The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
All Saints’ Sunday
November 5, 2017
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch a video of this service.)
Within the past year, I have become middle aged. And I’m not sure exactly when this process began, but I think it had something to do with the fact that this summer I had an injury to my knee that happened when I made the unwise move of getting up from doing some sit-ups. Obviously, that was a mistake. My knee was damaged; it had to be operated on, and there it began. I just suddenly realized that one of the things about being middle aged is you can be standing still and you can have debilitating injury.
And people will say, “What happened?” You’ll say, “I was just standing there.” There’s no protection, there’s no explanation. There was nothing different; it just happened. I also think that part of my passage to being middle aged this past year has been that I’ve started to lose a little bit of my curiosity about the world. I’ve begun to get a little stuck in my ways. A little insistent upon what I want. And this came home to me this past Friday night where I think I made the final passage to being middle aged.
I was with my family down visiting my daughter, Phoebe, at Michigan. And she wanted to have dinner with us. We wanted to have dinner with her. I wanted nothing more than a very simple meal, a steak and a salad. That’s all I wanted was a steak and a salad. Nothing too ornate, but a good steak and a good salad. And Phoebe wanted to take us to this favorite Indian restaurant she has. This is not fine Indian cuisine.
I like Indian food, but this was the kind of place that you went to to get the most food for the least amount of price. And so we walked in and there was this fluorescent light all through the place. There were no tablecloths. There was this huge buffet that was set out and it looked like it had been put out somewhere in the 1980s – they originally put out the food. And the sneeze shields were alarmingly high, so you know that that food has been exposed to a lot of particulate.
And it was that moment we walk in – and there was a picture of Bob Marley in the restaurant – why Bob Marley? Help me out here; throw me a bone. How does this hold together? I just want a steak and salad, I don’t want – and then they served it on paper plates. So you’d put your saag paneer onto the paper plate and it would become soggy – the plate, not the paneer. And so then you’d go and you’d weigh the food. That was how they charged you, by weight.
I am over 50 years old. I am done eating at restaurants that charge you by the pound. So I was completely unexcited about my dinner on Friday. And we sat down in stony silence and immediately Claire and Thea saw the spread before them and said, “You know, we’re not as hungry as we thought.” And so they ate a little bit, but then I ate because I wanted to be with Phoebe and I was in the midst of trying to prevent any kind of repeating or backfire, to speak metaphorically.
And I suddenly had this incredible memory just flood through me. Because I remembered that when I was a sophomore in college, I discovered Indian food. And I remember the moment in which my father, for reasons that were complicated, came without my mom and he wanted to take me out to dinner. And I invited my friends along and we all went down to this Indian restaurant that I knew. And we sat around and my father ate the Indian food and sweat just came off of him like a crown of thorns. And yet he ate it without saying a word.
He was just happy to be there with me. He was happy to support me as I began to expand my own knowledge of the world around me. He was there with me to stimulate and to celebrate and to lift up my curiosity about the world. He just wanted to be with me. And I was filled in that moment, in that Indian restaurant on Friday night with gratitude. Because I realized that one of the things about becoming middle aged is that you’re not done actually learning powerful lessons about yourself.
In fact one of the gifts for being in the second half of life is that you have the opportunity to learn some of the most powerful lessons there is in life to learn. You begin to realize the distances that you have to cross, not because of your own interests or ambitions, is the distance you have to cross for the sake of love. And my father has never bragged about being a father. And one of the things that I got from him one Father’s Day is he wrote me a note. He said you’re a much better father than I was to you.
But I still needed a father on Friday night. We were told in our epistle that we are God’s children now. What we will be has not been revealed. This is the nature of Christian maturity. Christian maturity is not, I think, the acceleration of our pace in this world. The expansion of our powers to hold and grasp things, our ability to control, our ability to possess. This is not maturity. Maturity for Christians has a kind of powerful element of letting go. Of learning to surrender. Of learning to make space. Of learning to cross distance through empathy and love.
That’s what Christian maturity looks like. And it looks that way because Christian community is one of those things in which we cross these distances by love. In which we learn to let go. In which we learn to support the whole and to recognize that we are only a part in God’s larger picture in this world around us. And we learn most profoundly that we need each other – we need each other to be complete and whole.
