The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
February 12, 2017
About eleven years ago, I had this incredible moment in my life. I had been working and teaching at a university in Tennessee, in a small town, and I was offered this incredible position. I was offered a tenure and a chair at this wonderful seminary in the middle of New York City, in Chelsea, Manhattan. I was so excited because it presented to me this opportunity to grow as an academic and as a priest and all the things that I wanted to do. But there was one thing that I wanted to do more than anything else in the world when I got to New York City. And that was to be able to go to a complete stranger who had obviously violated some kind of social norm or value or expectation and say to them, “Screw you!”
Because for some reason, living in that small town in Tennessee, you could never say, “Screw you!” to someone when they had obviously violated a social convention. We all would see each other every day, and therefore, the thrill of telling somebody off would quickly dissipate with the rumor mill that would come out of it, and the exaggerations. Plus, there was always the chance that you would insult someone who had a cousin who was slightly dangerous. You always had to be careful when you would say, “Screw you!” in Tennessee.
In New York City, there are ten million people. You see them every day and people violate social norms every day in New York City. So it was a great opportunity for me to finally release that part of me that wanted to just say something to somebody else – that kind of cleansing violence that we live for every now and then. And what did you know in a city of ten million people, I had my opportunity on the first day! We were moving in and we had this huge moving truck full of our goods, and then we had to transfer half the goods into a smaller truck that could make its way into Manhattan, into the little street that we lived on. I was working with the movers because I wanted to expedite the process and also I thought it’d be a good thing for me to do. So we were moving things up and down these stairs in July. It was hot as Hades.
The first ferry came in. The first small truck came in and it was early in the morning and we found parking pretty easily. We emptied that truck and then we decided that we had to go back and get some more to try to get it all done in one day. I took my car, which had been holding the parking spot, and I kind of parked in two places at the same time so that the truck could come back and get back into that place, so we wouldn’t have to walk half a block or more to get to the entrance to the seminary. Many people would drive by and you could see them looking at the parking spot and shaking their heads and continue driving.
But this Volvo station wagon came in and I could see the tail lights go on. This head turns and looks at it, and the woman driving it just pulls right in and parks it remarkably well, given it was a Volvo station wagon. I had assumed that this was a “bridge and tunnel” kind of person. As she was parking it, she bumped into my car with her rear bumper, and there I knew I had my opportunity. I didn’t say “screw you” because that’s rude, but I went up to her and I said, “Oh, you hit my car.” I was hoping that she would be in understanding of what you do at these moments of exchange in New York City. In New York City, when you say, “Screw you!” the expected response is, “Screw YOU!”
Instead, she just got terrified and locked her door. As if that was going to do anything, if that was going to stop me. “Oh, the door is locked.” She’s impervious to any kind of attack. But I suddenly became incredibly guilty and I felt horrible. So I tried to communicate to her through motioning through the window, “It’s okay. I’m sorry.” I coaxed her out of the car and I explained to her what was going on. I told her it had been a long day and it was hot and we were just trying to get a chance to move our things in. Then she introduced herself as Janet. I said, “I’m Bill.” Then she said, “Are you moving into General Seminary?” I thought this is an excellent time to lie. This is a great moment to say “No, I’m an artist. There’s a loft down here I’m going to – I throw pots.” But I said, “Yes, I am moving into General Seminary.” “Are you a student?” “No, I’m the Professor of Ethics and I’m a priest, but this is not really my best moment today – or maybe this week.”
She said, “I’m an Episcopalian. I just joined the Episcopal Church.” And she told me her story. She had been through a divorce and she returned to the religion of her youth, which was her Episcopal Church. And where she lived in upstate New York, it was this little Episcopal Church and it was this incredible community of welcome and understanding and love. She said to me, “Why don’t you just take my car keys and then you can move the car and find a parking spot for it. When I come back after this function I have to attend, I can just get the car keys from you.” She said, “Is that a good idea?” I said, “No, it’s not a good idea. You shouldn’t give your car keys to people you just met.” But I took the car keys. As she was walking away, she would kind of turn and walk backwards a little bit and she’d say, “You really are a priest, aren’t you? I can trust you, right?” “Yes,” I said.
Now, we probably would have survived just fine if Janet hadn’t given us her car keys, and we would have made our way that day and I would’ve probably moved into General Seminary without too many problems But there was this moment in which when she gave me those car keys, and when she reconciled with me, and when she talked about who she was, that day became more beautiful than it might have been. The kinds of things that we value in this world as Christians, the kind of mercy and reconciliation and forgiveness – the things that we have been commanded to do in this world, they wouldn’t have been so apparent had Janet not leaned into that reconciliation herself.
I thought about this story as I was reflecting on today’s writing from the Gospel of Matthew, because this is the end of the Sermon on the Mount. This is the time in which Jesus is giving these minute instructions to His disciples because He wants them to see how they might be the body of Christ in the world. So often we tend to see the Sermon on the Mount as writing in the sky, or promises of a future time, and not applicable to the here and now that we live in, to the kind of push and shove of this world. I think the reason why Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount was actually to make the here and now more beautiful, and to make life as we live it now more livable. In fact, I think that the reason why we have the Sermon on the Mount is to help us think through what it means to be the Body of Christ in this time and this space and in this place.
