Loving Your Friends

       Nine times.  Jesus uses the word love nine times in this morning’s Gospel lesson.  Nine times is a lot of times.  If I were a biblical numerology guy, I’d tell you that nine is three times three, and three is a symbol of completeness, but I’m not a biblical numerology guy, so I won’t tell you that.[1]  What is clear is that love is important to Jesus.  It is so important that, in his final hours with his disciples on the night before he died, Jesus spent most of his time reminding them that love was the most important thing.  After he had washed their feet, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment, that they love one another.  After he shared with them the promise of the Holy Spirit as their advocate and guide, Jesus told his disciples that love would be hallmark of their faithfulness.  In this morning’s lesson, we hear Jesus yet again reminding his disciples to abide in his love while also commanding them to love one another as he has loved them.

       Love is so important to Jesus that he raises the stakes as high as possible when he tells them that the greatest illustration of love is laying down one’s life for one’s friends.  This is, of course, foreshadowing what would happen the next day, as Jesus would hang from a cross and die as the fullest expression of God’s love for all of humanity, but it doesn’t seem as though Jesus means to suggest that only he would be able to offer that kind of love.  It seems like Jesus thinks that any disciple should, and perhaps could, one day be called upon to lay down their lives for their friends.  As such, what constitutes laying down one’s life and who or what we might consider friends seem to be questions worth considering.

       One of the gifts of the past fifteen months is how it has opened our eyes to what it means to lay down our lives for our friends and neighbors in a less than literal sense.  As American Christians, it is extremely unlikely that we will be called upon to lay down our lives as martyrs for the Gospel, and since none of us knows how we would respond in a situation where the decision to sacrifice our life for someone else became necessary, I find great solace in the realization that maybe the call here isn’t just to a literal laying down of my life, but to a figurative one as well.  Over the last 15 months, we’ve been asked to lay down parts of our life in the name of public health and the greater good.  Some sacrifices have been difficult: not seeing family members, not attending in-person worship, and working and schooling from home were all significant parts of our lives that we had to give up in order to keep others safe.  Other sacrifices were merely to lay down some of the conveniences of modern life: stop dining out, wear a mask, and keep your distance; but even these were a means by which we could live into Jesus’ invitation to self-sacrificial love.  For all of its inconveniences, COVID-19 has been an opportunity to lay down parts of our lives out of love for our friends and neighbors.

When a young lawyer asked Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.  For that young lawyer, and really, just about everyone who would have been within earshot of Jesus, that story would have been scandalous.  Neighbor might mean the people in your sphere of influence.  It might even mean the people in your neighborhood, so long as they were considered faithful and clean.  At the extreme outside, loving your neighbor might mean everyone you encounter in the marketplace, but the idea that the commandment to love your neighbor might include a Samaritan, or that a Samaritan would love more fully than a priest or a Levite was beyond the pale.  Yet, Jesus stretched the boundaries of what it means to love your neighbor to include even your enemies and those who would do you harm.

As I prayed about what it means to lay down our lives for our friends, I found myself wondering just how far that commandment might stretch.  Friend seems like much more exclusive term than neighbor.  I can more easily define who is in and who is out when it comes to my friend group.  So, I might lay down my life for y’all, but probably not for someone in Des Moines, Iowa who I’ve never met before.  Then, as I continued to pray and study for this sermon, I ran across a story that pushed the boundaries on who or what we should consider friends.  It is the story of Homero Gómez González.  A man none of you have probably even heard of before, but who was, in some small way, a friend to all of us here at Christ Church.  Mr. González was born into a family of loggers in El Rosario, a small, unincorporated area in the mountains of central Mexico.  He joined the family business and was a skeptic of growing efforts to limit deforestation in Mexico, fearful that it would lead to the end of the industry his family had known for generations.  As he grew older, he studied Agricultural Engineering at a state-run agricultural university.  There, he began to understand the negative effects that rampant deforestation was having on the climate, on people and plants, and especially on the hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies who call the mountains of central Mexico home every winter.  Eventually, González dedicated his life to environmental and anti-logging activism.  He became the mayor of El Rosario and worked to outlaw logging in the region.  Later, he was named manager and spokesperson for the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Preserve, one of several preserves that make up the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where 70% of the world’s monarch butterflies, including those that pass through our weigh station, spend their winters.[2]

