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Sunday, July 5
Independence in our Interdependence
Preacher: The Rev. Heather Erickson
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Independence in our Interdependence

 

Last week I was on the phone with my grandmother. She’s 93. She’s lived alone since my grandfather died a couple of years ago, and in the past 3 and a half months I’m pretty sure she’s only left her house once. I’m grateful she’s safe. I’m grateful for her friend who’s been bringing her groceries. I’m grateful for my family who have been by for physically distanced porch visits. My grandmother asked me, “When will this all end?” And I wanted to be there with her, to see her in real life and give her a hug. When will this all end?

It’s been 112 days, I think, since I left my office on a Monday afternoon for what I thought would be 3 weeks of working at home. Back in March I remember talking with a friend about how resilient human beings are, and that we can do anything for a short period of time. The next few months are kind of a blur of emails, zoom meetings, distance learning schedules, some complicated art and engineering projects, lots of hand-washing and a drive-through preschool graduation. Right now, in my household it feels like things are on hold – there are promises that playdates and birthday parties and piano lessons will happen at some point when it’s “safe” – when will this all end?

It seems like something has recently shifted, though. I’m still confident in our resilience. And now I’m even more grateful for our ability to adapt and endure. And I’m frustrated with our short-sightedness and inability to take responsibility, to work together. The work of endurance is hard, though, especially amidst the uncertainty and the absence of predictability.

We’re also in this constant process of letting go – of plans, of hopes, of assumptions and expectations, of the illusion of control, of a naïveté about the systems of dominance that have shaped our modern world and perpetuated horrendous oppression and injustice.

Yesterday was Independence Day, a 4th of July unlike any other, where many of us held the celebration of the Declaration of Independence and its promises of equality, and the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, alongside the hypocrisy and abomination of chattel slavery and its effects which continue to reverberate today.

Frederick Douglass’ gave an important speech in Corinthian Hall to white members of the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society on this day in 1852, 168 years ago, in which he says, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?  I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” These words were offered about a decade before the Civil War, and as the Black Lives Matter Movement reminds us, are still relevant today.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, in an article published in The Atlantic last year, offers a lens through which to honor the 4th of July. He writes, “We should be celebrating our disobedience, turbulence, insolence and discontent about inequities and injustices in all forms.”

In her book, Disunity in Christ, Dr. Christena Cleveland writes about power and privilege and she offers an insightful reminder of “Christ’s cross-cultural, privilege-abdicating example in the incarnation.”

The incarnation. The Holy One, birthed into this world through Mary, the Theotokos, the God-bearer.

I keep thinking that we are in the midst of birthing something new. I have hope that we are in the process of shaping a new way of being a country, and a new way of understanding and sharing power. I believe the church is being transformed as we discover new ways of connecting with each other and expressing our life in Christ. Education is changing. For many the way in which we work is changing. Our world has fundamentally shifted, and – we’re not quite there yet. The future is not quite clear. The process of laboring a new creation into the world is not usually easy, either. From my experience, there’s an intensity to it, and uncertainty. Each labor unfolds in its own way and there’s an ease that comes with working with it, responding to it and following its rhythms. During my first experience of labor, I remember reaching a point and thinking – I can’t take much more. I’m not going to be able to sustain this. The intensity is too much, and it’s constant, and I need a break but there’s no way to pause this process. It was happening whether I was ready for it or not. And just when it felt like more than I could bear, it was over. And my life has never been the same since. During my second experience of labor I remember all of a sudden realizing that I was holding back, I was fighting against it and while the intensity didn’t diminish, once I chose to work with it, there was an ease, an acceptance of the unfolding experience and once again, my life has never been the same since.

Imagine this new creation. What does it look like to you? Jesus saw a world where the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Imagine a world where everyone has enough food to eat and a bed to sleep in every night. Imagine a world where we recognize our interdependence and put our neighbors’ needs ahead of our own. Imagine a world where everyone has enough. Imagine a world where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

We have a responsibility to each other, and we’re in this for the long-haul. Leaning into the discomfort, renewing our minds, opening our hearts, taking action that makes our interconnectedness – our interdependence – visible, this work is tremendous and important. It is holy. And I believe that this work will change us, it will transform us, and we will become a new creation, a beloved community. This work will also exhaust us and deplete us if we approach it alone. Jesus invites us: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Years ago, when I first started paying attention to this invitation, I imagined picking up a harness of sorts that I expected to be heavy, only to discover it became lighter as I lifted it up onto my shoulders. Then at some point, I began imagining a yoke built for two, with Jesus shouldering one side as I took my place next to him, teammates working together side by side, knowing that when I grew tired, he would be there to support the weight and carry me through. Recently I’ve been imagining a different kind of yoke – one that doesn’t make any sense or seem in the least bit practical – it extends out in every direction connecting person to person – a bit like how I’ve been envisioning church during these last few months of virtual gathering –  a network of sorts, each of us connected to each other. An interdependent chosen family of people linked together. There are so many of us, connected in all directions, the yoke stretching beyond the limits of our vision. It’s massive and yet there’s a lightness, an ease and flexibility to it, because it’s the body of Christ. The church – where together, with Christ moving in us and through us and among us, we can do far more than we could imagine.

