It has been a momentous few weeks, so much so that I have sometimes felt overwhelmed by emotion. I don’t think I will ever forget the morning of Friday, June 26, as my husband Terry and I watched alternating live coverage of both the Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s memorial service in Charleston and the Supreme Court decision decreeing marriage equality for same-sex couples in every state and territory of our beloved country. Though there always seems to be bad news lurking, this has been a time of good news. As a church, our triennial General Convention took place, electing our first African-American Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, even as the murder of the Charleston Nine calls us as a nation to reckon once again with the corrosive effects of racism on our society. Among many other resolutions, General Convention also approved marriage equality in the canons and liturgy of the church, providing for the marriage of same-sex couples throughout the Episcopal church. I can hardly believe the days we are living.
I wonder if Jesus’ disciples felt something similar as they began to follow him and saw all that he taught and did, how he taught with new authority, healed the sick, and cast out demons as if they were smoke in a mighty wind. Living under onerous persecution, people who had been cast down were being raised up, things which had grown old were being made new. They must have thought, How can it be that we have been lucky enough to see these days, to see the arrival of one who may very well be God’s anointed, to see the power and mercy of God made manifest in our days.
But it’s clear that they don’t just form a mutual admiration society. They don’t just gather for the miracles as spectators. Jesus begins almost immediately to send them away from himself. They cannot keep the good news to themselves or it will sour and spoil. They have to go off, in pairs, to the surrounding villages to spread the word, to spread the healing, to spread the peace and power of God.
Now, when I was young, I used to imagine the pairs of apostles coming into the villages as kind of like the beginning of Godspell: lots of people hugging and singing and smiling. Who doesn’t want to hear good news? Who doesn’t want to share in healing and redemption?
But, from the beginning, right in the text, there are shadows of conflict and rejection. They are sent out in pairs, perhaps because the work is too demanding to do alone. They are sent out dependent on the goodwill of those who will receive their message for food and shelter, so that they must engage with the people rather than remaining aloof. And they are given instructions on what to do when they are not welcome and people refuse to hear them.
If what they have to share is such good news, such wonderful healing, then why would anyone refuse it? This good news, this healing, will inevitably shake up the way things are, challenging the way things have been, lifting people out of their accustomed places, calling out injustice. It’s like bringing a light into a dark room: yes, it’s cheery and welcome but it also exposes everything that had been going on unseen. And that can mean trouble.
Already, there is backlash and anger and threats from the good news of our common dignity, our equality before the law, our simple God-given worth. But the disciples are told to shake the dust from their feet as a testimony against them. In fact, the passage that follows this one describes how the spreading word of Jesus contributes to the fear of King Herod and the execution of John the Baptist. There will always be bad news. [But to paraphrase the Gospel via the unlikely Taylor Swift, “Players gonna play, haters gonna hate, fakers gonna fake, but I’m just gonna shake it off, shake it off.”]
In every baptism, after the water, we give the godparents or the one who has been baptized a candle lit from the Paschal Candle that represents the Presence of Christ and his glorious triumph over the powers of death and hell in his resurrection. And we say, “Receive the light of Christ.” Each new Christian expands the light of Christ, as a candle lit from another candle without diminishing the flame or the light.
That light is good news, it is healing, it is joy and truth. It is the light to be placed on a lampstand to give light to the whole room. It is the light that has come into the world, and the darkness has not overcome it, even to this day. It is our calling to take that light out to the dim places of the world. It won’t be easy. We’ll have to leave some of our certainties and identities behind, some of our satisfaction with what we have. We’ll need to listen as we never have before, really listen, dare to see what the light reveals.
Our Presiding Bishop-elect said something to the effect that we can no longer wait for people to come to us, holed up in our churches, if we ever could. We are gathered together only to be sent out again. We are called to go out into our communities, into the lives of our neighbors, people who are like us and people who are different from us, and bear that silent brilliance, that light of love and presence and compassion, to carry our good news like the recently fed bringing food to those who are still hungry. We are called to allow ourselves to be changed by what we see and what we hear and what we do in love.
“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Before I begin, I want to thank Mother Caroline, Father Gabe, the clergy, vestry and parish community of the Church of Saint Luke in the Fields for inviting me to speak with you today, and for the gracious hospitality that I have enjoyed in this place for so many years. For me, Saint Luke’s is always home. Thank you.
Nearly three thousand years ago, King Solomon, the son of King David, wrote this in his book of Proverbs: “where there is no vision, the people perish.’ With these words, King Solomon calls us to fulfil our vocations as prophets, for this is the eighth day of creation, when God will pour out the Spirit – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Righteousness – on all people, on all flesh. It is the eighth day, when our children will prophesy, our youths shall see visions and our elders will dream dreams. For us, as for prior generations, they are dreams of inclusion, equality, and liberation.
Pride Sunday is always a time for celebration and for looking to the past, in order that we may focus our attention on the present and on future, and this year, the NYC Heritage of Pride committee has designated the theme to be “Restore the Vision,” the vision of full LGBT inclusion, equality, and liberation. And happily, almost as if on cue, the city has designated the Stonewall Inn as a historic site – commemorating that place where our ancestors began the rebellion, where our campaign for equality and justice was born. And this is an “alleluia moment” too, as we celebrate the Supreme Court ruling on marriage quality.
We are called to be the light of the world, and that’s not an easy call. But here we are, all of us, celebrating the light, celebrating in the light, sharing our light and life with one another.
The late beloved Father Tom Hopko, former Dean at St Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers, talked a bit about equality and the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself. He pointed out that we do well to understand that we and our neighbor are identical. We are one. We are our neighbor, and so we love the neighbor and in that loving understand that the idea of “the other” is false. Each of us is divinely made in the image and likeness of God, and shares in that divine origin and DNA. Like the holy icons of the Christian East, we are icons of a higher reality. Just as the holy icons are said to be windows into heaven, so are we, and so may we be the reminders of the great reality that God is love, and that all of life is really about the gift of love.
The United Church of Christ has it right, in their signage and advertising, when they say that God is still speaking. And so our call to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth is more than just cool poetry. God is with us, the Holy Spirit is ever present to inform, educate, and inspire the Church, the holy people of God. Revelation did not end when the last apostle entered into eternal life, nor when the Nicene Fathers established the Canon of Scripture. But those scriptures remind us that salvation history is a love story without beginning or end. Our LGBT Christian history, likewise, did not begin with the 2004 consecration of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire, or with the 2010 consecration of Mary Glasspool in LA.
