Sermons For These Times
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mk. 1).
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) wrote the following words in the middle of the twentieth century. “The rain I am in is not like the rain of cities. It fills the woods with an immense and confused sound. It covers the flat roof of the cabin and its porch with insistent and controlled rhythms. And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer.”
“I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain… The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies…”
“What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world…”
Merton quotes the 5th century Syrian mystic Philoxenos (d. 523) who writes, “You too go out into the desert having with you nothing of the world, and the Holy Spirit will go with you. See the freedom with which Jesus has gone forth, and go forth like Him.”
This is one way of summarizing the spirit of Mark’s Gospel. In this Gospel Jesus frequently retreats like this to the wilderness for periods of prayer and renewal. He seems to instinctively know that as in the story of Noah, God’s covenant is not just with human beings but with “every living creature,” and all creation (Gen. 9). Of the four gospels Mark uses the most compact, direct and simple language. He speaks in a forceful, abrupt, and repetitive way that is difficult to appreciate in translation.
My friend the New Testament scholar Herman Waetjen says that it is written in the “Hellenistic Greek of the uneducated lower-class residents of the rural countryside.” More importantly he points out that Mark is not writing a biography of Jesus. This is not intended to be a documentary record of the past (in the style of someone like Ken Burns).
Instead this is an aesthetic literary creation. Like a novel it forms its own world. Although Mark uses materials from the first century (places, ideas, political relations, forms of life), his world is not the past world. In many respects it is more connected to us and to our story than an ancient history could be. It is a story of us.
Mark writes about Jesus coming from an obscure, even despised region and being baptized by John in the Jordan River. The heavens are ripped apart. A voice says, “you are my son, the beloved, with you I am well-pleased.” This spirit immediately drives Jesus into the wilderness where he is “with the wild beasts and the angels minister to him.” John is arrested. Jesus returns to the Galilean countryside and gives his first sermon.
In this symbolically important statement Jesus says four things: 1. The time is fulfilled, 2. The kingdom of God has come near, 3. Repent, 4. Believe in the good news. Let me talk briefly about what each of these statements might mean today.
- The time is fulfilled. This week the people around me are at a breaking point. They are talking to me because they have had enough. They are sick of being at home, of working remotely, of having businesses and schools closed. They desperately miss seeing their friends and loved ones. A few people this week told me the same thing, “I just can’t take this anymore.”
And to us Jesus says, “the time is fulfilled.” Whatever it is that you enjoy about this strange COVID time, make the most of it, because soon it will be a faded memory. Whatever you want to accomplish during these days, whoever you wish to connect with by phone, do it now because these days will not last. We’re not going back to the way it was before and it certainly won’t be like this for long. This is true of any historical moment and is especially the case right now.
- The kingdom of God has come near. During his lifetime, the Roman Catholic church banned the theological writings of the Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). He died on Easter Sunday in 1955. Only ten people attended the funeral and only one person accompanied his body to the graveyard. No one yet knew that he was one of the most profound religious thinkers of the twentieth century.
Yes, he had made arrangements to have his ideas published after his death. Teilhard believed profoundly that God lies absolutely near at the heart of everything and that the world addresses us by name. He writes, “without leaving the world, plunge into God.” He prays, “O God… in the life which wells up in me and in the matter which sustains me, I find much more than your gifts. It is you yourself whom I find.”
According to Teilhard Jesus helps lift the veil, so that we can see, “the transparence of God in the universe.” We can see God in physical matter. Teilhard writes about what he calls “ex-centration” where we leave behind our ego, become free of our own individuality, so that we can find ourselves in others and in the whole world. Over the years my experience of the nearness of God keeps growing stronger. I love the Lord. I feel God’s presence in prayer.
- Repent. Jesus asks us to repent. The Greek word is metanoia and it means literally to change your mind, to alter the habits which shape how you think about the world and perceive it. For me a person doesn’t repent and then start experiencing the goodness of God. God’s generosity always comes first and then we move toward God in love and this motion changes our way of thinking.
In the 1940’s a blizzard made traveling next to impossible for the avant-garde composer John Cage (1912-1992) and the dancer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009). They performed in Chicago, parked their car in Sacramento flew to Arizona, then Denver, returned to California to pick up the car and from there drove through ice and snow to Columbus, Ohio. They arrived just in time for the performance and went right up on stage without even resting.
