As we approach 2021, one tradition is making New Year’s resolutions – changes we want to make. Yet many of us seem to quickly revert to old habits or tend to forget the altruistic changes we intended. A colleague once told me that more gym memberships are sold in January than any other month and gym usage is highest in January and then quickly reduces to more normal levels.
It made me wonder if perhaps we might look differently at the New Year. We may begin by asking ourselves what attitudes, and values do I want to see more of in my life? Once you answer that you then are more ready to make decisions about how you will work to bring it about in our life and for those around you. We must remember that the only one I can change is ME. And even that can be difficult. But if these are heartfelt wishes I deeply value it will be easier to engage than if it were something that I think I “should” do.
If for example I want more cooperation in my life or community, who will I choose to cooperate with, and on what. Who else might I invite who might also be seeking cooperation rather than conflict? How might I choose a project that has great value to others so that cooperation is enhanced?
If I wish to grow in my faith what might I be willing to add to my schedule that helps that to occur? (e.g., setting a daily tine for prayer, joining the Sunday Book Study or the Spiritual Companionship Group, or take on a spiritual practice.) But it may also mean identifying what you are willing to take out of the your schedule to give you the time for what you are adding.
Make a contract with yourself that whatever it is you wish to do, you will continue to do until after Easter. This gives you time to make this a more natural part of your life. It gives time for any slack-off and time to recommit as necessary.
What this approach can create is a New Year’s revolution. Tgis increases the likelihood that something we value and desire can be implemented improving the quality of our life and hopefully in the world around us.
As we approach 2021, one tradition is making New Year’s resolutions – changes we want to make. Yet many of us seem to quickly revert to old habits or tend to forget the altruistic changes we intended. A colleague once told me that more gym memberships are sold in January than any other month and gym usage is highest in January and then quickly reduces to more normal levels.
I recall as a child wondering what I should get my Dad for Father’s Day? And the things I remember getting him seem so small and even a bit tacky now. World’s Greatest Dad coffee mug, a funny card, a key ring – you know the drill. As I got older the presents increased in quality and cost.
As a teen my Dad and I only sort of got along. He had developed ongoing medical problems and his response as I remember was to be a edgy and short tempered. The world had delivered an unexpected blow to him and his nuclear family constantly tried to protect him from his desire to prove he was still strong and capable. No wonder he was short-tempered with us. We didn’t hear what his actions were saying.
After I moved out of the house to attend seminary he began to write me letters (midnight specials I called them) usually written when he could not sleep in the wee morning hours. Not earth shattering letters or publishable compendiums of wise sayings He wrote about his life and mine, about his frustrations at work (he was in a profession he never enjoyed), and what was going on in the neighborhood and household. I spent the next decade in the Albany, NY area.
In August 1980 I moved to Toronto, Canada to a job I was sure would be a career changer for me (it was but not as I expected). In September Dad told me hewas not feeling well. In October he called to let me know he was going to have exploratory surgery. I waited with my sister and my mother in the surgical waiting room. And far too quickly we were called into the consultation room with the surgeon. And were told Dad had an aggressive form of cancer in his abdomen that was inoperable.
I was able to go into Buffalo most weekends to help care for him. He told me that he had worried about what he would do in retirement (he was 65 that November) but figured he could stop worrying about it. He dealt and coped with his worsening condition as best he could. As he got weaker. I had to help him with an improvised device so he could stand in the shower. (He wasn’t going to sit down in the shower! Until a week or so later he had no other choice.)
In early December we all talked about it made the decision to get him into Hospice Care and the paper work was reluctantly submitted by his physician. I drove home to Toronto Sunday night. The next day I received a call that Dad had died in the early morning hours.
I learned to get used to the idea my Dad had died, and accepted that as the fact of that matter. I noted when I turned 66 that I had outlived Dad and wondered what his retirement might have been like. And whether he might have lived longer if he had chosen a different career or changed careers mid-life.
In December 2020 it will be 40 years since his death. And today there is a lump in my throat. After all this time I still miss him. I still tell some of his jokes (and in memory hear my mother scold him for telling a few of them with her terse “Hilly!”)
