The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
July 23, 2017
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch a video of this service.)
As a few of you know, the last couple of weeks, about midway through this month I was on vacation in Italy with my family. One of the things I love about vacation is that it allows you the opportunity to step back from the day-to-day grind and the day-to-day pressures, and to have some unstructured time. I love the opportunity to have conversations with Claire when our daughters are still sleeping, and we get up and we make coffee, and we sit and we talk about things we don’t get the chance to talk about, and spend some time in each other’s presence, which is such a blessing.
And what goes in my relationship with Claire also goes in my relationship with God. I have the opportunity when I’m on vacation to not face the pressures of ministry, and to step back and have some time to reflect and to ponder some deeper questions about what it means to be a Christian. What is it that I am called to speak to, and how am I to live up to all of the things I see in the scriptures? And I had that moment when I was on vacation. I had that time to step back and ask that larger question, to ask myself what is the point of my ministry? What is it that I believe we are called on this earth to do, as Christians? What is the purpose of this church?
And I found myself at a funny place, because I realized that I was kind of deviating from the norm. I was animated by something that was different from what we have been told, so many of us who came of age over the past hundred years was the gospel truth. For more than a hundred years, there has been this animating theme in Christian thought and action, which has centered around the kingdom of God, that the purpose of the church and the purpose of Christ in this world was to initiate the kingdom of God. Repent, for the kingdom of God is drawn near. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.
And what that meant for the theologians of the 20th and the 21st century was that we should attend ourselves and watch closely all the ways in which God’s kingdom values are beginning to seep into the world around us through different actions of the people, through different political actions. And these kingdom values are key to be lifted up, God’s justice, God’s peace, God’s reconciliation. And funny enough, I found myself actually in a different place from this.
So for so many years, for probably 20 years of my priesthood, I’ve thought I’m part of that, too. But I realize that actually, I come at things from a different perspective, that I emphasize something different that is just as clear and powerful in the scriptures. And it’s not that I deny these kingdom values, but I see them as deeply dependent on something else. And the thing that I think that I have been called to bear witness to in this world – and it is something that you see as powerful, and as clear in the scriptures – is that you and I have been invited into dialogue with God.
You and I have been invited through our prayer life to know God, and to be transformed by God. And you and I have been invited to go through a process of experiencing intimacy with God, and any time you have intimacy you have vulnerability. And any time you have intimacy and vulnerability, the possibility exists for deep conversation and communion. And any time you have all of those things, you have the power of presence in your life. And I believe that is the nub of Christianity.
That is the great promise of Christianity, which is that through Jesus Christ and the indwelling of his Holy Spirit, you and I have been invited into a kind of dialogue and encounter and meeting with God. And the purpose of the Christian life is to cultivate that prayerful presence of God in our lives. And I say this as an important thing to keep in mind because, for the past hundred and some odd years, we have had a tendency in the western church to pin our hopes on some political project or some movement, and to say, “Here is the kingdom of God at hand.” And time and time again, we have been disillusioned by those activities. Those wonderful steps forward often bear witness not only to the good that is in us, but also to our shadow sides, to the part of us that draws away from the light, that resists this kingdom of God in us.
And it’s because of that that I place such an emphasis on that communion with God that comes from having the deep intimacy of dialogue with God. Because no matter what happens, we will need the resources to continue to live by those kingdom values again, and to be drawn into the future that God is preparing for us. And in order for us to do that, we need the presence of God in our lives. We need to lift up ourselves and each other in prayer. We need to know what it is to be people of the spirit. Do you see what I mean?
And if I were to say that there was one thing that we do, and one thing that we bear witness to, that is the crux of Christianity. It is to that awesome invitation that Jesus gives to us to be in relationship with him through the spirit. And if we are looking for true change in this world, it will come by having that God consciousness permeate all that we do as a people, because the kingdom values that Jesus spoke about, they can’t be instituted from above and they can’t simply emerge from below. They have to come on the basis of a kind of transformation of consciousness, of character, of heart, and of soul.
All of our readings today speak to that presence of God, and tries to carve out space for that presence of God in what we do. In our reading from Isaiah, there is a witness given to people who are in exile, who have failed time and time again to understand, or live by, or experience the values of God. And the assurance is this, that the only rock in this world is God himself. The only thing that could give them comfort and to hold them in place is God himself. God, who is the first and the last. God, through whom all things came to be, and to whom all things will return. God, as the alpha and the omega.
This is the God an exiled people must place their hopes in. This is the God who waits for them. This is the God who hears their prayers, and whose heart breaks for them. This is the God that will sustain them in the midst of their trials.
