The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
January 24, 2016
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
Earlier this week on Thursday in Queens, New York City and the Jamaica area, there was a one-year-old Hereford bull that was at a slaughterhouse. And somehow this bull found an opening and broke free, and started to run down the streets of New York City. This is not a story. This actually happened. It’s in the news. He made it for a few blocks, and finally he was captured by the NYPD in a car park, and there was a picture or two of the cow being encircled with the lasso and brought back to the slaughterhouse.
And soon on social media sites and in the news you could see the videos of the bull running for his life in the streets of New York. Now you can see a lot of things on the streets of New York City. But even there the people were amazed to see this bull running down the middle of the street. And a man who runs a sanctuary in New Jersey on Thursday evening, his name is Mike Stura, he was watching this on the news, and he immediately contacted the slaughterhouse because his heart went out to the bull trying to break free. And so he got into his truck and arranged to pick up the bull Thursday to keep it from being slaughtered on Friday morning. And he drove through the rush hour, and he got there at 7:15, and realized that he had missed the slaughterhouse owners who had gone home for the day. The place was closed.
And so he parked his truck across the street from the slaughterhouse, and he slept overnight in his truck, and got up the next morning to buy the bull his freedom. And he named him Freddie Mercury after the lead singer for the rock back Queen who had a famous single, I guess, called, “I Want to Break Free.” And so now Freddie Mercury is on a sanctuary in New Jersey with Mike Stura.
Have you ever wanted to break free? Have you ever felt as if you were facing a slaughterhouse and wanted to run for your life? Watching the reports of the bull in Queens reminded me of my time, the first time, when I was a curate at Grace Church in New York City in the late ‘90s. This was back in the days when Manhattan was really Manhattan, when Greenwich Village was really Greenwich Village, when the Lower East Side was really the Lower East Side, and not the world’s largest gated community. And people would come into our church, and they would know that they needed strong medicine. They knew where they were, and they knew where they had been, and they were looking for some kind of release. They were looking for some kind of freedom.
And I’ll never forget the time in which this one business man came in to see a priest, and I was the only one on duty, and I brought him up to the little closet I called my office. And he said, is this it? I said this is it. And he sat down in a chair. He was wearing this beautiful business suit, and he placed his head in his hands, and he just wept and swore for a half hour. And he asked me what he could do. His life had become unmanageable, his life was a mess, he was seeking some kind of liberation.
And so I invited him to join our Bible studies, and to maybe think about becoming baptized. What else was I to offer him? And he took me up on the offer, and in fact, we had a lot of people in those days who would come from the streets looking for some kind of redemption, some kind of freedom, some kind of liberation. One guy showed up. It was Halloween admittedly, but he showed up with mostly green body paint on. And we invited him to our Bible study, and he’s now a famous New Testament scholar. True story.
So I invited Ira to be baptized. And the first day we had that class, I had this whiteboard, and I decided to be a little experimental, and so I said, you know baptism is fundamentally a decision. It’s a decision to turn away from sin, and the power of evil, and the power of sin over you, and to claim Jesus Christ as your Savior and place your whole life in his care. So what is sin for you? And somebody raised their hand, and said, sex. So I wrote it up on the board. Sex. And someone said, drugs. And so I wrote up drugs on the board. And then someone said rock and roll, and I said, rock and roll. And then I said, well, actually it was me, I said that. I wanted to complete it, it just seemed poetic.
And Ira, sitting in the back of the class, deadly serious, still wearing the suit even though it was Sunday, raised his hand, and he said, no, it’s none of those things. It’s when I make sex a god that it becomes sin to me. It’s when I make drugs a god that it becomes sin to me. It’s when I make any kind of thing like rock and roll a god that it becomes sin to me. And I am tired of worshipping idols. And I want to be free. Have you ever wanted to break free? Have you felt like running for your life?
One way to look at the story of Freddie the bull is to recognize that the owner of the sanctuary saw in the moment in which Freddie ran for his life, a moment in which he suddenly became a person to him. He saw himself in Freddie the bull. He understood what it meant to run for your life. And because of that he reached out and tried to take him in. How many thousands of bulls have been slaughtered before and since, but that impulse to run and break free, even though it probably is in the bones of every animal that goes to its death, for some reason he saw himself in Freddie. And for some reason Ira came into our church because he saw this community and this church as a place that might offer him freedom. A chance to retain his humanity.
But Christianity is not just about the desire to be free, or to break free, or to avoid the slaughterhouse. Christianity defines freedom in terms of our ability to fall into the arms of another. We can only be free if someone pays a price for our freedom. Mike Stura, when he went and spent the night waiting for Freddie the bull, will provide for Freddie’s freedom for the rest of his life. Freddie could not be free without Mike Stura. And I’ll never forget the moment in which Ira made the decision on an Easter Vigil, and placed his life in the arms of Jesus. When he answered the questions, I’ll never forget his face, when I asked him do you renounce all the sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? And he said, I renounce them. I said do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? I do. Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? I do.
