Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jesus Gave Just ONE Command

John 14:15-21


People like rules. We have all kinds of them: what you can wear, how you can talk, who you can spend time with, where you can spend your time, what you can drink or eat, what behaviors are appropriate or not dependent upon any number of factors from where you are to your age to whether or not you’re married. Christians are no different. We really like rules; and we really like enforcing the rules.

A group of researches recently conducted a study that looked a number of different cultures. The researches interviewed almost 7000 people about their culture’s social norms, how clearly expectations are communicated, and how the culture handles rule-breakers.

The interviews covered both working adults and students and asked people about behaviors ranging from kissing in a bank to eating in a classroom.

Respondents were also asked to rate how justifiable certain behaviors are: such as claiming government benefits to which you aren’t entitled, avoiding paying for public transportation, cheating on taxes, and homosexuality, prostitution, abortion, divorce and others.

Those cultures that are have more rigid social norms and in which sanctions for violating those norms are more strictly applied were labeled “tight” societies. Those cultures that have less restrictive social norms, cultures in which a wider range of behaviors are not only permissible, but encouraged, were labeled “loose” societies.

While this study looked at the cultures in 33 different countries in the world, I wish someone had done (or would be willing to do in the near future) a study that looks at the social values within a given church setting. While it’s true that people in general like rules, and Christians in particular seem to like rules even more, I personally really, really, really like knowing the rules. I like knowing what’s expected of me in a given place, at a given time, with a given group of people. Knowing others’ expectations allows me to either meet their expectations or communicate clearly in a way that resets their expectations in accordance with my skills and abilities.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus talks about his expectations. And he makes his expectations really clear. “IF you love me, you WILL keep my commandments.” Except, he just kind of stops there. Jesus tells that he expects us to keep his commandments. Great! “Follow the rules,” he says. But, then, he never really seems to tell us what those rules are. Expectation: Follow the rules. Follow-up: None.

So, in trying to determine just what it means to keep Jesus’s commandments, I did a little research. I did a little digging. I looked at everything Jesus said in the Gospel of John before making this pronouncement to keep his commandments, I looked at everything that that Jesus said after. Then, I did some research on the word “commandments” in the original Greek.

Here’s what I found: 1. the original word translated “commandments” is singular. A better reading would be “If you love me, you will keep my command.” 2. In the whole of the Gospel of John Jesus only ever gives one command to his disciples: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

That’s it. Love each other. Seems really easy, doesn’t it. There’s only one thing we have to do if we love Jesus: love one another.

If only were really that easy.

Loving people is hard. And loving people the way Jesus loved them… Well, that’s a daunting task. In fact, at times can feel impossible.

In the gospel of John, Jesus spends the first half of the story performing miracles: turning water into wine, healing the paralytic and the blind, raising the dead. If you have expectations that I, as a minister, am going to follow in Jesus’s footsteps in that regard, let me take a moment to reset your expectations: I have never even turned grape juice in to wine; I’ve never healed anyone of any ailment, physical or otherwise; and I have never raised anyone from the dead. These things are not in my skill set.

So, for today, I looked outside of the gospel of John to find a few more examples of the stuff Jesus did while he was walking around loving people. Now, when I first learned how to study the bible, inter-textual studying—looking from one book in the bible to explain what something in another book means without consideration for the history, culture, and context in which each was written—was strictly verboten. There you have it: I broke the rules. Your sermon this morning is brought to you by someone who thought to herself, “I need more data.”

Looking at the other three gospels, we see Jesus doing more miracles of healing and resurrection. We also see him feeding crowds of people, forgiving sins, and commanding the religious elite to: stop judging people, to take care of the widow, the orphan, and the poor, and honor the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. Jesus met people’s needs and commanded others to do the same, even if it meant they had to accept someone radically different from themselves to do it, even if it meant they had to acknowledge that their way of doing things wasn’t the only way of doing things.

Jesus commands us to love one another. He commands us to love one another as he has loved us. When we see Jesus doing anything in the gospel, he starts whatever it is he’s doing by discerning what is in people’s hearts. Jesus knew those around him. He knew how to love people well because he knew what they needed. And Jesus knew what people needed because he actually knew them.

So it is with us. To truly love someone, we have to know them. It isn’t enough to simply meet their physical needs. Simply giving food to the hungry isn’t enough. Jesus demands that we radically love those around us. If we’re going to feed their bellies, we need to feed their hearts and their spirits as well. When I was in graduate school, I helped to feed the hungry, volunteering my time in soup kitchens and food pantries. They were run by different organizations, and there was a marked difference in the way those coming to be fed were treated, and how they responded.

