The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
February 28, 2016: The Third Sunday in Lent
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video.)
On Thursday I was in Denver with the rest of the clergy at a special conference, and I ran into an old friend of mine. Someone who I had met about 10 or 12 years ago. His name is Jamie Coats and he is in charge of development for a monastery in the Boston area known as the society of St. John the Evangelist. Jamie, when we met, had one of those moments. There are times in which you meet friends and you exchange pleasantries. You do a geography in which you find out where they’ve lived, who they’ve talked to. And then there are other friendships that you strike up with people where you go deep from the instant. You go into some deep waters right away. And Jamie was one of those people. We went right into deep waters.
He was telling me why he got involved in development work, and he said he realized that it was an important business when he was set on a task by a church he was working for. The theme of their development project was Journey to Generosity. He went around and instead of asking people “How much money would you like to give to the forthcoming capital campaign?” he would say, “What is your journey to generosity?” He is kind of compact in English and he has a raspy English accent. When you meet him, you can confuse him for a monk. I thought he was a monk for months after he told me this story. In fact, he’s married. But he has way of creating space in which people reveal themselves.
His first interview while he was doing these interviews was with a woman who told him the story. Her story was this: That she was in Boston and she was in her 30s and she was assaulted. To deal with the aftermath of that assault in her life, she bought a gun. She kept the gun in her purse and never left home without it. Then she decided, entirely for her own reasons, to have a child. So she conceived and bore a child. She realizef she was raising this child that she could not stay safe. The child would not stay safe at home if she had a gun in the house. So she made a deliberate decision to get rid of her gun. She put it to Jamie this way. She said, “I put down my gun so I could pick up my daughter.”
When Jamie heard that, he realized that he had heard something that went far beyond the material work of development. He had received a kind of moment of witness that was so precious he could never use it to try to raise money. Because even though in a very tenuous way, it was about money, what the woman was speaking about to him that day was something more profound, something deeper. A courage to be vulnerable. A willingness to trust. A decision to change. An openness to being transformed.
What is your journey to generosity? How are you in the midst of transformation? What decisions is God inviting you to make? How can you develop the same courage to look within? The courage to be vulnerable? In Lent, these are the questions we wrestle with. The church has a name for it which can be in some sense misleading. The name that we give to this process is repentance. Now repentance means that moment in which we turn away from doing things which do us no good. Our reading from 1 Corinthians today is full of them, but repentance means more than just turning away from the things that do us no good. It means getting to the root of things. It means stepping into a new relationship with wholeness. It means walking by faith and not by sight in a way that we haven’t before. Lent is an invitation to some deeper change, because repentance involves a deeper change.
The Greek for repentance – and perhaps, like me, you’ve gotten tired of these little Greek moments in sermons – but the Greek word for repentance is metanoia; “a change of mind.” Of course, in the context in which that Greek was deployed at first to change your mind was to change the whole person. To experience not only an intellectual transformation, but a transformation of your heart, of your affections, of your entire being.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says to His disciples, “Repent.” He places it in the context of this wider discussion about what happens when bad things happen to good people. His disciples go to Him and ask what was going on when Pilot killed those Galileans. What was going on, Jesus adds when the Temple of Siloam fell and killed those people. The invitation that you and I are always going to do in these moments when anything bad happens to a good person is we think, “What did they do to deserve it? Was there some kind of thing? Was it some kind of action? Should they have given up smoking earlier?” Jesus wants to invite His disciples, and by extension, Jesus wants to invite us to step into a deeper relationship that comes when we walk away and turn away from that kind of tit for tat, that kind of retributive logic, and turn to a deeper relationship in which we have the courage to look within so that we might be transformed.
We have to step away from that retributive logic because you and I live very uneven lives. Some of us flourish and some of us do not. Some of us have moments in which we feel completely blessed, and sometimes we experience crushing disappointment. Each of us has a particular walk to walk, a particular path to walk. Repentance means more than just turning or even going deeper. It means seeing your entire life with all of its histories, with all of the particularity of it, seeing that as the place of God’s redeeming. With all the things that have happened to you, with all the ways where you feel hurt and lost and empty, when God does not seem to be present in your lives, repentance involves taking all of those things. All of things where angels seemed to have feared to tread, and placing them before God and watching God transform them. That was what was at stake when that woman put down her gun and picked up her daughter. She was willing to have her history transformed and transfigured by God.
In our reading from 1 Corinthians, there’s this last moment of assurance that says to the people of Corinth, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” We have to step away from that retributive logic, for that close calculus of dessert that we structure our whole lives around, and see each life as an opportunity for testing and refinement and redemption and joy and fulfillment and healing. That part in 1 Corinthians is meant to assure us that even though you and I will come to moments in our life when we think that it is over, that there is nothing for God to redeem, that there is no place for God to work, that God will somehow find a way. God will somehow find a path. God will be present and God will heal us.