Gómez González worked tirelessly to change the culture in his area of Mexico, and, as you might guess, he faced all kinds of push back.  In December 2019, he told the Washington Post, “it’s been a fight to maintain [the preserve], and it hasn’t been easy.”[3]  A month later, on January 13, 2020, González disappeared.  Two weeks later, he was found murdered in a well near the preserve.[4]  No one has been charged with his death, but his family and friends continue to fear that it was related to his efforts to end the lucrative logging industry in El Rosario.  It can be said, I believe, that Homero Gómez González laid down his life, both metaphorically before his death, and literally in it, for his friends, the monarch butterfly.  As a monarch butterfly weigh station, Christ Church should count Mr. González as a friend, and give thanks for the loved that he shared.

As we slowly emerge from our pandemic cocoons (I couldn’t help myself), new forms of self-sacrificial love will be called for.  As Mother Becca is quick to remind me, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed us all.  How will these changes continue to impact the ways in which we are called to love our friends, neighbors, siblings in Christ, and even our enemies and the wider world in 2021 and beyond?  Jesus used the word love nine times in our Gospel lesson today.  Eight of those times, he used it as a verb, and once, he promised that self-sacrificial love isn’t just the key to joy, but it unlocks fullness of joy.  In the days, weeks, and months to come, my hope is that we will each find ways to live out the commandment to love that Jesus offers us this morning, laying down pieces of ourselves for our friends and neighbors. May God give us the strength to love – friends, enemies, and strangers – as Christ commands so that we might come to experience the fullest form of joy.  Amen.


[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/3-use-three-bible

[2] https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1290/

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/homero-gomez-gonzalez-mexicos-monarch-butterfly-defender-found-dead/2020/01/29/697d7c94-42ed-11ea-99c7-1dfd4241a2fe_story.html

[4] https://www.npr.org/2020/02/03/802359415/sadness-and-worry-after-2-men-connected-to-butterfly-sanctuary-are-found-dead

The Open Font

2018-04-01 11.59.10

For the second Sunday in a row, congregations following the Revised Common Lectionary will hear of the profound power of the open font.  Last Sunday, it was Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch from Acts 8.  In that story, the Spirit compelled Deacon Philip to come alongside a foreigner who also happened to be a Eunuch, and share with him the Good News of Jesus Christ.  After Philip takes him from the Suffering Servant in Isaiah all the way through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Eunuch comes to faith, sees some water along the side of the road and asks, “What is to keep me from being baptized?”

The answer, of course, is nothing.  Nothing would keep him from being baptized.  It would be easy to consider this an aberration: a one off event with details so out of the ordinary as to be ignored.  It is as if the RCL folks knew this, and so, in this week’s lesson from Acts, we hear of a similar situation involving Peter and a group of Gentiles.  Here, instead of it being the outsider who asks, we hear from Peter, the rock upon which Jesus would build the Church, asking, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?”

The answer, again, is no.  No one can withhold the waters of baptism.  Nothing would prevent someone who desires it from being baptized.  This is why, in proper Episcopal architecture, one passes by the font en route to the table.  It serves as a weekly reminder that we walk through the waters of baptism to be nourished weekly at the Table.

As you might suspect, I am not an advocate of so-called “open communion.”  I am a firm believer that our fonts should be wide open, that nothing should keep anyone from being baptized, but that it is through baptism, the outward and visible sign of “union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit” that we are then brought to the Table to receive the Body and Blood of our Savior Jesus Christ (BCP, 858).

There isn’t, I don’t think, a need to preach on these theological arguments.  My guess is that the average Peggy Pewsitter doesn’t much care about the battles that get waged at General Convention.  There is, however, a teaching/preaching opportunity to highlight the hows/whys of our open font, architecture, and the call that all Christians share to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ.  If you didn’t preach Acts 8 last week, despite my pleas that you would, maybe this week’s short passage from Acts 10 will offer you the opportunity to share with your community God’s love for everyone, no exceptions.

