Mission Over Maps – Day of Pentecost – 5/31/2020

William J. Danaher Jr.

May 31, 2020- Pentecost Sunday

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.

This past week has been one in which I think I’ve experienced an incredible span of emotions. And I’ve had to live into the paradox of what it means to be going through this time and place as a priest and as a person who is a believer, as someone who is a citizen, as someone who hopes to somehow build a better world for all of us.

And it began, interestingly enough for me on Tuesday, I was asked to do the interment of two wonderful people who had been members of this parish for generations. Their names were Ken and Tiizrah Cunningham. Their youngest son, Briggs Cunningham, had left Wisconsin Tuesday at 3:00 AM and driven steadily through the day to get here by the early afternoon.

I was waiting for him with a short liturgy that we could say together and bury his parents in the columbarium. And it was so hot that day and Briggs was kind of wilting a little bit in the heat. And so I had him sit in the Guild Hall to cool off just a little bit. And as we made our way through here, he pointed out the place where Tisra used to sit and give him the eye before we would go to Sunday school.

And we got around to the niches and he sat on the stone wall in a little patch of shade. And as I was finishing the service, I turned to him and I said, do you want to say anything? And he simply said this. He said, mom and dad, you did such a beautiful job raising me. Now it’s my turn to care for you. And I’m glad that I’m getting a chance to finish that caring well.

So I put his parents’ ashes into the niche and we sealed it up, and I walked him out to his car because I wanted to give him just a little bit of nurture as he made his way back home. I looked into the car that he had been driving and he had parked it way in the back of the parking lot under some shade. And I looked in and I saw in the passenger seat, there was an empty box of Entenmann’s pastries, which had been his nourishment for the entire day. And I also saw a Rand McNally road atlas.

I said to him, “You use a road atlas still?” And he said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, do you have a smartphone?” And he looked at me and he said, “Of course not,” as if I had maybe said to him something like, do you do drugs? And then he opened up his car and he pulled out their Rand McNally. He opened up the map and he showed me with his finger all the way he had made his way back home where he was now living in Wisconsin.

And that was such an incredibly special moment. That connection that we had, the nurture I could offer him, the willingness that I seemed to have instinctively to love him without even knowing him because he was connected to this church that I love so well. And of course, one day before Briggs Cunningham got up early to come to see me, of course, George Floyd was strangled to death and suffocated because an officer put his knee on his neck and held him in a position where he couldn’t breathe.

And of course, the day before the day that I helped Briggs finish the job with his parents, Christian Cooper was birding in Manhattan and came across someone who refused to take her dog and put it on a leash, and she threatened him with death by a cop in ways and tones that were utterly racist. And that paradox, that love that I was able to experience for Briggs and the absence of that love and the obvious injustice and the racism that George Floyd experienced, that Christian Cooper experienced, that has made this week one of the most difficult things that I’ve had to walk through.

And I found myself thinking about what would it have been like if I could have shown George Floyd the same kind of nurture that he deserved as a child of God that I was able to show to Briggs Cunningham, and I began to pray that God would hold George closely in His arms and that he would forget the suffering and terror with which he died. And that the mother that he called out to, who had died two years before he did, that he would be united with her and heaven and that he would know the perfect joy and peace and love of God.

This is not the Pentecost that any of us would have chosen for ourselves. If we were able to have our way, this Pentecost would be full of people packed in the pews, wearing red. There’d be streamers, there’d be a jazz band. The people who would be speaking from many tongues, the members of this congregation would be standing behind me having spoken in their language, and we would have had many baptisms. We would have had a wonderful sign that we were a growing and dynamic church.

But just as we have lived through a Lent that was not our choice, and just as we have lived through an Easter, that was not our choice, so it seems we are living through a Pentecost that is not our choosing. And instead of triumphantly proclaiming the power of the spirit, I find myself, and I suspect many of you do too, praying as we read in the book of Romans for the spirit who intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.