The story of God’s love, the story of our salvation, goes on and on, day by day, in countless homes, offices and churches, and the story continues with the successful marriage equality referendum in Ireland, successful marriage equality policies for the United Protestant Church of France, the approval of ordination of gay folks in the Church of Scotland. Closer to home, in April, Governor Cuomo signed the blueprint for AIDS 2020, by which we commit to end the AIDS Epidemic in the State of New York by 2020 – just five years from now.
Where there is no vision, the people perish.
Like the watercourses of the Negev, the Lord has done great things for us. Look how far we have come, since that day, 46 years ago at the Stonewall. Among those present on the June night, who would have thought we’d see Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars, or Kristin Beck, a retired Navy Seal, running for Congress in Maryland as an openly trans woman. Or Laverne Cox on the cover of Time, or Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair? Or Hilary Clinton running for President? And finally the nationwide establishment and guarantee of marriage equality for all. What a year we have had! Alleluia!
So what about us? Just as Zechariah prophetically declared Jesus to be a light of revelation to the Nations, so Jesus in turn declared his followers to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And in these last days, God will pour out the Spirit on all flesh. Our children will prophesy. Our youths will see visions, and our elders will dream dreams. The Lord has done great things for us, and the same Lord calls to us to dream, and to speak. To be willing and eager to tell our stories, for our stories testify to the perseverance, strength, and courage of our community. God’s call to us recalls that June night, 46 years ago … it is the call to resistance, relentless advocacy, defiance, and nonviolent confrontation.
Where there is no vision, the people perish.
There was a time when it seemed inevitable that we would fail completely, but we did not. There was a time when it seemed that AIDS would win, but it did not. There was a time when it seemed that the military would never accept lesbian and gay people, but they have. There was a time when it seemed that open service in the military would never be possible for people of trans experience, but there were openly serving trans service members at the Pride celebration at the White House last week. And there was a time when marriage equality seemed impossible, and here we are. Obergefell v. Hodges marks an enormous step forward for all of us, thanks to the Supreme Court of the US, and we are on the right side of history. Oh, and it also looks like the battle flag of the Confederacy is finally being retired to a museum.
Justice Kennedy has that vision. In writing the majority decision, he said:
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
The judgement for the court of appeals for the sixth circuit is reversed.
It is so ordered.
How cool is that! A friend of mine posted on Facebook a note from the Washington Post that a double rainbow appeared over the White House last week, perhaps in anticipation of this moment. God is still speaking.
For some of us, of a certain age, Kennedy’s remarks on Friday June 26 may call to mind another Kennedy, 52 years ago, also on June 26, who stood before the people of Berlin to say that we stood with them in their quest for respect, dignity, freedom and peace.
Where there is no vision, the people perish.
Our youths are seeing vision of equality and justice, and our elders are dreaming dreams that have come true. Let the celebrations continue. Let our joy be heard from Alabama to Alaska, from Montana to Maine! It is a new world, a word our ancestors never anticipated.
One of the things we need to address in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling is the considerable number of people who are confused or frightened, because they listened to those who predicted epic disasters and the collapse of civilization were this to happen. Well, here we are getting married and all, and we’re fine. But sometimes the arrival of light in darkness is a frightening thing. Change is difficult. Woody Allen is said to have remarked that he was afraid of the dark but was suspicious of the light.
In the fourteenth century, in the year 1329, the Russian monks Sergei and Herman, with the intention of establishing a monastic community in the wilderness of what we now call Finland, and of spreading the light of Christianity in this frontier land. They are commemorated in the Russian Orthodox calendar today, the 28th of June. When they arrived, the local Karelian people regarded the whole venture with serious suspicion, though, largely because the Swedish government was suspicious, and sought to undermine them. The monastic foundation survived, however, perhaps because they met suspicion and fear with patience, love, and relentless energy. With what we today might call relentless advocacy. Inevitably, light triumphs over darkness, and love wins. Sergei and Herman persisted in the service of God until they entered eternity in 1353. Like Sergei and Herman, we are missionaries, light bearers, God bearers.
So perhaps we might take that as a starting point as we move forward. It may take time and patience, but positive change happens – with God’s help. It’s now 150 years since the end of the civil war, and the battle flag of the Confederacy still flies in some places, but on the other hand, the velocity of change in this century is astounding.
Perhaps of equal importance, though, is the number of unresolved issues that have been on the back burner for a couple of decades.
So very much lies before us. We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and let us ever be aware of the great work that has been entrusted to us. Those Beatitudes in Chapter Five are “bookended” by the teachings in Chapter Twenty-five. You know the ones: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and so on, right?
Well, here we are in the twenty first century, and LGBT people who hunger and thirst for righteousness, not just in Uganda or Nigeria, or Serbia, or Russia, but in more than 70 countries around the world, can be arrested simply because they are queer. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Feed the hungry.
Across this country, just in the last month, two young bisexual kids, Adam Kizer and Alyssa Morgan, ended their lives by suicide. And Jess Shipps, a 32 year old Air Force veteran, a woman of trans experience, an activist, mind you, and advocate for equal rights and open service in our military, ended her life by suicide. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Feed the hungry.
A Facebook friend noted that in 32 states LGBT individuals and families still lack expressed protections. There are a number of states where it is illegal for LGBT couples to adopt children. The overwhelming majority of low income people living with HIV/AIDS do not have access to healthcare or legal services. Surely we can do better than that. Feed the hungry.
Here in New York, people are still dying from lack of decent medical, dental, mental health, and legal care, decent housing, decent employment opportunities. Here in the State of New York, trans and gender nonconforming citizens can still face discrimination in housing, employment, health care, and other areas where nearly everyone else is secure. For a decade, the Gender Expression Non Discrimination Act has passed the State Assembly and failed to be passed by the State Senate. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Feed the hungry. And vote.
Where there is no vision, the people perish.
There is much to celebrate, and there is so much remaining for us to do. What must motivate us in our pursuit of truth, holiness, and justice? One of the saints said that holiness is not gained in opposing evil, though that is in itself good and worthy. Holiness is gained by loving God and loving one’s neighbor.
