May 6, 2018

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 6, 2018

Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-1; Psalm 98

In the name of our all loving God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.

Today’s gospel is about love and relationship. How does one express love for another? Some thoughts: By paying attention to them, by listening, by displaying interest in the person’s life and activities, by working for the other’s well-being, by showing affection, by sharing of one’s own story, all of these are ways to demonstrate love and care and concern.

And what Jesus is doing in today’s lesson is trying to convey to his disciples in every generation that his love for us is limitless, beyond measure, infinite.  Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) was once asked, “What is the most profound thought that ever entered your mind?” Barth replied, “The most profound thought I have ever known is the simple truth: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Jesus is saying this to you and to me today.  “I love you, I am there for you, I will be with you always. I will hold you in my arms. And I hope you will love others the way I love you.” Jesus does not offer us an impossible task, but an invitation: to abide in his love, to be held by him. Jesus invites us in, embraces us, loves us, and sends us out to invite others to live in love and joy, the kind of love that is interested in the good of the other person, rather than one’s own[1].

This past week a group of parishioners went away to Lenox, MA on retreat, led by Fr. Lang.  The theme of the retreat was “What is Your Story?” and we listened to stories from Scripture and from one another, in addition to sharing worship, meals and fellowship.  We heard some funny stories, and some poignant ones.  We heard stories of redemption, of resurrection, of forgiveness, of authenticity, of confidence, of empowerment.

We gained a greater sense of community, of knowledge, and of love for one another. We learned that while our stories are unique to us, we shared commonalities in others’ stories, we heard others’ pain and vulnerability, and in doing so, we felt less alone.  I think I can speak for all the attendees and say that we each felt loved and valued.

Which I think is part of what Jesus is telling us. That every person needs to feel loved and affirmed, and as his disciples, his hands and feet in the world, our call is to share his love, the love that we have known and experienced, with others.  Every person needs to know they matter.  Most every person wants to be listened to.

Of course, this is easier said than done. It’s fine to hear these words in church on Sunday, a lot harder to put them into practice tomorrow with that obnoxious person in our office.  Or with my loud mouth neighbor who broadcasts his political views (very different than mine) for all to see and hear (he hangs signs in his front yard). It is often very hard to love.

As I have been thinking about these lessons all week, I recalled several recent examples of persons who have managed to live into Jesus’ command to love as we’re loved. I thought of the Amish community in Nickel Mine, PA that in 2006 forgave the man who killed 10 children in the local school.  And how they and assured his wife and family that they didn’t hold them responsible, how they shared some of the money donated to them with the killer’s family, how they brought meals and gifts to the family as formal expressions of their forgiveness.[2] And when asked, over and over by others of how they managed to forgive this man, their answer was the same.  They practiced forgiveness in their lives daily, living into the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who’ve sinned against us.” The Christ-like love and forgiveness they demonstrated was not a one-time action but a result of a lifetime of practicing and exercising forgiveness.

Martin Luther King, Jr. practiced a similar ethic, and required it of those who would be part of his non-violent movement for change.  Dr. King had required a signed pledge of any who would be part of his nonviolent movement.  I will share a few of the requirements of that commitment, because I think they are things that any of us can do.

At the top of the list was meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus. The second was remember always that the non—violent movement seeks justice and reconciliation — not victory. Another was pray daily to be used by God.  Still another, observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy. And, seek to perform regular service for others.  Also, refrain from violence of fist, tongue or heart.[3]  Dr. King knew that living into love and non-violence would take a great deal of effort and intention.

The Rev. Becca Stevens is the founder of Thistle Farms, an organization begun in Nashville, TN 21 years ago to heal, empower and employ women survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. They do this by providing safe and supportive housing, the opportunity for economic independence, and a strong community of advocates and partners.  The organization has now grown to 50 sites around the world.  The mantra of Thistle Farms is “love is the most powerful force for change in the world. “  That sounds like what Jesus is saying to us.

Living into Jesus’ command to love requires deliberate, thoughtful effort.  For me it means trying to see the world through his eyes, trying to imagine how he would see the person standing in front of me. He would look with compassion and understanding and love, seeing a person who is loved and cherished by him.  And that’s what we’re called to do as well.

Jesus said to his disciples, and to us, “No longer do I call you servants, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.” This is one of the greatest compliments paid to our existence.  No matter what the disciples had done, Jesus said this to them. No matter what we have done, Jesus says this to us.  The miracle of love is not so much the faith the disciples had in Jesus, but how much he had in them, how much faith he has in us.

One important way that we will be able to live into Jesus’ command to love is by sharing and participating in community.  It’s pretty hard to do alone; a community of sharing, support and nurture is important as we try to live into Jesus’ life.  St. Paul’s has provided and continues to provide that place, of safety and spiritual sustenance for many, and will do so for years to come.  Together we are a community of friends.

Jesus has chosen us to do his loving on earth, in our lives, now. We may have responded to his invitation, but God chose us and loved us first. Our loving is God’s loving. It is our abiding in God’s love that enables us to respond in love to God and to our neighbor.

I’m reminded of that familiar saying, “how do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice, practice, practice.”  And to borrow it for us, “How do we learn to love?  Practice, practice, practice!”

[1] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 17355-17402). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[2] Donald Kraybill, Amish Grace.

[3] The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr., p. 74.

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