Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
October 14, 2018
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
Have you ever had those moments when someone gives you a backhanded compliment? A kind of compliment that really isn’t a compliment? It’s kind of pointing out something that you have done or something that you are that isn’t quite complimentary in the true sense. About five years ago Claire got me surfing lessons and the surfing instructor at the first moment said to me – he had hair that was standing straight up, and he was like, “You’re a big guy and big guys don’t always surf so well.” And I got up on my first try. And then he said, “You surf pretty well for a big guy.” “How do you mean big?” I wanted to say, but I said nothing.
About four months ago somebody said to me, “You sure raise money well.” And I found that interesting. I kind of took it as a backhanded compliment because of course I want to be about much more than raising money. And yet I had to admit the compliment was to a certain extent true. I’ve never spent any time taking any seminars on raising money. I’ve never attended any kind of class on how to raise money. I never intend to be a development professional, and I don’t intend to create my life around raising money. But I have been wildly successful at raising money. And most recently we received this incredible gift from the Lilly Foundation to restart an incredible project that we started in 1957 called the Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies, which was something that this church started to help all of the pastors in metropolitan Detroit come together and learn together how to be better pastors.
But I did not go into my life or into my priesthood or into my leadership with the intent of raising money. In fact, I kind of fell into the job. It happened when I was a professor in Tennessee and I began to volunteer when we had some needs in development, and then it intensified when I was a professor at a seminary in New York City that was struggling, and in the midst of that struggle we were running into some significant financial challenges and I stepped forward. And I tried to assert some leadership and I said, “I’ll help. I’ll try to raise some money for this organization.”
And more recently my money has been raised connected to not so much need, but to mission. I raise money so that the mission of a place can continue. And I have learned some incredibly valuable lessons. Some life-changing lessons while raising money. It’s actually an important thing. And the first lesson is that you have to believe in the organization or institution you are raising money for. You cannot have any doubts about the work that it’s doing, and you have to be able to tell the story of its work and its founding and its future. And the second is that you have to be willing to support that organization yourself as much as you possibly can. As much as you humanly can, you have to give yourself to support that organization or that institution, because people spot out a phony quicker than you ever could imagine.
And the third is that you have to have no shame when it comes to asking money. You have to never be worried about being at all ashamed about asking for money for the project you believe in. Spike Lee said that he would take a nickel from anyone to put on a film because he believed in that film so much. And then fourth, you have to be willing and be unafraid of failure, because you will fail raising money. There’ll be moments in which people will not want you to have any of the money they have and you need to know that a lot of that is not due to the fact that you have come asking for it. It’s because money is an incredibly powerful thing. In our society, money is not unlike alcohol to an alcoholic. In an incredible statement in Alcoholics Anonymous there is this programic statement where it says how it works, and it says that “Alcohol is cunning, baffling, and powerful. It has the ability to suck someone in no matter how much they don’t want to be sucked in.”
And the same goes for money. Money can be cunning, baffling, and powerful. Money is one of those things that gets to the root of who we are and it has the power to make us dance and it has the power to make us weep. So money is powerful and our views about money or attitude towards money, the feelings we have, these are deep, and getting at that money you’re trying to raise money is challenging. You will fail in raising money.
Now there’s one other part about raising money that I’ve learned. And it is the best part. It is the soul of raising money. It’s the most important thing and it’s the thing that I would want you to take away from today. And I learned this as if for the first time about 10 years ago when I was serving a seminary in New York City that was running out of money. We were afraid that we were not going to be able to make payroll. And so I stepped forward and I said to the dean that I noticed that there was an alumnus in Tennessee named Bill whose wife interestingly was named Phoebe, and they had just given an enormously generous gift of $50,000 to another university. And I offered to the dean that I would go down and ask for $50,000 from Bill and Phoebe. And he said yes.
And so I flew down and went to their home and we had dinner and I did all the things I just told you about. I talked about the story of the seminary and our hopes. I was completely honest about my own willingness to support it. I was shameless in stating our needs. And I was unafraid of failure. And then Bill and Phoebe, who were known for having, let’s just say, very sharp opinions about things and were unafraid to share them. After they had grilled me a little bit, they asked me to come back to their house, and we sat in their living room and they were 80 years old. And they said, “And now we’re going to pray.” And they got on their knees and they prayed for the seminary, and then they wrote a check for $50,000 and gave it to me.
And they said, “This gift is a pledge.” And I asked them what they wanted it to go to, and they said, “It’s given to you without strings attached.” And I was so floored at that moment by their generosity, by the holiness of their sacrifice, by the transformation that they went through as they supported the seminary where I taught. And that gift had a transformative effect on me. I realized that there is a holiness around money, that as much as money can claim you and become an idol, it can also be a way through which people give of themselves. And it can be a way of transformation, and it can change relationships.
I come from a family on one side who are immigrants. I’m enormously proud of my grandfather who was a self-made man. He was never good at being generous. And I’ll never forget a moment when a pastor came to his house to raise money for the little church he had in our town, and my grandfather said things to him that no human being should say to another. And I realized looking at him, again, that in that moment he was terrified. He was terrified to let go of his money. As great a man as he was, he was terrified. Whatever I have learned about money I have learned in the church. Whatever I’ve learned about giving and generosity and the transformation that occurs when someone spiritually supports the church, those are the things that have taught me how to have a better understanding of money. And for that I am profoundly grateful. I am profoundly grateful to Bill and Phoebe. They taught me something that was incredibly important and is something that I’ve carried close to my heart all my life.