The message is clear enough, for those with ears to hear and a heart to understand. It was Julian of Norwich, the first woman to write a book in English, when she was thirty years old, toward the end of the fourteenth century, telling of the sixteen visions she received from God. What was God’s meaning or intention, she asked. She wrote
Thus I was taught that love was our Lord's meaning. And I saw quite clearly in this and in all, that before God made us, he loved us, which love was never slaked nor ever shall be. And in this love he has done all his work, and in this love he has made all things profitable to us. And in this love our life is everlasting. In our creation we had a beginning. But the love wherein he made us was in him with no beginning. And all this shall be seen in God without end.
In God without end. Amen.
June 21, 2015 The Fourth Sunday After Pentcost Proper 7B | “Do You Not Care That We Are Perishing?” The Rev. Gabriel LamazaresJune 25, 2015
I spent most of the last few days sick and sad, angry and dismayed. The massacre of nine black citizens, brothers and sisters in Christ gathered for Bible study and prayer, by a 21-year-old steeped in white supremacy with a gun he got for his birthday, according to reports, has knocked the wind out of me. And though some would like to characterize this act of malice as the act of a loner, one crazy kid who should never have gotten hold of a gun, that feels willfully blind to me.
Facing events like those in Charleston, I come closest to the bone-deep conviction that there are forces at work in the world that are much larger than any individual, before whom I feel so small, tossed about like a boat in a storm. What happened in Charleston is another instance of the gaping wound of white racism that this country continues to suffer from and our unwillingness to enact stricter laws on gun ownership. And it is a reminder of the “forces of evil that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” that we renounce in baptism. On a day like today, those words do not feel like an ancient metaphorical language, but like the hard truth. The powers we face within and without that oppose God’s benevolence are mighty, and it can seem as if we are caught in a great storm, buffeted by forces that dwarf us. What can one tiny person do against the wind and the waves? Who can help but be afraid of what threatens us?
But this day, we gather not to forget or deny, but to remember. In stormy and turbulent times, in homes and catacombs and basilicas, from the soaring grandeur of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, to the historic Emanuel Church in Charleston, we have told and re-told this story.
Jesus and his disciples were in boats on the Sea of Galilee en route from the Jewish side of the lake and the Gentile side when a sudden windstorm came upon them, tossing them like a toy boat, waves crashing in, threatening to swamp them and sink the boats. Jesus was asleep in the stern. (Just imagine how bone-weary you have to be to sleep through a heaving windstorm.)
Afraid for their lives, the disciples woke him, asking, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
What a question! It pierces right to the heart of our relationship with God. “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
I know this question was and is in the mind and heart of those killed in senseless violence and those who love them, of those beaten and whipped and humiliated for the cause of righteousness, of martyrs, apostles and missionaries, of slaves and soldiers, of people dying of AIDS or malaria or tuberculosis or cancer, of men and women in all kinds of danger, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
The question is illuminated with fiery sparks of fear and rage and despair. In another form, it was even on the lips of Jesus on the cross.
But Jesus wakes in the boat and enacts God’s answer.
Jesus raises his hand with the authority of one who was present at the creation of the world, and says to the winds, “Shhh. Settle down.”
And, like unruly children, the mighty winds die down and cease, the waves settle, leaving a calm, the lake casting ripples back and forth, stripped of its threat.
And Jesus says, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
That is the question the Gospel writer wants us to face.
And the message the question implies is repeated throughout the scriptures: Do not be afraid. God is trustworthy. I will be with you always.
And that revelation has the power to change everything.
But I want to caution us against a particular reading of this text. Taken in a particular direction, it would seem to imply that God is a Fixer in the Sky, that Jesus is the great problem-solver, taking care of business, sheltering us from the storms of life, with the implication that if we are assailed by misfortune, we must be at fault for not being faithful enough.
But I don’t buy that. I don’t think we can expect God to make everything easy, or take away all our problems, or save us from the failure and limitations of being human in a very imperfect and dangerous world.
Even St. Paul wasn’t immune! Listen to this litany from the epistle: afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger. The Crucified One who appeared to Paul on the wildly tilting road to Damascus never promised him a rose garden.
What keeps Paul going in the face of so much malice and misfortune? What keeps him from giving up? Faith, trust in God in the face of fear.
Look closely at the climax of the story on the Sea of Galilee, when the disciples shake Jesus awake. What’s happening?
Yes, the boat is tossing and the storm is raging. But there will always be storms in this life. More importantly, the disciples are afraid.
Perhaps the greatest tool of the enemy is fear, burst from its lawful banks and flooding everything in sight.
Fear makes us turn and run from what is hard or scary. Fear breeds rivalry, aggression, and violence. It is the root of many evils. Have you ever seen a barking or snarling dog, menacing? Often, the dog is more afraid than anything else.
Not all fear is bad; it can be helpful in its place. But fear can turn us into monsters we hardly recognize. And it can keep our goodness from going out on a limb, confronting the evil that corrupts and destroys the creatures of God, and daring to act to embody and expand the creative vision of God.
If salvation means anything at all, it must mean, in part, a dawning freedom from crippling fear, grounded in the secure grasp of the One who has loved us and prepared a place for us from the foundations of the world, who can be trusted.
But this faith is not once-and-for-all, at least it isn’t for me. It is a daily and even moment-by-moment remembering when I am tempted to forget, risking when I am tempted to withdraw.
What could happen if we can face the moments of our lives without fear, trusting that, no matter how bad things may look, that God is working in the world, making all things new?
June 14, 2015 | The Third Sunday After Pentecost “Mustard Seed” The Rev. Emily Lloyd
Well friends, you know it is officially summer when the lectionary starts giving you parables. That’s right in the Revised Common Lectionary; we follow Jesus around listening to parables all summer long. It is kind of like a family road trip through the Judean countryside with Jesus and the disciples. In today’s Gospel reading, we have Jesus giving us rapid fire parables. Here it is almost as if Jesus is just throwing every lesson at us at once and hoping that something sticks.
And His subject is a serious one… the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is so important to the writer of Mark that it comes up 17 times in the early chapters alone. Three question instantly come to my mind.
What is the Kingdom of Heaven anyway? What do we have to do to get there? And perhaps more importantly…why are parables so hard?
You have to admit it… Jesus can be a little esoteric. The end of the Gospel reading sums it up.“With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”
I wish Jesus would explain it all in private to us.
I have to tell you a quick story. So as many of you know one of my great passions in ministry is faith formation with children. Exploring bible stories with children is amazing. They are so clever and so earnest. Parables are a great entry point for children especially young children. At my last parish, I had chapel time for three and four year olds every Wednesday and Thursday morning. We explored the seasons of the church year and basic stories of saints and Old Testament patriarchs and matriarchs and of course parables. Most of the time, they came right along with me through the parable. However, they were not at all convinced by our second parable for today… the parable of the mustard seed.
I brought in a teeny tiny apple seed and explained that it grows into a big tree just like they will grow into adults.They were completely unconvinced. There was no way there was a big tree in that tiny seed. It just didn’t make sense. Impossible… Prove it, Mother Emily. They said fidgeting on their carpet squares.
Trying to save my lesson for the day, I switched gears and asked them about the kingdom of heaven. What is the kingdom of heaven like?
I told them that the kingdom of heaven happens right here at school when they help each other and are good to their friends, brothers, sisters, parents and teachers. They stared at me in silence. One little girl raised her hand and proceeded to tell me that heaven was were the angels lived and there was lots of candy there.
Nursery School: 1 Chaplain: 0
Like I said parables are hard. The kids are right… it is beyond belief that apple trees grow from tiny seed and it is hard to imagine the kingdom of heaven. So, what does the Kingdom of Heaven look like? What is the parable of the mustard seed really about?
If we start to examine it critically, it is really quite a strange story. At first blush, it is a simple tale about a tiny seed growing into a large shrub that provides shelter for the birds. It is a lovely example of great things coming in small packages or is it really?
Funny that Jesus should chose for his example the mustard seed. The history and agricultural practices of the region tell us that the mustard seed was regarded mostly as a garden pest… a weed. A undesirable shrub that had the potential to spread and take over an entire garden. Why would anyone want a weed to grow to giant tree like proportions? Also why would anyone want all those extra birds in your garden or field? Is Jesus just a lousy gardener or perhaps he is hinting at something deeper?
Why would you want the kingdom of heaven to be like a nasty weed? Well, maybe the kingdom of heaven is a place where the least expected are invited, nourished and grow to be a blessing to others. It is a place where the outcasts, the metaphorical weeds of the worlds are valued and cherished. It is a place where all can be nurtured and reach their full potential then in turn help others. It is a place for the ignored, the persecuted and even those too small to care about…
The mustard seed parable reminded me of Brother Lawrence, and his timeless guide to prayer, Practicing of the Presence of God. Brother Lawrence was an unlikely author. Born in 1614 in Lorraine, France Brother Lawrence came of age during the Thirty Years War. From a very poor family, he received only the limited education he could get at home. As soon as he was old enough, he joined the army because they promised to feed him three meals a day. However, no long there after, he was seriously injury on the battlefield. Damage to sciatic nerve left him permanently crippled and unfit for service. Lost and alone, he tried to work as a footman but was soon fired because he was so clumsy. It was not long before, he had no choice but to seek refuge in the local monastery. Too poorly educated to be ordained, he remained a lay member of the community for the remainder of his life.
Brother Lawrence wrote to his superior, the Abbot, that he thought the monastery would be the greatest ordeal of all. He hoped that through pain and suffering Christ would refine his awkward body and soul. Instead, however, to his delight, he found not further pain and suffering but instead intense joy. While scouring the pots and pans in the kitchen, Brother Lawrence found the kingdom of heaven.
He devoted his life to finding God in the ordinary and menial. He found God while he took out the trash and while he repaired sandals. He wrote about his experience with practicing the presence of God to his superior. After Brother Lawrence’s death, the Abbot assembled all of his letters and had them bound and published into this beloved devotional manual that is still treasured today.
Brother Lawrence was a mustard seed. Not only was he a mustard seed, he wrote the handbook on how to be mustard seeds. The kingdom of heaven is there for all of us. It is as close as your own heartbeat. Perhaps, we are all called to be mustard seeds. Not to be the largest trees in the forest but certainly a large shrub. We are loved and cherished because of our ability to love and nurture not because of our horticultural pedigree. Called by God to grow with the humility and fearless tenacity of a weed.
(RCL: Genesis 3:8-15; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35)
The gospels give us a clear impression that Jesus’ closest relatives did not always understand him. There are several instances where Jesus’ own family feels he needs rescuing. Today they show up in Capernaum where Jesus is teaching and try to stop Jesus embarrassing himself and the family. The word on the street is that he has gone out of his mind. Today we might call this an intervention.
Jesus does not agree that he needs rescuing, and this is one of several times in the gospels when he redefines family (cf. Mt. 12:46-50; Lk. 8:19-21; Jn. 19:26-27). “Who are my mother and my brothers”? And looking at those who sat around him, he said: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother”. Jesus is describing what we call families of choice. Anthropologists traditionally call these fictive families. When I first heard the term fictive families it sounded insulting to my ears. Fictive – like fiction – not-real… As distinct from “real” blood family. Anthropologists do not use the term fictive families so much now. Not primarily because it sounds condescending to very important relationships in our lives (although it does). But primarily because “fictive families” – families of choice – are so widespread as to be normative in many if not most cultures. Anthropologists now know that many cultures do not base their notion of legal or socio-economic kinship on genealogical relations. It turns out that modern America is one of the least developed societies in the world in living into this broader understanding of “family”.
When we think of blood families, the only way you can be a member is to be born into the family or marry into the family. And the only way you can exit that family is to divorce or die. And of course the language of family is also part of some cults. Recognizing the potential for unhealth, some Christian communities have given up on the language of family altogether and use the word “household” instead. (“Household of faith” etc) But I believe that Jesus is on to something profound in opening up the primal language of family rather than throwing it out as obsolete. In individualistic, mobile America, everyone is still hungry for community; many are profoundly isolated and lonely. Jesus identifies that family is a big part of what life is all about, in a good way. We all need stable, deep community. The question Jesus invites us to ask is: Who are my family?. How do I find my family and how will I recognize them when I do?
