Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
Easter Day: Sunday, April 5, 2015
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
Just about 17 years ago, I was at a pivot point in my life. I had recently become ordained. I had recently become a father, and I was trying to complete a Ph.D. dissertation. And all of those things were coming together for one year, and it was crushing me. I was consumed by that pressure to try to achieve what I had hoped to achieve in my life. I was trying to be a good father, trying to be a scholar, trying to be a husband, trying to balance all of these things, and it was crushing me. I was having this incredible writer’s block.
And so I took two huge book bags and I put in every book that I had taken out of the library and I trudged in. I went looking in the Yale library system for a place where I could spread things out and have some peace and quiet and try to recollect my thoughts. And I found this wonderful spot. It was this tiny library, intimate, wood-paneled, with beautiful tables, and I set myself up there one morning at 7:00. I had about eight hours of uninterrupted time to read and reflect and write a bit. And I thought for a moment that I could actually get there. I had this great, great clarity.
And then I went the next morning, 7:00, with book bags in hand, and there was this woman in the library too. She was sitting across from me, and she was wearing parachute pants. And I went over to my side and she looked over at me and smiled. And I thought, “Just going to give her some space.” Worked away, but I couldn’t help feeling her presence. It was starting to drive me a little crazy, and then I suddenly became kind of curious. So I went over and I said, “Are you a student or faculty member here?” And she said, “Oh no, I’m just a morning person,” and smiled. Then I thought to myself, “Nutcase.”
For some reason, I don’t know why this is the case, but in libraries, either it’s public libraries or it’s libraries in the best universities in the world, they attract a certain population. Yale had plenty of those. Some of them were tenured faculty but most of them were just nutcases – or tenured faculty who weren’t nutcases. So I just gave her her space for about three or four weeks. And then I got curious again, so I went over one morning and I said, “Well, what do you do?” And she said, “I run a camp for battered women and this is my off season. And this is where I go to recollect myself.” And I said, “Why did you find yourself doing that?” And she said, “I believe that joy is a birthright given by God, and everything I do with those women is to help them reclaim that birthright.”
Well, I was just stunned because at that moment in my life I felt as if I had squandered or traded away or lost my birthright. I had all these wonderful things going on, and in retrospect they appear rich to me now, but at the time they were killing me. And it was all because I had let the joy escape me. It went through my fingers. And so I would spend time actually visiting with her. I checked in with her every day as I was working away on the first chapter, and I would talk to her about what children’s story I was reading to my children. And she listened and smiled and told me she was praying for me.
When I think about the resurrection, I think about that sentence: “Joy is a birthright given by God.” That woman was, for me, like the first witnesses of the resurrection we read about in the gospel of Mark who saw Jesus and shared the news with the disciples. She alerted me to the fact that joy was a birthright given by God. And that is all bound up in the resurrection. Joy is not success. Joy is not prosperity. Joy is not the fulfillment of every one of your expectations. In fact, joy has nothing to do with any circumstances. Joy is about relation. Joy is about being transformed in relationships.
This is why someone on a desert island might be satisfied, but they can never be joyful because you need another to experience joy. And the wonder and privilege of being a Christian is believing and knowing that Jesus has come so that we might have the joy of knowing him, and the resurrection exists as a revelation of God’s own self because it reveals to us the extent that God went to so that we can experience the joy of being in relation with him, and the joy of being knit to one another as the body of Christ. You and I have been privileged with this relationship, and too often we squander it. Too often we neglect it. Too often we let it slip through our fingers because we become distracted by things that aren’t worthy of our attention in the long run.
Easter is here to remind us to reclaim that birthright. Jesus has come and he won that birthright for us, not in election, not in a courtroom, not by drafting a constitution, but by dying so that we might live, by inhabiting a frail and mortal body with its own history and its own family dynamics, and its own complicated mix of ethnicity and culture and nationality so that all of these things that make us who we are as human beings can be opportunities for our transfiguration through the light of his resurrection. And that is the good news and that’s why we say, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”
I’ve shared with you one last piece of art from this Holy Week. It’s from a panel that was painted by Matthias Grünewald sometime between 1512 and 1516. On Good Friday, I showed the congregation this incredible portrait of Christ at his crucifixion in which Grünewald imagined the people who were coming to see Christ crucified. And these were people who were suffering from ergot poisoning. They had sores on their bodies. They were getting gangrenous limbs. And he painted this beautiful picture of Christ suffering from their ailments to communicate to them the extent to which Christ’s own suffering was a participation in their suffering, and their suffering was a participation in Christ’s suffering.
And now, today, we have the inner part of this panel, when it opens up. This is the moment in which we recognize that the completion of God’s revelation of God’s self in the incarnation is the resurrection, the union of God and humanity, of divinity and humanity, of God and man and Jesus Christ. And so Grünewald paints this picture so that we can see a vision of a risen Lord with skin clear, with wounds that are no longer fatal, a risen Lord who is bursting with light.
These rings around Jesus are from the ancient or medieval depictions of the Trinity, which portrayed these rings of color, these different rings of color, three of them. And here we have Jesus ascending and descending at that moment of resurrection, of showing that there is a relationship that we’re brought into through Him, and that He is bringing the relationship of God to us. You and I have the opportunity to grow into that relationship, and running throughout is this incredible face that is communicating joy.
Jesus’ face in this painting is joyful. This is not the laughing Jesus of 1970. This is a stern face but a benevolent face. A face that has passed through suffering so that we might pass through suffering as well, so that when we suffer we can take comfort in the fact that he is with us both in death and in life. That is the meaning of Easter. We are never alone by virtue of Jesus. And our humanity with all that we have experienced, with our marriages, or our mis-marriages, with our careers and with our blind alleys, with the academic pursuits that we have failed at and succeeded at. All of these things will be transfigured by our relationship with Jesus. They will become light to other people. They will become a reason for connecting. We will see Christ in one another because now we are in Him and He is in us through His body. And that is good news. Praise God for his resurrection and God bless you this day. And may you find a joy that is complete. Amen.