Sermon preached by Kit Sharp, Seminarian Intern
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 13, 2012
Please pray with me as I borrow words from Julian of Norwich, a medieval mystic and theologian:
Beloved, may I speak to you of Jesus Christ, our true Mother, the one who opposes good to evil, the one in whom we have our being, the one in which the foundation of motherhood begins, with all the sweet protection of love which endlessly follows. Amen.
Mother’s Day, 2006, Houston, Texas. For a 47-year-old single woman who was not a mother, except to her highly mixed 16-year-old canine companion, this was the proverbial holiday from the hot place, second only to Valentine’s Day. I’d woken up that morning, determined to spit out any and all bittersweet grapes and giving thanks for all of the wonderful mothers I have known. I was and am particularly grateful for my own remarkable mother who was at her home in Louisiana, and because of scheduling conflicts we were unable to be together. Despite my good intentions, I was feeling a wee bit sorry for myself, and my upper lip was less than stiff. A dear, dear friend with whom I probably would have been spending the day had recently died, and I was still grieving that loss.
Instead of attending church at my home parish, I decided that anonymity would suit my mood, and so I set forth for the cathedral downtown. No parking was to be found except in front of a big office building where I pulled in behind a van. After managing to get through the service with only a few misty moments, and feeling much better than when I’d arrived, I left with something of a spring in my step. It was, after all, that Houston rarity—a cool, clear, and humidity-free day. I got to the place where I’d parked—or thought I’d parked—and much to my astonishment, my car was nowhere to be seen. What was to be seen was a “No Parking/Violators Will Be Towed” sign that had been obscured by the van, now gone, behind which I had parked. Not only was there no car, but there was also no one around, it being Sunday. The building, it turned out, was a federal one, and after 9/11 only vehicles that were loading and unloading were allowed anywhere near it.
So what was a girl to do, especially when her cell phone had been towed along with her car? Assessing the situation, I remembered that I’d seen a hotel down the way and headed for it so that I could at least find a phone and possibly a taxi. Blessedly, I found much more than that. The staff, particularly the bellhops, were the kindest, most gracious folks imaginable. I was not the first person to have a car towed from said federal site, and so not only did they know where my car was, but one of them also drove me in the hotel courtesy car to the pound, which was in a very dicey part of town. And he stayed with me until my car, my cell phone, and myself were reunited. Did I know this person? No, I did not. Will I ever forget this truly generous and loving act? No, I will not.
Nor will I ever forget that day. I had one other single, childless friend in the city who I knew was keeping her head down as well, and so I called her to tell her what had happened, thinking to give her a chuckle. She was finishing an early Mother’s Day brunch with her parents and asked if I’d like to get together for a debrief in half an hour. I readily agreed and we arranged to meet at an outdoor café, where we proceeded to have a delightful afternoon. Filled with mimosas, laughter, and yes, a few more misty moments, that spontaneous rendezvous on a day we both dreaded for a variety of reasons is now a happy memory for each of us.
I tell you this story because in one short day, I experienced everything that Luke tells us about in Acts, that John speaks of in his epistle, and that Jesus is talking about today in the gospel. On that day, what I experienced was, pure and far-from-simple, the love of God. What I experienced was how the love of God, can turn a day—or a life—around.
The love of God was shared by the congregation of Christ Church Cathedral who provided sanctuary, community, and spiritual nourishment, so that even if I wasn’t at my hopeful or faith-filled best, I was able to know faith and hope with and through them. The love of God walked with me out of church, through the discovery of the missing car, and right into the hotel lobby. The love of God was felt in the helping hand given by the bellhop, who went so above and way beyond to love a stranger he would never see again. And he did this even at the risk of job-related trouble, had a hotel patron needed the car service while he was out with me. The love of God was exemplified by my friend who came to my rescue, canceling whatever plans she had just because she sensed my need for company. And to close the day, the love of God was made visible by a friend who gave me a Mother’s Day card signed with love and a paw print, from my aforementioned dog, Blanche.