How does Jesus identify his family? Everyone in the room is (already) family, according to Jesus in the gospel today. Family is intergenerational, men, women, children. We know from other stories of Jesus’ life and ministry and teaching that other folks are already “in the family”. People on the margins – Samaritans, Canaanite women – are family. Prodigal sons and daughters who have hurt themselves and others by their past choices and need a second chance are - already - in the family. Anyone seeking a deeper understanding of God is in the family. Jesus says family are created by choice and affiliation not by genetics and marriage. This same barrier-breaking idea comes to a new fullness in the early church’s decision that Gentiles are already as accepted into the Way as Jews. You don’t have to become Jewish to be in the family of God, to be welcome, to be included, to belong, to be Home.
Being family of choice is not easy, any more than families of origin are always easy to be part of. Jesus teaching evolves and expands in the early church to reflect how families of all kinds, especially the church family, can best live together in ways that give life. The Epistles are full of recommendations for family-of-choice life, for life together. Starting with the first big conference of the early church in Jerusalem (Acts 15), we see some practices developing among the family of God. First, family-of-faith members are willing to try on new ideas in conversation with each other and let the Holy Spirit work within the conversation. Family members listen to each other. Second, family members let each other be who they are and walk the road with each other. Third, families try to practice loving speech as well as honest speech, and they stay in covenant and community. Social media – with all its positive benefits and potential - can also be a destructive force in community life because as we all know, people may say things online which I hope that they would never say face to face. Fourth, families allow each other room to grow. There is room for the Holy Spirit to work with each of us, and all of us together. Ultimatums are few are far between.
The vestry recently developed a Covenant for Life Together which seeks to identify the qualities of Christian community, the kind of family we hope St Luke’s wants to become. This Covenant for Life together will be circulated and reviewed in Guilds and Committees in the next few months in the hope that everyone at St. Luke’s will seek to practice these values as a family of faith. I encourage you to look for the Covenant when it is finally posted on the website after this review period. It is designed to begin conversation and to be a work in progress in St. Luke’s life as a faith family.
With healthy and loving families, it is not even so much what they do as how they are together and how they do what they do. There is enough emotional health that everything is not drama-rama and reactivity. Interactions open out options and freedom and support rather than closing them down. Healthy families can handle difference, and relationships aren’t so fragile and brittle that people pick up their marbles and go home; but neither do healthy families constrain people who desire to leave, even if only for a while. (cf. cults that may use the language of family, such as Jonestown or Branch Davidians in Waco, but where the only exit option was death). The behavior of a healthy family reveals a deep commitment to each other, as well as to common values and goals. There is no such thing as a perfect family or a perfect way to be a family, but each loving family has its own perfection. St. Luke’s will continue to have its unique way of reflecting the love at the heart of the universe.
Most of all, family is a nest of relationships that we can always return to. To find family, we need to be family. Family is the place and people we return to when things don’t work out. Family is the place we go to when things fall apart. Family are the people who love us and give us space to nurse our wounds, sit quietly, and seek wisdom as we figure out what to do next. St. Luke’s is that family of choice for many of us. Like all families, we can grow into maturity even more. Let’s commit to making St. Luke’s the family of choice for more and more people in search of a community that feels like the home they have always been looking for, and the large, loving and empowering family every human being longs for.
Come, Holy Spirit, our souls inspire
and lighten with celestial fire;
thou the anointing Spirit art,
who dost thy seven-fold gifts impart.
May I speak to you in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
When I was serving as a Curate, at Calvary Church in Stonington, CT. I used to meet my spiritual director out on the beach at a local retreat center. There was something about the tides and serenity of the seashore that was perfect for reflection and prayer. One afternoon as we were sitting over looking the waves, Jane asked me. “Who do you pray to?” I was sort of taken a back by the question. Ummm… God. I stammered. “Sure.” She said. “But in what form?” She said. “Oh… like the Trinity… got it. Jesus. Definitely. He is the most approachable to me. Fully human, fully divine. I think he has an intimate understanding of what we as folks go through. He is sort of my everyday… go to guy. I have always just had a feeling that Jesus gets it. “ And what about God?” Jane asked. “ Oh God, the Father… creator type. I feel like I direct my big questions to God. Why do people suffer? Why is there evil in the world? Why do terrible things happen to good people? Then there was a long silent pause. “ And the Holy Spirit?” Jane asked. “ummm…” I hesitated. “ I don’t know. Wow… This is embarrassing. I don’t know that I ever directly pray to the Holy Spirit in my own prayers. Sure, in the Eucharistic prayer and at baptisms but rarely if ever in my own normal daily life.” Jane sat back and smiled. “Sometimes the part of the Trinity we neglect is the part that we need the most.”
My mind instantly thought back to when I was a first year seminarian at Yale in my first day of liturgy class when the professor, a very serious and clever German woman stood up in front of the class and announced. “Don’t be fooled the Trinity is not two men and a bird.” Giggles and questions arose from the class, but as I reflected on it. I realized Prof. Berger was right. Too often in our mainline Protestant denominations, we relegate the Holy Spirit to the role of bird friend of the important and traditional masculine depicted parts of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit seems to get less air time. We happily trot her out at Pentecost but most of the time we talk more about what Jesus said and what God is up to.
So how did this come to pass and how can we as Episcopalians do our part to honor and worship the Holy Spirit?
I think we have a tendency to domesticate the Holy Spirit. Take our reading for today from Acts. The Holy Spirit descends of the disciples like a mighty wind with fire. Representation of these events in art fail to do justice to the narrative tumult of this story. If you were to pull out your smart phone right now and google Pentecost what appears leave much to desired. Let me just say…there is a lot of bad art out there. Lots of doves on fire… I don’t know exactly what burnt birds have to do with the celebration of Pentecost. And then there are the pictures of the disciples. It is a collection of very polite looking disciples looking vaguely amused surrounded by the daintiest, most adorable tiny tongues of flame you can imagine. It all looks very orderly and lovely… more like an elegant dinner party than the coming of the Holy Spirit. I am surprised that an outsider would even notice. To put this in social media terms, I would probably like it but I doubt I would repost it to my Facebook wall.
According to Fred Crouch, Dean and professor of New Testament at Moravian Theological Seminary, “English translations also underplay the fear-inducing, adrenalin-pumping, wind-tossed, fire-singed, smoke-filled turmoil of that experience. Those who observed this Pentecost visitation from outside the room are described in the NRSV as “bewildered” (v. 6), “amazed and astonished” (v. 7), and “amazed and perplexed” (v. 12). The Greek terms describing their reactions could be appropriately rendered (following the lead of various lexicons) as confused, in an uproar, beside themselves, undone, blown away, thoroughly disoriented, completely uncomprehending.”
