Sixth Sunday of Easter
Rev. Paul Hanneman
There are a number of firsts in this moment. For one, it may be the first time a Baptist preacher delivers the sermon at Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church - Susan Allison-Hatch, who has been around here a long time, can’t remember any. And certainly it is the first time I have preached here, and it is an honor to be standing here. Also, it is the first time I’ve worn a tie since we moved here!
Evelyn & I help with the Food Pantry on Tuesdays. She hands out bread, and I’m on watermelon, cabbage, rice, flour… When our Food Pantry friends found out I was preaching today, I heard more Baptist jokes than I had in years (I’d heard most of them before)! And there were questions. ‘Are we going to have to raise our hands over our heads?’ I told them I was a high church Baptist, and they don’t know what to do with their hands – let alone kneeling. How long are you going to preach?’ One friend said that at the 12 minute mark she’d stand up and draw a finger across her throat…. I told her that some Baptist preachers hardly get through the introduction in 12 minutes…but she didn’t have to worry, because I’m a recovering Baptist preacher; as Elizabeth Taylor said to all seven of her husbands, ‘I’ll not keep you long…’
Let us pray: O Lord Jesus Christ, be present to us in this hour... save us from the error of merely wishing to admire you instead of being willing to follow you and to come to resemble you. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight. Amen.
Most of you already know that the Gospel of John is different from the other three. Matthew quotes Scripture constantly, Mark hurriedly lists miracle after miracle, Luke reels off parables…and John gives us poems. He knew that a word may be all it takes to set heart on fire or break it open. He speaks of the Word God spoke to say what God is all about, what humankind is all about, what life is all about. But it wasn’t a sound that emerged, but a human being; Jesus was his name…. God’s Word Jesus utters poems about himself – I am the bread of life… the door…the Good Shepherd…the Light of the world… John’s Jesus is majestic, mystical, aloof almost – you can’t imagine him with cilantro stuck in his teeth…John’s Jesus is the One he knew in his heart, the Jesus everyone could know too if they kept their hearts open…
“Can you help me? I don’t know what to do.” The New York Times quotes these words spoken by one Ukrainian to another, less than 24 hours into the Russian invasion. They are words spoken when the world is collapsing around you; the profound disorientation is heartbreakingly understandable. It’s also familiar.
We live in troubled times. “I don’t know what to do” was a constant refrain throughout the pandemic each time it became once again impossible to predict the future. Nations are embroiled in violent power struggles with no end in sight. Environmentally we here in New Mexico suffer both a 1200-year drought AND the worst wildfire in history.
There’s the political and economic turmoil in our own country – polarization, vilification, hostility… The potential Supreme Court decision jettisoning Roe vs. Wade could pour gasoline on an already inflamed nation. In Buffalo, white supremacy rears its ugly, violent, racist head again – the “great replacement theory” repackages reactionary ideas and anxieties that have fed nativism, racism and antisemitism in the US and Europe for centuries. A decade ago when I was working with people who are homeless, the ‘drug of choice’ was crack cocaine. No more. Last year, fentanyl, a cheap synthetic opioid, caused more overdose deaths than any other drug – ever. Along with meth (also synthetic and cheap) fentanyl made 2021 the worst year of overdoses – ever.
In a recent article, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes that the Tower of Babel is the best metaphor I have for…the fractured country we now inhabit. We’re disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We’re cut off from one another and from the past…[this has happened not only between Red and Blue America, but within both the left and the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, even families.” (The Atlantic, May 2022)
“Can you help me? I don’t know what to do.” Fight, flight, freeze, [try to] forget…
The disciples could have demanded that of Jesus when he sits them down together in an upper room on that last night. The group of the faithful is now even smaller and more insecure. The die is cast - Judas has left to do his thing, the powers that be are circling like storm cloud, fear and death are buzzing around them like a swarm of flies. They had come to believe Jesus is not just any other man but God’s very son, and they had left everything to follow him. And next he will be…handed over to be killed? They are facing a dangerous, uncertain future without the One whom they called Master.
That feverish night Jesus offers his disciples three things. First, a new commandment. The original Ten Commandments were given to God’s people in the wilderness, so they would get through an unfamiliar and frightening place. In effect they state, ‘this is how we make it. This is what we do.’
Jesus’ new commandment is short: love one other.
Then Jesus makes a promise: Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…
Lastly he gives them a gift: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Peace has come to mean a time when there aren't any wars - any major wars, at least. These days, we'd most of us settle for that. But shalom means fullness, having all you need to be wholly and happily yourself. For Jesus, peace seems to have meant not the absence of struggle, but the presence of love.
A commandment, a promise, a gift – Jesus doesn't try to rationally persuade us or give us a list of to-do’s; He gives a vision of what life is like when you believe God loves you. “Believe" originally did not mean accepting a set of doctrines (not even a Creed!); the Greek root is "to give one's heart to" – “heart” being the self at the deepest level. Believing is giving one’s deepest self to Christ, the face of God turned toward us.
Love one another… Do you remember Who makes our home with you, with me, with us? Do you know that peace?
Modern poet Robert Penn Warren writes,
Out of the mist, God’s
Blind hand gropes to find
Your face. The fingers
Want to memorize your face. The fingers
Will be wet with the tears of your eyes. God
Wants only to love you, perhaps. (“What You Sometimes Feel on your Face at Night”)
I once had a t-shirt with three lines on it:
To be is to do - Socrates
To do is to be – Jean-Paul Sartre
Do Be Do Be Do – Frank Sinatra
Who would have ever thought that Frank Sinatra would be the one on target for times such as these?!? We are trained to be human doings – do, do, do; but we are created as human beings. When we don’t know what to do, Jesus calls us remember who we are and Whose we are – not do do, but BE do BE do!
Imagine a world in which great numbers of people are beginning to discover at heart and soul level that we are God’s beloved, the same as Jesus…that God bends over each of us and whispers, “With you, even in your present unfinished state, with you I am well pleased.” The Creator of all wants to love us, wants us to love ourselves by caring for one another, by seeing face of Christ in each and every person. Do Be Do Be Do…
I know, I know – we’ve heard love one another all our lives, some of us. It’s easy to get distracted by life, to sentimentalize “love”, to dismiss the New Commandment as not “practical”, not “fixing” anything. Yet stop; look and listen. Years ago JB Phillips wrote Your God is Too Small and opened many eyes. I want to riff off his title and say, if love one another seems tired and trite, then your love is too small! Dear friends, Love is the Power that births and gives, the laughter that fills the heavens, the tears that water the earth. And there is no end to it. Ever.
I don’t think we can ever adequately define or even understand love…and I don’t think we were ever meant to. Instead, we’re meant to give ourselves to love, to live ourselves into love’s mystery. My dear teacher James Finley says I’m always trying to sink the taproot of my heart into this one love unfolding itself everywhere, which transcends the darkness of this world - not to be carried off, away from the world, but to radicalize my presence in it. That’s how Jesus lived. If we keep at it, turning again to it, little by little by little we find our way deeper, deeper, and the “doing” becomes obvious.
We have it in us to be Christs to each other. We have it in us to work miracles of love and healing as well as to have them worked upon us. We have it in us to bless with Christ and to forgive with him and to heal with him… even once in a while to grieve with some measure of his grief at another's pain, and to rejoice with some measure of his rejoicing at another's joy as if it were our own. We have it in us to speak from our hearts and to bear witness to and live out of, and live toward, and live by, the truth of his Presence within and among us.
Do Be Do Be Do Be Do…
He sings to me when I am sad.
His voice is old, but sweeter than honey.
It comes from farther off than I can see.
It is not the world singing, it is he
That made it, and he makes it once again
As way down here I listen,
Listen, and am sad once more
With so much sweetness,
Sweetness - O, my Lord, how can I bear it?
Yet bear it, says the song, and so I do,
I bear it, all that sweetness, as he has
Forever, says the song he sings to me.
- Mark Van Doren, from “Psalm 2” in That Shining Place