The Rev. Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
In every life, there are moments in which we realize that something important is going to happen within the space of a few minutes that is going to affect the course of life. Moments in which you know that the decisions you make and the actions you take are going to have a kind of reverberation through the rest of your life. Opening a letter from a college in March or April is one such moment. Waiting for a judge to give a judgment is another. Playing at a game or running a race. Waiting onstage for the curtain to rise.
I’m lucky in that whenever I’m in these moments I always get this incredible sense of stillness. Whenever I see some kind of crisis I suddenly become still, and it isn’t something that I’m particularly proud of. It’s not some kind of spiritual gift; it’s just the way my body works. When others run screaming in panic, I become catatonic. Sometimes it’s a good thing.
One such moment for me happened last May when I was late in the search process for Christ Church Cranbrook. A delegation from the search committee was coming to visit, and they were there to hear me preach at my cathedral in London, Ontario. As I was getting myself ready in my office before the service, Len, one of the ushers who was from New Jersey, came up to me, and he said, “Somebody is dancing in the middle of the church, and you better take a look.” So I went along and kind of crept up through the chancel––we had a little entry up there––and I looked and there was Abraham. He looked a little bit like Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean.
I usually found Abraham to be cordial and wonderful. He had these incredible, beautiful, sparkling blue eyes, and this easy smile. You’d be talking to him, and you’d think, “What an interesting fellow.” And then the conversation would start to take these twists and turns, and you’d realize that incredible psychic distance separated you from each other. The conversations always ended pleasantly, a little bit like when you watch a ship leave the port and wave until they leave.
On that day, Abraham was in an expressive mood, and so he was in the middle of the aisle and he was kind of dancing during the prelude. The prelude was a classical piece, not the kind of thing that would cause a jig. But he’s dancing away, and so he looked a little bit like an ecstatic Saint Francis welcoming Brother Sun and the mourning doves.
So I went back into my office and I put on my vestments, and the usher came to me and said that he practiced martial arts, and he could take care of him. I said, “Let’s try something peaceful first. Let’s try––” and drawing from my experience as a priest in New York City I said, “There’s two things I want you to do. If he’s drunk, offer him a pack of cigarettes. If he’s sober, offer him breakfast.” In New York City, these things never fail.
Len went up to Abraham and offered him the cigarettes and breakfast, and Abraham politely declined. Then Len sternly admonished him, saying, “If you don’t sit down, I’m going to physically remove you from the church.” So for a moment Abraham went and he sat down carefully, and then when Len left the church he suddenly sprang up, and he’s dancing again. Len came back and reported to me what was going on.
Now, I was facing this moment in which I was trying to impress the Search Committee from Christ Church Cranbrook, so I went and took another peek. I saw that Tom Lloyd was kind of studying his bulletin as if it was the most interesting thing he’d ever seen. Coco Siewert was studying Abraham as if he was part of the morning program. Jackie Watson and Brian Sarver were somewhere in the church. I don’t know if they even noticed. It was a large church, but I think they probably saw something.
So I came back and we were getting ready to go, and we were thinking about what to do. Len said he could move him with the minimum of force. For a moment, we had kind of resolved to do that, and then all of a sudden we all hesitated because we didn’t want the Eucharist to go that way. The church was full of worshipers; the celebration was Pentecost, the day of the Spirit, and we weren’t that kind of cathedral.
So the dean turned to me and said, “It’s your call.” And I said, “Let’s just start and see what happens.” So we processed into the church, and as we processed Abraham saw us coming up the aisle. He went back and he stood out of the way politely. And then when the choir got established and the altar party got established, he went back to dancing, and then got even more excited because he was conducting the choir a little bit.
In that moment, I had that sense of stillness I talked about at the beginning of this sermon. That moment of just incredible stillness because I realized that things were entirely out of my hands. Whether or not I was going to be called to be the Rector of this wonderful place, entirely out of my hands. I had spent hours working on the sermon, and all of that would actually depend not on the sermon itself but on whether or not Abraham could somehow simmer down or the search committee delegation could somehow read what happened through a charitable lens.
Then suddenly I had this other moment, this moment deeper than stillness where I suddenly realized that everything was in God’s hands. That whether or not I would be called to the parish was a question that rested outside of my grasp. And so I had this sense of deep peace that came over me as I watched Abraham dance. And then events took an unexpected turn. Behind Abraham was this man named Charlie Crowe who was small and somewhat elderly and British and a “pillar” of the church. Charlie Crowe, as the opening hymn was ending, buttoned his blazer, ducked around, and put his arm around Abraham. He said to him, “May I worship with you today?” And Abraham said, “Of course.” So as the hymn ended, Charlie said to him, “And now is the time we sit down and listen.” And they sat down together and became quiet.
It was in that moment that I realized that Charlie Crowe was operating out of an even deeper sense of the peace that I felt. It wasn’t just the peace that was willing to wait. It was the peace that comes when people walk in faith. They walk by faith and not by sight. The entire service, Abraham and Charlie shared a hymnal and a bulletin and sat next to each other. Charlie never took his arm off of Abraham. And at the end of the service Abraham drifted away, and Charlie came through, dutifully, as he always did, the greeting line. I thanked him profusely, and he said, “It was the right thing to do given the circumstances.” Charlie’s actions displayed for me a kind of radical trust in God, a willingness to place everything in God’s hands.
All of our readings today speak about this radical trust. In our reading from Genesis, we have that moment in which God makes Abraham an impossible promise: that he would be the father of generations. That nations and kings would spring from Sarah and himself. This is an impossible promise, and yet, Abraham trusted God, and entered into what we read is an everlasting covenant.
In our reading from Romans, Paul tells us that that covenant that Abraham had with God was not based on the law, which was a matter of some kind of external conformity or performance. It was based on grace, on the ability to receive the good that God will do us. And so it is grace that is the foundation of that everlasting covenant, that willingness to receive all that God has for us, that willingness to give all that we have to God, and to live in total dependence and trust on God. Paul tells us that we too can be heirs like Abraham to an everlasting covenant. The only difference is that our covenant has been purchased with the precious blood of Jesus.
Finally, in our gospel today we have this moment where this radical trust is put to the fore. Jesus speaks of his death and his disciples resist it. And then he says, “If anyone desires to be my follower, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who seeks their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the Gospel will find it.” Jesus said these words because the cross for him was this perfect moment of radical trust in God. And he believed that the only way that we participate in the life that comes from his death is by walking into that radical trust ourselves—by losing ourselves so that we might find ourselves in Him.
Now, there are those of you, and there have been many Christians, who will interpret that whole losing yourself to find yourself as a counsel of surrender, of self-denial, of giving up something pleasurable or some kind of happiness for the sake of God. That might be true to some extent. But I think that far more important in today’s gospel is the encouragement to step into a life of total dependence and trust in God. Jesus has given himself fully for our sake, and this symbolizes––and in some ways recapitulates––all the trust God has in us by giving us His covenant, by giving us His Son, by giving us Himself, and the Spirit. God has placed ultimate trust in us. And you and I are called within the context of our complicated lives to find a way to return that trust to God, to give of ourselves, to become vulnerable, to learn the blessing of weakness, to learn the power that comes from worshiping a god whose power is made perfect, as we read in 2 Corinthians 2:19, in weakness.
In this season of Lent, may each of us not only learn to wait for God, but to walk by faith so that we might receive an everlasting covenant bought by Jesus’ precious blood. Amen.