The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
January 31, 2016
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
When I was 19 years old, I went to my first Christian camp. I had had a religious conversion when I was I was 16 years old. I didn’t come from a religious family and so going to Christian camp and learning all those songs and clapping and in eating bad food and running around in the mud, in the rain, all that I didn’t really have. I lived in a world in which we had a kind of – my parents wanted to inscribe in me a work ethic. So either I was on a sports team of some sort during the summertime or I was working at home or on one of the projects. So one summer, I tiled the floor of the building that was an investment property that we made and another summer I painted another place that we had and I refooted the foundation of the home one summer.
That was what summer was about. It was about working hard and hopefully getting an occasional dip in the pool. But I wanted and I persuaded my parents that I wanted to go to this Christian camp because I wanted to see what Christians did during the summertime, and so I went to this wonderful camp. It was on Martha’s Vineyard and for a week, I hung around with this people and it was an unusual camp. It brought together a lot of people that were doing interesting things.
By that I mean there was this one guy who was a DJ but a Christian. Now, this is 1985. He was this incredibly interesting, artistic guy. He was a vegan. Back before, there were vegans. He was a vegan. I’d never met a vegan before. He would get up early and bake this oat cake with raisins that he seemed to live off of. His head was shaved and he had this retinue of gorgeous young women that just hung around him all the time. It would be like he would get up and they’d all get up. We’re done eating, we’re done eating now. And so I thought that the best strategy for me that week besides growing closer to God was maybe to try to grow closer to one of the retinue of this guy.
And so he was going to the beach with the group of us and I tagged along and I kind of moved my towel closer and closer to the retinue, and finally he looked over and saw me which seemed like the first time that week and he said, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And at that moment, it just came out. I said, “I want to be a priest and a professor. I want to somehow try to bring together a call to the priesthood and a call to teaching and writing and thinking about Christianity in an academic environment.” And I said, “What do you want to be?” And he said, “I want to be an international recording star.” And at that point, I felt this surge of anger like you ego maniac. You are going to have a humbling moment in your life where you will finally realize that people just can’t be recording stars.
Well, 11 years later, I was in New York City serving a church and I was trying to complete my PhD, and I was walking on right about Soho, right at Houston and Broadway and I was stepping off a curb. And I looked up and there he was on the billboard. I recognized his bald head and I said, “Who? What the?” And there was just his one word of his name, Moby. I went to summer camp with Moby. And there was this moment in which we discussed our various life trajectories. I have to admit when I saw his picture on the billboard, I was immediately transported to that conversation on the beach and for a moment I thought maybe I should’ve said I want to be an international recording star. Maybe I should’ve shot a little higher. Maybe I settled.
But you know that’s the way God is, isn’t it? We can’t simply become something because we think it’s cool. The nature of life is learning to become what God has called us to be. What is God calling you to be? I don’t think that our callings can be contained in an occupation or an office or profession. And while I was one of those few people that knew what I wanted to be and actually became what I hoped I could be, the only way my priesthood has been active in my life is actually by thinking of it not as something in the past, but something in the future, something that I aspire to be with God’s help.
The novelist, Gail Godwin, in her novel Evensong says that a vocation is whatever makes more of you. Frederick Buechner, another writer that gets quoted a lot says that your vocation is the moment where your deepest joy meets the world’s greatest need. My favorite call’s story is from Hasidic Jew named Rabbi Zushia of Anipoli. He lived in the 18th century. And one of the stories that gets told about him is one day he came to his followers with tears in his eyes. And they asked him, “Zushia, what is the matter?” And he told them about a vision he had. I learned that the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.
And his followers were puzzled and they said, “Zushia, you are pious. You are scholarly humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?” Zushia replied, I have learned that the angels will not ask me why weren’t you a Moses leading your people out of slavery? And that the angels will not ask me why weren’t you a Joshua leading your people into the Promised Land? Or why weren’t you a David composing songs of praise for your people? “No,” He sighed. They will say to me, “Zushia, why weren’t you Zushia?”