Ira’s family rejected him that night. And he had a friend who was a Christian he knew, and he asked him to be his sponsor, and the friend did not show up. And so I found somebody in the congregation who is my friend who stood in as his sponsor, and Ira placed himself in the arms of Jesus. And that is how one becomes free according to Christianity.
Our reading today from the gospel of Luke has at its center, language of liberation. It is the moment in which Jesus declares the world free on account of what he does. He gets up in the synagogue, stands up, takes the scroll on which is written words from the prophet, Isaiah, and he says the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Now those words in Isaiah were given to a people in captivity, to a people who were exiled away from their home, away from the Promised Land. And they were given as a way to measure all the ways in which the nation of God, and all nations should act if they want to be just. Because how a society is measured will always be how we treat our poor, and how we treat our prisoners, and how we treat those who are powerless, and whether or not we uphold human dignity. These are political facts of existence that the prophet Isaiah in some ways articulated for us, so that we now hear it as truth.
And Winston Churchill was right when he said that the measure of civilization in a society will be how it treats its prisoners. And everything that we have done as a nation will be answerable to God. But I don’t think that that political statement is fundamentally part of what Jesus said in this moment. Because when Jesus said these words from Isaiah, he was saying that that kingdom had to have not only a political dimension, but that it had to be centered on his person. Jesus Christ is the presence of God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God is present in the person of Christ, and Jesus Christ has come to make us free. That’s the gospel. That’s the promise. That’s the freedom you and I are being invited to claim for ourselves today.
Have you ever wanted to break free? What slaughterhouse are you fleeing? From antiquity, philosophers like Plato have said that confinement and frustration, and suffering, and oppression, these are the things of human nature. This is all about life in the body. We are as if, he writes, souls who have been imprisoned in our bodies. And on that turns a lot of our understanding of life. No matter how powerful we might be today, there’ll be a day in which we are powerless. No matter how strong we are today, there will be a day when we become weak. No matter how rich we are today, there’ll be a day when we are penniless, particularly if we are like everyone else, to die.
And so Plato believes that this soul that we have is placed in this prison of our body, so that we can somehow escape by imagining these greater realities he calls the forms. Jesus Christ says something very different. He says that we can be liberated souls and bodies by believing in a God who was God and man. The gospel hinges on us finding our freedom in Jesus, and finding each other as we are related to one another in Jesus. This is why we read today in our epistle about our life in the body because that is another way of speaking of freedom. So you and I, no matter who we are, we will face confinement. We will face a kind of sentencing. We will face a kind of slaughterhouse. And the only way we can be free is by clinging to Jesus, by falling into his arms.
The painting I have before you, I have actually two before you today because the challenge before us is not so much to escape a prison, but to find a way to live within the prisons we find ourselves. So the first is from Vincent van Gogh’s, Prisoners Exercising, which was done in 1890. And this takes kind of as a play on an earlier drawing by Gustave Doré called, Prisoners Exercising, from 1867. And Doré did his drawing, which is exactly like what van Gogh does when he visited Newgate Prison, which was supposed to be the place of humane punishment, and the original people that were depicted going around in this circle were people from all classes of society. And Doré thought it was such a wonderful thing that there was now a kind of humane form of punishment. One of the persons in this group was a lieutenant colonel from the British Army, and Doré celebrated the fact that all of the classes were mixing here, so that a new people might be created through the modern penitentiary.
Three years later, van Gogh paints this painting when he is in an asylum. And there he offers a very different view of imprisonment and hope, captivity and longing for freedom. And he’s constructed the painting in my own humble opinion as an amateur art theorist, so that the person in the middle looks just vaguely enough like him. And that person is looking out as he’s participating in the exercises wondering, will this make me free? Will this enable me to leave? To be sane again?
The second painting is on the cover of your bulletin, and it’s, Genevieve of Brabant Baptizing Her Son in Prison. Now this is from an ancient, or medieval kind of legenda about this woman who was wronged. She was wrongfully accused of being unfaithful, and was imprisoned, and she has her child with her. And it saves her initially from being executed is the fact that she is pregnant. And for six years she’s in prison before her husband who discovers the treachery behind all things, goes and releases her from jail. And it’s here that you have a picture painted by Jean-Baptiste Mallet in the 18th Century, and it has the moment in which Genevieve baptizes her son in prison. And you have an image of her in a cell, and yet bathed in light, and inviting the Spirit of God into her life as she baptizes her son, and reaches for the day when she will someday be free. Genevieve is placing her hands, her life, in the hands of God
Have you ever wanted to break free? What kind of freedom are you looking for? What kind of slaughterhouse are you fleeing? What kind of prison do you find yourself in? And do you believe that Jesus Christ has the power to liberate you? Are you willing to place yourself into his arms?