The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

The Reverend William J. Danaher, Jr.
The Fourth Sunday after The Epiphany
January 28, 2018
Mark 1:21-28

To watch a video of Fr. Bill’s sermon, please click here.

A few weeks ago, my brother called me up on the phone, and my brother is about seven years older than I am and he’s got a nine-year-old son named Jack. Jack had lost a squash match and was really discouraged and angry, and told his father he was going to quit. And my brother is a president of a division within his corporation, and there’s a certain kind of “C-suite” to him no matter what he does. And so he called me up on the phone, and he said, “Billy, would you talk to Jack? He’s upset about the squash match, and he’s going to quit. And you know what, I’m just going to close the loop. I’m putting you on speaker phone. Jack’s right here.”

And so I was thinking to myself, “What do you say to a nine-year-old boy?” And I have been blessed with girls, so I know that it’s different, or at least in my observation it is. And so I was trying to struggle with what to say, and part of the struggle for what to say, in those moments, those awkward silent moments, is that I was actually a great athlete. I don’t talk about it that much, but I was All-American. I was all Ivy League in rowing. I was the last cut from the 1988 Olympic team.

And so I have a well of things to say about motivation in sports. But I don’t usually talk about it because it’s a part of our culture that I sometimes think can be its own kind of problem, its own kind of demonic force. We can make sports into a religion.

So I was hesitant to talk about this competition, and this competitiveness with Jack. But also because Jack suffered a stroke when he was an infant. And so he’s competing against boys that don’t have a disability. His parents are raising him so that he is interacting and competing just like any other boy. And I know that that means he has to try harder to compete. The playing field is not even for Jack.

But over the last couple of months, I’ve been thinking about this weird connection because I feel as if there’s a connection between the experience I had as an athlete, and the struggle that people have with disabilities. It seems odd, but it’s almost like it leaps over everybody who say swam in high school or played lacrosse. Because I know intimately what it’s like to experience the limits of my abilities, the limits of my body. And I have had to try, and did try for years, to press beyond what was humanly possible for me.

And I know that when people with disabilities try to live their lives, they are struggling just to press by some real limitations. In the couple of weeks before he died, Stevie Beer, beloved Stevie Beer, who was here and who had spent most of his life in a wheelchair, pulled me aside and said to me, “Don’t you worry about me. I’m a fighter.”

And I felt this wave of recognition on the edges of what it means to be a human being. And I realized that I had to give Jack a pep talk because if I didn’t encourage him to try, if I didn’t encourage him to compete, if I didn’t encourage him to make the best effort he could to struggle against the limitations he’d have, I would, in some sense, be denying him his full humanity. Because part of what it means to be a human being is to struggle and strive against limitations.

So I said to him, “Jack, you’ll know that you’re a champion, not when you’ve won a medal, not when you’ve won a race, not when you’ve won a match, not when you’ve won a tournament, not when you’ve been part of a winning team. You will know you’re a champion the day you get up off the mat, the day you return to the court, the day you get back on the horse, the day you get back in the boat, and try again. Not before. Not before that. You know you are a champion the minute you return and rejoin the struggle. And I said, “Jack, you are a champion, and I know it in my bones. And I know you can do this.”

And standing behind all of that was the best sport psychology I’d ever learned, which was when you are faced with difficulties, when you’ve come to the edge of your limitations, the way you transcend them is not by thinking about the outcome. Not by thinking about, say, achieving your goal, or winning the race, or whatever you’re doing, it’s about focusing on the process of picking apart, and thinking through, and focusing on the process. And if you focus on the process of what you’re doing, if you just row with complete excellence, the outcome will be assured. The outcome will happen no matter what, and you’ll have done your best.

And I was thinking about this exchange because it was forcing me into a different place with my own understanding of Christianity, because I like to emphasize the mercy of God. And I like to emphasize the welcome of the church. And I like to emphasize how inclusive we are because so many of us beat ourselves up when we are in the midst of competition.

But, in fact, Christianity also has within it a stress upon excellence, and a stress upon accountability, and a stress upon effort and transformation and deep change. And those things go together. There’s not just mercy, but there’s also accountability. There’s not just inclusion, there’s also excellence. There’s not just welcome and embrace, there’s also an encouragement to make the best effort to become all that God has created us to be.

And all of this connects to what we are celebrating today because today we celebrate the kind of full round of the year for us. This is our annual meeting, and it’s a little bit like the beginning of a new year for Christians. In our church, the turn-of-the-year happens today when we approve our budget, we think through what we’re going to have, we elect new leaders, and we embrace what God is calling us to be for 2018.

And we have had an incredible year in 2017. God has blessed us incredibly. We have grown faster than we have ever grown. We have been more generous than we have ever been generous in the history of this parish. And we have finished the year financially in the black, and those are all wonderful things. We have gotten bigger.

But now God is calling us to go deeper. And one of the things that came out of 2017 for this parish was our vision of what we believe God is calling us to be. And this is the vision of deep change, of adaptive change. It’s an invitation for us to actually recognize what has come before and move into our present and our future. And that deep change is identified through four activities, which we believe should permeate everything we do and guide everything we are about. And those four activities are that when someone is at Christ Church Cranbrook, they will meet Jesus. And they will find joy. And they will share beauty. And they will serve others.

And these four activities are not separate things. They’re not things that are distinct from one to another, but they’re actually implicated in one another, so that when you meet Jesus, you meet Jesus fully. When not only you experience Him in worship, or in the Bible, but in that moment in which you are serving others, and in that moment in which you see his beauty in the world around you. And you find joy the moment you actually turn your attention from just what makes you happy and focus on the good that God will do through you, and the joy you can bring and receive from others. And you know what it means to share beauty, when you think not merely about beauty as it is, or art for art’s sake, but beauty that gives glory to God. And you find joy and beauty in Jesus the minute you decide to truly serve another person. They’re all connected to each other.

And the goal of 2018 is for us to begin to experience those four activities more and more at a deeper and deeper level as individuals and as a community. And that is an invitation to deep change. That is an invitation for us to think through who we are and to take some steps into a new present and a new future.

Sociologists like to speak about three kinds of change. And we can best understand that if we put it – so it’s something like the auto industry. Because some of you might know something about that. So there are three kinds of change that occur. There’s the technical change that happens, and in the auto industry, that’s a little bit like the race to have better mileage.

And then there are cultural changes where a company will try to somehow reinvent what it does. And that’s a little bit like the moment in which General Motors decided to start the Saturn company over in Kentucky and to create this new kind of car company in which the sides of the car were made out of plastic, so you could rapidly change the fit, the tastes of the consumer.

And finally, there is the deep change of adaptive change. And that’s where a corporate organization, a community of people recognize, that in order for them to proceed, they have to remember why they exist and to seek a change in the way they’ve been operating. And in the context of the automotive industry, that’s something like self-driving cars or alternative fuels.

Because at the end of the day, to do either of those things requires a huge change. But it also requires that the people who drive that change have to step back and think to themselves, “What are we doing?” And ultimately, what you’re doing when you’re making cars is you’re helping one person move from point A to point B with a certain amount of autonomy. And so that allowed them to think through self-driving cars and different kinds of fuels.

When I was in college, I reached the limit of my ability as an athlete. I had been recruited to row, and I suddenly went from being the very best that anybody had ever seen in my school to being surrounded by world-class athletes. And I had been known as a hammer. I just worked harder than anybody else, I was stronger than anybody else, and I just hammered my opponents into submission. It was brutally effective.

And there’s a part of me that enjoys outworking everybody. But my coach pulled me aside at the end of my sophomore year and he said, “If you want to go further, you’re going to have to learn some technique. You’re going to have to learn to row better. You’re going to have to step back and work on your form, and that’s going to take three months, and it’s going to suck. But that’s the only way you’re going to move forward.”

And so for three months, I went back to the basics, and I looked at my rowing stroke a little bit like a golf pro looks at his swing, or her swing and I put it back together piece by piece. I was facing a moment in which I had to make a deep adaptive change. And whenever I’ve been faced with an obstacle, I know in my heart that I have faced parts of myself that I did not want to change. And I had somehow accomplished that change in that I could become better and different.

It is with all of that in mind that I give to you my pledge in 2018 to participate at a deeper level in those four activities that define us. To meet Jesus more authentically. To find joy more authentically. To share beauty more authentically. And to serve others more authentically.

All of our readings provide us with an incredible vision of change. In our reading from Mark, we have this incredible healing of a demoniac by Jesus. And we tend, when we read this passage, to focus on the obvious point, which is that Jesus was teaching with new authority. And indeed He was. It was the authority over life and death.

And we also tend to focus as modern people on what is going on in that whole description of the demoniac. Are there demons among us now? What does this look like? This is disturbing. And it should be. It is a little disturbing. But fundamentally, what’s going on in today’s gospel that we have to attend to is that that person who met Jesus was invited to deep change by him and was healed by meeting Jesus. And that change that occurred was not as lonely as it might have seemed, because Jesus came and cured him.

So what is the deep change God is inviting you to? In our reading from Deuteronomy, there’s another call to change, and it’s brought through in terms of what a community needs to do because in it, in the reading from Deuteronomy, Moses has received this incredible vision that the next prophet will not come through God picking Moses as he was watching sheep. But the next prophet of the people of Israel would come from among the people, and this terrifies the Israelites because they don’t like each other. And they can’t imagine that God would actually raise up a person like Moses.

But the message that is delivered to the people is that God would raise up a leader from among them. And that to you and me today means that change and leadership has to be shared. And for that reason I’ve asked Daniel Cascardo to come in and to begin to trace this, because over the next few months together, we’re going to have moments in which you can come in and add some color to this incredible mural that Daniel is putting together. Because that will be your way of adding to this leadership that all of us have to bear in creating this change. And after we add our colors to this, Daniel will take it away, and he will finish it in his workshop, and it will be presented to us on Easter Day as a vision for the next year for our 90th anniversary.

And finally, in our reading from 1 Corinthians, there is that wonderful image where Paul is speaking to a community that is fighting about money, sex and power. So, of course, we cannot relate. And he is suggesting to them that there’s a scruple that’s come up. There are people who don’t want to eat meat that’s been sacrificed to idols, and this seems like a little thing to you and me, but it’s actually a big thing because the meat that has been sacrificed to idols has been infected by idolatry, and many of the people are former Jews, and to be in any way connected to idolatry is to be contaminated before God. It is to be made profane.

And Paul says some incredible words. He says, “Love builds up.” And that, in this time and place, resonates with the need for change that is adaptive because true adaptive change, true deep change, requires vulnerability and trust. And so over the next year, as we celebrate the 90th anniversary of our founding, you and I are being invited to enter into new relations of trust and vulnerability, one with another, so that we can go deeper. And not just get bigger. We can go deeper and bear witness to God in Christ Jesus.

“Run with perseverance the race that is set before you,” it says in the book of Hebrews, “Keeping an eye on Jesus, a pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Amen.

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