The Rev. Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
August 30, 2015: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
Have you ever had one of those feelings of déjà vu? Those moments where you are suddenly back to where you were 20 or 30 years ago, and suddenly you see it again. And there’s this weird thing where you see what you saw 20 years ago, and you are a different person. And yet the proximity and the distance and who you are then and who you are now all come together in this blinding moment, this epiphany that teaches you something; something new about yourself and your world. Have you ever had one of those experiences?
Earlier this month, I had a moment of déjà vu. I was taking my daughter, Phoebe, on a trip to see colleges. One of the colleges she wanted to see was Brown University, and I really hadn’t been on the campus very much since the day I graduated in 1988. So we were driving back onto the campus, and we went alongside, and Providence has been transformed over the years. It was an incredibly dingy, horrible city when we first got there in the ‘80s, and now it’s just dingy.
We got there and we stopped at the base of College Hill, and we stopped in front of the First Baptist Church which is this beautiful colonial white church, and I suddenly had this memory return, this incredibly vivid moment in my life. Two weeks into my time at Brown University as a freshman, I and a classmate interviewed Jimmy Carter. How it happened was I got up early one morning and the other guy in the hall that was up early was a guy Greg Feldberg and we decided to get some breakfast, and we were out getting some breakfast and we decided that we should probably buy the Sunday New York Times because that’s what educated people were to do and we went off.
When we got the Times, we found this little newsstand that is now far gone, and we bought the New York Times and as I was paying the man, the guy selling me the paper said, “Hey, look. Jimmy Carter.” I turned around and coming out of the First Baptist Church in Providence was the former President of the United States. Greg and I ran across the street and we met the secret service and we told them that we were reporters from the Brown Daily Herald and we wanted an interview. This was not true but we wanted an interview. They said, the guy, I can’t remember his name, he had a big mustache, he said, “Call back at 3 o’clock. We’ll tell you if we could fit you in and it would be at 7 o’clock tonight.” Then we immediately ran over to the Brown Daily Herald and we said, you have to credential us because we are about to have an exclusive interview with Jimmy Carter and the Providence Journal hasn’t covered this yet. They gave us credentials, we went back over, and at 7 o’clock, we had an interview with Jimmy Carter.
At that time, this was during the re-election for Ronald Reagan. At that time, the big news of the time was the debates between Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan and whether Ronald Reagan could still keep up with Walter Mondale, and so we asked Carter about those things. Then, asked him about why he was in Providence and he said he was there because he was taking his daughter on a college visit, Amy, wanted to look at Brown and he said that he would not interfere or visit Brown if she was accepted because he wanted her to have space to experience her own time in her own college.
We went back. We filed the story. The story came out and we were feted a little bit at the Brown Daily Herald, the new freshman who came in and did this. We thought we were going to be our generation’s version of Woodward and Bernstein, Danaher and Feldberg. But not two or three months later, both of us had found different things to do and we went our own way and did our own thing. That incredible memory of meeting Jimmy Carter got wrapped up and just went missing until I saw it again earlier this month.
When I saw it again, I began to think about all the different questions I should’ve asked. If I had a chance to meet Jimmy Carter again, I wouldn’t ask him about a political campaign. I wouldn’t even ask him about faith and politics. I wouldn’t ask him about his incredible work to ensure free and fair elections and human rights. I think I’d be like so many others who are now asking him about his faith. Earlier this summer, Jimmy Carter revealed that he was dying of cancer and a huge number of people ran in and flocked to hear him teach Sunday school and they wanted to know how it is he could maintain his faith as he faced this incredible struggle. I suddenly became aware earlier this month in a strange way. I said, what an incredibly, amazing, decent, faithful, kind human being he was to grant us an interview, but more importantly, to be the kind of person of faith that he was. He reminds me a little bit of Bill McAdam to be honest with you who we just lost earlier this month. Kind, decent, cheerful, effervescent, and making a huge difference in a small number of lives but that difference is real.
What do you think it is that Jimmy Carter would say if he were going to say what holds him together? I think, that it would be that the essence of faith is an intimate, personal relationship with God and Jesus Christ. That intimate, personal, vulnerable relationship was the source of his identity, the core of his character, and the rock on which he rested as he reached the end of his life.
All of our readings today speak to this fundamental truth of having an intimate and personal relationship with God. A reading from the Song of Solomon is a love song. It’s a romantic poetry. It’s as if you or I would have taken a Harlequin novel and placed it in the middle of the Bible. Interestingly enough in the Song of Solomon, God has not mentioned, hardly ever, it’s all about a lover and a beloved. Yet, that’s its revelation to us that God desires us and delights in us as much as we delight and desire another. As deep and as intimate as our relationships are with those we love, so God’s love is yet deeper and more intimate.
In our reading from James, James is speaking about the need to be doers of the word rather than just hearers of the word. He’s making a point about identity. Don’t be like those people who walk away from a mirror and no longer see who they are. But the source of that identity, that action, is that intimate relationship in which we are born of the word. Be slow to anger, quick to listen. James writes, be gentle in other words. Because just as important, as doing right in the world around us, is walking humbly and mercifully and always with God at the core of our being.
Finally, in our gospel reading for today, Jesus in the midst of this of this debate with the Pharisees and we can boil down this debate in the following way. We could say that the Pharisees are speaking about religion as a performance of the body that is known through rituals of washing and rituals of eating. Jesus identifies the core of religion as being a performance of the heart, as being tied up in who we are most intimately and being concerned with our intentions, not simply with our external actions or traditions.
Now you and I are probably not going to fall prey to the things that Jesus speaks to in today’s Gospel. It’s not something I worry about. I don’t think that you all are going to suddenly start to add new rituals of washing or eating. But I think where this connects with who we are is that you and I can become focused on externals, on status, on how we appear, on what others think about us about our successful careers. These things cloud our joy and obscure the light that we might be if we were to allow our hearts to be open and transparent and transformed by God’s spirit.
The thing I regret most about my meeting with Jimmy Carter and the reason why I forgot it so quickly is it was only a moment of status-seeking for me and not a chance to meet a mature, decent, humble Christian man. That’s what I’ve mourned a bit. I mourned that opportunity to meet him, and so I did what I usually do. I bought a few books by him. This is what he wrote in 1997 and it serves as a summary of what I’m trying to say today. The title of this chapter is “The Lord Looks at the Heart.”
The Bible refers to every Christian as a saint, but it doesn’t mean we are all perfect. We all know we’re not. It means that we set aside for this. We are set aside for the service of God. Anointed spiritually, if not physically, as God’s servants on earth. With God’s presence through the power of the Holy Spirit, each of us is given the potential of exaltation of greatness. Not greatness in the sense of fame or glory, with headlines in the newspapers or stories in the TV news about our deeds, but rather, the greatness that God measures. The Lord looks at the heart we are told. There are simple things about us that might never be known by most people, what we think, what we pray, how we feel, the small meaningful things we do or fail to do for another person. In God’s eyes, these are the deeds for which we are anointed and they may make us worthy of exaltation.
If we strive whether persistently or intermittently to serve Christ, there are many things that need not worry us. We don’t have to worry about how wise or clever we are because God chose the foolish. We don’t have to worry about how powerful we are because God chose the weak. We don’t have to worry about how popular we are or whether we’ll amount to anything much because God chose the despised and the ones who are nothing. None of those human measurements counts when it comes to performing great acts in life. Great acts as defined by God, acts of humility, obedience, and love.
May this day be a day that you know yourself as beloved by God and invited into worship and relationship and may you find this day a time when your heart might shine with his light. Amen.