The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
July 24, 2016: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video.)
“And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
I don’t know about you, but those words rang in my heart and my mind these past few weeks as I was thinking about what to say today. “Do not bring us to the time of trial.” It seems like we are going through a bit of a trial as a community, as a nation, as a world. We are in the midst of incredible challenges and incredible violence, and incredible sadness, and incredible tragedy. The question comes to us all at this time, “What is the nature of this trial? What is God doing in our midst and what are we hoping for?” I was trying to get my head around it all because it has happened in so many times and places and so many conditions. It’s trying to figure out what is going on. What is the big picture? I found myself actually thinking about the collect for today.
This is the prayer that we normally pray every Sunday to start off a service. It happens right on page four of your bulletin. And these collects, these were moments in which you would collect, as it were, all of the individual prayers of the people into one general prayer, and we have inherited these collects. They started out in the early 5th century and they were brought together and translated by Thomas Cranmer and others, and they have persisted from year to year as a way for the community to pull itself together. And in today’s collect there is this aspiration stated that we would so pass through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal. That we would somehow pass through all of everything that we are experiencing, the here and now in such a way that we do not lose the sense and presence of God. That we do not lose our salvation; that we come to some kind of culmination.
That we have hope and not despair. And so I began to pray and think about this.
“What does it mean for us to pass through things temporal, things that are passing away, things that are ephemeral, things that are not going to last, as hard and difficult as they seem right now? What does it mean to pass through things temporal and not to lose sight of what is eternal?” Traditionally the Christian faith, the great thinkers of the Christian faith would think that that passage through things temporal would be in regard to those things that are worldly and for that they meant money and power, and beauty, physical beauty. And so Augustan writing in the 4th century writes that we should figure out a way in our lives to accept these gifts, if they come our way, of wealth and power and beauty, but we should not place our hopes, our ultimate hopes in them, because they will fade.
Beauty will fade, and money cannot save you, and your power will ebb, and so Augustan comes up with this Latin term. He says, “We should use these things.” Ute is the Latin term, but we should only enjoy God, frue. It’s not very exciting for some of you that I say that, but ute, only use it, just use it. It must’ve been music to the ears of the 4th century Africans who heard this. But I think there’s more going on in this passage through things temporal. I think that the tradition has been right to identify money and wealth and power because I think those are natural things that we all want a little bit of in this world. But I think there are other things that are the natural byproduct of being a human being.
And I think that these things emerge, when our money and our wealth and our power are threatened in some ways, and so we have the tendency to be fearful. We have the tendency to be violent. We have the tendency to be vindictive, and all of these things are very natural. They’re very human, and sometimes they’re necessary. But the trick in life, the challenge in life, is to figure out how to pass through all of those things so that we do not lose sight of the eternal; so that God is not present in our lives. And the power of today’s collect, and the reason I’m spending so much time on it is, I think. it gives us a key to living through, not only the challenges of wealth, power, and beauty, and not only the things that we do when we want to protect those things or when those things are threatened, the fear and the vengeance and the violence, but I think what it is offering us is actually not some kind of recipe for getting through it.
But it’s telling us the conditions under which we proceed and that’s right at the part, the petition part of the collect where it says, “Increase and multiply upon us Your Mercy.” What we need, in other words, more than somehow figuring out how to use and enjoy these things fully, what we really need and crave today is mercy. We need some kind of sense of God’s forgiveness. When we love these things too much that are passing away and do not love God enough, when we get the balance wrong, when we err in judgment, when we make a mistake, we need God’s mercy. And mercy is not just forgiveness. Mercy is not just leniency. Those are key attributes that the Latin world called clementia, clemency. “Something that every ruler should have,” said Seneca.
But mercy is also compassion. It’s the willingness to identify with another and to suffer with them, to feel for them, to develop empathy and love. And if I were to state what I think we are challenged to be, here and now, the challenge before us is to somehow develop a sense of mercy and compassion for the whole. Richard Hooker, a great Anglican theologian, said that sin was something that happened anytime anything in this universe said to anything else, “I need thee not.” Because everything in this universe is created by God, and all of it holds together as an act of God’s love. And anytime you and I mistake or pull away or disregard any part of this world, we’re stepping away from that love. We’re falling into sin, and therefore we need mercy. We need God to be merciful to us, to rebuild the trust, to rebuild ourselves, to transform us and make us anew.
I was looking for an image to hold it all together and earlier this week one of the parishioners of Christ Church Cranbrook reminded me, through a Facebook post, that on July 20th, 1969, we stepped on the moon. Human beings stepped on the moon for the first time, and I am just old enough to remember it in person. Not like Imogen who was the twinkle in her grandfather’s eye! I’m just old enough to remember that moment when we stepped on the moon. Do you remember that moment, and the picture that was beamed back of the Lunar Module and you see this picture of the Earth in the background, and you suddenly get this picture of ourselves from another perspective? And in 1972, Apollo 17 as it was pulling away to this incredibly famous picture of the world, and this world is suddenly holding together, fragile and wonderful, and beautiful, floating in space, and it took a look at things from another perspective.
And in a sense during that time, I don’t know if you’re of this era; maybe this hits you now. Maybe it’s something that rings true for you, but I think this is one of the most beautiful pictures of the earth because you can almost see things from God’s eye. And so we pray in today’s gospel, “Our Father who art in heaven.” We ask ourselves to think of God who is in heaven, and to have God’s eyes on us and our world, God’s compassion, God’s mercy, God’s love. When this picture was taken, the world was frayed as well. In the 1960s you had the riots and disturbances and unrest and uprisings in Detroit and Newark and Watts, and many other American cities. This was a byproduct of the Cold War. So violence was not something that was unknown to this earlier age, and yet for that one brief moment people took a look at this picture and they were transformed.
