The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
May 21, 2017: The Sixth Sunday of Easter
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch a video of this service.)
There are moments in our life in which you are in the midst of an everyday activity and then suddenly, out of nowhere you realize that you are surrounded in something incredibly mysterious, something profound, something powerful, something that you don’t fully understand, some kind of revelation. Do you ever have moments like that, moments in which you’re doing what you’ve always done, and then all of a sudden, the world is rendered mysterious before your eyes and you never see things quite the same afterwards?
A few years ago, when we were living in New York City, Claire and I decided that we’d take our family to get some Chinese food at our favorite Chinese restaurant, Grand Sichuan. It’s on 9th Avenue and I think about 17th Street. It’s amazing. We got our family together and in those days, Thea was about three years old, and so I hoisted her on my shoulders and we began to walk there, and we were having the time of our lives. It was a beautiful day. We hit one street corner, and I suddenly noticed this older woman next to me, and I looked over at her and I suddenly realized that she was struggling horrifically with the packages she was carrying.
It was those plastic bags, and she was weighed down with so many that the plastic handles had begun to cut into her hands, and her hands were white, and they were trembling. She had just lost control of her bladder on the corner of the street. I looked over at her, and she was on my right and Claire was on my left, and Claire said, “Let’s go.” I looked up and I noticed that the light had changed, it was our time to cross. I thought, actually that she had told me that this is how you handle – I thought she had coached me through this. This is how you handle these moments, these breakdowns. You pretend like they don’t happen, you preserve the dignity of the person by looking past it, and so I walked along with Thea on my shoulders, and we got to the restaurant, and I put down Thea and I said, “Did you see that woman?” and Claire said, “What woman?” I said, “This woman was struggling with packages and she had just lost control of her bladder.” She said, “Go help her.” I ran back to find her, and I discovered her with a man her age walking down the street, and he apparently had caught up to her and taken some of her packages, and they were making their way home.
I’ll never forget the two of them walking together. I don’t know if he was a neighbor, I don’t know if he was her husband, but I saw in that moment these two were holding together, bearing one another up. I had this incredible revelation where I realized how incredibly mysterious and wonderful our bodies are. I had this revelation of the body as this incredibly mysterious, fragile, and beautiful thing.
That year, I had just gotten over a serious injury to my hand that required two surgeries and all of this physical therapy to get it back to full mobility and strength. I’d just begun to see, in my mid-40s, that my own body was not as youthful as it once was, that I could experience serious injury and that it would take me years to get over it. I still don’t write the same since that injury.
Seeing that woman there, I had this moment where I realized that her present was going to be my future, that there was this moment in which my body would break down, that my body would betray me, that there’d be a moment in which the strength of my body would desert me, and someday I would become weak. Suddenly in that same moment, I was surrounded by this kind of mystical revelation of what it meant to have a body. In New York City, you are surrounded by bodies. Many of these bodies are beautiful and youthful, and they represent the kind of box that we put around the way that we think bodies should behave. Many times I would encounter in the space of one little area, the same kinds of bodies going through these incredibly different experiences.
One time I was in a subway car, and a woman across the way from me was just weeping and alone, and she had obviously experienced this incredible devastation. Then in the same subway car just a few seats down, there was a couple that had obviously just gotten engaged. These two bodies, these bodies were in the same space. The mystery of life was to see all of these bodies together as somehow powerful, and important, and real, and revelatory, and beautiful.
Western culture spends a great deal of energy trying to tell us that we have one box in which the beauty of our bodies need to be contained. That box is often gendered. It’s often given a kind of complexion. That box is often given a kind of place, that those bodies are typically male, white, and beautiful. On that day, I began to see the beauty of all the bodies in the world, and I began to see my own salvation as bound up in their bodies as well. Western culture has spent so much energy on every level denying the performances of the body that we don’t like.
Years ago, they used to tell pregnant women, when they would go to the grocery store, to carry around a jar of pickles, because in case your water broke, you would just drop the pickle jar and walk out of the store, because God forbid that the grocery store would be a place of generativity and not consumption. We do so much to isolate our bodies from one another.
Charles Taylor, the philosopher, says that we live our lives as buffered selves, as almost covered in batten, to protect our bodies from any problems, and yet, our bodies break down, and yet our bodies become weak, and yet our bodies experience sadness and grief, and yet our bodies are broken. That is a mystery, and that is a revelation.
Now all of this I’m saying today is a way of trying to articulate to you why I think Christianity is so special and so unique as a religion. Christianity pivots around a central claim about the body, and that is that Jesus Christ is God’s word and God’s son incarnate in a body. That revelation of God made all embodied existence beautiful, and mysterious, and the place of redemption. All the bodies that we are part of now are, in a mysterious way, part of Jesus’ body, and the life of our bodies is measured by the life of Jesus’ body, and the fact that Jesus experienced in His body sadness, and sorrow, and death, and resurrection, so you and I will experience the same things, the joys and sadnesses of life, our particular challenges, our health troubles, the moments in which we succeed or fail to live up to whatever anybody expects of us. Those are all points of revelation to us by God, revelation to our own bodies of what it means to be part of the body of Jesus. For we all need to have eyes to see and hearts to be open to it. That is the distinctive teaching of Christianity. That is what separates us from other religions. What makes things magnificent, in my opinion, and mysterious to Christians is there is a powerful teaching about the body.
