The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
September 17, 2015
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
About ten years ago, I was out for brunch with a parishioner from a church that I had preached at. It was a wonderful, beautiful church, St. Paul’s in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This church in Tennessee is kind of the brick equivalent of the stone beauty of Christ Church Cranbrook. The parishioner asked me a question. He said to me, “Why are you an Anglican?” At that time, I was a professor at a theological college, and so I had an answer readymade, and it came out as a kind of large, encompassing vision in which I said, “To be an Anglican is to be in the world in a certain way in which you are called to bear witness to God’s truth, God’s goodness, and God’s beauty as it has been revealed in the face of his son, Jesus Christ.
“To be an Anglican is to participate in a body of Christ that is broken and yet being redeemed by the spirit. To be an Anglican is to remember that God’s generosity stands before and at the end of everything that we do, that all that we do is a catching up with what God is already doing in our midst. To be an Anglican is to realize that we become our true self the moment that we live for others.” Somewhere around the middle point at which I was giving this explanation, I also went through all of the major figures of the Anglican tradition – from Richard Hooker to John Donne to F. D. Maurice to William Temple, to Rowan Williams – and I realized that he was no longer listening to me. It appeared that he wanted an answer and not a lecture, so I tried to recoup, and so I said, “Well why are you an Anglican?”
He said, “I don’t know if I can put it into the words that you used. I suppose I became an Anglican the moment I went to church one day and it was this wonderful service. During the procession in, an old man who was sitting with what was most likely his grandchild, bent over and whispered into his grandchild’s ear as the procession made its way down. He pointed at the cross and he said to his little grandchild, ‘I carried that cross.’” Then my brunch companion burst into tears. I didn’t know what to do when I heard what he said in part because hollandaise and high emotion do not go well with me, I am used to my brunches being kind of polite affairs. I didn’t know what to say. I also didn’t know what to say in part because I realized that he had identified something that I had missed and the whole grand vision that I had set before him.
You see for my brunch companion, Anglicanism was a lived reality more than an idea. As I thought about what to say today on this day in which we celebrate the founding of this incredible church, this conversation came to mind because on one level we are giving thanks for the incredible generosity and vision of our founders for the way in which they imagined a church and brought it into being through their own generosity. A church which was in many ways the quintessence of what it meant to be an Anglican church, which was to be a church open to all people, and yet centered on Jesus Christ, and on these things of truth, beauty, and goodness, all of which have been created by God and redeemed by Christ.
Yes, this church is beautiful and wonderful, but there is something else that is just as important as the founding vision and generosity of people like George and Ellen Booth, and that is the way in which others have stepped in to carry this tradition onward. My friend alerted me to the fact that not only does Anglicanism and the church need to be embodied, but it relies on people coming one after the other through the generations to proclaim with us the wonder of God’s glory. This succession of believers is what sociologists call it, this succession of people who are willing to carry the cross and to participate in our worship and our work and our witness. These people are also founders of Christ Church Cranbrook. What you see when you see this movement through the ages of people who come is you realize that just as important as the vision that inspired our founding, is the fact that you had people who were flawed and fragile and fallible – all willing to become the earthen vessels bearing the treasure within them of Jesus Christ.
Soren Kierkegaard at the end of his incredible book Fear and Trembling writes this, he says, no matter how much one generation receives from the other, in each generation there is something that is the authentically human factor and this is the starting point each generation – each generation begins afresh with this authentically human factor that keeps a religion alive. That factor, he writes, is passion. We exist because people have been willing to come along in each generation and carry forward that founding vision so that it might be an icon in our local community and in our wider world.
A couple of weeks ago I went to see Dwight Harding who is a pillar of this church. Many of you know him and he suddenly received news that he only has a few months to live. I went to see him, and I realized in that exchange that it was more than a meeting of your typical priest and person who is in need. There was a sense in which I suddenly realized the awesome and humbling responsibility of being the Rector of Christ Church Cranbrook, because as soon as I sat down he wanted to give me a word as to what this church has meant to him. He said to me this, he said, “You know this church has been through ups and downs, but I’ve always experienced it as a place of love.” Then he cried and then I cried, because I suddenly got it. He has been willing to be one of those people in the succession of believers, the people on whom our founders are counting on, the people for whom this church lives or perishes.
In today’s gospel we have this incredible moment in which Jesus is talking with his disciples and Jesus is being a bit stern with them, because they had criticized somebody who was preaching the gospel or anointing someone without being part of their number. Jesus scolds them and says that they don’t control who is or is not part of their company, that the Kingdom of God is the measure by which they should see membership in the body of Christ. Jesus uses stern language because that Kingdom will always judge what we do, and will always call out from us better efforts than we can even imagine or ask for. That Kingdom is larger than anything they could think up.
One way to summarize today’s gospel is from an African proverb which says ‘I tried to point out to you a star, but you only saw my finger’. Jesus is saying to his disciples, “I am trying to point out to you a star. Don’t be distracted by my finger.” Our founders, when they began this church, they were trying to point out to us a star. We can never be distracted by their finger. One way in which I saw this gospel for today come to life was from an early book about Christ Church Cranbrook. This is one of the few that I know that exist. It was sent to me by a woman who lived in Florida, who was cleaning up her mother’s library. Her mother had passed away and her mother never attended Christ Church Cranbrook, had no connection. She was going through the library and here she found this book and so she sent it to me with a nice note. I wrote a nice note back because there’s no date on it but it was written by Henry Booth who then, I guess, he had a little pen name called Thistle.
Henry Booth writes this, probably right between 29 and 30, and he does this little view of what this church is about. As I was reading it and preparing for today I saw this image that he was talking about when he was describing the incredible fresco that Kate McEwan painted, and that image I’ve placed before you today in your bulletins. This is what the fresco is meant to represent. Over on the left side you have the young man in a green v-neck sweater who is handing a parcel to somebody who needs resettlement, perhaps as a result of the fire or something like that in Detroit, but it’s meant to be a person in need. Over to the right you have a Christian missionary preaching the gospel in the Philippines. Above it you have this man in a blue shirt holding up a Bible – that’s a street preacher in Detroit.
Over to the right you have these people who are maybe not listening or just kind of looking at the guy or trying to figure out what he’s trying to say. Slightly above it you have these two women leading children out of factories on either side in a way that resonates with Diego Rivera’s famous ode to Detroit industry down at the DIA. Above it you have this young ethereal figure with green skin and orange hair, which does seem to have actually been the actual color of this person – green skin and orange hair – and that’s meant to represent the Christian of the future holding a banner with a cross on top. Then finally, you have two angelic beings who are holding a globe and that’s meant to represent the next step in the mission of God which is yet unfolding.
Our founders wanted us to see the star, not their finger. They wanted us to look for truth and beauty and goodness as it shines from the face of Christ today. You and I will no doubt imagine things differently. The future of Christian will probably not be someone with green skin, but will most likely be someone who has more color like the rainbow that you see in the wings of the angel here. Where do you see truth, beauty, and goodness in your life? Where do you find it here? What star is God calling you to follow so that you might see his son again with new eyes, with a new heart, with new energy, and vision. Amen.