We saw ourselves for a moment, and we developed a bit of compassion. The picture is beautiful, but even within it, for those of you who like to study these things, there’s a bit of a hurricane starting over the Indian Ocean. We never escape the conflict of this world, but we can develop a new sense of it. We can develop a new sense of ourselves. We can seek to understand each other. We can seek to be loving and compassionate and merciful. All of our readings for today speak about mercy in complex ways.
So in our reading from Genesis, you have this incredible negotiation between Abraham and God and God is ready to destroy Sodom, the city. And Abraham says, “Well, what if there are 50 good people?” And God says, “Okay, I won’t destroy the city.” And then Abraham being a great negotiator says, “What if there are ten? Will you take ten? Will you save the city for ten?” And God relents and says, “No, I would not destroy the city if there are ten good people there.” And of course, the whole point of this is not to actually teach us that we can negotiate with God. The whole point of the negotiation is to elicit out of Abraham the compassion that is God’s, the mercy that is God’s, but in that interaction, that conversation of prayer, even Abraham is changed.
And in our reading from the Epistle Colossians, you have this incredible moment in which we are promised that we are rooted in Christ, and this is a rootedness that is beyond the law. It’s beyond any philosophy. It’s beyond any ritual. It rests on being baptized with Christ into His death and resurrection, which means that you and I have been forgiven. You and I exist in God’s eyes as if He were looking at Jesus. We have been bound to Christ and reconciled to Christ, and reconciled to God through Christ, and forgiven. And what Paul says in Colossians overturns all of the power and principalities of the world. It is Christ who is the head over every ruler and authority, and these rulers and authorities have been disarmed by God’s mercy shown to us through Jesus Christ, who died so that we might live.
And finally in our Gospel in Luke, Jesus is having this encounter with His disciples as He is making His way to Jerusalem to die. His disciples are not kind of wistful hippies. “Lord, teach us to pray.” They have this intuition that when Jesus goes to Jerusalem, He is going to experience a horrible death. And so there are fights over who was the greatest in His kingdom. That isn’t just being arrogant, or it’s not just office politics. They are wondering, “Who is going to lead this group, Jesus, after you’re dead?” And similarly this moment where they say, “Lord, teach us to pray” the question they’re asking is, “You’re about to die, and we need to be able to lead each other in prayer, and you need to transfer some knowledge to us now because we want to continue to work for Your kingdom.”
And so the prayer that you and I repeat every day and every Sunday is meant to be a kind of creating in us. It’s a kind of transformative prayer that expresses in our daily lives what does it mean to be changed by God. The prayer is an exercise in mercy, but it’s also an exercise in freedom. “Ask and you will receive. Seek and ye will find. Knock and the door will be opened for you.” No one who hears these words doesn’t think of a moment when we asked and didn’t receive, when we looked and we couldn’t find something, when we knocked and the door was closed, but Jesus encourages His disciples to ask and to seek and to knock. Because Jesus is confident that, even though He is facing His death, that there will be life found in it and that, even though He is about to experience horrible violence, that there will be a way forward that will be a powerful forgiveness, powerful enough to change us.
Jesus in the Gospels shows no interest in politics. He doesn’t care about the structures. He doesn’t care about parties. He doesn’t care about the regime in place. He considers them all a bit corrupt, and I suspect no matter what your individual beliefs are, that Jesus is right. But Jesus is speaking a political gospel, and by that I mean He wants to create a community that has certain virtues, certain ways of being that reflect His kingdom, in which there is no alien. There is no outcast. There is no one beyond redemption. In which each of us embraces one another and is transformed by the knowledge and love of God and His forgiveness.
What can you do in all of the places you walk in your world; what can you do to live out that political life? What can we do as a congregation to bear witness to that? I believe that is what God is calling us to be. I leave you today with a poem written by Julia Esquivel de Velasquez. She was a wonderful pastoral worker in Guatemala. She is still alive, but she’s been exiled because of her advocacy for the poor and the indigenous peoples of Guatemala. And in other poems she can be pretty strident, for good reason, I suspect, but strident about things. And so I was looking through her poetry this week, and I was trying to find something that gets at, I think, the core of her message, which is not to condemn but to somehow take us up and envelop us in the love of God, which is transformative.
And this is what she writes. “I have been summoned by love, real love that believes and hopes and discovers because it is stronger than death. It comes to us from beyond the zenith and submerges itself into the depth of the nadir. Love that extends my arms into the infinite and invites me to embrace the cosmos with its tenderness. The love that opens my eyes to the mystery that I am, in the unfathomable depths of yours. Continues giving me step-by- step victory over fear, leading me secure to the abundant fountain of life. I have been invited to the love whose swelling waves vibrantly shake my little vessel of clay. Yes, I come from love and I am led to love. All of my being yields itself in ecstasy to this embrace from the very heart of the Beatitude. This is what it means to pass through things temporal, and hold on to things eternal, to experience one’s self as transformed by God’s mercy to be loving and compassionate.”
What is your journey? What is your passage? What do you need to rethink? What do you need to do? How can life be the means of God’s transformation in you? Amen.