Sunday, June 28
Pride Sunday
Preacher: The Rev. Altagracia Perez-Bullard, PhD
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From today’s Psalm:

1  I will sing of your steadfast love, My God [O Lord], forever;

with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.

2  I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;

your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.  AMEN.

 

Good Morning and Happy Pride Day!

If this were any other Pride Day, this would be the point where we would have hooting and hollering, we’d be cheering with the festiveness this day has come to represent for the community of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, and other sexual minorities, also known as the LGBTQIA+ community.  I trust some of you are shouting in your homes, and I know that my heart is filled with memories of Pride Days gone by…especially my first Pride March: the beauty and the spectacle, the empowerment and of course, the music and dancing.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first Pride March, the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, held on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in New York City. And although for all of our well-beings, we are not having Pride Marches, we are indeed witnessing, and some of us participating in various ways, in the ongoing struggle, the ongoing movement for human rights, as people march in the streets across the nation and the world, demanding that black and brown bodies be treated with the dignity and respect that is the right of every person.

And for those who know history, we understand that the demand for equal rights and protection under the law being made today is another manifestation of that demand made in the Village 51 years ago. The Stonewall Inn catered to the most marginalized in the gay community, a description that sounds painfully familiar: people of color, gender non-conforming folks, homeless youth and transgender people, who survived on the streets hustling what they could, even their own bodies. Faced with yet another violent police raid, where the primary transgression was their very existence as LGBTQ persons, the queens rose up, as others before them sat-in, and fought back, leading to three days of rioting, which galvanized and organized LGBT societies into activists. Today we remember and celebrate Marsha P. Johnson, who was part of the Stonewall Riots, an advocate for justice and equal rights, and Sylvia Rivera who together with Marsha established STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) to help homeless young drag queens, gay youth and trans women.

They represent a prophetic move embodying God’s truth, a self-evident truth declared although not yet realized in this nation’s founding documents, that all “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  And as Jeremiah attests to, and we ourselves have witnessed, a prophetic word is not welcome when it calls us to account for our transgressions against each other, when it calls out injustice and unfaithfulness to God’s word and will for us. False prophets may declare prosperity and peace, but while God’s children, and especially the least of these, the marginalized and the oppressed, are crushed with reckless disregard for the sanctity of their lives, we will know no peace. No justice, no peace.

For those of us who believe, who know and understand the wisdom and the power of Jesus, who seek to live in a Kin-dom of abundant and everlasting life, where justice and righteousness are the watch words and peace and love are enjoyed, we have our marching orders here in the 10th chapter of Matthew. I invite you to read it to understand the times in which we are living and the call of God to live as faithful disciples, students of the Good News.

In today’s gospel reading we are both encouraged and challenged. Jesus after describing the hard road that awaits those who follow him, encourages them, reminding them that as they seek to speak and practice justice, heal and care for the wounded, be and learn from the marginalized, they will be a blessing and they will be blessed. They will be blessed by those who welcome them, providing hospitality, however basic, even offering them a drink of water, which in the desert is no small thing.

The gospel lists this triad: the prophets, the righteous and the little ones, and they can describe different members of the community, but they also describe the interrelated aspects of our discipleship. One scholar describes them this way: the prophets bring “proclamation and miraculous demonstrations of divine power,” the righteous demonstrate an “enduring pursuit of justice and of the healing and restoration of relationships,” and the little ones, the vulnerable, discounted, devalued, show that this whole enterprise is God’s mission, we are “wholly dependent on God’s power and presence.” (Saunders)

That last group, the little ones, might come as a surprise. We might have expected “the wise ones,” or “the holy ones,” (Saunders) but instead it reflects reality, how God’s mission is lived out in the world: change does not, and never has come from some hero, some eloquent speaker, some person in power. What was true in 1857 is true in 2020, in the words of Frederick Douglass: “Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.” Or in the words of June Jordan, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Here lies the encouragement and the challenge. Reading this gospel in today’s context, we are invited to understand that this is about us coming and going. That we are to live into our call to be prophets, speak truth, show miraculous power, what God can do through us; to be righteous and give ourselves to the enduring pursuit of justice and healing; to be the little ones, vulnerable, learning, growing. And that although it will not be easy we will be welcomed and refreshed, those who will minister to us will be blessed as we are blessed by their ministrations.

