Listen to the Latest Services

Sunday, December 8
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
Download service leaflet
Thursday, December 5
Thursday 5:15 p.m. Evensong
Download service leaflet
Sunday, December 1
The Advent Procession
First Sunday of Advent 3 p.m. Procession
Download service leaflet

Listen to Featured Sermons

Sunday, December 8
Decolonize Your Mind!
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing…” (Romans 15).
Read sermon

“May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing…” (Romans 15).

What is the good news of John the Baptist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 1
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus
Read sermon

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, December 6
To Conquer or to Host: The Theology of Airbnb
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight..." (Lk. 3).
Read sermon

The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight…” (Lk. 3).

After college I worked in Santa Monica at the GTE Building right where Wilshire Boulevard meets the vast Pacific Ocean. I will never forget winter sunsets from that corner conference room, the dark looming mountains in the north and the brilliant reds and oranges of the sky reflected in the smooth bay waters.

Renee Labran, our managing director insisted that whether we were leaving for a month long assignment in London or just overnight, our desks should be neatly ordered. Although clients only rarely visited, she wanted us to be prepared for anyone who might arrive. It is still my habit here at Grace Cathedral. I try to leave everything so that if someone were to need a space to work, there would be plenty of room for them at my desk or table.

This week a few staff members and I visited the corporate offices of Airbnb. The motto for those who work there and for the people who rent out their homes is simple: “be a host.” You could see this culture everywhere. People practically tripped over themselves to hold doors open for us (to remain cheery when we were blocking the halls or spilling our tea). Most employees there have no regular workspace and so they constantly meet new colleagues when they sit down in different places with their laptop computers.

Conference rooms look like kitchens, basements, living rooms, libraries, and playgrounds. You can have a meeting in a little airstream trailer, a kind of yurt, an alpine ski cabin, a camping tent, a ball pit, or my favorite, an exact replica of the founders’ apartment where the company began. Meeting spaces are named after the most beautiful and distinctive places in the world: Paris, Barcelona, Bali, Reykjavik and Berlin.

The way a place looks matters to what happens there. And it takes time to prepare. I think of this when I make the bed, do the dishes, put away books or generally clean up. You have heard me say that our reasoning, logical mind is only a tiny part of who we are. What a place looks and feels like speaks to a deep part within us. A place can give rise to thoughts, dreams and experiences that would otherwise be impossible. It can make it possible to welcome someone (either a relative from out of town or a new friend) and to form the kind of connection that is one of the greatest joys of this life.

As crowds come out to see John the Baptist in the wilderness he says the same thing. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Lk. 3:1-6). We pay special attention to this work during the church season of Advent. In John’s case the places we are to prepare include our selves. You might think of it as spring cleaning for your soul. During Advent we varnish the floors of our heart, dust the shelves of our memories and clean the windows through which we see God and each other. We make ready that house which we are always building, that is, our life.

Brothers and sisters we have been through so much this week. As often seems to be the case I feel stunned by the way scripture seems to speak to our very situation. On Wednesday Syed Rizwan Farook (28) and Tashfeen Malik (29) killed fourteen and injured twenty-one people at the San Bernadino Health Department where Farook was employed.

Two elements in particular stood out. First, for a couple of days the public hovered in an odd state of limbo. No one knew quite what to think about these events. Was this the case of a disgruntled employee? Were these “anti-government activists?” What did this case share in common with the boys who had been bullied at Columbine or the racist who killed the African American Christians who were praying with him in Charlotte? Were the shooters simply insane or was this planned from abroad like 9/11? What exactly is a terrorist anyway – aren’t all shooters terrorists? Does it matter whether someone is a domestic or foreign terrorist when you are dead?

The New York Times pointed out that if you define a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are killed or injured, then in the last 336 days we have had 209 mass shootings in this country. [1] It took no time for the gun control and immigration debates to ramp into high gear. It makes me wonder if there is some other way to talk about this beyond the language of fear, anger and blame.

The second thing that seemed particularly strange was that after the FBI investigation landlord Doyle Miller allowed journalists to poke through the couple’s home. Because the way a place looks matters to what happens there we were fascinated to look over their shoulders. News articles mentioned social security cards out in plain sight, dishes piled in the sink as if someone would soon be home to clean up. We saw their family photos, images of the infant’s crib. The wall calendar had nothing special written on it for the day of the tragedy. We debated about whether reporters had violated the family’s privacy.

