Sunday, April 28, 2013

"...Just As I Have Loved You..."

My deepest thanks to the Reverend Dr. Delmer L. Chilton for his insights, which helped greatly in preparing the sermon.

John 13:31-35

When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Taken at face value, the words in today’s Gospel reading are nice enough. Jesus is preparing his beloved disciples for the Cross he is to endure, and assuring them that in it both the Father and the Son will be glorified. Then he tells them to love one another, and that their love for each other will be the indicator to the world around them that they are Christians. He even calls that whole loving each other thing a “new commandment.”

It’s a wonderful passage, and a well-known one. It is hard to find someone, inside or outside of Christianity, who hasn’t heard the “new commandment, to love one another as I have loved you.” After all, we’ve had two thousand years to translate, commentate, pontificate, evaluate, argue over, and put these words on plaques and sell them in Christian bookstores.

Yet for all of that, I want to submit to you that, all too often, Christians still don’t really understand it.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you,” and he says it in a point in time where he has just sent Judas out into the night to find the Temple leaders, get the guards, and lead them to arrest Jesus. Not too many verses after this, he will look at Peter, the man who first said the words, “you are the Christ,” and tell him that, in a way quite similar to Judas, he too would betray Jesus.

In other words, Jesus sandwiches talk about love between two acts of deadly betrayal. We talk about love. We put it on t-shirts and coffee mugs. And to a good degree, we are OK with the idea of love… especially if it’s loving people who share our beliefs and convictions to one degree or another, and share our DNA and name. People who vote like we do, have the same accent and like the same teams…

But Jesus speaks of love in the context of one disciple, who has been with him for years, who has shared meals and seen the miracles and heard his words, going to the very people who want Jesus dead and saying, “I’m your man.” He speaks of love in the context of another disciple, a member of his inner circle, who saw the glory of the Mount of Transfiguration, who stepped out of the boat and walked on water, trembling in fear before a little servant girl and using the vilest of words to swear that he never knew Jesus.

How can Jesus talk of love at a time like this? And even if Jesus can love Judas… even if Jesus can love Peter… how can he seriously expect us to love like that?

I think that we, too often, confuse the idea of “loving” with “liking a lot.” I was reading something this week by Delmer Chilton. He pointed out that in our culture, love is almost always associated with romantic love, what in Greek is designated by the word eros. So to love is to have intense feelings of affection for another human being.

We also associate love with friendship, the Greek philea, as in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. And again, this is a natural thing, not something that can be commanded, for crying out loud. We like some people and others we don’t. We get along with some people, with others we don’t.

Marriage is usually a combination of eros and philea, as well it should be. Friends we make along life’s way, people we just like being around, this is mostly philea, affinity and affection.
All this is natural and cannot be commanded.

And if we think about love only in terms of how we feel, then the idea of Jesus feeling love toward Judas, of feeling love toward Peter, well… that is incomprehensible. I cannot feel love toward people who betray me, who speak evil and do evil to me and my friends and my family, so even if Jesus could have felt love for Judas and Peter in that moment, for him to expect me to is insanity! How can that be commanded? I mean, we “fall in love,” right? We feel what we feel. Commanding someone to feel a given way is like commanding the wind to blow south instead of east – both impossible, and a little bit silly at best, or downright destructive at worst.

Well, I cannot tell you how Jesus felt. And I don’t think Jesus paid very much attention to how he felt when it came to love. I just know what he did, and that is the point.

Bear with me.

Our Lectionary reading from the Book of Acts centers on the Apostle Peter explaining to some very upset believers in Jerusalem exactly how he had the gall to go and share the Gospel with (of all people) the Gentiles!

Peter was, like all of the Jewish Christians in those early years of what was called “The Way,” very observant. There were foods one simply did not touch, much less eat, and the very idea of eating with people who ate unclean things was abhorrent.

But God saw things differently. Peter, on a roof praying, sees a vision of a sheet lowered from heaven, with, oh I don’t know, bacon and ham and shrimp and lobster on it, maybe, and God says, “hey Pete, pig out.”

(I am paraphrasing a little…)

Peter says, “No way! I don’t eat unclean stuff!”

And God says, “I will decide what is clean and what ain’t clean, son.”

Peter felt disgusted at the thought of eating unclean things, just as he felt revulsion at the idea of fellowshipping with Gentiles.

