The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
The Last Sunday after Pentecost
November 26, 2017
To view a video of this service, please click here.
The Wisdom of Being Broken
I think in every life there is a moment in which we realize that there is something about ourselves that we cannot entirely eliminate. It’s something that we just have to accept as part of being the person that God has created us to be. And for me, that part of myself that I have to reconcile myself to is the fact that I am a little intense. I mean intense not just by comparison to other clergy. Clergy tend to be kind of, you know, calm, and I am, you know, not. I mean intense as compared to other human beings intense. I’m very focused on what I do, and one of the ways in which that intensity manifests itself in a safe and productive way is with exercise.
I used to be an athlete in college and high school, and the moments in which I know I’ve had a good workout is when I’ve worked so hard and I have pushed myself so hard that I taste a little bit of blood in my mouth. It’s at that point I experience this incredible feeling of euphoria and I think yeah, I’m working. And there’s nothing that does that for me more than my spin class. This is the exercise you do when you’re on a stationary bike and the instructor calls out different resistances and you’re going up hills by increasing the resistance and you’re easing off a little bit for flat road when you’re going at that rate. I love doing spin class. I love the intensity of it. I love the intervals of it. It’s one of the great things that I do.
And I started doing spin way back when before you could do spin over the internet. I did it in a gym in New York City and my first instructor was named Verna. She used to say at the midpoint when you’d feel a little bit challenged, “There are only a couple of questions you have to answer in life: will you bend or will you break? Will you give or will you take? Nothing to it but to do it.” And we would just spin harder and harder because no one wanted to break, no one wanted to take.
Yesterday I did a one-hour interval class over the internet and it was so intense. At the midpoint, I was looking for a little inspiration and I saw on the shirt of my instructor the following sentences arranged. It said, “I am. I can. I will. I do.” I took a certain amount of refuge in that idea that because of who you are, you can do things and you can will things and you can do things in a powerful way.
Over time, I’ve begun to see this as part of myself. It’s the part that I have to give thanks to God for. But I’ve also come to see that the full humanity that Jesus Christ has revealed to me, the full meaning of what it means to be a human, being actually comes in those moments where I am not at the peak intensity. When I’m not in control and in power. When I admit that I’ve broken things and that I am broken. When I realize that I have taken and not given. When I realize that the I am that I am is a person who couldn’t, who wouldn’t, and who didn’t.
Those moments when I have not been my best self, and those moments when I have experienced incredible powerlessness, and those moments in which I’ve experienced incredible weakness, those are moments that have invited me to become an entirely different person than the intense person that I am in part. Those moments are an invitation for me to enter into a greater wholeness.
Now, in contemplative spirituality, these two selves – the self that we are and the self that we’re becoming through the grace of God; these are sometimes described as the false self as opposed to the true self. I tend to prefer to call this the natural self and this larger self, the self that is built by grace, because this natural self, for me, is one which becomes a false self when I see this part of me as all that I truly am. When I see myself as the graced self, then I see myself as the true self that I am before God. I think that Christianity is fundamentally found by each of us to the extent that each of us can step into that true self that we are before God, for that graced self that we are before God.
All of this stands at the basis of what we celebrate today. Today is the Feast of Christ the King, and every time you establish a king, every time you establish a monarch, you identify as well what is that monarch’s territory. What are the things that that monarch lifts up and values? What are the rules and laws of that kingdom? So that when we say that Jesus Christ is king, we’re not just speaking about a political office. We’re speaking about how the politics of God makes its claim on our lives.
Pope Pius the XI originated Christ the King Sunday in 1925 and he did it when the Italian dictator Mussolini established himself as king. And Mussolini said that to be truly a citizen of Rome was to follow the kind of idealized sense of self that he was: strong, unified, proud, and self sufficient. Pius the XI in 1925 said, “No, you are not a king. The only king we serve is Jesus.”
Now, 1925 was a long time before the great ecumenical movements started in 1963 with Vatican II. The Roman Catholic Church did not carry on ecumenical relations of a profound sort during that time period. Yet, when Pius the XI established Christ the King Sunday, many other Christian denominations stepped forward and agreed that in the midst of a time of political chaos that only was to get worse, that they should come together and claim Jesus Christ as King.
In our readings for today, you see two themes that are identified for how we understand kingship from a Christian perspective. These themes can be found in many other belief systems in antiquity, but they become incredibly important in Christianity because they identify the way in which Jesus as King claims our whole selves. The first is found in our reading from Ezekiel. We come to this passage in Ezekiel after having learned that the Nation of Israel had finally fallen and been destroyed. So it becomes as a kind of desire, a kind of prayer that God would be re–established as king. The image that is given is that God’s kingship would be like that between a sheep and his shepherd. That pastoral image, the care of a sheep for his shepherds, becomes key in Christianity in part because Jesus calls Himself the good shepherd in John.