In today’s reading from Matthew, Jesus speaks saying to anyone that they are a fool for being angry with anyone. Jesus speaks about desires that can erode trust and deep relationships we have with one another. Jesus offers very strong advice about that because those kinds of things can erode the social trust of a community – that it keeps that community from being the Body of Christ in the world around us. Because when we are angry with one another, or when we utter harsh words against one another, or when we engage in these conflicts, the bonds that hold us together tend to erode. When we don’t keep our desires in check, when those desires run amuck, the promises that we’ve made and the covenants we’ve lived into – promises and covenants that hold us together and hold our communities together become frayed.
Jesus offers this not because breaking these two commandments is something that never happens. Jesus offers these words because he knows that we often break these commandments. But He offers them nonetheless because it is our calling as Christians to live into the grace that He has called us to. This is why interspersed with those commandments is that wonderful statement about reconciliation. Because all of what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel needs to be read through an invitation to be reconciled with one another; to be the face of his reconciliation to the world around us; to show the way of forgiveness and mercy as the way of life and peace.
All of this is about life here and now. All of this is about what it means to be a Christian in this time and place and space. All of this applies to us. And in it, Jesus is asking us to be again the Body of Christ; to be reconciled, to forgive, to be merciful. In that moment when Janet gave me her car keys, she leaned into the promise that Jesus makes. We are living in a time and place in which social trust has become frayed. Earlier this week, I was with a group of clergy on retreat and we were talking about all the things that are going on in our national politics and in our world. I offered two things. I said, the first thing is that we all have a hand in this We all are involved in these breakdowns of social trust. The kinds of things that are happening on the national stage are actually happening at the smallest communities possible in our world. It is a kind of phase that we’re going through and we all have some ownership in it.
That breakdown in social trust has been promised for a long time. Thomas Merton, in one of his writings, said that it is the characteristic of modernity to give each person a little blue capsule of indignation. Part of the conditions of living in modernity is actually taking that blue capsule of indignation and finding people to be indignant at; finding people to shame; finding people to disavow; finding ways to condemn. In fact, the truth of life is to find ways to reconcile; find ways to forgive; find ways to empathize; to find ways to begin again.
The second thing I said to that gathering, which didn’t really elicit much of an answer, concerns the whole posture of what it means to be a person of faith in this time and place. My clergy colleagues were trying to balance what they believed were two things that they were called to be. One was to be prophets of what was going on, to speak with boldness the truth that they saw. And the other was to be pastoral, to receive and love all people, no matter what their condition or kind. I said those are two of the three offices that Jesus promised to fulfill, but there’s a third office that Jesus fulfilled, and that was the office of priest.
How can we be priests today? What does our priesthood look like today? I think that being a priest today means holding together and lifting up all of those moments in which people reconcile and forgive and love one another. I think being a priest today means embodying all those things that Jesus called His disciples to do today, because that reference to sacrifice in our reading today from Matthew is the clue that he expected his disciples to be priests too. When Janet gave me her keys, she was expressing her own call to priesthood. To embodying in her own life the promises of God, the promises of the gospel, to being a minister of reconciliation. What gestures are you being called to make? What kind of reconciliation can you bear witness to? What will be your witness in the world we live in today?
I have as a painting for you to look at today, a painting by George Tooker. He was a remarkable painter who came into prominence in the ‘50s because he would do these incredible depictions of these people who were imprisoned a little bit by modernity. He used the classic egg tempera method, and so this gives the figures an incredible amount of depth. They look like painted statues, except for their eyes where you see the life of them peeking out. Often times, he speaks about dislocation. So he depicts people in their workplace or at the subway in New York, or sometimes waiting in line before a bureaucrat’s office. Tooker liked to portray that dislocation as our plight in modernity. This painting conveys the hopes he had in the late 1960s and early 1970; that in spite of all the crises the country was facing around issues of race, or economics, or government; despite all of the changes at work in the society at that time, that somehow people would grow together in some way.
This incredible painting has a moment which expresses what I think is a priestly ministry. Because you have these two figures there and one is trying to whisper through a very thick wall. There’s no way that that person knows that there’s somebody else on the other side of that wall listening. Another person is leaning forward and placing their ear against the wall. There’s no way they know that someone on the other side of that wall is speaking. The life of faith for us today is to place our ear against the wall and to speak so that we might be heard. But the priestly calling is to lift up that moment as a moment in which God is promising reconciliation. Because even though those two figures don’t know that the other is there, the viewer knows, and the viewer recognizes this moment as holy – as the place where God is as a place of divine presence and transformation.
If you were an artist, how would you paint reconciliation today? What mystery will you lift up? What forgiveness will you depict? What will the figures look like? Will they be speaking? Will they be listening? Will they be embracing? Will they be loving?