Rev. Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
May 17, 2020
This sermon has been transcribed from live video. To view a video of this sermon, please click here.
I speak to you today as a sinner to sinners, as the beloved of God to God’s beloved, as one called to bear witness to those called to bear witness. Amen.
One week ago after this service and after we kind of finished what we do right after church, which is to go to meetings and eat waffles and do all the things that we do on a Sunday. I went for an incredibly long walk and it was so amazing. And one of the things that I’ve discovered about myself is that I’m at that age where taking two hour long walks is just about enough exercise for me. And also I’ve discovered that this world around me that I have been walking through and seeing it passing in a car, everything seems to come alive and I see things differently when I’m on foot. It’s as if my eyes are open to the slow work of God and the world around me.
And while I was on my walk on Sunday, I happened to be walking down one of the streets of Birmingham because there’s only so many times you can circle Cranbrook campus. And I’ve started to move through Birmingham. And I went down a street I hadn’t gone down before, and I came across this little message that was in tiny little stones on the edge of someone’s driveway. And it was right there for you to see if you happened to have your eyes down and happened to be looking at some flowers, you would see this message hidden. And in it was written in beautiful lettering by a little boy who was about five years old, “We are in this together,” and this little smiley face.
And, the artist, his mother happened to be working in the garden nearby and I asked her for permission to take this picture and she granted it and she said that her son created this about two weeks ago. And it’s been amazing to her how many people have noticed it. It’s so small. This is an incredible close-up. This is just sidewalk cement, which is now looking a little bit bigger. That small message has been so powerful to so many people when they stop and notice.
And as I was reflecting on what I wanted to say today, this little message came right to mind. Because in our gospel today from John, we have an incredible assurance of God. We have the assurance that Jesus gives us as He is moving into the time in which He is going to be ascending to the Father and the Spirit is going to be descending to us. And this passage we have is known as couplets. They say the same thing differently and they repeat themselves.
And so in the first part of today’s gospel, there is a moment in which Jesus says that God will send the paracletus, the helper, the comforter, the advocate, the Holy Spirit. And there are many ways in which we can understand that term “paracletus.” It means to kind of call someone near and someone who comes next to you. And so additional ways we can translate paracletus, not just help or advocate or comforter or even spirit, but we can also translate this term as witness and advisor.
And so this little boy, he was kind of performing, without him knowing it, a kind of spiritual ministry to me. He was representing the spirit to me. He was a kind of witness. He had someone who called me near, or I called him near by noticing his art. And I suppose the message that he gives is one that kind of resonates as well, because the whole point of today’s gospel is that you and I have this deep connection to one another through Christ and the Holy Spirit. Because although Christ will soon be again ascended to heaven and will be seated at the right hand of God as He did 2000 years ago, you and I have the Spirit of God with us, and that Spirit of God makes Christianity different from every other religion.
Because when I say that I know Jesus, I mean something different than what someone might say when they say I know the Buddha or that they would know the prophet Muhammad. When I say that I know Jesus, I mean that Jesus somehow lives in me through the Holy spirit and Jesus lives among us through the Holy spirit, and this means truly that we are in this together. That God is working in our lives to bring us together, and that what you and I need to do in this time of dislocation in which we show our love, paradoxically by keeping our distance from one another, but trying still all the more to connect, what you and I need to keep in mind is that God is calling us together in Christ.
And over the past couple of days, I’ve been pondering this passage from John, in particular the second paragraph. “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while, the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.” You will not be orphaned. Christ will not leave us orphaned.
And I decided to write about 10 or 11 parishioners, some of whom you might know, some of whom you might not know, some of whom are brand new and some of whom are just watching us and supporting us as fellow Christians. And I’ve asked them, what does that passage mean to them here and now? In what way has it been that God has not abandoned them or orphaned them by giving them God’s spirit? By somehow being present in their lives so that they can truly say, as God lives, I live.
And I got some incredible responses and they kind of go with the grain of who we are as a church these days. And so I’ve kind of separated these responses. I’m going to do my best to keep up and to give them to you and to do them justice. But the first group of responses were about what we are doing as a church that serves others, particularly those affected by COVID-19.
And the first group of people I wrote were the people that took part in this incredible feeding at Forgotten Harvest. This was done in a parking lot in Pontiac, and somehow there was a message that there was going to be food that was going to be available to those who needed it. And you can see over here, and if you go to page 11 I think in your bulletin, you can follow along and see where we’re going. You could see in the back all of these cars.
And there was about 600 cars there lined up to receive the food that our volunteers from Christ Church Cranbrook was giving that day. And a couple of them have wrote me when I asked them what did it mean for them to know this passage from John? And one of them was Doug Boyce, and he is right here. And this is what he wrote me.
