And all of us, throughout our lives, need to remain open to the challenge and invitation to have our dearest dreams radically transformed, and retransformed, as we learn to encounter ever more deeply the God of love revealed by Christ in unexpected people and unexpected places.

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, February 7
Desiring the pleasure of God
Preacher: The Rev. Andy Lobban
The upcoming season of Lent invites us to practice fasting, prayer, and giving. When we remember the underlying purpose of these disciplines, they can be to us vehicles for experiencing the joy of God in ways we have never yet known.
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The upcoming season of Lent invites us to practice fasting, prayer, and giving. When we remember the underlying purpose of these disciplines, they can be to us vehicles for experiencing the joy of God in ways we have never yet known.

Tuesday, February 2
Yoga Introduction
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Malcolm's introduction from Tuesday night's Yoga class.
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Malcolm’s introduction from Tuesday night’s Yoga class.

Sunday, January 31
The True Home that Beckons: Annual Meeting
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13).
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The Sermon from Sunday’s 11 a.m. Eucharist.

Sunday, January 24
Letting Go and Levinas
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom" (Lk. 4).
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The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.

“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom” (Lk. 4).

In our recent move we threw away stacks of children’s art projects (cards that said “Daddy I Love You”!), letters and photographs from friends who have died, old toys, clothes, and picture books. It hurt to leave things that represented our kids’ childhood at the curb. We held tightly to those objects. They tenuously connected us to a whole stage of life that is now gone.

In a sense, our material things come to own us, but our opinions and thoughts, they seem like they are us. How much harder it is to leave these at the curb. So often we act as if the spiritual life consists primarily in adding new disciplines, and responsibilities when what we most need to learn is to let go, to give over our life to God. What do we need to let go in order to find our home in God? What do we leave behind when we live in Christ?

1. Text. We follow a three-year cycle in our Sunday readings. This year we focus on the theology of Luke. Luke uses the most complex Greek vocabulary and syntax of the Gospel writers. He feels at home in the cosmopolitan world of the Roman Empire. He also has a very clear idea about what it means to follow Jesus. The theology that lies at the heart of his Gospel is exemplified in Jesus’ first public act of ministry.

After being baptized and then tempted in the wilderness Jesus returns to the area around his home. Through his teachings he becomes “doxazomenous upo panton.” This word doxa is related to our word doxology. It means praise and at first Jesus is praised by all. But then he returns to Nazareth, where he was “tethrammenos” we would translate it as “where he was raised,” or where he grew up. The Greek word trepho literally means where he was fed or nurtured. The very cells and physical material of his body came from the food grown on the hills outside of town. Luke emphasizes that these are his people.

By this point Jesus has established his routine. He reads scripture to the congregation and then in accordance with the ancient teaching practice he sits to explain what it means. He chooses to read the prophet Isaiah. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Lk. 4). We have only half the story this week with the rest next coming next Sunday. I’m going to spoil next week’s surprise.

After his reading, after his teaching, the crowds try to kill Jesus by throwing him off a cliff. Why do they become so angry? Let me suggest three possibilities. First, you might think that the idea that he has a special mission to the poor and oppressed was controversial. In response, I would say that his audience would have been familiar with this theme from the ancient prophets. Furthermore, they were likely to regard themselves as the poor whom God favors. Second, the crowd could have been angry over the suggestion that he is the anointed one or the messiah. However, directly after making this statement, Luke writes, “[a]ll spoke well of him” (Lk. 4). Luke wants us to see that what really angers the crowd is Jesus’ rejection of a special obligation to his own people. Jesus refers to Old Testament stories in which God heals gentiles (non-Jewish people) and points out that during those times faithful Jews were allowed to die. This infuriated his hometown.

At the center of Luke’s faith lies the impossible idea that God’s love is for all people regardless of kinship, nationality, religion, social status or any other claim that we might make for special treatment. According to Luke we have to give up our tribe when we follow Jesus.

The Apostle Paul deeply believes this too. The most important fact for people living in the Roman Empire must have been its rigid social stratification. And yet Paul writes, “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free… we were made to drink of the same spirit” (1 Cor. 12). He calls those who follow Jesus one body. Some Romans thought that Christians drank blood and sacrificed children. But what really shocked them most was that a man and a woman, a senator and a slave could treat each other as equals.

2. Doctrine. The twentieth century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) has helped me to understand the meaning of Luke’s teaching for our own time. Growing up as a Jew in the Russian Empire in what is now Lithuania, Levinas experienced the 300th anniversary celebration of the Romanov dynasty and the Russian revolutions of 1917. He began an academic career in the French-speaking world going on to serve in the French army during World War Two. After his unit was captured in 1940, he spent the rest of the war reading and writing in a prisoner of war camp. Although his wife and daughter were safely hidden in a monastery, the Nazis killed most of his family.