At one, I saw volunteers who knew those they fed. They talked with them, shared stories, laughed together, cried together, and those eating at the table often left with a smile on their face. At another, I heard judgment and condescending words; those who volunteered knew what those coming to be fed did or where they lived, but they did not take the time to know their hearts, to share in their grief or their joy. Often people took what was offered and walked away looking as despondent as when they arrived. Both groups received food; one responded as though they had received love as well.

I was reading some Alcoholics Anonymous literature one day. In that month’s magazine, a man had written in concerning his relationship with his son. The man himself was a recovering alcoholic who was devastated by choices his son was making in continuing to use drugs and alcoholic, and at a rate that was quickly killing him. The man, having found freedom from his own addiction in AA, began pressuring his son at every turn to join him at meetings. The son consistently refused, and it was a point of tension and pain in their relationship.

One day, the man was reviewing step 3: he made a decision to turn his will and his life over to God. The man realized that his own will and his own life belonged wholly to God, and the same was true for his son. He left his son in God’s hands, and rather than trying to get his son clean and sober, began getting to know his son. Their relationship changed drastically. While he still hoped and prayed sobriety for his son, his son’s sobriety was no longer his mission. He chose instead to love his son exactly where he was at, for exactly who he was.

I think that as Christians we sometimes we neglect knowing other people. We are so convinced at times that we have the monopoly on what it means to be a Christian, that we fail to see that there are as many ways of loving God and following Jesus as there are people in the world. Instead we create rubrics and star charts and we give a gold star to those who do everything “right”, and often we judge or degrade those who do it differently.

The church, it seems, is a very tight culture. But it’s often one that doesn’t clearly communicate the rules and expectations because we’re all too busy acting nice toward those around us, while we harbor anger and bitterness in our hearts. We love rules more than people, and in so doing, we fail to keep the only command Jesus ever gave us: to love others as he loved us.

Loving others can make us uncomfortable. It means getting to know someone else, someone who might be radically different from ourselves. Sometimes, it can be uncomfortable because it means being radically honest about who we are, which may push back against those cultural norms, creating tension and discomfort for those around us.

Love demands a radical honesty that allows us to know and be known. To love someone is to know them. We hate what we fear, and we fear what we do not understand. In knowing and understanding others, I have come to realize, we cannot help but love them. Because once we know someone, truly and deeply know them, we’re invested.

Our wholeness and well-being as a community is dependent upon the wholeness and well-being of every individual. Our personal wholeness and well-being is dependent upon the wholeness and well-being of the community. For there are many parts, but one body. God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked I, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

If God has put the body together, who are we to fear, judge, or hate even a single part of it? Instead, we are called to love every part of it. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hope, always perseveres. Love never fails.

We are called to love. This is the great command, and the only one Jesus ever gives.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Hinges Come In Three Parts, Seriously

I work at a trouble-shooting center for windows and patio doors. If you've purchased one of our products and something goes wrong, I can tell you how to fix it. If for some reason I can't, I can direct you to the person who definitely can. This may not seem like the kind of job most people would want, but I love it! Honestly, I do. And I love it for a lot of reasons.

Number one, I'm known as the "peppy" girl at work. Just this past week, I was walking around on my break, and my trainer called me into the training room where she had a whole group of newbies. "Why don't our windows come with screens out of the box? Why aren't screens a standard feature? This is the twenty-first century! If people want to open their windows, they don't want to deal with bugs!" she said to me when I was in the room.

"You've been listening to my calls," I responded with obvious delight. "While I understand that it can be frustrating to find that your new window unit did not come with a screen, there are a few reasons for this. First, let me just say how sorry I am that this wasn't explained to you at the time of your purchase. It may seem like screens should be a standard feature, but these are the reasons we don't sell screens with our new units...." And off I went, answering the question and offering to sell my trainer the screen she needed for her window.

Immediately, everyone in the training class said, "You must be M! C's told us you were the peppy one. You're reputation precedes you!" It was a glorious moment.

One of the things I like best about my job is the number of really interesting characters I get to talk to in the course of a day. Occasionally, I'll get a customer who's response and attitude cause me to reflect deeper on my responses to and attitude toward God.

