Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
November 18, 2018
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
There is no way that I can read the collect for today which is the prayer that we prayed right at the beginning of the service, which alternates from week to week – there is no way I can read that collect without, in some ways, thinking of the person who taught it to me. And before I became an Episcopalian, before I had ever attended an Episcopal service, I learned this prayer from a teacher I had in high school, named Charles Tait. And he would tell us that he would want us to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest his assigned readings.
And I never knew where that initially came from, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the assigned readings. But I learned over time and as he revealed himself a little bit more in his class that it came from this collect. And this collect has been going on since the birth of Anglicanism. We have been asked to be a community that reads, marks, learns, and inwardly digests the scriptures. And that reference to the eating of the scriptures, that comes from the Old Testament, from a moment in the Book of Ezekiel, where the prophet receives the revelation of God as a scroll, and he eats it and the taste is of honey.
Which is of course a reference to other parts of the scripture, and that honey nourishes the prophet and gives him strength. In the same way, we are called to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the scriptures. But the way that Mr. Tait used it, he wanted us to know about the world around us and he is, in many ways, probably one of the leading heroes of my life. He was the person who taught me what it meant to be a priest, because he was also an Episcopal priest.
He had grown up in Boston in a kind of impoverished neighborhood of Boston. He studied languages. He went to the Boston Latin School, he then went to Harvard. And then he joined the army when World War II started. He worked in military intelligence. He then worked for the State Department. He then was a peace activist. And then he became an Episcopal priest after marrying a famous atheist daughter. His wife was the daughter of Bertrand Russell.
This was a remarkable man. He was full of insight, and he was someone who wanted us to understand the world around us. And someone with the background of Harvard, with the background of the State Department – every class, for me, was like a revelation of the world around us. And he wanted us to see the world basically, in two larger categories I have come to see. He wanted us to understand – to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest not only our own founding stories, our own narratives as a nation, but he wanted us to look at the founding stories – the myths as you might say, the myths of other nations.
And back in the 1980’s, the nation that we were asked to study by him in one of his classes was the Soviet Union. And so I spent my time reading, marking, learning, inwardly digesting Russian literature like Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle. And I found myself reading, marking and learning the major events in Russian history, the October Revolution and the Defense of Leningrad.
I found myself reading, marking, and learning, and digesting the central mythic claims of the Soviet Union of that time which seemed to center on that moment when the cosmonaut went into space into orbit and said, “I see no God.” And I was asked to bring that narrative, that myth, and to see how it claimed lives. And I was asked to understand where the Russian people were coming from, where the Soviet Union was.
And the other thing that he wanted us to do, besides studying these myths, is he wanted us also to learn parables. He wanted us to see these moments in which parables transformed everyday circumstances and make them different. By that I mean that myths claim us, they give us an identity. You couldn’t get a soldier to leave Michigan and die in Afghanistan without believing in a myth. Myths are big stories outside of ourselves and they claim us, and they want us to answer yes or no, and they want us to see the world in black and white.
And they want us to see the world in terms of a contest between good and evil. And they want us to fight on behalf of the good, whatever that good tends to be. But parables, these are different. Parables are moments in which the everyday life is lifted up, where you don’t see so much a world outside of yourself, as you are in a parable invited to go on an interior journey of discovery. And rather than aligning you and putting you to work to defend the right and the good, and to engage in these heroic battles, parables want to teach you some moral complexity. They want you to see your world differently.
And the central parable that Mr. Tait liked to tell was when he was in school at Harvard. And it was the day or two after Pearl Harbor, and all of the Harvard students immediately enlisted in the class Intro to Japanese, because they wanted to learn Japanese, because we were going to war with Japan. And Mr. Tait told me one story which is that he never forgot the lecture that that professor of Japanese gave that morning after the attack on Pearl Harbor, in which that professor said to the class, all of whom were getting ready to defend this country.
He said you must learn not only the Japanese language, but you need to love the Japanese people. You need to understand their culture. You need to appreciate the beauty that they raise up for us, because empathy is the most important thing to have when you’re in the midst of a conflict.