If we are to understand the Holy Spirit on her own terms it is essential that we awaken this story and this feast day from its slumber. This is more than just a birthday party for the church. This is the Spirit of God, creative, destructive, prophetic and world altering. Everyone who comes in contact with the Spirit is changed.
At the beginning of this sermon, I quoted a translation of the opening verse of Veni creator spiritus. Written in the 9th century, this hymn is traditionally sung on Pentecost, baptisms, ordinations and consecrations. On these occasions the invocation of the Holy Spirit marks dramatic life change. The Spirit is the power of God at work in the world. She is a mighty wind, knocking over the status quo and a burning fire that clears away the debris. The spirit opens spaces for new growth.
Come Holy Spirit… You will be relieved to hear that I do now pray to the Holy Spirit. But, I do so with trepidation. When we ask for the Holy Spirit, we must do so with fear and trembling. You have to be prepared for your life to never be the same again. May each of us be filled with the Holy Spirit this day and may our lives never be the same again. Amen.
Isaiah’s vision is one of the archetypal forms of the story of the calling of a prophet, well known to many and containing images and forms that have become deeply embedded in our imagination, theology, and worship.
It begins with the revelation to the prophet of the glory of God, God’s majesty and solidity, God’s immense authority and holiness. The hem of God’s robe fills the Temple like the flashing curtains of the aurora in northern skies. Isaiah is given ears to hear the eternal song of the seraphim, angelic creatures that surround God as courtiers surround a sovereign, calling to one another the wonder of the Divine: “Holy, holy,holy…” as if one ‘holy’ cannot possibly be enough to encompass the beauty and terror and otherness that attends the Divine Presence. Smoke fills the house and the voices of the seraphim shake loose bits of the architecture. And what Isaiah feels is most properly called awe.
I was reading an article in the New York Times Sunday Review last week written by some psychologists studying the experience of awe and its correlation to altruistic behavior. It led me to reflect on how often I myself have felt awe and at what. If awe is a profound reverence, an overwhelming sense of wonder, most often tinged with a bit of dread, when did I last feel that? It is so easy for my sight to dim, for my eyes to be turned downward, focusing on surface things, manageable things, fleeting things. Awe requires a bit of time, the courage of facing what is great in this world, allowing ourselves take in what eludes our control and containment.
Many people enter the forecourts of awe through experiences in nature: the night sky, the miraculous intricacy of the human body, the mighty oceans, a thunderstorm, contemplating the unimaginable immensity of space, the improbability of life, the unseen worlds around us. But these wonders of creation, overwhelming as they can be, pale in relation to the wonder and beauty and majesty of their Creator, the Holy One of Blessing, who keeps all things in being at all times.
But here’s what gets me in the story. How can it be that this same God who inspires this wonder and dread, whose immensity and majesty are inconceivable, before whom our lives must pass in the blink of an eye, how can that Majestic Wonder at the Heart of the World to whom all things belong, say, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?”
The Holy One is shockingly not content to stay aloof and inaccessible, receiving worship from his lively and suffering and exasperating creation. The Divine wants help, wants to involve us in what God intends to accomplish with us and for us. The Scriptures abound with stories of God’s helpers, of God revealing and loving and guiding and reaching out to all kinds of very imperfect people.
And it turns out that God does not just want instruments, messengers, tools, objects to be used and discarded. Through Christ and the Spirit, God desires to bring us into relationship with God, into the flows of grace and love that characterize God as we have come to know God.
That is what the doctrine of the Trinity tries to communicate: not just that God’s Being is mysterious and impenetrable, impossible to fully comprehend or encompass, but that we are certain that God has come to us in Jesus Christ and in the continuing guidance and energy of the Holy Spirit that calls together the body of the Church, that moves us from our old certainties to new places of change and refreshment, that binds us, living and dead, into one communion in the bonds of love. Our truest destiny is to become part of the Eternal Life of God.
And so, out of overwhelming awe, we are invited into service. And though the theologians wax rhapsodic on what is really going on, what this looks like in practice seems deceptively ordinary. It looks like prophets telling the truth when it’s unpopular. It looks like 153 fish and breakfast on a beach, it looks like traveling in tiny boats on great oceans to take the message to the corners of the known world, it looks like inconvenient acts of kindness and mercy even in the face of ingratitude and insufficiency, it looks like reconciliation and conflict, it looks like loss and tears and awkwardness and annoyance, it looks like our best laid plans going awry, it looks like going out of our way, it looks like tedium and boredom and dryness, it looks like the abandoned agony of the cross and the shock of the empty tomb, it looks like foreigners and strangers being filled with the Holy Spirit we thought belonged to us, or like a vision of everything that we think is inedible and out of bounds and being told to eat. It looks like the moments of our lives, it looks like ministry, it looks like love.
That’s why Trinity Sunday is the gate into Ordinary Time. Or, as Jack Kornfeld has said, “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.” But we cannot un-see what we’ve seen, cannot un-know what we’ve come to know. Now we know that we can spend our precious, fleeting moments on reflecting the wonder and immensity of the night sky in our tiny mirrors, or on sailing the mighty ocean, buffeted and driven by the wind to new horizons, no matter how small and fragile our boat.
May 10, 2015 Easter 6, Year B “Bridge Builders” The Rev. Caroline Stacey
(Readings, RCL: Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17)
Today I want to enter the gospel of grace by way of Cornelius. Cornelius isn’t mentioned in today’s readings. But the tiny extract from Acts is the tail end of Cornelius’ story. Indeed, the whole of chapter 10 of Acts is about Cornelius. Cornelius is the first recorded Gentile convert and he becomes God’s catalyst for extraordinary transformation in the early church.
Cornelius is a centurion of the Italian cohort. He has all the privileges of Roman citizenship both at home and abroad: the privilege of the empire that rules the known world. With his peers, he oversees 100s of soldiers in the garrison town of Caesarea Maritima. In many ways, Caesarea Maritima is like an ancient New York City. It is the headquarters of Roman administration for the whole of the Judean province and a primary crossroads of the Roman Empire: many people pass through; many languages and cultures. Cornelius is a person of significant status in a system of power. Yet Cornelius is also “well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation”, he is regarded as “upright and God-fearing” (Acts 10:22), and he is eager to learn.
