The Rev. Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
Your light alone, Dear God, can shine in such a way to penetrate the darkness of our lives and to lead us on to see you face to face. May your light shine now and forever. Amen.
When I was in college, a sophomore, I went to a conference that had been sponsored by a para-church organization. I got to know an evangelist. His name was Ron Fraser and, through some family connections, we became friends and stayed in touch for a couple of years.
Every time I read today’s Gospel from Mark, or any of the core call narratives in the Gospels, I think about the moment when I met him. Ron was a successful advertising executive who gave up his career to become a full-time Christian Minister. At the conference, he told the audience about that decision.
Ron had been assigned by his advertising agency to be in charge of the Alpo Dog Food account. He worked with Lorne Greene, who was the star of Bonanza, a TV Western that ran from 1959 to 1973, and who radiated authenticity. And so Ron and his team were thinking: how can we better use Lorne Greene? They decided that for this shot – it was 1980 – they would have Lorne Greene interact with an old but robust dog. At the right moment, Lorne Greene would look at the camera and say, “Maybe Danny’s been around so long because Alpo has been around so long.”
And so they began looking for the dog that would fit the bill, and they found two dogs that were fourteen years old apiece. The first dog was incredibly beautiful. It had the shiny coat. It looked well fed. But this dog was blind, deaf and couldn’t move. It had horribly arthritic legs. The second dog was mangy. It had huge pieces of skin peeking through its coat. But this dog could hear, see and move relatively easily for fourteen years old — which is about ninety-eight in people years.
Initially they tried to dress up the bad-looking dog, they tried to stick on some fur and it didn’t work out very well. So they decided to go with the first dog.
They developed the following strategy: they starved the dog for a day. That way, he would be really good and hungry. And then in order to get the dog to walk alongside Lorne Greene, Ron Fraser held a piece of meat and back-pedaled. The dog smelled the meat and would move as quickly as the dog could move on its arthritic four legs, which wasn’t very quickly but it looked like it was trotting, you know, joyfully. Then Lorne Greene would put the dog food down and the dog would smell the dog food and stop and eat.
So they set up the scene and it went exactly as they expected. The dog came trotting, Ron back-pedaled, the dog ate the food, and Lorne Greene looked at the camera and delivered his line that a regular diet of Alpo had contributed to that dog’s longevity.
At that moment, for some reason, Ron had this epiphany. He realized that he could not stay in advertising, even though it was incredibly successful, and people loved the commercial. (You’ve probably seen it if you’re of a certain age. It was a hit. I think it actually won an award or two.) Nonetheless, he knew that he had to devote himself to other things. So he became a full-time minister.
On Friday I was able to track Ron down and I called him up and I said, “I need to ask you about that story. Did you identify with the good-looking dog? I mean advertising is known for being morally corrosive; it’s not a great career. It’s second, I mean, to others that we would probably name, but it’s not a great career. Did you feel in that moment, that suddenly as you’re backing up you’re saying, ‘I am that dog. I look good but I am deaf, blind and dumb’”?
He said, “No.” He said, “I realized that I have a much better product to promote than Alpo or Tide in our Lord Jesus Christ. And it was to promote that, that I wanted to dedicate my life.”
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark presents us with a call story and this call story is not simply to fill in the details of how the apostles came to follow Jesus. The call story is addressed to you and me. It’s addressed to everybody who hears those words.
Mark constructs the scene to communicate this point. Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God drawing near and people needing to repent and believe. And then those words come to life in the actual call of Peter and Andrew and James and John, while Jesus is walking along the shores of Lake Galilee.
When Ron Fraser described his faith to me, he identified something that is pivotal in that core narrative. As a good Episcopalian, I was used to a kind of both/and approach to things. It’s our tradition to be comprehensive and to avoid some of the polarizations that affect other denominations.
But Christianity is at its core an either/or proposition. Either you respect and follow our Lord Jesus Christ or you don’t. That either/or runs right to the core of the calling of the disciples. Ron was the first Christian that I had met, the first adult Christian, that articulated that in that way and also suggested to me that cleaving to our Lord Jesus Christ was the key to truth, beauty, holiness, and joy.
