The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
April 9, 2017: Palm Sunday
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch a video of this service.)
There are moments in your life when you have an encounter with somebody. And that encounter changes you forever. There are probably moments, I think, in everybody’s life, but also in each year, and maybe even each month, where we meet somebody and the encounter is so incredibly profound and deep that we know that we will never be the same after that encounter. And we’ll never be the same because what happened in that encounter changed us. But also what happens in that encounter also puts in our mind an experience that we spend the rest of our life trying to understand what exactly that experience meant.
And for me, one of the major moments in my life when I had that experience where I had an encounter like that; that changed the course of my life, and had me think in different ways, and yet still perplexes me. It was a moment that happened when I was 26 years old. I was going off to Children’s Hospital in Northeast Washington, D.C. And in those days, the Northeast section of Washington, D.C. was beset by incredible violence and unrest. And I wanted to go there, and work at this children’s hospital because I wanted to know whether or not I had the metal to be the presence of God, even there.
And so at 26, I went and took place in the chaplaincy program there for 12 weeks. And they assigned me to the adolescent wing. And I think that it is because I was the closest in age to the adolescents, and maybe in mindset. And it was an incredible moment because I got to minister to people who had experienced profound suffering in their lives. They were young men 13, 14, and 15 years old, who had been caught up in the drug war at that time. They had been targets of murder, and they were recovering from gunshot wounds to the face and shoulders, and chest.
There were young women who had been preyed upon by older men, and they had given birth to children. And they were suffering from STDs that they did not have the funds to address, unless they would enter the hospital, and spend a few days receiving antibiotics. And it was such a privilege to be with them.
But the encounter that truly changed my life was when one weekend when I was on call, I was asked to cover the neonatal unit. And there was a case there that was incredibly difficult. There was a mother, who had suffered tremendous abuse, and she was addicted to crack, and she had given birth to a child, who did not have a functioning digestive system. The little boy had lived six months through heroic work at the hospital, and the mother’s resolve not to give up. But the time had come that there was nothing else that could be done for the child. And she had to let the child go.
The Franciscan monk who was usually in charge of the neonatal unit, turned to me as he turned over the case to me for the weekend, said, “This one’s pretty difficult.” I was shaking in my shoes. I prayed, and I didn’t know what to say. I walked up to the room, the nurses were there, and I walked into the room, and the nurses were beside her. As soon as I walked into the room, to my utter astonishment, she looked up at me, and she said, “You’re going to be the pastor who helps me give my baby back to God.”
I was so blown away because at that moment I was so aware of all the great distance between us. My own incredibly privileged life. And that the places I had been able to walk that not everybody else gets to walk. I was aware of all of the pressures and oppression on her, and all the things that she had suffered. I was overwhelmed in that moment by the fact that I was the one chosen by her, chosen by God to walk with her, and sit with her over those next two days. And I was so incredibly grateful, and so put in mind of the grace of God. We discussed her struggles. We discussed her decision.
We decided that the next day we would take off the life support, and I took the train back to Alexandria where we were living with my beeper on. And we went to sleep, Claire and I, and then 3:00 that morning, the hospital called to tell me that the baby had already died. So I drove over to Northeast D.C., and I went up into the hospital room, and there was the woman and her partner. And there was the little baby dressed in a little blue jumper. Six months old. And the nurses were gathered around, and I prayed with them.
I did things that I have continued to do for the rest of my ministry. It was entirely by instinct at the time. I made the sign of the cross on his little forehead. And I made the sign of the cross on his each eye. I made the sign of the cross on his nose, and his mouth and his ears. And on his hands, and on his toes. And I held him in my arms, and he was so surprisingly heavy and still. And we gave thanks to God for the life of that little one. For the love that he had received. The love that had been behind his coming into the world. And for the love that was receiving him.
This was an incredible encounter for me because it revealed to me how incredibly powerful grief can be. And how the grieving process is one of those processes that provides the basis for profound community in our lives. By that, I mean that you and I come from many places, and positions, and perspectives. You and I have experienced many different things in our life, and there’s a lot of things that we will share differently. Many of us will be lucky and unlucky in love. Many of us will be lucky and unlucky in our careers. Many of us will be lucky and unlucky in our social circles that we circulate in, or in the family we receive. All of this is varied. That differs from one individual to the next, but each of us will grieve. Grieving is universal. Grieving is actually the thing that we share completely.
And yet the irony of grief is that when one person goes through grief, when one person enters the mourning process, it is an experience that seems to be entirely individual, and particular. Everybody grieves, but no one grieves the same. And that is the mystery of life, and the grace of God is that we can reach out to one another in grieving.
Now psychologists have said that grieving occurs when the beloved goes missing, and we spend the rest of our lives looking for that beloved. We’re looking for someone to replace the place that that beloved had in our lives. And perhaps that is true. But I want to suggest to you that grieving is actually an incredibly powerful experience that teaches us that we are profoundly relational beings. Because when we grieve, it’s not only the beloved who goes missing, but we go missing as well. A part of us is lost. We lose a sense of who we are in the midst of it. And that is why grieving is so profoundly a process of transformation. No matter who or what you are; no matter your culture; no matter your context. Grieving is a process of deep change and transformation.
And ironically, grieving is one of those things that has been lost as an icon in our context in our contemporary life. People know instinctively what they want. For example, when it comes to say a wedding. They have seen it on TV. They want to replicate something they saw that the Kardashians did. But grieving, that is something we don’t tend to understand, or do well. It’s something we hide from ourselves, and from others. And that is the irony and tragedy of this life. And this is why I think grieving itself can be a kind of gift from God.
Leonard Cohen, the great poet and songwriter, in one of his poems, he says, “Blessed are You. For You have given me the shield of loneliness, so that I will never forget You, Lord God.” And the same way I think grieving is a kind of shield and protection because no matter who we are, it lays us bare, and makes us aware of our need for others, and most of all for God.
There’s also one other thing that I encountered at that day, and that has kept in my mind, and I’ve not fully understood. But it’s something that I have completely built my life around. And that is that in that moment when I was holding that baby, I had the deep intuition that death was not meant to be. That we were not meant for death. And mourning that child was different from the mourning that we’re able to do when someone has had a full life, and has died of natural causes, whatever that means. Holding on to that baby, immersed in the pain and the suffering, in all the ways that child bore the sufferings of this world.
I began to see that intuition that I think the Christian faith is built upon, which is that death was not meant to be. We were made for life, not death. And though death is a reality that we cannot avoid, life is what we have to place our hope on. Life is what we have to live. Life is what we have to celebrate.
Now I have said all of this about grieving because grieving is the only way for us to really understand what’s happening today, and for the next week as we trace Jesus’ walk to a cross and resurrection. From the earliest strata of the Christian tradition, you have the testimony that the purpose of this day, and the rest of Holy Week, that it was meant to be a time in which you and I as Christians could come together and mourn. And the apostolic traditions, which were written in 375 to 385 is what our estimate is. And this is the earliest documented record of what it meant to be a Christian, and what it meant to follow the Christian faith. We receive the counsel that the purpose of Holy Week was not of celebration, but of mourning.
Egeria, a fourth century pilgrim who traveled to Jerusalem to trace all of what happened at Holy Week there, and from which we still follow in our own service, her own writings of what happened in Jerusalem were written right at the turn of the fourth century. She says that the most amazing thing she’d ever seen when she visited Jerusalem at Holy Week was how the entire congregation gathered. The whole, the people that gathered. Young and old, she writes, would grieve and sob because of the suffering of Jesus.
So grieving is what we are being called to do over the next week. We are called to enter into a process of grieving. Of opening ourselves to the deep change that comes when we grieve together as Christians for the death of our Savior Jesus. And we do that because involved in all of these actions, and all of these movements, and all of these words, and all of these narratives, and all of this song, and all of these prayers, there is meant to be created for us, the space for deep change.
The challenge that you and I have to live into, is whether or not we have the wherewithal, or the ability, or the openness, or the willingness to drop our defenses, and to let this message sink in one layer deeper this year, so that we might be continually transformed by what we read, and say, and pray over the next week.
And there is in today’s Gospel, in this magnificent passion narrative, a fundamental distinctive teaching about grieving that the Christian faith stakes its life on. And that fundamental teaching, that distinctive teaching of Christianity, is this; it is found in Jesus’ words. “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Standing behind those words is the first cry of Job. The innocent man who suffered at the hands of God. And Job asked God, “Why all this suffering?” God does not provide an answer, but God does redeem the suffering. And that for many generations is enough. But Jesus, when He says, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?,” He says an answer to God. And that answer is this: that Jesus himself has experienced grieving and suffering. That our own suffering because of Jesus will be one in which we are never truly alone. That our own suffering will find its company in Jesus, even when we feel most alone, God is with us. For God himself, in Jesus Christ, has felt the separation, the distinctiveness, the loneliness of grief.
And this is, as I said, the distinctive Christian teaching on grief. Because Jesus has come to transform human nature from within. God does not take our grieving away, so much as heal it from within by walking with us. And that is the power of the resurrection already at work in the death of Christ. A power that we will continue to see emerged like dawn over this past week. This next week, as well.
The painting for today that I have for you is from Chagall’s White Crucifixion. Chagall was an ethnic Jew from Belarus. And his own community had been attacked by the different Russian governments in different kinds of pogroms over the years. Chagall painted this while he was living in Paris in 1938 after Kristallnacht, the moment in which the Nazi regime went through Germany, and smashed all of the Jewish establishments, and the persecution of Jews began to be a thing that could be expected, and not simply anticipated.
And Chagall paints this painting as a moment of grieving. And the wonder of it is that he saw in the figure of Christ, his own self as an ethnic Jew, that Jesus on this cross is wearing a prayer shawl. There’s a synagogue up in flames. There are people with red flags representing the communist being attacked and attacking. You have over to the right of the painting, a man with a white strap on his arm. And in the earliest articulation of that painting, it had a swastika on it.
So in the midst of this suffering, an injustice. Chagall differentiates the cross from all of that oppression, and says to the audience, and to everyone, that the cross is not just another iteration of oppression. The cross is the moment in which we focus on the suffering of an innocent person, and are transformed. And it is, in the particularity of the Jewishness of his Jesus, that he took refuge in his grieving.
In what ways will you try to close the distance this week with God? Seeing that God has closed the distance, so that He might suffer, and be with you. Amen.