Sermons from Grace Cathedral

Sunday, November 17
A Poem that Would Live Forever
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“For behold, I create a new heavens and a new earth… Be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create” (Isaiah 65).


“When I left college and set out to be a poet I thought of nothing but writing a poem that would live forever. That’s just how I phrased it: live forever. It seemed to me the only noble ambition… It was, I suppose, a transparent attempt to replace soul with the self.”[1]

Christian Wiman writes this to explain how poetry abandoned him, about how becoming a Christian required him to give up the fantasy that his words could last forever. What fantasy do you need to leave behind for the sake of faith?

It is hard to believe that it has been less than a month since the devastating fires here because so much happens every day. On Friday for instance, another school shooting took place here in California (Santa Clarita). The president pardoned a list of American men convicted of war crimes. On the same morning former ambassador to Ukraine Marie L. Yovanovitch testified before a Congressional impeachment hearing. As she spoke the president derided her on Twitter. She talked about election interference and its effect on foreign policy. She wondered, “How could our system fail like this? How is it that foreign corrupt interests could manipulate our government?”[2]

It feels a little like W.B. Yeats’ (1865-1939) poem “The Second Coming.” “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / the ceremony of innocence is drowned / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity. / Surely some revelation is at hand; / surely the Second Coming is at hand.”[3]

  1. Indeed make no mistake the Second Coming is at hand. Our Gospel this morning speaks of three moments, three realizations of this truth. In the 8th century BC the prophet Isaiah wrote to inspire a people who had been held captive in distant Babylon.

He conveys God’s message to them, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered…” (Isa. 65). But “the former things” do “come to mind.” The gladness and rejoicing will come as reversals of the terrible tragedies that have afflicted them. Children dying, sinners never finding atonement, people who after laboring have their houses and fields taken from them – these things will no longer happen. Isaiah conveys God’s promise of a new day of peace when the “wolf and lamb will feed together.”

By the time of Jesus the temple in Jerusalem has been both restored and corrupted. Every Sunday for the last six months we have been following Jesus’ travels in Luke only to arrive at this very point. This is Jesus’ last public sermon. Immediately before this Jesus warns the people to beware of religious leaders who love being honored, who draw attention to themselves through their long prayers. In contrast Jesus admires a poor widow who gave two cents because it was all she had.

Jesus hears people admiring the way the temple is adorned. The Greek word for this is kekosmētai. It combines a sense of both beauty and order like our words cosmos or cosmetic.[4] So imagine someone complimenting the architecture of the United States Capitol and you have a sense for what is happening.

Jesus explains that everything they see will be utterly destroyed. What the disciples and these people so desperately hope for is a warrior king who will overthrow the foreign Roman occupying army and the collaborators in charge of all social institutions. The disciples desperately resist what Jesus is teaching them. He gives them a completely upside down picture of servant leadership in which the greatest is “servant of all” (Mk. 9:35). God is not merely changing who is in charge but overthrowing that whole way of existing. In the realm of God, which is unfolding all around us, love matters more than power.

That is why Jesus warns the people to beware of false leaders who still exalt power over love. He says people will come in his name saying “Eigo eimi” which we translate as “I am he,” but which really means simply “I am.” John’s gospel repeats this all the time. Jesus says, “I am the true vine” (Jn. 15:1), “I am the light of the world” (Jn. 8:12, 9:5). This is an echo of Moses’ encounter with God at the Burning Bush. Moses asks who God is and God says “Eigo eimi” “I am.”

False leaders will say the time is at hand. They will say the chairos, the fulfilled time is near. Do not go after them. The telos, which is more than a simple end but a fulfillment,  a completion, “will not follow immediately” (Luke 21).

