The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
May 14, 2017: The Fifth Sunday in Easter
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch a video of this service.)
One of the most amazing things that I have when I do what I do as a priest is I have the ability, and the privilege, and the joy, and the honor of being able to bear witness to so much beauty. My calling as a priest is a calling to bear witness to the incredible ways in which God is present in our world, and God is present in such a way that God’s beauty is always radiating around us. And I’m not talking simply about the beauty of this church, or the beauty of this day, or the beauty of the flowers. I’m talking about the kind of moral beauty that is in the universe, the kind of beauty that shines through and bears witness to God’s own goodness, and light, and love, and truth.
So whether I’m with a family that is in the midst of saying goodbye to a loved one who is passing away, or whether I’m with somebody who is trying to reconcile after an incredible acrimonious fight or some disillusionment, or whether I’m in the midst of trying to build bridges in the city around me, I am surrounded by beauty. And the thing that comes to me most clearly in these moments is that I have been called to live a beautiful life.
A few years ago, I won this fellowship from a bizarre organization, and I was able to be with cultural leaders from France and the United States, with politicians, and soldiers, and business people, and museum directors, and academics, and I was the first priest there. And I did pretty well in these seminars, and at one point, somebody said, “Do you ever regret choosing to be a priest?” I said, “I don’t want your job. Your job sucks. My job is amazing.” My job is amazing because I get to bear witness to so much beauty. I am truly rich.
And this is not to say that there are moments in which you experience some opposition, or some disappointment, or some disillusionment, or some disagreement, or some other kind of dis-ease in the body of Christ that I am called to inhabit. And in fact, in those moments in which you have those kinds of dis-eases of the body, there are moments in which you can learn so much when you reach out to another person and simply speak about what is going on in your life. And I had one of these moments recently about a couple of weeks ago. I happened to have lunch with a Buddhist nun. And we sat at lunch and usually when you have people from different faiths and they get together, it has all of the austerity and formality of the convening of the Jedi Council. Everybody comes in like, yes, Obi Wan, totally protected.
But instead, she sat across from me, and she just broke open her heart and talked about the things that were disillusioning her as a nun. And one of the things that she said to me that really struck me is she said, “The problem that I see with American Buddhism is that everybody that comes, it seems, is a kind of spiritual materialist.” And by that she meant that people come to Buddhism and they want to try meditation for entirely worldly concerns and entirely worldly goals. She said, “People come to meditate at the monastery because they want a better golf game, or they want to have a kind of better career, or they want to have a little more peace in their lives, or they want a more fulfilling family life or romantic life. And these are entirely worldly concerns.” And Buddhism can’t really help you with those things. Buddhism is meant to address real suffering, the suffering of losing a child, or the suffering of experiencing profound debilitation, the suffering of losing a loved one as she did, which is why she found her way to that monastery and eventually became a nun.
And I remember being so overwhelmed, and I felt so privileged in that moment that she reached out to me. There was beauty even in that confession as it were, and it reminded me of a moment in which I went to see an older priest when I had first been ordained. And I had discovered that the priesthood could be pretty painful at times, and I poured out my heart to him. And he was older. He was a rector. I had such high hopes he could lift my spirits. And he looked at me, and he just burst into tears. And he said there are days I regret the decision. I remember thinking you’re supposed to help me, but I felt better because I knew that somebody else knew the joys and sorrows of my life. The joys and sorrows of being a public Christian.
Now, all of this is a way to think about what does it mean to be a Christian because I began to wonder after that lunch about this whole concept of spiritual materialism. Do we fall prey to that in our lives? I think many people would agree that a lot of people go into a religion or pursue a religion for entirely worldly purposes to somehow help them with their own ambition, with their own desires, with what they want. And I think most of us would agree that there is such a thing as spiritual materialism, but the problem is, is that most of us would tend to agree about the things we’re least inclined to want. By that I mean that I think all of us have a kind of spiritual materialism about us, and as much as I have sacrificed a certain bit to be your priest and to be a priest in this world, I come to God with worldly things all the time. I pray for my family. I pray for my daughters; that they would flourish. I pray for projects at the church. I lay these all on God’s hands. I place them in God’s hands because I hope that God would bless them.
And there’s a certain extent to which this is a worldly pursuit as much as anybody else. I pray that my career as a priest would contribute to the benefit of others. And I suspect that each of us is a kind of spiritual materialist. We try to lift before God the things that we love, and the trick I think is actually to see God in them. And it’s here that you see the difference, the fundamental difference between being a Buddhist, I think, and being a Christian. Because Buddhism, you see, wants to create a strategy of detachment. That you are supposed to take all of these worldly things, and see them as something that you have to pull away from and to detach so that you can contemplate higher things in life. And through that contemplation, become truly compassionate.