For years I’ve wanted to write Mr. Tait a thank you note. And it was always more than I could somehow do. I always needed more than half a day, because of how much he meant to me as a teacher. And one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received was when one of my classmates from my school said to me when I was doing what I was doing here, he said, “You know something? Mr. Tait would be proud of you.” And for some reason I kept on putting it off. And I discovered last year that he died in 2017.
So if there’s one little point I want you to take away from today as we enter into Thanksgiving time, is don’t put off the opportunity to say thank you. And also, don’t put off living a life that is shaped by gratitude. Because even though I can say thank you to him directly, I hope that my life can be somehow modeled after his. Because I see in the model of his life, the model of Christ’s life.
But I also want you to think with me a bit about myths and parables. Because these are two ways of thinking, and we live in a time in which myths are huge. We’re in a time in which there is a kind of mythic war that’s being waged over whatever is going to be the controlling narrative of our country. And you have these kinds of different ideas that are floating, different ways that can be encapsulated with just a short word or two.
We have the idea of ourselves that is found in the phrase ‘don’t tread on me.’ We have the idea of ourselves that is found in the phrase ‘every person has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ We have an image of ourselves, an idea of ourselves in a mythic reality built around the understanding of ourselves as a city built on a hill.
And in our popular culture there is a war over the meaning of those myths. And those myths are real, and those myths make a difference. And they want to enlist us in their version of the battle between good and evil. But I want to suggest to you that the proper response for us today, as a community, is actually to be people of parables. Because parables have their own inner journey, but they also seem to cross the distance of difference. And parables are open-ended, but they transform the world around them.
And they have a claim on us that is total. And so we find ourselves in the parable of the prodigal son, at the end of the story, standing with the father and the older son in the field, and rooting the father on as he is trying somehow to get his older son to come in and join the party. So many times we find ourselves in similar situations employing people to cross that bit of distance. So I want to suggest to you that the most important thing that we can be is that we can be people of parables.
And the most powerful stories that I’ve heard from this church over the past four-and-half years that I’ve served it, and had the privilege of being here, is that I’ve heard people who have lived a parable-like life. Earlier this week I was talking to a parishioner who I use as a trusted counselor, and I was shopping this sermon with her. Because I said, “I don’t know exactly if this is going to have any contact – this is myth, parables, it seems really abstruse.” And she said, “No, it makes sense.”
She said, “You know, my mother-in-law, she never approved of me. She thought I was too liberal, and she was conservative. And she communicated that to me every day she was alive and we were together. But she did something that made me think differently about her. When a young woman in the community became pregnant and was thrown out of her house by her family, my mother-in-law took her in to hers. And cared for her until she had the child. And that little parable of her life means so much to me.”
So we are called, I believe, to be parable-makers. We are called to be people of parables of grace. Now all of this is a way for me to get into an incredibly challenging scripture today from the 13th chapter of Mark. In it, Jesus engages in a description of a mythic end of things – the Apocalypse – the time when the world will come to an end. And like everybody else, Jesus believes that this will be a time of complete turmoil and transition.
A complete overturning of everything. And the world will end for everybody, in Jesus’ context, will come not with a whimper but with a bang. It will be literally an adventum, an advent, a coming of God in reconciliation, but also God in violence. And strangely enough, throughout this chapter 13, Jesus always is telling his disciples to not weaponize the mythic language. As much as there will be an end, they are called to wait and to watch, and to pray, and to practice their faith.
So though there will be many who will say I am he, do not trust the Jesus that is depicted over and against a mythic struggle, Jesus is saying. And though you hear of wars and rumors of wars, and kingdom rising up against another kingdom, don’t you be dissuaded from living a life of faithfulness. Keep watch and wait for me, Jesus is saying.
In all of this talk today about this mythic end takes place within the context of Jesus going to His own death on a cross. So Jesus is speaking about the end of the world as His own world is ending. But it also takes place in the larger scope of the Gospel of Mark which is one in which Jesus teaches only on parables, we read. Because the greatest parable that Jesus teaches is the parable of His own death and resurrection. His own love for us that is willing to cross the distance so that we might be brought in.