He said, “By volunteering for Forgotten Harvest and serving among those who are almost orphaned in society, I feel like I’m being led by God’s hand to distribute to and to help and remember the forgotten and abandoned among us who are always so thankful for what they are receiving.” And another volunteer wrote that one of the things that kind of struck her was the fact that because she was wearing a mask, everything had to be by eye contact. And there was this incredible exchange and connection, incredible sense that we are together through God in doing this ministry. And another person who wrote back is Michael Froehlich. And there Michael and I are in Michael’s waving with his gloved hand, and this is what he wrote.
“I will never forget staring eastward into the sun to stare at the cars lined up. It provoked a sense of need and provided gravity to our mission that we are servants of God’s will. That mission allowed us to serve God’s will. There was also a profound sense of calmness for reasons I cannot explain, allowing a connection with our guests, mostly with our eyes, because masks hid our expressions, and so I compensated with words of respect and love for them. It’s been written that the eyes are the passage into the soul of a person.”
Another service that we’ve been doing as a congregation has been to support the work of community breakfast that goes on at All Saints Church. in Pontiac every Saturday. And one of the people who is doing that regularly with our children is Hunter Torres. And I think this is her dog, Lula. I don’t know if I have that name right, but Lula seems to not mind it if I forget her name from time to time.
And I asked Hunter to talk about her experience at the community breakfast. And she picked up on a theme that she has been kind of noticing when she’s working there and serving people and picking up trays that someone noticed that she has always got a smile on her face. And this is what she wrote.
“My smile is spontaneous and relentless. I can’t help it. When I am there, I feel joy. I feel I am where I should be. I love to go out to the tables, say hello to folks and ask if I may clear their trays. And I want to silently show them and say to them, this: I see you, although there’s nowhere else in life where you are being waited on, I want to wait on you. Although you can clear your own tray, I want to clear it for you. I want to give you this moment of being seen and served so that you might sit a little longer and know that you are loved.”
In all of these ways. We are seeing examples of how this church has been serving people affected by COVID-19, and the kind of service we’re doing creates a connection. It kind of reminds people that we are all in this together. It kind of provides a way of witnessing to the God who has come near to us in Christ and in the spirit.
Another group of photos I want to bring up for you and other people I reached out to were those who were being – who are doing the kind of deep work of embracing, of caring for and being cared by this congregation prayerfully and intensely. And there’s no one who knows this better, I think, than Wade and Sally Mesey. And here they are with their grandson, Connor, who I think was baptized just a little while ago. And Connor looks incredibly comfortable, and Wade has had COVID-19 since the end of March. And so I wrote Sally and I asked her for what she got, what God revealed to her through that promise that God does not orphan us, and this is what she wrote.
“Since the end of March, I’ve watched my husband suffer from a very severe illness due to COVID-19. He has had serious health challenges before, but none has been as long or as terrifying as this one. The passage from John reads, ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.’ This passage has real meaning for both my husband and me. There were nights when he was all alone in the hospital and I was alone at home, completely isolated by this virus. We both, however, felt that we were not alone. I would pray and I would feel God’s presence and find comfort in knowing that he felt God’s presence as well.”
Another person who has stepped back from having her picture published, or even her name has been doing incredible work with our every member canvass. And she told me the story of how she had reached out to this one person who didn’t pick up the phone initially when she called, but then when she heard her voice, picked it up and they had this incredible conversation and they supported each other.
And then, a couple of weeks later as she was getting tired of doing the every member canvass, as anybody would, who call so many people trying to check in on them. And we to this date have done more than 700 calls and she’s done so many of them that she was just tired and felt drained and felt as if she had poured herself out. And suddenly the phone rang and it was the friend that she called, the person that she called and had a connection with. And suddenly she wrote me, the tables were turned, and now I was the one receiving the blessing of thanks and friendship and connection.
So this church that we have that embraces, it’s doing incredible work and it’s obvious that the Spirit is obviously working through what we’re doing. The Spirit is so present in all of what we’re doing as a body in this area, and also here among us.
The next couple of pictures I want to bring before you, and I want to just acknowledge the incredible work of my assistant, Claire Danaher, who is amazing at all things. This is actually from Robert Gaines and he is some of our youth and he’s one of the members of our parish who was baptized in 2018. Robert came to us through the boy scout troop and did an emblem program called God and Me and decided at the end of it to actually deepen his faith life and did to become a member of the body of Christ through baptism. And amazingly, his whole family has joined him and come in with him. And when I asked him for what he thought about this passage, this is what he wrote:
“When I wrote this passage an image of our church pops into my head. I think this passage makes me think of the church because when me and my family first came to the church, it took us in and loved us. The church loved us because of our love for Christ and didn’t judge our human characteristics, just as God does for all that He loves.”
