The Love Abides – John 15.4-17 & 1 John 4.7-21

May 10, 2015 – 6th Sunday of Easter

I was 70 miles down the road in Indiana earlier this week at the St. Meinrad Archabbey—a community of Roman Catholic Benedictine monks. I was there with a group pastors and we were working on a 6-month stretch of sermon texts and preaching. The monastic community gathers five times a day to pray together. A number of us from our group walked over to the Archabbey church to pray with the brothers in the evening.

As I watched the brothers, some youngish, some quite old, file in and out of the sanctuary, I thought about the vow of stability they had each taken to remain in that place and with that community for the rest of their life. One of the promises that Benedictines make is a promise of stability: “to limit oneself voluntarily to one place with one group of people for the rest of one’s life.”[1] Given all the ways that life and circumstances change, it seems like such a old fashioned—and perhaps near impossible—thing to do—to make such a vow.

After we’d been at St. Meinrad’s for a day and a half, a few of us went over to the community of Sisters of St. Benedict in Ferdinand. There we met Sister Christine who gave us a tour of the community’s beautiful church. She said she had been part of the Sister’s of St. Benedict in Ferdinand for sixty years. She said this while we were looking out a window at the cemetery where the sisters are buried. The year she arrived in Ferdinand, the markers on the graves changed from iron crosses to granite block markers. She told us about that change and then said, “Every woman whose grave has a granite marker is someone I have known in this community.”

I thought about the vow of stability Sister Christine had made and all the changes she had seen, all the people she had seen come and go, in those sixty years.

Most of us are not going to stay in the same place for the rest of our lives. We leave one place to go to school. We leave another because of a relationship. We leave another because of work. We leave another because of boredom or adventure or disappointment or a search for something better.

Very few of us stay in one place. Even religious sisters and brothers don’t always stay in the same place. They may move to a different city where there is another community of their order. They may take an assignment to teach or heal or preach in another country. And certainly women and men leave monastic orders altogether.

Esther de Waal in her book Seeking God, writes about the Rule of St. Benedict for ordinary Christians. The Rule was written 1500 years ago by St. Benedict as he formed a monastic community in Italy. It has endured all these generations since as the way that Benedictine communities seek to live their lives together and their lives with God. So Esther de Waal looks at the Rule and wonders how it might be a guide for the spiritual life of those of us who seek to follow Christ but are not taking up orders in monastic communities.

In reflecting on the vow of stability, she acknowledges that staying in one geographic place will be mostly impossible but the vow of stability can be about a stability of internal space; a stability of the heart. She quotes Metropolitan Anthony Bloom who was a bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and a well-known writer on prayer and the Christian life. Bloom says this about stability: “You will find stability at the moment when you discover that God is everywhere, that you do not need to seek [God] elsewhere, that [God] is here…It is important to recognize that it is useless to seek God somewhere else…This is important because it is only at the moment that you recognize this that you can truly find the fullness of the Kingdom of God in all its richness within you; that God is present in every situation and every place.”[2]

de Waal reminds us that this kind of stability, this kind of awareness, of God being present in every situation and in every place, is not easy and takes perseverance to develop. She acknowledges that Bloom was a monk and a bishop, with years of practicing this; “most of us are beginners,” she says. “Yet we can admit the principle that underlies his understanding of stability…He has found his centre [sic] of gravity”[3]; he has found the place in which his life is rooted. Not a physical place but a spiritual space where God is found.

I’m thinking about all this as we hear Jesus say, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” That word “abide” also carries the meaning of staying in place, enduring, holding out.[4] “Abide” gets translated as “remain” (Common English Bible) or “stay joined” (Contemporary English Version) and in The Message “live in me” and “make your home in me.” I like that one particularly: Make your home…in Jesus, the incarnate God, the Word made flesh.

We hear a similar thing in 1 John: God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. (4.16b)

Abide, remain, stay joined, live in, make your home in love. Which is making a home in God, who is love.

How do we make a home in God? How do we abide in Christ? How do we cultivate a life that is rooted in God who is present in every situation and in every place?

The first thing is to desire such a life. Or to desire to desire it. And then there are practices, disciples, that people who have longed to know God’s presence have engaged for generations: prayer—the kind that talks to God and the kind that listens; reading scripture—both for learning about God and for being formed by God; participation in the sacraments that awaken us to God’s grace; being part of a community of others who long to know God’s presence so that we can be encouraged and challenged—and where we can support others and be supported ourselves.

