Rev. Canon Dr. William Danaher Jr.
June 24, 2018
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
One of the greatest gifts of my ministry, the thing that I feel most alive doing as a priest. The thing that gives me a certain kind of conviction that tells me that I know why God placed me on this Earth is when I’m with a family who is mourning and planning a funeral.
And I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do that over the past four years here at Christ Church Cranbrook. And a lot of these funerals have happened after someone dies a little bit like Job does at the end of the Book of Job, old and full of days. And other times it’s been in moments at which there has been an incredible tragedy that has occurred. And in either case – in moments in which people are taken at seemingly the prime of their life or at even a young age, or even when people are experiencing death after a long struggle – in every case there is an awareness on my part of two things.
The first thing that I become aware of is how incredible this world is in which we all suffer. It doesn’t matter how powerful you are, it doesn’t matter what place you are in our hierarchy, it doesn’t matter your economic status. Each of us will end this life with a certain degree of suffering. Suffering is inescapable in this life. And yet, at the same time, whenever we suffer, we experience suffering as something that is totally unique to us, totally distinctive. We get the sense that our suffering is unlike anybody else’s suffering, and it becomes kind of dangerous terrain to offer anybody comfort when they’re in the midst of suffering because, in one sense, everybody suffers, but in another sense, it becomes so difficult to cross that distance and to speak some words of comfort to somebody who is in the midst of their suffering.
The second thing that I become aware of when I’m in these situations is that I have a basic obligation. I have a role to play that no one else can play. And that is my job is to voice the promises of God. And I do that most often by listening to the bereaved talk about the deceased, to listen to the people who have lost someone they loved. And as I listen to them, I look for the shape of God’s redemption in their lives. And I say all this because in our collect for today, which is the prayer which precedes our reading of the scripture and is meant to somehow crystallize what this Sunday is about, we have the articulation of the promises of God.
And these can be summarized in the foundation that God has placed us on, in God’s loving kindness. And that is a reference to three facets of right relationship with God that you find in Judaism and in Christianity, loving kindness. The root of it is the Jewish word chesed which can be translated as mercy but also as loving kindness, as compassion. And chesed is one of three key practices and virtues. Chesed is part of mishpat which is translated as justice or fairness or equal regard and tzadik or tzedakah, which is righteousness. So in mishpat you make sure that everyone is treated fairly. And in tzadik you do the right thing, whether it means telling the truth or going through with a promise. And those two things are important.
But the foundation of God, the foundation of our relationship with God is chesed, God’s loving kindness, God’s compassion. The rabbis often spoke about this. There’s a story that emerges in the rabbinic tradition a little bit after the time of Jesus, where one rabbi says to another as they’re passing outside of Jerusalem and they see the ruins of the temple. The first rabbi says, “Woe are we for we do not have a place we can make atonement for God because we have lost our temple.” And the other rabbi responds, “We have another way of making atonement to God. We have the way of God’s loving kindness.” Loving kindness, God’s mercy was the beginning and the end of Judaism, of the relationship between Jews and their God.
And Christianity goes with the grain of that when it speaks of Jesus as the loving kindness of God. And in Judaism we become part of God. We go with the grain of God’s will on Earth. We stand in moral community with God, the extent to which we practice in our own affairs mishpat, tzadik and tzedakah, and chesed. But the key to all things is chesed, is mercy. And for us as Christians, we have been given the unbelievable opportunity to be within God’s loving mercy through its perfect reflection in God’s son, Jesus. To be in Jesus is to know God’s mercy. And this is the promise of God.
And it’s hard for us to speak it in times in which people suffer, in times in which there is conflict in the face of death, in the face of opposition. It is hard to speak the promises of God. And yet it’s not because those promises aren’t true, it’s because we ourselves are a bit fearful because those things we speak of when we speak of God’s promises are true. They are built upon the foundation of the universe and they exist forever.
