Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 2, 2010
May new life spring forth in every place and God, Creator, Christ, and Holy Sprit be our foundation. Amen.
I have a magnet on my refrigerator that shows a well-dressed gentleman answering the phone with pen and pad in hand ready to take down a message. The caption reads: “Jesus called. He wants his religion back.”
The short Gospel passage we read today is a snippet of the longer discourse Jesus gave to his friends gathered for a Passover meal on the night before he died. It was the same night when he took a basin of water and towel and washed their feet – a sign of utter humility. Jesus not only did this for all of them – including the person who would betray him and one who would three times deny knowing him – but he told them that they must be about washing the feet of others.
Even those whose perspective of who Jesus was is purely humanistic, and who recognize him as no more than a symbol of profound goodness rather than the incarnation of God, must see in this act and in the words Jesus speaks an example of a radically loving heart. Already harassed by the religious leaders of his time and aware that they have set out to kill him, he speaks not with rage or about retaliation nor does he lash out at his enemies with vindictive language. Rather he talks about a radical manifestation of love and gives them a new mandate that they love one another as he has loved them. And it was, perhaps, not merely the powerful witness of his resurrection and the convincing preaching of the disciples that attracted so many to the fledgling church communities of the first century but what they observed in those first disciples—how they lived their lives and cared for and treated others.
There is a debate continuing in our country over the question “Is America a Christian Nation?” Now the founding fathers of our country—men like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson—would weigh in with strong opinions that might surprise us. They set out not to establish a nation of any particular religious ilk but rather one that practiced religious tolerance.
In the passage we read today, Jesus says: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” So it would seem that those who proclaim to be followers of Christ—and many people in America do— have their work cut out for them. This commandment is simple enough to hear and understand, but deeply challenging to live consistently. Communities of faith, along with individuals, regularly stumble and falter in living it out. Is it possible—or desirable—to live that way as a nation?
Americans or Muslims? Do we exclude from the mix those who demonstrate very clearly the kind of love Jesus requires of his disciples even if they are atheists? What exactly does a “Christian nation” look like? Well, as a friend of mine is wont to remark, “saying so don’t make it so.” Christianity is not about dogmas and creeds but about how our lives manifest to the world the command that Jesus gave us about loving.
Picture this scenario: Two cars were waiting at a stoplight. The light turns green, but the man didn’t notice it. A woman in the car behind him is watching traffic pass around them. The woman begins pounding on her steering wheel and yelling at the man. He doesn’t move. She is going ballistic, ranting and raving at the man, pounding on her steering wheel and dash. The light turns yellow and the woman begins to blow the car horn, flips him the bird, and screams profanities. The man, looks up, sees the yellow light and accelerates through the intersection just as the light turns red. The woman is beside herself, screaming in frustration as she misses her chance to get through the intersection.
As she is still in mid-rant she hears a tap on her window and looks up to see a very serious looking policeman who tells her to shut off her car while keeping both hands in sight. She complies, speechless at what is happening. He orders her to exit her car with her hands up. She gets out of the car and he orders her to turn and place her hands on her car. He cuffs her and hustles her into the patrol car.
She is too bewildered by the chain of events to ask any questions and is driven to the police station where she is fingerprinted, photographed, searched, booked and placed in a cell. After a couple of hours, she is escorted back to the booking desk where the original officer is waiting with her personal effects. He hands her the bag containing her things, and says, “I’m really sorry for this mistake. But you see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, giving the guy the finger, and cussing a blue streak at him. Then I noticed the “Choose Life” license plate holder, the “What Would Jesus Do” bumper sticker, the “Follow Me to Sunday School” bumper sticker, and the chrome plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk. Naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car.”
It is our behavior, not our bumper stickers, that demonstrates how seriously we take the commandment about loving one another. Love is lived in action, not in theory or pious platitudes. The story I told was funny but some are not. About a dozen relatives and friends gathered this past Wednesday at a funeral home in Brooklyn to honor Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax. The 31-year-old was stabbed to death after intervening in an argument between a man and a woman. Near his open casket was a letter from a stranger who read about the incident in the news. “He was an angel from God among us,” it said, “and he was a brave, courageous, caring man, who sacrificed life to save someone else.”
A video released last week showed the victim lying on the ground in Queens. For nearly an hour, he lay there as passers-by turn their heads, look at him, gawk, or pause and walk off. One lifted his body to reveal blood on the sidewalk. By the time emergency workers arrived, he was dead.
When Jesus gave us that new commandment, it was not a mere suggestion or nice idea he was sharing. Nor was it some good advice. It was his farewell command and climactic instruction on the eve of his death on the cross. These were words to be taken seriously as are any words from one who is about to die for the sake of others. The litmus test for authentic Christianity is not based on how much scripture we know and can quote from memory or how strongly we proclaim our individual faith or our belief that our country is a Christian nation, but on how successfully we have kept that one commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. Jesus gave it to us because he wanted to be sure that the world would recognize those who claimed to be his disciples. The question is, do they?
I think the stumbling block for most people—and yet by paradox the very place where the possibility for the kind of love Jesus tells us to demonstrate can begin, is in our differences—how another differs from me in any number of ways and how I differ from the other. It’s not a new phenomenon by any means. If we look at the reading from the Act of the Apostles today we find that intolerance over differences was present there in the first days of the life of the church as well. The inclination to marginalize people who are not exactly like us is as old as the hills.
We have a mantra at St. Paul’s that I hope we will never tire of proclaiming: Radical Welcome. At first glance, it is the simple invitation to everyone to enter our doors, sit with us in prayer, hear God’s word, and share in a holy meal—with no restrictions…period. We have created and continue to cultivate a culture here that empowers each one of us to be the person God created us to be and gives us the permission and freedom to do just that—with no excuses. Thomas Merton once wrote that “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only reflections of ourselves we find in them.”
Taken to a deeper level, the phrase “Radical Welcome” has much more meat on the bone when we say to one another, “Not only are you welcome, but you are valued as a human being and I want to learn from you, even in our differences, especially in our differences, even if we are miles apart on how and what we believe. I want you to open my mind to other perspectives as I hope to be able to open yours as well.”
“Loving one another,” our Presiding Bishop, Katherine Schori has said, “doesn’t mean we have to like everyone, but it does imply treating everyone with dignity, looking for ways to liberate ourselves and others for greater life, and it means continuing in relationship even when we disagree about almost everything. It also means continuing to expand the guest list – looking for those who haven’t enjoyed enough love.”
“Love one another as I have loved you.” There is no promise that this will be easy. It is, in fact, sometimes so hard that only the grace of God can make it possible—can enable such love to happen. Yet it is the only path that leads to the fullness of life and true joy—and the only way we can be sure Jesus won’t be calling asking for his religion back.