I thought I would pre-populate this blog with a few of my writings previously
done. This one is a sermon that I gave at Christ Church Vienna, Austria shortly before moving back to America in 2004. In the weeks previous to my sermon one of our priests, a Nigerian, had delivered a sermon in which he proclaimed homosexuality an "abomination." I asked if I could do a sermon, not as a response in particular but as a different view - but I privately committed to preach from the Readings. As the Holy Spirit would have it, the lectionary came up with Acts 10 - and it turned out to be the perfect reading for the occasion. By the way, Jim Adams - who helped found TCPC - is the priest mentioned in the story of Bill Lander's last communion.
Sermon: Christ Church Vienna, 9 May 2004
William H. Dannenmaier
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be ever pleasing in thy sight, O Lord.
Unaccustomed as I am to dressing up for church…
My friends, let me tell you what I am doing up here and where I hope to go. I am up here because I will be leaving you soon, probably in early July. I believe it was not happenstance that brought me here. As someone who accepts both the modern concept of relativity and the ancient concept of significant time, I believe I was a member of this community before I arrived, even before I was born, that I was a member while I was here, and that I will be a member after I leave.
To use an analogy from science, Christian communities can act like strong gravitational points, planets for example, that alter the courses of passing bodies, sometimes pulling stray asteroids into tight permanent orbits, sometimes drawing them in, increasing their velocity, and flinging them off on a new trajectory. At Christ Church I have seen people brought into tight orbit and I have seen people strengthened in their faith and taking off in new directions.
In fact community is something bound up tightly with the mission of Christianity since the very beginning. In today’s Gospel Jesus gives a new commandment: “Love one another.” If we do this the world will be able to tell who we are, a Christian community. He really couldn’t be more clear: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” And I believe that we have shared that love here. This is where I am going with this talk, a focus on the body of Christ as resurrected in the gathered community and its hoped-for effect on the individuals who fly by.
Our reading from Acts this morning speaks to communities. Peter is trying to explain to his colleagues how he came to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. The idea of “us” being in fellowship with “them.” A big part of Judaism at that time was not being dirtied by hanging out with them.
I know that we, as a group of Gentiles, think of this as no big deal. “Why wouldn’t anyone want us to be a part of the group.” But this was a fundamental change.
Judaism is at least in principal a family relationship, everyone descended from Abraham and Sarah.
An idea that still survives. Some two thousand years after Peter’s conversation I was watching television in Nashville, Tennessee, and saw a secular Jew, Teddy Bart, interviewing an old rabbi. Teddy was asking all these esoteric intellectual questions when finally the old rabbi brought him to earth. “Teddy, remember our mother Sarah.” He said. And immediately Teddy was brought back to the core of who he was. And this was two thousand years after Peter, with the Diaspora, the second Diaspora, and all the horrors of the twentieth century in between.
Opening the community up to the Gentiles was no small change. It was difficult and it probably seemed unnatural. Peter expands the idea of the community from just people who are alike to people who are different from one another. Everybody doesn’t agree on everything but they appreciate each other’s gifts in the spirit. The proof of membership, entry into the community, is the gift of the spirit and it is the only proof necessary to enter the community.
Acts says that Peter was able to convince people quickly, in one conversation. Over the last few months, on this question of who is in the community, I have failed to persuade like Peter.
You see, like Peter I have witnessed the Holy Spirit many times through my gay Christian friends. Jim, a priest at a former parish, who was inspiring and nurturing, and preached the Gospel in a way that brought the light to many people. Ron and Art, who have lived together for about twenty years and have supported each other as Ron has sought and achieved ordination.
One of the most spirit-filled men I knew was named Bill Landers. Bill taught Sunday School, served on the church council, and was active in almost every area of the church. The Easter before he died he oversaw the decoration of our church. He made a floral arrangement that burst forward from the center of our church’s plain wooden cross. It was a beautiful, if temporary, representation of the resurrection. White lilies bursting out like rays of light from the heart of the cross. Few who looked at it were not moved. Bill was a lawyer at the Department of Justice, he was in his early forties, and he was an openly gay member of the church.
A couple days before Bill died Ben (who was then four years old) and I visited him in the hospital. Bill was almost completely wasted away by AIDS. The priest dropped by with Eucharist for Bill, Ben, and me-- perhaps Bill’s last. I remember the look in his eyes as Bill took up the host and focussed on it. He was so weak, his mouth was dry, his body wracked with all the pain that AIDS brings, his hands shook as he put the host in his mouth.
A few days later, when Bill was dead, we put his body in the nave of our church to lie in state before the burial, not the normal practice in America. Bill’s fellow church council members stood watch in turn through the night. My watch was from 12 until 4 in the morning, sitting in the big empty nave, quiet and dark, no one but me and Bill’s body, I walked around the empty church, I read over Compline and the Psalms. My friends, God was there, I do not doubt.
If a gift of the spirit is faith I believe I witnessed that faith from Bill. I will not browbeat you on this topic. If your culture or experience has never allowed you to witness the same, I only ask you to keep your eyes and hearts open to what God will show you.
But it is so difficult to overcome our culture. I come from America, home of public piety and mindless excess. I have now lived in Central Europe, largely absent of overt piety yet mindful of social obligations. Neither culture fits the Christian model.
This problem points to a tension. “I would like to be a part of my culture but I would also like to be true to my religious experience.” We cannot do both easily, the demands of our culture are adherence to a set of understandings. My father once said “every group has its norms, and punishes anyone falls below those norms and it also punishes anyone who rises above those norms.” Jesus certainly found this to be true. Down through history every place where his message has been preached new adherents have suffered from ostracism or martyrdom for attempting to rise above group norms. Challenging the culture does not win you points. Try breaking off from a company ski weekend to go to church, or go to America and challenge public piety—see what you get.
Many of us here in Vienna can identify with this. In the last four years I have been in the presence of a room full of Americans only once. A beer at the local U.S. Marine Barracks. I was taken back by the difference in opinions between me and my countrymen. I see it elsewhere too. Lately my cousin in America has taken to calling me a traitor in his emails. Am I a traitor, or just different? I wasn’t in America for the questionable election, the crash of the economy, the collapse of the towers, the crash into the Pentagon, the anthrax in the Senate, the sniper on the beltway, or the fear that inspired the war.
But I have the sneaking suspicion that it is my Christianity, not my absence from America, that informs my opinions. Many practicing Christians, like Christ, are rejected in our native cultures. And we always have been.
Early Christians quickly gathered themselves into communities. Communities that often crossed country borders and vast expanses of land. Look in the first chapters of the letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Philippians, Collossians, and Thessalonians and you will find Paul, plagued and rejected over and over as he makes his journey through life, writing back to express his joy and comfort at the communities that had supported him. The communities that had pulled him in, empowered him, and sent him out.
Philippians at the 3rd verse of the 1st chapter is a good example:
“3I thank my God every time I remember you. 4In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion…
He hasn’t seen them for a while, he may never see them again, but they empower him and support him. I understand what Paul is saying here.
Earlier in my life when I was living from hand to mouth with very few signs of future success; a community of Episcopalians took me in in the little town of Clarksville, Tennessee. And I know there aren’t many Episcopalians in here, but let me tell you, the idea of an Episcopal church taking someone in is rather rare. But these were special people, People able to see past the callowness of my youth and give me food, shelter, and spiritual guidance.
Later, in a church on Capitol Hill in Washington, I grew into a Christian able to teach and help others. I hold these people, too, in my heart. And, like Paul, I fire off an occasional email to them. Though I guess he used quill and parchment.
Just as Paul was empowered by the communities he passed through, we, too, should act upon the empowerment we receive here. Perhaps we are called to stand up for the radical message of Jesus Christ in our cultures, to say out loud, “I may be from here, but I do not have to act the way you expect me to act.” I wish someone had said that in Iraq a few months ago. The revelation that Jesus Christ brought to this planet both frees and challenges us—perhaps to challenge our culture and face rejection.
Look around you at the faces of the people in this congregation. Does anyone really belong to the culture of their birth? America, Canada, England, Wales, Scotland, South Africa, Australia, Ghana, Nigeria, France, Germany, yes, we even have a few Austrians among us, but are they in some ways outside of their culture just by crossing the threshold of this church? I always hear the tone and tune of where you are from when you speak to me, but your words are always here and now—my family, my friends, my community.
We gather as a new group, not a fixed group, but a mostly transitory group with a few fixed members. In this way we are not just community, but a family of wanderers. We are drawn in, we spin around, sometimes we are flung off with more power. You did this for me and my family.
In parting I abide in what Paul said in the first chapter of Romans “11I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong-- 12that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by eachother's faith.”
To summarize, I will leave you, but I will remember you. I will long to see you, but I will be empowered by you long after I am gone.