For example:

About a week and a half ago, I had a customer call in. The first he thing he tells me after giving me his file number is that he "had to hang up on the person he was talking to earlier because he didn't know what he was talking about." I was immediately on guard for a difficult conversation, and I was not disappointed!

This customer went on to explain to me that he had purchased the wrong hinges for his screen door at the hardware store and needed to order new ones. So, I began by asking what kind of patio door he has. He immediately got upset, and said with no small amount of sass, "I'm calling about my screen door. I already told you that. My patio door is fine."

"I understand, sir," I replied. "However, all of our screen doors are designed to go with our patio doors, and in order to determine which and how many hinges you need for your screen door, I do need information about the patio door itself."

While it's not actually true that I need to know about the patio door to determine the type of hinges, it is true that I do need information about the patio door to determine the number of hinges required for his screen door. But I'm new at this, and the fact that all hinged screen doors have the same hinges, just in different numbers, didn't immediately occur to me.

So, after five or six minutes of this man arguing about how worthless it was to give me any information about his patio door, because he was calling about the hinges for his screen door, and my reiterating that in order to send him the correct parts for his screen door, I needed information about the patio door for which his screen door was designed, he finally relented and gave me the information.

It turned out, he needed three hinges.

Now, our hinges come in three parts--an upper leaf that attaches to the patio door itself, a lower leaf which attaches to the door frame, and a pin which holds the two leaves together.

So, when this guy called in and told me had purchased "the wrong hinges" at his local hardware store, and having determined from the information on his patio door that he finally gave to me that he needed three hinges for this screen door, I put together an order for three upper leaves, three lower leaves, and three hinge pins. Seems pretty simple, right?

Well, as I was going over the order with this man, I told him the parts I was ordering.

"That's not what I need!" he snapped quite rudely. "I just need the upper part of the hinge with the pin attached!" This is not any information he had given me previously when he told me had purchased the wrong hinges from his local hardware store and needed to order the right hinges from me.

"Well, sir," I said sweetly, "I do apologize for the confusion. I understood that you needed the entire hinge set. I can certainly remove the lower leaves from the order, and send you the upper leaves and hinge pins."

"I don't need the upper leaves and separate hinge pins," he snapped. "I need the upper leaves with the pins attached."

"Well, sir," I explained, "we don't make hinges for our screen doors with the pins attached. Our hinges are manufactured in three parts, the lower leaf, the upper leaf, and the hinge pin. If you're missing the upper leaves and pins, I can send you those parts, but they will be separate."

"I don't need separate parts!" he yelled, now irate. "I just want the upper leaves with the attached pin!"

"Our pins do not come attached to either leaf," I explained. "I can order you the parts you need, if you like, but they will not be attached."

"Then they're not the parts I need," he snarled.

"Well, sir," I tried yet again to explain, "these are the only types of hinges we make for our screen doors."

"Well, those aren't the hinges I need!" he yelled.

"Sir, you called to indicate that you had purchased the wrong hinges for our product. I'm trying to get the right hinges ordered and sent to you for our product. The fact of the matter is we only have one style of hinge available for the hinged screen door. That hinge comes in three parts. An upper leaf, a lower leaf, and a pin. If you'd like to order the proper hinge parts for your screen door, I would be more than happy to help you with that today."

"But that's not the part I want!"

"Well, sir, the part you want isn't something we manufacture. If you would like to order the right part for your screen door, I can help you with that...." Click.

He hung up on me.

Now, I'm not one who enjoys being yelled at. I actually find it really rude and disrespectful. I'm willing to make allowances at times because I know that when people get frustrated and upset, they tend to raise their voice. I do it myself. In fact, I remember this one time, I was talking to a friend about something that had really upset me, and in the middle of it, I sobbed, "I'm really sorry! I know I'm yelling about this, but I want you to know I'm not yelling at you, I'm just yelling in your direction."

I'm less willing to make allowances for people like this man who called asking for my help, admitting right off the bat that he had purchased the wrong part, and then ended by yelling at me because he didn't want the right parts for his screen door, and couldn't order the wrong parts for his screen door because the company that manufactured his screen door doesn't manufacture the parts he wanted that do not go to his screen door.

It kind of got me thinking about some of the mistakes we make in our own lives. Mistakes that are bigger than purchasing the wrong hinges for a screen door.

How often do we make the wrong choice, and then come before God and say, "Hey, I made the wrong choice, and here's what I need you to do to fix it!"?

