“On the Difference Between Blood and Water”

The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 24, 2017
Matthew 20:1-16

Please click here to watch a video of the service.

“On the Difference Between Blood and Water”
Over the past week, I’ve been thinking about the last conversation I had with my Grandfather Danaher, Thomas Danaher – the last time he and I spoke before he died. My Grandfather Danaher was he was a remarkable man. He came from a small town in Connecticut, and he was from a family of cabinetmakers. And his older brother, Harry – they were Roman Catholics – his older brother, Harry, was meant to be a priest. And so the family scraped together its resources to send Harry to seminary.

But Harry flunked Latin. And in those days, you couldn’t become a priest if you didn’t know Latin, so Harry was sent home with his tail between his legs. And the family decided that my Grandfather Thomas could try to do something with the resources that they had gathered, and so he applied to Yale University and he got in as a scholarship student. And he worked his way through Yale Medical School. He had to wait tables in the college to make enough money to be able to complete medical school.

And he did it, which was a remarkable feat in those days. So few were there on scholarship. And so many resources were required to complete the training. But he did it, and he was a great doctor in a small town. A big figure, a surgeon, in a town that was primarily a factory town. So he was known for helping put together workers after they were injured running a press, or a mill, or a saw.

In any event, towards the end of his life, when he was going in and out of hospitals, my mother would send me over to see him. I would go to her office after school, and then she would send me across town to the hospital. And I would sit opposite him – and he was kind of a quiet man, and we grinned at each other for long periods of time. But we got to know each other a bit. And on the last day of his life, we all went in to see him before an operation – he had an aneurism in his abdomen and it was large, and they had to operate.

And back in the 1970s, this was a dangerous operation. And I’ll never forget my mom saying, “Would you like to give Pop a kiss goodbye before the operation?” I went and I kissed his cheek, and he was all stubbly. And he had that kind of smell of aftershave that men of a certain age wore in those days. I never knew what it was, but it seemed like every man over 60 would suddenly start to smell with this aftershave. And after you had kissed his cheek, you would smell it for the rest of the day. It would just keep wafting up.

And then he turned to me and he talked to me about blood. And he talked about the science of blood, the medicine of blood – how incredibly powerful blood was. How it carried oxygen and nutrients to the body. And when there was a cut to the body, it would clot up and form a scab and keep the body intact. He went on and on about blood for this moment, and then we left the hospital room.

And the next thing I remember is my father coming up to me and telling me that my grandfather died during the surgery. And then my father weeping – and I had never seen my father cry or show emotion, and I remember being a bit stunned. But this talk about blood, it rendered it mysterious to me. Blood has always been this incredibly mysterious thing, partly because of that talk. And I’d been thinking for years about what it means for my grandfather’s blood, his inheritance to be in me.

And sometimes I think that I have some of his characteristics. Like him, I enjoy starting from scratch and taking risks. Like him I have probably a little bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to different levels of society. And like him, I am a person of energy. And I think about this whole discussion about blood every time I’m faced with any kind of opposition or challenge or invitation to go into the deepest resources that I am. To negotiate those challenges to my identity, those challenges to my character, I think of this weird conversation about blood.

Do you have anything that you consider your inheritance, the kind of thing that you hold with you? Sometimes it’s a baton or something tangible you hold on to. Sometimes it’s a print or something that was passed on from generation to generation – a portrait. Sometimes it’s tangible. For me it’s the blood inside of me. And as real as that inheritance is, I’ve come to see at the same time, that there’s so much more to life than what we inherit, or what we claim for ourselves, or the blood we carry from one generation to another.

All of our scriptures have this moment in which there is a kind of struggle with inheritance. In our reading from the Book of Jonah, there is this incredible moment in which Jonah is furious with God. And that would be enough to render this incredibly relevant to us. But really, the source of the argument is important to note as well – which is that for Jonah, the people of Nineveh were outside of their inheritance, of Israel’s inheritance. They were not people of the covenant. They did not share the same blood.

But God, for reasons that are entirely mysterious, decided to send a prophet to Nineveh. And Jonah, who doesn’t want to go to Nineveh because he doesn’t like these people, God sends Jonah reluctantly through an incredible ordeal to Nineveh to preach repentance. And even worse than God sending a prophet, the people of Nineveh repent and God shows mercy upon them. And this enrages Jonah, because the thing that he thought made him special, that made the people of Israel special, the covenant of God with them was now being shared with the people of Nineveh.

And in our reading today from Philippians, there is also a kind of inheritance, a struggle with inheritance. Because Paul is trying to speak about the continuance of the gospel, about the way in which his generation who have preached the gospel is going to hand over the baton of the faith to another. And he is trying to articulate to the Philippians that to be a Christian is not merely to have moments of great faith, and insight, and glory. But to be a Christian is to be conformed to the nature of Christ, to experience suffering as well, and challenge and opposition. And even despair, because Christ tasted all of those things.