The people at the party afterward told them how miserable their work was and asked how they could possibly devote their lives to this. Cage himself wondered why do we go to such trouble for something that people don’t even enjoy. And then ten years later he received a letter from someone who had been at that exact performance who thanked him and said that it had changed his life.
Cage once said, “Thoreau got up every morning and walked to the woods as though he had never been where he was going to, so that whatever was there came to him like liquid into an empty glass. Many people taking such a walk would have their heads so full of other ideas that it would be a long time before they were capable of hearing or seeing. Most people are blinded by themselves.”
- Believe in the good news. The good news is that we don’t have to blinded by ourselves. Like Jesus we can be fully God’s children. And when we are consciously in God – the world, every person and creature in it, will be transfigured miraculously to our sight.
The Dalai Lama tells the story of a king who invited the Buddha and his friends to lunch. On the way, the Buddha passed a beggar who praised the king and talked about the magnificence of the palace. After many courses of rich banquet food it came time for the prayer that would dedicate the karma of the meal. But the Buddha, instead of dedicating the merit to the host, to the king for his generosity, the Buddha chose to bless the beggar outside.
When his senior monk asked what he was doing. The Buddha replied that the king was proud of his kingdom, but the beggar was exceptional because he was able to rejoice in the king’s good fortune. Can we believe in God’s good news so sincerely that we take joy in others’ blessings? Can we begin to realize that we ourselves have and are enough?
My friends during this holy Lent I dare us to not be blinded by our self. Let us live by the rhythms in the world that we have not yet learned to recognize. Let the rain be something new to us. Let whatever is come to us like liquid in a glass.
The time is fulfilled. The kingdom is near. Repent. Believe in the good news.
“You too go out into the desert having with you nothing of the world, and the Holy Spirit will go with you. See the freedom with which Jesus has gone forth, and go forth like Him.”
 Thomas Merton, “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” Raids on the Unspeakable (1964) also published in The Norton Book of Nature Writing ed. Robert Finch and John Elder (NY: Norton, 1990) 598-607.
 Ibid., 604. Philoxenos of Mabbug.
 Herman C. Waetjen, A Re-Ordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014 originally published in 1989) 1-3.
 John Philip Newell, Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul: A Celtic Guide to Listening to Our Souls and Saving the World (NY: HarperCollins, 2021).
 Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (NY: Penguin, 2012) 192, 187.
 Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (NY: Penguin, 2016) 141-2
“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…” (Isa. 58).
How can you be healed spiritually this Lent? In 2003 it would have been hard to predict what was about to happen in professional British bicycle racing. Since 1908 British riders had won only one gold medal in the Olympic Games. In 110 years they had never won a single Tour de France. Their performance was so mediocre that some top manufacturers refused to sell them gear because they thought it would hurt sales if other pros saw them using it.
But that year they hired Dave Brailsford as a coach. He had a really simple philosophy. He reasoned that if you can just break down everything involved in riding a bike, and then if you could just make a 1% improvement in each relatively small thing, and you kept doing that, all those gains would end up making a significant impact on the team’s success.
So they got better seats, put alcohol on the tires for a better grip, wore electric shorts that kept their muscles at the optimum performance temperature. They even tried different kinds of massage gel. They learned the best way to wash their hands to prevent colds. They got the best pillow and mattress for each rider’s sleep.
These may seem like silly things but the results were spectacular. From 2007 to 2017 British cyclists won 178 world championships, 66 Olympic or Paralympic gold medals and captured 5 Tour de France victories.
Today we observe Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Season of Lent. What small change could you make to your daily life that would have a transformative spiritual effect in forty days? My mission tonight is to offer you a suggestion. The ancient prophet Isaiah writes, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly” (Isa. 58).
For two thousand years Christians have used the forty days before Easter to focus on spiritual growth. It is time to move more deeply into the life of God. For that reason I love Lent. It gives me the chance to take on a spiritual discipline or focus that will change who I am for the better.
