Following Jesus, In the World

 

John 17:6-19     Seventh Sunday of Easter     May 17, 2015

 

When my  kids were in high school, they were in the marching band.  For three of those years, I was president of the Performing Arts Boosters.  How many of you have done this kind of support work for a program your kids were involved in?  You know that the job is to raise money for the band, or the Scout troop, or the sports team.  (We ate a lot of Corby’s pizzas during those years!)  But, as the Spirit moved, it turned out that my role expanded way beyond fund raising.  It became part of my vocational calling, obeying Jesus’ command to love.[1]

Jesus keeps talking about the joy that comes, when we obey his command to love.  Joy came from working closely with the band director who was a religious African-American woman, and who was very comfortable with my presences as a pastor.  I took the time to build a good relationship with the principal of the school, who was also an African-American.  I was often in the school for various purposes, often wearing the “uniform”: a black shirt with a collar.  I enjoy teenagers and they enjoy me.  And so, do you see how this became a God thing?  God used this combination of factors: male-female, white-African American, and an underlying  religious orientation that we adults shared: that kids are valuable because of who they are, children of God.  (Shhh!  Don’t tell anybody that we didn’t keep God out of the school!)  The result was a rare, healthy inter-racial community within the high school: a group of kids with close friendships crossing racial lines, supporting each other – and even protecting each other by demanding of each other a high standard of behavior.  Of course, the performing arts kids didn’t close themselves off from others.  The community among them enhanced the wider school community.  (Usually, the performing arts kids were also the highest achieving, academically.)

I think of this because it seems to me there are parallels with the words that Jesus is praying, in this morning’s passage from the gospel of John – of a smaller community within the wider community.

We read an excerpt from chapter 17 of that gospel, which are words of a prayer by Jesus, the Son, addressed to the Father.  It is the night before his arrest.  Jesus is praying for his small band of followers: for their protection, for their vocation.  Jesus declares that we, his followers, are not of the world.  But we are in the world.  Jesus prays to the Father that we be protected in the world, but he is not praying that we be removed or sequestered from the day-to-day experiences of human life.  That’s because Jesus has given us a vocation with his command to love.  So, Jesus is describing several things that are true.  As followers of Jesus, we are a community in ourselves, set apart from the world.  But our vocation is for others!  We are following the risen Jesus in the world, and we are obeying Jesus’ command to love even those we don’t like.  (This is love, of course, that has nothing to do with personal feelings.  This is a love that is a verb; it is acting in love, following the model and example of Jesus.)

This vocation that Jesus gives us is the source of deep joy.  But it is not necessarily an easy life.  Indeed, following Jesus’ command to love can become dangerous!  We read some disturbing words that Jesus prays over his followers: I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  

Does the world hate us followers of Jesus?  That’s all in the ancient past, isn’t it?  That was back when Roman emperors were feeding Christians to the lions in the coliseum, right?  Here is some startling news: according to the Vatican, in the first 15 years of the 21st century, more Christians have been martyred than during all of the Church’s first five centuries! [2]  Robin Beres wrote about how the world hates followers of Jesus, in last Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch:

“Pew Research confirms that Christianity is the world’s most persecuted religion….Twice as many followers of Christ were killed in 2014 as in 2012.  The top five nations where the worst offenses are happening are North Korea, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan….

“Throughout Iraq and Syria especially, untold numbers of Christians have been killed or forced to flee their homes.  Hundreds of ancient churches have been desecrated or destroyed.  For more than 2,000 years, Christians lived and worshiped in the ancient Iraqi city of Mosul.  In 2003, there were 60,000 Christians living in the city.  Today, there are zero – a scenario being repeated in cities and towns through Iraq and Syria.”

When we lift our eyes to pay attention to the global church, we see that there are always places where the church is dying and, at the same time, there are places where the church is flourishing.  And this is true, too: across the globe, there are always places where Christians are hated and being killed because they are followers of Jesus.  I think these things have been true, throughout history, ever since Jesus rose from the dead.

In this country and in this time in history, you and I live in comfort as followers of Jesus.  Is that a good thing?  In our time and place, we followers of Jesus are usually simply ignored.  That’s because, for the most part, we’re too innocuous to provoke hostility.  Of course, the goal is not necessarily to incite anger!  But I wonder: aren’t we at least called to be an irritant when we are following Jesus in the world?  If we’re obeying his command to love, won’t we be irritating to those who would rather just ignore those who are poor and powerless and on the margins?