  1. Jesus’ last public sermon points to a second moment in history. When the region revolted against Roman rule the Emperor Vespasian sent troops to crush the people. After a four month siege in the year 70 AD the Romans (under the future emperor Titus) destroyed the temple and the city. Thousands of people were killed and it seemed like a great culture and religion had been utterly destroyed. Biblical scholars are not exactly sure when Luke composed this gospel but they believe it might have been some time around these events.[5]

In the first and second centuries it was illegal to be a Christian. Because we inhabit a different age and culture we have difficulty imagining a world in which politics and religion were so thoroughly intermixed. Christians refused to make the required sacrifice to the Roman emperor and this was regarded as a grave political crime. When things went wrong in society like earthquakes, wars, plagues, famines and signs in the heavens it was common to persecute the Christians.[6]

The same emperor Vespasian built a Roman coliseum that seated 50,000 people. Killing Christians in gruesome ways was entertainment in that society. They made no distinction between capital punishment and a sacrifice to the gods. We have a written account of the details around the execution of Perpetua, Felicitas and their companions in the year 203 AD. Perpetua was a twenty-two year old noblewoman and was nursing her infant in prison before being killed in the amphitheater by wild animals and the sword.[7]

And to the people of this moment Jesus speaks frankly about the way they will be arrested (paradidomi) and persecuted, brought before kings and governors for his name’s sake (Lk. 21). Jesus says to them. This will be a time for you to bear testimony (marturion). To people in the most extreme circumstance Jesus has such a simple message. Don’t agonize over preparing what you will say, “for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” You will be betrayed by those who are supposed to love you, “[b]ut not a hair of your head will perish.”

  1. The final moment the gospel speaks to is of course our own. In this time of political turmoil it is hard for us to see past the headlines. Everywhere so many prominent leaders violate accepted conventions concerning power and civility, and as the internet amplifies the most extreme voices, we cannot help but suffer from a kind of outrage fatigue.

And meanwhile we face the most serious threat in recorded history. Modern society may make the planet uninhabitable for humans and countless other species. In the words of a recent commentator we have radically underestimated the effects of our actions. Twenty-five years ago it would have been inconceivable to us that within such a short time, “a single heat wave would measurably raise sea levels an estimated two one-hundredths of an inch, bake the Arctic, produce Sahara-like temperatures in Paris and Berlin.”[8] This is the most important news from summer. This is the story of our generation.

I want to suggest two small things that you might do as servant leaders to help. First, in all our conversations we need to be honest about this reality. This week an acquaintance was talking about fires that were “just normal not from climate change or anything.” I just let this go instead of clarifying what she meant by this comment. At your Thanksgiving dinner tables I encourage you to let a lot go – but not this. Our generation has a unique responsibility in all human history.

Second, when you work alone it is hard to be effective and easy to become discouraged. At Grace Cathedral everybody counts. Volunteer, make a pledge, join a group or form one. Become a teacher, an usher, an acolyte or a docent. Exercise leadership and worship here because this is part of how God is saving the world. We are so much stronger together than we are as individuals. And the very poorest and most ignored person here may make the offering that will save us.

On this ingathering Sunday the world will see in us the opposite of Yeats’ poem. At Grace Cathedral the center does hold, things that fell apart are being repaired, innocence is not drowned but nurtured. The best have conviction and the worst find forgiveness for their sins.

Although it may seem strange in this world of wars and rumors of wars, of persecutions and betrayals, the second coming is incredibly good news to us. God has written a poem that will live forever. It is not a political party, or a system of government, or even a religion. It is not even this world.

The poem is you. And you will not perish. Leave your fantasies behind because we have reason for a far greater hope. God is creating a new heavens and a new earth. Be glad and rejoice forever.


[1] Christian Wiman, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art (NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2018) 6-7.

[2] Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Ex-Envoy to Ukraine ‘Devastated’ as Trump Vilified Her,” The New York Times, 15 November 2019. The next day (Saturday) we heard that the Chinese government could have sent as many as one million people into internment camps in just the last few years.

[3] The rest of W.B. Yeats’ poem:

“The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming.”

[4] keko/smhtai

[5] and,

[6] In about the year 197 the North African Tertullian wrote, “If the Tiber reaches the walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the sky doesn’t move or the earth does, if there is a famine, if there is a plague, the cry is at once, ‘The Christians to the lion…” Margaret R. Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) 19.


[8] Eugene Linden, “How Scientists Got Climate Change So Wrong,” The New York Times, 8 November 2019.

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