Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, May 27, 2018

YEAR B 2018 trinity sunday

Trinity Sunday, 2018
Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, I have this friend I’ll call Steve.  Now Steve is a really great guy, and we’ve known each other a long time.  He was also a traveling musician, so we ended up at a lot of the same events each year.  As with any friendship, there are things that start to bug you after a while, and here’s the most maddening thing about my friend Steve:

When he has convinced himself that something is true about you, he will go out of his way to make sure everyone else will hear it.  Now, you know, issues of discretion aside, the worst thing about this is that Steve isn’t exactly the best listener, and he tends to generalize into big statements of what he thinks he heard. 

So, for instance, if I were to say that I’ve never really liked any of the Beatles’ songs written by Harrison, Steve might say, “One thing I know about George is that he doesn’t like the British.”  If I said, “I prefer to live in a city,” Steve would say, “One thing I know about George is that he thinks people who live in the country are stupid.” 

And there’s really no arguing with Steve on this kind of stuff.  Because as soon as you start trying to explain that he misheard you, or misinterpreted what you said, well Steve will just smile knowingly, because you are clearly just trying to cover your tracks for being anti-British and hating farmers.  And the more you explain to Steve, the worse it gets.  Until eventually you learn that Steve goes through life “One thing I know”-ing everyone all the time, and that is just the way things are.  One thing I know about my friend Steve is that, if he meets you, he will one day start a sentence about you with the phrase, “One thing I know about you is . . .”

Today’s gospel reading comes from the gospel of John.  And at the risk of sounding like my friend Steve, I can say that one thing I know about John is . . . There’s a lot of talk about light.  You remember how John’s gospel opens?  All that stuff about in the beginning was the Word?  We read it on Christmas day, and that section culminates with “a light has shined in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Remember hearing that at some point?

Okay, well in today’s reading from John, a Pharisee named Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night.  Now you can view that as meaning that Nicodemus came to Jesus some time after sundown, sure.  But in a gospel book that opens with all that talk of the power of light, it’s far more significant to consider that Nicodemus is coming in darkness, in ignorance, in a state of not understanding.  John’s gospel is packed with symbolic language, so it makes sense that this man coming to Jesus by night means more than “after sundown.”

Anyway, he gets there and the first thing he says to Jesus is, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Let’s turn that into a my-friend-Steve-ism, shall we?  Nicodemus comes to Jesus in darkness and says, “One thing I know about you Jesus is that you are a teacher who has come from God.”  Or, put another way, Nicodemus, who comes in darkness, is telling Jesus what he can see.  (Get it?)

And Jesus says to him, No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.  To which Nicodemus says, “One thing I know about you Jesus is that you think a man needs to literally be born a second time.”  Now, okay, we can give Nicodemus a break here because the Greek word “AN-o-then” can mean both “from above” and also mean “again.”  So, I wouldn’t try to say that Nicodemus is intentionally twisting Jesus’ words.  Just like I never accuse my friend Steve of intentionally misunderstanding what I say.  In the case of Nicodemus, he comes in darkness with what he thinks he knows.  Jesus tells him that he cannot understand unless he is led by the Spirit, unless he is given a new way of seeing. 

Jesus explains a little more about how the Spirit moves people and gives them new insight and understanding, and Nicodemus still doesn’t get it.    He asks, “How can these things be?”  And now it’s time for Jesus to be shocked.  “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”  Like, you’re a Regional Manager and you don’t understand where the product we sell comes from?  You’re the head chef and you don’t have the recipes?

This story opens with this: “There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘We know . . .’”  You can see now from the opening sentence that this is going to end badly.  A leader comes in darkness to tell Jesus what he can see.  He comes in ignorance to tell Jesus what he knows.  He hears Jesus talking about where babies come from, when Jesus is telling him where the Spirit comes from.  I mean, you want to talk about two people talking past each other!

