July 29, 2018
Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
I want to take a risk today. I don’t have an opening that’s going to be a joke. I don’t have a story for you. I don’t have anything that’s going to reference recent events. I’m simply going to talk about a prayer, and I’m hoping that talking about that prayer will be enough. And I’m going to talk about that prayer because I think that as much as I enjoy telling jokes and as much as I like telling stories and giving you little vignettes to make the gospel easy to you, and as much as I want to kind of reference world events, that this prayer is incredibly important. Because it doesn’t just apply to the here and now, it applies to everything.
And that prayer is the collect for today. It is the prayer that we do at the beginning of the service which is meant to kind of focus our attention on what God is going to reveal to us in the liturgy and in the scriptures. The collect, it’s called. It’s meant to somehow reflect where we are and the seasons, and that collect is incredibly important. And there’s a line there that I want to unpack for you today and it’s this. It’s that we may pass through things temporal and not lose things eternal.
It asks God for his protection. It asks God for God’s mercy and asks God to trust us and to give us the grace to pass through things temporal so as to not lose things eternal. And that line, that passage, it’s mentioned in other collects. What does it mean? Well, for years I have interpreted that prayer as a kind of console for detachment, the temporal are those things that are created by time. Everything around us is a kind of creature of time. Time itself is a creature, so Christians have long believed. And things that are eternal, those are things outside of time. Those are things that last. Those are things that are permanent.
And St. Augustine, in the third and fourth century – the fourth century began to talk about this kind of strategy of detachment. We had to learn to see the world around us, everything that we could touch or feel or smell or count or measure. All of these things, these things were creatures of time. And we had to learn to see past all of those things, to use them, and the term he uses in Latin is “uti,” in order that we would know God and enjoy God fully. And the word he uses in Latin is frui is truly to know God, and to love God is to know something that is eternal. And as the term frui is meant to communicate to you, to know God is to know a kind of fecundity, a kind of generativity, a kind of multiplicity.
So Augustine wants Christians like you and me to learn to detach. And we still use this every day in our spiritual lives. In the 12-step program of Al–Anon, for example, there’s this concept in which you have to learn to detach with love. That means when you are surrounded in a place in which there is addiction, you have to learn to detach from the dysfunction that would claim you and take away your serenity and your emotional sobriety, and you have to learn to still love the person who is suffering from addiction and still love the family that is ensnared in that disease, and yet, somehow to detach from it, to pull yourself away, to not get triggered by what’s coming at you.
So the attachment is a strong strategy. It’s an important strategy, but there is another way to read this prayer that is equally powerful, that is equally important, that applies to everything. And that is to see this prayer is not encouraging detachment, but rather engagement and embodiment, involvement with things because we pray to so pass through things temporal to not lose the things that are eternal. And the only way you and I know the eternal is primarily through our own temporal existence.
And Moreover, Jesus Christ is the sign that God values the temporal. Jesus Christ, God made human. Jesus Christ who has come to redeem humanity from within. In the midst of all of our human life, Jesus Christ has come into our midst to make the temporal full of the eternal. And so rather than a strategy of detachment, one way to read this prayer is as a kind of encouragement towards engagement, to not lose sight of God as God is to be found in the most minute things.
And this second way of reading the prayer is just as important and it highlights all the things around the prayer in the question that it asks. It highlights mercy and it highlights God’s protection because when we are in the midst of the changes and chances of this life, and we are bound to the people around us, and perfect as they are, imperfect as we are, we come to realize how incredibly fragile and beautiful and wonderful this world truly is. And we come to realize how much we need God’s mercy and grace because there are so many things we miss out on by rushing past it, by forgetting it, by overlooking it, by taking it for granted. But by looking at this prayer as a moment of engagement, it’s an encouragement to us to see every day and every moment, every relationship, every activity we do, everything as a gift and not a given. A gift to be received, defined in it, the mystery that is being revealed in the incredibly ordinary things and not a given to be taken for granted or to be held at arm’s length.
Now, all of this again requires mercy and grace. And in fact one of the ways in which valuing the temporal things and seeing in them as somehow a revelation of God is when we do it rightly, we become aware of God’s abundance. We’ve become aware that God’s grace is abundant in our lives, but we become aware of a kind of abundant life. Because when you look at temporal existence as laden with the eternal, God is in everything. And God is speaking to us through everything. Everything, no matter how painful, no matter how challenging, everything is a source of revelation.
All of our readings for today want to encourage us to see the eternal and the temporal. Want us to see this mercy that is larger than we could ask or imagine. All of our readings want us to see this incredible grace, this incredible treasuring of the eternal. In our reading from 2 Kings Elisha receives a gift of food in a time of famine. And Elisha does. Elijah does the most amazing thing. Elisha says, give the food to the people, not to the prophets. Give it to the people. And this is good leadership.
The other day I was watching one of my favorite people that I like to watch for leadership advice, Simon Sinek, and he said, you know the fact – good leaders eat last, and that’s true. Good leaders eat last and it’s something to keep in mind. But when Elisha asked that the food be shared with the people first, he was also understanding that those people that he had been given, they were the gifts of God to him. They were the image of God for him to lift up and they were the ones on whom the mercy was due. And in doing so, Elisha began to lean into the grace and generosity of God, to know that even in a time of scarcity, there was abundance, so long as he could be generous.
And in our reading from Ephesians, there is this incredible panegyric to the abundance of God’s grace. This message comes to a people who knew scarcity, who knew trials, who knew conflict, and yet the word of God that comes to them is that they should remember always that they are surrounded by the grace of God that surpasses everything. Riches beyond we can measure because of who Christ Jesus is for us and who we are to Christ Jesus. And this passage goes with the grain of Judaism. There is a line from one of the rabbis that said that in front of every single human being there is a company of angels that go before them and says to each person that they meet in that day, prepare the way and behold the image of God.