Levinas’ philosophy may be difficult to understand. Let me begin with the context. In the twentieth century philosophers called positivists believed that the only kind of knowledge that really counts is what can be proven by science. You may be one step ahead of me in wondering if science can prove that science is the only reliable knowledge, but that is roughly what they believed. In contrast to this kind of approach, Emmanuel Levinas believed that there is far more to experience than thinking (“cogito”).

Instead of beginning with a theory about how the world is (ontology), or what we know about the world (epistemology), we need to start with our experience (or how the “world shows up for us” to use an expression from Werner Erhard). According to Levinas, the idea that we need to throw out is that we can have more confidence about abstract notions of logic or reason than in the simple experience of another person’s need. For this reason he calls ethics “first philosophy.” [i]

Levinas writes that we try to think beyond what can be thought. But that does not mean it has to remain completely inaccessible. “[T]he idea of the infinite or my relation to God, comes to me in the concreteness of my relation to the other [person]… [in my} responsibility for the neighbor.” [ii] We experience this infinite, this connection to God, through another person’s face. It makes a demand on us. It creates an obligation that we cannot ignore.

We make constant judgments based on other people’s faces, we respond with unconscious prejudices. But for Levinas, another person’s face reveals infinitely more than we are able to take in. [iii] He calls this an epiphany, our only chance to grasp the infinite. It is the way that the holy presents itself to us.

For this reason Levinas frequently quotes Alyosha Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov who says, “We are all responsible for everyone else – but I am more responsible than all the others.” [iv] All thought, all experience, all goodness and holiness begins in our obligation to the other person. Let me move on to one way that Levinas’ philosophy changes how I experience the world.

3. Application. The struggle to realize Luke and Paul’s ideal continues today. The Anglican Communion is the third largest Christian body in the world. Grace Cathedral participates in this fellowship. We Anglicans do not have an international hierarchy or a pope. Each national church chooses its own leaders, makes its own decisions and prays in its own way. No foreign bishop, not even the Archbishop of Canterbury, has any jurisdiction in America at all.

For ten years, some of the other Anglican churches have felt alarmed by our new policies supporting gay marriage. Last week the primates, that is, the heads of the various churches chose to exclude the American branch from participating on high level Anglican committees for three years. I do not completely understand the politics of the whole decision, but I do know that Americans feel hurt and excluded.

For Levinas each vulnerable face reveals far more than I can ever take in and becomes my chance to experience God. Praying about this has changed my understanding of the Anglican infighting. These days I have been wondering about what has led other Anglicans to condemn our church. I have asked myself what pain and fear oppresses their souls.

But even more importantly, Levinas has helped me to see the most defenseless faces, to hear the powerless voices who hardly seem to be part of this conversation. GLBT people suffer terribly around the world. Their love is criminalized. They are beaten, imprisoned and persecuted. They are forbidden from being themselves. Yes, the American church will not be allowed to participate in meetings, but these children of God are losing their lives.

I began by talking about how hard it is to throw away the extra things that our family has accumulated over the years. Although so many of these objects seem to preserve our connection to the past, they are no longer useful today. Just as with those things, we also carry ideas and opinions that no longer serve us.

In this process the Buddhist teacher Timber Hawkeye encourages us to keep asking ourselves which of our thoughts arise out of fear and which come from love. He quotes the eighth century Buddhist monk Shantideva who says, “All happiness in the world stems from wanting others to be happy, and all suffering in the world stems from wanting the self to be happy.” [v]

The theology of Luke and Paul that God loves every creature does not come easy to us. It is hard to let go of the thought that we need to help ourselves first and then the people who are most like us. It is difficult to imagine that what really matters in life might not be scarce after all. I do not expect that we will always recognize another person’s face as an epiphany, but we can begin to look more closely in each other for the infinite, for the holy, for the meaning that will always exc
[i] This experience of the Other is more central than Rene Descartes’ question about what knowledge can we regard as reliable.

[ii] Emmanuel Levinas, Of God Who Comes to Mind. Tr. Bettina Bergo (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), xiv.

[iii] The word “face” refers to, “the way in which the presentation of the other to me exceeds all idea of the other in me Emmanuel Levinas, The Levinas Reader. Tr. Seán Hand (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1989), 5.

[iv] Emmanuel Levinas, The Levinas Reader. Tr. Seán Hand (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1989), 1.

[v] Timber Hawkeye, Buddhist Boot Camp (NY: HarperOne, 2013), 4.

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.

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