Perhaps we were shocked by the juxtaposition between how ordinary their life seemed and the terrible preparation involved in building bombs and amassing weapons and ammunition to kill people who have nothing to do with their cause. Honestly this tragic act of murdering colleagues and neighbors is a message that I do not understand. I wish that they had left behind a statement beyond the vague reference to a Facebook message supporting ISIS.

My hunch is that their reasons would be deeply connected to our gospel this morning. Luke tells us exactly when John the Baptist began his ministry. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius” (Lk. 3). He then lists the kings: Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanius, in the order of the size of their various jurisdictions. In English we use different translations for one repeated Greek word, “hegemonias.” It means ruler or to rule. It is also the origin of our English word “hegemony.” The dictionary defines hegemony as dominance especially by one country or social group over others over others.

In the twenty first century the rule of the emperor or making paths straight for the coming king may sound quaint to us. The metaphor no longer has the power that it once did. In Roman times this was serious business. During the Jewish-Roman Wars (66-77 CE) roads and ramparts were built for 60,000 invading Roman troops. They massacred whole populations.

The Books of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are about a simple contrast between two different sons of God. The “Son of God” was another name for Julius Caesar and all the Roman Emperors who followed him. Luke asserts that the real Son of God is Mary’s son, Jesus of Nazareth. We all face this stark choice between hegemony and love, between the emperor’s kind of power to compel through force and Jesus’ power to inspire through empathy and compassion. We can fight power with more power or we can look for other solutions that begin by seeing with the eyes of love. In San Bernadino we saw a couple who chose the way of the Roman Empire.

Because we spend so much time living in the world of the Empire’s values, we ourselves constantly fall back on this way of thinking. That is why John the Baptist proclaims the baptism of repentance. For many Christians the word repentance feels worn out. We mistakenly regard repentance as the process of listing the things we did wrong and then feeling sorry about them. Repentance too often becomes self-flagellation, a mere intellectual exercise or a vague plan to become nicer or more spiritual. [2]

The Greek word for repentance means something altogether different than this. It is metanoia Meta is change, nous is soul and it means to change your soul in the sort of way that everything around you becomes transformed. You see the same things but in a totally different light. Often it feels more like something that happens to you than something you completely chose for yourself.

You might be like my friend, Nick who came back from serving with the Peace Corps in Kenya and found himself paralyzed by all the choices in his local supermarket. As a result of this metanoia Nick spent the next twenty years living and working in Africa. You might be like my neighbor Sally whose life as a lawyer dissolved when she began caring for her elderly mother, or my friend Lena who gave up a very real chance to be a Silicon Valley CEO in order to raise her children. Maybe also like them you might discover a whole new intimacy relationships that at first seem like burdens. You might even find that in some sense or other you were born to do this.

We live so deeply immersed in media that we almost need to be reminded that reality isn’t terrorism or the triumph of empire. Reality is what happens in ordinary moments and ordinary places when the spirit invites us into the profound mystery at the heart of our existence.

In these words I have brought you to lovely places, sinister places and wacky places. Let me tell you about one more. Yesterday at Fort Mason our family experienced Janet Cardiff’s art installation “The Forty Part Motet.” In a large oval she arranged forty sound speakers (five groups of eight) at ear height. Each speaker plays a single voice from the men and boy’s choir at Salisbury Cathedral as they sing Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium nunquam habui (I have never put my hope in any other).

After watching the sun set and the lights come out on the Golden Gate bridge I shut my eyes. It felt like I stood at the very threshold of heaven, as if God were the only other presence in this world. In that moment I experienced such deep gratitude for our own Cathedral choirs. They prepare every week for us. They make great sacrifices to bring beauty alive so that we will be prepared to receive God.

In this Advent season I pray for a revolutionary change that leads us not to dwell on the past but to live in the gift of this moment. I ask that we will have the wisdom to think and engage with what is good and not with what destroys. I pray we receive God and transmit holiness through our life, that over and over we choose to be a host rather than a conqueror.

[1] The New York Times also claimed that while Islamic Jihadists have killed 45 people in America since September 12, 2001, during the same period “Anti-government, racist and non-jihadist extremists have killed 48.

[2] The next few paragraphs are inspired by Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon, “Living Between Steps.” https://www.goodpreacher.com/backissuesread.php?file=4283

Saturday, December 5
Ordination Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Rebecca Edwards
Sermon from The Ordination of Deacons and Priests
Read sermon

Sermon from The Ordination of Deacons and Priests.

Saturday December 5th.

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.
Read sermon

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. Canon Jude Harmon
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

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).
Read sermon

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).
Read sermon

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.

What's Happening at Grace Cathedral?

Connect with Us