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Sunday, March 29
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, March 12
Thursday 5:15 p.m. Evensong
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Sunday, March 29
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Between the words that are spoken and the words that are heard, may the Spirit of God be present.

 

What is your greatest fear right now? Is it the loss of someone you love who is vulnerable, the loss of your own job and any vestige of financial security, the loss of your own health, or the loss of the world as it used to be just a few short weeks ago? My greatest fear is coronavirus getting into my mother’s senior home in England and her dying without me having any way to say goodbye.

 

It seems like anyone who isn’t afraid at the moment isn’t awake. And, to be clear, fear and distress are allowed, expected, even healthy in situations like these. God’s people have always expressed the full range of their very human emotions to God. From the rage and despair of the psalms – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  – to Jesus weeping, maybe even ugly crying, at the grave side of his friend. We are a people who know what it is to walk through wilderness, to walk through despair, to walk through death and to be accompanied by God for every single step. We are a people who know what it is to walk through the bleakest shadow and to find new light on the other side.

 

I’ve always thought there is something deeply ironic in today’s readings coming at this point in the church year. We’re still deep in Lent, we haven’t even reached Passiontide yet, let alone the new life of the resurrection. But God’s promise of new life doesn’t wait for us to get to the crucifixion or to the empty tomb, It doesn’t wait for the end of a pandemic. it comes to surprise us with joy before we could ever expect it. It breaks into our quiet time of discipline, preparation and separation with a shout of new possibility, new hope, new life.

 

Our Hebrew scripture reading and our gospel tell us of two different ways that God gives new life, each of which we need to hear and cling to in the midst of this pandemic.

 

Lazarus first. He is called out of the cool quiet safety of the cave in which he sleeps in death into the fierce light of life, into the painful joy of his sisters, into noise and hubbub and renewed responsibilities and relationships and life. Let’s be clear Lazarus was not taking physical isolating to extremes, he was dead. God’s fierce gift of life in Christ reaches across that narrow barrier and calls this man to return. To return and then one day to die again.

 

I do not think we can expect ourselves or our beloved ones to be called back to this life from being dead three days. That sharp divine focus on one life seems now to be a broad divine panorama of all lives. God’s voice doesn’t now call one person back from death – but calls all of us back from the many small deaths that keep us from living free, loving, joy-filled, purposeful lives. The death that is despair – I doubt I’m the only one who has woken in the night to cry into my pillow, the death that is indifference – surely those old folk don’t mind dying so that my prosperous life is secure, the death that is hate – let’s make this virus an excuse for yet another brand of racism. Hear Christ’s voice calling you to come out from those small deaths, follow that voice into the light of hope, of cherishing the other, of deep love for all fragile humanity.

 

And then there is the new life that comes to that valley of the dry bones. That wasteland of a society that had turned away from God’s call to justice and to love and had lost its claim to humanity in the process. A society that no longer has the softness of flesh, the vulnerability of blood, the potential of muscle; one that has been reduced to hardness, to scarcity, to the unyielding breakable insufficiency of bone.

 

Ezekiel may have been speaking of what he saw in his own time and people. A people defeated by their own inner demons as well as by outside forces of oppressive, aggressive empires. We need to speak of what we see in our own time and our own people.

 

We are a profoundly broken society, broken long before Covid-19 came along to highlight our deficiencies. We choose leaders for ourselves who consistently put the economic prosperity of large companies above the basic needs of the poor. We rate our own safety as more important than the well-being of others and use fear as a reason to hold children in cages. We fail to weep whenever we see a fellow human being sleeping in dirt on a street corner. This is us – me as well as ‘them’ as well as you. Our society. Our responsibility. Our loss of humanity to become bare cold bones.

 

But we are not a forsaken society. New breath, new gentleness, new vulnerability, new life can come to this bleak valley, to these stripped bones.  Can these bones live? Yes they can, now as then! It is beyond time to open ourselves to God’s breath in us. To the breath that brought us life in the first place. To the breath that speaks words of love and forgiveness. To the breath that breathes in every human being, every living creature, and that unites us more closely more fiercely than our shared vulnerability to Covid 19.

 

How to do that? How to let the prophetic breath of God into our society’s dry bones? How to let the life-giving voice of Christ into our personal little deaths? It is only through the second that we can do the first. To let Christ call us from our small deaths of selfish choices, our small deaths of fearful living, our small deaths of hopelessness. To decide to live as if each person mattered as much as we do. To decide to live as though we truly believe in a God who can bring forgiveness out of judgment, abundance out of scarcity, hope out of despair, life out of death.

 

And to live like this without denying the storm of emotions that sweep through us on a daily basis. The fear, the despair, the anger, the longing for life to be otherwise. Bring these to God. Speak these to others. Know your humanity, and in knowing your own, know the humanity of every person who shares this world with you.

 

I’ll leave you with the words of Australian poet Michael Leunig

 

When the heart

Is cut or cracked or broken

Do not clutch it

Let the wound lie open

 

Let the wind

From the good old sea blow in

To bathe the wound with salt

And let it sting

 

Let a stray dog lick it

Let a bird lean in the hole and sing

A simple song like a tiny bell

And let it ring

Thursday, March 26
Giving Your Life
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Thursday's 5:15pm Evensong Service
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“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” John 12.

 

This poem is called “Ask Me,” by William Stafford (1914-1993):

“Some time when the river is ice ask me

mistakes I have made. Ask me whether

what I have done is my life. Others

have come in their slow way into

my thought, and some have tried to help

or to hurt: ask me what difference

their strongest love or hate has made.

 

I will listen to what you say.

You and I can turn and look

at the silent river and wait. We know

the current is there, hidden; and there

are comings and goings from miles away

that hold the stillness exactly before us.

What the river says, that is what I say.”[1]

 

Is what you have done your life? What difference have those who love you and hate you made?

Jesus says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (Jn. 12). He puts into question what it means to live or die. He makes us less certain what our life really is. I believe that it takes someone with the power of Jesus to dispel our most persistent illusions. Some fantasies can be so widespread within a culture that it can take generations to understand the truth.

On August 18, 1967 at Boston’s Fenway Park Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigliaro was at the plate facing California Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton. On the first pitch Hamilton threw a fastball that crushed the left side of Conigliaro’s face. Conigliaro never completely recovered from his injury. He left baseball in 1975 and died at the age of forty-five. That moment changed Jack Hamilton forever too.

In 1990 when Conigliaro died, Hamilton gave an interview with the New York Times in which he recalled what happened that day. “I’ve had to live with it,” He said,”I think about it a lot. It was like the sixth inning when it happened. I think the score was 2-1, and he was the eighth hitter in the batting order. With the pitcher up next, I had no reason to throw at him.” Hamilton remembers visiting him in the hospital that afternoon. He also remembers wondering whether he should return to Fenway for the next series of games that season.

Although Hamilton probably thought about this day many times his recollections were almost completely wrong. The accident didn’t happen in the sixth inning but in the fourth. The score was not 2-1 but 0-0. Conigliaro wasn’t the eighth hitter but the sixth. It wasn’t even a day game so Hamilton couldn’t have visited him in the hospital that afternoon, and there were no other games in Boston that year for him to wonder about whether or not he should go back there.[2]

It should come as no surprise to us that our memories are unreliable, that we get important details wrong. A cognitive psychologist asked forty-four students the question, “How did you first hear the news of the space ship Challenger explosion.” He asked them the morning after the explosion and then two and a half years later. Although they described the memories as vivid during this second interview, none of their memories were completely accurate and one third of their memories were what the researcher called “wildly inaccurate.” Many of these students couldn’t believe that their revised memories were wrong. “This is my handwriting, so it must be right,” said one student, “but I still remember everything the way I told you [just now]. I can’t help it.”[3]

In modern times there are so many subtle ways of not believing in God. One of them is to understand ourselves as a kind of videotape that summarizes our past, to think that in a significant sense we are our memories. If this is the implicit picture that someone has of himself, a psychologist’s claims that the tape is unreliable can seem like an attack on a person’s identity.

For me this way of understanding our selves is in contrast with the Bible. According to Christian tradition we do not have an existence that is independent of God. Who we are does not derive from who we were. Our life is not something that came about accidentally because of the lust or love of two other human beings a long time ago. We don’t earn our life. Instead we constantly derive our life from God. Who we are is a gift from God that we receive every day.

This means that you are fundamentally safe. You do not need to worry about losing your job, your spouse, your health, the respect of the other kids in school. The self that you are is not something that you achieve through some kind of work. It is not something that comes into existence because of what you think. This self is safe from the world

Perhaps what Jesus means is that the part of ourselves we are so afraid of losing isn’t really us anyway.

The novelist Ernest Hemmingway writes about a father in Spain who wanted to be reconciled to his runaway son. The father takes out an advertisement in the Madrid paper El Liberal. It says, “Paco, meet me noon on Tuesday at the Hotel Montana. All is forgiven! Love, Papa.” Paco was a common name in those days. When the father showed up he found eight hundred young men looking for their fathers.[4]

The way that Jesus speaks through the Bible is like this. Right here we have a whole sworld full of Pacos, of children returning to their father. We are not our memories, our thoughts or even our actions. Like California pitcher Jack Hamilton we will make minor mistakes and some terrible life-changing ones.

But none of this changes the truth. You can ask me if what I have done is my life or about the influence of people who have loved and hated me. But that is not what I am. We are children of God who Jesus calls to return. And one day he will lift us all up into the fullness of divine joy.

 

[1] Published in Twentieth-Century American Poetry, Ed. Dana Gioia, David Mason, Meg Schoerke (NY: McGraw Hill, 2004), 530.

[2] Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketchem, The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 75.

[3] Ibid., 91-2.

[4] Thomas Tewell, “The Things We Dare Not Remember,” Thirty Good Minutes, 16 November 2003. http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/tewell_4707.htm

Sermons from the last six months are available below. You can also listen to our sermons as a podcast, Sermons from Grace, wherever you get your podcasts!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[i] Assuming a life expectancy of 77.6 years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 13
Take Up Your Cross
Preacher: The Rev. Tyrone Fowlkes
Sermon from Sunday's 6pm Service
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