But God could care less how Peter felt. God cared about what Peter did.

We may think of love in terms of eros or philea, but Jesus calls deeper, calls us to agape, self-sacrificial love. This is the God kind of love, love that has to do with how we act toward one another, not how we feel about each other. 

God’s love, Jesus’ love, is not determined by the worthiness of the object, but by the character and intentionality of the one who loves.

It is God’s nature, it the very core of God’s being, to love. Love is what compelled God to create us in the first place. Love is what makes God sustain us. Love is what brought Jesus to this earth. Love is what Jesus taught and lived every day of his earthly life. Love is what took Jesus to the cross, what caused Jesus to defeat death in the Resurrection, and love is what Jesus left behind to bind us together.

When Jesus commands us to love one another in the same way he loves us, he is not demanding that we fall in love, he is calling us to love on purpose, to act with intentional agape toward one another and toward all those around us. Like Peter, we are being called to move beyond our comfort zones in terms of whom we relate to, and how we act toward them.

Love – the action of love, the agape – comes first, and our feelings follow.

Jesus could and did speak of love, right there on that night of the Last Supper and in the midst of every kind of betrayal, because his kind of love is not a feeling, it is an act of holy intention.

OK, fine, we say. So what is this kind of love, anyway? If it isn’t a feeling, what is it? How do we do it?

Hear the Word of God from Saint Paul’s First Epistle to the Church at Corinth, and I am using “The Message” translation:

“Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. Love never dies.

And not one of us deserves that love any more than Judas or Peter or any of the others who ran like scared rabbits at the first sign of trouble. But all of us have received that love, and all of us are called to share that love, pass it on, spread it around; we are to love one another, just as Jesus has first loved us.

To love like Jesus loved is to love without reservation. To love like Jesus loved is to love friends and enemies. To love without hesitation and without limitation. It is a radical, unheard-of love. It is love lived, not in thought or emotion or in words, but as a verb – as an act of the will, deliberate, direct, and in spite of the consequences. This kind of love is the product of God’s Holy Spirit within us, loving, actively and deliberately, with extravagant abandon.

Who is the person, who are the people we find least loveable? The ones who disgust us, or frighten us, or who seem not worth the effort?

Who are the ones we find most loveable – the ones who bring us joy and comfort, whose presence or even their voice on the phone – even a text message from them – energizes us? And who are the ones in between those extremes?

All of these are the ones we are called on by Jesus to love, actively and intentionally, loving on purpose despite how we may feel: good bad and ugly, hair warts and all, no matter how we feel. Yes, just as Jesus has first loved us.

Alleluia, amen.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Where is God?

The following is inadequate, as are all words when disaster (natural or the result of human intention) strikes. I think, though, that we need to remind ourselves, and one another, that God is alive and acting and loving at all times.

John 10:22-30
At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." Jesus answered, "I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one."

This is the Word of the Lord.

It isn’t hard, after the events of the past week, to identify with the desperation in the voices of the people surrounding Jesus in the portico of Solomon. After all, the Jewish people had been suffering under the boot of Roman oppression for years: if it wasn’t a Roman legion quelling an uprising in a bloody, decisive way, it was the constant taxation, the idolatrous images here and there, and the temptation to give in to Greek habits and customs.

But whether they were Pharisee or Sadducee, Herodian or one of the majority who didn’t identify with one faction or another, the one common thread that held them together, the common hope that gave them all strength to face the day despite living under the yoke of the Roman eagle, was the Scriptural promise of a Messiah, a Christ, as Savior that would redeem Israel, and the world.

They could be forgiven for expecting this Messiah to be an earthly King, one who would merely overthrow the Roman Empire, re-establish the throne of David, and make Israel an eternal Kingdom to which all other nations would bow. They’d been the underdog long enough, and they had, as far as they were concerned, kept their end of the bargain with God: keeping the Law, making the sacrifices, singing the Psalms, and even that snake Herod was building a beautiful Temple befitting the one true and living God.

In the face of all they felt they had done, the oppression continued. So they could be forgiven for asking “where is God?”

And here was this man Jesus, who people were whispering about in the synagogues, talking about in the marketplaces, and rushing to see and hear in every town he and his band of disciples traveled through. He preached, he performed miracles, when he was questioned by the best Jewish minds, he was never at a loss for words. He spoke of the Kingdom of God, He was even said to have healed a man born blind.

Could he be the Promised One? Could the end of years of oppression and servitude at last be over?

Some were certain of it – look at what he can do listen to the powerful words he says! Others outright rejected the idea: Someone from Nazareth, a Messiah? Someone who didn’t adhere to the rigid code of ethics of the Pharisees, a Messiah? Never!

We aren’t told why Jesus was in the portico of Solomon that day. Historically, this was the porch where that King of Israel had come to make his judgments and exercise justice for those who were brought before him. We are told that it was winter, and that appears to have been the rainy season, so perhaps it was as simple as Jesus taking shelter from a chilling shower. In any case it is no accident, I am sure, that Jesus, whose life and teachings embodied the true justice of God – forgiveness and reconciliation – would be in this area in the east side of the Temple.

I can imagine a group of people arguing about who Jesus was, there in the Court of the Women when he walked past, but they were so engrossed in their discussion that Jesus had already left the area by the time someone said, “hey, isn’t that him?” In an instant they had rushed to that porch, in a section of the Temple Herod had elected not to restore, and surrounded Jesus. It seems they weren’t going to let him leave until, once and for all, he had answered the question: Are you, Jesus, the Messiah?

This past Monday, two explosions ripped through the crowd of spectators at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people, including an eight-year-old boy, and injuring nearly two hundred. On Wednesday, a fertilizer plant in the tiny community of West, in Texas, caught fire and exploded, killing fifteen, injuring many more, and causing major damage to homes and businesses in the community.

We now know who placed the crude bombs in the crowd in Boston. We don’t know why they did it, and if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev doesn’t survive his wounds, we may never know. Investigators are combing through the rubble of the fertilizer plant this very morning, looking for answers to why the plant caught fire and exploded.

We could be forgiven, in the face of all of this death, uncertainty and destruction, for asking, where is God in all of this?

In today’s reading, when the Judeans ask Jesus to make who he is clear, once and for all, he doesn’t just point to what he has said, he points to the things he has done: the healings, the miracles. “The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me…”

And the reason they don’t see that his words and actions prove he is the Christ? Because they don’t believe. It’s the opposite of what we’ve always heard – you know, “seeing is believing.” Jesus says “believing is seeing.”

Very often, in the face of disaster, whether natural or man-made, words fail us. We struggle to understand, and to articulate to one another, where God is. And too often, when we find words, they are inadequate.

The Jewish rabbi and author Irving Greenberg put it best when he said, “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”

So where do we find God in all of this?

I’ve quoted a Jewish theologian, now let me share the words of a Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Fred Rogers… Most of us know him from the children’s television show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Following the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F Kennedy, Mr. Rogers felt he had to he had to tell parents about the importance of including children in the ways they, as adults, dealt with their own grief. Here’s what he said:

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."

Where is God in all of this?

There are a lot of videos of that first explosion at the Boston Marathon. People with cell phones recording friends and loved ones crossing the finish line, news crews getting b-roll footage, and of course it is hard to stomach. The bomb goes off, there is smoke, falling people and debris, and of course people run. But do you know what? Some of those people – sure, the police, paramedics, but also some of the runners and civilian bystanders too, run away just a few steps, then they stop, and turn around, and though no one knows what has happened, if there is another bomb, before the smoke even clears, they are running back to where that bomb went off… running to help. I heard someone interviewed on NPR who said that when the second bomb went off at the end of the block, no one even flinched, no one stopped what they were doing – moving debris out of the way, tearing their shirts to make tourniquets and pressure bandages, being helpers.

There is where we see God. That is where we see the hands of Christ working, where we hear the voice of God speaking peace and healing and hope… yes, there is evil in this world, and perhaps it is a good thing that we cannot understand why: why people fly planes into buildings, or make vans into ammonium nitrate bombs, or stuff pressure cookers with gunpowder and nails. There is evil in the world, but there is good.

“My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus says. “I know them, and they follow me.”

Sometimes, the voice of Christ is spoken: a prayer at just the right time, a word of peace and hope.

And sometimes, the voice of Christ we hear is silent, because it is carried in the hands and feet of those who run back into the smoke and debris…

Here is where we find hope. We must believe, and see, and thus help others to see, that God is alive and active in this world, and is especially present in these times, in the actions of the helpers.