The Irrational Logic of Love

begging-rat

Under normal circumstances, the use of circular logic is not recommended.  It is a logical fallacy to use the end to justify the question at hand.  Describing the love of God, however, is not something that can be defined by logic.  God’s love is, as I’ve said elsewhere, prodigal.  It is poured out in abundance, with reckless abandon, such that all of humanity, good and evil, believer and heathen, sinner and saint, fall within the reach of God’s saving embrace.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson is one of those moments when the irrational logic of love becomes abundantly clear.  Well, clear as mud anyway.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  (John 15:10-12)

If we keep the commandments of Jesus, we will abide in his love.  OK, great, so what are the commandments of Jesus?  To love one another as he has loved us.  Right, so we love like Jesus loves in order to abide in Jesus’ love?  That’s a lot of love.  So much love that these words from Jesus to his disciples on the night before he died fill me with a mixture of comfort and fear.  There is no way I can love my neighbor like Jesus loves me.  Yet, I take some solace in the promise that if I do, I will abide in Jesus’ love, for it is out of that love that I will be able to love.

Wait… what did I just type?

See, the love of God is irrational.  We who would follow Jesus are invited into that irrationality.  We are called upon to love beyond our means precisely because it will teach us to rely on God who is love.  We love because God loved us first, and it is in that relationship of receiving God’s abundant love in order to share it with the world that we ultimately experience the fullness of joy that is our promise from God.

So love the world recklessly and extravagantly, just as God does, because God loves you recklessly and extravagantly.

Abiding in the love of God

John loves the word abide.  He uses it 40 times in his Gospel account: 11 of which occur in chapter 15 alone.  Last week, we heard it seven times.  This week, it is in there four times, including these powerful words from Jesus, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”

The word abide has actually changed its meaning quite considerably over the years.  When used in Scripture, it means to live or to dwell, but that is, like the pipe organ music in many of our congregations, an archaic usage.  Modern usage of the word abide include

  1. To accept or act in accordance with (a rule, decision, or recommendation).  As in, “The New England Patriots will abide by the findings of the Ted Wells Report.”
  2. To continue without fading or being lost. (of a feeling or a memory) As in, “The sting Tom Brady felt when he read the Wells Report will abide.”
  3. Informally, it can mean to be unable to tolerate (someone or something).  As in, “I cannot abide a cheater like Tom Brady.”

What? I preach with a Bible in one hand and the Internet in the other.

These days, we don’t talk much about abiding in a place because we just aren’t very good at it.  With every passing generation, we’re becoming more and more hard-wired toward multi-tasking such that at any given moment, our bodies may be in one place but our hearts and minds are somewhere else entirely.

As Jesus sat in the upper room with his disciples on that final evening, surely his head and heart were already focused on the cross.  It must have been really difficult to sit at dinner with Judas, knowing that he would be Jesus’ betrayer.  It couldn’t have been easy to comfort his disciples as Jesus himself was full of disquietude.  Yet in the midst of all that was happening both within his soul and beyond the walls of that room, Jesus made it clear that one of the qualities of a follower of God is to abide in God’s love.  No matter the circumstances, in the midst of whatever storm is raging about you, the promise of God is that we can abide in God’s love.  It doesn’t mean the hurt will go away or the storms will cease or that life will be easy, just ask Jesus.  Instead, being able to abide in God’s love means that in the midst of it all, God is there, with arms outstretched to offer peace, comfort, and love.  That is a love worth abiding in; a love that is everlasting.  A love I hope Tom Brady is abiding in today, even as he waits for Roger Godell to crush him.

Not Burdensome?

The author of 1st John makes more than one bold assertion in the course of his five chapter letter.  Last week, we heard “God is love,” which, while true, is a deeply profound theological statement.  This week, we’re told that God’s “commandments are not burdensome.”  In case you’ve forgotten since yesterday’s post, there are, at most, two commandments of Jesus.  In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sums up the Law and the Prophets with these words, “Love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  In John’s Gospel, that list shrinks down to one, “love one another.”