This feast day is the feast day of All Saints. We remember those people in our lives who have come to lift us up, to set an example for us, to love us, to support us. To bear witness to God’s presence in our midst. And most importantly, to be present to us. Those who have passed away over the past year are lifted up in particular, but this is for everyone here who lifts each other up, whether they are alive or whether they have passed away.
Whether they are here present today or they are living somewhere else. everybody who has lifted each other up and bore witness to the love of Christ in this world, they have a place in our hearts and in our lives on All Saint’s Day. They represent to us the greatest community we have. They are a reminder to us that God is not finished with us – that there are more things for us to do, there are more lessons for us to learn. There is more people for us to love. And there is more to be wondered at in this world even when our own interests begin to get a little set in place.
And I believe that we have to claim that opportunity everyday. I believe that you and I have the decision to make everyday as to whether we’re going to live into that community and move forward into that maturity, or we’re going to go another way. A great orthodox theologian, John Zizioulas, once spoke about the Christian life in terms of baptism, in which he said that baptism is this remarkable transformation of the human person.
We begin our lives as biological people with loves and with desires and with a history that are all limited and ultimately exclusive. The biological person who is married to a spouse and has children, God has given all of these gifts there for them to discover who they are. But the purpose of that biological person, Zizioulas writes, is that we would have a powerful analogy of what it means to become an ecclesial person through baptism. Through baptism we become the person God has created us truly to be.
And all of our particular loves, all of the things we have, all that we call distinctive about ourselves, our very identity is transformed from being limited and confined to being universal and welcoming. This is what it means to be a Christian for Zizioulas. And I think that message speaks to us powerfully on All Saint’s Day. This is why we both remember the larger communion of the saints around us and baptize, because in this moment we begin to create a kind of politics of God. And by that I mean not political parties or ideologies, I mean the way we get on with each other. That politics of God is profound and powerful and it makes us who we are.
Earlier this week as I was praying through what happened in New York City, and I was reading an incredible study by the Pew Center. And in it the Pew Center did some research on our culture right now. And they discovered that there has been a shift in the way we relate to one another. In 1994, we used to have a bell curve of overlap between different views and different ways of looking at the world. You had in the middle the largest number of people in which there was a substantial amount of agreement. And then on the edges you had the people who believed in extreme views.
In 2017, the Pew Center discovered that something profound has happened. The center has collapsed. The center has moved over apart from each other. And so now we have a way of being in which we have a fair amount of enmity with one another. We are not very curious about one another. We don’t particularly like the views of each other. And that middle has become more and more tenuous to hold. Now all of this is relevant I think. Because Christianity speaks of politics in a very different way. But I think it speaks in a way that is a powerful way of informing this larger politics.
Christianity believes that the way you create this large group of people is not by agreement, not even by shared values, but a profoundly shared relationship with the love of Christ. We hold on to each other because we become willing to cross the distance between us by love. And to see each other as knit together in Christ. That is the politics of God, and that is at work in our reading from Matthew, from the Beatitudes.
When Jesus says blessed are the poor, when Jesus says blessed are those who mourn, when Jesus says blessed are those who hunger in thirst for righteousness, when Jesus says blessed are the peacemakers, He was articulating a very different way of moving through the world politically. Because no one in their right mind would ever build a society or a city state or a nation on the poor, or those who mourn, or those who simply want righteousness, or the peacemakers.
All other forms of political community are built on shared affiliations, shared racial makeup, shared ethnicities, shared stories. What Jesus is trying to articulate today is a kind of different way of thinking about community and maturity and life. And today we celebrate the fact that that politics of God is present right here. And the love that we have for each other, and ways in which we’ve reached out to one another, and the ways that people have lifted us up and given us the strength to speak, and supported us when we needed support, and loved us when we needed to be loved.
In all of those ways Jesus is present today. And the politics of God is present today. And time and time again, you and I have been the recipients of graced persons who have borne witness to God’s love in our lives. And today we say that they are powerfully present.
I want to take a risk today, and I want to invite you all to participate in a little exercise that happens in Latin America. On All Saint’s Day in Latin America you read the names of those that have passed away in the past year. And you say out loud for them the words “Presente!” – they are present. A little bit like a roll call in school, you say “presente,” and they are here. So let’s try that as a finish. Are you ready?
And I’m only going to skip through a few of these, just because there may be some names here that are missing and there may be other names that should be here that you would know.
Mary Francis Lott.
Bruce Zick .
Who else is present to you today? Who do you need to thank God for? How can they set an example for you? What distance is love asking you to cross?