Usually on this day in church a priest will put ashes on our foreheads and say, “Remember that from dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return.” Ash Wednesday reminds us of our death, not out of some morbid preoccupation with our finitude, but in the recognition that nothing other than God will last forever. It is a reminder of just how precious the people, the experiences of this moment are. It is God’s way of saying “this is YOUR time!”
Jesus gives instructions about how to be transformed spiritually. He talks about giving money to the poor, prayer and fasting. He reminds us to be careful, not to ruin the power of our faith by using it for another purpose (for instance to impress others). He says, “whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to pray… so that they may be seen by others” (Mt. 6). Jesus is not saying that you should keep your faith a secret, only that we should use our spirituality for its intended purpose
The Greek word upokritai back then meant just what it does today – a hypocrite, someone without what we call integrity, someone whose actions don’t match what they say they believe. But the Greek word also had another meaning. It meant interpreter or actor.
We do this kind of acting all the time. We pretend to be something that we are not. We act as if we are competent, smart, desirable, successful, righteous, friendly, normal, perfect when we are not. So much of what we do comes out of this desire to control how others perceive us. So much of our life is simply pretending.
Instead of this acting, Jesus encourages us to be who we really are as children of God. He invites us to return to our true self, to that part of us that doesn’t have to be afraid about how others perceive us.
One important way that Jesus does this is by reminding us of a truth. He says that, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6). Your treasure may be mansion in Pacific Heights, a prestigious career, a huge social media following, a perfect family, or being happy. Jesus teaches us to redirect our energies from a focus on accumulating physical things or social standing to spiritual well-being and wholeness.
There is a falsehood that nearly all of us live by much of the time. We talk and act as if our outward circumstances are what will really make us happy. We say that we will be happy after we make the varsity baseball team, or get accepted to a prestigious college, pass the bar exam, make partner, receive our degree. We say that we’ll be happy after we retire. In doing this we wish our lives away. In particular we assume that success will make us happy.
The truth however is that we were not made to be satisfied by these things. Happiness does not come from outside in. It begins in our heart. It is only by being in harmony with God that we will ever feel whole. Hoping to derive joy out of success is like trying to put molasses in the gas tank of an automobile designed to run on petroleum fuel. We are made to run on God’s spirit, nothing else will be enough for us.
I have known people who are successful beyond all imagination – but mostly they are not any happier than others. Here is the secret. If happiness is defined as something that is only possible on the other side of success, we never really get there. As soon as we achieve that success it is almost instantly not enough because we are already longing for the next thing. The goal posts are always moving, the sales quotas are always being adjusted.
This approach to life teaches us to exist in a universe where joy is always put off and deferred. It is never present to us in the moment. And as a result it trains us to never be happy. So what can we do?
Happiness, or to be more precise, joy comes from being as fully in God as we can be in the present moment. The secret that no one tells you is that we can fall in love with God. If we can learn to pause and see, we can be in love with the one who is nearer to us than our very selves.
Prayer over time teaches me to come back into the presence of the holiness that is our only real hope. When I was a young person, I would have a transcendental experience of beauty in an art museum or in a Sierra sunset or in a great cathedral or in a connection with a friend. But the older I get, the more this kind of experience of God is with me through the whole day.
All this brings me back to what I promised at the beginning when I wondered if we can make a little 1% change that could transform us spiritually. Jesus teaches us to pray in secret. My suggestion to you for these forty days is to adopt a simple practice. Every day during this time pray to God. Every day thank God for three things you are grateful for, three new things that you noticed about how the spirit is alive in our world. You might even write them down in a kind of spiritual journal.
Do not store up your treasures on earth. Leave them behind as you journey inward into the heart of God. Let prayer, let gratitude change your life over the next forty days. I look forward to hearing about your spiritual adventures.
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6).
 James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones (NY: Avery, 2018) 13-15.
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“Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another” (Ps. 90).
“God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.” Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961) the second Secretary General of the United Nations wrote this in a journal that was discovered after his death in a plane crash in Africa.
Who is God? Who is the one who gives us time. How do we come closer to the holy and radiant one, the mysterious source who brings forth new life and is the object of our gratitude?
After Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem with the crowds shouting Hosanna. After he casts out the money changers from the temple, after he has taken up residence teaching and healing, the religious leaders try one last time to test Jesus, to trip him up in his words so that they might condemn him. They open the debate by asking which of the 613 commandments in scripture is the most important one.
Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5. “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul and with all of your mind.” He goes on to quote Leviticus 19:18 that the second most important commandment is, “to love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and prophets” (Mt. 22).
When I was five years old on a Saturday afternoon the neighborhood kids told me to ring my neighbor’s doorbell for some reason that I cannot remember. They knew that he worked that night shift and that he would be sleeping. With a red face he screamed and swore at me. I had no idea what I had done wrong. We all have had experiences like this. When we hear the word “Commandment” we think of being punished for doing something wrong. But this is not the sense of Jesus’ commandments.
God loves in freedom not by forcing or compelling us as a dictator would. Instead through these instructions God helps direct our life toward joy.
The context of the readings Jesus uses is part of his message. In Deuteronomy it says to love God and to teach our children to love God so that the community will thrive, so that, “your days may be long.” This is the direction that God gives us so that we will be as complete and whole as we were created to be. The context of the second commandment from Leviticus shows us what it looks like to love your neighbor. It means leaving some of the leftovers in your fields so that the poor have something to eat. It means paying people on time and keeping your word and caring for disabled people (Lev. 19).
In our daily life we meet plenty of people who believe in the Golden Rule, in treating others as they want to be treated themselves. We know those who subscribe to Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative to act according to the same principles with which you want others to apply to you. Many people around us believe that theoretically this is how we should behave to others. But not so many around us believe in God.
Because of this each of us needs to be a witness, to have an answer to a simple question. Why God? Why should God come first? What does the love of God look like in our life?
- Idolatry. We are creatures who need meaning as much as we require food, shelter and rest. Decisions we make about meaning and what we commit ourselves to may be dangerous to ourselves and others. This week I met with two new staff members and we shared the story of our lives. Those stories don’t just exist in our individual minds or in those around us. They are in God too.
Idolatry or idol worship is what we do when we treat something in our life as if it were a god. It might be obvious things like money, politics, pleasure, your reputation or career. But it can also be more subtle. It can be something so good in itself, like a mother’s love for her child, but which cannot bear the weight of being the absolutely most important thing in our life.
The twentieth century author C.S. Lewis wrote a very brief book about hell and heaven called The Great Divorce. It begins with what seems like an infinitely expansive gray city where it is always dusk, and always raining. The people there are so ghostlike that they barely exist. Some decide to ride a bus to a beautiful, colorful more real place with vivid grass, flowers, trees and blue sky.
They go to the outskirts of heaven and they all have the chance to stay there but something keeps drawing them away from God and into themselves. One woman expects to meet her son there. She invested her whole life into his well-being. He was her god and when he died, in her mourning she treated her husband and daughter terribly. She is so angry with God, and this anger has displaced her real self.
To the relative who meets her there she says things like, “You wouldn’t say that if you were a mother,” “how could anyone love their son more than I did.” And the relative tries to explain, “You exist as Michael’s mother only because you first exist as God’s creature. That relation is older and closer.”
The person guiding the narrator says that in the end there are only two kinds of people. There are those who say to God “thy will be done.” And those who prefer something else to reality and to joy. To these people God says, “thy will be done.” Without the real God in our life we have a terrible tendency to make our own gods.
- Inadequacy. The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes that, “the illusion that we can disillusion ourselves is the greatest of all illusions.” We talk as if when it comes to God we are capable of even understanding God. We also act as if we could achieve some sort of detached neutrality, as if we are the ones who are judging God. But to use Barth’s words, “We cannot master God. We cannot come behind God. We cannot grasp God but only be grasped by God.”
The nature of God is not an abstract question. How we understand God makes a demand on how we must live. This is not the God of the philosophy shop, of abstractions, of hypothetical cases or words like “omnipotence.” What we really long for is the real God, the one who can actually help us and love us.
We can’t love adequately without God because God is the one who shows us how to love. Walking with Christ is how we know the way. As I said earlier we are not compelled by God. God does not force us to love him, because that would no longer be love. Karl Barth writes that God directs us through what he calls hints or advice. “It is not a loud and stern and foreign thing, but the quiet and gentle and intimate awakening of children in the Father’s house to life in that house.”