Each of us is made in the image of God. Each of us is valuable in God’s eyes. Each of us is beloved. And with Jesus Christ that image is intensified and becomes incredible and perfect. Jesus Christ is the image of God, and because of that we who are made in the image of God find our image in him. We are transformed and we have been given immeasurable riches. We are able to go to God and to see God working in more than we can ask or imagine. More than temporal existence could even bear. Eternity has come so fully.
And in our reading from the gospel of John, there is this incredible moment. Of course, this is a gospel about social justice. Of course, this is a gospel about sharing what we have. Of course, this is a gospel about us living in such a way that others might live and thrive, but today’s Gospel is more than just about ethics. When Jesus has the 5,000 men sit on grass and takes the loaves and blesses them and breaks them, he celebrates not only a Passover, but a Eucharist.
In the Gospel of John, there is no moment where Jesus on the last day of His life, takes bread and breaks it and says to the disciples, this is my body, and takes wine and says to the disciples, this is my blood. That actually doesn’t happen in the gospel of John. The Eucharist, the moment in which Jesus institutes the First Eucharist, is the gospel before us today. When Jesus has the multitudes sit down and takes that moment to see in the midst of that scarcity, God’s abundance and wonder of wonders. Abundance comes in the form of food, in the form of bread and fishes that multiply. And later in the Gospel as the disciples are making their way without Jesus and they’re encountering storms, again, Jesus becomes present powerfully. And this is a reminder to us that everything has Christ in it, that Christ is in everything, no matter how challenging it is, no matter how scarce the situation may be, the abundance of God is there, God himself and Christ is present, and that’s good news.
The art I have for you today picks up on that theme of the Eucharist from the Gospel of John. It’s a painting called The White Tablecloth by Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin. Chardin was a still life painter during the Rococo period. Many people associate with the Rococo, a kind of renaissance on steroids, right? So the models become bosomy-er and the colors become more vivid, and there is motion always in the Rococo. And all the way through this you have – and there’s gold everywhere in the Rococo, there’s gold and silver.
It’s just fabulous, but Chardin had a different way of inhabiting that same time period. He focused on still lifes in which he seems to slow down everything in the picture except for the kind of dynamic movement that moves at the base of everything, the kind of heartbeat of life. And so he has this kitchen table on which there is this white tablecloth and a knife that is balanced on it, which is meant to kind of speak to a moment in time, to the kind of precariousness of life, the moment at which the knife can be knocked off. And of course that tablecloth, which in other paintings he highlights white to kind of draw attention to things, that tablecloth and that knife, they also speak to life and death. They speak to a kind of shroud and a kind of spear because on the rest of the table there are other references to the Eucharist.
There is bread and wine and one of the glasses has tipped over and one of the glasses is full, which is meant to communicate through the image of still life, which in French is nature morte, a kind of as if death, the kind of giving of the blood of the Eucharist and the body of Christ. In fact, if you go close to the painting, the movement in the painting, the only point of real movement in the painting is the bread itself where it’s broken. He’s basically done these circles to communicate action. And so throughout this moment there are these Eucharistic themes, and at the top of it is a sausage which can seem like the most silly piece of kind of extraneous moment, but think for a moment what a sausage is made out of. A sausage is made when flesh is broken and encased and then broken again. So the sausage is a reflection of Christ. The sausage is who Jesus is. He is the flesh that has been broken and yet broken again for you.
And at the corner of the painting, you have this bucket full of empty vessels and that’s meant to symbolize the church. Chardin was a bit of a rebel because he was suggesting that we could find this Eucharist in the kitchen and not on an altar and a church, that Jesus was just as present in a kitchen as Jesus was present at the church, and this was to flirt with heresy in his time period. And so everything had to be coded in this painting, but he felt it was the witness he would give Chardin who lost two daughters when they died of natural causes and lost a son to suicide. Chardin, who spent his whole life doing still lifes and only compiled over the course of a 60-year career, 250 paintings; Chardin who wanted us to see the mystery in everyday life, the God who is present to us as body and blood.
And of course, the empty vessel of the church is full of empty vessels that the little beer steins. And that of course is you and me. We are empty vessels. We are constantly creatures of needs and wants, but God has been abundant to us if only we have eyes to see, if only we are willing to be engaged. What would you paint if you were going to paint the God who is present in everything?
When I was in seminary, I had a best friend of sorts. He was 38 years old and I was 24 years old. He just appeared to be ancient to me in those days and he was a former jazz musician. He had gone to a passion play in Missouri and he had a conversion experience, and so he gave up being a jazz musician and a bartender and went to college and put himself through school. And he was putting himself through seminary by working on cars and doing everything he could, and I was amazed at this guy. He was enormous and he had this huge beard and women found him irresistible. It was amazing. And he could dance too, but that’s another story.
One time he and I decided to skip out from a class and we went down into the capital and we were going down the escalator at Foggy Bottom in DC, that long escalator, and there was this homeless man singing a jazz tune at the bottom of the escalator. And Dan recognize the tune and he started to sing with the guy, and he started hitting a perfect harmony with them and they start to sing together as Dan is coming down the escalator. And everybody’s looking at this. This was kind of like a proto flash mob. It was this moment everybody was watching as he came down this escalator singing, and they came and they put their arms around each other and they sang the rest of the tune, and when they finished, a spontaneous audience applauded. And Dan took out $5, which to him was a huge sum and he put it in the guy’s hands. He goes, “That’s for making my day. God bless you.” And I said, “Dan, that was beautiful.” He said, “Yeah, and it was the last $5 I have. So you’re buying lunch.”
What story will you tell? What moment will you refuse to miss? What song will you sing? What will you give? Who will you embrace?