SECOND CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH Bennington Vermont 802-442-2559  

  Everything is changing around us. When I heard this week that fully one-half of recent college graduates are without full-time jobs and that a college education is no longer almost a sure guarantee of a decent job, I realized that one of the bedrock assumptions I had grown up with was no longer so solid. I had known that when my kids were looking for jobs, my advice to them was practically useless to them–you know, the “write a great, intriguing cover letter along with your resume, follow up with a phone call if not a visit to the office, they’ll love you once they meet you” kind of advice that parents used to give their children. A. Almost everything happens by e-mail these days, B. They’ll probably call security if you stop by the office, and C. There are hundreds if not thousands of extremely qualified applicants for every job opening. The most a parent can do, it seems, is tell their child that you love them and get their room ready for them to move back in.

If you have not made the leap into cyber-space and don’t use a computer, you know how “left-behind” you can feel. Then there’s the cell-phone, or “smart phone” divide, for those of us still tethered to land lines, not to mention all the cultural references which can sound like a foreign language as one generation tries to communicate with another. Our bodies are changing everyday, maybe getting stronger and healthier as you recover from an illness or injury or work toward some fitness or health goal, but for others of us, the changes are in the other direction–weaker, less cooperative, growing or shedding things that you never knew were so changeable.

The church is in the midst of change as well–not just us, but The Church, worldwide–in the midst of that 500-year rummage sale, as we’ve talked about before. I read this week that if 1950 should come around again, the mainline church will be totally ready for it. Alas, or thank God, 1950 will never come around again, unless we tumble into some kind of crack in the space-time continuum, in which case we’ll have bigger fish to fry.

“Abide in my love,” Jesus said to his disciples. There’s a 1950′s kind of word–”abide”– “Make yourselves at home in my love,” is the way Eugene Peterson puts it. “I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done–kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love.”

The use of the word “commands” or “commandments” here is a little surprising. – “This is my commandment,” Jesus said, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” How can you command someone to love? Biblical scholar John Pilch says that in the Mediterranean understanding, love is about attachment and bonding (The Cultural World of Jesus, Year B, p. 82), it’s not about feeling or emotion. “Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said. Here in John’s gospel he has just finished washing the disciples’ feet, and John’s community in the last decade of the first century and we in the second decade of the 21st century, know that Jesus would also give himself over, completely, “lay down his life,” to express his love. “No one has greater love than this,” he says here in John’s gospel, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

It’s not really conditional love–I will call you my friend if you do what I command you, though the Greek gets translated that way. Remember that all these “commandments” are in the context of love, Jesus’ love for his followers, God’s love poured out for and through Jesus and into the Risen Christ. We live, move, and have our being in this love, like fish live in water. If we intentionally make our home in this love, we will bear much fruit, we will live lives that become part of God’s loving intention for the world, we become that “someone” who is “kind while others are unkind, that someone who refuses to hate while others hate, that someone who serves another in love, is calm in the storm, is loving everybody.” [from children’s time]

“No one has greater love than this,” Jesus says here in John’s gospel, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The word for life here is psyche, so we might think of laying down one’s life as “setting aside one’s heart, soul, or being.” Peter Woods suggests this translation, “There is no greater unconditional love than when some one gets their ego out of the way for another.” (I am listening blog, 5/9/12) We may not–and hopefully will not–be called to literally lay down our lives and die for another, but we are called to give of ourselves–set aside our heart, soul, or being, get our ego out of the way–for another. That is what healthy maternal love is like–being willing and able to set aside our own self-serving desires for the sake of our child and yet having a healthy enough sense of self to lay aside.

It is this very love that binds together not only mother and child but the community that calls itself by this One who loves. UCC pastor Kate Huey writes that “an other-centered, belonging-to-something-greater-than-yourself love was crucial to the struggling little community John was addressing,” (Weekly Seeds, 5/13/12) as well as to the disciples who were about to witness Jesus’ death. It would have been very tempting for them–as it is for us–to turn inward, towards our own survival, rather than outward in an ethic and action that serves the world, that “bears fruit” for the kingdom of God.

That early Christian community, which is written about in Acts, shared everything in common. They fed not only their own poor, but any person in need, much to the chagrin of the Roman emperor. In our reading from Acts this morning, we must not miss how absolutely astonishing– even “excruciating,” as someone has called it (David Lewicki, Odyssey Network, 5/8/12) it was for those first Jewish Christians to realize that God intended Gentiles to be part of this inbreaking kingdom of God. Such an inclusive community would not be universally applauded, of course, as the very next verse warns that the disciples will be “hated” by the world.

We know that today, inclusivity is not a universally held value, and President Obama’s “evolution” in thinking about gay marriage has probably been no less astonishing and even excruciating than the Jewish Christians opening up their fellowship to Gentiles. The Holy Spirit is at work everywhere in the world and in all people, so we must be careful to not too quickly label someone as “flip-flopping.” If none of us are allowed to change, we deny the work of God’s Spirit.

“You are my friends if you obey my commands, that you love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said. This “command” helps us understand what it means to “abide” or be at home in God’s love. It means that when all else seems to be changing or falling away, this love–this attachment, this self-giving, this sharing of resources and energy and life–remains. “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” Jesus said. “This choosing by Jesus,” says one commentator (Texts for Preaching, ibid.), “provides enormous staying power when the task of bearing fruit becomes difficult.” Not only do we invite God into our lives, into our “home,” when we open ourselves up to God in prayer or meditation, when we take communion into our bodies, when we consciously live in such a way that we witness to the love of God; but even in those times and places when we are not able to do that–because we are too weak, or too scared, or too preoccupied, or too foolish, or too willful–God chooses us. We are still beloved, precious children of God, beautiful to behold. If we can remember that, keep coming back to that, keep returning home, it can make a huge difference in our lives.

These times of change over which we have no control may actually remind us that it’s really not all about us, that it’s not all up to us, that we are not alone. Jim Wallis tells the story of being at a conference in New York City, attended by religious leaders of all kinds. A Native American leader addressed the mostly all-white crowd on social justice:

Regardless of what the New Testament says,

[he observed] most Christians are individualists with no real experience of community…Let’s pretend that you were all Christians. If you were Christians, you would no longer accumulate. You would share everything you had. You would actually love one another. And you would treat each other as if you were family. [He peered out at the crowd]. Why don’t you do that? Why don’t you live that way?”

(Cited by Kate Huey, op cit.)

“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me [Jesus said]. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done–kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in [God’s] love…You are my friends…if you love one another as I have loved you.” “You friended us, Jesus, [one blogger writes] and we clicked ‘like’ and you said ‘Meet me Thursday at the Ocotillo Pub and we had a few beers and played darts…The non-virtual friend lays down real life…” (Michael Coffey, May 8 blog, Textweek.com)

In the midst of job loss, the loss of loved ones, changing bodies, changing living situations, changing cultural and political situations, climate change, church change– make yourself at home in God’s love. It’s not as easy as going in the front door and closing the door behind you, though that isn’t always that easy either–it takes practice and discipline and a certain amount of going against the grain. It involves being part of a community of people who can be ornery and frustrating and challenging sometimes, but who can also love you through your failures and losses, who will stand by you when you need a friend or advocate, who will cry and laugh and struggle with you. But ultimately, it’s not all up to you. “You didn’t choose me, remember,” Jesus said to his followers, “I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit.”

Come home, God says. The door is always open.

Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark