Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
October 8, 2017
Matthew 21:33-46
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

(This sermon has been transcribed from live video.  Please click here to view a video of the service.)

Last December, my wife Claire and I made this commitment to each other in a resolution about our lifestyle. We decided that we were going to eliminate all sugar from our diets. By that, I mean not only the white stuff that resembles cocaine, but I mean things like breads and things that have simple carbohydrates. Over the past year or so, we’ve done really well – or at least Claire has done really well. She’s lost 20 pounds and I’ve tried really hard when I’m with her. We’ve done incredibly well. Over the summer, I kind of kicked it up a little bit because I had to get some knee surgery done, and so I thought it would be a really good time to maybe focus when I wasn’t exercising.

So I worked really hard and about three weeks ago, I had this incredible dream. I dreamt I was eating pasta. And not just any pasta, it was the pasta that my grandmother would make when she was making ravioli, the extra – the things that were outside of the pattern. She would gather them up and she would boil them up, and then she’d put all of this butter and olive oil and a little bit of garlic on it. Then she’d put it before you and eat it and it would be fresh pasta and it’d be amazing. When you’d bite into it, it was like little pillows it was so tender.

I could feel, as I’m in my dream, I could feel the butter at the back of my mouth. You know that taste where it gets you right at the back of the tongue and you’re just going like “ugh.” And I was with my friend from seminary, who’s now the Bishop of Texas, Andy Doyle, and he and I used to go and we would do competitive eating before it was a thing. We would go to places and get the largest burrito in Northern Virginia, that kind of thing. He is next to me in the dream and he turns to me and he says, “It’s good pasta, right?” I was like, “Yeah, it’s good pasta.” Then I woke up. And I felt surprisingly full, like I had been eating pasta and I turned to Claire and I felt a little guilty. But not too guilty. But I turned to Claire and I said, “I had a pasta dream,” and I told her all about it.

Have you ever had those intense dreams? Psychologists say that we usually dream about the things we fear the most or we want the most, and I have to say, I was kind of relieved that I had this incredible dream about pasta and that was it. Because fears and hopes and desires, they’re all a kind of desire. They’re all a kind of basic desire for something. We are creatures of desire. When we deny a certain desire it bubbles up somewhere in some other form. Often times our desires can get a little bit out of whack. That’s part of what it means to be human.

Christianity has two basic frameworks for thinking about desire. One is that desires can be either right or wrong. The desire that gives life, that helps others, that produces relationships, that finds beauty, that finds joy, those desires are right. The desires that actually bring death, or are for violence or are for any kind of destruction, those desires are wrong. Christianity has another framework as well and it’s that desires can become misplaced or they can be rightly placed.

Oftentimes we desire things that really – as if they were gods to us. And so much of our lives, the desires that trouble us, Christianity has long said are desires that are misplaced. They are things that we hope will give us some of the peace and joy and love that we want most of in this world but they cannot yield it. They’re not stable enough. They’re not eternal. They’re not good enough. Only God can be the source of our highest desires. When we don’t have God as the source of our highest desires, we tend to have those high desires placed on things that are not worthy of them.

In contemporary culture, there’s been a couple more things that have been said about desire in the 20th century. The one is that desires in the modern period have become something that we place armor around. We are really good at protecting our desires. One of the ways we protect our desires is to simply offer a rationalization for them. The reason why I want this is for this reason, this rationale, this argument. We try to make our arguments around our desires as powerful as possible. Then of course there is the easier way in which you can protect a desire which is you just use all of the money and power you have to make those desires come true. There are numerous instances of people who are able to get what they want because they have enough money and power to make it happen. But these people, even though they get their greatest desires are not necessarily happy people.

Finally, in our modern world, we also have this idea that desire is imitative. We tend to actually imitate each other’s desires. This is a kind of paradox because when you are subject to a desire, it feels like it’s going to last forever. But in fact, desire is one of those things that isn’t particularly original and isn’t particularly long lasting. Sociologists and anthropologists have noted that things tend to come into a community and become the source of desire and then they pass away. We see this in everyday life. This is nothing special. We can see it all around us. In the 1980s, it was Polo cologne for men. When I was in college, I smelled this incredible scent. It just communicated sophistication and all the things that I thought of myself and I heard it was Polo cologne. I went up to the department store and I bought some Polo cologne. Then literally within about eight months, every other male, it seemed, had that same idea and then once everybody smelled like Polo cologne, it was the worst, most noxious, horrible thing. It no longer had the power to evoke desire. It actually was repellent.

The final thing that happens in contemporary life is that desires tend to mirror a culture. We tend to be known as a culture or a community by the largest desire that you can identify. The desire that is widely held. Certainly that is the case now and certainly we’re at a kind of crossroads with our desires. What happened earlier this week with Stephen Paddock, who meticulously planned a wrong desire to kill as many people as possible in Las Vegas, that’s an indicator, so many have said, of a larger disease in our culture of our desires having gone wrong. I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to stray into any kind of policy proposals. I think that what this desire reveals is that all of us have to think seriously about the place violence has in our lives and in our communities.

I do think that desire might be one of the better ways to understand what happened. Stephen Paddock has been called insane by many people. GK Chesterton once wrote that the insane person is not the man who has lost his mind, it is the man who has lost everything but his mind. And certainly that describes the methodical way and the meticulous way he planned what he planned and executed it.

Another desire that we have to contend with as a culture, I think, is a desire for money. In the Guggenheim Museum, there is an exhibit that just ended by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. He constructed meticulously, again, a toilet made of 18 karat gold. The entire toilet was made of 18 karat gold. He called it America. Now this is controversial. He was trying to provoke. But do you know that over the past year, 100,000 people went to use that toilet. And the lines lasted for longer than an hour. Think for a moment of how you would have to discipline your desire to go use that toilet. One hour. And once you get there, you have to be able to go. But think for a moment as well about the fact that 100,000 people were so fascinated by that toilet, that gold toilet, they wanted to see it and touch it. Somehow, someway. Is that our desire? Is that the desire that is characteristic of our culture? These are serious questions.

We all have desires. Our desires are powerful. One of the things that the scriptures tell us today is that our desires can actually change and be renewed. All of our scriptures are about desire. All of our scriptures speak about desire in powerful ways. In our reading from Isaiah, you have an example of a desire that has been planned out on the course of a garden. This was a familiar motif in the Bible. So the beginning of the passage gives you the hint that we’re talking about desire because it comes across as a love song.

Let me sing for my beloved, my love song concerning his vineyard. God has created a garden for Israel and the hope that God’s people would desire relationship with God. Instead of producing good grapes, the people of Israel themselves produced wild grapes. Their desires were wrong. In the last line of the passage there is a hint as to what the desires were. We read, “He expected justice, but saw bloodshed. Righteousness, but heard a cry.” A powerful rebuke to a people who had become too desirous of violence.

In our reading from Matthew, Jesus returns to this incredible image of the garden again, but instead of speaking about the people of Israel as the grapes, as the produce, as the fruit, Jesus actually is speaking about the people of Israel as the tenders of the garden, of people who reject the servants of God and then finally reject God’s son. What’s remarkable about this passage isn’t simply that Jesus is characterizing people as desirous, but Jesus actually reveals that God is a being who desires too. Instead of placing armor around his desire, instead of rationalizing his desire, instead of creating conditions in which he could manipulate and get what he wants, God and Christ has come among us, the desire of God made flesh, vulnerable and helpless to say to each of us that we are His beloved. Christianity says the most remarkable thing by saying to us that God desires you and me and each other.

Finally we have, in our readings from Philippians, this incredible image of desire. Paul is looking at all the things that he had taken refuge in, all the things that were his heart’s desire. His position in society, his status, the privilege he had. All of those things he says he counts as refuse in return for the opportunity to know Jesus Christ as his Savior. To know God desires him.

You see this at the last part of it. “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on because Christ Jesus has made me His own.” Paul is speaking out a secret to all of our desires, you see. Because, you see, most of the time, our desires are motivated by an object or a state of affairs, but in fact, what lies under every desire is a desire for relationship. And Paul has found, in his relationship with Jesus, the source and end of all his desires.

What do you desire? What place do your desires hold in your life? In what way can we band together with our desires and longings for relationship with Christ that would bear witness to the world around us that God has come into our midst and that we are beloved in that each of us is beloved by God? What do you need to let go of so that you might know that relationship with God more fully? Amen.

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