First Congregational Church
May 9, 2021
6th Sunday in Easter, Mothers Day
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Despite the fact that this morning’s message is not specifically about Mothers Day or mother anything, I have been waiting 363 days to impart to you knowledge that was imparted to me - some of which may and some of which may not be true.
My mother taught me to appreciate a job well done. “If you're going to kill each other, do it outside. I just finished cleaning.” My mother taught me religion. “You better pray that will come out of the carpet.” My mother taught me magic. “Because I said so, that's why.” My mother taught me more logic. “If you fall out of that swing and break your neck, you're not going to the store with me.”
My mother taught me irony. “Keep crying and I will give you something to cry about.” My mother taught me about contortionism. “Will you look at that dirt on the back of your neck.” My mother taught me about stamina. “You'll sit there until all that spinach is gone.” (In my case, it may have been milk toast or cantaloupe. We didn’t grow up with spinach.) My mother taught me about fear. “You wait until your father comes home.” My mother taught me about free will. “Don't make me come up there.”
Phil Keith, the former police chief of Knoxville, Tennessee, tells of receiving a call from his mother while he was in the middle of a televised press conference. Keith knew his mother wouldn’t call him under those circumstances unless something was seriously wrong, so he excused himself from the press conference to answer the phone.
When he picked up the phone, she said, “Phil Keith, are you chewing gum?” He said, “Um, yes, ma’am.” She said, “Well, it looks awful. Spit it out.” So, Police Chief Phil Keith spit out his gum and returned to finish the press conference. (cue Barb)
As the writer of John times it, our scripture passage for this morning would have been some time after the Last Supper and before Christ’s arrest. After Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and tells them not to fear, because he is repairing rooms for them, and offers other words of comfort, he tells them about living in the vine, and being branches. And then we get these words. And yes, this person is my sister.
9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.
Thanks, Barb. For those who have done pew time in the past, no doubt, you’ve heard this passage a time or two. If you have been especially blessed, you may have been exposed to the love of this passage as being that of agape love - the Greek word for love that is more than affection, familiar, romantic, and playful love. It’s selfless love.
Agape love is more than that which comes from our mind, subconscious, memories, body, emotions, survival, soul, but love from our spirit to spirit. It’s that empathetic attitude of love for everyone and anyone, that is unconditional, no earning or deserving. I’m thinking that it is the love that we all need so dearly these days.
The love that God has for Christ, and Christ has for us, is the love we are to extend to all those around us. And I know! There are so many, “Yeah, but….”s. We could spend the rest of the day listing names like Hitler and Atilla the Hun and the little girl around the corner who beat up the little red-headed boy at the bus stop every day.
Christ’s command is not to like everyone, or to love only the lovely or pretty or nice people. This sort of love is not only for each of us to work on individually, but together , as in the body of Christ. Agape love is that which we are given so that we may give it away and is supposed to be part of what makes Christianity attractive to others. It is no secret that sometimes we don’t do so well in that department.
Professor of Theology at Lexington Theological University, Emily Askew, wrote one of the most plain and direct descriptions of this sort of agape love. “Love in this passage is not a psychological state, nor is it anywhere described as an internal quality. Love is an action—a really difficult action. The definition of love here is a radical willingness to die—not for your child or spouse, but for a fellow follower of Christ.”
Preaching professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Gennifer Benjamin Brooks, made this observation. “Certainly this meaning is nowhere in the minds of most, if not all, members of the congregation when they hear the words of Christ’s commandments that call Christians to love God and neighbor. And yet that is what this text, this message from Jesus, calls us to embody. How can we give up our lives for others? What can we do to show that depth of love for others within and outside the church?” That marvelous pastor over there at Frankfort Congregational Church asks the question, “How can people be inspired to such love? Why should they even bother to try and get out of their comfort zones?”
Maybe the most obvious answer is because Christ gave that sort of love for us - not only all of humanity, but for you - you, specifically, were part of his decision to lay down his life - even if that seems like the craziest statement ever uttered. As God loved Christ, so Christ loves us. I’d even be willing to guess that most people would agree that the love of Christ is a worthy reason to love others. And maybe we come close to doing so every once-in-awhile.
