The Reverend Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
The Fifth Sunday after The Epiphany
February 4, 2018
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. To view a video of this sermon, please click here.)
One of the things that I’ve come to become aware about myself, and it’s not something I like to admit, but I’ve discovered that as I’ve gotten to a certain age, as I pass that 50-year mark in my life, I’ve become a little grumpy. I’ve become a little bit grumpy about things. And it’s not that I’ve become dissatisfied with life or I’m going through period of difficulty. I’ve become grumpy about certain things that I have spent too much of my life worrying about. I’ve spent way too much time consumed with something that has eaten me up and it really should not bother me anymore. I need to be liberated from it.
And one of these things is the many answers and questions that I have received about God which seem to treat God as if God was something that you could hold at arms length. The chief culprit of these questions is why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen to good people?
When I was in college, I took this question seriously as I was trying to communicate the truth of Christianity in a very secular and pluralistic place. When I was a professor and working to teach undergraduates and graduate students, this question consumes a lot of time and energy. People think really hard about it and there are some good answers to it. But over the years, I’ve found myself getting grumpy when people ask me the question.
And often times I’ve noticed that people ask me that question usually when they want to have a good reason not to engage with the church or with religion. And this seems to happen most often when I’m on a plane and I’m seated next to somebody, and they say to me, “What do you do for a living?” and I say I’m a priest. And then I hear that question and I usually trot out all the answers that I give. For them, the answer for them is I should just say to them, “You know what? You have a good reason never to go to church again. You’re good in my eyes. We’re good.”
And usually what I do when I’m in such circumstances now, when I’m on the plane and someone says, “What do you do?” I just lie. I’m an entrepreneur. I’m a therapist. I’m a teacher. My favorite: I’m a police officer. No one ever asks a question after that.
So this has made me grumpy because I think that it’s not really a good question to ask. It’s a natural question to ask, and anytime anybody suffers, you will be tempted to ask that question, why do bad things happen to good people? But it’s not a question that Christianity is particularly well geared to answer, because the question arises sometime in the 18th century in western thought at least. And it presupposes – it assumes some things about our lives that we have come to take for granted. The question assumes that we are due good things. And funny enough, the scriptures nowhere say in any place that we are due good things.
In fact, if there’s anything that the scriptures speak loudest about it’s that the material blessings we have in this life come to us because of things way beyond our control. They come ultimately from God. So the expectation that we would have a happy family, that we would have a successful career, that we would be able to look back on our lives and give thanks for all that we had accomplished. These are not promises that the Bible makes.
What the Bible does promise us is that God is present and that God can be trusted. And so, if we were going to ask a riskier question – a question that we are willing to risk our lives on, a question that cuts us to the core, is not why do bad things happen to good people. It’s rather can I trust God? Is God present even now when I am in the midst of my suffering? When I am not experiencing blessing but experiencing incredible pain and loneliness? Is God present even in those places?
And time and time again, the answer that the scriptures give us is that yes, we can trust God, and yes, God is present. And that is, I think, the fundamental teaching in our reading from the Gospel of Mark for today. The beginning of this incredible gospel has this moment in which Jesus comes and He visits with Peter and his mother-in-law is sick, and so Jesus goes to Peter’s mother-in-law and He cures her of her fever. And she immediately gets up and starts serving, which is really good news for everybody, except for maybe Peter’s mother-in-law.
Yet, that moment of healing is quickly moved beyond and moved past in the narrative. Before the next dawn, Jesus goes off to a deserted place and prays, and the disciples hunt for Him in the darkness. Then Jesus says to them when they find Him, “Let us keep moving. My work is found in advancing the mission of God elsewhere. My work is about the healing of the world, not simply the healing of your individual lives.”
And this is to introduce to us a fundamental truth about Christianity, which is sometimes lost in all of the narratives we read where we move through an amazing change, or an amazing healing, or an amazing conversion experience in which we move from a world of black and white and gray to a world of technicolor. God has come not merely for that moment of healing, but God has come in Christ Jesus to develop a deep relationship with each of us.
And my own faith journey has been precisely that. I had, when I was 16 years old, an incredible moment of conversion where God intervened in my life in a powerful way and became powerfully present. And I experienced an incredible moment of healing from a time of depression. But my experience also has taught me that God’s intent for that healing was to draw me into relationship and to carry me through moments in which I did not feel healing, in which I had to walk through some darkness and some difficulty, in which I had to experience some deep suffering and some isolation and some loneliness. And it was there that the deeper riskier questions of Christianity came to me. Can I trust God? Is God present even here? And wonder of wonders, a deeper relationship with Jesus became possible to me.
In our reading from Isaiah, there is an incredible moment in which the prophet tells the people that God is very, very big. We are like grasshoppers to God. It’s as if God is flying over us. And yet, the most amazing witness that the prophet gives is not that God is very big and human beings are very small. It’s not that princes rise and princes fall. It’s not that nations are built and nations collapse. It’s that somehow God is seeing all of us and knows each of us by name and has counted the hairs on our head. And that God will lift up the lowly; even young people will fall down exhausted. But those who wait upon the Lord will be raised up as on eagles’ wings.
And finally, in our wonderful reading from Corinthians, Saint Paul talks about the moment in which he is converted to Christ. He receives the gospel and it comes to him free of charge. But his healing could not be in that moment of acceptance alone, but he had to be willing to pour himself back into God and into Christ. Jesus. And you and I – when we read that passage that Paul says he can be all things to all people, you and I sometimes are tempted, I think, to read that as Paul is like the perfect gentleman who puts everyone at ease. But, in fact, Paul was being confronted with the limits of his identity – to stop being an observant Jew, to stop caring about the things that gave him his very identity as a person, to allow himself to be weak. All of these things Paul is invited to do so that he might take on in his very life the shape of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
There is one thing I want you to focus on today, one piece of scripture. I want you to have this sink as deep as it can into the core of your being. And I think it holds for us a pivot point for our journey now as we move towards Ash Wednesday and Lent and onto Good Friday and Easter. And it’s that passage in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus is seen as praying. For years the Christian tradition has had different ideas about what kind of prayer Jesus was praying in that moment.
If you’re from a more Protestant and Evangelical background, Jesus was reading the scriptures, of course. If you’re from a more Catholic background, Jesus was engaging in contemplation. And if you’re from a more Protestant background, some have said Jesus was engaging in intercession. He was praying for us because that’s what Jesus is doing now, where Jesus is seated at the right hand of God. Jesus’s job now, according to some theologies, is to simply be praying for us, lifting us up before God.
But more important than any of those types of prayer, I want to invite you to identify two types of prayer that you can begin to place at the center of your lives. Prayer takes two forms. And here I follow my favorite writer, Anne Lamott. Prayer either says, “Help me! Help me! Help me!” or “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” Prayer actually begins only in that moment of asking for help or bearing witness to the incredible grace that God has shown you and wondering at all that God is doing.
And to help you think about what those two kinds of prayer are for you, I’ve pulled out two poems about prayer. One is from Christian Wiman. It’s the one with the blue background. And Wiman is a poet who had three things happen to him in the space of about a year. He rediscovered his faith in God, he fell in love, and he discovered that he had a terminal disease. And this prayer is a kind of description of the “Help me! Help me! Help me!” prayer. And I’ll read it:
in the very grain
for the lordless
is that a mind
“Even now, my prayer is that a mind blurred by anxiety or despair might find here a trace of peace.”
And the second prayer that I have for you, a poem about prayer, is on the other side. It’s by Mary Oliver. She’s another wonderful poet. And this is a prayer that is more about a prayer that says, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” Praying is the title.
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
What prayer is God inviting you to risk praying today?