And so as people of faith we believe that we are never fully isolated in this world. There is so much that we may forget but it is not lost because it is in God. We may suffer. The cruelty and injustice may tempt us to despair but we are never completely alone. We just have to know how to seek out this one who is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.
There is a story about a child of a Hasidic rabbi used to go out and wander in the forest. One day his father asked him what he was doing. The boy said, “I go to the forest to find God.” The kindly rabbi said, “That’s wonderful. But you don’t need to go to the forest to find God. Don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?” “God is,” the boy answered, “but I’m not.”
Prayer is also something that we learn and grow in over time. In his book Diary of a Country Priest Georges Bernanos writes about this. “The usual notion of prayer is so absurd. How can those who know nothing about it, who pray little or not at all, dare to speak frivolously of prayer?… If it were really what they suppose, a kind of chatter, the dialogue of a madman with his shadow, or even less – a vain and superstitious sort of petition to be given the good things of this world, how could innumerable people find comfort until their dying day… in the sheer, robust, vigorous, abundant joy of prayer?… Could a sane man set himself up as a judge of music because he has sometimes touched the keyboard with the tips of his fingers?”
One of my favorite parts of the Lewis’ book The Great Divorce is when the ghost of the boy’s mother keeps trying to prove that the angel who greeted her is wrong, that her case is really different, that she loves her son more than God does. And the angel says, “We are all wrong.”
Albert Einstein said that there are two ways of experiencing reality: as if everything is a miracle or as if nothing is. We are all wrong when it comes to God but this week let your life be a miracle. Reach out to the one who is closer to you than you are to yourself. Let us try again to love the Lord with all of our heart and all of our soul and all of our mind.
 Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings tr. Leif Sjöberg and W.H. Auden (NY: Alfred A Knopf, 1965) 56.
 Herman Waetjen, Matthew’s Theology of Fulfillment, Its Universality and Its Ethnicity (NY: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017).
 “Now this is the commandment – the statutes and ordinances that that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the LORD your God all the days of your life, and keep his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding to you, so that your days may be long” (Deuteronomy 6:1-2, NRSV).
 C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (NY: Macmillan, 1946) 92.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 The Doctrine of God Tr. T.H.L. Parker, W.B. Johnston, Harold Knight, J.L.M. Hare (NY: T&T Clark, 1957) 169.
 Die Chrisliche Dogmatik im Entwurf, ed. G. Sauter, 1982, 232. Cited in Timothy Gorringe, Karl Barth: Against Hegemony (NY: Oxford University Press, 1999) 106.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1 The Doctrine of Reconciliation tr. G.W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 100.
 David J. Wolpe, Why Faith Matters (NY: HarperOne, 2008) 118.
 George Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest.
“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm in the Lord” (Phil. 4).
- Above all Christianity is an orientation towards suffering. And today on Ellen’s last Sunday with us I want to linger a little over a verse from a hymn she wrote. It goes like this: “God incarnate, our true mother / Birthing us to joy and pain / Showing us the steps to dance to / Loving us to life again / Grow us into your true image / As we strive for your love’s reign.”
This time we have shared together has been full of joy and pain. But through all of this God has been teaching us to dance. We have been traveling the way of Jesus together and behold in the twinkling of an eye we have been changed!
Christianity did not begin on Christmas Day. Even the idea of celebrating the birth of our Savior only took hold after a few centuries. No, this way of faith began in a graveyard, at a moment of unbearable pain when a group of women went to wash the body of someone they intensely loved – Jesus. In that moment of shared sadness they were dazzled by God’s presence and joy overtook them.
At the heart of all this is not a belief about what happens when you die, or who God is, or any other belief. At the center is a way of being. You might call it the way of compassion, or being a child of light. Compassion means literally to suffer with. It means not turning your back on the pain all around us. It means being a light to others, keeping vigil, listening both to each other and for the voice of God. Above all in this historical moment of COVID, economic apocalypse, racial despair, gender inequality, violence and threats of disintegration, we are called to really be with each other in the midst of pain.
After the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, our staff began a yearlong anti-racism training course. Last week Jumon who is my age, black, a longterm staff member and a real leader talked with deep emotion in his voice. He said, “I feel like I never had a chance. Everybody knows racism is wrong but nothing is changing. And when I hold my little grandson, I know that he doesn’t have a chance either.” As he spoke I felt my heart breaking. He did nothing wrong and yet from the beginning the world has cursed him, his children and even his children’s children.
Sharing the light of Jesus means being with others in their pain. It also involves knowing that Jesus is with us when we suffer. During the AIDS epidemic when hundreds were dying every week here in this city, Grace Cathedral made it our mission to ensure that no one would die alone. Above all true faith is an orientation towards suffering, it means allowing your heart to be broken and depending completely on God
- I want you to keep this in mind as we listen to the story that Jesus tells this morning. Ayred participates in my Wednesday night Bible class. He’s absolutely new to faith and he always asks “What is the context and significance of this passage.” So let me begin there. There are two contexts that matter in particular for today’s story. One for Jesus and another for Matthew who wrote it.
By this point in his life stories like this may be the only thing keeping Jesus alive. He enters Jerusalem in a huge procession as people wave palm branches and throw their cloaks on the road before him. Then he enters the temple and casts out the people doing business there. Uninvited he takes up residence there healing and teaching. The religious authorities want to have him arrested but they fear the crowds.
Did any of you have outlandish dreams at the beginning of COVID? The wild stories Jesus tells are like that, full of impossible events and crazy, unexpected turns. A king invites dignitaries to a wedding feast, but strangely they make excuses about needing to return to their agron and emporian, their fields and businesses. Others even mistreat and kill the people who bring the invitations. So the king mobilizes the army to kill them and burn their city.
But the lavish meal has already been prepared and so the king invites everyone from the crossroads of daily life, the good and bad together. Since they come right from the marketplace I imagine the king’s servants issuing wedding garments at the door and one man inexplicably refuses. He has come for the lavish meal not to participate in the spirit of the occasion. So the king confronts him and throws him out into the outer darkness.
The context for Matthew helps us understand this story as a kind of allegory. About forty years after the death of Jesus, the Roman Empire utterly crushes an uprising that takes place in the region. As part of an effort to destroy every shred of culture and pride, the Romans destroy the Temple in Jerusalem (where Jesus told this story).
The allegory is simple. God sends prophets like Jesus, Matthew and many others who are ignored or worse yet, persecuted. The Roman army destroys everything. And then the church arises. It is that new cosmic wedding feast of the good and bad of all creation together, celebrating the Son.
But context is not everything. For me, the genius of the parable is that it gives us a world that has it both ways, where two seemingly contradictory truths both hold. On the one hand we are all included in God’s kingdom – the good and the bad together. And yet at the same time Jesus calls us to act, to live in a certain way that is clear and easy to recognize.
Paul calls this putting on Christ. You as well as I know what this looks like. It means living humbly for other people. It involves having a kind of gentleness, so that you can really listen. It means compassion, suffering with our neighbor, caring about the people who have the hardest time in society. This is how we become a light which shows God’s love to the world. These are the qualities that Ellen Clark-King has so thoroughly demonstrated during her four years here.
Ellen certainly isn’t perfect. So why do we all love her so dearly? Let me give you a few examples. Imagine if every newspaper was perfectly designed and tailored for your interests. Imagine if politicians offered an entirely unique message just for you and a totally different one for a farmer in the Central Valley or a coal miner in Pennsylvania. Imagine if dictionary definitions, Wikipedia articles tried to anticipate what you wanted to hear. Obviously this is the world we have begun to enter. What I am describing is the Artificial Intelligence algorithms on Facebook and YouTube that both determine what you see and try to make you watch for longer.
What bothers us about this kind of world is that it lacks integrity. Integrity is related to the word integer, the number one. It means to be the same with whoever you are talking to. Ellen is polite, she always has in mind who she is speaking to (whether it is a working class housecleaner in Newcastle or a Dean of a Cambridge College), but she always has integrity.