Everything that we have in our gospel today pivots around money. It’s one of those moments where if I were to say this gospel was about anything else, you wouldn’t trust a word that I would say. And all of us know the tensions that are inherent in talking about money. We all know that Jesus has asked this rich ruler, we don’t know that he is young. He is known as being young because he asks such a young question, or is it? That question, what must I do to inherit eternal life? I hear it asked a lot at the end of life as well. And Jesus says to him that he has to sell everything to follow him. And the disciples are terrified because the truth be told, even though they are following Jesus, they have not given up everything.
Even Peter who says we have left everything to follow you, if you go back to the first chapter of Mark, he is hosting Jesus in his home. So Peter has not left everything. And the disciples ask Jesus what must we do to be saved? And Jesus says something incredibly important. He says for human beings, for mortals it is impossible but not for God. For God all things are possible.
And I want to suggest to you that that is the pivot point around which to understand today’s gospel. That point begins when we meet Jesus on a journey. And it continues when Jesus looks at the ruler who has asked Him about eternal life and looking on him loves him. And it continues when Jesus takes them along, His disciples along the journey that He is going to.
Jesus has left everything to be with us. Jesus is the paradigm of someone who has divested himself and sold it all and given it to the poor to be with us. And Jesus invites the ruler on a journey. And it’s a journey the ruler cannot do alone. Only God can invite us on this journey. It is customary to see this gospel as a difficult gospel, but I want to suggest to you this morning that this is a gospel of grace. Because for any of us who are willing to let God be God, we will find out how to make the decisions we need to make about money. We will be invited to step into that transformation that happens when money as an idol falls in our hearts.
And there is no level at which you have enough money. And there is no level at which you don’t have enough money to be worried about it. A couple of weeks ago, I had this incredible experience where I was at one of the area country clubs as a guest, and they were showing these – they had this incredible performance of Broadway shows. And so, this was an incredible evening. Eating on tables with table cloths and wonderful food. And it was Broadway shows. And the one song that everybody in that country club knew by heart was from Fiddler on the Roof, “If I Were a Rich Man.” They sang it word by word. And I was looking around at everybody there and I realized these people are the 1% of the 1% and yet they still know that song. And that song identifies a need.
Now, in Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye, he just wants a place with a lot of chickens and some opportunity to study. That was what it meant to have his dreams come true. For the people that were singing that song, I can’t imagine their dreams not coming true but they still needed more. And in that, they were so human, like we all are. And there is no small amount that doesn’t make us troubled.
Years ago, I was teaching in a seminary in Umtata, which is the poorest part of South Africa. And I was doing something that you always do when you’re teaching seminarians in the United States. I said, “How many of you when you read about what Jesus does with the disciples, how many of you say to yourselves, Jesus is speaking. I am called to be a disciple?” And I raised my hand and despite the fervor of the hundred students there, no one raised their hands. And so I asked them, “Why not?” And they said, “The disciples have given everything and I still have a cow. I still have a home. I still am providing for my family.”
And I had been working in that area for a while and I knew how small the possessions they were talking about. And yet, they felt so burdened by the world that they could not even dare to call themselves disciples. Jesus invites all of us no matter how little we have, no matter how much we have, to go with Him on a journey of grace. On a journey that pivots around the things that we have. A journey around our possessions and our money so that we can be transformed by the world we live in and not conformed to it. That is the gospel.
So let me then turn back to the whole spiel I gave you about raising money. We are in the midst of our pledge drive and this is how we fund our church. And we put together this incredible appeal, which reminds me of those billfolds my father used to carry of all the pictures in our family. Back in the day before there were smartphones, he would say, “Let me show you the pictures of my family.”
And we have done every bit we could to show you all the ways that we are telling a good story, and all the ways we are supporting one another, and all the ways that we are being a bit shameless about what God is doing because God is doing great things. And we have presented this before you completely unafraid. But none of this can take the place of the transformation and the prayer work we have to do together. Of that moment in which we fall on our knees, whether we can physically or not, and pray about how we can support one another in this church. And how we can unseat the cunning and baffling and powerful power of money in our lives.
I want to finish with you about one story of transformation. It’s a story of transformation that I am moved and incredibly blessed to be able to share with you today. And a full accounting of it is in the insert in your bulletin called, Where Is Your Home Church? It’s a testimony by Jennifer Morse. And it’s to give thanks for the role of this church in the life of Christopher Morse and in their life.
Christopher Morse is a veteran of both the Army and the Navy. He served in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and he died too early. And it was our privilege to walk with him through that time of transformation in which he was reconciled to God and reconciled with this church, and to be with Christopher and Jennifer as they became members of this incredible church home.
Jennifer gave an enormously generous gift in Christopher’s name. She is someone who I am lifting up today, even though I’m sure this is making her just a bit uncomfortable. And I do it with her permission. But Jennifer is, like Bill and Phoebe, another witness to the transformation that is possible through God.
May that transformation be real for you. May it be real for me. May we be transformed together.