Now we liberal protestants sometimes get a little nervous when people start talking about making a home in God, dwelling in Christ, living a life of prayer and contemplation. “When are we going to get to the action?” we say. “Shouldn’t we be doing something to demonstrate, to live-out, to embody the love of God in the world?” Yes, of course. And that’s what Jesus says: “Those who abide in me and I in them will bear fruit…I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” And the writer of 1 John says, “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

Love, in the bible, is not a feeling or a concept. Love is an action. “To know the God of love is to live the love of God.[5] If our lives do not reflect the love of God, then truly, we do not know the love of God, we are not abiding, we are not making a home in God. One writer says it this way, “There is no love of God if there is not love of neighbor.”[6] You can’t separate a life of devotion to God from a life of service to others. Love is a virtue, a “disciplined habit…that, like all the virtues, can be perfected only over a lifetime”[7] says another writer.

Gail O’Day, who writes on the gospel of John says the language of “bearing fruit” that Jesus uses is a “way to speak about the works of love that are required of Jesus’ followers…To bear fruit—that is, do works of love—is the tangible sign of discipleship.”[8] The works of love are not required in the way of we have to do them in order to be loved and accepted by God. The works of love, bearing fruit, is what follows—it is the outcome—of making a home in God, of abiding in Jesus. It is what happens when we are remaining connected to the vine that is Christ.

The Benedictine motto is (in Latin) “Ora et labora”; “prayer and labor” or “prayer and work.” The two are linked and the “ora” (prayer) is always first in the phrase. Benedict envisioned a balanced life of prayer and work with each nourishing the other.

Esther de Waal writes, “If prayer and love mean anything at all they mean entering into a dialogue with God. The essential starting point for this must be that we on our part are ready to listen, open and attentive to the [Living] Word”[9] of God who is Christ. In this listening, openness and attentiveness we learn to abide, to remain, to make a home in Christ and we begin to discover God’s presence in every situation and every place. And it is out of this abiding, this intimate knowing and being known by God that we love our sisters and brothers. “And in this way our whole life will become prayer in action.”[10] Making a home in Love, we love others.

* * *
1.  http://www.thedome.org/about/rule-of-st-benedict/the-importance-of-community-life/, accessed 9 May 2015.
2.  quoted in Esther de Waal, Seeking God – The Way of St. Benedict, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001), 65.
3.  de Waal, 63.
4.  “John 15.1-8 – Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 473.
5.  Feasting 1 John 4.7-21 theological perspective, 468.6.  Claudia Highbaugh, “1 John 4.7-21 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 470.
7.  David C. Cunningham, “John 15.9-17 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 500.
8.  Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 757-758.
9.  de Waal, 146.
10.  Ibid., 153.

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Living Space – Psalm 19 & Exodus 20.1-17

March 8, 2015 – 3rd Sunday in Lent

This morning our scripture passages are all about the law. Lisa read Exodus 20—the ten commandments—and I read Psalm 19 which has that big section about the desirability and sweetness of the law.

That is probably not what most of us think about—gold or honey—when we think about the law.

We may think about “The Law” as police officers cracking down on criminals. I googled images for “the law” and many of the pictures that came up were of a court gavel—you can think of a judge banging the gavel and calling for, “Order in the court!” A lot of other pictures were of books of laws or of the scales of justice that weigh the pros and cons of a case.

Mostly, I think, we see the law as a set of rules—perhaps arbitrary, perhaps punitive. Maybe we think of the law as a list of rules about things we’re not supposed to do. Like the ten commandments: don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t lust after your neighbor’s possessions or spouse. For many of us, the law is probably not something we’re particularly interested in thinking about or having to deal with and if we have to it’s because we have bumped up—or been slammed up—against it.

But listen to how the psalmist describes the law of God. (If you were reading along in your bible, this is verses 7 through 10.) This is how the law is characterized: It is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure and true. And this is what the psalmist says the law does: it revives the soul, it generates wisdom, it creates rejoicing, it enlightens, it is enduring and it is righteous.

I think most of those words are not words that we would use if asked to describe the law. So I wonder what is it about the law of God as it comes to us through the Hebrew scriptures—that is experienced by the biblical writers as life-giving and beneficial.

