Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
August 14, 2016
Last week Pastor Manisha in her sermon talked about the fact that I begin my sermons in an unusual way. I speak about being a sinner speaking to sinners, the beloved of God speaking to the beloved of God, and one called to bear witness speaking to those called to bear witness. She gave her own take on why I did that, and I thought it was great, but I thought it would be good if I actually explained myself a little bit. Because it’s been two years now that I’ve been using it, and no one’s ever asked me, and so I’ve never said anything. But it is something that I chose very deliberately. It was the foundational message that I wanted to have spoken in this church as the rector, and I wanted to be the foundational legacy that I leave behind. That any time, and the day will come, some day, and I hope will be a long time in the future.
But there’ll be a day in which I have to let go of everything that I’ve taken on, and go onto the next step in my life that God is calling me to. And if I had one thing that I wanted to be left behind, it would be that proclamation. A sinner speaking to sinners. The beloved of God speaking to God’s beloved as one called to bear witness to those called to bear witness. Other preachers begin by invoking the Trinity. They speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And that is to remind us that there is an awesome responsibility in preaching. That when we are preaching, we are entering into God’s own revelation of God’s self. And other pastors and preachers will say a part of the Psalm, a little passage from the Psalms, “May the word of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, oh Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”
And that’s meant to be a kind of consecration of the preacher’s voice, hoping that God would somehow bless that voice, so that like an earthen vessel carrying a treasure of gold, it would bear it well and faithfully. But I have picked sinner speaking to sinner. Beloved speaking to beloved. Someone bearing witness to those bearing witness for a slightly different reason. I wanted to speak about the imprint of all of these things in time and space in human lives. The imprint of the glory of God in us. The transformation that God brings. The knowledge of God that heals. These can be summarized by these words, sinner beloved in witness. The calling we have can be summarized in those words.
And so let me speak just a bit about what I mean when I say I speak as a sinner to sinners. What I mean is that we live in a world in which there is evil and death and sin at every level and in every place that exists. That no matter where we turn in this life, whether we try to have a stable career, or a happy family, or a fulfilling life, whether we want to have a fit body, whether we want to have a satisfying activity for ourselves, whether we want to find a perfect church. No matter what, all of these things are shot through with sin. All of us will experience evil, all of us will experience death, all of us will experience disappointment, all of us will experience betrayal, all of us will experience disillusionment, all of us will experience some sense in which we are not given what we hoped for, or what we believe God has called us to be.
A famous theologian, who I won’t name because it was not a very bright thing he said, but he said it truly. He said, “The doctrine of original sin is the one doctrine that can be proved empirically. You don’t have to point to the Bible, you don’t have to talk about any kind of elaborate metaphysics. All you have to say is there’s this brokenness in the world. We are a bit shattered, all of us.” And this summer certainly has been a summer in which the brokenness of humanity, the frayed nature of human society, the fickle nature of human love, all of these things have been proven, it seems, at every level for so many of us. So that’s what I mean when I speak about sin.
But I also mean something more, which is that when you and I tend to speak about sin, it’s easy for us to identify the sins we are least likely to commit, and to vilify them. Like, “That is sin over there. What I do, that’s just a foible. That’s just the result of bad patterning. That was my mother talking inside of me. I was hearing that on tape inside of me that was – I just, I’ve got to grow out of that. That’s a growing edge, it’s not sin.” But in fact, of course, that is the definition of sin for many Christians. Augustine said that sin is the privation of goodness. It’s anything less than you are called to be by God. So anything less than living a fulfilled life is sin and evil. But when I say that I’m a sinner, and that you’re a sinner too, I’m actually trying to create some sort of connection. I’m saying we all have sin. We all have bought in, or are complicit in one way or another with evil, death and violence, at one level.