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,“ says Jesus. “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” In these words, Jesus’ friendship sounds more extreme and contingent that his usual declarations of love. What is this laying down of one’s life? And what, exactly, is Jesus commanding us to do? Not one to ask us to do anything he hasn’t, Jesus first commands us to do precisely what he did: he commands us to show up, to be there, and not just to be there, but to be aware. Self-awareness is a vital part of our general awareness. We need to take the time to know, to really know, ourselves, honestly. We can only lay down our lives, if we know what we are laying down, for whom and why. Jesus knew when he needed time to reflect, to pray, and just to be, and he took it, so that he could be present and aware whenever he was present in and to the world.
Jesus commands us to do the same, especially to cultivate a heightened awareness and greater sensitivity toward others and their needs. This mutuality, this reciprocity and awareness, is what laying down one’s life in friendship in Christ entails. We can cultivate a greater awareness, for example, towards those for whom certain holidays or events may not be filled with cheer or which can and do evoke mixed emotions. Has someone you know lost a mother? Or never known a loving, caring maternal presence? Has someone you know never had the opportunity to be a parent, regardless of gender? Is someone you know struggling with motherhood and its daily, often lifelong, challenges, either as a parent or a child? Have you let someone know that you are present to and for them? Have you let someone know that you value and appreciate them?
These are not questions to be asked only on a day like today which is designated for gratitude and appreciation. But days like today remind us that they are questions we should live with because they speak to how we are to love. They are questions we should live with and act upon all the time, and today is as good a day as any—and better than many—to start looking for ways to be loving. Not every act will be a dramatic one. It really can be as simple as looking someone in the eye and smiling. Whether they smile back or not isn’t nearly as important as them knowing that someone looked at them, actually looked at and acknowledged them.
Am I advocating that we run around with foolish grins on our faces? Absolutely not. I am simply suggesting that we be who we are, that we offer the same radical welcome and hospitality that we do in this community to everyone we meet everywhere. I am suggesting that we make a conscious effort to remember and to share the joy that we have come to know, or are beginning to know, or are trying to find, that comes from willing obedience to Jesus’s admonition: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” Please notice the order in which Jesus speaks in the gospel. He does not first say, “I will love you if…” Jesus first says he loves us—unconditionally—and then he adds his condition. He doesn’t add the “if” to indicate that we have to earn his love because he has already given us that. Rather, he tells us that he has said these things to us, he has given these commandments, so that his joy may be in us, and that our joy may be complete.
Jesus wants joy: yours, mine, ours, everyone’s. And Jesus does not offer us an impossible task, but an invitation: to abide in his love. Jesus invites us in, embraces us, loves us, and sends us out to invite others to abide in love and joy. Jesus does not tell us that we have to like everyone we encounter. I doubt Jesus himself “liked” everyone with whom he had contact, but Jesus does tell us that we are to act with the same awareness of others, the same respect and acceptance, the same generosity and benevolence, the same willingness to forgive, that he did toward everyone he met. The Holy Spirit echoes this awareness and gives us tools to build it. As we are told today in Acts, the love of God through the Holy Spirit is to be extended to all, even unbaptized Gentiles, which, for the early Jewish-Christians, created great theological and practical tensions.
We, too, live in a world filled with tensions, where shrillness and lack of civility are leading to ever-increasing polarizations. We seem to have forgotten how to disagree with grace, how to abide, much less how to abide in love. For some of us, this is harder than for others and may take longer to become a lived reality, but we are commanded to try. We are commanded with God’s help, to love one another as we have been—as we are—loved, and that is with wide open hearts and minds and spirits and without condition or exception.
By first showing up, by being present and aware, and then by his actions, that young bellhop in Houston bore fruit, fruit that has lasted. He will never know how grateful I continue to be for his totally random act of loving kindness, and he would probably be shocked to appear in a sermon as a model for Christ-like behavior. But that is what he is to me, and so I share him with you. I share him, and others like him, in the hope that their gifts to me will bear even more lasting fruit, inspiring us all to go and do likewise.
We, too, can bear lasting fruit, in ways large and small, by sharing the love and the peace that comes from abiding with each other in, with, and through Jesus Christ, our Mother, our Brother, our Savior, and our everlasting Joy. Amen.