All of our readings for today speak about God’s loving kindness in the midst of suffering, in the midst of opposition. In our reading from Job, we have this pivotal moment in the dialogue in the book itself when, after experiencing profound suffering, the righteous man, Job, who has refused to accept the feedback of his friends, who tell him that the reason why he is suffering is because he had to have done something wrong to deserve it. Or that this is just some way in which God is playing some masterful game. Or that Job should find a way to learn, through the experience of suffering, new things about himself and the world. Job wants an answer from God. And God, in the passage we read today, speaks to Job out of a whirlwind. And God is not particularly gentle in this moment. “Who are you? What do you know? The world is much more complicated than you think, Job.”
But, you see, the most important message of the reading for today from Job is that God speaks, that God hears, that the relationship with Job is real, that God loves Job and will answer him, even if that answer is that you are but a human, you cannot understand or bear these things. And that dialogue and that relationship, in the midst of suffering, which seems undeserved, that dialogue and that relationship is itself the peace of God. The peace of God is not a moment of prosperity, it’s not the absence of conflict, it’s not the absence even of suffering. The peace of God is a relationship with God that not even death can interrupt.
And in our reading from Mark we have this incredible story of Jesus calming the storm, and the disciples are panicked. And it takes a lot to make a fisherman afraid of a sea that he has sailed his entire life, so we can imagine this storm was unlike many others. Or perhaps the boats were so weighed down with disciples that the gunnels were just clearing the seawater, the waterline. And the waves were swamping the boat. In any event, Jesus is asleep, and they wake him up, and they ask for him to intercede. They’re scared out of their wits. And Jesus wakes up and he rebukes the wind and, in a sense, also rebukes the disciples.
You know, I never quite understood the gospel truth in this passage until, as a young guy, 16 years old, I was watching National Geographic. You remember that special? Baba-ba-ba-pa! Remember? And it was a documentary of a little fishing village in Scotland, and two of the fishermen there had been lost at sea. And they filmed the little village going into the Presbyterian church, and the pastor picks this passage from Mark to preach upon. And I couldn’t believe it, as a young Christian in the faith, I couldn’t believe that he picked that passage, which must have been so painful for the congregation to hear, which must have asked them to ask themselves why did Jesus not calm the storm this time? And the pastor said, after they read the scripture, he said, “You see, Jesus is present in the storms. Even in the storms, Jesus is present. And he was present with those men. And his presence is enough.” And the congregation experienced that as grace, as loving kindness, as compassion.
And in our reading today from 2 Corinthians there is this incredible moment in which Paul is trying to draw a final connection for us, which is that suffering can also take the form of something we willingly do for another, when we give up some good or some desire or some want or some need so that someone else might flourish, might blossom, might grow. And Paul says throughout 1 and 2 Corinthians that we have become the body of Christ. Jesus lives through us, through each of us. And we are to bear witness to a suffering Messiah. Christ is the wisdom of God, which is a wisdom that suffers. And to a community that is struggling with money, sex, and power, and with divisions within and without, in social stratification, Paul says and encourages them to take on and put on the clothes of Christ. And that means to suffer.
And so we read at the key point, we are treated as imposters and yet are true, as unknown and yet are well known, as dying and see we are alive, as punished and yet not killed, as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing and yet possessing everything. All of these things Paul says is the power of God. So not only is Jesus the embodiment of God’s loving kindness, and not only is the suffering of Jesus a kind of witness that loving kindness wins, but you and I receive power from God when we step into places of suffering and bear witness to the God who is in all things and, in particular, through us as His son, Jesus.
A couple of years ago David Brooks wrote what I thought was a beautiful column in The New York Times in which he said there are two kinds of virtues that we have in this world. We have the resume virtues, and those are the things you do, like graduating from college or having a wonderful performance, or getting a promotion, or even getting married. And then you have the eulogy virtues. And the eulogy virtues usually come when you have experienced some kind of defeat, when you have learned the power of becoming humble, when you start to live for somebody else. And these eulogy virtues are what make us truly distinctive.
I want to suggest to you that there’s no need to wait for your eulogy to begin living a life dedicated to God’s loving kindness. Now is the acceptable time, Paul says in 2 Corinthians today. Now is the acceptable time. Not when you have graduated, not when you have gotten married, not when you’ve figured yourself out, not when you’ve gotten your resources marshaled, not when you have finally achieved economic stability. Now is the time to begin to walk in the loving kindness of God. In what way can that happen for you? For us?