One thing that may help us is to know that the meaning of the Hebrew word torah that gets translated “law” is more about “instruction [than it is about] legal rules and stipulations.” (Mays, 41) And torah is not just the list of rules—like the ten commandments. Torah, says James Mays in his commentary on the Psalms, “is used in a comprehensive sense to refer to the whole body of tradition through which instruction in the way and the will of [God] is given to Israel…It is from this written torah that wisdom for the living of life can be gained. It is the medium from which one can learn the way and the will of [God] and store up that learning in one’s heart so that it shapes the structure of consciousness. This is the reason why torah is the cause of delight…because [God] reaches, touches, and shapes the human soul through it.” (Mayes, 41-42)

So perhaps we really need to use a different English translation—not “law” but “instruction” or as Barbara Brown Taylor translates, “direction or teaching.” (Taylor, 75)

In the Godly Play class, children learn about the ten commandments as “The Ten Best Ways to Live.” Hear what Professor Mays says again: “It is from this written torah that wisdom for the living of life can be gained. It is the medium from which one can learn the way and the will of [God] and store up that learning in one’s heart so that it shapes the structure of consciousness.”

Perhaps there is a constitutional lawyer out there who would describe the U.S. constitution and laws as something like this but for the rest of us when we about the law of God in the Bible, we are talking about a very different thing than we typically think about when we think about the law in this country. So for this morning at least, let’s use the language of instruction and direction and teaching.

And catch again how the psalmist describes this instruction: it revives the soul, it generates wisdom, it creates rejoicing, it enlightens, it is enduring, it is righteous and it is more desirable than gold and sweeter than honey.
So back to the idea that the instruction, the direction, the teaching of God is not just a list of dos and don’ts. You might think that’s contradicted by the ten commandments—because that, actually, is a list of dos and don’ts. But first, it is a story.

“I am the Holy One your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” begins the story. This is the story of a relationship between the One who created the universe, promised blessing to a nation of people, liberated them when they were enslaved, accompanied them in the wilderness providing food and drink. That’s a pretty big story that is full of difficulty and full of divine grace.

And out of the story comes an identity: We are the people of the One who made us, who freed us, who provided for us.

And out of that identity comes a way of life. Having been created, freed and accompanied by God, how do we then live? The decalogue (that’s another word for the ten commandments—it comes from deca which means ten and logue—like logos—which is related to words) describes how we live. Tom Long paraphrases the decalogue this way: “Because the [Holy One] is your God…you are free not to need any other gods. You are free to rest on the seventh day; free from the tyranny of lifeless idols; free from murder, stealing and covetousness as ways to establish yourself in the land. The decalogue begins with the good news of what the liberating God has done and then describes the shape of the freedom that results.” (Long) That is, God frees us to live like this…

Isn’t that kind of an irony in the way we typically think of the law? The law of God, the torah, the instruction, direction, teaching, frees us. Frees us to love God and to love our neighbor—those are the two parts of the decalogue. In this freedom we have an identity and a purpose: we are God’s people, we belong to God and as God’s people we are freed to love God and to love our neighbor.

And so we hear—and might begin to feel—those characteristics the psalmist gives to God’s teaching: It revives the soul, generates wisdom, creates rejoicing, enlightens, endures, is righteous, is more to be sought after than riches and more to be desired than the sweetness of honey. Can you begin to feel that? To feel that freedom? Or maybe feel your own desire for this kind of freedom?

We are free not to chase after other gods. We are free to rest. We are freed from pursuing what does not lead to life. Freed by God, we are set free from treating other people in ways that kill and steal and covet. We are freed from the lies that tell us we do not belong to God. We are freed to become the people God created us to be; to live as God intends for us to live; to become truth about us—that we are the beloved of God.
Now think with me about the story of creation in Genesis 1. In the beginning the earth was a formless void. And God created light and held the light distinct from the dark. And then God separated the sky from the waters. And then God separated the dry land from the waters. In this story, God holds back the chaos so that life can flourish. God pushes back the chaos of nothingness—the formless void—and creates space for life to spring up and thrive. Out of the chaos, God creates living space. Space for life.

And that is what God does in the torah—in what we call the law—the instruction, direction, teaching—including, but not limited to, the specifics of the decalogue. God creates space. Living space. Space for life. God holds back the chaos of all that would tell us we do not belong to God. The chaos that obscures our belovedness. The chaos that persuades us to love only ourselves and not our neighbor. God holds back the chaos so that we might receive God’s instruction and in that direction find freedom. Freedom where there is space for life to flourish. Living space.

It seems to me this is particularly the invitation of Lent. To enter this space of time that we might become aware again (or perhaps for the first time) become aware of our belovedness, to let go of the clamoring chaos that tells us lies and let God’s truth sink deeply into us. The truth not only of our belovedness but the companion truth of the belovedness of our neighbor.

In this living space that God provides we experience freedom and we find again our identity as God’s people and find again our purpose: to love God and to love our neighbor. And in that identity and purpose, we find our true life.

* * *
works cited
Thomas G. Long “Dancing the Decalogue” in Christian Century, March 27, 2006, http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2006-03/dancing-decalogue (accessed March 7, 2015)
James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective – Exodus 20:1-17” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, eds., David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

Offering Our Heart – Luke 19.1-10 / Habakkuk 1.1-4, 2.1-4

November 3, 2013 – 24th Sunday after Pentecost

    The first thing we learn about Zacchaeus is that he was a chief tax collector. That means he was a friend of nobody and nobody was his friend.
    A tax collector like Zacchaeus was hated because while he was Jewish, he was also part of the Roman establishment of oppression. He collected taxes for the hated Roman government and then added on whatever he could get out of people to pay his own salary.
10    We learn from the gospel writer that Zacchaeus was not only a chief tax collector but he was a wealthy one which means he was very good at extortion. He was gouging people left and right to support the Roman rulers and to make his own life comfortable while the people around him suffered.
    The words of Habakkuk would certainly have been on the lips of the Jewish community oppressed by Rome and betrayed by their own kinsmen who had sold themselves out to the Romans.
    “How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?”

    The second thing we learn is that Zacchaeus was interested in Jesus.
    Perhaps he’d heard about Levi―a tax collector who Jesus had invited to be one of his followers. Maybe he heard about the  party Levi gave for his fellow tax collectors and how Jesus was right in the middle of it all―eating and laughing and telling stories and listening to them as if he really wanted to be with them. (Even though the religious leaders laid into Jesus something fierce for going to the party.)
    For all Zacchaeus’s wealth, he was isolated and rejected in his own community. His money and government connections couldn’t buy him the kind of relationships he really wanted. Maybe he thought Jesus would look at him with kindness in the same way Jesus had welcomed Levi the tax collector.  
    The third thing we learn about Zacchaeus is that he was short. The gospel writer tells us there was a crowd and you know what happens when you’re not very tall and trying to see in a crowd―you can’t see over people’s heads and many times you can’t push your way to the front either. So Zacchaeus did the undignified thing for a Middle Eastern man and he ran ahead and climbed a tree for a better vantage point.

    And then Jesus comes by and looks up and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
    Now whether Jesus saw Zacchaeus up in the tree or whether the crowd was pointing to him or whether Zacchaeus yelled “Yoo hoo! Jesus” we don’t know. What we know is that Jesus called his name and said, “I’m going to your house today.”
    Jesus didn’t say, “Hey, you chief tax collector.” “Hey, you scoundrel.” “Hey, you low-life thief and oppressor of my people―I’ve got something you need to hear and you had better listen up.”
    Jesus looks at Zacchaeus for who he is―not with all his labels and shortcomings and smarmy government connections―just Zacchaeus.
    Author Frederick Buechner says, “It’s not recorded how Zacchaeus got out of the sycamore but the chances are good that he fell out in pure astonishment”1 and he welcomed Jesus with joy.
    Zacchaeus rejoices and the crowds grumble. They grumbled because Jesus was going to eat at the house of someone who was unclean―someone who was outside the community of the faithful―someone who hurt them. And if Jesus had any dignity, he would not be going to Zacchaeus’s house.
    And then Zacchaeus stood still and said to Jesus, “I am going to give half of my possessions to the poor and anyone I have stolen from I will repay four times over.”
    Being recognized as a child of God by Jesus is enough to change Zacchaeus’s life.
    Isn’t that amazing? They haven’t even gotten to Zacchaeus’s house. Jesus hasn’t said another word. No prayer has been uttered. No bible passage read. No sermon preached about repentance. No altar call. And Zacchaeus’s life is transformed.
    Jesus didn’t wait for Zacchaeus to change his financial status before he decided if he’d eat at his house. Jesus didn’t wait for Zacchaeus to say, “I’m through with this wicked life of tax collecting” before he said “I’d like to visit you.”
    Instead, Jesus sees Zacchaeus for who he is―Zacchaeus―a child of Abraham―a member of God’s family―a beloved child of God. He doesn’t look at Zacchaeus as “the tax collector” or a traitor or the arm of the Roman oppressors. Jesus looks at Zacchaeus with eyes of love and sees him as God’s beloved.
    It’s like one of my favorite authors, Nancy Mairs, who says, “God feeds first. She asks questions later.”2
    And the effect of Jesus’ acceptance of Zacchaeus doesn’t find Zacchaeus saying, “I’ll be a nicer person.” “I’ll pray more often and go to synagogue three times a week.” Zacchaeus doesn’t say, “I’ll think only positive thoughts and I won’t curse any more.”
    Those aren’t bad things to do, but Zacchaeus’s life is transformed by Jesus’ regard for him and his heart that was two sizes too small opens up. (Okay, Luke doesn’t say Zacchaeus’s heart was too small. That’s poetic license from Dr. Seuss. But don’t you think your heart has to get tiny and dry in order to do the kind of soul-sucking, hate-inducing, selling-out-your-family-and-friends kind of work Zacchaeus did?) And he offers his heart to God and to his neighbors.
    The transformation of Zacchaeus’s heart moves to his eyes as he sees the world and himself in a new way. And then the transformation moves to his money and his possessions as he reaches out with compassion toward the poor and to those whom he has wronged.
    In AA, one of the steps toward recovery and healing is to admit where you have wronged others and to make amends wherever possible. Zacchaeus’s transformation recognizes that his salvation (remember the word salvation means, at its root, healing and wholeness) salvation has to do with letting go of grudges and letting old wounds heal, opening your heart to God and others.
    Zacchaeus’s life is transformed because Jesus regarded him as a whole human being―a beloved child of God. And in that transformation his relationship with others starts to heal in very tangible ways.
    And I wonder if some in Zacchaeus’s community were also transformed. They had prayed for so long that God would notice their suffering and would bring them relief. We heard the words in Habakkuk, “Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?…The wicked surround the righteous” and there is no justice.3 I suspect what many of them wanted was their oppressors to be vanquished and smote (that is, done away with). Instead, the guy they hated was saved. Not in some cheesy way. In a life transforming, heart redeeming, compassion invoking, poverty eliminating, community restoring kind of way.
    Thomas Moore, the author of Care of the Soul, writes, “As I see it, you listen to the words of Jesus and are jolted into an entirely new imagination of how the world works. [Jesus’s] actions and teachings spell out this new imagination…If being a [follower of Jesus] doesn’t transform your imagination, then religion is getting in the way”4 of God’s vision for the world.
    Zacchaeus has lived in a world—as we do too—a world that “functions largely from the imagination of power and money.”5 Which gets you to places like “people who have power and money are the most important people.” And “The most important thing in life is to get more power and more money.” That way of life has some perks but ultimately, it’s a dead-end road.
    Thomas Moore goes on to say that a “change of mind is not about [a] change of belief, but a shift in the deep emotional and intellectual imagination from which you live.”6
    Zacchaeus experienced himself through Jesus’s eyes as a beloved child of God and everything shifted. His heart opened and his life was transformed. In Thomas Moore’s words, the deep emotional and intellectual imagination from which he lived was transformed. Zacchaeus experienced the life-changing power of being a human being who was part of God’s beloved family. And as he experienced compassion and love from Jesus, he could open his heart to God and to his neighbors.

    Maybe you have experienced a similar kind of thing―as someone saw in you a cherished and loved person in whom God delights. And in being seen in a new way by another, you were able to open your heart and live into being that wonderful child of God that God has created you to be.    
    If that has not yet been your experience, consider what would be different in your life if you lived out of the deep emotional and intellectual imagination of being a cherished and loved child of God―and saw everyone else in that way as well.

    This morning we are making our pledge of financial support for God’s work through the ministry of this congregation―a ministry of life transforming welcome and hospitality. So I wonder how does welcoming Jesus joyfully in your life, offering your heart to God and opening it to your neighbors, how does that transform your life and inform the way you use your money?
    
    One of my favorite stanzas from all the hymns I know the last stanza of “For the Fruit of all Creation.” It seems a fitting stanza for Zacchaeus and for us:
    For the harvests of the Spirit, 
   
    Thanks be to God.
    For the good we all inherit, 
    
    Thanks be to God.
    For the wonders that astound us, 

    For the truths that still confound us
    Most of all that love has found us, 
    
    Thanks be to God.7

* * *
1 A friend shared this quote with me years ago but without any citation.
2 Nancy Mairs, Ordinary Time – Cycles in Marriage, Faith, and Renewal, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 89.
3 Habakkuk, 1.3a, 4b
4 Thomas Moore, “A Mind-altering Message,” Spirituality and Health, Nov/Dev 2004, 11.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Text by Fred Pratt Green.