Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
September 25, 2016
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
In 2011, an artist who is based in New Orleans, Candy Chang is her name, suffered a devastating loss in her life, and she wanted to find a way to somehow remember and memorialize this loss, and to somehow work through it. And so she went to an abandoned house, and she put up plywood, and she painted the plywood, so it looked like a large chalkboard of the old-fashioned kind of black chalkboard. And she took some paint and she painted in it, some careful lines alongside it and each line would say, “Before I die, I want to _____,” and she did it again, and again, and again, throughout the chalkboard, and then she left some chalk behind.
And to her surprise, suddenly people began to write in what they wanted to do, what they wanted to accomplish before they died. And this was a way of processing, and thinking, and taking the next steps, after you’ve experienced something devastating in your life, and an opportunity to step back and make an assessment. And this practice of making that chalkboard out of wood, and setting it up and setting out some chalk, and writing those questions, it’s taken off. There are now 2000 places in the world in which that chalkboard exists, and one of them is in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I saw it when I was dropping off my eldest daughter to start her career at the University of Michigan.
And a hospice nurse, and a doctor of palliative care, and the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor placed one of these site specific installations and provided chalk, and gave people the following instructions. They asked them to stop and to reflect and to write their dreams. Now giving college students an opportunity to write their thoughts anonymously is not always a good practice, right? It wasn’t maybe the best thing to do, and so a lot of the things that were put in – not a lot, but probably about 20 percent of the answers given, were attempts at humor. So I wrote them all down. “Before I die, I want to poop my pants.” I wanted to tell the author of that, that he or she had already achieved that life ambition. It was deep in their past and probably in their future.
“Before I die I want to steal all the fries in the world. Before I die I want to be a boss. Before I die I want to divide by zero.” That was kind of thoughtful, but most of them were incredibly serious and touching. “Before I die I want to see the fjords of Scandinavia, to be someone in life. Before I die, I want to preach, make good art, know and love God, travel the world, save lives. Learn to trust my instincts more. Change the world. Make 1000 people smile. Build a farm, grow a baby. Be happy. Feel appreciated. Make a difference. Marry Emily. Cure a disease. Regain optimism. Believe in myself. Start a family. See the Middle East in better shape. Be a mom. Be the reason someone lives.”
What would be your answer? What do you need to stop and reflect about? What are your dreams on this spiritual bucket list? I think all of us know and can find a place in ourselves in which we resonate with these questions. I think all of us know how powerful it is to be able to step back, and truly measure from a bit of perspective the direction of your life, and that is a natural and wonderful, human gift that each of us has. And certainly that is one of the ways that you can read today’s parable from the Gospel of Luke, as an invitation to those of us who have means to stop, reflect, and write our dreams. The rich man did not see Lazarus lying at his gate, and thereby he made decisions, and focused on things that ultimately were passing away. He ignored the opportunity to try to live out a deeper answer.
But parables are interesting in that parables have a kind of hidden meaning as well. Parables are constructed in such a way that that meaning that you first read can sometimes turn right up on its head, and I think today’s gospel is one such parable. It’s not merely to name the human aspiration that you and I have, the aspirations, and hopes, and dreams that get triggered when we’ve experienced loss or devastation or betrayal. I think there’s a deeper message. I think that message begins to emerge right at the end, when Jesus says, “If they did not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead.” And we see the beginnings of this reading when we note the fact that Jesus gives this parable as He, Himself is going to his death, in Jerusalem.
So Jesus gives this parable because he wants to, in some sense, name that human reading that we all have, in which we are, right at the moment when we have to decide now and choose between life and death, and He wants to say that in fact, this parable is an invitation to see the life that emerges from His death. Because this parable is not merely a depiction of everybody’s human experience in life which has been painted beautifully and colorfully in such a way that the church often lifts it up. The early Christian art on this would always depict Abraham holding Lazarus, like a child in his bosom. There is a deeper message here which is that the chasm between the rich man and Lazarus was about to be crossed by Jesus, and Jesus was going to make it possible for all of us to find a new kind of connection, one to another based upon His grace and forgiveness.
And this doesn’t mean that the rich of this world have been let off the hook. What it means is that the only way you and I could ever find it possible to let go of our lives, and the money we have, is by being completely transformed by the love that is stronger than death. What Jesus is saying, in a sense is, He is setting up His reader so that when they experience grace, they realize that the problem that the rich man faced wasn’t just that he ignored Lazarus, is that his entire life was not being lived with the fullness of God’s grace. Because the resurrection and our fate after death, these are not some kind of divine payoff when we speak about Jesus. Today is the day of resurrection for you and me the extent to which we realize that there is nothing we can do and that we only need Jesus in our lives, and we need His forgiveness and love to take one step forward or make one decision.
You and I can be transformed today by realizing the extent to which God is willing, and ready and able to turn our lives inside out, and that includes our money, but it also includes much more. It includes everything. I think that this reading that I’ve put in place, that I’ve tried to articulate today, I think I’m right, and I’ll tell you why I think I’m right. When George and Ellen Booth built this church, they had this special dedication to the grace that comes to St. Paul, who was faultless in the eyes of the Law, but did not know his savior Jesus, and who was stricken off of his horse by a vision of Christ who says to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” and who discovers in this majesty of grace.
He discovers anew what it means to be alive, and to live a life that is truly a life, as we read in 1st Timothy, and right on the top of the altar there are all the parables of Luke. All of the parables, in other words, need to be read from a perspective of grace. All of the parables are not to be seen as a great winnowing, and a great separation, but a kind of tutelage that the Law gives. So it says on the left side of the altar, “So that we would know the unbelievable grace and forgiveness that comes of God through Jesus Christ.” And so I’ve given you as your painting for today from this incredible altarpiece, one of the parables that Tom Booth, a descendent of the Founders, took a picture of earlier this week.
And this is Lazarus and the rich man, and it’s meant to symbolize the way you and I can experience a deeper connection, than just observation in charity. That you and I can be together in Christ, if we are willing to proceed by grace. So stop, and reflect, write down your dreams. The problem of those exercises, that are all too human, is there never will be enough. We will never be able to achieve our dreams. We’ll never be able to live. The only way to live as Christians, is the Christ who lives in us and for us, and transforms us, and changes us, and makes us new through His power and His grace, and this is why you have at the collet for today, “Oh, God, You declare Your almighty power, chiefly in showing mercy and pity.” The problem with the rich man isn’t just that he failed to share what he had.
The problem with the rich man is he did not have the character of God within him. He did not have an idea of the mercy of God within him. He did not have the power of compassion and pity that is within him, and you and I, when we realize the extent to which Christ has died for us. You and I are transformed and can begin anew and that is the gospel. That is the alien righteousness of Jesus. That is the power of the cross. That is Jesus’ ability to cross every chasm, and to close every distance out of love for you and for me. Stop, reflect, and add your dreams. Today we give thanks for the benefactors of Christ Church, Cranbrook, and we thank them that years ago, almost 90 years ago, there was this incredible outpouring of generosity and now it’s your turn. What will be the gospel that you preach with your hands, with your money, with your life?
In what way will that grace turn you inside out and change you? Earlier last week, I saw this incredible image of it, and I apologize for saying it, but I just thought it was the most amazing moment. I organized this conference on Ritual as Art and Art as Ritual, at the Detroit Institute of Art and Tom Booth came, and he looked resplendent. He was wearing this beautiful gray double-breasted jacket, and he came, and he decided for reasons I will never know – and I’m not sure if Tom could produce them – to take the most experimental dance class at the conference. So he was working with a professor and dancer named Biba Bell, in a wing of the museum, and in it she was having everybody lie down on the floor and to feel the wood through their bodies, and then get up and walk through, and try to reconstitute their memory and get a sense of who they were. And all through the entire performance, Tom Booth got down on his back, and then got back up resplendent in his gray double-breasted coat, and I didn’t know he had done it.
He said nothing about it, until Biba Bell came up to me at the after-party and she said, “There was an older, distinguished man who took my class. Do you know who that was?” And I said, “Yeah, I do.” For me, that was someone living by the light of these Founders, who’s willing to do something different. He is willing to get down on his back, and get up again, by the grace of God, he did. In what ways have you been on your backs? In what ways has God given you the grace to stand up? In what ways are you able to heal and begin again? In what ways can you make life different for another person on the basis of the recognition that you and he or she have been redeemed? Amen.