I no longer worry about what I did or did not give him on Father’s Day. I came to realized that the gifts themselves did not matter to him. How can I be sure? Because in the case on the dresser where I keep cuff links, crosses, and clerical collars at the bottom is a 3 inch piece of blue felt with the letters DAD glued to it and a wire loop to hold keys. This was given to me in June 1989 when Christopher was 3. It then that I realized that all Dad really wanted was my love. So this is my Fathers’day gift this year.
I love you!
There has always been some tension between the values of the Christian Gospel and the American ideal of individual independence and personal freedom. But we have seen this in new ways since the COVID-19 pandemic began. We have heard of choirs ignoring scientific warnings and government advice by rehearsing and infecting others, of churches opening in spite of state or local mandates to stay at home. We have recently seen new footage of demonstrations by people advocating for lessening restrictions and referring to their “God given rights”. But is it simply individual rights that matters in our religious traditions?
There seems to be diverse opinions on how to apply religious principles to our present societal situation. I write to commend one in particular which I have derived from the teachings of Jesus and of St Paul over my 50 years of active parish ministry.
In each of the Gospels I see that Jesus is quite clear that he understands love to be a way of being and acting (rather than a feeling) that puts the good of others as minimally being of equal importance – and ideally of more importance – than our personal preferences, desires and wants. Paul echoes this emphasis often in his letters to the fledgling congregations. “Do not cause any one to stumble” he writes in the first letter to the Corinthians. I cannot imagine that either of them would give us as pass on various ways to prevent spreading contagion and possible death to other people.
We need to evaluate our decisions about recommended actions not on the scale of the inconvenience it causes us but rather what is the overall effect on our neighbors – using Jesus’ definition of neighbor as being ALL whose lives interact with ours – even those with whom we disagree or with whom we are at enmity.
With government, business owners and investors wanting to reopen our economy we now have the ability to freely choose what we will do, and how we will do it. With the COVID 19 case curve steady or in a mild decrease we may be tempted to relax and skip the ongoing recommendations. (Especially continuing to stay at home unless absolutely necessary, to wash our hands regularly, when going out to wear a face mask, keeping social distances, etc). In truth our present decisions, actions and response will determine the future of this pandemic not just in our area but across a very mobile nation and world.
We have rights but Jesus and other prophetic teachers remind us that with them comes great responsibility to use them for the common good. A Christian colleague of mine used to tell his congregation that JOY comes from the hierarchy of our love Jesus, Others, Yourself. .
Let us be JOYfully responsible in continuing to do what is needed to contain this contagion and the prevent illness and death of the most vulnerable. Jesus also told his followers “In as much as you have done it for the least of these, you have done it for me.”
Each of the four gospels begins in a way that introduces the author’s context for telling the story of Jesus. The beginning of each Gospel is a narrative of Jesus origin. The earliest of the Gospels is Mark who begins with John the Baptist at the Jordan River, and Jesus beginning his ministry with baptism and a time of discernment in the wilderness.
In Matthew and Luke we have the more familiar birth narratives – though the details and emphasis is different in each.
And for the Sunday after Christmas the gospel passage is the prologue of the Gospel of John… estimated to have been written some 60 or more years after the Jesus ministry death and resurrection.
For John the beginning of Jesus participation in the saving acts of God began not at his baptism, nor even at his birth. John affirms that Jesus was always part of Gods intention and plan. John did not see Jesus as a plan B, as something new when the old covenant didn’t seem to be working, nor even – if you will forgive the pun- as a Hail Mary play. John describes Jesus as present in and part of the creation itself.
So why was it so many years after the forefathers of Judaism – Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Moses, the law, and the prophets – that it was the fullness of time for Jesus to take on our humanity and appear in flesh on the earth? I suspect it is evidence of the slow evolution of spirituality of humanity.
It was Confucius who said “when the student is ready the teacher will appear”. It took that long for humanity to come to a point where some were ready to hear the radical word that God’s power in not about human politics or human power – nor military and economic might. This was and is a radical thought that the power God wields and wants us to wield is the power of compassion, forgiveness, generosity and love.
And the slowness with which humanity has been able to learn and follow that radical directive is still shown in the centuries we have struggled to internalize it individually, let alone as the institutional church, and to live it into the fullness of being.
In every age and era there have been a few who, like St Francis, hear and respond by living out the teachings of Jesus in extraordinary ways. Yet they seem few and far between. Still John proclaims that to ALL who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to more fully become children of God.
John ends his prologue saying “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
Is that “son full of grace and truth” the one whom we recognize in the Gospels? If so, what is our role or response? The author of the Gospel of John indicates our role is to discern who this Jesus is for us, and whether we are willing to follow on this new path of how to live. A path which we in the Episcopal Church are describing as the way of love.
What is asked of us who choose to follow this path is not love merely as emotion, but love that rooted in compassion, is acted out and lived day to day, and bearing the fruits of righteousness that comes from living as God would have us live. This kind of love is seen in action in Jesus life, and teaching; and seen in Jesus willingness to continue to say yes to the way of love even when it was opposed by those who primarily valued the power of might, wealth, success and influence, rather than love, grace and truth. Love that persevered even when it threatened Jesus own liberty and life.
It is no wonder that John’s prologue of the Gospel is used as a counter- point to the birth narratives of Christmas Day for it leads us into life – Jesus life and ours It leads us to places where the way of love is needed and where it can transform lives and help recreate our corner of creation to more resemble what God would have us and all the beloved creation to be.
I have never liked waiting. Even as a child waiting for minutes seemed like hours. Waiting, while necessary, seemed like such a waste of time as I fretted and fidgeted. So it always seemed strange to me that we begin the Church year with this Advent season that is all about waiting. Jesus was born in Bethlehem and almost 30 years later he began his public ministry. We have only one gospel story about his youth. But it tells us this long period of waiting was preparation for him to fulfill his God given purpose.
In this era of minute rice, quick cash, express lanes and a desire for instant gratification waiting seems so much more difficult. It requires patience and, as Nancy has observed, my usual prayer about patience is “Lord, I need patience and I need it today. Amen.” Waiting and patience require practice to be done to good effect.
My grandmother, a clergy widow, was always highly active in her parish. But in her last few years health problems decreased her ability to be as active as she wanted. Her rector (a friend of mine) visited her and she began to complain about how useless she felt, and that she was simply waiting to die. Bruce began by reminding her that she has always taken a bus to work and that sometimes the bus would be quite late. “What did you do while you waited for the bus?” he asked. She told him she read. We don’t have a choice about waiting her reminded her but we do get to choose what we do as we wait.
Advent is about the wait to see the fulfillment of the transformation of God’s people and creation to become as God would have it. Humanity has waited long as each generation has had to learn to seek what it is that they really thirst and hunger for to fill that God shaped hole within. So what will we do as we wait? How can we better prepare ourselves to receive and live out that transformation – that scripture refers to as new life?
That we are waiting for all of creation to be transformed to that vision that Jesus and the prophets foretold is definite. What we will do as we wait is a choice we make day by day. Let us choose wisely and well to prepare ourselves to receive and share with others that new life we are offered.
After only a handful of pieces were added to the board, I watched in astonishment as all the pieces were swept off the board, and a puzzled look surfaced on my son’s face. His mother-in-law then recreated the game board and showed him how, in the next three moves, he would have lost their game of Go, no matter what he had done. (Go is an ancient Chinese game of strategy played with black and white pieces on a grid of lines.)
When our Granddaughter started first grade this past April, she signed up for the Go Club, which meets weekly after school. Recently she mentioned to her father that she wondered why the boy she was playing against hadn’t taken some specific moves that would have guaranteed his win. Her father realized that she could “see” several moves ahead. He also realized that her opponent couldn’t do this yet, and that Granddaughter didn’t understand she has a capacity that her opponent did not have.
Not everyone has the ability to “see” the outcome of “moves” as they are made. The ones who do are often called prophets. Do they foretell the future, or is it really something more like some individuals have the capacity to “see” what will happen if we stay on the path we are on?
As I write, it’s the time of year for Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Built around three Spirits – of Christmas past, present and future – this tale is one of presenting the great biblical exhortation to choose life. Scrooge, living in a world of bah-humbug, is shown how his life will end (a lonely funeral) should he remain on the path he has chosen (having turned away from his generosity, his family, celebrating Christmas, and the needs of others including his faithful bookkeeper). A reminder of what his life could have been was shown to him by the Spirit of Christmas past.
This is what the biblical prophets do – they see the outcome of past and present choices we make (as both individuals, usually society’s decision makers, and as a culture) which they set in the context of God’s desired future for God’s creation.
God desires wholeness for Creation, signs of which include entering into right relationships, reconciliation, and care for the earth and her creatures. In this understanding, there are prophets among us who tell us what to expect if we stay, for example, on our current ecological path (continued indiscriminant use of plastics and non-renewable energy sources leading to severe strain and change on the earth).
Such sight is a blessing (a call to life), and a challenge (who will listen and turn to a different path?). There is also the difficulty of discerning who is the true prophet and who is the false prophet. Whose sight is true, and whose isn’t? As with today, in the Hebrew Scriptures there is mention of false prophets, people who told what those in power wanted to hear, what supported the rulers’ own self-focused desires. Discernment is not easy. Our biggest clue is how consistent a voice, or “sight”, is with God’s desire for Wholeness.
Go is a challenging game, and is easily set up to begin again. This too is a reminder that we can learn new ways of seeing, start new habits, and make different choices as we continue in our life journeys. Adjusting our choices for the benefit of others (“live simply so that others may simply live”) so that Wholeness may reign happens one step at a time. As the Season of Advent draws you into examining your preparedness, may you also see ahead to where your path is taking you.
Strangely when thinking about the portion of the Gospel with Martha ragging on sister Mary for not helping her prepare dinner for Jesus I had a tangential thought about mirrors. I have gotten to that point in life where I don’t really like mirrors. They may be helpful for checking whether what little hair I have left is in place, that there’s no spinach stuck between my front teeth, and that my shirt is properly tucked in. It’s just the truth telling aspect of mirrors that’s a challenge to my ego: the extra weight, the aging skin…
But the looking-glass is not the only kind of mirror we have. Several years ago, our youngest son wrote a Facebook post about watching his cousin’s young children for a few hours. He wrote, “I suddenly heard “my father’s words coming out of MY mouth. Oh NO!” This is mirroring from his childhood – some statement I made about expected behavior. More than a few of us older folk have mirrored our parent’s voices and realized it afterwards.
I wonder if Martha – the dutiful and hospitable sister who was busying herself with putting a meal together for Jesus and his disciples – heard her mother’s voice when she came to Jesus to complain about her sister, Mary, choosing not to help with this work. Martha’s words are: “Lord, do you not care that MY sister has left ME to do all the work by MYSELF? Tell her then to help ME.”
Martha seems completely filled with Martha – her needs and her feelings at the moment spill over taking center stage.
I am reminded of a time Nancy and I were traveling across Canada by train – arriving in Jasper at 7pm, five hours late. We had arranged to travel the next day to Bampf by a sight-seeing tour. Promised on this tour was a trip to a glacier – the first time we had ever seen one let alone walked on one – along with amazing Rocky Mountain views. It was lovely – except for the couple in the front seat. They had arrived on the same train, but were completely miffed that they had spent an extra five hours on the train the day before. They were loud, rude and demanding – they kept trying to push the tour driver to go faster – to spend less time at the glacier, and not to make other scenic stops. There was no consideration of wishes of the other passengers. It was all about them. They had announced in their introduction that they were psychologists who were trying to have some “leisure time” before they got to a conference. Instead of enjoying this leisure time the tour provided in nature they were distracted, annoyed and annoying.
Or as Jesus names it, “worried and distracted.” I’ve been in that same spot – and likely most of us have been, too. There are uncomfortable ways in which Martha’s situation and response ca easily be mirrored in each of us.
Jesus responds by tells her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Jesus knows Martha is providing a welcome meal for him and his disciples Why does he react that way?
Mary is described as sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening. It’s the end of the day, and Jesus may be reviewing the teachings & experiences of this day – this passage follows the telling of the story of the Good Samaritan. Imagine Mary is “soaking it all in.” She is focused, she is likely in the midst of a conversation about God and neighbor and expected and unexpected behavior. This is the core “stuff” of Jesus’ concerns, ministry and life. I imagine Mary so focused on Jesus that she has lost sight of her sister; is completely unaware of the setting sun and the approaching night. She is fully alive to her Lord, her faith, herself. It is her focus AND what she is focused on, that Jesus is protecting from Martha’s chastisement.
Martha’s worries about the hospitality may be real, but they are also exaggerated mundane, and as the focus of her attention they only compound and deepen her misery. She frets that Mary & then Jesus won’t join her in her worries. To worry is one thing, but to feel alone with no one to help with your worries is worse.
Martha’s dilemma reminds me of the many in our society who want and insist that others to join in their worry and distraction. They want us to engage their worry and they become incensed when we refuse to be distracted and pulled into THEIR worries. Yet, most often their worries like Martha’s are exaggerated and their proposed solutions are of little help. It reminds me of the quote: “we were too busy mopping the floor to turn off the faucet.”
Martha is, in this instance, MY, ME, MY, ME all the way. She is feeling left alone and put upon. She feels she is owed her sister’s help. She then tries to triangulate Jesus into forcing Mary to join her in frenetic fretting & activity. She has created a world of distraction, demand and worry.
That is never an easy or good place to be. It’s a downright challenge at times. Family pressures, work pressures, building issues, illness, car trouble, the grocery list left at home, traffic – & frustration piles up, and before we know it we are in a world of ME & MY – with the accompanying thought why does everything “happen” to “me”?
Jesus says (and here you may insert your name ) “…you are worried and distracted… Choose the better part.” Are we being asked to sit at Jesus’ feet in the midst of traffic or a bad day at work? Not exactly, but yes, in a way we are. We are being invited to get out of a “MY, ME, MY, ME” attitude. Traffic jams are not about ME – it could be an accident, road work, or just plain heavy traffic. A bad day is not the demonic or the universe conspiring against ME. The problem is that to focus on these things distracts us from paying attention to the presence of God around us. “Choosing the better part” is an invitation to see the opportunities around us to be good news to other and to ourselves. We might drive more courteously, connect with coworkers, give a smile to a worker or fellow shopper… do whatever is life giving and connects us with God, Gods people & creation.
To make this shift is not a natural response. It requires that we practice shifting our focus from the distractions, in order to seek an awareness of the presence of God in and through nature and in other people we meet as we interact with. To be present with requires focus and intention. This allows us to become lost in the present moment. And elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus tells us that in this way of “losing” our life we gain even more deeper and richer life.
We need to practice being intentional about Jesus advice to Martha to choose the better part until it becomes our second nature…
It is all too natural and too easy to “mirror” worried, distracted, self-focused, everything is against me “Martha” type behavior. It takes greater attention, more focus and self-awareness to be like Mary. “Mary” behavior pays attention to relationships: with God, with neighbor, with self. But that response makes all the difference to us and to others. Jesus shows us that there is nothing wrong with Martha or Mary – but that Mary has managed to focus in this instance on what is REALLY important – as can we if we want to do so.
As Jesus notes, “choose the better part.”
PS And I should add, this better part makes looking in the mirror much more tolerable.
So what are we to learn from the three distinctive readings for Pentecost?
Let’s begin with Genesis & the Tower of Babel, recalling a story of initial unity that never really existed. We are certainly not dealing with history – what we are dealing with is a story told around a campfire that contains more truth than history ever could.
Everyone spoke a single language – and everyone worked together – and they accomplished good things – until they decide they were as powerful as god. And suddenly the world as we know it appears – different languages, confusion and clash of different culture, so no one is able to cooperate with the others. Here we find in ancient Hebrew scripture our present situation… primarily seeing difference, disunity, and distrust.
In the book of Acts we hear of the apostles (after what we call Ascension) waiting together – not knowing what to do. Commissioned by Jesus to tell the story but instructed to wait not knowing what they were waiting for. Together in the upper room on the Jewish feast of Pentecost they have an experience they cannot describe except in comparing it to other things
– like the sound of a mighty rushing wind – but yet it wasn’t a wind.
They saw something come upon them like tongues of flame – but it wasn’t flames or fire.
They found that the experience changed them and later described it as being filled with God’s spirit. They found the courage to leave the fear that held them in that upper room, and discovered the ability to do what they did not believe they could do. They were able to speak to those gathered in Jerusalem from all over the world.
It is like the reversal of the tower of Babel. Where people who were powerless in terms of the culture and society of the day, recognized God in their midst and found that Spirit which unites them and gives them the ability to tell the story of Jesus to a diversity of people in spite of the differences. This community of believers found a unity of purpose.
But some have asked how do we know that something really happened? By the fact that we are here in the 21st century as people following in the way of Jesus. The fact that for generations these stories have been shared, and each generation discovers them to be good news for people of different countries, cultures, races and temperaments is proof that there is a spiritual reality here.
The additional proof is that that for generations people have experienced God’s spirit present with them, and many are able to do amazing things. They become people like Albert Schweitzer, Nelson Mandella, Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa, and also like those saints we have experienced in our life that do not have world wide fame but who none the less touch lives deeply.
In the Gospel of John we hear of Jesus and the disciples in the upper room, before the crucifixion. There there is tension in the air as Jesus is trying tio prepare them for the future they do not see ahead of them. There is a sense of urgency, of time is running out. Phillip, unable to understand what Jesus is trying to tell them, asks for Jesus to show them God, saying “Show us the Father”. In essence Philip wants to know everything in one clarifying moment
– wants to under stand the mystery
– wants to comprehend all Jesus has been teaching him… wants to see it clearly NOW!
I think we have all had those moments when we want to understand it and we want to understand it NOW!
Instead Jesus tells him:
- You know me – To see God look at me – you can see the divine through and at work in me.
- If that is not enough – look at the things I do and see God at work in them.
- And insists that anyone (including Philip, you and me) who believe in Jesus and offer them selves in service to others will discover within themselves the Spirit of God.
Pentecost celebrates God’s gift to his people of this Spirit. Through the Spirit God dwells within us to empower us to find and use the gifts we have been given.
When we do, we are able find unity with others different from ourselves, to do things that may astound us, and allows us to recognize this indwelling presence of God.
In baptism we receive the sign of the cross of Jesus on our forehead with the words “You are sealed by the Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” That sign is an assurance that God created us, loves, us, gifted us, and commissions us to be God’s heart, and hands, and voice in the world.
In the account of Pentecost in Acts there was a sudden event leading to dramatic results. The resurrection account in the Gospel of John is different after Jesus gives them the Holy Spirit – there is not much change in the apostles, they remain in the locked room. It was a first ‘baby step’ changing their understanding, which led later to the overpowering presence of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. This tells us not to be disheartened if our journey has not yet produced dramatic spiritual results. Stay on the path. Don’t go back to your locked room of defeat or fear; do not end this spiritual journey. Jesus says “The wind of the Spirit blows where it wills” and one day it may blow upon us with a deepened awareness of the Spirit’s power within us, or may kindle a fire within us that changes our life and the lives of others.
Jesus said “…my peace I give unto you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
In the book of Acts today we have a strange story of Peter’s vision as sail cloth lowered from heaven, ritually unclean animals and Peter being told to kill and eat these unclean critters. If we look at it closely it is a story about transformation. Peter was raised strictly in the his faith., He knew the dietary laws which prohibited him from eating a variety of food – including animals that the Holiness code of Leviticus calls unclean.
Here is orthodox Peter still living by the Jewish dietary laws he grew up with. And in his vision he sees this whole cart load of unclean animals and is told “Here Peter have snack” – He refuses saying I cant, I have never eaten these unclean things. And the reply is “what God has made clean you must not call unclean.”
Peter is then summoned to go off to Caesarea to go to Gentiles. Part of the tradition of Judaism was a sense of separation of us /them via circumcision,– dietary laws, rituals, all to draw distinctions. Gentiles are from us Jews. We are clean and holy – they may be OK but they are unclean in terms of our religious values.
Pete goes there anyway and finds that the spirit is at work amongst them as well. God was showing Peter a new way of thinking and acting. God continually leads us into new ways of thinking and acting.
We are the body of Christ as well as the community of the church. This is not a static community – where everything stays the same for generations on end. It supposed to be a dynamic community where God leads each generation into new understandings of what it means to live and to serve and to love.
In the Gospel of John we have one of the simplest and one of the hardest portions of the Gospel. “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.”
Simple in that we know what love is and hard in that it is difficult to act lovingly towards other people at all times and circumstances. But the simplicity is deceiving. It may not be all that simple. We are supposed to love others as Jesus loved his disciples – as he loves us. But just what does that mean?
Some believe it means that we need to be perfect – to love in a perfect way as Jesus loved in a perfect way. But that takes our job from difficult past impossible. None of us are perfect nor can we realistically attain to perfection. That is an impossible goal.
When I look at the Gospels I see that Jesus learns from others throughout his ministry. He not only teaches the crowds he also learns from them. Jesus continues to learn how to live out his beliefs wholly and with more consistency – and that you and I actually can do.
Some see in Jesus a selfless love. In the greatest of human loves there is always an element of self within. Self dominates our thinking – what will I get, how will it benefit me? That is a part of our evolutionary heritage – survival of self. When we are able to get past self we find in those moments a different kind of love that communicates deeply and sincerely.
Others point to the sacrificial way in which Jesus loves. He gives up his life for his friends. Sacrificial love is not impossible for us to emulate but it is difficult. We keep getting in the way. Our egos, our wants, our frailties, each of these trip us up.
We may think we are being sacrificial but often discover that we are fooling ourselves. Like toddlers we begin with small steps, small bits of sacrificial living. But the more we learn to do it the better we may get at it.
Some say that love is blind. That it does not see the humanity of the other. But love as Jesus lived it was not blind. He clearly saw the frailty of those before him. Saw them and loved them for what they were – frailties, failings, inconsistencies, and all. Love that is blind ends with disillusionment and disappointment. But love that sees, sees past, and accepts the other as they are – is love that truly heals.
Some think of Jesus’ love as servant love – reaching out to serve, to feed, to heal, to bless. Again it is an image supported in the Gospels and yet hard for us to live out every day. It is an image that speaks of service to others before service to self.
But too often that vision carries with it a negative sense of self worth reasoning that says unless I forget myself, unless I hate myself, or neglect myself I am unworthy. We need love that is balanced – that can see clearly beyond ourselves and are willing to serve needs beyond our own – and to be healthy it is a love that recognizes that in giving the summary of the law Jesus tells us we need to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This tells us we need to have a love of self – an acceptance of who and whose we are – and we have to do this in order to be able to love others.
This gospel of love is not simple – it is not easy. It is some of the hardest work we can do. I was talking with a man who was attending an Elderhostle at a retreat center a few years ago. He was speaking about the church he belonged to. He said that when he walks into the church during the week – when no one is there – it is quite easy to be a Christian. It is only when other people are there – with all of their needs and demands, all of their peculiarities, all of the foibles and strange ways of being and living, that being a Christian becomes so difficult.
We are called & baptized into a community of believers for it is in the community that we can learn how to love as Jesus loved. Where we begin to model our lives and our behavior after the one who showed us how to love.
The Gospel tells us
Love is the command,
love is the way,
love is the inspiration –
love is the difficult choice we make,
love is what we try to live out,& what we fail to live out,
love is what forgives us and tells us to try again – & again, & again…
Our as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry sums it up – “If it is not about love – it is not about God…
Ananias, a disciple of Christ, also had a vision. He was asked to go to Saul, a man who had the power to arrest Ananias, in order to give Saul his sight and a message from the Lord. God intended to use this Saul (whom we now call Paul) to being the good news to the gentile world. With great trepidation, Ananias went to see this murderous menace he has heard about – and laid on hands of healing to help Saul regain his sight.
But sight is not always sought, let alone regained, by those intent on their own way – whose evil intentions remain on accomplishing threats and murder. We wonder what kind of world we are leaving for our children and grandchildren. We hear much fear of the many possibilities there are for evil and destruction to cross the paths of our loved ones, disrupting their lives.
In today’s Gospel reading we have a glimpse into the lives of the disciples following Jesus betrayal and brutal death. They went back to Galilee, and not knowing what else to do, they go back to what they knew – taking care of themselves, they return to fishing. They go back to the familiar. As recounted in John, they catch nothing. It seems that even in their old trade they do not find success. A stranger on the beach suggests they cast the net on the other side of the boat. And they get an astounding catch – so great, that they are astonished that the net was not torn. Jesus was recognized, and Peter rushed to shore to be with him. Jesus was prepared for them, a meal was ready to share.
This Gospel describes a very typical human reaction following great trauma and upset: the disciples returned to the familiar. They wanted to regain some sense of normalcy, and of moving on with their lives. They tried to go back to the way things were before. As if we can ever get back to what was ‘before.’
Jesus addresses Peter – the disciple who not only ran away, but also three times denied even knowing Jesus – and says ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ Peter says “Yes! You know that I love you.” Jesus says “Feed my lambs.” Jesus asks twice more, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ After each affirmation Peter is told “Feed my sheep.” In doing this, Jesus not only helps Peter forgive the betrayal but also points him in a direction – that of doing what a shepherd does, but doing it for God’s people.
The focus on the Easter Season is new life, abundant life, life lived in the resurrected Christ. This is the kind of life God desires for us, as well as the kind of life the church wishes for its members, and parents wish for their children.
Jesus asked, ‘Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep.’
These are nice words. But they will just remain only nice words if we do not understand what Jesus was teaching Peter.
‘Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep.’ Jesus, who knows that Peter loves him, was asking Peter about more than the status of their relationship. Jesus is telling Peter that love is not a feeling or a thing but is essentially an action. It is not enough for Peter to feel good about Jesus, Peter must actively work to feed and nourish God’s people in order to live out the love and forgiveness that Jesus has shown him.
As part of our baptismal promises and confirmation vows, we have pledged to live out in the world the love and forgiveness God has given us – in tangible ways, through specific actions. Actions in Christian community, actions at the work place, actions at home.
Ananias, who knew of Saul’s evil reputation, went to lay hands on Saul as the Lord asked him to do. After he was healed, Saul spent several days with the followers of Christ in Damascus, and ‘immediately began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” This 180° turn in attitude was followed by dramatic action.
What action need we, who are follower in the Way of Christ, take? The Baptismal Covenant asks:
* Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News?
* Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons?
* Will you strive for justice and peace among all people?
A number of projects undertaken by members of our current congregation show forth this sort of action: Food is donated to a food pantry where several of our members are volunteers. School children receive extra reading help;
Offerings, made while sharing thanksgiving and prayer concerns, are collected for use in mission projects through the United Thank Offering; Clark County CARES work on addiction issues is enabled, City Pride enhances the livability of our city. The list goes on and on…
After Jesus addressed Peter for the third time, telling him to “feed my sheep,” he told Peter what would happen in his old age. “Someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” – an indication of the kind of death by which he would glorify God.
We know that many Christians of the first few centuries, as well as some today, face persecution for their beliefs. They risk their lives to proclaim “Jesus is Lord.” They stand in the face of evil, and hold on to their God. They do not go back to ‘business as usual’ – they use their particular gifts to take their part in changing the world one bit at a time. Not everyone can stop evil perpetrated by others, but Christians can seek the light of Christ by which to choose their actions, in order to respond to Jesus’ call to “feed my sheep.”
When Jesus finished speaking with the disciples, he simply said, “follow me.”
Where was God during the shooting in North Carolina? God was present in the actions of Riley Howell a student who tackled the shooter saving the lives of many others. God was present in the midst of that chaos in the person of students and faculty who looked out for others, who helped one another, who enfolded others, comforted others. God is in the people reaching out to others in sorrow and love. God is present in the medical professionals who treated the survivors. We will hear many stories of the presence of God in time of trouble if we listen to the stories of the people of God.
These apostles in the reading today – Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, and the sons of Zebedee, and Saul (renamed Paul) – did indeed follow Jesus. They left their fishing nets, and made the choice to follow the Way of Christ. They entered unfamiliar territory; they used their gifts to serve others and to continue God’s work in the world. We know this because it is recorded in our sacred scripture, and in stories and legends that is part of the legacy of followers in the way.
Their stories have been handed onto us, as has this same ministry of Christ. While it may not seem, for example, that being involved in making Easter baskets for the Youth Shelter or providing food for the food pantry is a direct answer to those who breathe threats and murder, it is!
These are examples of a few simple ways through which we share the new life and love we find in Christ, and of proclaiming by our actions as well as our words, the Good News of God in Christ.
When Jesus finished speaking with the disciples, he simply said, “Follow me.”