The Re. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
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A little over two years ago, I decided to take a bit of a risk with a parishioner who has been a member here for several decades. And I heard that he had a sister in Detroit that he was estranged from. We were getting close to Thanksgiving, and I thought that this would be an opportunity for me to take a risk. With Thanksgiving, this is the time for families to come together, and for families to reach out to one another and to put up with one another. So I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to say, “Why don’t we go visit your sister?”
And so I waited for a quiet moment in which he and I were alone. I said, “Why don’t we go visit your sister?” I waited for him to make an excuse, but he said, “You know, I’ve been meaning to do that.” So we decided on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to drive down into Detroit to go and visit his sister in the room where she was staying. And on the way down, I heard a little bit of the story as to how things had kind of gone sideways in their relationship and all the history between them, and all the ways that they were close and all the ways that they had fallen away.
And we got into the room, and she sat in a chair and we sat on her bed, and I did what I knew I had to do. I studied the wallpaper and said nothing, because there was nothing I could do at that point. At that point, whether this thing was going to fly or fail, it was up to them. And slowly they began to do that kind of mapping that you do when family members come together. You begin to compare notes. Who is alive and who had passed away? Where did people move to and where were they staying? What were their children doing? Where were they living? Do they keep in touch?
And as they were doing that mapping, I realized that what was happening is the two worlds that they had been living in was slowly becoming one world, and one place, and the maps began to intertwine. And then the conversation went just a little bit deeper into how they were doing, the struggles they had with their health, the people that they kept in touch with, the things that gave them meaning. And then, after about two hours, it was time for us to go and the parishioner stood up and his sister said, “I’m really glad you came to visit me.” And he said, “I’ve been meaning to.” And they hugged. And then we went back up home, here.
And you know, there are so many things I get to do as a priest, and particularly so many things I get to do as the priest who is the rector of Christ Church Cranbrook. Somebody teased me the other day about some kind of other office, and I said, “I would rather be the rector of Christ Church Cranbrook than the Pope,” and that’s true. It’s the best job in the church, it really is. But if I were to name the thing that gives me the greatest joy and brings me closest to God, it’s moments like that. It’s moments in which people make these incredible gestures and take incredible risk, and become a bit vulnerable, and try to establish a connection.
Because on that day when they met, each of them made a decision that despite all of the history that had happened, both good and bad, that they belonged to each other. And it was that sense of belonging that was made possible by a gesture, by the willingness to cross some distance, that sense of belonging that became so precious. And over the past week, I’ve been thinking about this idea of belonging, because I think belonging is so powerful and yet it’s kind of hard to define. Sociologists tell us that belonging occurs in our most intimate relationships, in our marriages, in our relationships with loved ones. It also occurs in our families, both immediate families and our extended families. Belonging exists in the profession we choose, and belonging exists in the places we live, and belonging exists in the kind of clubs and networks of affiliation we develop for ourselves, our churches, the places where we go to relax.
In all of these areas, people build up a network of relations, a history with each other, a kind of sense of identity. And this sense of identity holds you together when you face a threat, or when you go through a deep change, or where you experience profound sorrow or disappointment. These networks of belonging, they tell you who you are. And one of the challenges of contemporary life is that the structures that create belonging, these are getting frayed.
Robert Putnam, in 2000 wrote an incredibly powerful book called, “Bowling Alone.” He was a sociologist, and he was fascinated by the observation that he made by looking at some data, that bowling leagues were becoming less and less apparent. Fewer people were joining bowling leagues. And yet, more people were bowling each year, for reasons I cannot fathom. More people are bowling each year, and there was emerging in contemporary life, this phenomenon he called, “Bowling Alone.” We were becoming atomistic, we were becoming estranged from one another. The networks that we use to create our sense of belonging, which in turn create our sense of self, these things were becoming increasingly fragile.
And over the past couple of weeks, we have come face to face with a very jarring and racist and violent way of belonging. It’s tempting for us to say, “Well, that is not us,” and certainly it is not. But I think that at the base of that errant belonging, of that maybe evil belonging, our anxieties that you and I share – you and I live as everyone else does, in a time in which belonging is something that is surrounded with anxiety. And therefore, even though very few of us might be attracted to join the Nazi party, we are often attracted to define ourselves on the basis of other indicators of our belonging, to define ourselves in terms of our romantic life, in terms of our careers, in terms of the clubs we attend, in terms of our church, in terms of the place we live. All of us suffer that anxiety and that temptation to define our belonging in very human and limited ways.