And another youth member who I reached out to, she didn’t want to have her photo published, but she wrote and said that one of the things that this passage reminded her is that when times are tough, it’s really important for her to reach out and to hold onto Christ with all of her might. And that sometimes she has the tendency to have a kind of preconceived notion as to how things will turn out and to assume that things will go badly. But she realizes that when she thinks about this passage, about this promise, that God will be with us, that that is a reminder that you have to look for Jesus in times of hardship and to see God’s love in your life. Just as you are never alone, she writes, He will never orphan you.
Another person who I asked to reflect on this passage is Joe Tsamaidis. This is Joe and her whole family have joined the church in the last year, and now she’s leading a Bible study on Thursday mornings, which is going like gangbusters. And she’s, having an incredible faithful witness to us. And I asked her what she thought about this, and this is what she wrote:
“I was reminded recently as I reflected on John 14:17 that the Holy spirit is a kind of backup generator that dwells in us and is with us. Even in those times when we feel overwhelmed or weak, like our power supply has been cut, we can rely on the Holy Spirit to kick in accomplishing more than we could have imagined. What a gift.”
And so that’s Joe’s perspective on things and it’s an incredible perspective. And that kind of sums up the kind of work we’re doing as a church to gather. And then I want to finish with a couple of more testimonies, a couple of more witnesses. And the first is from Amy Graham, who is a newcomer and who is in the midst of joining us during this pandemic. And Amy has been attending and contributing wonderfully to our forum that happens on 9:00 on Sundays. And so I reached out to her and we’ve had a couple of conversations, and this is what she wrote when she interacted with the passage.
She said, “Like most women, I wear many hats. I’m a mother, a member of various social groups, a friend, a community member, a clinical psychologist, and a research scientist. I am a helper both by nature and chosen profession. The love that exudes and the action of countless helpers among us is Christ. My understanding of this has been strengthened by my experience of being both the helper and, like all other humans, when needing and receiving help, I have seen Christ and numerous helpers that I’ve already met at Christ Church Cranbrook, helpers that are listening, thinking, making plans, loving, educating, singing, writing, and sharing. I am finding the presence of this church to be comforting and once again, I feel hopeful. I am no longer an orphan.”
And then finally, I want to finish with Rebecca Harahan who runs a wonderful foundation. And when she heard about the work we were doing in the community around us to address the issues because of COVID-19. She came alongside and offered us a matching grant from her foundation so that we can continue to do the work we’re doing.
And as we were discussing the gift as often is the case, the discussion of this material support brought us into a spiritual place. And I center this passage and I asked for her to speak about it. What did this passage and this promise of Jesus that He will not leave us orphaned, what did that mean to her? And what does that meaning, how does that affect the decisions that she made to walk with us, even though she’s not a member of this church? And this is what she wrote:
“My husband was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at age 54 on October 26, 2016. The emotional roller coaster of my husband’s illness. The anxiety of becoming a single parent and raising two teenagers on my own, as well as manage my home finances and provide financially for everything was at times more than I could fathom. On one particular day as I was returning from dropping off my kids at school and my husband was nearing the end of his life, I found myself thinking of how God will never leave me and how he truly was in control.
“There was nothing I could do to change what was going to happen. It was a moment of surrender to faith. In that moment, God gave me the grace, comfort, and strength to endure the death of my husband and continues to give me all that I need in raising my children and managing my life. It is just so much easier to let God be in control.
“With this current COVID-19 epidemic, we are all connected as believers in that we are all trusting in the same God, but we must also come to a place where we surrender the fear and anxiety of this virus to God. Knowing that He is in control and somehow, some way he is working this for our own good. We must surrender our fear to faith. Then we can use our faith as a church body to reach out to our community and serve. I am privileged to serve with you.”
Now, all of these wonderful examples of faith and all of the things that we have been doing as a church, I wanted you to see this because one of the things that I’m hoping that we can begin to do now is to begin to lift up all the things that God is doing, all the ways, the promise of God to never leave us orphaned comes true for us. The promise of God to live in us so that we can live fully in Christ, the promise of God to give us the spirit, the paraclete, the helper, the comforter, the advocate, the witness, the advisor to lead us into what we can do together to continue to be transformed as a church.
And I’ve picked these voices in part because they’re the voices of people who have emerged during this crisis. They’re the people who have been stepping forward along with so many others who have been leading this congregation faithfully for many, many years. God is doing wonderful things in our midst. And when I speak to you about revival, I really mean that we are being transformed by this experience. I really mean that God is at work in us and I really mean that you and I are moving into a future that will be powerful and new and will bring us the changes and new ways through the spirit.
And while we don’t know the future as well as we would like, and while we are in the midst of some challenges, and while we are trying to adapt to new technology, and while we are learning ways to be together in ways that are different than we have before, the way that we are being called is being called together in Christ. And that powerful spiritual connection we have reminds us that we are all together.
May you know that God is with you today. May you know the connection that you have to each other in Christ. May you start to see each other in not just one way or another these past few weeks. May God begin to open your eyes and my eyes and open your ears and my ears to what God is calling us to be now through His spirit.