Cornelius receives and learns through Peter. Then it is Peter’s turn to learn and grow as he sees clear evidence that God is working in Gentiles as he is working within the Jewish covenant. How can we possibly deny them baptism” Peter wonders. And through Peter’s relationship with Cornelius, eventually the whole church changes its approach to Gentile converts.
Cornelius in his person is a bridge between different cultures and people. He has already built bridges between the Roman military presence and the Jewish people. Cornelius brings his entire household and relatives and friends with him as he crosses the bridge of baptism into the new world of the gospel. Cornelius is the bridge for Peter’s new understanding of what the Holy Spirit is up to among the Gentiles.
This idea of Christians as bridge builders will endure. Eventually, the pope – the head of the church in the West which came to be headquartered in Rome, was called Pontifex (pons + facere: “bridge” + “builder”) Maximus ("greatest”). The Pope is the Great Bridge Builder. This originally had a literal sense: in Rome, bridge builders were important. The major bridges were over the Tiber, which was a sacred river and a deity: only designated people could be allowed to disturb it. But Pontifex also has a symbolic sense. Pontifices were the ones who bridge the gap between gods and humanity.
We can see in this story of bridge building in Acts 10, there is a dynamic of mutual listening and learning. There is two-way traffic across the bridge. And bridge-building is what the church has to be about in our postestablishment age. Another way of looking at it is much more exciting. Rather than being post-something, Dwight Zscheile has given a positive identity to our age. He calls it the new Apostolic Age. We are missionaries in a land that is not necessarily welcoming. We can no longer take for granted that people know the basic outlines of God’s gracious reconciling all-embracing, all-inclusive love in Christ. The gospel today in NYC is as likely to be regarded as poison fruit as it is the water of life. We have pearls of great price that are free to all – the gifts of identity, the firmest of foundations on which to build a life – the love of God – the gift of community and belonging – but these pearls of great price are often regarded with suspicion. And so, we must be bridge-builders. We need to learn and listen as well as share what we have learned.
In our new Apostolic Age, we will need to learn new ways of translating the gospel so it can be heard by those who think it has nothing to say. We are beggars, said Martin Luther – meaning, we come with nothing of our own before the throne of God except Christ’s grace. However, in this age we are also called to go out into the world of New York City as beggars. We seek hospitable spaces where the gospel of grace can be received and heard.
With building bridges in mind – I have been thinking for a while that a way the church can serve in this new apostolic age is that we can offer a gathering place to build community in our neighborhood for people of all faiths and none. This Fall, we will be offering some Sunday afternoon conversations on issues that are of deep significance. More details will follow, but to start with…We are planning to call these offerings “Conversations that Matter” and they will offer an opportunity for anyone who wishes to reflect and learn and talk thoughtfully with the hope of building bridges of understanding and relationship where we live. There will be a couple of presenters of differing viewpoints and a brief moderated Q and A but these Conversations won’t be primarily about star speakers but about small group dialogue afterwards. (We are thinking various “opportunities for action” can be offered as handouts at the end for those who are interested.) The first Conversation will be on Race Relations. Conversations on Income Inequality and Climate Change are being contemplated. We will welcome ideas and input as we go. The measure of success in these Conversations that Matter will not be how many people we have converted or lobbied into our point of view, but how much we have learned in understanding others’ point of view. We hope to offer one new approach for our new Apostolic Age: building bridges of relationship and understanding and deepening community.
We can see the postestablishment situation of the church in society today as a great loss. Christianity has been the dominant religion of the western establishment since the Edict of Milan was issued by Constantine in 313AD. That is a long innings of inherited privilege, and this is a profound change in the center of gravity. It can be seen as a disaster. Alternatively, we can see our new Apostolic Age as an incredibly exciting opportunity to share the gospel in new and creative ways. I believe that the Holy Spirit favors the latter view, and is already preparing new bridges and paths for us to walk in.
“Where is home?”
Perhaps you have a quick and easy answer to that question. It’s a blessing to know right off what to say. Myself, I can’t help but hesitate. Home? Oh, my. That’s quite a question. Do you know what a question that is?There are so many ways to answer, depending upon what the speaker means!
If it means, Where were you born? I was born in Puerto Rico, as many of you know. But if it means, where are your people from, what’s your ethnicity? My ancestors came from Western Europe, from Spain and Portugal, many generations. What if it means, where have you lived the longest? Then I have to ask another couple of questions (sorry!). Do you mean cumulatively or at a time? And do you mean, what state or what municipality, what community? It’s all very confusing. The answers are different!
It could be Chapel Hill, North Carolina or Miami or New York or Seattle. They’re all in the running! Or maybe it means where did you go to high school? Two answers! Coco Solo, Panama and Fayetteville, North Carolina.
What if it means, where do you know your way around without having to think about it? The Triangle in North Carolina, Manhattan, Seattle. And a defunct military installation in the Panama Canal Zone in another age, another life. What about, where do you go for holidays? I go to church, all day long! Yes, indeed.
Where do people love you? Portland, New York, London, North Carolina, Miami, Boston.
Where do you feel safe? With Terry. With my friend Gabe in London or wherever he is. I felt safe with my mother, until she died. With my mentor from college. I am lucky to feel physically safe almost everywhere: from Brooklyn to Southwick to Astoria. I live in a time of peace.
Where do you own property? Nowhere.
So where is home? It can’t be any of these places or people because places change or disappear, people are precious and temporary. Death and rot and rust will take everything in this world sooner or later. And then where will we be?
Here is Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Gospel from this morning:
“Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can't bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can't bear fruit unless you are joined with me. I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you're joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can't produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon.”
Now there’s a wake-up call.
It is just as true (or more) to answer the question, Where was I born? From the gracious love of God.
Where are my people from? The bounty of Christ, generation after generation.
Where have I lived the longest? In Christ, from before I was born.
Where do I go for holidays? To the embrace of Christ.
Where does Someone love me? In Christ.
Where do I feel safe? In Christ, the true vine that gives me life.
Where do I belong? In the Body of Christ, wherever that Body may assemble.
I am home when I pray in my room, in secret for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven..
I am home when I love my brothers and sisters whom I can see
in order to learn to love the God I cannot see.
I am home when I turn towards God.
