The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 30, 2017
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch a video of the service.)
In 2005, I had one of those moments in my life when everything seemed to be going in the right direction. Everything seemed to be going well. I had worked incredibly hard to finish my dissertation while teaching full time. The dissertation passed with flying colors, and it was published without revision. Then suddenly I kind of fell in with these people that were really smart and I was invited to the University of Edinburgh to give a paper.
And I applied for a grant because we didn’t have that kind of cash at the University of the South and I got a grant. Then I talked my parents into coming along and I got extra subsidies to get to live a little large. So the whole family went to Edinburgh and we stayed at this incredible hotel. I went through Edinburgh and I gave my paper. You could see the laurels just streaming off my head. I was just on top of the world. I was so on top of the world. It was like the moment in your life where everything pulls together.
And on the last day there after everything shut down, and we had one more day, I decided to go for a run to up this hill which is actually a dormant volcano right next to old Edinburgh called Arthur’s Seat. I began, I ran down a long road there that you go by John Knox’s statue. Then you go by the Scottish Parliament and by Holyrood which is where the queen stays. You enter this path, and you start to ascend this incredible dormant volcano. It is full of grass and it’s got that tall prairie grass that’s everywhere. I realized about 15 minutes into my run that it was really steep.
I was just at that point where I thought, “I’m going to have to stop because my conditioning is not advanced enough to make it.” When all of a sudden the steep climb would just plateau off, and there was this beautiful meadow. So I began running down that meadow and then, another steep incline came and I went up again. And the sun that day – it was August in Edinburgh, and the sun was just so bright. There was not a cloud in the sky, which those of you who have lived in the UK know that you can count those days on two hands during a year.
So the sun was just so bright that all of a sudden I felt as if the force of gravity was working in the opposite direction. I was being pulled up this hill. I began to break into a prayer, praise of God in thanksgiving for all that God was doing in my life. I was going up and going up and going up, and I got to the top and there was this young woman in her early 20s, seated cross-legged on this little top of the seat and she was weeping. She had long red hair that she had done up as huge dreadlocks. She looked like a little sad lion.
I almost didn’t stop, but then I thought, maybe I should say something. So I went up to her and I said, “You know, I may not look like it right now. I’m wearing running clothes, but I’m a priest. Is there anything I can do for you? I’m sorry that you’re sad.” She turned to me and she just unburdened everything that had gone on.
She had moved from this little town in England to Edinburgh to hang with some friends. They thought it was going to be an idyllic community. They rented a place, but then as they got there, one of the friends decided that she would do something else, so they were struggling with the rent. Then, one of her friends decided to start seeing her boyfriend, and so then they left.
And then she couldn’t find a job and she was running out of money. She had this lease, and she didn’t want to call her parents and ask for more money, because she knew her parents would just hit her over the head with this idea. They would say to her, “What a horrible idea.” She just didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want to admit defeat. She was betrayed, and lonely, and sad.
I suddenly realized that I, at 40 years old, had perspective. I said to her, “Do you mind if I share a little perspective with you?” She said, “Sure.” I said, “In ten years, you’re going to look back on this time and see pictures of yourself, and you’re going to forget all of these false friends because those people don’t hang with you. You’ll see a picture of yourself with this hairdo, and you’ll smile and say to yourself, ‘I did that. I took that risk. I had that adventure and that was part of the journey that made me who I am today.’ You’ll look back with gratitude. You’ll have a different perspective. I promise you. Now these things loom, and they’re oppressive, but in a very short period of time, you’re going to make it through this.”
It was at that moment that I realized that I had developed something that I had not really paid attention to in my life. That was, I was beginning to develop wisdom. Not just knowledge, you see. Not just the knowledge that I’d mastered as a part of my education, that I was showing off as much as I could like tail feathers at the University of Edinburgh. I’d actually gotten a bit of wisdom. And wisdom is so important.
It’s for this reason that we remembered that King Solomon asked for wisdom not knowledge. Wisdom to know the span of life; to know the good that is God, to know what is standing before us from a larger perspective. Our collect, our opening prayer: Praise that we would pass through things temporal so that we do not lose sight of what is eternal. I think that’s a prayer for wisdom. Wisdom gives us perspective on these things.
