May 12, 2019: The Fourth Sunday of Easter

The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.

This sermon has been transcribed from live video. To view a video of his sermon, please click here. 

In the 1970s, two leading child psychologists at Harvard University conducted an experiment and it was known to posterity as the Still Face Experiment. And what they did is they asked mothers to bring in their infant children and to sit in a room that they could be observed in the interactions. And the mother would initially be completely engaged with the child, and there would be this incredible moment of the mirroring of their faces and of their expressions.

And then, the mother would turn around, and then she would make her face incredibly still. There’d be no expression. And then she would turn and look at her infant child again. And there was a progression that was repeated again and again as they conducted these experiments. The child initially tried to find some way to catch the mother’s attention, and then the child began to become frustrated, and to scream or cry, or made a high-pitched cry. And then the child would let his or her eyes drop, and then their bodies would become limp. And this would happen over the course of just three minutes. There would be the – in the first minute or so, there would be this moment in which the child would try to get the mother’s attention. And then in the second minute, there was the moment where the child would feel frustration. And then, in the final minute the child would just go limp and give up.

And these researchers theorized that this was in fact an important indication of the way in which trauma happens in relationships. Until that point, psychologists had often thought that trauma was a kind of developmental process that would go sideways. But as a result of those experiments, they realized that in fact trauma was a kind of relational wound that occurs that it wasn’t something that went wrong inside someone, that something happened in their lives that made them experience some kind of wound, and some kind of damage as a result of that kind of relational rupture as that moment in which they did not have a mirror for their own experiences that they were having at that time, their own feelings.

And other researchers have discovered that not only does this seemed to be the case for infants, but actually people who experienced profound trauma will experience it, first and foremost, as that end of mirroring in which they will look around themselves to see if there was some kind of response in the faces around them. And if they received a still face back, that was at that point that they begin to experience some kind of internal psychic disintegration.

And the way you repair these traumas, these moments in which mothers cannot be there all the time for their children because they’re distracted or they’re unable to bring everything to bear to the task in front of them. The way you repair these moments of trauma is by mirroring the experience of the person who has experienced the damage.

And so, there is actually a school of psychology that believes that the most important thing for a psychologist to do is not so much to give insight to a patient, but it is rather to somehow empathize with that patient, to create and recreate that relational empathy. And when you do that, you actually give the patient agency; they start to heal.

Now, I begin with this because I’m trying to hold together three incredibly important things that we have to celebrate today. The first thing that we have to celebrate today is the fact that this is Good Shepherd Sunday. And Good Shepherd Sunday is the moment in which we celebrate the fact that Jesus is our good shepherd whose voice we hear and who anticipates our needs.

Jesus is, in other words, the reassurance that you and I will never experience from God a still face. The Shepherd knows us and loves us, and cares for us and that is good news. And so, we can say with the psalmist, in Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” because Jesus the good shepherd is an agent of empathic repair in our lives.

And I also say this, begin with this story because it’s Mother’s Day. And this is the time in which we lift up our mothers, both biological and non-biological, the people who have nurtured us. And what this experiment helps us see is that being a good mother is something that everybody has a role in being. It’s not just biological mothers who are called to be mothers, but rather anybody who engages in these powerful moments of mirroring and nurture and empathy. If you have done that, you’ve done the work of a mother.

And the good news of that is, of course, that our biological mothers often cannot be for us what we need them to be. They cannot perfectly mirror what we do. Our mothers are all, too, human. And for that reason, we need other mothers in our lives. And one of the great things about being in the church is you have the opportunity for another mother to come into your life to make the difference in your life, to nurture you.

And finally, the third stream we have to hold together today is that we are in the time of celebrating resurrection. Resurrection is more than just the prize that’s waiting for us at the end of time if we have lived a good life. Resurrection, when it is connected to the Christian proclamation, is the assurance that Christ has defeated the power of sin and death. That God will redeem every moment of our lives, and that resurrection begins today because of what happened on Easter Day, the first Easter Day with Christ. When Jesus rose from the grave, He began a process of renewing creation fully, resurrection begins in Christ. And that is a moment of repair of relationship. That’s a moment I would even dare say of empathic repair, the breach between God and humanity is healed through the resurrection of Jesus.

For we read in the gospel of John, in the fifth chapter, the hour is coming and now is when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. To hear someone truly is to mirror their emotions is to turn to them a face of empathy, it’s to be with them. And that is a kind of repair.

Now all of this is at work. I want to suggest in our reading from the book of Acts. It’s an incredible passage. It’s one I commend to you, it’s one that you should think about time and time again. We spend too much time it seems on just the gospels most days. But in our reading from Acts, we have this exchange between Peter and Tabitha in which Peter raises Tabitha from the dead. And standing behind that reading are two important things to keep in mind that the book of Acts, which is the sequel to the gospel of Luke, is all written as a kind of pivot point around resurrection. Paul is persecuted in Acts, not for proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God, but rather because he proclaims the resurrection.

And the second thing to keep in mind when you come to the book of Acts is that the disciples in their own way start to take on images of the suffering and victorious Christ in their own lives. In their own particularities, they somehow start to embody the risen Christ in their lives. And sometimes that embodiment means that they are courageous enough to go to their death. And so Steven proclaims the word of God even though it costs him his life.

