Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Opposing Trapeze

St. Paul’s Church, Delray Beach
August 10, 2014
Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

Very few things in my childhood were predictable. A father who traveled continually and wanted his family with him at all times meant that different homes, different schools, and different people popped up in my life every four to five months. We were never quite sure where we would be next, or when we would be there. But, we did know that moving on was just around the bend.

New people and new places were the norm.

However, there was one thing in that remained the same year after year. One event that could be counted on, planned for, anticipated, and attended with joy and excitement.

That one stable, you can count on it, event was the Circus. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Each spring we would pile in the car and make the journey to Madison Square Garden in New York City where we would watch spellbound as clowns, animals, jugglers, midgets, and all sorts of entertainment whizzed around, and in, the three magical rings. The music, the incredible array of people and costumes; the lions, the tigers, the horses, and the elephants – They all came together in a spectacle that was truly amazing.

Mandatory circus refreshments were coca cola, popcorn and cotton candy. The of course you can get one purchase was a miniature turtle. We would each get our own turtle, and if we were lucky, one or two other trinkets that were being sold by the many vendors hawking their wares throughout the two-hour extravaganza.

It was all wonderful, and we were incredibly sad when it ended thinking “It will be a long wait for this time next year to arrive” as we drove home to care for our turtles, and recount stories of all the wondrous things that we had seen.

Amid all the glamour, laughter and excitement of the circus, however, the one act that always took my breath away, indeed seemed almost unbelievable to me, was the flying trapeze. As the bedazzled trapeze artists entered the center ring I would watch them climb high up above the audience. My head would be bent way back, my eyes glued to the trapeze artists as they arranged themselves on their two platforms, powdered their hands, looked down to check the net below, swung the trapezes back and forth testing their integrity, and finally conferred with one another as they prepared to take off – to fly through the air – with complete faith that their partner on the opposite trapeze would be there for them. 

These astounding performers had complete confidence that as they let go of one trapeze and flew through the air with arms outstretched, their hands would connect with their partner on the opposing trapeze. They had complete confidence that they would be caught – that they would be saved from the possibility of falling to a net far below them – the possibility of severe injury – the possibility of death. Complete confidence.

Today we hear about another leap of faith. Peter’s attempt to walk on water as he reaches out to Jesus for safety from the confines of a wildly rocking boat caught at sea in heavy winds and rolling waves.

Earlier, just after the feeding of the 5000, the disciples had been left to fend for themselves as Jesus went up the mountain to pray. Jesus had instructed them to go on ahead - to get in their boat and cross the sea of Galilee where they would prepare for the next step in the good news journey. 

Dutifully, the disciples climbed aboard their little vessel and set off only to be caught in an evening storm that tossed the boat to and fro as if it were simply a cork in a vast sea. The disciples were terrified. Where was Jesus? What was happening? They looked at each other and asked, “What is happening. Where is our teacher? Have we been sent out to drown?”

Towards morning, Jesus came back down the mountain to join his followers. Seeing their panicked struggle from the shore, he walked out into the sea to be with them. It was dark and foggy. The disciples saw not Jesus but a thinly veiled, shadowy figure. Now the disciples were even more terrified. Who was this - a ghost?

Truly, it was not a good night for the disciples.

Jesus kept looking right at them as he crossed the sea. He saw that they were terrified. He called out to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

In joy and relief Peter recognized Jesus. He leapt out of the boat. He wanted to get to Jesus, to safety, as quickly as possible. Just like the trapeze artists, Peter leapt off the boat, into what could have been a deadly situation. In trust, he stretched out his hands. He wanted to catch onto the hands of Jesus. He wanted to be grabbed and brought to safety.

But wait, you can’t just leap out of a boat in the middle of a stormy sea and walk away, with no trapeze, no net — not unless you intend to walk on water with the wind lashing and the waves engulfing you.

All of a sudden Peter realized that he had taken a leap based not on reason, but on faith - now he was really terrified. He yelled out, “Lord, save me.”