The reason why Jesus was hated and, eventually, crucified, is because he insisted that God holds most closely those who the religious rule-makers were excluding and judging to be unclean.  Jesus embodied God’s love for those who the religious rule-makers pushed to the margins.  That’s who he hung out with.  I don’t think Jesus tried to cause the powers-that-be to hate him, any more than martyrs for the faith have in our own times, martyrs such as Martin Luther King, Jr., or Archbishop Romero; or followers of Jesus in Iraq and Syria; or any others who have found themselves in circumstances that have made it dangerous for them to obey Jesus’ command to love.

And I don’t know that this life of following Jesus will become dangerous for any of us.  But, since you and I are commanded to love those who are on the margins, shouldn’t we at least be irritating weirdos?  For instance, consider those who belong to the world, who place high value in acquiring and hoarding material possessions.  Should they, at the very least, think us weird – because we give so much money away to bring God’s love to battered women and children at Avalon, or victims of earthquakes in Nepal, or impoverished students in Tanzania?  Consider those who belong to the world, who place high value on youth and beauty and celebrity.  Shouldn’t they think us weird – because we’re following Jesus’ command to love precisely those who they consider to be ugly and forgettable?

There is great joy in this weirdness, you know!  It comes from giving ourselves to this paradoxical life that Jesus has called us into.  We do not belong to the world, but we are following Jesus, in the world.

One last thing.  I wonder, if this is where we come to understand what Jesus is meaning, when he prays for “protection?”  Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.   While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me.  In the same way, in what we are doing right now, isn’t God the Holy Spirit protecting you and me in the irritating weirdness of our vocation?  In the Word of our worship gatherings, don’t we receive reminders from the Spirit, of what our vocation is?  In the water and bread and wine of our worship gatherings, don’t we receive refreshment from the risen Christ, when we have spent our energy obeying Jesus’ command to love?

It’s our rhythm, week after week after week.  We gather, a community of people who do not belong to the world.  And then we scatter, nourished and empowered to continue following Jesus, in the world.

In the name of God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Pastor Andy Ballentine

[1] This is in the gospel passage appointed for last Sunday, John 15:9-17.  The sermon, focusing on Jesus’ command us to love, is available online or in the Gathering Space of the church building.

[2] Robin Beres, “Killing Christians: Persecution is on the rise from Africa to Asia,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sunday, May 10, 2015.

That Our Joy May Be Complete

 

1 John [4:7-21]5:1-6; John 15:9-17     Sixth Sunday of Easter     May 10, 2015

 

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.   Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.   God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.   In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.   Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us….

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.  Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.  There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  We love because he first loved us.  Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also….

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.  For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments….

“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.” [1]

I have just read excerpts from three different passages that have been appointed for two mornings of Sunday worship (last Sunday and today), and that that come from two books of the Bible!  Didn’t all the verses flow together well?  You couldn’t tell where one passage was ending and another was beginning, could you?

That’s because they all come from writings that one ancient community of Jesus people produced.  As we are working through the season of Easter, we are reading from the gospel of John.  And we are reading from the first of three very short letters of John in the New Testament.  These were written about a generation later than the gospel of John.  And what do the authors write about, over and over?  They’re focused on God’s!  What a shame that there are so many people who will never set foot inside a church building because they have felt judged by a “good church person.”  What a shame that is, because: God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.  And: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Isn’t it strange to think that Jesus commands us to love?  Don’t we just fall in love?  Well, of course, Jesus is not talking about romantic love – or even love that is a personal feeling.  This is the love that comes from God that enables and empowers us to be disciples for our neighbors.  Listen again: We love because he first loved us.  Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

*  *  *

I know President Obama is a polarizing figure, but did you pick up on a remarkably Christian thing that he said this past week?  President Obama is helping to launch a foundation to assist youth and young adults who are African American and Hispanic, and he was talking about that and also about the recent unrest in Baltimore.  He said, “‘I grew up without a dad.  I grew up lost sometimes and adrift, not having a sense of a clear path,’ adding that he was lucky because he was in an environment where people cared for him.”  And then he said this: “Really that’s what this comes down to: Do we love these kids?”[2]

I have never heard a political leader use the word, “love,” when discussing public policy!  Think of the difference it would make if public policy was governed by that question: “Do we love these kids?”