And sometimes that resurrection life means that you embody in your own personal narrative, a kind of death and resurrection. And so, we hear about St. Paul being struck by a risen Christ who says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And Saul, who was the persecutor of the church becomes its greatest evangelist, Paul. And sometimes, it’s with Peter who is an agent of healing, and not just a preacher, but a healer just as Jesus was a healer. And so, he brings life and healing in all that he does.

But in this reading from Acts, the greatest witness I want to suggest to the resurrection is Tabitha. Because you see in that moment, Tabitha who is nurturing widows, widows whose own biological mothers have died, but Tabitha nurtures these widows and is a mother to them. And so, when Peter is called and comes without delay to see them, the widow show him all the beautiful garments that Tabitha has made for them. And Peter, when he raises her up and shows her to the community, the word he uses in that moment is paraenesis, which is the same word that is used to describe Christ’s resurrection.

So you and I are heirs. We are heirs of religion that assures us that Jesus Christ is our good shepherd. You and I are biological heirs to mothers who have raised us as best they could, as well as to the many people who have mothered us. And you and I are heirs to resurrection. The resurrection begins today in the courageous work you do to close the distance of empathy with another. All of those things are at work in us today. Those are the things we lift up. Those are the things we celebrate. Those are the things we need to hold onto with all our might. We have to become a community in which we mirror one another, and so repair the traumas that each of us have experienced in our lives. And these moments of healing happen not only times in which someone gives themselves fully to another, but it also happens, I want to suggest, even in momentary encounters.

The other day, I was doing a funeral for the family of the Vettrainos. And Dominick Vettraino was a caretaker for Cranbrook. He was an incredible person. An Italian immigrant. And the family came to me and it’s clear that they also kind of carry forth this kind of powerful sense of their identity as Italians. And I thought that this was my opportunity to actually be up and upfront about the fact that my mother is Italian, and not just like a little Italian. Like I have an Uncle Dante. I have an Uncle August. I have an Uncle Amerigo. I’m like real Italian on my mom’s side. And I was teasing them. I was saying, “You know, I have a little test to see if you’re really Italian. Do you have an Uncle Dante? Do you have an Uncle August? Do you have an Uncle Amerigo? If you don’t, you’re not Italian enough.”

And at the end of the sermon, as I was passing the pews, I went into the aisle and this Italian grandmother reached out her arms and she said, “Come here.” And I went and I hugged her. And she whispered to my ear, “I couldn’t hear a word of your sermon.” And that was – I don’t know how to explain that to you but that – my family, my nurturing was quite unusual as having an Italian mother is an adventure. And at one point, I teased my mother saying, “You have the mothering instincts of a gerbil. And humor was part of our relationship. So as soon as she hugged me and said, “I couldn’t hear a word of your sermon.” I said, “Well, imagine the best sermon you’ve ever heard and then it was something more than that.”

It was a moment of empathic repair. It was a great moment of mothering. It was said in the context of a funeral, which is a funeral moment in which we proclaim the power of God over anything that opposes it, the power of God in Christ over sin and death. In what ways have you encountered resurrection? In what ways have you encountered mothering? In what ways have you heard the voice of the shepherd? These three strands, they tie together. They are stems of the same love of God that we are invited to be part of today.

Over the past week, I’ve been thinking a great deal about this incredible perish and there’s been something I’ve wanted to mention to you that kind of carries forth all of this and summarizes it in some way. And so over the past week, I’ve been studying the women’s window in the west of the church. Right over there, that women’s window is truly one of the most unusual things we have. And I’ve got a copy in front of you if you don’t want to crane your necks. So in most cathedrals and churches, on the west part of the church, you would have something called a rose window in which you’d have the Virgin Mary at the front, or sometimes you would have a Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, but primarily, that would be a window that would be dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God.

And when you would do that, you would be lifting up motherhood with a capital M, motherhood in a gestational mystery, motherhood as a biological event. But when our founders built this church, they decided that they would have 64 women in that window, not just Mary the mother of God, but they included in that number the companions with Christ, the early saints. They included liberators, was the term they used. Suffragettes this was done in the late 1920s, keep in mind women did not get the right to vote until 1920. They included artists and poets. They included incredible people who have made a difference in our world.

And as I was studying that, I realized that those 64 women, they were not an exhaustive bunch of women. They were just illustrations of people who had somehow shown the world the love of God in Christ, the love of a resurrected Christ who was able to repair even our most broken relationships. They were showing the love of God as it is through women who are not bound by biology to be who God has called them to be. They were showing in their own way what it means to be part of a religion that follows Christ the Good Shepherd because they were as much participants in that race. They heard his voice and they spoke the voice of Christ to the world around them.

And so, as I made this together I actually began to look at who was the liberator in our time, who was the person who worked for women’s suffrage in our time that may have been overlooked when they gave this illustration? Who was the person who could be claimed as the servant, as the person who somehow lifted up a community? And so, I’ve given you some images of people who have done incredible work of women who were windows to God’s grace.

As you think about this day, this day of resurrection, this day of Christ the Good Shepherd, this day of Mother’s Day, may you give thanks for all the people who have been in your life as empathic sources of repair. May you be blessed with the ability to mirror another suffering and so help them step into their own healing. May this community be a place known as much for its empathy as it is for its learning, or its intellect, or its power or its wealth. Amen.