A friend of mine was a jewelry designer. She learned something interesting about refining gold. She learned that if you turn the temperature of the flame high, the gold will get molten and all the dross will come to the surface. Then you have to carefully scrape the dross off as the gold is refined. Then you have pure gold. But if you turn the temperature up too high, the gold will vaporize. The first time she was learning to refine gold, she turned up the flame and it didn’t look like it was doing anything. Turned it up again and then all of a sudden, poof! All the gold went away, like the stock market. Poof! Repentance takes place with the knowledge that God’s hand is on the thermostat. That God will not test any of us by giving us more than we can handle. That knowledge is what we have to trust if we are going to be able to walk through the path that is set before us. Our journey to generosity.
The final piece of scripture that we have today is Moses’ call in Exodus. This is a remarkable moment because you have, in some ways, the summary moment of repentance at the beginning of the Bible. You have the moment of turning, and you also have the moment of history, because God announces Himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In the 19th Century, people wondered how it was that that bush could burn without being consumed, and they developed some elaborate theories about the fauna of the Middle East. That somehow there’s this bush that looks like it’s burning, but really isn’t. That’s not the point of this reading.
The point of this reading is that Moses is a fugitive. He has been convicted of murder and has fled the capital, is on the edges of the empire, and he’s tending sheep because he’s found some safe-haven provided by his father-in-law. He is an outcast. His life is in shambles and, yet, when he sees the burning bush, he stops and makes himself available for God to reveal himself in fire. God promises him that he will walk with him as he makes his way back to that capital to free God’s people and to redeem not only his history but theirs. Repentance involves availability, too. It means being willing to see and make room in our lives. To open up the closets in which we have the skeletons of our soul. To open up our hearts to the possibility that God will renew them and heal them and allow them to beat again.
I have two pieces of art for you today. The first is by Cornelia Parker, who is a sculptor. This is called Anti-Mass. It was done in 2005. Parker has these themes that she runs in her art that she tries to pick up. She likes to explore that kind of tenuous relationship between matter and spirit, between the physical world and the metaphysical world, as it were. This sculpture is called Anti-Mass because not only does it articulate her artistic interests, but she was raised a Roman Catholic. So it is a kind of preparatory, a kind of expression of the Eucharist itself of a kind of community, a spiritual community. Parker chose in this piece and was given permission to use charcoal from a church that had been burned down by arson. A black Southern Baptist church in Alabama. She took the charcoal from that church and she suspended it again so that it looks like these bits of charcoal are hanging in the air. The message in her artist’s statement that she wanted to convey was that God was somehow present. That that community was somehow spiritually alive. Even though their church had been burnt down, they were still intact.
Perhaps you see in this sculpture a kind of amazing testimony to the way in which there is a presence, even in empty spaces. And that there’s a spiritual vitality even when people have suffered material and physical harm. When I looked at it this week, I saw in some ways the same image of a fire burning, even though it is not being consumed. The earthly fire had destroyed that church. Here was the spiritual fire that was keeping that community alive, that was making it a life-giving place that could not be destroyed by earthly fire. Where is God in your life? Where is the charcoal of your life? Where are the spaces that you’re creating so that God might work in you again?
The second bit of art I have for you is actually a song. Many of you were here over the summer when we did a special offering to rebuild the churches that had been destroyed by arson in May and June of last year. We asked the Reverend Kimberley Whitsett to come and to offer us a song. I have to tell you, one of the most amazing moments as the rector of Christ Church Cranbrook came when I called up Reverend Whitsett and I said to her, “You don’t know me and you don’t know why you need to be here, but I’m contacting you to invite you to offer a song for the people of Christ Church Cranbrook.” She said, “We are here to build bridges.” She’s saying, “Lord, I am available to you,” and it was a wonderful moment for us to gather some funds. We were wonderfully generous, and I am internally grateful to this congregation because you have been so generous. When she sang those words at that point, they sunk deep inside of me because, although there are different versions of the song, there is one version that is incredibly powerful. The words go like this:
I have emptied out my cup, so that you can fill me up
Now I’m free, I just want to be more available to you
Use me Lord
To show someone the way
and enable me to say
My storage is empty and, yet, I am available to you
Are you willing to be available to God? Are you ready to build some beauty out of the ashes of your life? What is your journey of generosity? How is God working on you to raise up what has been cast down? And to remember anew a future in which you find happiness, hope, and peace? These are the questions I invite you to reflect on as Reverend Whitsett sings her song one more time. Amen