Easter 5C 2019
Grace Episcopal Church Radford, VA
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan
What does it mean to love as Jesus loves?
Well, here we are again in the part of the story when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. It seems we began and end the Easter chapter of the story according to John in this last supper scene. According to John, Jesus gives a long farewell speech at the last supper. It is interesting to note that the last supper in John is not at the Passover meal but on the day of preparation. This is set that way so that Jesus dies on the Passover as the sacrificial lamb. But I digress.
The big picture here is Jesus’ final instructions and they are all about Love. He lectures them on loving each other as he has loved them and then he prays to God to make them, and us, One. It is a lovely and profoundly important section of New Testament scripture.
When I was a kid I loved to listen to AM radio, and later FM radio. I remember as an early teen wondering why pop music was so different from church music. It seemed to me that all secular songs were love songs. They were all about falling in love or couples breaking up or getting back together. There seemed to me much more to sing about than just romantic love. I would celebrate a song about a barroom fight (Bad, Bad, Leeroy Brown) or homeless clown (Mr. Bojangles) a horse, even if it was in “the desert with no name” and the song itself became a terrible earworm. Now you’ll be singing that in your head until Mason leads the next hymn! But I got tired of love songs as a teenager.
I think now that secular music focuses on romantic love because that is what most people are obsessed with. We all want to be loved and we spend a lot of time thinking about how to get the love we feel we need and deserve. And romantic love seems to be the kind of love with all the fireworks!
Soon after this early teenage struggle for me, musicians started to bring popular tunes into the church and we started singing love songs to Jesus. This changed everything. I didn’t like it at first and I would rather sing traditional hymns in church to this day. But praise music solved my dilemma none-the-less. In how to sing love songs to and about Jesus, anyway.
Still, I’m not sure in all my life that I have figured out what Jesus meant at the last supper in John when he told us followers to love one another. When we think of that we tend to still be trying to figure out how to get the love we want and so Christian Love has been distilled through our sin of selfishness down to a tit-for-tat, an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” sort of understanding of love and I think we’re wrong in that way. I think the church has lost touch with what Jesus was talking about when he told us to love one another and then prayed that we might become One.
The visions of the early church monastics and of Peter and John as told in our other readings this morning shed some light on this question.
God spoke to Peter in a vision. This vision came to him at a time when the early disciples were struggling about allowing the Gentiles into the community. It seemed they had always been a “Jews only” group but God was leading them to be inclusive. In this vision, God tells Peter to abandon the old ways of only eating what was Kosher and instead tells him to feast on whatever - beef, pork, didn’t matter, just feast and share. This must have been shocking to Peter. I would think he would have decided that it was just a dream or something he just imagined and not tell anyone. But it wasn’t just a dream. Peter alone knew that God was speaking to him through this vision and he knew that he must share it. So he shared the vision with the others and the answer to their dilemma too. We are to share the feast of God’s abundant love!
The same John that wrote this Gospel had a vision too and wrote all about how God showed him “a new heaven and a new earth” in this other book titled The Revelation of John. Here John shares everything he saw in this vision. We think of it as fiction or the record of some weird dream John had after eating a supreme pizza one night. The Revelation of John has and continues to be the most puzzling book in the Bible. But this too is not just a dream for God told John, and through him us, that God is “making all things new." This is Good News.
Our modern (really post-modern) problem is we don’t really talk about or believe in dreams and visions anymore.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’ve had some supernatural experiences lately when small experiences feel huge to me, like God is trying to tell me something, like a sign. One of these is connected to goldfinches. Each time I see a goldfinch, and I long to see one but it is rare for me for some reason. Each time I do catch a glimpse of a goldfinch I am deeply moved and suddenly feel very focused on my soul and spiritual journey. I don’t know why.
My rational self wants to disregard these signs with psychological reason. But God has been speaking to us through dreams, visions and signs for thousands of years and Psychology has only been around for about 150 years. We get rather smug, I think, with our modern ways.