Former pastor here, Dick Stoddard used to tell couples he was marrying that love is a decision they would make each and every day of their married life - to love their spouse. Not just when they feel like it, not just when they have a mind to do so, but a decision. As Dr. Askew stated, to love with agape love is a decision, and I can tell you from personal experience that sometimes we have to stop where we are - maybe even in mid-sentence - and take a step back, apologizing if warranted, to take another step in determined love.
Stephen Olford wrote a book called The Grace of Giving. In it, he tells of a Baptist pastor during the American Revolution, Rev. Peter Miller, who lived in Pennsylvania, and enjoyed the friendship of George Washington. Also in the same town lived Michael Wittman, an evil-minded sort who did all he could to oppose and humiliate the pastor. One day Wittman was arrested for treason and sentenced to die. Rev. Miller traveled seventy miles - on foot - to Philadelphia to plead for the life of the man sentenced as a traitor.
"No, Rev.,” General Washington said. "I cannot grant you the life of your friend.” "My friend!" exclaimed the old preacher. "He's the bitterest enemy I have." “What? You've walked twenty seven miles to save the life of an enemy? That puts the matter in different light. I'll grant your pardon." And he did. Rev. Miller took Mr. Wittman back home--no longer an enemy but a friend.
I’m figuring that unless you are a long trek hiker, most of us aren’t so apt to walk 27 miles for a friend or family member, much less an enemy. And I’m also guessing that most of us are rather set with the friends and family we have in our lives. Why would we want or need to bring more into our realms, loving them with such big, selfless love?
As much as the introverts among us might wish it weren’t so, we are designed, engineered to be in community. When you need a ride to the airport or doctor, and your family isn’t available to take you, you appreciate more the relationships you’ve built over time. And let’s face it, present relationships sometimes need to be replaced - through death or moving away or whatever other reason.
When we take the risk to “love” outside our comfort zones, we may even discover interesting people, connections with people we may never thought of having - like meeting a stranger, across the country, and after a little yakking, you discover that the other individual not only knows where Frankfort or Benzie County are, but their grandparents or someone else they knew lived or vacationed here. Agape love, that selfless love that takes risks in reaching outside ourselves, has the potential to be far more rewarding than the bother of a little anxiety or mustering of energy.
Gennifer Benjamin Brooks’ question has been renting a little room in my brain this week. What does it take to set aside all that one believes about others, to set aside the prejudices that prevent or stifle friendship, in order to join others in being truly the Body of Christ? I’ve also been thinking about that time when we will be able to worship again without masks and social distancing.
I know this has the potential to raise the red flags of political wariness, but after all these years of hearing my heart, I’m asking for another hearing. Numbers of various sorts - percentage of people having first or second vaccinations, the number that constitutes a crowd, things like that - will be used to determine requirements of masking and distancing. But what if someone feels safer with a mask, while everyone else is unmasked? Agape love allows for such individuals to be a part of this church family, regardless of their reasons for masking or standing apart or refraining from touch.
Selfless love gives us the directive to accept people where they are, not because of where they have been, or what they have or have not done, and extend kindness and respect in polite and genuine welcome. Selfless love allows us the fact that sometimes others will make mistakes and when they ask for forgiveness, we can grant it to them.
Loving each other in ways that might be a bit uncomfortable are necessary because they complete the circle of God’s joy, extending into Christ’s joy, extending into our joy, which creates a circuit of pure joy. Laying down our druthers is really opening the door to life and love and wholeness that is not available with a membership card, credit card or any other card you can think of. I’m guessing that I’m not the only one needing this reminder message today.
Keeping Christ’s command to love one another is not just about something we do. It has much larger implications of self-sacrifice than setting aside a certain amount of money for the mission basket or having a beverage with an acquaintance. God’s agape to Christ, Christ’s agape to us, our agape to others is a sphere of love that is much greater than our here and now, and who doesn’t want to be a part of something that is that big and good, not to mention of that much joy? Which is exactly the right place to pray.
Agape God of joy and wholeness, loosen our hearts to stop being so surprised when you color outside our lines of expectation, when you bless those we might curse, when you embrace those we might exclude, those you empower whom we might even inadvertently put down. Help us to catch your wind of grandeur and glory, that putting aside our selfishness seems easy and even delightful. Enable us to allow your love to flow through us, not in fear or obligation, but in joy, complete joy, the joy that comes from you. Forgive us when we choose our will over your will, and may we become brighter and brighter lights of love that draw and save others to your love. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.