May 9, 2021
I was lucky to have fantastic roommates throughout college. For two years I lived in an apartment with Tonia and Ginger, both Virginia natives. We joked that we were a Bevy of Protestants – one Lutheran, one Episcopalian, one Methodist. They became – and have remained – the dearest of friends.
We tried to make it a policy that we would rotate having personal crises. No more than two of us at a time could be dealing with something stressful or upsetting – a huge exam or paper, relationship drama, a big concert or audition or election or some other extracurricular pressure. At least one of us needed to be calm and grounded enough at any given time to sit with the others and listen and offer support. And ice cream for real emergencies.
The only time I remember all three of us being completely overwhelmed at once was when the first Gulf war started. We watched the news and felt afraid, anxious. We had studied wars in history class. We hadn’t yet lived one that we could remember. That night we stopped to pray together – for our country, for our leaders, for all of us here and overseas who were in harm’s way. It helped not to be alone in our fear.
I recognize how precious that kind of love is – love that is unwaveringly present in times of difficulty but can also make you laugh at 2:00 in the morning with a routine that they claim could win the Miss America talent competition.
Not all relationships have that kind of mutuality. Some friendships are more imbalanced, with one person needing help or support almost all of the time without offering as much in return. Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes calls that kind of friendship a “missional friendship.” You accept that the other person is always going to need your help, and you make decisions about how much you’re able to keep giving.
Even some of our closest loving relationships can be skewed. I heard a mother this week reflect on the fact that when you do a good job of mothering, you almost never get credit for what you do. She said nobody ever recognized the years that she packed a lunch for each one of her kids to take to school. But her teenage son still remembers the one day in second grade when she forgot to include his dessert. All that time, all those lunches, all those many sacrifices. And he’s stuck on the missing dessert.
All of this is an important backdrop to hearing what Jesus has to say in today’s gospel. Let’s first understand the context for what he’s saying. This passage is part of the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John. Jesus has shared that final meal with his disciples. Judas has gone sneaking out the door. Peter is confused, as usual. Jesus has washed everyone’s feet, which only confused them more. Peter has sworn that whatever happens, Peter will lay down his life for Jesus. That’s what Peter says: “I will lay down my life for you.” Peter doesn’t yet realize that by the next morning, he will have pretended not to know Jesus – not once, not twice, but three times to save his own skin. Turns out that Jesus might have a missional friendship with us.
Jesus takes a few moments to say some parting words to the disciples. Not long before what we read today Jesus gives them his peace. He promises them the Holy Spirit will come to be with them. He reminds them (as we heard last week) that he is the vine to which they are always connected as the branches that will bear fruit.
But mostly Jesus talks about love. He talks a lot about love. He’s not maudlin or sentimental about it. He doesn’t make some kind of tearful plea. He simply reminds them about the kind of love that he has lived and shared.
The love of Jesus is an abiding love. A love where we can abide – remain – take up residence there and know that we will be held by that love. Jesus has received that kind of love from God, and so that’s the love that he in turn shares with all of us. Abide in me, he says. Stay with me. Remain in this love.
The love of Jesus is joyful: “I say these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” It doesn’t mean we won’t struggle or have hard times. But in the midst of those hard times, we rest secure that his love never abandons us.
All of that sounds great, but then Jesus gets to the harder parts. The love of Jesus is a commandment. Love one another as I have loved you. Jesus is not talking primarily about an emotion or a feeling or an attraction or sentiment. He is talking about an embodied love that attends to the needs of others. Jesus doesn’t just say to the man with leprosy “I love you.” He heals that man. He doesn’t just say to the woman at the well, “I love you.” He listens to her story. He responds to the specificities of her life and her difficulties, and he transforms her into an evangelist. Jesus doesn’t look at a hungry crowd on a hillside and say, “I love you.” He finds a way to feed them.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to tell the people you love that you love them. Most of us have someone we would give anything to be able to say those words to again. But Jesus is reminding us that love is something we are called to do in real and tangible ways – even, perhaps especially – when we are struggling to feel the warm, fuzzy feelings we’ve been taught to associate with love. There are moments in every loving relationship when the warm, fuzzy feelings aren’t there. When we feel exasperated or angry or betrayed or ignored. That’s when Jesus says: love anyway. Love one another as I have loved you.
I recently listened to a conversation between Episcopal priest and professor Barbara Brown Taylor and the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, who is the Pastor of Middle Collegiate Church in New York.[i] They talked about the many forms that love can take, some of them a flash and they’re over, while others turn into a forty-year commitment or more.
Barbara noted that we sometimes act as if there’s a requirement list for love. “It’s not love unless…” Which makes us, Jacqui observed, sometimes say, “Why bother? If I’m not going to get the A+ on love, why bother?”
They agreed that it was better to give up what they called “love accountancy” – keeping score and trying to grade the quality of love shared with someone else. At the same time, we can be accountable for what Barbara called those “long, expensive loves” – the ones that ask a lot of us and are hard – but worth it because they transform our souls.
Jesus tells us that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And not long after he utters those words, he does exactly that. He gives his life for his friends – his friends then and his friends now. He reminds us: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”
That’s the accounting that matters the most, and it does not work out as a balanced equation. Jesus gives everything for us. Jesus chooses us. Jesus loves us in a way we could never quantify.
How, then, will we love each other? Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
My parents’ house, the place where I grew up, lies in the suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota on a shallow hill overlooking a beautiful marsh. If you walk to the right of the house from the backyard, you find yourself climbing old, faded grey wooden stairs built into the hillside. These stairs are flanked by a deck on the left and by wooden retaining walls that double as garden plots on the right. At the very top of the retaining wall stands an apple tree that we planted when I was young. Its branches now stretch up and out into our neighbor’s yard and even to the deck. In the late Summer, when you walk up the stairs, it’s hard to avoid the low-hanging branches heavy with fruit and it’s hard to avoid the many apples that have fallen all over the place. And in the Fall we get to make them into pies and sauces and whatever else you can think of.
I particularly love making apple pies for my family’s annual tradition we call Apple Day. For about 35 years my family and my Godparents’ family have been celebrating Apple Day. Each Fall our families pick a day when we go apple picking, play football, and have a feast of apple-filled dishes. It’s like our own apple themed Thanksgiving. There are few places I would rather be than around the dinner table with all of us together. These are the people who have upheld their baptismal promises by fostering my faith and supporting me in love. In many ways my life and my faith are the fruit of their love.
Sometimes I wish that I had a lighting storm faith experience like Martin Luther. As the story goes, Luther was walking home in a terrifying storm and he made a bargain with God. If God brought him home safe, he would become a monk for God. I wish I had that one moment that changed my life forever, one moment that gave me some sort of “genuine” faith. But no. My faith journey, and I imagine most of yours, has been a little different. It’s been more of a gradual change, like the slow maturing of fruit on a tree.
In last week’s Gospel reading we heard Jesus tell his followers that he is the true vine and they are the branches who bear fruit. He says, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus is the source of love and good things in our lives. Because of Jesus we can produce these fruits.
Today’s Gospel reading is a continuation of this passage from John. I hope most of you when you heard this reading just a minute ago thought, “What in the world is this guy talking about??” Jesus in John’s Gospel can be especially hard to understand. He likes to speak in complex riddles. This passage in particular has some snares we can fall into if we aren’t careful. We might hear Jesus say, “I will love you only if you do my commandments.” But this is not quite what he says. He says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abidein my love. If you keep my commandments, you willabide in my love.” Do you hear the difference? It’s subtle. Jesus already loves us. Jesus already laid down his life for us. Our task is to live in that love. If you abide in that love you make it your abode, you make it into a home. It is this love that bears fruit.
We might also be tempted to be proud of the good fruit we produce, as if we could have done these things on our own. But Jesus reminds us, “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit.” We did not choose Jesus, Jesus chose us. We could not bear fruit without him. The word translated as appointed in this passage means something more like placed, established, or laid down. In a sense, Jesus planted us. In the same way, I did not choose my nurturing family. My family’s apple tree did not choose which hill to be planted on. Our confirmation students learned last week that we Lutherans practice infant baptism for particular reasons. As Pr. Christa explained, this practice is a way of living out our faith that Jesus chooses us, not the other way around.
But what exactly does it mean to bear fruit? What exactly does it mean to abide in God’s love? What does it mean to live out our baptism? Jesus gives us a hint. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I hope this commandment makes you uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable. One of the things I love about Jesus’s teaching is his amazing ability to stretch us far beyond our normal limits. I heard Pr. Markay over at Chatham United Methodist Church preach about this commandment and I appreciated his sermon.[i]He reminded me that getting to this kind of love can be the task of a lifetime, yet we may find at some point that we are in fact called to give up our life in love for others.
Oddly enough, Jesus talks about this difficult commandment as a type of grace; he gives us this commandment so that joy may be in us and that our joy may be complete. Yet I have found in my own life that it is grace which compels me into all kinds of uncomfortable places. Through discomfort and change grace has taken me into joy. It is grace that has brought me 1000 miles from home to this strange land called New Jersey to attend seminary. It is grace that has allowed me to grow as a minister these past 8 months. I had so many opportunities to get out of my comfort zone to experience the joys of ministry.
Grace actually brought me out of my comfort zone just recently. Two weeks ago at Drew, student organizations held a forum about racism because a public sign was defaced with racist graffiti. Discussion quickly turned to the topic of discomfort. In that room I became aware of my own discomfort as a white person in talking about race. Perhaps you know this same feeling. Perhaps you are feeling it right now. I think my discomfort comes from knowing that I have lot of privilege and a lot responsibility to combat racism in this country. I don’t know much but I do know that I grew up in an affluent white suburb, that my parents never had to talk to me about interacting with police, and that I have never even met anyone who has been arrested for sitting in a coffee shop.
Having a sense of responsibility to fight racism means changing how I live. And change can be uncomfortable. It means laying down our life in big and small ways. We do not always know what the fruit of this kind of love will look like. Love is a risky business after all. When we try to dismantle racism we will not know the outcome. But God promises that this love will bear fruit, fruit that will last.
Now, I could very well avoid this discomfort. But it seems to me that if we are uncomfortable we are likely catching a glimpse of who we really are. We recognize that we are at the same time sinner and saint. We recognize that God is opening up an opportunity to embrace this identity and an opportunity to bear fruit.
Those apples that my family picks every Fall are full of defects and places where insects have burrowed. This used to gross me out. But we could always use these apples despite their defects to make a feast. Despite our defects, God still uses us and still wants us. God looks at us and sees our bruises, bumps, and bugs. And God says: “I can work with that.”
Grace draws us into all sorts of uncomfortable places. Grace brings us onto an adventure that we would not have chosen by ourselves. At the same time, it is grace that gives us the strength to set out on this adventure. When we set off onto the path that is scary or new or unforeseen, we can trust that Christ abides in us. Because Christ abides in us, we can bear fruit even in situations that are uncomfortable. Christ leads us up that hill to where there is fruit and family and fellowship.I pray that the love of Christ continues to live and work in this community to bear the fruit of love for many seasons to come. AMEN.