But we are also invited to understand that we are called to welcome and minister to the prophets, the righteous and the little ones. Those who have felt the movement of the Spirit and are encouraged and bold, demanding their humanity be recognized and accorded the dignity and justice that are their inalienable right as the children of God.

Welcome those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, who seek justice from the systems that are sworn to serve and protect, welcome those involved in the Poor People’s Movement, who seek to unite us across lines of difference as we demand good and just salaries, health care, education, environmental care from institutions created to serve the common good, welcome those who continue the fight for LGBTQ rights, because the right to marry, and now, thank God, the right to work without suffering discrimination, is only the beginning of insuring equal rights.

We are to welcome these prophets, these righteous, these little ones:  Not tolerate, and not suspect, or judge, or fear, but welcome, because we who seek to live into God’s will understand that by welcoming these strangers, we may be entertaining angels unaware. (Hebrews 13:2)

In these welcoming and refreshing encounters we, “us and them,” we, will be blessed and we will be a blessing. These relationships will strengthen us, feed us, and help us to grow. Together we will learn to live more fully into God’s call for us, that we would be fully human, humane in our treatment of one another and of all God’s creation, that we might have life and have it more abundantly. (John 10:10).

So today we remember and celebrate those who have gone before us and all those who journey with us in seeking justice. Let us remember and celebrate our call to be righteous and prophetic little ones, relying on the power of God to transform us and through us the world. Let us welcome one another, and keep the feast. May the party begin!

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!

 

Wednesday, February 10
The Gospel According to Cam Newton and Beyoncé
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also" (Mt. 6).
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The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.

“For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also” (Mt. 6).

Here in San Francisco we have been living with Super Bowl controversies since before last summer when Mayor Ed Lee talked about homeless people making way as the city prepared to host the game. [1] After taking down the advertisements on Embarcadero Center, after the protests, after the objections about traffic and what the city paid to have the Super Bowl here, the rest of the country has joined us in this spirit of dissension.

Cam Newton the quarterback for the Carolina Panthers at 6 feet 5 inches tall and 245 pounds is bigger than any player on the Green Bay Packer’s team that won the first Super Bowl fifty years ago. He could be one of the best athletes of our time. What he does on the field seems positively miraculous to me. It seems like he is capable of anything.

Since losing the Super Bowl on Sunday Newton has been widely criticized for his behavior at the post-game press conference. Wearing a hooded sweatshirt, providing only monosyllabic answers, cutting the interview short and being generally moody led Michael Powell in The New York Times to write that he humiliated himself and acted “like a 13-year old.” [2]

Almost right away social media began comparing footage from Newton’s interview with the gracious speech of Peyton Manning, this year’s winning quarterback, from the day Manning lost the Super Bowl two years ago. As always there are two sides to the story. The NFL has had a surprisingly small number of African American quarterbacks and Newton has certainly been caught up narratives that he did not choose. It also matters that Manning is almost forty and Newton is 26.

Still for people who criticize him, Newton seems pretty unrepentant. Cleaning out his locker room on Tuesday he said, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.” [3] If this were not enough, many people cannot decide whether Beyoncé’s halftime Black Panther tribute was disrespectful of law enforcement or a prophetic message about racial injustice.

At Ash Wednesday how do Christians form moral judgments? How does faith inform our opinions about what is happening around us?

One of teenagers’ favorite expressions these days is simply “don’t judge.” Many young people may see “not judging” as a contrast with what they regard as judgmental institutional church, but I believe that the original impulse for this expression comes from Jesus himself. Jesus tells us not to worry about taking the tiny speck out of someone else’s eye until we take the log out of our own. He also says, “let the one without sin cast the first stone,” and, “judge not lest ye be judged.”

But this does not mean that we should stop caring about what is good and what is bad. At a dinner party a few months ago I met a high school student who couldn’t even bring himself to say that ISIS is wrong to enslave women or terrorize villages or behead journalists. He said that according to their worldview what they were doing is right. For him, not judging means becoming agnostic about the good, the true and the beautiful.

This is not at all what Jesus teaches. There is a spirit of Jesus that we can recognize in people who follow him. It is a way of looking at things and acting that comes out of his teaching.

I often think about how different my life would be and how my experience of the world would have changed if I had not struggled so hard to practice my faith for so many years. One of the most important ways that Christian faith has shaped me has to do with just this question – what is righteousness.