What are you being called to be? Who are you being called to be? Christianity has a very specific teaching about vocation. It says that our vocation is first of all connected to a kind of dying to self so that you might rise as a new person in Christ. Our lives are knit together with Christ in His death and resurrection and we become who we are called to be when we learn to die to ourselves so that we might be reborn. And certainly when I look at my own vocation that has had to be the first practice that I adopted. My priesthood lies in the future because I have not yet perfectly embodied it. And the way I can embody it is by continually dying to myself so that I might be raised as the priest God called me to be. And I don’t think the fact that my priesthood is something that some of you may not be called to. I don’t think that that process of dying to live is exclusive to the priesthood. I think that dying to live is the kind of pattern and rhythm of the Christian life. The pattern and rhythm of the Christian vocation.
Christianity also believes that we have fundamentally the same vocation. We are called to be together as Christ’s body in the world. A body which goes through death and resurrection, which moves from death to life. All three of our readings speak about vocation in this way. In our reading from Jeremiah, you have that moment in which Jeremiah is called to be a prophet, to deliver a word on behalf of God, and that word is powerful and it is destabilizing and it’s not necessarily good news. See, today I point you over nations and over kingdoms to pluck down and to pull up, to destroy, and to overthrow. This is not good news. Only the last part of it is good news. When you move from death to life, to build and to plant. And Jeremiah’s whole life as a prophet is one of bearing witness to the life that comes out of destruction, for the life that lives as if death were not, to the promise that God will maintain a faithful remnant and redeem God’s people.
And our reading from Luke, you have a moment in which Jesus speaks about His calling. And He is speaking to his hometown and He talks about the ministry of healing that He had. And He delivers the very difficult news to His hometown congregation that He is not there to simply bring up the level of health and prosperity in that village. That His Kingdom was about the healing of the world, which is why He gives those two examples from the Hebrew bible in which prophets went and ministered to people who are not just outsiders but also people who are enemies of Israel. And that enrages people and there’s this moment at the end of the Gospel in which they are about to cast Him off a cliff which is a foreshadowing of what will happen on Good Friday when He dies. And also, a foreshadowing of His resurrection as Jesus passes through their midst because His time has not yet come. His death will await Him but so will His life.
And finally, you have 1 Corinthians 13. Now, every time I read this beautiful passage in 1 Corinthians, I always – you know it’s hard for me – it’s read so often at weddings that I almost see crinoline in my eyes when I read it. It’s like I can’t – it’s hard for me to divorce but in fact, what this is it’s about a calling. Paul is speaking to a people in which you have divisions among them, between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, the people who think they are among the elite and those who are marginalized. And Paul is providing them with a vision, a more excellent way than simply seeing themselves within the many members that they are of Christ’s body.
He is suggesting to them that their calling is to love one another and to love God and to love the world. And so this Him to love is presented as a way of giving people a sense of something they can lean into, of something that stands in their midst through the presence of God and Christ in the Spirit and something that they are called to pursue as their present and future. What does it mean to be called? What have you been called to be? Who are you called to be? This is a question you and I have to answer not just as individuals in our lives but as a community. What will be the mark, the characteristic, the hallmark of who we are as a community? So that when people see us, they’ll say that is a community of love.
In his magisterial treatise on love called Works of Love. Soren Kierkegaard found himself in a parable about two artists. The first artist has a wonderful reputation and he has traveled all over. He meets another artist and he says to that artist, “I have been all over the world and I am sad to report that I’ve never found an object worth painting because I always see a blemish and I always see an imperfection and I always see a compromise that falls short of the ideal of beauty.” And the other artist says, “I have not been around the world. I have lived only in this small community, and I’m not sure I could even be called an artist, but what I have painted is I have looked for the beauty I have found in the midst of the imperfect people I am with and I have found that my life’s work is to find what is beautiful in everyone.” Kierkegaard asked, which of these two is the artist? The artist who searches for beauty everywhere and finds it nowhere or the artist who searches for beauty in everything and finds it everywhere? The same, he writes, might be said about love.
When we think about the love of God, it is not an impossible ideal. It is rather the determination of a God of His own – for His own reasons who has decided to find in each of us something lovable and to love us infinitely and all of our particularity and to bind Himself to this world though it bring Him death because He knows that will bring us life. This is what it means for love to believe all things, to hope all things, to endure all things. May whatever our callings take, may that love be evident. May it guide us. May it hold us together. May it be the face that people see on us as they look for the face of Christ. Amen.