I am home when I remember that I am marked as Christ’s own forever.
I am home when I know that I am loved just as I am by the One who knows me best.
I am home gathered around this table,
whether in Zambia or London or San Juan or right here.
So go ahead. Welcome to the love of Christ, the love that lays down his life for his friends. Put your things down. Make yourself a cup of tea, put up your feet, and stay awhile. Here, there is food enough for everyone, there is warmth enough for everyone, there is a welcome for all who will come.
It is from this home base that we can launch our adventures in ministry.
It is from the nurture of this vine that we, the branches, can bear fruit. This Body of Christ, this True Vine, is our household, our nest, our fortress, our going out and our coming in, our room and board, our rest and our joy. Jesus says, “Live in me. Make your home in me as I do in you.”
So the next time someone asks you, “Where is home?” I hope you hesitate for just a second and think of the True Vine before answering.
Today, the fourth Sunday of Easter, is often referred to as “Good Shepherd” Sunday. Every year, we hear a section of Chapter 10 of John’s gospel in which Jesus gives a string of teaching around this image. The Good Shepherd is a wonderful, gentle picture for children to begin to understand the loving and wise care that Jesus has for us. But as we become adults, there are aspects that can become troublesome and limiting (ie..we are sheep!). What is life-giving about claiming Jesus as our Good Shepherd, at all ages and stages of life?
First, a true story. In March of 2011, I was at St George’s College in Jerusalem for a week-long course on the Holy Land. St. George’s College is part of the Anglican Cathedral campus in East Jerusalem. The politics of the Holy Land are complex, multi-layered and multi-faceted, and all parties involved have legitimate grievances and have been both perpetrators and victims of injustice and violence. Jerusalem itself is of course a very divided, segregated and uneasy city. East Jerusalem is where the Palestinian Arabs are concentrated; it is where the Muslims and the tiny Christian presence (less than 2%) is overwhelmingly concentrated. Understandably, especially given their location, the Anglican community at St. George’s identifies and empathizes very much with the plight of the minority that are Palestinian Christians and also Muslims. In their courses, the socio-economic and political plight of these minorities is emphasized. Along with that empathy can easily be imbibed naturally a negative bias against the majority Israeli presence. There are Israeli soldiers everywhere, and service in the national guard (IDF) is mandatory for all young Israeli men and women. Predictably and understandably, in East Jerusalem there is overwhelming fear and suspicion of the Israeli military presence. Not unlike Philip’s reaction when he hears about Jesus’s hometown: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? (Jn.1:46) Can anything good be said of the Israeli national guard?
So on this course, on a day that was open, I wanted to spend more time in the oldest part of the old City, the City of David. The Old City is usually very crowded. I decided to take a short cut to avoid the crowded interior. I decided to cut through the Muslim cemetery that runs around the outside of the city wall, hugging it closely, but with amazing views over the Kidron (Jehoshaphat) valley. It was about 9 in the morning and getting warmer. So I stopped to pull out my hat from my backpack. As I was doing so, I sensed someone behind me and a voice said: “Is that man your husband”? “What an odd question”, I thought, straightening up. But then I saw another young man rising up from behind a tall tombstone and coming towards me. I turned around and saw this very tall young Israeli soldier standing behind me looking at the approaching stranger. “No, he is not”, I said. And the Israeli soldier said: “In this cemetery, because it is quiet and deserted, people lie in wait behind the graves to rob visitors like you, and worse than rob. Please be careful. We are here to protect you, but we cannot be everywhere.” So much for my negative assumptions about the Israeli national guard. I was humbled and disarmed. The guard was looking out for me before I even knew I was in danger, and he likely saved me from being robbed or worse.
I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (Jn.10:11). The Good Shepherd looks out for the sheep before they even know they are in danger. Good Shepherds are everywhere, of all faiths and none, and we know them not by their creed or what they say but by what they do. They serve and protect and stay awake on our behalf. Yet for Christians, there are some specifics attached. It is not simply an idea of safety, but a person Whom we follow.
In one aspect of this Good Shepherd image, we are sheep and that is all we are. But elsewhere in this same gospel of John, Jesus calls us his friends -- more than passive sheep (Jn. 15:15). Jesus’ friends share in Jesus’ own ministry and mission. We are the descendants of those first friends of Jesus. In the Good Shepherd, Jesus gives us a pattern for us to follow. Jesus is not the only one called to lay down his life for others. We all are. The early Christians saw this very clearly – particularly, it seems, the Johannine community. John's letters spell out that giving of our selves – is the measure of love: We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1 Jn. 3:16)
The ways that we do this are as varied as we are. Parenting; teaching; working for justice; directly serving those in need; healthcare; politics; …and some are soldiers. No one can do everything, but everyone can lay down their life in some way for others. And all those ways are needed. Serving a higher purpose than ourselves is what makes life worthwhile. This is the secret to joy.
More - I think everyone is in fact laying down their life for something already. The question is for what? Even if people do not find their paid work rewarding, when we look at peoples’ passions and goals we can see that most people are sacrificing toward - motivated toward - something. The wonderful thing about having Jesus as our pattern for laying down our lives is that it focuses our journey of self-discovery. We are given clues to basic questions like: Am I meant to do something challenging with my life or simply be comfortable and look out for myself and have a good time? Will being successful make me happy? What is success anyway? In the Johannine community’s realization that laying down our life is the model for all Christians, we hear their responses to these questions. Yes, we are called to spend ourselves and our short, precious lives on something bigger than our own personal comfort and pleasure. Yes, serving is the secret to joy. Yes, it is meant to be challenging. Yes, it is every Christian’s calling to lay down their life for others.
There was a segment on a news channel last week about Time magazine's 100 most influential people - who each do amazing things. The newscaster said, commenting on the story, “Wow, this really makes me want to DO something with my life!” A great joy of following Jesus is that we don't have to be celebrities or hit the headlines to find a life of profound meaning that outlives us, something worthwhile that we can all be a part of and to which we can all make a contribution. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr, “everyone can be great because everyone can lay down their life for others”.
What could the world be like if every person who has the luxury of thinking beyond survival to higher purpose chose to lay down their lives for others? If the cultural conversation were to turn from celebrity to the well-being of others as our supreme concern, the world would surely be transformed.
As the Good Shepherd laid down his life for us, so we also ought to lay down our lives for one another.