The most powerful moment in our interminable discussions about what kind of Cathedral we wanted to be happened during our discussion of the mission statement. The quietest staff person stood up and said that she wanted us to be just like Ellen. She said that Ellen is meek, kind and connects with anyone, but she is a lion who stands up against injustice and unfairness. Ellen is a pioneer in the movement for women’s liberation as one of the first priests ordained by the Church of England. Facing all that opposition has made her very strong indeed.
In her first book Ellen writes, “all human lives have the potential to reveal something of the grace and nature of God and our image of God will remain incomplete unless we attend to such revelations.” Ellen acts like this most of the time.
It would not be an Ellen sermon without some mystics in it. The Desert Fathers and Mothers were radically devoted to the light. Macarius of Egypt (300-391) said that those who are spiritually awake (“Born from on high of the Holy Spirit) “not infrequently weep… for the whole human race… with spiritual love for all humanity. At times also their spirit is kindled with such joy and such love, that if it were possible they would take every human being into their heart without distinguishing the good and the bad… the spirit makes them live afresh in ineffable joy.”
Ellen also has taken us, the good and bad together, into her heart. My point is not just that Ellen is great but that we can be a blessing in exactly the same way. Above all Christianity is an orientation toward suffering.
In my mind’s eye Ellen I will always see you marching through the streets of San Francisco and in procession through this Cathedral. I will picture you writing poems, prayers and hymns, speaking wisdom in meetings and sermons… and in everything you do provoking the smug and comforting the suffering. I shall miss you.
Let us pray: God, incarnate, our true Mother, our hearts are breaking but that is as it should be. Help us not to hold suffering at arm’s length but to allow our hearts to be broken even at the departure of a true friend. We commend to you our sister Ellen. Wherever she travels may the people she encounters see the listener and the lion who we have come to love. Thank you that through her you have shown us the steps to dance to, that in her you have loved us to life again. Amen.
 Christ Sophia by Ellen Clark-King
Christ Sophia, Child of Wisdom
Dancing in our deepest dreams
Calling us to love unbounded
Daring us to God’s extremes –
peace and gentleness and justice
Kingdom values, wisdom’s themes.
Brother Jesus, Child of Mary
Walking with us on life’s way
Showing us God’s humble kingdom
Sharing both dark night and day
Breaking through death’s seeming ending
Into new life’s dawning ray.
God incarnate, our true mother,
Birthing us to joy and pain
Showing us the steps to dance to
Loving us to life again
Grow us into your true image
As we strive for your love’s reign.
 Ellen Clark-King, Theology By Heart: Women, the Church and God (Werrington, Peterborough, UK: Epworth Press, 2004) 15.
 Pseudo-Macarius: “Those who have been judged worthy to become children of God and to be born from on high of the Holy Spirit. . .not infrequently weep and distress themselves for the whole human race; they pray for the ‘whole Adam’ with tears, inflamed as they are with spiritual love for all humanity. At times also their spirit is kindled with such joy and such love that, if it were possible, they would take every human being into their heart without distinguishing between good and bad. Sometimes too in humility of spirit they so humble themselves before every human being that they consider themselves to be the last and least important of all. After which the Spirit makes them live afresh in ineffable joy.” From, Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism. https://witnessestohope.org/category/authors/pseudo-macarius/
Or, Pseudo-Macarius, Homilies.
“At other times, they are in grief and lamentation for all mankind, and interceding for the whole stock of Adam. They take up a wailing and a weeping for it; the love of the Spirit for the human nature kindling and flaming out within them. At other times the joy and love of the Spirit inflames them to that degree, that were it possible, they would snatch up every man into their own bowels, not making the least distinction of the bad from the good. (Homily 10: 7). http://www.seanmultimedia.com/Pie_Macarius_Egyptian_Homilies_6-11.html
Usually on a Covid-tide Sunday morning it is just our human companions that we miss here at Grace. Today, the Feast of St Francis, we also miss the barking, meowing, grunting, hissing and general beautiful chaos that our animal companions bring with them. So blessings to all your animal companions at home! May the spirit of St Francis who included all the most overlooked parts of God’s creation within the circle of his love surround them and all of us today!
Today’s readings capture perfectly the two sides of St Francis’s character – the gentle saint who finds refreshment and rest in God’s beautiful creation, and the fierce saint who embraced the leper and became one with the poor. On this, my last sermon in this beautiful, complicated city named for St Francis, I want to entrust both parts of his calling to you.