What do we read in John?  We love because [God] first loved us.  Love comes from God, first.  It is that love that enables and empowers us to be disciples for our neighbors.  Certainly, this is not an easy thing to do!  It is nearly impossible, in particular, to love someone you don’t like or who doesn’t act in the ways you think s/he “should.”

*  *  *

            I went to a remarkable funeral this past Monday.  It was for a homeless man named Tommy.  He had been found dead at his camp site in the woods.  The word about the funeral went out among those in our churches who are serving the homeless, who encouraged their clergy to be at the service.  So I put on the uniform and pedaled my bicycle over to the Williamsburg Christian Church where, it turns out, Tommy had been baptized just about a year ago.  Several people spoke openly and honestly about their relationships with Tommy.  For much of his life, Tommy had been possessed by the demon alcohol addiction.  He had been sober for seven of the 12 months following his baptism: one time for four months, and then for a period of three months.  The speakers talked about how complicated and difficult it was to love Tommy.  One said he discovered that if he tried to do too much, Tommy would “go off into the woods.”  Tommy was open to their love, but on his terms!

We read words as from Jesus: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  Who have you been commanded to love, and that is a difficult thing to do?  Is it a family member?  Is it a co-worker you don’t even like?  What about the commandment that we love kids in a public housing project in a neighborhood where the high school absentee rate on any given day is 50%?

None of this is easy but all of it is gospel.

That gospel, that good news struck me last Sunday.  A phrase, from the reading in First John, rose up and grabbed my attention.  Listen: Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment,…  Do you see how this changes everything about the day of judgment?  What if we will not be judged according to all those things “good church people” get all worked up about: whether we’re sexually oriented correctly, or whether we have the proper marital status, or what kind of shoes we wear to worship?  Instead, we will be judged according to the quality of our love!  Here’s the good news: there is to be no fear in this!  God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.  Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.  There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  We love because [God] first loved us.  

Do you see how this changes everything – when we’re acting out of love, when we’re serving those we love but don’t even like; and not always because we want to love in this way (because that pulls us out of our self-centered comfort zones which, by definition is uncomfortable), but because of these words as from Jesus: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  And so, here is the Christian life: We simply give ourselves to God, who is love.  Then  we do the work God gives us to do – which is to love.  Jesus tells his first followers, and all of us who follow after: “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.  

And here’s the last thing.  In this is joy!  In this life of following Jesus, of obeying Jesus’ commandment (which means, simply, giving ourselves in love), there is joy!  Listen: I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”  

Wait.  That’s where we find joy?!  Isn’t this life of following Jesus very strange?!

 

In the name of God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Pastor Andy Ballentine

[1] 1 John 4:7-12, 16b-5:3a; John 15:9-12

[2] “Obama on protests: ‘There are consequences to indifference’” (Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 5, 2015, page A5)

     

Fruit Loops

John 15:1-8     Easter 5      May 3, 2015

“Seventy-five. That’s how long I want to live: 75 years.[1]” So writes Ezekiel Emanuel. Emanuel is an oncologist, a bioethicist, a writer, and vice provost of the University of Pennsylvania. Friends and family tell him that as he approaches age 75, he will extend his desired life-span, but he is certain. Currently, he is in excellent health at age 57. Ezekiel isn’t alone in the world. He has two brothers and a sister, and is father to three daughters.

Emanuel’s father was a pediatrician and his mother was a nurse and a psychiatric social worker. His parents actively engaged in caring for those in need and in matters of social justice. Conversation around the dinner table usually centered upon ethical questions. Ezekiel has given his life and his choices much thought. He says colonoscopies and other cancer-screening tests are out after age 65. Regular medical testing will stop. Flu shots will be out.

Why would a well-educated, financially comfortable person with family decide that age 75 is it? People in Nepal who have lost everything are fighting to restore their lives, while Emanuel is thinking about his end. Dr. Emanuel explains that old age:

…robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic…By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life….I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make….We want to be remembered as independent…[2]

Jesus’ vision for us is different. Jesus doesn’t see us as independent. “I am the vine, and you are the branches,” he tells us. What wonderful imagery Jesus uses to explain that we are connected to him, and because we are connected to him, we are connected to each other. While in our time and place we tend to interpret scripture as being directed to us as individuals, usually Biblical writings concern community. This is the case here. English does not make it clear, but the “you” in Jesus’ discourse is plural.

“I am the vine, and you are the branches,” Jesus says, illustrating that we are connected to each other and to him. Equally important is that through this metaphor, Jesus reminds us that we are dependent upon him for life! At the beginning of our worship, we prayed, “O God, you give us your Son as the vine apart from whom we cannot live.” According to John’s gospel, this is why Jesus came. Earlier in John, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (10:10b).” How do we do that? “Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus tells us.

Abide appears eight times in just four verses. Abiding is allowing ourselves to be held, and to be at home. This is Jesus’ way of talking about love. For Christ to abide in us and we in him means that we are bound together in faithful relationship. For us to do this is so important, Jesus uses the imperative. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

“Ask” as Jesus uses it is also an imperative. So Jesus gives these two commands. First, abide in him and second, ask for whatever we wish. Remember, that “you” is us, and not an individual. “You” is a community. If we are in relationship with Jesus and with each other, what we would ask for, what we want is for the good of our community.

We are not used to thinking in those terms. In our culture we are autonomous. This is part of Ezekiel Emanuel’s erroneous thinking. He just “wants to be remembered as independent.” He values self-sufficiency more than relationship. We are never independent because we are always part of a community, be it church, family, our neighborhood or the world. John Donne said it well, “No man is an island.”

The other part of Ezekiel Emanuel’s thinking that Jesus would have issue with is how he assesses value. Listen again to his words. “ …By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life….I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make.” We are worthy because God created us. Our value is in being.

Jesus says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” There is no hierarchy to branches! No one branch can claim privilege or status over or under another branch. Sex, gender, ethnicity, and age do not make us more or less valuable. Working hard and completing projects does not make us more or less valuable. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit,” Jesus says. Jesus is saying that simply by being in relationship with Jesus we will bear fruit. Jesus did not say that if we work 50 hours a week, go to the gym every day, have a body mass index of between 18.5 and 24.9, or achieved summa cum laude that we will bear more fruit than someone else or move up 5 branches on the vine. These are not the things that give us life! It is the vine, it is Christ, who give us life! Thanks be to God!

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/09/why-i-hope-to-die-at-75/379329/

[2] ibid.

I Just Want to be a Sheep

John 10:25-37     Fourth Sunday of Easter     April 26, 2015

I don’t want to be a sheep! Sheep are smelly, it’s hard to get a comb through their hair, they are stuck with each other in a flock, and someone fleeces them once a year. Their I.Q. is , well…let’s just say they are a few coals short of a bar-b-que. Recently, I read that sheep are not dumb at all, that it is the cattle ranchers who are responsible for spreading that ugly rumor. But my husband, who grew up on a farm, said that cattle rancher was trying to inflate his own ego. Both cows and sheep are not very smart. Research has determined that one of the reasons sheep travel together is for self-protection. They reduce their risk of getting eaten by moving in a larger group. Sheep are focused on their own preservation, and their behavior is determined by their fear[1]. I don’t want to be a sheep.

Shepherds, too, have their common characteristics. Abraham, Moses and David are all described as keeping sheep. When the 23rd Psalm was written, shepherding was not the despised position that it was in the time of Jesus. Biblical scholar Mark Allen Powell points out that shepherds were not held in high regard when Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” The shepherds were despised mainly by “the elite,” including Pharisees, scribes, and priests[2]. By the time of Jesus, shepherding positions were filled from the lowest ranks of society, by persons who could not find what was regarded as decent work. The Pharisees classified shepherds along with tax collectors and prostitutes, people who were sinners by virtue of their vocation. Society stereotyped shepherds as liars, degenerates and thieves. They were held in such disregard that their testimony was not admissible in court.

The job of a shepherd was dangerous, risky and menial. Shepherds were rough around the edges, spending their time in fields with animals rather than with polite society. For Jesus to say, “I am the good shepherd,” and those who follow him are his sheep is a slam to the religious leaders of the day.

I confess that I’ve never seen a shepherd in person. Say shepherd, and my brain conjures up an image from Christmas pageants and Charlie Brown’s Christmas. I see a short person in a bathrobe with a towel draped over the head held on by a scarf. If your image of shepherds comes from pictures, you most likely envision a man with a serene look on his face and a lamb draped over his shoulders. But the most gripping and honest portrait of Jesus as shepherd is one written by Flora Wuellner about a painting she had seen:

It is not the [image of] the robed and peaceful person holding a small lamb with a flock at his feet that we often see depicted in stained-glass windows. Rather it’s a tattered and bleeding person who had crawled down a steep cliff edge to rescue a lamb that had fallen. The lamb was injured and a bird of prey circled overhead. I could not see the shepherd’s face as he strained down to the sheep, but I could see the knots in his muscles, the bleeding hands and arms gashed by thorns, the twisted garment torn in the steep descent…..The determined shepherd was paying a painful price to rescue the lamb, and the lamb would be saved.[3]

This is the shepherd who lays down his life. This is the shepherd who stays with us when the hired hand runs away. This is the shepherd who pursues us, the smelly ones who are focused on self-protection. We are his sheep, and Jesus says that the sheep hear his voice. I don’t know about you, but I suspect you are like me. Sometimes I need a hearing aid. Instead of trusting in Jesus, I follow the hired hand who always ends up disappointing and abandoning me. Have you ever had this experience?

The story of Luis illustrates God’s continued calling through Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle. Father Boyle founded a gang-intervention program in Los Angeles, in the neighborhood of the city that is considered to be the gang capital of the world. He has found that the people with whom he works have no realistic sense of themselves, let alone of others. Underlying their behaviors and attitudes is the belief that they are not worthy of love.

Luis was a young man in his mid-twenties. He had been one of the smartest and biggest drug dealers in the community. No one could catch him, not the police and not Father Boyle. But when God blessed him with a daughter, Luis asked to work at the bakery Father Boyle started as part of his gang-intervention program. Luis had natural leadership abilities, and worked his way up to foreman. He not only worked with his former rivals, he supervised them. Luis was transformed from someone who hated himself and hated his rivals into someone who understood the value of life that God created. He was able to pay rent with honest money, and he became a good father.

It was a Wednesday afternoon, and Luis was looking forward to a couple days off. He was in the middle of packing up his car to go camping with friends. Two gang members, with their faces covered came into this particular neighborhood, –enemy territory for them. They walked right up to Luis and executed him.

At his funeral, Luis’ friends asked, “What’s the point?” Pausing for only a moment, Father Boyle answered that Luis was a human being who came to know the truth about himself, that he was loved by God. Boyle writes,:

Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth century female English mystic, saw the life struggle as coming to discover that we are ‘clothed in God’s goodness.’ This became Luis’ life’s work. He embraced this goodness—his greatness—and nothing was the same again. And, really, what is death compared to knowing that? No bullet can pierce it[4].

At the end of our Lutheran funerals, the pastor commends the dead to God with these words:

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.

Being a sheep doesn’t mean that we are never afraid, or that we subscribe to every word of the Nicene Creed, or that we never doubt, We do, in fact, go places where we shouldn’t. Being a sheep doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. When we are in the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus crawls down the steep cliff edge to rescue us. Maybe we can’t see the shepherd’s face, but there are knots in his muscles, and blood dripping from his hands. God is right there with us when we go over the edge, and when we walk through the dark valley of despair. God has been there, too. God has gone before us. The Shepherd is the Lamb, who suffered betrayal and lies, had nails pounded into his flesh, and died hanging on a cross. Evil and death did not defeat Jesus the Christ. He is risen! He is risen indeed!

The best thing about being a sheep is the Shepherd. Because of the Shepherd, I just want to be a sheep.

~ Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

 

[1] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/lambs-on-the-lam-selfish-herd/ Web.

[2] In notes and conversation from the Fall 2014 ACTS class with Mark Allen Powell.

[3] Duckworth Penelope. Teaching Sermons on the Incarnation. “The Lord is My Shepherd.” Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998. 52-33. Print.

[4] Boyle, Gregory. Tattoos on the Heart. New York: Free Press, 2010. Print.

 If you would like a copy of an older sermon, e-mail Pastor Griffin or Pastor Ballentine!