How often do we fail to stop and listen to God when God tells us, "This is how I can help you," or flat out reject that help because it isn't the kind of help we want?

How many of us have gotten frustrated and angry with God because God wasn't giving us what we thought we needed? And how many of us have walked away for a moment, a week, a year, a lifetime because we didn't want what God was telling us we needed?

People are funny creatures. They almost always leave me thinking. The best part of my job is that I get to help people every single day. It may not seem like much, getting people replacement parts for their windows and patio doors, or explaining that they need to lower the humidity in their home during the winter to prevent condensation from forming on the inside edges of their windows. But it means a lot to them to have someone who knows what's wrong with their window, who's willing to acknowledge their frustrations, and do whatever policy will allow to solve the issue their having.

The second best part of my job is collecting stories I'm going to be able to use in sermons for years to come.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Communion is About Knowing Jesus

Luke 24:13-35


When I was working as a chaplain in a children’s hospital, I became friends with one the staff members on the floor to which I was assigned. We would hang out on breaks, chat about life, and occasionally, we would go out together after work. There was this great place right around the corner called Coogan’s. Inevitably, some stranger would strike up a conversation and eventually ask, “So, what do you do?”

The first time I was ever asked this question at Coogan’s it was a particularly busy night. The room was crowded, and when I responded with, “I’m a chaplain at the hospital,” everyone in a six food radius stopped and stared. A strange hush fell until someone spluttered out, “What are you doing in a bar?!” To which I replied, “Having a drink with some friends.” What can I say? I’ve got a fondness for French Martinis.

Add to this dynamic a few cultural factors: that Coogan’s is a pub largely frequented by Catholics, and the fact that I am woman, who at the time was wearing a pin-striped suit, and no collar, and you’ve got a whole mish-mash of factors that contribute to the fact that no one would have recognized me a ministry professional had I not been honest about my profession. I was the wrong gender, wearing the wrong clothing, and hanging out in the wrong place.

What fascinated me about the response I got was that it so clearly communicated the notion that neither chaplains, pastors, priests, nor anyone else in professional ministry hang out in bars. It’s not that they don’t necessarily belong in bars. In fact the church I was attending in Brooklyn at the time actually holds services in a bar. Rather it’s just not where you’d expect to find them. No one goes looking for a ministry in a bar.

We see a similar thing going on in today’s passage. We’ve got two disciples of Jesus, heading home after the Passover festival. They’re devastated at the loss of Jesus. He rode into town the week before, receiving a welcome from the people who hailed him as king and messiah. By week’s end, he had been betrayed by one closest to him, denied by another, deserted by all, stripped, beaten, crucified by the Romans and buried. The great hope of the Jewish nation was gone.
So those who had been visiting Jerusalem to celebrate Passover were headed home, dejected, discussing the events of the past three days.

And this is where we meet Jesus: casually taking a stroll down the road to Emmaus. He bumps into the two disciples and they don’t recognize him. What the text actually tells us is that their eyes were kept from recognizing him. This seems to happen a lot in the gospels: the people who we would think ought to recognize Jesus (the religious elite before his death, his closest disciples after his death) largely don’t.

It’s there in the story today: these two disciples think Jesus is just another visitor to the area, a stranger to Jerusalem who has celebrated Passover and is headed home. And they think he must be the only person who has no idea what’s happened in town over the weekend. So, they tell Jesus the story, their story, Jesus’s own story: how this man from Nazareth, a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, was handed over by the chief priests and leaders of the people, condemned to death, and crucified. They shared with Jesus the hopes they had had before all this transpired: that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel from Roman oppression. And now, it is the third day since all of these things happened.

I find it curious that these men make mention of it being the third day. After all, throughout the gospels, every time Jesus spoke of the fact that he would killed, he always told them he would rise in three days: “Destroy this temple,” he tells them, “and I will raise it on the third day.” Yet, here are these men, on the third day, wondering what went wrong.

They know the rest of the story! Some women from their group astounded them with it! Heading out early in the day, the women arrived at the tomb to find it empty; his body wasn’t there. Rather, they saw a vision: angels who said that Jesus was alive. Others went to the tomb and found it empty, but nobody had yet seen Jesus.

This is where Jesus begins to tell them what’s really going on: how through the whole of Israel’s history, this is the event of which their prophets have spoken. The coming of the messiah was always going to include suffering and death. In fact, it is necessary, declares Jesus, that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory.

And Jesus starts at the beginning. Long ago and far away, when dinosaurs roamed the earth…. Oh, wait. That’s another story. He actually starts with, “Way back when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt….” And he walks them through the whole of the salvation story—God’s ultimate plan for humankind since the beginning. Jesus goes so far as to read himself into the Old Testament scriptures—claiming that this Jesus who was crucified three days ago is the very Messiah promised by God’s prophets.

These disciples were so impressed by what Jesus had to tell them that they invited him to join them and stay the night. After all, it was nearly evening, the day was ending, and Jesus could travel no further that night. Without ever realizing it, these men chose to play host to their friend, their teacher, this man for whom they mourned.

Jesus joins them at their dinner table. While there, he takes the bread, he breaks it, and he gives it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognized him. After all, this is something Jesus has done many times throughout the gospels. Though we only read a few instances of it happening, that this act is what causes them to Jesus, I believe it is safe to assume that anytime Jesus was hanging out with a crowd at mealtime, he broke the bread, blessed it, and gave it to those who were eating with him.

Jesus is sharing communion with his followers. The Oxford English Dictionary defines communion as the sharing of intimate thoughts and feelings. It come from the root word commune, which means to share. It is through the breaking of the bread and the sharing of this common meal that these disciples, the first to see the resurrected Christ, come to know him for who he is. It is through this ultimate sharing of his body and blood that Jesus is known to us.

This experience made real the feelings they had shared on their journey—what they had begun to know in their hearts while Jesus was on the road with them, they now knew with their minds: that it was Jesus with whom they had been communing. It was Jesus who fulfilled the scriptures. It is Jesus who had redeemed them and is redeeming the whole world from slavery to sin and death.

They didn’t keep this information to themselves. Rather, they immediately left their home and returned to Jerusalem, the place from which they had just come. They sought out the eleven and their companions and shared with them the good news that Jesus was alive. They shared with those who had been looking for Jesus in the wrong places—the places they expected him to be—that Jesus was no longer in the grave, but on the road, still sharing the journey with them.

After that first night out with my friends, when the shock had worn off the faces of those around me and the silence which followed my pronouncement that I was in the ministry ended, I was tempted not to share my profession when asked again in the future. There was an awkwardness experienced when strangers saw “a person of God” with a martini in her hand, chatting with friends in a bar. It’s not what they expected. It’s not the place people go when their looking for a minister.

But it was because of my profession that I had the enormous privilege to hear people’s stories. That first night, the gentleman who asked me what I did for a living was a police officer for the city of New York. He had joined the force 18 years before. He was there on September 11th, 2001 when the towers fell. He was not at all shy about telling me his doubts about and anger with God. He told me what it was like to watch friends and loved one die in the aftermath of those attacks.

I’m still privileged today to hear these stories. In my current working life, occasionally people will ask how I came to work for my current employer. “Well,” I always tell them, “being a ministerial intern doesn’t pay, and until I can find fulltime employment in ministry, I’m going to take whatever job I can find elsewhere.”

It always leads to further discussion—whether it’s people who love the church and want to know my views on certain political topics or literary works; or those who have left the church to pursue a life that feels more genuine to them. The latter always seem surprised and delighted when I tell them that I think it’s great they’ve decided to chuck the rule book out the window. “There are a lot of things in the church I think need to change,” I’ll say.

And inevitably, someone will tell me more of their story. For a few minutes, we’ll commune together. They will share their intimate thoughts and feelings about religion, about life, about religious life.

When I introduce myself, I never say to people, “Hi, I’m Mary. I’m a Christian and more than anything else in life, I want to be a minister.” Bars, break rooms, and classrooms for trouble-shooting broken windows aren’t places people expect to find a minister. But it doesn’t mean ministers aren’t there and everywhere else in our lives.

Jesus was known to his disciples through the breaking of bread. He is made known to us through Holy Communion. But I think the reason Jesus chose to be known through the common meal was because it was an everyday event, a part of life we partake of daily. Much as we find Jesus in the bread and the wine on the first Sunday of the month, I hope we find him in other places and at other times throughout the week.

And I hope that when others come to know us as Christians, they’ll also come to know Jesus, and recognize him in us, whether we’re in a bar, a classroom, or on the farm. After all, Jesus is alive! And as he has been made known to us in the common, daily act of breaking bread, may he be made known to others through the common activities of our daily lives.