I was talking with a friend about all this one day this week and she told me that many years ago she had a vision and that it was a conversion experience. She was mad at God and had left the church mostly over the murder of a close friend. She meditated though, for hours and hours at a retreat she went to in West Virginia and after two days of sitting in silence Jesus himself came to her. She didn’t really want Jesus to come to her. She was not speaking to him. She was practicing Buddhist meditation. But Jesus showed up anyway. And he asked if she wanted to see where her friend was and she said yes and he took her and showed her the heavenly place where her friend was and she was put at ease and the pain of her grief was suddenly removed from her heart.
Now, maybe most of us scoff at such things but I have learned to never doubt someone’s experience of his or her own dream or vision. My little goldfinch seemed so small by comparison and I found myself envious of her huge face to face experience of Jesus.
(no good segway)
I love Yogi Berra quotes for their simplicity and humor. Here’s one I ran across this week, “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.”
Here’s another quote of some profound words penned by Gary Saul Morson (in The Athenaeum Review - Summer 2019):
“If we are to make our lives meaningful, we must live for values beyond happiness, values that may conflict with happiness. Sometimes suffering can be beneficial, not because it may make us capable of greater pleasures, but because it may deepen the soul.”
For much of my life I tried to make my life meaningful, as Professor Morson implies we should (and presumably thinks we can). Making my life meaningful hasn’t worked out so well. When I worked hard at it, I failed to remember that we humans have a propensity to mess things up when trying to “make” things happen. Sometimes we get it right, but just as often we don’t. So, I’m more inclined to follow the wisdom of that great metaphysical philosopher, Yogi Berra. Professor Morson, however, does make an important point. Life, if it’s to be meaningful, has to be more than chasing happiness, which is like being on a hamster-wheel to nowhere and leads us to always ask: “How much is enough?”
In the film, Tender Mercies, Mac Sledge (played beautifully by Robert Duvall) is a washed-up, alcoholic country singer who finds recovery, redemption, and grace through sobriety, marriage to Rosa Lee, and his adopted son. At the film’s end, Mac is silently working in the family garden. Much has occurred since his sobriety and marriage, specifically the tragic car-accident death of his 18-year old daughter from a previous marriage. As he’s working in the garden trying to fathom his grief, Rosa Lee comes out to see how he’s doing. He tells her he doesn’t understand why this has happened. By all rights, he should’ve been dead due to his reckless, self-centered life, yet he’s alive and his daughter is dead. He can’t understand why his life is now redeemed and whole. He ends by saying to her, “You see, I don’t trust happiness. I never did. I never will.” Even in his profound grief, he has a soul wellness more vital than happiness. He has received love and grace from his wife, his adopted son, and the new friends he has made. The film’s epilogue shows Mac tossing a football with his adopted son. The look on Mac’s face says it all. His grief isn’t gone. His past isn’t forgotten. His suffering isn’t over. But, his soul is well.
None of us will have soul wellness by chasing happiness. The happiness chase is a lie of American mythology. It ignores the truth of our human condition. Such a chase becomes a “law” we must follow; a categorical imperative that, ironically enough, condemns us to unhappiness. But when we accept that the world isn’t perfect and we aren’t as well, then we can let go of our self-imposed pressure (with our culture’s help) to make ourselves happy. We then can begin to accept that what has been done for us is far more crucial than what we can try to make ourselves do. That’s the grace given us in Jesus. You see, we need not try to find meaning (or even happiness) in the world. Meaning has found us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And that meaning is incarnated for us in the forgiving love found in the people and circumstances of our lives; the kind Mac Sledge found from his wife and new son. Such are the tender mercies of grace. (The Rt. Rev. Scott Benhase)
So, my friends, to love as Jesus loved is to wash feet and forgive betrayal and rise above the mud slinging. It is not so much about doing as it is a way of being. And we can recognize it in the love among us, we can see it in each other and we can see it too in the strangers we encounter every day.
Love is the Kingdom of God and The Kingdom of God is within us.