And that’s a parable of grace. And just like the woman who gives her last two coins. Jesus has come to shed His love in our midst. And a hope that we might become bearers of parables too. So we are called to look for a Jesus who is bound up in the struggles of everyday life. And I’ve put before you a little painting that you could take away with you today and pray about, is by Georges Rouault.
He had an incredible itinerary as an artist. He started out being trained as a stained glass composer, a maker. And then he went into art. And then as he went into art, he became impatient with the received orthodoxies of church art, and so he began to spend a lot of time painting clowns and prostitutes. And then after a time, he suddenly began to return to Christian themes. And Rouault wanted us to see that what makes a painting Christian isn’t the fact that you are painting Jesus. What makes a painting an expression of Christian work is that that painting itself bears witness to suffering and death and redemption and complexity and love and inclusion.
So the painting of Jesus that he has with us today, it looks a little bit like you might see it in stained glass, because he has these dark thick lines. And you would almost see in the face of Christ some of the features of an icon, because the nose is really long. And if you notice on many icons, the nose is always incredibly long. But ultimately what Rouault wants us to see in this painting is that Jesus who is immersed in everyday life, looking out, hoping to meet our gaze.
How will you make a parable of your life? What parables of grace do you want to tell? In what way can you see the face of Christ? As we’ve been working over these past few times of discernment, we’ve been thinking about what we might do to rearrange the campus of this church so that we can be more welcoming and more a place where parables are made.
And as I looked at our gospel for today, I panicked a little bit a couple of weeks ago, when I realized that we were going to be talking about a capital campaign when Jesus says, you see these large buildings, not one stone will be left here upon another. All will be thrown down. And I was like, that’s my God at work, right there. But I want to ask you a question, one of the myths that we tend to live with these days is that religion is dying – that there’s a decline in religion.
And yet, one of the parables that this church is telling is that that does not need to be the case. Because we are growing. Because we have decided to be real people, we need a real God. So as you think about the questionnaire that I’ve placed before you today, I want you to take a few moments to walk with me, prayerfully, through those questions. And there should be enough pens in the pews, or you can use pencil, but keep it dark so that we can read it.
And we’ve given this questionnaire to a random group of people, and we’ve done interviews with them. But we wanted to make sure that we were completely transparent and that we listen to all of you. And so we have this questionnaire that I’m going to ask you to fill out. And then during the collection time the ushers will pick them up and give them to us. If you’re not ready to complete this questionnaire today, if you’re visiting, please note that this is your time to pray and your time to dream. And your time to think about where God is calling you.
But if you’re here and you’re a member and you’re part of things, or you want to be a member, walk with me through these questions. There are about nine, and I’ll just ask them. And I’m going to do you all a favor of saying as little as possible between each question.
Have you already met with or are you scheduled to meet with CCS Fundraising? This is our group that’s working with us. How long have you been associated with Christ Church Cranbrook? How do you feel about the mission and ministry of Christ Church Cranbrook? What is your overall reaction to Christ Church Cranbrook’s plans to enhance our facilities, music, and mission and outreach programs? Do you believe now is a good time for Christ Church Cranbrook to embark on a capital campaign?
After looking through the background statement, please prioritize the following projects: the program building and other facility renovations, the landscape and campus redesign, the main organ renovation, the music department endowment, the new organ for St. Dunstans, the mission and outreach endowment.
Finally, in your opinion is 14.55 million an achievable amount? And with regard to you and your families potential involvement, would you consider making a gift or serving as a volunteer?
And finally, we have a menu of options. This will be gifts that you would give over a five-year period. We don’t need you to make an answer now, but we’d like it if you can. And we also know that you might need extra time, and so we would like to have this questionnaire turned in. But if you need time to prayerfully think about it, then please take this questionnaire with you.
And then finally you put at the bottom any additional comments, because all information is useful, whether it’s positive or negative. And then if you want to talk more, please give us your contact information. It’s hard for us to know if you don’t give your name. And so let’s do that for two minutes, maybe less, maybe 20 seconds. And then I’ll close this with prayer.