Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Sermon about Unconditional Love

The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez
John 14:15-21
1 Peter 3:13-22

Jesus said to his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”

Let’s just start out this morning by admitting that this was a terrible verse on which to begin our reading from John’s Gospel. Whenever someone begins a sentence with, “If you love me,” it never ends well. N e v e r. I am not always the smartest person when it comes to relationships, but even I know better than that. And to hear something so conditional from the lips of Jesus, something that makes it sound like the gift of the Holy Spirit is really a loan, because it’s contingent on my good behavior, well, hearing something like that could send any of us into a crisis of faith. One of those deep childhood fears that many of us still carry with us is that we will somehow do something that will make us unlovable.

This is a manufactured crises, though, because our reading this morning picks up in the middle of a very long conversation that Jesus has with his disciples after the Last Supper. Jesus isn’t dumb enough to start the conversation with “If you love me.” This week, pick up your Bible and begin with John 13 before you read John 14. It makes everything make much more sense. It makes everything sound much less panic attack inducing to me. In context, Jesus’ conversation with the disciples reduces the number of commandments from 612—the number of commandments in the Law of Moses—to one: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” That sounds a lot more manageable, doesn’t it? Jesus isn’t telling us that we have to be perfect to love him. He’s telling us that we can’t claim to love him if we don’t love our neighbors.

Now, I’m not sure if that makes things better for me. I am going to do much better with one commandment than I am with 612, but it’s still a really hard commandment. It’s one that I struggle to keep. However, what the compilers of our lectionary got right was pairing our reading from John’s Gospel with our reading from 1 Peter. 1 Peter points us back to baptism, where our attempts at following at following Jesus began. At baptism, we either made a lot of promises to God, or we had them made on our behalf and affirmed them when we were confirmed. They’re big promises. We promised to continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship. We promised to persevere in resisting evil. We promised to proclaim the Gospel by our word and example. We promised to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourself. We promised to strive for peace and justice among all people. But if you think back to the last baptism you attended, we don’t just say “I will” to these promises. We say, “I will, with God’s help.” We can’t keep the promises we make at our baptisms. Not by ourselves anyway. God knows this. God knows that this whole Christian life thing stretches us, that so often the thing that we know we’re supposed to do is just beyond our grasp. God knows this, and God accepts us anyway.

We don’t just do this at baptisms, for the record. We do it at ordinations, too. When Arianne and I were ordained priests, we made vows before God and the Church. We made really big commitments that we will never be able to keep perfectly on our own. That’s why, during our ordinations, the bishops who ordained us prayed that God would give us the grace we needed to keep our vows. We do this at weddings, too. After the couple has exchanged their vows, the congregation prays that God give everyone in the room the grace we need to keep the vows that each of us has made in our lives.

At each of these sacramental moments in our lives, we believe that God gives us grace. That’s what a sacrament is: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. God’s grace isn’t confined to the sacraments. It pervades every corner of our lives. The sacraments are moments when we are assured of grace, but there are other moments of grace in our lives. That grace in which we live and move and have our being is how we love Jesus. That’s how I manage to love my neighbor as myself in spite of myself. That grace is what assures us, as St. Paul says, that neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. That grace is the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, moving in our lives. That grace is the assurance that Jesus will not leave us as orphans.

In his novel, Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” That’s why the new commandment Jesus gives us is to love one another. That’s why we will never be left orphaned, because we see God in the faces of those we love. At our baptisms, a priest dipped his or her finger into a vial of blessed oil and made the sign of the cross on our forehead. That priest spoke words of grace and promise, calling us by name and telling us that we were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as God’s own forever. Forever. At its heart, the Gospel is a story that tells us that God’s love for us is unconditional. That love, freely given, calls us to freely love. And, in doing so, we see God. Amen.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

We are getting ready!

I am ready, oh my children. When Jesus walks through that door. I’ll be there, come morning. Don’t weep for me I’ll be with my Lord. Amen.

Are we ready? Are we preparing for Jesus? Can I get an AMEN! Now I’ll go back to being an Episcopalian....

Our gospel this morning is a flashback. It’s Maundy Thursday – the night Jesus sits with the disciples, institutes the Lord’s Supper – and makes everyone uncomfortable (then and always) by washing feet.

Why do we hear a Holy Week gospel in the Great 50 Days of Easter Resurrection?

This passage is heard often at funerals. It’s at the top of my list for suggestions when people ask my opinion. The image of God’s house – which at that service we hear as heaven – with many dwelling places lends itself to the spiritual diversity you often have in the pews at a funeral. And the comforting words of Jesus – do not be troubled – remind us that God is here with us now, and holds in love the person around whom we gather to say goodbye.

But at that service the excerpt is half as long and ends on verse 6 with – No one comes to the Father except through me. And I, like many other priests, most often opt to cut that out. Ending instead with Jesus’ reminder that he is the way, the truth and the life.

If you think about it a moment, I bet you can guess why it is so often removed. That verse has been used many times to exclude people. It’s a verse used by some to say – see, it says it right here in the bible – you can’t get to God unless you go through Jesus. If you don’t go through Jesus you can’t be saved. And frankly, at a funeral, I’m not excluding anyone from the love of God.

Richard Rohr the priest and author who is very inclusive in his understanding of our relationship with the Divine and the validity of many paths– has had this verse hurled at him more than once. And his consistent reply is “When Jesus said, I am the way and the truth and the life, it means that you are not.”

That is certainly a helpful reminder that we don’t need to be the arbiters of who gets to God. And something else to pay attention to is the very specific identifier Jesus uses. He doesn’t say – no one comes to God or no one gets to heaven – he says no one comes to the Father. God as Father is unique to Jesus’ teachings. So really all Jesus is reminding his followers – who are now called Christian – that if Christians want to get to God – they are to follow the way of Jesus. Because if they want to know truth – if they want to know life – walking in the footsteps of Christ is how they will be led there.

Maybe we hear a Holy Week story in Easter because Holy Week is about walking with Jesus to the cross. And even with the blessed assurance that Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed – we are still always walking in Holy Week. We always are walking in a world that is filled with suffering – our own, personal struggles – and the suffering that surrounds us even when it is far away. We are a resurrected people – but that doesn’t mean our hearts are not troubled. There is a lot in this world to be troubled about.

What troubles us, troubled Jesus. When Jesus sees Martha weeping over the death of her brother Lazarus – it says Jesus’s spirit was greatly disturbed and he was deeply moved (11:33). When Jesus is praying in the garden of Gethsemane he tells the same disciples – that at this hour his soul is troubled – but what is he to do? Ask the Father to save him from what lies ahead? (12:26). And just moments before this exchange we read - Jesus, troubled in spirit declared, very truly I tell you one of you will betray me. (13:21) Death, anxiety, fear and sadness. Jesus knows the trouble we’ve seen.

But in each of these instances – Jesus’ troubled heart and spirit don’t keep him from walking. Believe in God, believe also in me – he says to those disciples. When we are troubled – keep believing there is life ahead. That’s faith, right? The real and incredible trust on our part to keep on walking towards God in the midst of fear and doubt.

Thomas and Philip need a more immediate and concrete response. Give me the GPS coordinates – Thomas says. Tell me exactly where it is I will be when this troubling time is over. And Philip says – show me God, then we’ll be satisfied. They, like us, want the destination, the goal, the answer. It’s a lot like when Jesus stands before Pilate and Pilate asks him, “What is truth?” There’s nothing for Jesus to say, because Pilate is staring truth in the face.

With his followers though he tries to give more of an explanation – it isn’t about the destination, the goal, the answer. It is about Jesus – which means – it is about walking the way. That’s what got Stephen brutally killed – in our reading from Acts. He stood before a council who accused him of wanting to do away with all of their religious traditions – and he said – this has always been the problem. And starting back with Abraham he goes through the narrative of God’s people describing – those who welcome new ways of finding God. Those who step out in faith like Sarah, believing into God when they have no idea if they are right. Those who trust the words inscribed on their hearts like Moses, even when they stand alone.

Stephen was part of a new way that sought out the poor and the marginalized – to be with them – not just help them – but be with them – and that was not what religious folk were supposed to do. But it was what Jesus did. And Stephen followed that way. And when they stoned him to death for it – he continued to follow in the way – uttering words of forgiveness in the face of hatred. And who stood on the sidelines looking on in approval? The man whose letters we read almost every Sunday around the world to tell us that nothing separates us from the love of God (Rom 8). St. Paul – persecutor of those who followed the Way. What does teach us about how God ability to turn hearts?

All of which to say, everything we do as a body of Christ is about walking the way. When we listen to the reports of our leaders – when we read about the ministries of this past year – there are accomplishments to celebrate, indeed. We need wins – we all need wins. But are the accomplishments what matter most in the life of a church? Will there ever be a time when we don’t need to build a house for Habitat, or cook a casserole for our Daily Bread, or fill out a pledge card – no. No matter how many houses or casseroles or balanced budgets we achieve – we are walking a way that doesn’t end. We don’t believe in endings, we believe in new beginnings. We are always getting ready!

So as a people who walk in the way of Jesus – what are we asking for in his name? If in my name you ask me for anything – I will do it – he says. And when we hear that we should hear – If in my name, y’all ask me for anything, I will do it. It’s plural – he is speaking to the small band of followers, the living stones that over two thousand years have been built into a spiritual house of God. Could that be the house Jesus is preparing? How are we preparing? What are we asking for in Christ’s name?

When I look at what we do, I see that we ask that people be fed and clothed – Habitat, Neighbor-to-Neighbor, Paul’s Place and our Daily Bread. We ask that people be nourished – spiritual enrichment – worship and fellowship – Sunday School and J2A. We ask that our house is a home. We have tasted here that the Lord is good. We ask that more people walk in this way with us.

I would ask you today – as you listen to the good news of God, as you listen to your sisters and brothers share the good news of this place – ask yourself – am I walking in the way with this body of Christ? Am I walking with those I worship with through participating in these ministries? Am I walking with those I worship with to invite people to this place? Am I walking with those I worship with to seek new ways we can grow in relationship with each other and with our community? Am taking part in getting ready?

In this house there are indeed so many wonderful and incredible ways to abide with God. That’s the dwelling place. God in us. We are God’s people. We are God’s own people called out of darkness and into light. And there is so much light and goodness that surrounds the Church of the Good Shepherd – this is a blessed community.

Let us pray – Almighty God, to know you is to know everlasting life here and now. Help us to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth and the life – so that we may continue to be generous and courageous in how we share that good news in our world. Amen. - The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

The 5th Sunday of Easter, The Church of the Good Shepherd
John 14:1-11; Sermon at Annual Meeting