If you look at our readings for today, all of them teach a very strong word about this. In our reading from Acts, we recount the moment where Paul enters into an areopagus in the town center and gives this sermon about an unknown god. Apparently, in that town, there was an altar to a god who is unknown. Now, biblical commentators debate whether or not that unknown god was an attempt by the townspeople to cover all their bases, because there were so many different religions coming into the town that they didn’t want to have any god disrespected, and so they created an unknown god altar. If anybody came in with a god that wasn’t being worshiped, they could be placed there. It also could be a way of seeing the unknown god that lies beyond all of the different manifestations of the deity that was in that town.
Paul says in Acts that that unknown god is actually Jesus, that Jesus, by becoming incarnate and coming into our midst, has rendered our bodies magnificent, for in him we live and move and have our being, he says. Far from worshiping an unknown god, Christianity pivots on the belief that it is Jesus Christ, a man, says Paul, who will judge us and reconcile us to God.
In our reading from I Peter, there is this incredible kind of tribute to the suffering body of Christ. There is the belief that all of our sufferings, those that are undeserved, but even those that are deserved, participate in some mysterious way in Christ’s own suffering as the figure of Christ moves through the world through us. Peter tells his listeners to have courage and to trust their baptism, for that baptism is a prefiguration and a promise of God’s presence to them through the body.
Finally, in our Gospel from John, we have this incredible moment in which John depicts Jesus speaking about the coming of the Spirit. This is a promise. Yet even in the Spirit’s presence in our lives, there is a promise that God will remain with us even though the body of Jesus will ascend. Jesus would be present to us because even if the body ascends, so Jesus assures his disciples, I will be with you. Now that the body of Jesus ascends to heaven through the Spirit, Jesus will be present in our bodies. I will be in you. You will be in me. We will be in the Father. You and I, in other words, are Jesus’s hands, and heart, and eyes, and feet in this world.
Years ago, when I was in college, I decided to take the bus home. I unwisely chose to sit next to a priest. He just harassed me for three hours. I thought to myself at the end of the trip, I thought, I am never taking the bus again. I don’t care if I have to hitchhike because being stuck for three hours next to a priest on a bus, that was so uncool. He was a total nut. He would tip his hat to every church that we would pass. He seemed to have some kind of radar for when we’d be passing a church, any church, any denomination. He’d be like, “dub da da.” Then he was instructing me. When he didn’t like the answer, he would punch me in the arm. He would say, you believe in transubstantiation too as Episcopalians. I said, well, no, not exactly. We have a slightly different teaching about that. Pow! “Yes, you do.” He would try to explain to me all of the things about his mental prayer. I thought, you got the mental right.
We began to debate about Jesus. He said, “I pray and I know exactly what Jesus looks like.” I said, “you know, that’s totally not right. Jesus was a Palestinian Jew. Whatever you’re going to say, if you say anything aside from a Palestinian Jew, you’re wrong.” I couldn’t handle it. He said, “no, you’re wrong. Jesus has green eyes”. At that point, I thought, I’m just not going to say anything else. Then I got up the next day, and I went to shave, and I realized that I have green eyes. I realized that what he was trying to tell me, in his ever so clumsy way, was it wasn’t just the fact that Jesus walked the earth as a historical person. The promise of Christianity is that we actually meet Jesus in the face of the other, in all of their embodied existence. The point of being a Christian is not merely to follow this historical Jesus but is actually to see how Jesus is presented to us in the face of each other in the bodies we see. Now that Jesus has ascended, He is present in us.
For years, Christian theologians have emphasized Jesus’s ascension, which is what we will celebrate on Thursday, as a moment in which Jesus rises as a body and brings together heaven and earth. That is to teach us that everything we experience in our body is holy. I’ve given you a poem from John Donne on one side of your bulletins to take a look at. I’m not going to read the whole thing because I can’t do it justice. Donne there sees that powerful Jesus as being able to hold together these two great archetypes. Jesus is the ram who batters down the walls of heaven. He’s the lamb who died for our sins. Ram and lamb, held together, a powerful bivalence is what a philosopher would call it.
I think that there’s also another teaching here for us this day. It’s found in the picture I’ve provided to you by Bill Viola who is a cinematographer, a video artist. This is his piece called Ascension. It celebrates a moment in which this figure, who is shaped like a cross with arms out, plunges into water and over the space of two minutes, sinks to the depths while bubbles bubble around it in a way that is luminescent, and then rises and breaks the surface. This is to communicate the way in which the body of God has descended in order for our bodies to be transformed through the bodies we meet. In what ways can you break the surface today? What bodies do you need to see? What peace do you need to make with the bodies around you? What care do you need to give to your own body and to the bodies of each other? Amen.
Poem referred to in sermon:
John Donne, 1572 – 1631
Salute the last, and everlasting day,
Joy at the uprising of this Sun, and Son,
Ye whose true tears, or tribulation
Have purely wash’d, or burnt your drossy clay.
Behold, the Highest, parting hence away,
Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon;
Nor doth he by ascending show alone,
But first He, and He first enters the way.
O strong Ram, which hast batter’d heaven for me!
Mild lamb, which with Thy Blood hast mark’d the path!
Bright Torch, which shinest, that I the way may see!
O, with Thy own Blood quench Thy own just wrath;
And if Thy Holy Spirit my Muse did raise,
Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise