They moved from enslavement to liberation through a parted sea across a wilderness and a river. Miram played her timbrel then. They packed up what they could carry while the blood of lambs dried on lintels and God passed over. Miram placed her timbrel then. They left behind every thing - everything predictable and familiar oppressive days and captive nights. Miriam didn’t leave her timbrel then. Step by step Egypt faded into memory manna and quail fell from heaven water flowed from rock Miriam’s timbrel jingled in her pack then. The timbrel traveled for forty years waiting for that last river crossing to be remember, played as Miriam danced before the whole assembly. How many timbrels lay at the bottom of packs through the hunger, thirst, and anguish, Through the wandering days and the bleakest nights? Tens, hundreds, thousands? Timbrels waited. The women trusted, knew days of praise would come again when the wandering ended and the Promised Land was underfoot for the first time in generations. Miriam’s timbrel, the other women’s timbrels played, then. We’ve traveled far and long since those ancient days. Do we still follow the prophets (old and new) with timbrels in our packs, quiet reassurance of praise-filled days yet to come? Are we brave enough to do as Miriam did? She inspired the other women to make room for timbrels, room for future songs and praises knowing wilderness lay between now and then. We are held captive by pharaohs, all who endorse White supremacy, White nationalism and proclaim God’s whiteness. There is a wasteland between captivity and liberation. Pack now for the journey. Leave behind fear, hatred, and distrust of neighbors. Listen to the Prophets (ancient and new) who call us into new life. There is enough blood drying in our streets. God has not passed over us; we have passed over God who holds the bleeding and dying and grieving waiting for us to notice God is only in the love. We need the timbrels, jingling on the journey, waiting for the days of freedom and praise. I am Miriam’s child. Are you? The quiet sounds of my packed timbrel guide me. It will be hard for you to join the praise later, after the journey, if you leave your timbrel behind. We need the secret sounds of promise now if we are to sing and dance and praise then. We do not go into the wilderness alone. Miriam’s timbrel echoes there still and the pillars of fire still burn the ground is as sacred now as it was then. Join me on this journey into all that is possible – Love your neighbor as yourself… Repair the breach… Sing praises right out loud. Let’s not wait until then is now. Let’s begin in this moment, timbrels at the ready. Miriam waits…
Healing stories are fascinating, let alone the raising from the dead stories. Our 21st Century minds try to rationalize and minimize the power of such accounts. I know I spent years wishing I could touch Jesus garment and be healed from sickness. Truthfully, I’ve also, on occasion, wished Jesus were around to call a person back from death if not grant me the power to do it myself. However, this kind of thing doesn’t happen often in the modern world. Whether or not healing happened the way the Bible tells us it did, we will never know. Today I want to set these questions aside and explore the story of the woman who touched Jesus robe and the girl raised from death in a more metaphoric sense.
Truth be told, I’m not sure if the Church universal is more like the woman with uncontrolled bleeding or the girl Jesus called back from death. If I think of the Church as a whole, the Bodymind of Christ, then I think of the ways in which we are bleeding out. Our strength is being diminished by fear and hatred. White Supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and much more keep us from being healthy and whole. We have bought into the lies of the Empire and it is killing us. It doesn’t seem that we even know we need to reach for the garments of Christ, reach for healing. So many of us are entrenched in protecting tradition and reluctant to change. What happened to seeking Jesus in the midst of the crowd, trusting that we will be made whole?
On the other hand, the more we cling to our nostalgic recollection of the past and our outdated modes of worship and governance, the more we risk sliding into death. The past is not the perfection many of us recall. Church has always been riddled with the wounds of the Empire. When we made our traditions more important than following Jesus, we cut deeper. When we chose to follow social norms instead of seeking Jesus, we became sicker. When we decided who was in and who was out, we laid down on our deathbed. When we elevated our politicians over God’s holy ways, our breathing became labored. Will we hear Jesus call us to new life?
My friends, the Bodymind of Christ is sick, perhaps near to death. Isn’t it time we sought healing, healing that goes deep into the heart of the Church? I’m not under the illusion that all denominations will come together as one, though, if we were honest with ourselves, we might all get a bit closer as we reach for those garments of Christ. Are we as individuals, congregations, and denominations willing to ask the questions that will enable our spiritual hands to reach for those healing robes?
Who is welcome in our congregations and who is not? Who is welcome in our pulpits and who is not? What is essential to embodying Christ in the world today? What is not? What is our primary illness – worshiping tradition? White supremacy? homophobia? transphobia? literal interpretation of scripture? misogyny? other fear? Answering these questions honestly just might stop the flow of blood or enable us to hear the call to new life.
However, recognizing the symptoms of illness isn’t always easy. Ignoring them, though, won’t make us any healthier. Acknowledging that we are unwell is the beginning of the journey toward health. While sickness may weaken us, there is no shame in sickness itself. If we continue to deny the sickness and act as if we are healthy and whole, this is shame; this is sin.
May we repent of our insistence on wellness and denying our sickness. May we have the courage to reach for the garments of grace and listen for the voice calling us to new life. May we be honest with where we are now and where Jesus would rather we be. May the Bodymind of Christ be made well by God’s grace and through our words and actions…
RCL – Year B – Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – June 27, 2021 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 and Psalm 130 • Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24 or Lamentations 3:22-33 and Psalm 30 • 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 • Mark 5:21-43
Last night I had a dream about rowing through marshlands with a from seminary, and as often happens we were in our early 20s not our mid 50s. The marsh was familiar in the dream, though no place I have ever been. The waterway ranged from just wide enough for the rowboat to pass through the grasses to the width of a small pond or lake. It was a bright, sunny day with no clouds in the sky. We were both young and health, enjoying the day.
Then my friend was rowing without the boat moving at all. And, yes, you guessed it, storm clouds were gathering on the horizon. I offered to row thinking my friend was tired after having rowed for quite a while. Yet, when I took the oars and began to row, she told me I was doing it wrong and had to do it right or we’d never get anywhere. You see, I rowed by alternating left and right rather than pulling the oars together. My friend insisted that I row the “proper” way. Instead of arguing, I started to row by pulling both oars at the same time. The boat began to move in small circles, making no progress through the marsh.
For reasons unknown, this made my friend both frustrated and anxious. Soon she told me to do it my way so we could get somewhere before the storm arrived in full. I switched back to alternating oars, and the boat began to move. Through the marsh grasses we went. We moved quite quickly for some time. Then just as the marsh was opening into the ocean, I couldn’t make the boat move forward no matter how hard I pulled the oars. The rain had started. The waves were swelling. Lightning wasn’t far off.
My friend started to panic. She was sure we were going to die even though we were only a few feet from shore and, technically, could have gotten out of the boat onto the beach easily enough. For reasons known only in dreams, we didn’t get out of the boat. Instead, I asked her to join me on the rowing bench and take an oar. She did. And after a few false starts, we found a rhythm of rowing together that allowed us to get home safely.
It matters whose in the boat with you.
It matters what kind of boat you’re in.
I grew up watching boats. Small lobster boats, tug boats, big ferries, yachts, sailboats, big fishing boats…all kinds of boats. I never learned to sail or do much more than row a boat or paddle a canoe. I tend to get seasick in anything with a motor. And, yes, when I learned to row a rowboat, the only way I could do it was by alternating oars. To this day, I cannot row by pulling the oars together.
Having folx in your boat who know what to do when there’s a problem is important. Having someone who knows how the boat operates is equally important. Having someone who knows how to respond to whether also matters. And when you’re in a small boat where there are lots of bigger boats and ships, it’s good to have someone who knows the rules.
Over the last many months of pandemic, many people said things like, “We are all in the same boat.” That is never true. Some of us are in luxury liners. Some in small cabin cruisers. Some in little motor boats. Some in rowboats. Some in rowboats with small leaks. We are not all in the same boat. However, we are all in the same storm. That’s when the type of boat matters the most.
We need to stop pretending that everyone has the same resources. We need to stop pretending that everyone has the same access to housing, food, healthcare, etc.
It’s great that the federal government made Juneteenth a federal holiday. It really is. However, why are we not talking about reparations, racial disparities, injustice in our legal system, and all the other things that make Juneteenth an important holiday?
We are not all in the same boat.
We are all in the storm, though.
Who will speak into the wind and the storm?
Peace. Be still.
We are a long way from that. Figure out what type of boat you’re in and who’s in it with you. It’s time we start rowing together in ways that pull us toward justice for every boat in this storm. Then maybe we can step out onto solid ground…
RCL – Year B – Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – June 20, 2021 11 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49 and Psalm 9:9-20 or 1 Samuel 17:57-18:5, 18:10-16 and Psalm 133 • Job 38:1-11 and Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32 • 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 • Mark 4:35-41
If the realm of God is like the scattering of seeds that sprout mysteriously, I wonder if we are actually doing any of the seed scattering. Or, for that matter, receiving any of the seeds scattered by others. I don’t think we are very comfortable with mystery, let alone Mystery. Contemplating the realm of God seems a bit heady or lofty given the struggles of everyday living, right? However, if we shift our perspective just a little bit, then the realm of God and all its Mystery becomes part of everyday life, perhaps even alleviating some of the suffering.
In Mark’s gospel, the Good News is that the realm of God is at hand. It wasn’t about salvation or a “personal relationship with God.” The Good News was about the closeness of God’s realm and the invitation to join in the work of brining God’s realm into our world. This wasn’t the task of any individual; it was the task of the community of believers. Jesus wanted his followers to repent of our lack of labor on behalf of the realm of God, repent of our self-focused ways of living in this world. God and the realm of God are near; the seeds of heaven are growing everywhere if we have the capacity and the desire to recognize what’s happening.
For the last several days in Minnesota, the temperatures have been between 90 and 100 degrees. This is exceedingly hot for early June. These high temperatures are an indication of climate shift, global warming that has resulted from human beings misusing the planet in large and small ways. We are destroying our oceans by over-fishing and dragging miles of seabed. We are destroying our forests by strip mining and excessive logging. Our water supplies dwindle because we’d rather over-supply things like almond milk than pay attention to what the earth can sustain. Our consumerism is literally destroying our planet. And as long as those with privilege have air conditioning, clean water, carbon fuels, and excessive food supplies, the harm done to the earth will continue. This is not the way of God’s realm.
Repenting from consumerism without regard to the needs of our neighbors is a good start to bringing the realm of God a little bit closer. In fact, anytime we consider the needs of those around us before making decisions about how we will live, we bring the realm of God that much closer. Seeds of loving-kindness germinate and become thriving relationships. This is how we change what is into what pleases God.
It isn’t simple. The ways of White supremacy tell White folx that we deserve the best of everything and have every right to pursue material and financial success without regard to those around us. White supremacist culture tells us that we can take what we want and not have to worry about whether or not others have what they need. Think about how Flint, MI still doesn’t have clean water. Think about Enbridge’s plans to put a pipeline through tribal lands violating treaties. Think about the ways in which highways were built to destroy Black neighborhoods. The list goes on. We have the power to change all of this.
If we think about the realm of God growing from the tiniest seed (kindness or compassion or a thought about the greater good) into an enormous shrub where life is sustained, how can we not try harder? How can we not try harder to live with the larger community in mind? How can we continue to justify the way things are? How can we continue to contribute to the suffering of our neighbors and the suffering of the earth if we’ve heard Jesus’ call to repentance?
Jesus called for repentance again and again. He also invited his disciples to participate in brining the realm of God into the here and now. Today is an excellent day to scatter seeds and seek out the ones that are already germinating. The realm of God thrives on loving-kindness, and we all have the capacity to participate in its growth.
The failure to recognize the obvious always catches me by surprise. Long, long ago Samuel told the people of God that no good could come from the rule of kings. They insisted on being like all other nations. And along came the kings who took their children for soldiers and servants, their goods and grains for self-serving purposes. Still, they did not learn. What is our excuse? We still fall under the rule of kings and presidents, queens and congress, to what avail? Our children are still taken as soldiers and servants, dying to preserve our sense of safety and superiority. All is an illusion. Jesus sat with a crowd of misfits and miracle-seekers and called them his own – siblings in body and spirit. Yet, we side with those in power, ignoring the needs of our neighbors, sanctioning state violence against those we fear, huddling just this side of status quo, ignoring the distance between this existence and the realm of God. When will we learn? Samuel’s wisdom still holds truth: there is no need to be like other nations. We can turn our attention to the greater good, the needs of our neighbors. Soldiers and servants need not be the future for anyone’s children if we consider what God requires. Where is that holy highway for all to travel in peace accompanied by mercy and justice? Jesus showed us the way. All that is required is to recognize siblings where the world labels “other.” Can we serve God with more than our lips? Can we shatter the illusions of difference and division created to keep us under the control of death and violence? Can we let go of fear to make room for justice and love our neighbors as ourselves? For the love of God and all things holy, may it not be too late to save us from conformity, fear, and destruction.
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Nicodemus is a familiar character. He was a pharisee who snuck off to talk with Jesus in the middle of the night. I wonder what burning question made him take the risk of being seen with Jesus. All we know is that he went to Jesus and affirmed that Jesus was “from God.” Then the conversation just gets weird. And you know what? The Christian church has never made sense of this strange passage in any useful way.
“Born again” is a phrase that makes my heart beat faster and my blood pressure rise. It’s been used as a litmus test for faith, the “right” faith. Nicodemus didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about and I don’t think many of us understand any better now. The dreaded, “when were you saved?” or it’s alternate form, “when were you born again?” sparks both anger and sadness in me. If I don’t have a dramatic conversion story to share, that means I’m not a true Christian? Why can’t it be a slow growth, a dawning awakening to the power and presence of God in my life? I’m betting that’s how it was for Nicodemus.
Nicodemus recognized something in Jesus that drew him out into the dark of night to have a conversation. Of course, the conversation was quickly out of his hands and beyond his understanding. A person cannot be born more than once. It’s that simple. Or maybe it isn’t. Jesus didn’t think anything about a person’s spiritual life was simple.
I remember Dr. James Loder in a course on human development talking about how the Holy Spirit enters into our lives, breaks through our ego defenses, and shoves our ego off-center. After a while our defenses are a pile of rubble and we can say with Paul, “I, not I, but Christ.” This is what we are after, this union of human spirit and Holy Spirit. It’s slippery and very seldom does the union fully hold after any single experience. Our egos are stubborn and we are wired to think we are at the center of things. When the Holy Spirit pushes our ego enough out of the way, we realize that being at the center of things with Christ is a healthier way to go. Even then, though, we have a hard time holding onto the Holy. We are always human first.
Jesus told the struggling Nicodemus that God so loves the whole of the cosmos that God gave God’s only son so that all who believe might have eternal life. The love is ongoing. Eternal life is communal. We cannot do it alone. In order to bring God’s realm into the here and now, we need one another. We need to be bound together by the Holy Spirit into the Bodymind of Christ, the church re-envisioned for the world in which we live.
Nicodemus made the mistake of thinking that Jesus’ words were literal and meant just for Nicodemus. Many of us have made similar mistakes. We think the words are meant to be taken literally and that they are only for those who share a certain belief. However, God’s love that sent Jesus into the world is a love that encompasses the whole cosmos. It is our belief that allows us to enter into the truth of God’s love. It was never meant to exclude anyone. It was meant to build and strengthen and create beloved community.
As we have observed the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder this week, I wonder when we will set aside our harm-filled interpretations of scripture. I wonder when those who claim the name of Christ will live in love with all neighbors, not just White ones. When will we who claim to have Christ at our center stop living in fearful hatred and demand justice and equality for every human being, without exception?
Jesus said that God loves the entirety of the cosmos. Now is an excellent time to claim this truth and live it into being. No one can truly be a follower of Christ and hate people based on race, religion, country of origin, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, class, ability, health, mental health, or any other aspect of human identity. God loves the entire cosmos. That love sent Jesus to teach us how to love one another. When will we learn?
Pentecost is a fabulous story. It has all the marks of a story well-told, complete with special effects. In fact, it is not hard to picture the disciples gathered together in a room, possibly the same upper room of the Last Supper. They gather, huddled together, trying to sort out what’s next. When, all of a sudden, the entire house is filled with the sound of rushing wind. Then tongues of fire appear above their heads. The next thing you know they are preaching about Jesus and every person hears in their own language. It’s remarkable, exciting, and mysterious. So much so that I think we sometimes miss the point.
Wind, flames, and many languages were evidence of the Spirit’s presence that day, a day that shifted the direction of the newly emerging church. As much as I would love to see what would happen if the Spirit showed up in the same way to any of our congregations this week, if we are really listening to the story, it isn’t necessary for the Spirit to repeat herself. The greatest gift of the Spirit is not in the flames of passion or fierceness of conviction. Nor is it the ability to speak and be heard in any language. The greatest gift of the Spirit is how she connects us one to another, and, thereby, to God and Creation.
Burning with a passion to serve God is pointless without a deep appreciation for our kinship with one another, especially with those whom we call “other.” Being moved by the power of conviction is only as good as our ability to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. The gift of tongues diminishes without compassion for those with whom we share this planet, let alone for the planet itself. On that first Pentecost, the Spirit wove us together with unbreakable bonds, with sighs deeper than our understanding, with a love beyond our imagining. Without the Spirit blowing through that house so long ago, I’m not sure we’d experience much more than the groaning of the world around us.
Think about it. The Spirit blew through that house with some serious force. I know the text only mentions the sound of winds. However, I like to imagine the doors and windows being blown wide open. Sometimes I even picture the roof being blown off. It is a symbolic removing of barriers between us. Then the flames appear, identifying the ones who followed Jesus most closely, the ones with something powerful to share. Those tongues of fire are an apt metaphor for those moments when we are aware of our place in something much larger than ourselves, those moments of deep insight that we are compelled to share. Then comes the language thing. At first it was a cacophony of sound. And then people realized they could understand; each person heard in their own language. This was a moment of connection made with words, harkening back to the Word who’d become flesh and lived among us. At the end of that first Pentecost, the church took shape because the Spirit bound people together who would never have come together otherwise. Bound in deed and word.
Do you see how we don’t need the audio and visual effects? We don’t need them because the lessons taught, the gifts given that day have come down through the centuries to us in the here and now. How can we read or hear this story without recognizing how intimately bound we are to one another? We aren’t bound just to those we know and love. We are bound to everyone who has ever felt the power of the wind, the heat of the flames, the pull of the words. We are bound to the impressive ones who preach in public places with their whole lives. We are bound to the hidden ones who seldom speak and, yet, always show up. We are bound to the broken ones who yearn for us to see their wholeness. We are bound to the doubt-filled ones who can’t quite feel the heat of the flames. We are bound to the messy ones and the angry ones and shy ones and all the “other” ones, even the ones who call God by other names.
Do you see it now? Do you see how impossible it is now to dismiss or devalue or deny or exclude any human being from the church? We are connected by the Spirit to the spirit in every human being, like it or not. And you know, these cords cannot be broken. And it’s a good thing, too. Because if they could be broken, there would be no church, no embodiment of Christ in the world today. And that would be a loss beyond imagining…
In the United Church of Christ, this Sunday is Mental Health Sunday. Many congregations won’t choose to observe it at all, while a few will have Mental Health Sunday at a different point in the year. However, it isn’t something that should be overlooked or avoided. Church can be helpful or harmful, and our history indicates that we have harmed more than we’ve helped when it comes to mental health. Too many people, even in progressive congregations, still believe that mental illness is a punishment for sin, a character flaw, or evidence of insufficient faith. Isn’t it time we tell it like it is? Isn’t it time we end the silence and shatter the stigma surrounding mental illness in our churches?
Jesus said, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11-12). He was speaking about his disciples then and now. He didn’t make any distinction among them. And, I’d bet that some of them had diagnosable mental health conditions. Think about Peter and is impulsiveness…
Anyway, Jesus claimed all who followed him as his people, given to him by God. In this prayer during the Farewell Discourses in John’s gospel, Jesus asks God to protect them and create wholeness among them – make them one. I wish this had happened then or was happening now. It isn’t a failure on God’s part to answer Jesus’ prayer. It is a failure on the part of the church to live as we have been called. We make judgments and live in fear, separated one from another when we don’t have to.
In biblical times demon possession and punishment for sin were the only way to understand mental illness. However, we know better now, or we should. Mental illness takes place in the brain. The brains of people with mental illness function differently and some differences are observable in brain imaging. We generally don’t say that cancer or heart disease are a punishment from God, though many might feel this way. We also don’t tend to blame people who are diagnosed with physical illness for their condition. Yet, we do when it comes to mental illness. Why is that?
The simple answer is that we are afraid. We are afraid that it could happen to us. Or we believe the misinformation that is out there that people who have severe and persistent mental illness are violent. Or we are fearful of saying or doing the wrong thing. As a result of our fear and, maybe, some ignorance, too, we remain silent and separated from our siblings who live with symptoms of mental illness. This is where stigma comes from. This is in direct opposition to how Jesus told us we are supposed to live – as one, one whole Body of Christ.
I can’t help but wonder if more people would find welcome in our congregations if we stopped being fearful and started to foster a sense of unity with all of our neighbors. If we endeavored to learn more about mental health conditions and stopped ignoring that 1 in 5 U.S. adults is diagnosed with a mental health condition, how might this change church? Wouldn’t the Body of Christ be healthier if we were to fully embrace all of our members, friends, and neighbors who live with mental illness?
Recently, I’ve learned about the term “bodymind” and I think Jesus would be a fan. Bodymind eliminates the dualism that Western traditions have created. Bodymind is all about the mind and body as a single unit and eliminates the distinction between physical health and mental health. Imagine the Body of Christ becoming the Bodymind of Christ… We would not longer have the option of pretending that mental illness isn’t part of the church. The silence would be broken and the stigma completely shattered, not to mention the sense of wholeness that this understanding could foster…
Isn’t it time that we work together to embrace the unity that Jesus prayed for among his followers? That they may be one… The Bodymind of Christ…
I wish love was simple and uncomplicated. Jesus talked about it so much because love challenges us, often to go beyond our perceived limits. I didn’t grow up with the best role models when it comes to love. I have no doubt that my parents did their best. Yet, what they communicated to me was that love was conditional, based on following the rules and being “good.” In many ways, the church communicated the same thing to me. Starting Sunday School at eight meant that I missed the basics of preschool and early elementary school. I didn’t learn “Jesus Loves Me,” the song, until I was in college, and by then it was almost too late.
In John’s gospel Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” I wonder if that was hard for those first disciples to grasp. In my mind they were very young men, perhaps between the ages of 15 and 20 by the time Jesus would have spoken these words. They lived in a society very different from ours. What lessons had they learned about love before they met Jesus? Jesus spoke about agape, unconditional love, and it’s possible that no one else really did. Maybe they knew something of storge, affection, or philia, brotherly love or friendship, or eros, romantic love. But outside of the synagogue and the need to be involved in charity, where would they have encountered agape?
I don’t know. Certainly, anyone of them could have had an encounter with God that unfolded the meaning of agape for them. Or maybe being with Jesus for three years was enough for them to begin to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.” I’d like to think those early disciples got it, understood it, and went on to live in relationship with each other guided by agape. However, what I remember about early church history indicates that they probably didn’t.
So this leads me to the question of how, when, and where do we experience agape today? If we’re lucky, we learn about unconditional love from our parents. And for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to have healthy, loving, emotive parents, then it would be great if the church would step in and fill that gap?
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Maybe we can dedicate the month to communicating the love we have for one another and for all our neighbors. What if everyone who joined our worship services or Bible studies or Sunday Schools heard and believed the message that they are God’s beloved, that they are loved and valued for who they are in this moment? What if we stopped caring about all those things we’ve labeled as sin, and just focused on loving whomever shows up?
How many lives could be saved if we communicated clearly that Queer folx are loved by God? That people with addictions are loved by God? That people with disabilities are loved by God? That people with mental illness are loved by God? That people experiencing homelessness are loved by God? That people who are divorced are loved by God? That women who’ve had abortions are loved by God? That people living in non monogamous relationships are loved by God? No change needed. Right now, whoever you are, whatever you are doing, whatever you are experiencing, you are loved by God. For real. Seriously, how many lives could be saved with this simple message?
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I invite every preacher, every church leader, to make agape the mission and the message. Let’s set aside everything we think makes proper theology and proper church practice and figure out how to embody agape for those who most need to know the saving power of God’s love for the whole of creation.
Sometimes I feel like I keep saying the same things and the echoes go on and on with no one listening. It’s how I’m feeling now as I contemplate the familiar words of 1 John 4:7-8: 4:7 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. How have we failed to take in these words and let them shape our actions, our relationships, our communities? These words are not consistent with the ways in which we have divided ourselves one from another, even within Christianity, never mind outside of the church.
Hearing these words in conjunction with the story of Peter baptizing the eunuch in Acts and Jesus’ explanation of the vine and branches in John, I wonder how it is we have gotten to a place where church is declining. Peter had his misgivings about the eunuch and then could not refuse to baptize him when the opportunity came. Shouldn’t this story be an invitation for us to baptize all those who come seeking with passion and commitment? Moreover, shouldn’t this story invite us to journey with those we perceive to be different from us? I mean, we never really know through whom God is working, do we? Peter certainly didn’t think a eunuch would be called by God, and yet…
While I strongly suspect the words in John 15 about the vine and branches are more the Fourth Evangelist and less Jesus, there is truth in them, though maybe not the truth that is usually extracted from them. Jesus is the vine. God is the vinegrower. We are the branches. We are connected to one another and to the Sacred and function best when we live into that connectedness, that interdependence. Let’s not worry about who isn’t abiding in sacred community; that isn’t our job. Our job is to grow, to thrive, and to bear fruit, fruit that will last. Fruit that is nourishing and inviting for all those who feel disconnected and lost and, yet, are still seeking – maybe like that eunuch. Who can be part of the vine is not ours to determine; it is up to the vinegrower and the vine itself. We are simply meant to invite and enfold those around us with radical inclusion and hospitality. There’s nothing that says that every branch is identical or every fruit the same.
In a time when we long for pandemic to be over and we know that it is not, practicing love for one another must be our first priority. Now is not time to stop wearing masks, keeping physical distance, and staying apart. Those who say they are Christian and refuse to wear a mask and insist on acting as if pandemic were not real, are not loving their neighbors as themselves. 1 John isn’t talking about easy love, like loving chocolate cake or loving kittens, puppies, and babies. The writer is inviting us to live in the challenging kind of love, agape, the love that God has for the whole of Creation, the Love that Jesus embodied, the Love that the world could not tolerate, the Love that brings new life from dreadful tombs of death. This is hard and it takes our attention and intention. I’m not sure it comes naturally to human beings.
Think of all the ways in which human beings display their lack of love for neighbor and/or self. There are wars. There is gun violence. There is domestic violence. There is racism. There is White supremacy. There is fear of those who seem to be other. There is judgement. There is division created by human beings where God intended unity. What will it take for us to abide in Love, to attach ourselves to the vine in ways that bring new life to ourselves, our communities, our neighbors?
I honestly believe we can do better at embodying Divine Love. With intention, we can dismantle the systems of hatred and create systems of justice. Trusting that we are all Beloved and that God’s ways are all about Love, we can stop our fear-based responses and become better stewards of Creation, including church in all its varied forms.
May we all abide in Love, especially in the uncomfortable places, and allow that Love to calm our fears, educate our ignorance, and heal all that is broken – one person at a time if need be. Beloved, let us love one another…