And when we recognize that together, we begin to see how radical our need is for God, for Jesus Christ. Because Jesus Christ has broken the power of sin. Jesus has broken the power of evil. Jesus has broken the power of death. When Jesus died on the cross, and rose for us, Jesus broke all these things in half. And so even though these things are pervasive in our community, and even though there’s no escaping them, the good news of Christianity is that they have been broken. That their fundamental power to define us has ended. That Jesus has come to give us a new identity, and that identity is as God’s beloved. We are God’s beloved because Jesus is God’s beloved, and you and I have been bound to Jesus through faith and baptism. You and I are now standing before God, and when God sees us, he sees Jesus.
And that identity lies at the deepest level of our existence. No matter what anybody could say to you about anything that you’ve done, any way you’ve been complicit with sin, any way you’ve been complicit with evil, anything that you have done that has thwarted the good of another human being, you are beloved of Christ. You are beloved of God. And that’s the good news of Christianity. In the Gospel of Luke, I’ll get to it in a moment, the fundamental term for Jesus is as God’s agape own. God’s beloved. And the wonder of our faith is that you and I share that title, too. You are God’s beloved. God has defeated the power of sin. God has defeated the power of death. God has defeated the power of violence, so that you might be free. So that you might be forgiven. So that you might be reconciled. So that you might be fulfilled with the one thing that fulfills in this world, and it’s not your happy family, or whatever you say on Facebook. And it’s not your fulfilled career. And it’s not your wonderful community. And it’s not this nation, and it’s not this world, it’s God alone. God alone. And God is more than enough.
We have to hold together these two things. It’s like almost a double vision, or maybe two lenses of a telescope in order for us to see our world truthfully. We have to come with a lens that sees sin for all that it is, and the lens that sees everything that is beloved to God for all that it is. And those lenses have to work together, and that is what it means to bear witness. It’s to pull those two lenses together through the power of the Holy Spirit, and to say, “This I can see, and in this way I can act. And this is how my life will turn out. And this is the world around me, and these are the obligations I have, this is what I have to cultivate.” This is what it means to be a witness. So you are with me, we are both sinners, and when you really understand sin well, it’s an opportunity for compassion, for understanding. And you and I are beloved. And when you understand that really well, you understand that as a radical moment of freedom and liberation and love.
And you and I have been called to bear witness because when you really understand that, that means everything in our lives and all of its particularities, everything has to show the love of God, and the kingdom values of God to this world that we live in, at every level. I’m not speaking today about the politics of this world. I’m not speaking today about the decay in civil society. I’m speaking today about the real meaning of Jesus in your life.
All of our readings today speak about this kind of movement, this ability to bear witness, and to recognize the power of sin, and also the reality of being beloved. Our reading from Jeremiah comes at a moment in which the southern kingdom, the last remaining nation of Israel called Judah. I know it’s confusing. But the kingdom of Judah is falling, and all of the court prophets are going to the king, and they’re saying to the king, “Everything is fine. Don’t pay attention to that noise at the borders. We’re going to be just fine. Maybe offer another sacrifice, or something like that. Maybe you should change the clothes you wear, King.” Jeremiah is not going to be a court prophet. He’s not going to talk about the dreams of the nation. What he promises is that the word of God will be enough. And he gives that promise, but also tells them that their nation will fall. Everything is going to fall and Judah, of that time, the people will be decimated. They’ll be sent into exile, but the word of God will still bear fruit like wheat. It will still burn like fire, and it will still be able to be stronger than the power of rocks, or the power in this world that opposes it.
And in our reading from Hebrews, you have this incredible moment. It’s a long beautiful soliloquy about faith. And the image in the writer’s mind, many people have thought is of the marathoners coming in through the Olympics of that time, in which they would finish their race in a stadium surrounded by all of the crowd cheering. And the writer of Hebrews is saying that the people of faith are not getting where they get because of the strength of their bodies. But it’s their ability to be faithful, even though they experience persecution and suffering and death. Their faith is going to carry them to the finish line, and they’ll be surrounded by a crowd of witnesses just like the people in the Olympics we see today. They’ll be surrounded by this crowd of adoring fans cheering them on because they have followed Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of their faith. Because just as Jesus moved from life to death, to life again, through offering himself, so you and I will be transformed, so the people of faith will be victorious over everything that opposed them.