And the challenge that you and I are facing, as a nation, is in some ways the same challenge that we’re facing in our individual lives, and that challenge is to ask ourselves the question, do we belong together? Are we meant to hold together? Are we capable of crossing the distance that has been created by our history to be at one with each other? And is there a sense in which, if the other in us goes missing, that we go missing as well? All of this is bound up in the central theme of today’s gospel, because in today’s gospel, Jesus speaks about belonging. And because we look at it from the vantage point of 2000 years, we can mistake what’s going on in the passage.
When Jesus says, at the beginning in the Gospel of Matthew, that it’s not what goes into your body that defiles but what comes out of the body that defiles, he threw into question one of the basic markers of belonging that Jews used in their time period; to understand who we are, a basic marker of belonging that Jews to this day use to define who is an observant Jew and who isn’t. The dietary laws. And Jesus went so far as to say that that mark of belonging no longer applies. And to the people that heard that, that was earth shattering, that was world destroying, that was threatening.
Which is why Peter says to Jesus, “You’ve really gotten the Pharisees angry. And explain to us this parable.” Peter’s hoping that this is one of those moments where Jesus is speaking like a fortune cookie, right? He’s hoping that this is going to be a parable, that this is all going to line up in an obscure way to our lives. But no. Jesus says no, the dietary laws don’t apply anymore. Think of that when all that you know yourself to be true and good and right gets eroded and challenged and redefined. And in doing so, Jesus was articulating a powerful point, which was that belonging fundamentally exists in relation with God, and any attempt to define ourselves in different ways, to invest in all these other networks of belonging, all of these are bound to fail. We only have God and Christ to hold onto.
And later in this passage for today, there is this incredible interaction between Jesus and a Canaanite woman, in which Jesus himself shows himself prone to use ethnic slurs when he calls her a gentile dog. And yet, when the woman submits to him and says, “Lord, help me,” there comes a new way of belonging. A belonging that goes and spans the distance between Jews and Gentiles, a new way of being together, a new way of understanding identity and God. And so Jesus creates this powerful vision through this incredible gesture of the woman who comes to him, of a new sense of belonging.
What do you use to define belonging for you? What does it mean for you to belong? Who do you belong to? The problem with life is that we are composed of these many different structures of belonging, and the problem with life is that the minute we invest too much in any of them we lose ourselves. And therefore, we need to rely upon God because it is through our relationship with God that we develop the ability to cross distance, and to establish belonging again after the trust has been broken, and after the history has played.
Renee Brown has this story of going for a nighttime swim with her husband, and they both get into the water and she says, “Isn’t this wonderful? I’m so glad we did this.” And her husband instead is kind of paddling furiously, saying, “Yeah, yeah. The water’s fine. Yeah.” And so she begins to create this scenario of what’s going on. The story she creates for herself is this, that he is disappointed in how she’s looking in her swimsuit, and he really didn’t want to go swimming, and they got there and he’s kind of under duress, and this is actually not an indicator of how close they are but actually how they’re drifting apart bit by bit.
And so finally, as they’re leaving the watering area, she turns to him and says, “You know, let me tell you the story that I’m making up right now. I’m making up that you are just completely emotionally distant from me, and you are rejecting me, and that this marriage is in trouble.” And he said, “Well, actually, I had a dream last night that we were all killed in a water accident, and I’ve been just trying not to panic the entire time we were swimming.” He was swimming against his better judgment just to be with her.
Belonging requires the ability for us to draw upon something deeper in that relationship, and to rebuild what is there by grace. And in this is the sum of the Christian life as it is lived out in our entirety, in the midst of all the relationships we find ourselves in, in the relationships of all that we have, whether it be our immediate lovers, our family, our careers, our communities, our churches, our neighborhoods. It’s to find that grace, that belonging. That is, in some ways, the sum total of Christianity.
John Calvin, writing a little bit after 1539, in his Institutes of Christian Religion – this is two volumes. It’s about 1500 pages. I’ll never forget this moment I found his description, his summary moment. It came on page 692. So I will save you some time. He said, “The Christian life can be summarized in six statements. We are not our own. Who we are, our minds, our bodies, these are not our own. We are not our own. Our lives, the course of them, our ambitions, what we hope to achieve, we are not our own. Everything we hope to build in this world lies upon power that is beyond us. We are God’s. God has created us so that we might know him and glorify him forever. We are God’s. All that is ours and all of its complications, all of our histories, these are to be redeemed and reconciled by Jesus Christ. We are God’s. Who we are and what we are called to be, and what God will make of us belongs to God, apart from whom we can do nothing.” Amen.