Let’s begin with the gentle invitation of the gospel, for all who are weary to come to Jesus and find rest. Anyone out there not feeling weary just now? Weary with anxiety over COVID. Weary with outrage over endemic racism. Weary watching politics based on lies and personal attacks. The weight of our shared weariness added to the personal burdens each of us is carrying threatens to crush the joy and hope from our spirits. We are weary right now.
We are weary, and the gentle, compelling voice of Jesus calls us to rest. This is the first part of Christ’s calling that I entrust to you as I leave. Love yourself as Jesus loves you. Value yourself as God values you – your infinite worth lying in who you are not in what you do. Find in Jesus your resting place, the space where you can give up adulting for a while and know yourself held in an embrace of love that enfolds the whole world. Give yourself a break, people! Don’t try and be everything to everyone – [don’t try and make everyone happy – you are not pizza] embrace your finitude, your limitedness, and let God be God.
Do what St Francis did. Strip off the expectations of others that stop you being yourself. Walk away from a life where worth depends on defeating or diminishing others – wash that nasty presidential debate from your mind. Find delight in the companionship of all God’s creation – the fierce and wild wolves and rushing waters, the quiet and whimsical songbirds and soft pets. And the human parts too. St Francis didn’t only commune with animals, he also companioned human beings – us who are fierce, wild, whimsical, soft creatures, who too often forget our animal, bodily needs.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
And yet, and also – from Jeremiah: “He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord.” Rest is not the whole story, delight in creation is not the whole story. The gentle “Disney princess” St Francis communing with the twittering birds is not the whole story of the man we celebrate today.
St Francis was very aware of those in his own day whose burdens were heavier than his own, those who were not able to find the rest they were promised. St Francis reminds us that, as well as receiving God’s solace and rest, we are also called to give it to others. Like the saint we are called to be as Christ to our world. We are to give rest to those our world has excessively wearied. To those of us who bear the burdens of our history, of colonialism, of slavery, of racism and sexism. We must help all people to be un-burdened, to find rest for their souls.
This is the second part of God’s calling that I entrust to you. To be the ones who offer the possibility of rest and respite to others, who know God through knowing, and embracing, the cause of the poor and the needy.
To be perfectly honest, it has been a hard four years to share this country with you. The 2016 election happened just weeks after I was appointed, so all my time here has been during the term of an intemperate, dishonest, bullying leader who abuses women and mocks those with disabilities. Who has presided over a time in politics that has seen women’s rights and gay and trans rights attacked, immigrant children caged, and white supremacy move toward the mainstream. I pray that Donald and Melania make a full recovery from COVID 19. I also pray for a change of heart so all leaders in this country heed God’s words: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice;”
And woe to us when we do the same! We may not be called to embrace poverty as Francis did, but we are unequivocally, inescapably and repeatedly called to embrace the poor. And poor here has a wide meaning, as wide as the ways our world oppresses those without power. The poor are obviously those who are unhoused here on our streets, as well as those families whose ability to pay for both rent and food is fragile. But they are also those robbed of their birthright to be seen and treated as full human beings, equal to any and every other person – that includes black, indigenous and people of colour. That includes LGBTQ people. That includes women.
May America, and all the world, understand what true religion is, what true Christianity is. Not to wave a Bible or try to control people’s sexual behaviour. Not to denounce those who understand God differently. Not to uphold family values and yearn for a return to the 1950s. But this, this – to judge the cause of the poor and the needy. Then it will be well. Then we will truly know God. This is what it means to be church. This is what it means to be Grace Cathedral – to know God through knowing the oppressed. To love God through loving the oppressed. To reimagine church, and to tell the Christian story, so that all may receive God’s loving gift of rest.
I am so thankful to you all for welcoming me among you four years ago. For sharing this beautiful, complicated city of St Francis with me. May you all know yourselves beloved of God, worthy of rest, and held close in the loving arms of the divine. May you all know yourselves called to bring God’s justice to bear in this city, this nation and beyond. And also know that, wherever I am, Grace Cathedral will be held here, deep in my heart.