In this respect Christianity seems markedly different from our sister religions Judaism and Islam. I may be wrong about this but for Jews and Muslims it seems genuinely possible to be a righteous person. The laws of these two religions may be very demanding but it is possible to keep these commandments. Eating kosher or halal may be hard in a restaurant, getting up before dawn may seem inconvenient, keeping the Sabbath and refraining from work may mean you have to plan ahead more than you would like or miss certain things, but we can imagine being able to keep these commandments. [4]

Judaism and Islam make it clear just what you need to do to be faithful and I imagine that it would be very comforting to know exactly what your religion demanded of you and probably even more satisfying when you accomplished this. These religions in many ways feel more humane to me by insisting on orthopraxy, that is doing the right thing rather than orthodoxy, which is a concern about right teaching or thinking.

In those religions it doesn’t matter if you are bored while you pray, or that you keep kosher to please your mother, or that you go on Hajj or pilgrimage to make important business connections. You just don’t have to second-guess it. In these religions what you do is what matters.

Perhaps it is because I know a lot more about it, but Christianity seems like a more complicated proposition. Our Ash Wednesday reading illustrates this. Jesus contrasts what we should do with those he calls hypocrites. The Greek word is hupocritai. It has the Greek word krisis or judgment in it and means the same thing that it does in English.

But plainly Jesus means that simply giving the right amount of alms or money to charity, praying the correct way and amount of time, and even fasting in the way that has been taught is quite simply not enough. We also need to not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. We have to pray in secret so that our father who sees in secret will reward us. We are required to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven away from the moths and rust (Mt. 6). In Christianity it is not enough to simply do the right thing. Jesus cares about the mental state with which do it.

It makes sense in a way. As human beings we can do terrible things without even seeming to cross a line. I think about married couples. You can say something that seems like nothing in public but which deeply betrays and hurts your spouse. You can kill your marriage with words that no one outside of the couple would recognize as dangerous. Intention matters. When the bully at school says sneeringly, “Nice hair!” we know she means just the opposite.

Let me be clear. Three things distinguish Jesus’ ethics. First, we must do the right thing – no hypocrisy or saying one thing and doing another. Second, we must do it with the right motive (and not for the approval of other people). Third, Jesus makes frankly extreme demands. He asks us to be perfect even as our father is perfect. He tells the rich young man to give away all that he has to follow him. Jesus asks us to love strangers the way we love our families, to not defend ourselves when we are attacked. Finally, Jesus also uses hyperbole. He famously says that if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.

All this makes me long for a simple religious code with specific rules, a clearly defined way to be righteous. But that is the whole point. Jesus makes impossible demands. He does not give simple rules to follow but maddeningly general commands. He does not care about what you do but what you think, about how you meant what you did. He asks the impossible.

So what is the point of all this? Everyone fails this test without exception. There is no righteous person in the Christian universe. For Christians no set of rules will ever be enough. Jesus does not teach this to make you miserable or frustrated, but because how you feel about yourself is less important than how you care for other people

The direct result of Jesus’ teaching is that no line divides saints from sinners, the pure from the unclean, the justified from the unjustified. In fact, if we get right down to it Jesus throws out the whole idea that we really can be saintly, pure and justified.

Ta Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me he writes about the deep need that white people feel to be exonerated, to be let off the hook for the horrible things that have happened to African American people in the past and going into the future. [5] Coates will not bend to this need and in many respects Jesus won’t either.

During Lent Christians remember that our time on this planet is finite, from dust we come and to dust we shall return. When the rest of the world points their fingers at the mayors, sports heroes and pop stars, we take this chance to look at our own lives. We celebrate the freedom from the rules that separate us from each other and the joy that arises in our hearts through Christ’s love and forgiveness.

Let us pray: Most gracious God, you show us a vision of what it might mean to be perfect, and you open our eyes to see the ways that we have come up short, so that we might be more understanding with each other. During these forty days of Lent bless us and draw us more closely to the home that we can only find in you. Amen.
[1] Matier & Ross, “Mayor: Homeless ‘have to leave the street’ for Super Bowl, The San Francisco Chronicle, 25 August 2015.

[2] Michael Powell, “Cam Newton, Sacked Six Times Brings Himself Down,” The New York Times, 8 February 2016.

[3] “Cam Newton Defends Postgame Behavior after the Super Bowl,” The Associated Press, 9 February 2016.

[4] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (NY: HarperCollins, 2012), 44ff.

[5] Ta Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (NY: Spiegel and Grau, 2015).

Wednesday, February 10
Ash Wednesday 12:10 Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
Sermon from the 12:10 Ash Wednesday Holy Eucharist
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Text and PDF for this sermon are not available.

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.

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