The Reverend Dr. Canon William J. Danaher, Jr.
November 14, 2015
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video.)
Over the last day-and-a-half I’ve found myself reeling a bit, and I’m reeling because I have this feeling of being both connected and disconnected at the same time in incredibly powerful ways of feeling close and experiencing distance at the same time. I haven’t felt quite the same way since 9/11. When I was teaching in Tennessee and I had taught from 1998 to 1999 and been part of a church in New York City, and then found a position in Tennessee and went and took it. When 9/11 happen, that beautiful bright clear day I suddenly experienced this incredible dislocation, this proximity to New York and to all the people that I had ministered to there, and also this incredible distance.
I spent the day on the phone trying to reconnect with all of my parishioners. Thankfully, none of them were lost but so many were lost that day. There were lots of near misses. A woman whose wedding I celebrated was a reporter for Reuters and she was covering Fashion Week. She was the first reporter onsite at the Twin Towers. She took her newsreel and got on the subway train station right there below and was on the last train to leave before those towers came down and crushed all who were inside of it. Still others had to flee for their lives. I immediately felt this need to be present and found a way a month later to be at Ground Zero and to pray.
A couple of weeks after 9/11, David Halberstam, the Pulitzer Prize winning author came to [Swaney 03:53] where I was teaching to give a lecture. He said, “We are all going to be okay. We’re going to make it through this.” Looking back on those words so many years later, in some ways he was right. We are okay. But in the process, I think we have at different points lost a measure of our humanity.
In 2008, I was nominated and received a fellowship from the French American Foundation. I was the first priest to be considered and to date the only priest has ever made it through to the fellowship. It was a remarkable honor. The fellowship goes to people like General Wesley Clark and Bill and Hillary Clinton, both of whom participated years past. It meant spending a week with cultural business military and academic leaders in France and developing some of the deep relations between the two countries.
Over the past day and a half, I’ve experienced a similar sense of proximity and distance, a similar sense of connection and disconnection as I’ve tried to process what has happened in Paris. One of my friends who is a filmmaker was quoted in the New York Times and I thought to call her. I caught her on her cell and she talked about how empty and dark Paris had become. Everything shut down, everything shuttered. The Christmas markets closed.
She said to me, “You are a man of faith. Why did this happen?” I would normally try to lean into the silence of grieving because I’ve learned over the years that that silence is holy, but we were speaking over the phone and I felt the pressure to speak. I said, “This was an act of ideology.” And ideologies are total. They claim everything. Ideologies thrive by drawing a sharp line between us and them. Ideologies operate by denying the humanity and human dignity of another. We agreed that we had to speak more of these things, but standing behind that sentiment was today’s gospel actually.
In today’s gospel, we meet Jesus right between the moment in which he has entered Jerusalem in triumph and the time in which he will be crucified and die and be betrayed. Jesus is in this moment in between and he knows that his world is ending, which is why he is looking so intently at the woman give those last bits of pennies into the temple because she is also aware that her world is ending. Jesus is grieving. He is in the midst of realizing that not only is his world ending, but the world he knows is ending too. He tells his disciples that the temple will fall and that others would come and claim to be him or at least claim his name.
The historian, Josephus, wrote in the first century that the temple was covered with plates of gold so that you would confuse it with the light of the sun if you’re up close because it gleamed so brightly. It had on top of it this incredibly white marble pillars and a roof so that when you looked at it from a distance, it was as if you saw this brilliant gold snow-capped mountain. And by doing so, he reinforced an ideology. The temple wasn’t just a holy place. It wasn’t just a church. The temple was the center of economic power and political power.
It was the center of the known universe for the first century Jews. It was the marker that created the distinction between us and them. So when Jesus says that the temple will fall, he is taking a stand against ideologies. He is staking a claim to a different way to build community. He is articulating a new humanity he is bringing into being through his death and resurrection because Christianity is not an ideology. Christianity doesn’t live by us and them. Christianity claims that all things and each of us will be reconciled and redeemed by Jesus Christ. And that we will all be the recipients of God’s judgment and grace and forgiveness. All of this has taken place because of what Jesus is in the midst of doing in today’s gospel. He is grieving, but he is also joyful because he knows that all things will be remade through him. That through his resurrection, life will come from death.
Christians have different debates about what it means to use force. What does it mean to oppose anyone who brings violence against them. From the beginning, that understanding of force has been checked by two thoughts that are key to maintaining the humanity that Christ bought for us on the cross and gave us by his resurrection. The first is that human conflict does not mirror any higher divine conflict. There is no battle in heaven going on today. The forces of light are not facing the forces of darkness because Jesus has banished the darkness. Jesus already reigns, supreme over heaven and earth. He is already seated by God’s right hand in glory. The battle is over. Peace has been secured by the blood of the lamb. So human conflicts are merely that. They are conflicts created by humans.
The second thing that is always informed Christianity from the beginning no matter what was believed is that our enemies are therefore always human to us. They may have created and done acts that are inhuman, but their humanity will never be lost to us because if we lose the sense of our enemy’s humanity, our own humanity is lost as well. So we will respond to these atrocities and we should be put in mind of all the atrocities that happened that have not touched us as deeply because we have not shared personal and other connections to the bomb that blew up in Beirut on Thursday and in Baghdad earlier in the week that killed so many going to a wedding. We will oppose this. We must oppose it.
But we always have to keep in mind the humanity of Christ and the humanity of Christ gives us. And we always have to keep in mind that these ideologies will fall in on themselves because our Lord is powerful to save.
Our prayer at the beginning of the service today is a wonderful commentary on the scriptures. It says that we should hear, read, mark and inwardly digest the word of God. Of all that I could ever say to anybody about biblical authority or the truth of Christianity or the reliability of the gospels or the inspiration of the Bible, these words would be at the forefront because all of them say together that the word of God is bread to our hungry souls. That without that word of God, without hearing, reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting the word of God, we are famished and we starve.
Looking at the Jesus presented to us today, in what ways is this image of Jesus going to his death, grieving and yet joyful, pointing us towards the life that comes from death. In what ways is that story of Jesus bread to you? Let me offer two examples from Detroit. The first is from Detroit Renaissance written by Dudley Randall.
Randall wrote this in 1980 and it was a bit of a prophetic commentary on the Renaissance Center built by GM. In the third stanza Randall writes, “Wealth of a city lies not in its factories, its marks and towers crowding the sky, but in its people who possess grace to imbue their lives with beauty, wisdom, charity.” For Randall, we recover our humanity not by some kind of economic turnaround, but by reminding ourselves of the wisdom, charity, and beauty that people of Detroit have.
The second is from Scott Hocking who is an artist that does site-specific installations. This is from Michigan Central Station that so many outside photographers have come to take pictures of it so that we could be moved by the ruins of Detroit. Hocking instead goes inside the station and builds out of the shattered pieces of marble he found there, this beautiful fragile egg because he wanted to bear witness to the way in which life comes out of death often unseen, unnoticed, hidden from the world. This is the true inspiration, he seems to say, of the Detroit Renaissance of a resurrection of the phoenix-like ability of this city to rise again.
All of you will have reason at some point in the near future to grieve. Some of you might be grieving today on not only a larger level but on a personal level. In what way has the Bible been bread to you? What are you building out of the shattered things you’ve encountered? How can Christ bring life out of death for you?