Jesus says to him, “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”  And so Jesus goes back to basics.  Jesus goes back to what we all think we know about Jesus.  You know, John 3:16, right?  One thing we know about Jesus is "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

In fact, not only do you and I know this, but everyone who’s ever watched the Superbowl knows this.  People who don’t know the first thing about Christianity can quote John 3:16.  One thing we know about Jesus is . . .

See the trouble?  See how we’ve just walked ourselves into the danger of being like my friend Steve?  One thing we know about saying “One thing I know” is that it’s probably going to be wrong.  Right?  Because there is nothing in this world that can be boiled down to “One thing I know.”  When someone starts a sentence with “One thing I know” it means that they have already stopped listening for a second thing to know.

“One thing I know” is code language for “I come to you in darkness.”  I do not understand earthly things, so I certainly will not be understanding heavenly things.  But you know what may help?  Having some kind of connection between earthly things and heavenly things.  Because, on some level we do understand earthly things.  We do understand some basic facts of life.  To try to make the connection between the earthly things and the heavenly things, let’s put John 3:16 in the context of the verses before and after it and see if that helps us at all . . .

Jesus said, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

Nicodemus would know the story of Moses in the wilderness with the serpent.  Remember that one?  The people were getting bit by snakes, and God told Moses to put a snake thing on a pole and whoever looked at it would be healed? 

Okay, so the one who comes in darkness knows that story, and Jesus connects it to his being lifted up on the cross.  And the reason Jesus is available for us to put him on the cross is because of the sacrificial love of God.  Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

That is the context of John 3:16.  One thing I know about Jesus is . . . Well, is more than one thing, of course.  But these three things are certain:  Jesus brings healing to those who are being bitten by the snakes of life, and he does so because God loves people, and because God does not condemn people. 

And maybe this is where we really can count on something my friend Steve might say.  Maybe just this once we can boil it all down to one simple sentence.  And that sentence would be this:
One thing I know about Jesus is that God loves you.


The Marriage of Douglas and Alana

The Marriage of Douglas and Alana
May 26, 2018, The Signal Tree
Song of Solomon 2:10-13; 8:6-7
Psalm 67
1 John 4:7-16
Matthew 5:13-16

Alana and Doug asked me to include a particular Robert Fulghum quote somewhere in the service, and since I know a good quote when I read one, I am happy to oblige:

"We're a little weird. And life is a little weird and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall into mutually satisfying weirdness- and call it love - true love."

And speaking of weird, how about this tree, huh?

I don’t know how many of you know anything about the Signal Tree we have gathered under.  If you read the plaque in front of it, you get the sense that it was some kind of navigation marker for Native Americans.  But others say it might have been used as a ceremonial place.  Some say it was trained to grow like this, and others say it could just be a freak of nature.  But no matter the reason it is shaped like it is, the one thing you can’t mistake is that it suggests that we are welcome, with its arms spreading out to embrace us this afternoon.

And for us, today, this Signal Tree signals something else: The place where two young people have decided to bind themselves together—against the odds—to promise to live with and for one another until the day they die.

Now THAT is something worth marking.  It is worth remembering, because it is worth noticing that people are still willing to hold hands and take a leap of faith into the unknown.  And as those of us who are married know, it truly is a leap into the unknown, like it or not.

These two make their promises in good faith, trusting one another.  And you have all gathered here as witnesses and cheerleaders, to help them along the way.  Cheering at times when they need it, consoling and comforting in the times they need that.  Sometimes, things work out exactly as we planned, sometimes not so much.  And sometimes even better.  And so please remember, that having your support will make a difference for these two.

It is fitting that Alana and Douglas have chosen to be married in front of the Signal Tree, because they are sending a signal to the world.  As we just heard Jesus say, You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.

Douglas, Alana: You are the light of the world.  Because love is the light of the world.  You are proclaiming love, and commitment, and hope to all the world on this day.  Sending a signal as clear as this tree.  And along with everyone who has gathered with you today, I implore you to let your light shine, and give light to all the house.  We need that light in our world.  Today, we celebrate the light of your love.  May it burn the brightest of all!


Sunday, May 20, 2018

YEAR B 2018 feast of pentecost

Year B, 2018
Pentecost, 2015
Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Romans 8:14-17
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

If someone says to you, “I am on fire today!” you’re apt to say, “Good for you!” because it means they’re doing a really good job at something.  Accomplishing lots of tasks.  Being extra efficient.  Making lots of sales.  That kind of thing.  On the other hand, if you hear someone screaming “I’m on fire!” you’re probably going to be reaching for a bucket of water.  Same phrase, “I’m on fire,” but a completely different response is called for.  And you certainly don’t want to get the responses mixed up!

In today’s first reading, from the book of Acts, we heard again the story of the first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples in the form of tongues of fire.  It’s a bizarre scene: tongues of fire appearing on their heads, and they all start speaking in languages they have never spoken before.  And the cynics standing around sneer and say, these people are drunk!  And Peter’s response is even more bizarre, because he claims the reason they cannot be drunk is because it is only 9 o’clock in the morning!  (Apparently Peter has never sat next to a business traveler on an airplane before.)  But back to the cynics.  I have to say, it makes me laugh every time I hear this story, because the implication is that, when people get drunk at 9 in the morning, tongues of fire appear on their heads, and they instantly become fluent in every language known to man.  As if, being drunk . . . well that explains what we’re seeing and hearing here.  You know, cops could just pull people over and check their heads for flames, right?

Obviously, the bystanders are missing the whole point of what they’re experiencing, and they’re grasping at straws for an explanation.  Searching for a way to explain something that is beyond explanation.  The Holy Spirit has been unleashed on the world in a completely new way, and nobody really knows what’s going on . . . to say the least.  The disciples are saying, “We are on fire,” and the bystanders are trying to throw buckets of water on them.  Wrong response.  This is a fire of excitement, and creation, and growth, and building up.  This is a fire that we welcome—the fire of God’s Holy Spirit.

And, as Christians, we’re used to thinking of the spirit in this way.  The Spirit of God fills us with energy and excitement.  The Spirit of God moves us forward in joy to accomplish great things in God’s name.  It’s about enthusiasm and growth and increasing the kingdom of God.  But that’s only a small sliver of the Spirit’s work in the world.  In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus calls this same Spirit, the “Advocate.”  But back to the enthusiasm . . .

If you’ve ever attended a worship service among charismatics, you’ve seen this energetic Spirit in action.  Churches that call themselves Pentecostal, or the Assemblies of God churches have these kinds of services, where people speak in tongues, and are slain in the Spirit.  It’s all very dramatic and emotional and—I have to admit—suspicious, to many of us.  Nothing could be further away from our Episcopal Church service than for people to start speaking in tongues and dancing around, fainting in fits of ecstatic joy.  I mean, it’s just not in the Prayer Book; there’s no rubric for it, sorry.

But, for those churches that worship in this way, the people are experiencing another outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  A modern-day Pentecost.  They are receiving a weekly dose of God’s mysterious power, and they can’t imagine worshiping any other way.  And most of the rest of us could not imagine ourselves acting like that, and have no idea what is going on with these people.  (We might even accuse them of being drunk at 9 o’clock in the morning!)  And at the same time, Pentecostals might not consider what we do each week to be real worship.  They might say the visible evidence of the Spirit is not present in our worship services, and that we’re missing the point of coming together on Sunday morning if we’re not re-enacting this scene from the second chapter of Acts.

So, we can’t help but ask the question . . . who’s right here?  Are we missing out on authentic worship because we’re not speaking in tongues and experiencing miraculous healings in our midst?  Or are they missing out in not having a weekly celebration of communion with God and one another?  Are we ignoring the Spirit?  Are they ignoring the resurrected Christ?  We’d like to be able to say one of us is right, and the other one is wrong, but it’s never that simple, is it?  But then we have to ask, if neither worship style is right or wrong . . . well, how can we be so very different from each another?

Well, maybe it has to do with the idea that God is revealed in different ways to different people at different times in different places.  We tend to want to limit God to be completely explained by our own understanding, revealed in our own community, present in our own worship space.  But deep down, we know God is bigger than that.  We know that God’s love is for all people, in all times, and in all places.

The Holy Spirit is the one inspiring us to action, and giving us a sense of urgency in our mission.  The Holy Spirit is the one telling us to get out there and run!  But at the same time, the Holy Spirit is also the one telling us to rest and be healed, to reflect and be restored.  The Holy Spirit fills us with excitement, but also calms us down.  On some occasions the Holy Spirit is saying, “You’re on fire for God!  You’re on a roll!”  And at other times the Holy Spirit is saying, “You’re on fire!  Stop, drop, and roll!”  Same Spirit, different kinds of fire.

And prayerful discernment in community is how we know which kind of fire we have at any given time.  Oh, sure, sometimes the fire is obvious.  Sometimes our excitement cannot be contained and we find ourselves rambling on about the goodness of God in our lives.  But, a lot of times, it’s equally obvious that we are barely holding on, and God is holding us and propping us up, giving us the strength to face the challenges of another day.  Being open to the power of God’s Spirit does not mean we are constantly on fire with excitement.  It also means being open to God’s healing power that can best be experienced in silence, or calm conversation.

Some people spend their whole lives as one big ball of fire testifying to God’s unstoppable Spirit.  And some spend their lives in quiet despair, hoping that God will give us the strength to climb out of bed in the morning.  Most of us are in the middle of those two, or we move back and forth between them . . . you know, some days are great, and some are not so great.  Individual people are different.  We need different things.  On different days.

And what about our community?  What about the Holy Spirit and St. Timothy’s Church?  Do we need to choose between enthusiasm and peace?  Between exciting growth and boring stability?  Well, the fallacy in that question lies in the word “choose.”  I think we’re most apt to get off track when we think it is up to us.  That we are the ones somehow choosing what kind of church we will be, choosing how the Spirit will act among us.  Quite honestly, it is not up to us.  It’s not about what we want.  If God wants St. Timothy’s Church to grow, we will grow, possibly in spite of what we do.  And if not . . . well, we won’t grow, also in spite of what we do.  In either case, God will show the way to be the unique congregation St. Timothy’s is called to be—and has been called to be for 182 years—doing what we alone are called to do. As Paul says, God gives the growth.

In today’s Gospel reading, from John, Jesus says, “When the Advocate comes, he will testify on my behalf.”  And, in case we miss the point, we’ve got this dramatic entrance of the Holy Spirit on the heads of the disciples.  The Advocate shows up, alright . . . just as Jesus promised.  But the Spirit doesn’t show up with seven highly effective habits.  Jesus is not sending the church-growth expert.  This Advocate, this Holy Spirit, comes to advocate to our hearts, not to convict.  And this is a crucial point.  The Holy Spirit leads us to testify for Jesus, sure.  But, more importantly, the Holy Spirit makes the case for Jesus to us, and assures us of God’s love and salvation.  The Spirit advocates to the Church as well as for the Church.

Just as there are many different kinds of people, there are also many different kinds of parishes, filling many different kinds of needs.  But it is the same Spirit in all of them.  The same Spirit that leads some to speak in tongues leads others to recite the Nicene Creed.  The same spirit that makes some stand on a street corner with a Bible, makes others quietly polish candlesticks to place on an altar.  And the same Spirit that causes flames to appear on the heads of the disciples, causes bread to appear in our hands this morning.  And just as the disciples did nothing to deserve the Spirit, we do nothing to warrant or deserve the gift of God’s presence.  All we can do is reach out our hands in faith, and trust that the Father is with us, just as Jesus promised, and that the Advocate is with us, just as Jesus promised, and that Jesus is present in the bread and wine, just as Jesus promised.


Sunday, May 13, 2018

YEAR B 2018 easter 7

Easter 7, 2018
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19
Psalm 1

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Many times, when a preacher wants to use a story to make a point, the preacher will begin with, “The story is often told,” and then they tell the story.  It’s probably not really a story often told, and it’s probably not even a true story, but it gets the preacher’s point across, and might also have the advantage of staying with the listeners after they leave church that day.

So . . . the story is often told of a priest who took a call to a church, and he had a cat.  And since the rectory was attached to the church, the priest’s cat would wander around the sanctuary, occasionally disrupting the service.  So the priest asked the altar guild to tie up the cat during services, so that it wouldn’t disrupt things.  This situation worked well for years, and the priest eventually passed away; then a new priest came to the church.  Since the cat had outlived the previous priest, the altar guild took over caring for the cat, and every Sunday morning they would tie up the cat during services.

Eventually, of course, the cat also died.  Shortly after that, the altar guild asked to meet with the new priest and explained that they needed some extra money in order to continue to do things properly to prepare for services.  Thinking they must need new linens or something, the priest asked if they couldn’t just put the supplies on the account like usual.  The head of the altar guild responded that the church didn’t have an account with the animal shelter, and they needed to get a new cat to tie up in the sacristy before services.

I was reminded of this story when I was thinking about today’s first reading, from the book of Acts.  Peter stands up and announces that they must pick someone to replace Judas, so that they will once again have 12 Apostles.  And I got to thinking, why twelve?  Why not eleven?  Or twenty?  As far as we can tell, there’s no commandment from Jesus to have 12 Apostles.  It’s not like they had three bridge games going, right?  As best I can tell, the Apostles are assuming they need to be 12 in number because they had always been 12 in number.  You know, it’s the way we’ve always done things.  Classic church approach, right from the very beginning!

And then, they use the strangest method of choosing the new member.  Since they can’t decide, they cast lots.  Which is essentially like flipping a coin, to you and me.  But before they flip the coin, they ask God to “show us which one of these two you have chosen.”  It’s curious, to say the least, and feels a little bit like some kind of magic spell, to our modern ears.  I mean, this is not how we elect Vestry members, right?  Church governance by a roll of the dice?  On the other hand, when you consider things, it is kind of how we elect Vestry members.  We pray that God would direct our decision and voting so that we can choose the right person, and we cast ballots instead of lots.

But here’s the thing about that scene.  It really does mirror what we do as the church—not in the specifics, of course, but in the philosophy.  The disciples decided there had to be twelve of them because there had always been twelve of them, and then they trust that God will guide them into doing the right thing.  In a similar way, we often continue to do what we have always done, trusting that God will guide us into doing the right thing.  On a surface level, there is comfort in continuity, yes.  But on a deeper level, God works through continuity.  We don’t have a habit of shaking things up just for the purpose of shaking things up.  At least not in the Episcopal Church.

In the repetition of the words of the liturgy, in the maintaining of our sacred worship space, in the weekly pattern of showing up at 8am every Sunday morning, that continuity and familiarity is fertile ground for God to guide us into the future.  If every week you came to church and found I had moved the Altar to a different place in the room, or wrote up a new liturgy on the fly each Sunday, or let my cats run loose in the sanctuary, or—God forbid—brought in a rock band on random Sundays, you would be distracted, I’m sure.  You would feel unsettled, maybe even untethered.  It is hard to hear the voice of God when your world is all askew . . . and when you’re also silently planning how to set up a new call committee to replace the Rector.

God works in the familiar, is my point.  When we feel stable, and secure, and cared for, that is when we can thrive and grow.  Which naturally leads me to remind us that today is Mother’s Day.  Now I know that every person’s relationship with their mother—whether biological or adopted—is different.  Some have great relationships and memories, and some have nothing but pain and anxiety when they think of their mothers.  But I hope we can all agree that, at least in the ideal, our mothers provide stability, security, and care, which allows us to thrive and grow.  It’s no coincidence that Christians through the centuries use the term Mother Church.  When we feel stable, and secure, and cared for, that is when we can thrive and grow.

I want to draw our attention to the prayer from Jesus in today’s gospel reading.  Taken as a whole, it is often called his “High Priestly Prayer,” because he is praying for his disciples, and interceding for them, as something like a priest.  This prayer takes up all of Chapter 17 in John’s gospel, and the whole prayer is on behalf of his disciples, which includes me and you.  And having this prayer fall on Mother’s Day is just the most lovely coincidence.

Notice the mothering tone in these statements, and how you could imagine a devoted mother saying these things about her own children to God in prayer:

I have made your name known to those whom you gave me. They were yours, and you gave them to me.  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.  I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.  As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

It’s striking, isn’t it?  Jesus prays for us the way a loving mother might.  And that is fitting, of course, because in the best situation, this is what a mother wants for her children.  That they would get along, and be protected from evil.    That they would see that everything they have is a gift from God.  That they would know that their parents consider these children to be a gift from God.  Yes, I know, it doesn’t always work out that way, because our mothers are not Jesus.  Mothers are human, just as broken and struggling as everyone else.  AND, just as redeemed and forgiven as everyone else.

And, I just have to say, it’s interesting to me that, throughout history, one of the things mothers do is feed us.  I’m not big on assigning mandatory gender rolls, and I’m not doing that here.  I’m just talking generally and historically.  Mothers feed us.  And just as Jesus prayed for us, Jesus also feeds us, and sends us out into the world.  So, come and feast, at the Altar of God.  And hear the prayer of Jesus, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”  May we all go into the world, feeling stable, secure, cared for, and nourished, as God intends for us, and as Jesus prays for us to be.


Sunday, May 6, 2018

YEAR B 2018 easter 6

Easter 6, 2018
Acts 10:44-48
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17
Psalm 98

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Don’t take away my joy.  Have you ever heard somebody say that?  Don’t take away my joy?  When we first moved back to Ohio after seminary, we shared a duplex with another family where the husband also happened to be a pastor.  There was a lot of church on that corner in Shaker Heights.  And during those years, I was serving in a parish half the Sundays and traveling the other half of the Sundays.  At some point we were talking to the neighbors about getting to the airport, and the lady of the house said she could take me to the airport any time Cristin wasn’t available.  I sort of tried to imply that wasn’t necessary, since I could always take a cab.  But she was adamant and insisted that I call her if I ever needed a ride, and finished with “Don’t you take away my joy!”

It’s such an interesting phrase, isn’t it?  Notice that the phrase isn’t, “Don’t take away my happiness.”  That would mean something different, right?  (Taking away my happiness would make Thomas Jefferson very disappointed, since he says we each have the right to pursue happiness.)  But joy is different from happiness.  I might be happy when my team wins a championship, but I can get joy out of watching a sunset, or hearing a baby laugh, or giving someone a ride to the airport . . . apparently.  Happiness isn’t the same as joy.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells the disciples, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”  Now I have to stop here for a second and remind us of the scene.  Even though you and I are still in the Easter season right now, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, this gospel reading comes from before Jesus is put to death.  The actual setting is the last supper, after Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet.  Jesus is kind of giving them a sermon, explaining what he has done, and what they should do, and what the future holds for them.

And in this section, he keeps telling his disciples to abide in his love, and to love and serve one another, and says, if we keep his commandments, we will abide in his love.  And what is the commandment of Jesus?  Well, he tells us:  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  If we love one another, we will be keeping the commandments of Jesus, and we will  therefore abide in his love.  It’s like a math problem.  If we love one another, we will be keeping the commandments of Jesus, and we will  therefore abide in his love.