And in our reading from Matthew, there is this incredible moment in which you have the parable of the weeds in the wheat. And it’s one of those parables in the gospel of Matthew where the disciples say to Jesus, “Hello. Can you help us?” And Jesus gives them all the cast of characters, the weeds are the children of God, the weeds are the children of the devil, the devil is the enemy who sows the weeds and the wheat, and the angels are the servants who are going to come and harvest the weeds and the wheat at the end of the age. But there’s one thing that Jesus actually didn’t explain, which is that what was the theme that was underlying this entire cast of characters?
And that theme is growth. That in order to have growth you need space, and place, and presence. And that the tendency of people to try to create a perfect place on the basis of their own resources, and their own judgments of what is right and wrong, those people end up inhibiting the slow work of God that comes through growth, that comes, in other words, through prayer and transformation.
And finally we have, in this incredible passage from Romans – and this is the moment in which Paul is, in some ways, summarizing all that comes before in this letter and all that will come afterwards. And it is the moment in which Paul says to the disciples in Rome, that the great gift they have is that dynamic, and intimate, and wonderful, and vulnerable relationship they have with Jesus through the spirit, so that they can say, Abba, father. And Paul contrasts that relationship with God with the life of the flesh, as he calls it. Sarx, is how it appears in Greek.
Now, by that, Paul is not talking about Las Vegas. What he’s talking about there is all the attempts you and I, as human beings, make to somehow affect God’s righteousness. All of our fleshly attempts, all of the attempts we try on the basis of our own resources to make ourselves right or our world right before God, all of these things are bound to follow the rhythm of the pattern set by Jesus himself. As Paul goes on to say, all of it will pass through death and resurrection, and it will look a little bit like labor.
The whole creation will be going through this new death and rebirth. And just like labor, it will be chaotic, it will be risky, it will be dangerous, it will be fraught with tension, and it will be full of joy unimagined. And so all into that, Paul writes that we have been given the spirit not of slavery, but adoption, so that we can say, Abba, father, so that we can have a relationship with God.
Now, all of this is incredibly important for us to keep in mind and in our hearts as we prepare to remember the events of 1967 in Detroit. Because over the next few days, we are going to be invited to engage in an exercise of memory, and memories can be good or bad, and even bad memories, when they’re carried within us rightly, can be powerful resources to meet the world we live in and its challenges. And memory is fundamentally a kind of prayer that engages the past. Memory is unlike history. It’s not about what has been written, so much about what is carried on inside of us, in our own lives, in our own histories, in our bodies.
And so it was that Augustine, when he writes his great, incredible book, Confessions, engages in an exercise of prayerful memory because by exercising his memory he becomes aware of God’s presence in his life, from his birth. And he becomes aware of how God has the power to unite past and present and future, and redeem all time. So you and I have been invited, this next week, to practice the prayerful memory of 1967. And the only way I think we can do that is by making it an exercise in prayer.
Now, some of you know that I am involved with young artists in Detroit. And it has been incredibly amazing for me to experience these young artists. And as we were preparing for a performance that’s going to happen later today, at sundown, I went on retreat with a few, and one of the people that I was paired up with is a First Nations person who lives in southwest Detroit. He’s about two inches taller than I am and bigger. And we were asked to pair up, and to look at each other in the eye for two minutes. And I immediately got nervous about this because, having spent some time around First Nations people, I know that when you look somebody from that cultural background in the eye, it’s usually to start a fight. It’s not to actually experience communion.
So I looked at him first, to see what he would do, and he decided to disarm himself and look at me in the eye. And so I followed his lead, and we looked at each other in the eye for two minutes, and at the end we embraced. And that moment of dialogue and connection, for me, was a kind of window to see all that these artists are trying to do. And you and I are called, I think, this next week, to have the creativity, and risk, and vulnerability of artists.
While we were in Italy, we went to see an incredible exhibit that I’ll finish with today. It was by Damien Hirst, and it was called The Wreck of The Unbelievable. And Hirst creates this kind of bizarre show by imagining this narrative in which all of his work is actually rediscovered treasures that were found from a collector from AD 150, in the Mediterranean. And so all of his work has a kind of unearthed treasures. And this piece caught my eye because I recognized that he was working with a classic sketch, by Albrecht Durer, of praying hands.
So when Durer does this sketch in the 15th century, it’s an incredible moment in which Durer is trying to imagine the piety of everyday people, and so he imagined these beautiful hands praying. But when Hirst reimagines that work, he reimagines it as a sculpture made of jade and encrusted with all these kinds of barnacles and sea life. And many people have criticized his work because it’s expensive, it’s a way of kind of playing with the market of contemporary art around him. It’s a kind of cynical attempt to commodify art, so his critics say.
But I think there is something in this piece, called Praying Hands, because I think Hirst is recognizing that in our life, the life of prayer has become a kind of lost treasure. Is prayer a lost treasure for you?