But Christianity actually has a very different teaching about what it means to inhabit this world. Christianity believes that we have been called into the world to see it rightly. Because when we see it rightly, we see it through the lens of Jesus. And just as God through Jesus Christ inhabited this world and transformed it, so you and I have been called as Christians to live in this world and to find in it God’s redemption through Jesus Christ. Christianity doesn’t believe, in other words, in a strategy of detachment, but Christianity believes in a life of revelation. That in each moment, no matter how good or bad we think it is; in each relationship, no matter how broken it might be or blessed; in each vocation, no matter how secular it might seem or not, we find the seeds of God’s redemption through Jesus Christ. And the fundamental claim that you and I are called to live into is to live into that revelation of God wherever we find ourselves. My lunch mate was a nun, and what that meant is that she took on the obligations of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Much like monastics do in our context, in our tradition, but Christianity actually believes that where each of is, is just as powerful a calling.
In that economy, when I’m not a monk, I’m considered technically a secular priest. That’s the technical term. A priest who is in the world. For you and I who live in the world, our calling is to be in the world. Not of the world, as we read in Paul. And this I think goes with the grain of why we celebrate mothers today. To be called to be a mother is to be in the world. To experience real joys and sorrows. To experience all of the particularities of life and all of its complexities, and to somehow find in those relationships, whether good or bad, whether broken or not, whether joyful or sorrowful, to see in them beauty. That somehow by being in the world, and by giving birth in the world, and being raised in the world, and being nurtured in the world, and praying for one another, and praying for our mothers, and praying for our children, we can be somehow transformed by the revelation of God in this time, in this place, in this moment.
Years ago I went to see a monk after seeing my friend who cried, and I said, well, I’m going to try somebody else. And he listened to me for an hour and a half as I poured out my soul to him, and he asked me a simple question. He said what if it’s all revelation? If God chose to make this world and if God decided that this instant that you and I are inhabiting would be incomplete without each of us, then there is the deep truth that in this moment God is revealing something about God’s self to you. And maybe you’re being brought into the sacred heart of Jesus which breaks open for the world around us. But it’s for you to figure out how that revelation changes you, whether it brings you closer to God, or whether it brings you farther away. What if it’s all revelation?
And our reading from John, you have that moment in which at the beginning Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. Do not let your hearts be troubled; believe in God; believe also in Me.” And at the end of it, you have this wonderful line where Jesus says to them, “If you in my name ask for anything, I will do it.” Christianity is a relationship of liberation and joy and beauty. And it’s a relationship of going deeper into relationship with God, into the intimacy of God, and seeing God in our world. And that truly is a remarkable, powerful, unique truth claim. That is what makes us distinct in the world around us. And as we move into what many characterize a post-Christian age, that witness to God’s beauty through Jesus Christ, that witness to God’s love for the world will become more and more real in our lives.
The picture I have before you is one of a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, and Giacometti began to do these sculptures in the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s. And many people have argued that Giacometti’s point in making these sculptures was to convey the fact that in our own contemporary life we seem to be locked into the striving and purpose of this world. We seem to be locked into purely material pursuits. And Giacometti believed that somehow if you could convey this figure and bear witness to the pain that is involved when we become totally locked into this world without seeing beyond it, that somehow he could bear witness to something larger. And so you have this incredible figure, which there are many. I’ve picked this one because it was the clearest I found on the internet, L’Homme qui marche II. This was done in 1960. One of the others he did earlier is similar.
And a docent who gives tours of this statute has noted all the ways in which people looking in on this figure see different messages of suffering in contemporary life. For a certain generation, when they look at this they see the Holocaust or the Shoah. The killing of 6 million Jews. For the younger generation, when they see this, they think of eating disorders. For the way in which our own bodies are so often determined by a larger gaze that evaluates and weighs them and finds them wanting. Christianity sees in this great pain and suffering not an opportunity to escape through detachment, but to see in this incredible sculpture a prayer for union. The figure is walking, and the figure is looking and leaning and bearing witness to the emptiness because, in a way, by being beautiful it bears witness to that which is outside of it.
Leonard Cohen, the wonderful Buddhist, Jewish songwriter writes the following as a prayer that seems to resonate with this. That seems to resonate as a way to close this sermon, and it’s found on the back.
‘I lost my way. I forgot to call your name. The raw heartbeat against the world, and the tears were my lost victory. But you are here. You have always been here. The world is all forgetting, and the heart is a rage of directions, but your name unifies the heart, and the world is lifted into its place. Blessed is the one who waits in the traveler’s heart for his turning.’ Leonard Cohen, Book of Mercy, 1984
May we all be turned on this day. May our lives be turned to God. May we find in Jesus the revelation and light that can guide us. Amen.