And finally in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, the key to this gospel is something that happens early on in Luke’s Gospel. So not only is Jesus called God’s Beloved, but Jesus has come to share God’s wisdom. God’s Sophia. And so early on in the second chapter of Luke, you have this moment, this little hint where it says that the child grew in wisdom and stature. And that’s the writer convincing us to look and attend to how God’s wisdom is revealed in Jesus Christ. Wisdom for Luke is not something that exists at the level of eternal verities. It’s not something that exists outside this world. Wisdom emerges in the midst of human fracture, and misunderstanding, and break. And Jesus is the wisdom of God. Jesus is carrying out and bearing out this wisdom in a way that kind of is an echo, and a completion of the wisdom that Job experienced when he was suffering for no reason.
And Jesus is bearing forth in time and space what it means to bear the reflection of God in the midst of human agony. And His words today come as Jesus is heading to the cross, and His world is ending, and He does what He usually does. What people in His time period would always do. He’s beginning to lament, and He’s saying these words of mourning. And He’s saying that He’s not going to bring peace as you and I know peace to be. The peace that He is bringing will not be detente, it will not be the cessation of hostilities, it’ll be the presence of God’s reconciliation, which is deeper. And the things that we take refuge in, our families, the things that we hold on to, these things will not finally be able to help us. God alone will help us. God alone will help Jesus. God alone will redeem Jesus. Though He suffered death, Jesus will be raised because God alone is enough. And that is wisdom.
Earlier this summer I was asked to go and say a prayer at the Islamic Center of North America. It’s the largest mosque in North America. It tends to be among the more conservative mosques in North America. And I was asked to go there because the imams wanted to host a special interfaith gathering, in which we could mourn the loss of the people who were murdered in South Carolina in Charleston a year ago in June, as well as to mourn the loss of the people who were murdered in Orlando this year. And so we gathered together, and there was a ceremony in which each name was read, person by person by different members of the community. By Muslims, by Jews, by Sikhs, by Christians. And then, after all these other great preachers got up to pray, they asked me to say something.
And I got up, and I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t want my words to fall into any kind of political program of the day. And so I said, “God, you always seem to give us things which are no match for what we’re dealing with. We’re faced with violence, we’re faced with evil, we’re faced with betrayals, we’re faced with sadness and suffering, and you give us faith, hope, and love and prayer. And when you give us these things, it’s easy for us to doubt whether they can make a difference. And yet time and time again, when we pick up these things, when we try to be faithful, and loving and hopeful, and we try to pray, these things prove to be enough. They draw us together. They help us to stand side by side. They help us to face the day. They help us to be reconciled. They help us to be redeemed, to walk again, after having been laid low.”
The painting I have for you today is something that I found when I was doing a bit of research, and I want to credit Peggy Dahlberg for the incredible work she did. This was in the Nave Gallery in a Presbyterian Church in Somerville, Massachusetts, and it was unattributed. They didn’t know who the artist was. But Peggy figured out that it was a Dutch artist who lives in London, named Carsten ten Brink. And she got in touch with him, and shared with me their correspondence. This is called, Long Walk to the Fire. And ten Brink painted this, he wrote after he was seeing the images around the earthquake in Haiti. And he was seeing all of these incredibly beautiful humane actions, which the people of Haiti were trying to deal with something that was so much bigger than they had the resources to deal with, but they dealt with it anyway because they trusted that somehow it would be enough.
And so he has this image of these boys carrying these buckets of water to a fire in the distance. And the fire looks much larger than four buckets of water. And the water looks heavy, and it’s dripping, and yet the boys are on their way. They’re taking that long walk because it’s the only alternative for them. They cannot simply sit and watch the fire burn. They can only decide to go bring some water, and maybe trust that somebody else will see the fire, and walk with water as well.
This is what it means, I think, to have faith. To pray. To be hopeful. This is what it means to bear witness. What kind of water are you carrying in your life?