The Rev. Canon Dr. William Danaher, Jr.
May 7, 2017: The Fourth Sunday of Easter
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch a video of this service.)
I spent 15 years as a professor. And perhaps because of this, every time I get to May and June, I start to think about these major transitions in life. These moments of graduation. These moments of celebration. These times in which people transition from one thing to another. It’s a wonderful thing and I’m always full of it.
The anthropologist, Victor Turner, called these liminal moments, moments of transition in which the identity of the person is changed, and the community goes through a little bit of a crisis, and then comes to see itself in a different way. And there’s a bit of mystery, and a bit of transformation, a bit of sacramentality, if you will, in these transitions, one to the other. Today, we’ll have a bunch of those in which we celebrate all of the acolytes who have been working with us for so many years, and the work that they did. We’re so grateful for all the ways these young people have let us worship.
We’ll have another moment today in which the youth will get together, our children will come together, and they’ll do a liturgical drama, and this will be the transition for them to be witnesses to what God is doing, for them to take the lead, and the liturgy around us. Of course, all around us, people are graduating from school, and moving on to new challenges and doing new things, leaving home. In some cases, for some of us who are experiencing deeper losses than that, this is a time which people are dying and moving on, and we are recovering.
All of this is what it means to go through a liminal experience. For reasons that truly mystify me-I kept on thinking this past week about one liminal experience, one mystical experience, one change that happened in my family when my brother decided in his sophomore year of college, which was around 1978 or so, to go as an exchange student to Germany. The whole family got into the family car, and we drove down to Kennedy Airport. In those days, you could walk all the way up to the gate, so we all went up to the gate with him.
My father, who had served in the armed services, in the Air Force, was based in Germany in 1959, so he ran and got something that he thought would help my brother make friends. He ran and got a carton of Marlboro cigarettes. He brought it to my brother and said to him, “Here, the Germans love these.” I remember when I saw this, my mind was like [explosion sound]. My dad just gave my brother a carton of Marlboros. All the rules change when you go on an exchange trip. I was half expecting my dad to say, “This is how you strap heroin to your body when you need to move some cash.” I don’t know.
I was just blown away by that whole experience. My brother took the Marlboro cigarettes and put them in his carry-on bag. Then he turned, and he walked down the jetway and onto the plane, and my mother just burst into tears. My father pulled her close, and he said, “He’s a wonderful, bright, handsome guy. He’ll be okay. He’ll be okay.” Again, my mind went like [explosion sound]. I realized, my parents actually liked my brother. I was quite ambivalent about him. Good days, bad days in that relationship as far as I could tell. I didn’t quite trust him, but they loved him. I couldn’t believe it. It was shocking.
He went, and he came back, and he was full of stories and experiences. It enriched him, and it made him part of the person that he is today. This was, I think, a liminal experience. It was that moment in which you have a passage, and in those moments there is revealed the complexity of a relationship. In every relationship, I think, of this sort, you have nurture, and love, and attention, and cultivation, because none of us get where we need to be in life without somebody nurturing and cultivating us.
There’s also space. There also is the room to spread out, to grow, to wander, and wander, to get a lost a little bit, and to have an adventure. In that kind of dance between nurture and space, there is grace. Because we all do the best we can in life, and we all give to others what we know ourselves. It never quite is enough in any of these caring relationships. It’s never quite enough. Is it? But there is often grace in these moments, in which, between the nurture and the space, there is grace and forgiveness.
The Germany of 1978 was very different from the Germany of 1959. When my father gave those Marlboros, I’m sure he was giving everything he thought he knew to try to help my brother. It probably wasn’t particularly necessary. I suspect that the Marlboros didn’t make it off the plane, but it was the kind of language that he was trying to speak in that moment to prepare him, to make him ready, to give what he knew. The fact that my brother took those cigarettes was a moment of grace, of accepting that he had a good enough parent. That’s all you can really hope for in this life.
Now, all of this I’ve shared with you today, because I think it resonates a little bit with the reading today from the Gospel of John. Today, we celebrate the fact that Jesus is the good shepherd, our good shepherd. In all of the liturgical churches that we belong to, that we all celebrate this moment. We call it Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s tempting every time you see this to talk about sheep and pastures, but I think, in fact, standing behind all of the writing we have today, all of it is about nurture, and care, and love, and space, and grace. Standing behind it all is a relationship of intimacy.
Two weeks ago, Norman Wirzba came from Duke University and gave a wonderful sermon, in which he talked about how powerful it was to think about God as a gardener, and he compared it to all the other foundation myths of different religions around Israel at that time. God was not seen as a conqueror, God was not seen as a warrior, God was not seen even as a ruler to the Hebrews. Instead, the first image of God was God as a gardener, planting a garden, breathing some spirit into some mud, and creating us.
The image of Jesus Christ, as the good shepherd, is yet another image for us to ponder, because it suggests to us the radical, amazing truth that the God we worship, through Jesus, is not a God who is far off, or a God that we can somehow appease, or a God that we can somehow get some kind of payout for good behavior, but rather, a God who wants an intimate relationship with us, so that when we hear God’s voice, we listen.
That’s the key to this reading from John. It’s the voice that Jesus is speaking about, that new relationship that we have with God through Jesus. The intimacy of that relationship. The willingness of God to enter into our lives and to care for us. Magnificent.
In our reading from Acts, that is, in so many ways, the animating vision of the early Church, when they cared for one another, was to create a community known by it’s nurturing quality of caring for each other. You and I, like the early Christians who wrote these lines of Jesus down, you and I know that we can only follow all of that through grace. We know all the ways we tend to fall short of it in our own lives, in our family life and our personal lives, but also in our church lives. We all fall short of providing that nurture, that special mixture between nurture and space, that God gives to us. That’s why the grace of God is so apparent in this passage, as well.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been with my daughter, Phoebe, as she has started to drive. She’s not like a lot of kids here. She didn’t want to learn how to drive, immediately. Now, she’s 19 years old, and she’s learning how to drive. This is exciting. I drew upon something I noticed that my father did when I was learning to drive, is that he decided that, one summer, that I would drive every time we were in the car together. That took a huge decision on his part.
My father was an airline pilot. He had been a racecar driver. He was very good at controlling engines. He sat in the right seat and said nothing for the entire summer. I had resolved to do the same thing. I’m just going to sit next to her and let her find her way. We started out the other day, for the grocery store, and Phoebe pulled into the left lane to make a left turn, and the car who was coming the opposite direction pulled into its left lane to make a left turn, and for a moment there the two cars were going at each other, and I screamed loudly. I didn’t say like, “Watch it.” I said like, “Ahh,” and it just trailed on, like that sad moment, like, “Aghhh”. We pulled into the parking lot, and she turned to me and she said, “I love you.” That’s grace, and that’s space, and that’s nurture.
Howard Thurman, the great African-American mystic, writes at one point in one of his reflections, “This day I will seek God. I have lived too long without seeking God and placing that as the fundamental orientation of my life. I do this not because I lack courage, but because I have decided I can no longer live unless God lives in me. And wonder of wonders, I suddenly have remembered, that it is God who is seeking me. Blessed remembrance. God is seeking me. Blessed assurance. God is seeking me. This day, I will seek my God who seeks me. This day, I will listen for his voice.”