In our reading from Ephesians, there’s this incredible image of political community as akin to a body, which means, of course, that the leaders of that community have to be aware of how the pain figures in the least part of the body so that when, as Plato writes in The Republic, you feel pain in one finger, the whole body feels pain. Here, again, this ancient idea of the relationship between a leader and that leader’s people is transfigured by the figure of Christ. So Paul writes in Ephesians that we are members of the Body of Christ. We are to care for one another. We are to be united.
Finally, in our reading from Matthew, you have this incredible vision of Jesus the King, it says, coming back and looking for all those people that the kingdoms of this world tends to marginalize: for the poor, the naked, the starving, the sick, and the imprisoned. These are the ones who belong to Jesus’s kingdom, and not only do they belong to it, but there’s a sense in which they themselves embody Jesus so that when you do a kindness to the poor, to the sick, to those who suffer, to those who are imprisoned, to those who are naked and hungry, it is as if you are doing that kindness to Jesus.
So Jesus is inviting us on Christ the King Sunday to develop the kind of values and attitudes and perspectives that go with being the full self that God has called us to be: the one that recognizes our limitations and our sinfulness, the ways in which we have taken too much refuge in our own power and not trusted God.
It’s easy for us to translate this into some kind of political program and to get into some kind of argument about the nature of our government today. I want to suggest to you today that the politics of Jesus require an even more profound commitment than any government can make. Because, you see, in order for us to be in relationship in our society with the poor, the naked, the captive, and the sick means, for us to even be in relationship with them, requires that we have to acknowledge our own spiritual poverty, our own spiritual nakedness, our own spiritual sickness, our own spiritual captivity. We need to move, in other words, from that natural self, that false self that all of us build, to the graced self and true self that God is calling us to be.
Two weeks ago, I was invited to go to the beatification of Solanus Casey. He’s the Capuchin monk who spent about 20 years in Detroit, and he was responsible for starting Capuchin soup kitchen in 1929 in Detroit. While I was walking onto the field – and I was so proud of my VIP pass, I’m going to treasure it for the rest of my life – I couldn’t help but see the kind of tensions there is for all of us to enter into any kind of veneration of any individual. We tend to make kings in the wrong way in our world, and so as I walk onto Ford Field, I realize that I’m kind of in an athletic contest of sorts. I looked up and I saw this beautiful picture of Solanus, but it was right underneath a Pepsi sign. Then all of these different orders of Catholics were on the field, and I thought to myself at the moment, it happened, it was like a voice came into my head, it’s like, “And here ladies and gentlemen are your Detroit Franciscans!” and they were out there loosening up.
We have a hard time lifting anybody up in this world because we tend to place the wrong kinds of emphases on them. This monk who was known for his humility, how do you celebrate that individual for his acquaintance with the poor, for his heart for those who are suffering and sick?
I saw this amazing moment in the sermon where I was transformed. I didn’t expect it to happen. As I was listening to Cardinal Amato, who is the prefect of the of Congregation for the Causes of Saints, he told a story that developed inner investigations. It was a moment in which Solanus, after having opened up the soup kitchen, was giving out the bread they had and there were 200 people and they ran out of bread. They discovered that they ran out of bread, and so Solanus went outside and he said to the crowd that was there that they should gather and pray the Our Father together. As they were praying the Our Father together, a knock came at the back of the monastery, and there a baker appeared with a basket full of bread and with a truck full of baked goods. Solanus told the people gathered there, and they began to weep. He said, “See, God provides. No one will suffer want if we put our trust in Divine Providence.”
It struck me when I heard those words that of all the people in the world at that moment who knew the limitations of their lives, who did not need to be reminded that everything happens for a reason were those people gathered around him because they had lost everything. Yet, somehow Solanus knew that they were precisely the people who needed to know that God was caring for them and that they could trust God.
I suddenly became aware that the question that God was asking of me was not what I would say to someone in that circumstance but rather how could I become the person who could make those words true for the ones who needed to hear it. I think that Solanus’s key to living a saintly life is he related to everyone he met through his own spiritual poverty, his own spiritual hunger, his own spiritual nakedness, through his own spiritual disease, through his own spiritual captivity. Seeing those things as an opportunity to surrender, he was able to speak words of grace.
May you hear those words of grace today. May you speak those words of grace to those who need the promises of God in their lives. May we venerate Jesus Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords.