Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
May 15, 2016
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
I don’t know about you, but as I was climbing the stairs and I had that jazz accompany me up the stairs, I kind of want to have a jazz accompaniment wherever I go. I think I’d be a little looser as a person. A little more open to things, I don’t know. So thank you all for being here on this wonderful day and this incredible moment in which we can have a bit of jazz and celebrate our God who is a God of improvisation. A God who can make things new out of things that appear old. That can lift things up that seem to be falling to pieces, that can bring us to healing when we are broken.
A god who is capable of being present to us and indeed a god who can live within us. And a god who can help us to live as if death were not. That is what we’re celebrating today. A few months ago I was on the internet and I found this – you know how you do that Boolean logic on the Google search machines? You hope that it’s not something like new bio trash collectors. But you want to pick something uplifting and I decided to pick something uplifting and I decided to put in contemporary art, spirituality.
And I was taken to a virtual site at the San Francisco Jewish Museum. It was a site that was recounting the photography of Alfred Stieglitz who was one of the first innovators in photography. The first person who elevated photography as an art form. And this was one of the different pictures of different photographs that he put. And to give you a bit of background to this I became fascinated and began to study it.
Stieglitz was one of the great innovators in photography around the turn of the 20th century and he had two motivations for this picture and 220 other pictures of clouds that he took from the period of as early as 1922 till 1935. One of the reasons why he began to photograph clouds was that in the technology of that day it was impossible in the late 19th century to actually photograph the sky. Because the chemicals reacted with blue light. You never could see clouds.
But then there were some innovations so he began to take the pictures. But then there was an artistic reason and it was because somebody wrote a review of his photography which was a new art form and the person suggested in the review that Stieglitz was using his lens to hypnotize people. And so he was incensed and he said, “I won’t even take a picture of a person and I will show you that photography is capable of beautiful things.” And so he took pictures of clouds. Because he wanted to suggest the fact that in order for art to be powerful it had to lift our spirits. More on that in a second.
The second reason why he began to photograph clouds, he wrote in a letter to a friend. He said that he was living in a time in which he was experiencing incredible disintegration. His mother was dying. And the family home in Lake George was starting to show its age, all the people around it were passing away. There was a blight on the chestnut trees at that time that was killing them all.
And surrounded by this disintegration Stieglitz wanted to depict something that could actually raise the human spirit. And he believed that during his photography in the midst of a World War and the aftermath of a World War, in the midst of a Depression. In the midst of an American culture that he believed to use his words was too commercialized and shallow to actually answer the deepest questions in life. In the midst of all of that Stieglitz believed that the calling to be an artist was to somehow communicate a deeper spiritual truth.
And so he wrote in a letter to a friend that sometimes he feels when he does in these cloud photographs that he is actually taking photographs of God. Do you see God in this photograph? When I see these photographs, I see something incredibly powerful and human. I think all of us know what it feels like to experience disintegration and death and disease. All of us know what it’s like to have our fundamental truths shaken. All of us know what it’s like to have our deepest loyalties challenged and to feel at times betrayed. All of us know what it’s like to have our hearts broken.
And so therefore when Stieglitz turns our eyes to the heavens he is saying something that is so natural to the human condition that every one of us I think can relate. Because maybe you will find God in another place, but you all will recognize that deep longing and need. Stieglitz’ photography alongside the writings of Emerson and Thoreau and also the early landscape artists like Thomas Church. These people represented the beginning of what we would call now the spiritual but non-religious movement.
I want to be clear that I actually take that movement really seriously because I think that attempt to reach and find connection with God is increasingly dire in a world in which we find God missing so often. Now all of that is very human as I’ve said. It’s part of who we are, which is why this movement has such acclaim on so many of us. And I treat it with huge amounts of respect. But today when we are speaking about Pentecost and the Holy Spirit we’re actually talking about something completely different than that normal human aspiration to find God outside of ourselves.
Pentecost for the church is the celebration that God has come down and has become present to us. That it’s not we who go looking for God, it’s God who has come down to us as his son Jesus and lived a life fully immersed in human complexity and adversity. Fully versed in human despair. Wholly versed in death and disease, so that he might bring life and healing and truth and peace. And Pentecost is the day in which the Holy Spirit – we remember that the Holy Spirit has come down to be with each of us now.
The truth that will save us, the God who redeems us, the love that will heal us is not going to be found by trying to find God outside of ourselves. But it’s to realize that God is searching us out to this day ready to begin again. And to indwell us and transform us from within.
In our reading from Acts today you see there’s a shadow of it, not only in the promise of the power of God being spoken, but also the whole direction of things. It’s the Holy Spirit that comes down and lights upon the apostles and transform them and rather than taking people outside of human community to go looking for God in nature.
Today’s reading from Acts celebrates the moment in which God became present in human community. And this reading from Acts is a trace of the original rapture and wound that happens in Genesis. When the human race all spoke one language. And they gathered and tried to build a tower that could reach the heavens and God threw them in derision. Pentecost is the most in which God’s spirit comes down and heals the divisions of language. And in those days the divisions over language were more acrimonious and painful than the divisions of race or ethnicity or territory or philosophy.
It was the division of language that was being healed in Pentecost. Not by obliterating difference but seeing how each person incarnates the truth of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. Do you see what I’m getting at? And in our reading from Romans you have this moment, “You have not been given the spirit of slavery.” Paul says, “But the spirit of adoption.” All of that is meant to communicate to us the fact that God in Christ is seeking a deep relationship with us. The spirit of slavery means the ability to control the external movements, the body motions of an individual.
A master does not care if a slave likes him or not because the slave has been created to do what the master wants. But a spirit of adoption means that there will be an actual relationship of love. That that child will become like flesh and blood to you. And what Paul is saying is that each of us has become that child to God through the dwelling of the spirit within us. We have the capacity to be treated as God’s flesh and blood through the power of Jesus Christ.
And finally in our reading from John you have this moment in which Jesus gets impatient with Philip. It’s almost like we’re at the end of the term right. Jesus is going to his death and Philip says, “Wait a second, just show us the Father, and we’ll be satisfied.” And Jesus is saying, “Philip this was on the syllabus. Don’t make me repeat myself I’m going to my death. Snap out of it.” And in the midst of that exasperation which is understandable but one which we can all relate to because you and I are pretty slow to learn. Jesus says that, “He is in the father and the father is in him. And that through the advocate, the spirit of truth God will dwell in them.”
That’s the gospel for today. And we should attend to that last part in the gospel in which you have that description in John of the spirit of truth. I invite you in your off times to read the gospel of John and look at the way the word truth is articulated. At the end of the prologue we read the following: “The law indeed came through Moses but grace and truth has come through Jesus Christ.”
And just before Jesus is put to death as he is on trial Pilate says to him what is truth? Truth is not a philosophical argument that can be understood or conveyed to persuade. Truth is not a scientific discovery that can be proven. Truth in Christianity is a relation. Jesus Christ is our truth. The spirit of truth lives inside of us. When the spirit inside of us bears witness to God’s presence in our lives. When God gives us the power to endure. When God gives us the power to forgive. When God gives us the power to love. When God gives us the power to heal. When God gives us the power to stand up. When God gives us the power to reach out. When God gives us the power to abide and rest and be at peace.
You can learn a lot from these photographs. And one of the things I like about contemporary art is there’s always a way in which you can decide a totally different meaning in what you’re seeing. It’s called indeterminacy, it’s a philosophical term. They can’t make the point too much. So take a look at this picture again when you have a moment. Is this the moment for you in which you’re looking for God? Or is this a moment in which our eyes can finally open to see what God is already doing in us? The heavens declare the Glory of the Lord so it says in the Psalms, Psalms 19. One day calls out to another but their voice is not heard, have you heard God’s voice today? Are you willing to pray as John Donne prayed in his devotions when he says, “Give me your thunder oh God. Your music is not enough”? Amen.