There was also something else that happened in that encounter. It was because I was a priest. I said to her, “Do you mind if I share a piece of scripture with you?” She said, “Okay,” getting a little bit nervous, I guess. I thought of the shortest piece of scripture that I knew. I said, “In the gospel of Matthew, it says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant of fine pearls who when he meets the pearl of great price, he sells all that he has, and buys that pearl.” I said to her, “For much of my life I always thought that what was being implied by those words was that I had to be a good merchant. That I had to make sure that I gave up a lot of things so that I could get the pearl of great price, so that I could have something truly worth living for.”
Maybe that is one way to look at this parable, but I now see it completely differently. I now see that I am the pearl. That Jesus is the merchant and that Jesus has for reasons entirely of his own, decided to purchase me. Think for a moment how pearls are made. A grain of sand or some kind of irritant finds its way into the shell of an oyster. Rather than spitting it out, the oyster begins to layer that grain of sand as it cuts and serrades until it builds up bit by bit, and then it’s beautiful.
I said to her, “You are the pearl of great price. You are beloved. God loves you.” She said, “I’ve never heard that before, that’s beautiful.” Then I said, “I have to go.” I turned, and I ran down Arthur’s Seat with the same feeling that I had running up. It was so amazing to be able to share the gospel in such a little bit of time. I think this gospel that we have for today is incredibly important for us to see, and see for ourselves.
Because I think there is a tendency in the way we understand religion in Western culture. We want to make it into something difficult to do. We want to speak about the sacrifices we have to make. We want to speak about what we need to give up in order to get God. But the remarkable, unique, powerful, unbelievable thing about Christianity is that the fundamental message of Christianity is, “God has sacrificed for you. God loves you. You are the pearl of great price. You are beloved.”
This is what is operating in our reading from Romans today when Paul goes through that incredible, elaborate, rhetorical logic of those who were foreknown, were called. Those who were called were predestined. Those who were predestined were justified. Those who were justified were glorified.
Paul is trying to create a legal argument to convey a very simple point, which is that from eternity, before time existed, God decided that this day would be incomplete without each of you. With all of your complications, and complexities. All of your shortcomings. All of the gifts you have. All of the experiences you have weathered. All of the joys you have felt. All of the love you have given. All of everything that you are in this day, at this moment, at this service. God from eternity, imagined this day with you in it, and said, “It is good.”
Jesus Christ is the fullest revelation of that eternal love of God. Jesus Christ communicates to us. Paul writes that there is no power that is greater than the love of God. There is no height. There is no depth. There is no breadth. There is no way any of us can be, that is outside of the love of God. And that is good news. And that’s the gospel. Do you know yourself as beloved? Do you know yourself as the pearl of great price? Do you know that there is nothing you can do to earn that love? There is nothing you can do to please God any more than God is already pleased.
So often we stand in judgment of each other. It’s a human thing. But I think what really makes things powerful, and life changing for people is to tell them that they’re beloved. When I do that in one way or another, I know that I am walking in wisdom and I know that I am speaking the truth.
Earlier this week I was organizing this crazy performance art project at the Charles Wright Museum. It was incredibly fun. As I was there at one of the nights I turned, and I saw this guy that I’d met two years ago at Crossroads Ministry in Detroit. We had gone down to prepare a meal and I noticed that he was reading a book by Faulkner, one of Faulkner’s novels. He was sitting by himself and eating his meal. I went over at the encouragement of somebody, and sat with him and talked about the book he was reading.
I remembered his name which was Anthony. I’m not particularly good at names. I mean, I’m middle of the pack for clergy. I’m okay with names. I’m not horrible with names, but I’m not great with names. Poor Gretchen Lambert, I called her Ginger for six months and she never corrected me. In part because Gretchen is a ginger, so maybe that was – I don’t know.
For some reason, in that moment, I saw this guy and I remembered his name. I remembered the whole meeting of him two years ago. I went up, and I said, “Anthony.” He said, “How do you know my name?” I said, “I know you like to read.” He said, “Well this is the book I’m reading now,” and he pulled out this massive tome on globalization. We talked for awhile, and then the performance began. I sat with one of the artists who’d been working on it and I told him about the most amazing thing. Just meeting someone that I’d seen two years ago in Detroit, and there he was.
The artist said to me, in God’s economy everything that we have done this past week for this performance piece, and all that is in it, was constructed in such a way that Anthony would know that someone knows his name. That Anthony would know himself as beloved, and welcomed, and lifted up, and remembered, and celebrated.
Do you know yourself as God’s beloved? Do you know yourself as the “pearl of great price”?