A few weeks ago, Charles Blow said in a webinar we had on racial disparities and inequity that it would take generations for us to somehow course correct when it comes to race in this country. We may not have generations in front of us if we do not act now. And so, more than any other time, it is imperative for us to pray for that Spirit who intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.

More than any other time, it’s the time for you and me to somehow hold ourselves open to that spirit and to pray for some enlightenment so that we might know the will of God in a way that we don’t know it right now, so that we may be able to act with complete love as we are encouraged to do by the spirit who somehow finds a way into every human heart.

And love, as Bishop Curry said recently in an op-ed that he wrote for the Washington Post is key because as much as this justice is key and critical when justice is done well, it is love distributed. So said Paul Tillich many years ago, justice is love distributed and we owe each other love, and God wants us to have a love for one another, a love that exceeds justice.

Because more than anything that we should do as a country, more than allowing anybody the power and right to exist, more than our ability to confront our history, more than our ability to see with new eyes the system of racism in our country, you and I have also been called to go the extra mile and to love one another and to nurture one another so that without having seen each other, just as I saw Briggs Cunningham show up, we could love immediately, instinctively, and openly.

And the spirit is interceding for us today. And the wonder of God is that God’s spirit is somehow with us. That as broken as this world is, we do not do it full justice unless we also speak about the beautiful things we are doing now, the people who are raising their voice peaceably, the people who are protesting, the police who are trying to do their jobs. We need to pray that God’s mercy and grace are upon all of us in this difficult time of moral awakening. And we need to pray that somehow we would have this spirit in us because we were in a place where we do not have a Rand McNally road atlas to tell us where to go. We do not have a map that can easily plot where we are and where we’re moving, but we do have, because of the spirit, a mission, and that mission is that this congregation would be a kind of witness to the love of Christ, that each of us has been created to experience fully.

The art I have before you today is from Nicholas Pope. He’s a British sculptor and does mixed media. He’s into fabrics these days and textiles, but for many years he was an incredible sculptor with kind of a free-hand clay kind of coil constructions that he would do. And Pope had represented Britain at the Venice Biennale Ali in 1980 and he was kind of flying high in his career, and then traveled to Africa and contracted a kind of encephalitis that was communicated virally.

And having that virus in him did incredible damage to his body. And it went undiagnosed for several years until between 1987 and 1992 he did not have the strength even to continue his practice. And then somehow after 1992, he began to do art again, but almost exclusively around moral and spiritual lines and upon Christian themes. And this close-up is from one of the pieces that he did, and I think it was in 1996 and then it was later reinstalled at Salisbury Cathedral in 2014.

And this picture is done by a brilliant photographer named Ash Mills in England. And the title he gives to it is The Apostle Speaking in Tongues Lit by their Own Lamps. And Pope is trying to communicate a really powerful message about what it means for us in this day and age to be apostles, to be members who participate in the Pentecost spirit of God. And he does that by keeping the images of the apostles as almost rough and broken and still struggling with the foibles that they have experienced. Each one is done individually. Each one is a little bit distorted, and yet somehow holds together as a body. Each of these almost looks a little bit damaged and yet each of those figurines is a lamp upon which light is shining and a fire burns.

And Pentecost is a reminder to us that even though the disciples who had abandoned their Lord and fled from Him when He needed them most and betrayed Him, despite all of that God still dwells within them and gives them the power to bear witness to God’s love. And so Peter, who betrayed Jesus becomes Jesus’s first spokesperson, Jesus’s first preacher through the power of the spirit.

So you and I are members of this incredible line of succession of the spirit. As much as you and I might feel incredibly fragile right now, as much as you and I might feel a little bit afraid, as much as you and I feel a little bit like we’re on pins and needles as we make our way and try to find a way forward while staying safe and somehow reaching out to one another, Pentecost promises that the spirit is in you. And as we read in the New Testament, you are a treasure in earthen vessels. You are a light. You are fire. You are aflame with God’s love.

As I was praying about what I felt God was leading me to say today, I found myself reading, again and again, the following words from our passage from Acts: In the last days, it will be God declares that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.

And I found myself in an odd place because I realized I was no longer a young man who sees visions. And I was not yet an old man who dreams, which means either that I don’t have anything to say or maybe it means that I can say both things. And so I choose today to move into both and to say to you, I have visions and I have dreams. I believe the spirit is doing remarkable things in this congregation. I believe that God is with us throughout thick and thin. I believe that God is so present with us right now that we could scarcely make it through our day without running it to some reminder that God loves us profoundly through the work that we do together.

And my vision is that this congregation begins to better lift and reflect the diversity that we celebrate today on more than one day. That the diversity that we have as we bear witness to Christ shines through into the unity of love so much so that that diversity becomes a way of magnifying that love. Saint Augustine said that the kingdom of God respects every diversity among it, every language, every people, every way of being, every code of behavior. It does so by having the love of God and the love of neighbor reign supreme.

That is my vision and I dream that this Pentecost and the Pentecost we celebrate will not be one day alone, that this Pentecost would happen for a full year. And my vision is that the conversations we have started to have about race and inequity, conversations that began as we were struggling with the disparities created by this pandemic. My vision is that those conversations continue and that the spirit continues to intercede for us as we begin to do the hard work, the God gospel work of reconciliation and rebuilding, and justice.

And I dream that we find the resources that will keep us from falling into the old familiar cul-de-sacs of rage and shame, which are how people like us often experience these conversations. And rage and shame, these are strong emotions that only serve to burn us out until we fall back exhausted on the status quo. I dream that we avoid those pitfalls and know ourselves as loved as we love, as moving into justice together and by listening to one another completely and authentically.

And my vision is that we can be a place that has safe conversations for multiple points of view, that this church would gather all voices and lift all peoples. And I dream that these conversations do not degenerate into conversations in which things are minimized or euphemized or denied so that we can see the challenges before us, confident that God will lead us through. My vision is that the patient and slow work of revival that we have done over the past five years, my vision is that the patient and slow work of racial understanding and inclusion that we have done over the past five years would have been, in retrospect, like building an altar and being suddenly surprised when the Spirit of God descends like fire and rests on it. I dream that we will build a community that bears witness to God and that we find in the face of each other, the Christ who loves us fully and has given His life so that we might live. May these visions and dreams be more than just mine. Amen.

A few years ago, Clara and I got to know Michael Lapsley. He was a monk and an activist in South Africa who had his hands blown off by a letter bomb sent to him by a member of the apartheid government the very month that Nelson Mandela was released from prison. And Michael testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He also stood alongside another incredible group of women who were unafraid to participate in the truth and reconciliation process. They were known as the Khulumani Support Group. Khulumani means “speak out” in Zulu. Claire was so moved by our relationship with Michael and our experience with some of these women that she wrote the following song that I’d like her to perform for us today.

Long have I waited and anticipated the day that you walked through that door
10,000 times I’ve rehearsed in my mind how I’d knock you right down to the floor
What you did that day was take away a life that was happy and bright
Left in its place, infinite space. Oh, how I died that night

And I will spread my wings
I will raise my voice
You will hear me sing
You will make your choice
Today, what will you say?

For so long I denied what I felt inside and hoped it would just disappear
So I get these things hidden and refuse to admit them, covered up in a blanket of fear
But the weight of my lies kept growing in size and became way too much for me
And one day it was clear that I must face my fear and only the truth sets you free

And I will spread my wings
I will raise my voice
You will hear me sing
You will make your choice
Today, what will you say?

You here today, listen when I say I have come here to reclaim my soul
By speaking what’s true, I will be made new. I will find myself back in control
And I will forgive so that I may live, but I will never forget
And I ask you to wonder what weight you walk under. What fills you up with regret?

And I will spread my wings
I will raise my voice
You will hear me sing
You will make your choice
Today, what will you say?

Now the years have gone by, my tears have run dry. I changed the way I see the past.
As I sit in this chair, see you over there, I have only one question to ask
As you went on that night by the living room light and sat with your wife and your kids
When they asked about your day, what did you say? What did you tell them that you did?

Khulumani. Khulumani. Khulumani. Khulumani.