So I can’t read this Gospel without thinking about that call. When at the end of the conference, we were all invited to step forward and claim Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, I did. I raised my hand. I stepped forward. I never regretted it. Everything that was promised to me that day has come true. I do believe the Christian faith is unique in the joy and truth and peace that it gives us.
Over the years I’ve also seen three ways in which this call is unique, ways that make this call different from just making a choice. Every religion is based upon an exclusive claim. No matter what you hear from people who want to tell you that their religion is non-judgmental or whatever, anything like that, that’s just a kind way of thinking about it. Every religion makes a fundamental claim about reality, about the cosmos, the world we live in, about the ethnos – the people that are involved. This is something anthropologists know.
What makes Christianity unique is that either/or connects us to God through Jesus Christ with a personal relationship. By that I mean that there is a transformational intimacy to being a Christian. We can know Jesus in a way that we cannot know the Buddha. This is why Paul says, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me.” Because that transformational intimacy is pivotal to Christianity.
The second thing that we have to keep in mind, and it is one of the things that I have learned along the way, is that the call of the disciples represents the beginning and not the end of the story. By that I mean that, in the Gospel of Mark, if you read it closely, and I invite you to do that, in the Gospel of Mark it is very clear when the disciples are called, they don’t really know what they’re getting into. The story continues, and in a sense, there is no ending to the Gospel of Mark precisely for the reason that discipleship is an orientation towards the future.
My priesthood, as much as that was part of and bound up with that call narrative, is not something in the past. It’s ahead of me, it’s something in the future. My Christianity is not something that can be defined by something that happened to me when I was a sophomore in college. My Christianity is in the future. My humanity is not something that is static or given, it’s something that lies in the future through God’s grace. And the same can be said for anyone here who has answered that call in our own individual way.
The final thing that I learned that has changed the way I understand call, is that we are not only called to a personal relationship that’s individualistic, but we have been called to the body of Christ. We have been called to be transformed by each other, as challenging as that can be, as difficult as that can be, as rewarding as that can be.
Last week we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s Day and I didn’t mention one story that has affected me deeply ever since. When I lived in Tennessee, I became close friends with a man named Francis Walter. You don’t know him. He’s mentioned in some histories. Francis Walter was the priest who replaced the seminarian Jonathan Daniels, who was murdered when he protected a small African-American child in Selma. I don’t want to suggest that Jonathan Daniels wasn’t brave. He was a martyr, but the priest who replaces the martyr, that’s a brave person. Right, it’s the one who steps back into it after knowing the history. Things haven’t worked out well. That’s the person who is brave.
So one day Francis and I were getting ready for Maundy Thursday, and, we were going to do a foot-washing. Francis says to me, “You know the lesson of Maundy Thursday?” and I said, “What?” He said, “It’s that God has an infinite store of difficult people. That the minute you think you can get through something, you will find more difficult people to work with, and you can’t kill them, and you can’t drive them out. You can only hope to be transformed in relationship. That’s Maundy Thursday.” Partly that’s what’s involved in life and the body.
I finish today in a way that you may find surprising because I started by talking about my experience with Evangelical Christianity and we’re going to end with Eastern Orthodoxy. I have placed in your bulletins, a prayer by Symeon the New Theologian and it summarizes everything that I’m trying to say today about relationship, about beginning, about life in the body, and about the God who calls us where we are so that we can continue to grow closer to that God every day.
So I’ll say it and invite you to pray with me:
Come, true light.
Come, life eternal.
Come, hidden mystery.
Come, treasure without name.
Come, reality beyond all words.
Come, person beyond all understanding.
Come, rejoicing without end.
Come, light that knows no evening.
Come, unfailing expectation of the saved.
Come, raising of the fallen,
Come, resurrection of the dead.
Come, all-powerful, for unceasingly you create, refashion and change all
things by your will alone.
Come, invisible whom none may touch and handle.
Come, for you continue always unmoved, yet at every instant you are wholly in movement; you draw near to us who lie in hell, yet you remain higher than the heavens.
Come, for your name fills our hearts with longing and is ever on our lips;
yet who you are and what your nature is, we cannot say or know.
Come, Alone to the alone.
Come, for you are yourself the desire that is within me.
Come, my breath and my life.
Come, the consolation of my humble soul.
Come, my joy, my glory, my endless delight.