Now, I have been known, from time to time, to be a less than pleasant person.  I can be snarky and grumpy and rather impatient.  I’m not particularly gifted at loving others in car line or Walmart.  I know I’m not alone.  There are plenty of others out there who are snarky like me, while others are self-centered or self-righteous or pseudo-self-deprecating.  The world is full of people who are hard to love and/or find loving to be hard.  The world is full of people who do, in fact, find the commandment to love burdensome.  So what, on God’s green earth, is the author of 1st John talking about?  I think our Collect for Easter 6B might shine some light on things.

O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

Our ability to love, like everything else in life, is a gift of grace.  It is poured out upon us by God who is love.  The reason I’m not good at being loving isn’t because God didn’t make me capable of love, but because I choose to forego God’s gift and follow my own path of general grouchiness.  The Good News is that thanks to God’s grace, love need not be burdensome.  With the light of Christ shining in the darkness of our hearts, all things are possible, even love toward those who cut in car line on a regular basis.  I’m working on it, with God’s help, and you can too.  Love really can be not burdensome.

More than Words

On last night’s Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy was joined by Jack Black in a shot for shot remake of the classic jam, “More than Words” by Extreme.  Take four minutes to watch it, it’ll make your day.

Did you watch it?  Did you pay attention the lyrics?  I hope so, because they work perfectly with the main theme in Sunday’s lessons: love is a verb.  Both the reading from First John and the Gospel lesson explicitly say that loving God means keeping Jesus’ commandments.  In case you forgot, Jesus summed up his entire teaching, all the law, and the prophets, in two commandments.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Love your neighbor as yourself.

The kind of love Jesus is talking about requires a lot more than words: it requires a lifetime worth of actions.  Or as the writers of “More than Words” put it:

More than words is all I ever needed you to show
Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me
Cause I’d already know

Showing the love of God for the world is at least as important, if not even more so, than telling the world about it.  Following Jesus means loving our neighbors until they ask why, and it means loving them enough to have an answer ready when they do.  Following Jesus means reaching out in compassion, caring for the needy, and respecting the dignity of every human being.  Following Jesus means abiding in a love that is deeper than mere words: the very love of God.

Gentile Pentecost

In preparing for last week’s sermon, I ran across a WorkingPreacher commentary from 2009 written by the late, Richard Jensen, the Carlson Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.  One of the things I loved about Jensen’s piece was how he described the ongoing unveiling of the Spirit as various Pentecosts through the book of Acts.  There was the Jerusalem Pentecost in Acts 2, which we will celebrate in a few short weeks.  There was the Samaritan Pentecost unveiled by Philip in Acts 8.  And there was the Gentile Pentecost which we will hear read this coming Sunday from Acts 10.  It is a good commentary, and I commend it to you as a framework for preparing for a possible Easter 6B sermon on Acts.

I find it helpful to frame the experience of Peter and the Gentiles as a Pentecost story because of how caught off guard everyone is.  Think about it.  In Acts 2, the disciples are still huddled together 10 days after the Ascension.  After three years walking with Jesus, forty days learning from the resurrected Christ, and ten days after receiving their final commissioning, the Disciples still aren’t quite sure how to be Apostles.  They are waiting for a sign from the heavens when, all of a sudden, there is wind and fire and a cacophony of voices as the Spirit arrives in power and might, and Peter finds himself standing before a crowd of thousands, sharing the Good News.

Fast forward to chapter 10.  The fledgling Christian community has seen the Spirit at work in all sorts of unexpected ways.  Three thousand were baptized that first day.  Stephen spoke words that were not his own before the Council; as did Peter and John.  The ground shook as they prayed for boldness, and Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for their lack of faith, while Saul was converted on the road to Damascus.  Even the Samaritans had received the Holy Spirit!  Pentecostal experiences were happening everywhere the Apostles went, and now it was the Gentiles turn.

“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”  The Holy Spirit does not discriminate.  She’s ready and willing to fill the heart of all who put their trust in Jesus Christ.  The Gentile Pentecost of Acts 10 can be, and is, replayed over and over again as the Good News is shared and people believe.  The floodgates of the Kingdom have been forever opened, thanks be to God, so that we Gentiles can, by the power of the Holy Spirit, know Christ and make him known.