Loving your neighbor leads to abiding in God’s love.  And why does Jesus tell us this?  “So that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”  Notice how there’s nothing about happiness in there.  And I think that’s significant because of the setting.  This is the last supper.  Jesus knows he is about to be betrayed, and abandoned, and denied, and nailed to a cross.  He is most certainly not “happy.”  And yet, he has joy.  Whatever Jesus means when he says, “my joy,” it sounds like something you and I could use a whole lot more of, right?

The joy of Jesus persists in the midst of the darkest time in his life.  The joy of Jesus does not depend on the circumstances of his life.  The joy of Jesus transcends the worst that humanity has to offer.  Yes, Jesus, give us more of that joy!  That’s the kind of joy we need in these bizarre and divisive times.  That’s the kind of joy we need when we lose loved ones, when relationships fall apart, when our finances aren’t working out.  The joy of Jesus transcends all these things and more.  We need the joy of Jesus in us so that our joy may be complete.

And that math problem is how we get there.  If we love one another, we will be keeping the commandments of Jesus, and we will  therefore abide in his love.  And the reason Jesus gives us that formula is so that his joy may be in us and our joy may be complete.  Do you want the kind of complete joy that transcends the darkest times in your life?  Then love your neighbor.  Do you want the kind of joy that brings peace in the midst of fear and anger?  Then love one another as Jesus has loved us.  Love leads to joy, and joy leads to peace.

But here is my favorite part of the gospel text:  Jesus says, "You did not choose me but I chose you.”  It’s a simple little statement that kind of flies by in the context of all these math problems in this text.  You did not choose me but I chose you.  That’s the kind of thing we should print on banners and hang of the front of the church!  Because that is the best news any of us is ever going to get.

We like to think that we decide to follow Jesus.  In fact, just the other day at the clergy conference, one of the songs at the closing worship service said exactly that.  We were all standing there singing, “I have decided to follow Jesus.”  And--because I have been thinking about this gospel text this week--I kept imagining Jesus tapping us all on the shoulder and saying, “Ahem.  Hey you guys.  You did not choose me but I chose you.”  Which, as I say, is very good news!

And the reason that is good news is because of this:  If I can decide to follow Jesus, then I can decide not to follow Jesus.  If it is up to me to choose Jesus, then most days I will be making the wrong choice.  I confess to you my brothers and sisters that I am not up to choosing Jesus most days of my life.  And if you’re anything like me, you could say the same.  We cannot decide to follow Jesus of our own strength and determination.  And Jesus says to you and me, “that’s okay, actually, because you did not choose me; I chose you.”  And that is good news indeed!

Jesus chose you.  And Jesus wants for his joy to be in you, and for your joy to be complete.  And the way to that complete joy is in loving your neighbor, in laying down your life for others.

Have you ever wondered why people volunteer at soup kitchens?  Or drive neighbors to doctors appointments?  Or go on mission trips to developing nations?  Or teach Sunday school?  Or clean up after events in our parish hall?  I know the answer:  because it brings them joy.  Serving our neighbor gives us joy, just like Jesus said it would.

Now there’s a very old school of thought on this that is not helpful, and it goes like this.  If you get any personal satisfaction out of doing things for other people, then you are doing it for the wrong reason.  If it brings joy to serve others, then that is sinful.  And, sure, you can make that ethical argument, based on logic, and sacrificial giving, and that sounds like a pretty depressing way to live.  But good luck with that.

Instead, I choose to believe the words of Jesus.  That he wants us to have joy in our lives.  That serving others is the pathway to that joy.  Don’t take away my joy!  The lady living next door to us was really onto something with that phrase.  By not letting her help me when I needed help, I was taking away her joy.  Is it selfish to want that joy?  I don’t know.  Maybe?  But Jesus wants us to have that joy, so I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

Jesus says: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  And, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”  And so my prayer for you is this: May your joy increase as you love and serve one another in the name of Jesus