And finally in our gospel today we have this incredible moment in which inheritance is transferred into the elemental questions of justice. You have these different workers who are picked up at different points during the day, and the landowner decides to give to each of them the same wage, even though some have worked only one hour and others have worked all day. And when Jesus tells this parable, he is trying to get to the most elemental intuitions about right and wrong of the people who He was speaking to, which is, of course, us.

Jesus is trying to challenge all natural conceptions of what someone is owed and what someone is due on the basis of the work they have put in. And here again is a kind of question of inheritance, because through all of our readings, the fundamental teaching is what we claim about God. Is God ours because of a covenant that is historical and genetic, and passed on from generation to generation? Or is our inheritance rather that we worship a God whose mercy is so large that it does not respect ethnicity or nation? That is so expansive that it includes even people who have not worked for it? That is so radical that it risks suffering for the sake of justice and righteousness?

All of us have an inheritance as Christians. And that inheritance challenges in many ways the normal ways in which we understand our identity, our personal histories, our ways of thinking about ourselves. The deepest resources we draw from when we’re in difficult times, because all of us have membership with one another, not merely by our genetics, or the things that are passed down, but we all have membership with one another through the blood of Christ.

You and I have been made members of Christ’s body, and that blood is powerful. And that blood is stronger than death. And that blood is able to give you what you need as you face the challenges of this day. Because when God is with us, we can face injustice, we can face opposition, we can face suffering, knowing that God will see us through because Christ saw it through Himself and we have been bound to Christ.

Through His death and resurrection, through His own ability to work reconciliation even as people were trying to crucify Him. We find an image of a deeper relationship of blood than anything we can claim as our own. Now all of this is incredibly relevant to us today, because we are celebrating the founding of Christ Church Cranbrook by the Booth family. And this gift of a church was an incredible expression of generosity, an incredible gesture of faith and grace in God.

Almost 90 years ago – and next year we will be celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of this parish – almost 90 years ago, George and Ellen Booth had a vision that this place would be a place of grace and beauty. A place where people met Jesus and found joy, and shared beauty, and served others. And internal to that whole gift is a question of inheritance. Because the people for whom this church has been given isn’t the Booth family. As much as we are grateful for their presence with us even today, it’s the people of God who have come together by the blood of Christ – people like you and me.

And the proof of this, if you will, is found in the beautiful tapestry that I’ve put on the front page of your bulletins today. This tapestry is the last of a line, it’s the final inheritance of an incredible, decorative, art tradition founded by William Morris in the 19th Century. This tapestry was designed by Edward Burne-Jones in 1902 to 1903. And it’s meant to lift up a moment of inheritance. In in the center of it is David giving over the plans of the temple to the young boy King Solomon.

And David is clothed in armor, and behind David to the right are all the banners that celebrate David’s military victories as a military leader, as someone who has unified the nation of Israel. And yet, God tells David in First Chronicles, Chapter 28, that He cannot build this temple because he has too much blood on his hands. And so David has to give the plans of the temple to his child Solomon. And this is the moment depicted when David is giving Solomon instruction in how to build the temple.

And all around them you see the maidens and the soldiers and the angels weeping, because they know that they will never live to see the building of the temple. That that will belong to another generation. Now Booth bought this tapestry in 1922, before he built this church. It is the first appointment, the first decoration that was placed in this church. It hangs in the library today. And inside of it is this incredible message of passing on an inheritance. In it David is giving himself over to God and giving the plans of his temple to this boy king.

And the question is whether or not that plan would be executed. And all David can do is trust and be generous. So Booth, when he builds this church, hands it over to us to do with it is as God has called us to be and as God has called us to do. This legacy of generosity is ours. You and I share in it. You and I are called to be the inheritors of the true generosity that comes from this act. And you and I may not be wealthy benefactors, but each of us is called, I think, to do what we can to be generous and loving and kind. And to go with the flow of God’s giving.

Because that’s, at the end of the day, our legacy. That’s, at the end of the day, the thing that makes us who we are. That is, at the end of the day, the thing that we should celebrate when we come to Founders’ Day: that generation of generosity continues in us. And every time we reach out to the world around us, and any time we reach out to each other, and any time that we respect the blood of Christ that binds us together and binds the world to ourselves through God’s love, we begin to step into that inheritance of the Booths.

That is what it means to be here. That is what it means to celebrate our founders. And this is what will bind us together. Are you ready? Are you willing? What is your inheritance? What new thing is God calling you to do? What baton do you need to pass?


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