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught Peter. And then, Jesus chastised Peter saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt.”

Paul urges us to see reaching out and catching from a very different point of view. For Paul it is we who need to do the catching, not the opposing trapeze artist - not Jesus. It is we who are commissioned by Christ to “go forth and make disciples of all nations.” 

Paul in his zealous wisdom is teaching us that we have a mandate to proclaim - to teach - to help the world to see that there is indeed an opposing trapeze to catch them. That opposing trapeze is, of course, Jesus Christ. Our mission is to help those who cannot see - help them to see that safety is just an arm’s length away - that reaching out to Jesus is the first step to salvation from falling into an abyss in which there is no net to catch us.

Paul tells those who are gathered around him, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?”

Christ is there to catch us - but, and it is a big but - but we have to reach out and grab his hand. And we can’t grab a hand that we do not know is there.

Bringing Jesus to those who do not know him - healing the blind by helping them to see the power and love of Christ. Encouraging the lost and lonely to have courage - go out on the platform and take the leap of faith with arms outstretched - Yes, folks that is is our job as Christians whose personal world is so privileged and so safe that we are, perhaps, blind ourselves to the stunning darkness in which most of today’s world lives.

In just the past several weeks thousands of Christians have been displaced, brutally driven from their homes in Mosul - hundreds were executed as they fled.
Throughout the world thousands of children flee each day to escape violence and probable death. Many die in flight, stumbling blindly from one bad situation to another.
In America another sort of fleeing - escape from darkness and pain - is taking place. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10-24. Each day in our nation there are an average of over 5,400 suicide attempts by youth in grades 7-12.
These are  but a few of the many issues that cry out to us each day - headlines in the paper that describe natural and man-made disasters that take our breath away; family and friends affected by one tragedy or another; our own lives suddenly off track, careening down a slope into an unknown and frightening abyss.

So many people - so many men, women and children - caught in the storm - terrified, lonely, and lost as their boat rocks wildly in the sea of a chaotic life that surrounds them.
So many people who need someone to proclaim to them so that they can hear, so that they, in faith, can reach out to God, so that they can be saved.

As Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori reminds us, "The voices of the people of faith must be a prophetic impetus for lasting change, toward healing the whole body of God.”

The voices that the Presiding Bishop is referring to - those are our voices. All of us who sit here, and in other places of similar comfort and safety. We are the opposing trapeze. We are the ones who have the ability, and the mandate, to reach out and touch those who need to hear Jesus say to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Friday, August 8, 2014

What I learned This Week

This week, for the second time in twenty years I was called to the hot, dusty, and controversial Rio Grande Valley in Texas on a mission.

I first traveled to the “Valley” in 1992, full of energy and prepared to join others in tackling the alarming growth of HIV/AIDS in that area of our country. Soon after my arrival we formed a team of dedicated Mexican-American educators and medical personnel who provided information and care to group of people previously shunned by family, friends, and medical providers. Four years into the project, I turned my team over to a new source of energy; and drove, for what I thought would be the last time, up the long, lonely and empty highway from Harlingen to Houston and then on to Florida.

This week, 22 years later, I was called to the hot, dusty, and controversial Rio Grande Valley on a very different kind of mission – a fact-finding mission. This week I traveled to the Valley to learn more about the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding as thousands of people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador flood across US borders seeking refuge from the violence imposed upon their countries by drug cartels and gangs.

Astonishingly nothing much has changed in the Valley. It is still hot and dusty. It is still controversial. It is still inhabited primarily by Mexicans. While the rest of America has re-built, modernized, and upgraded itself to a shiny new technological reality, the Rio Grande Valley remains a tribute to its original builders – exactly the same.

As I visited with Valley residents and drove through neighborhoods that had once been my home, I remembered how much I had loved living in this old-fashioned dustbowl inhabited by large, fun-loving, and deeply passionate families. I recalled the love that my staff had for their very sick and frequently dying clients. I understood more clearly than ever that my four years in the Valley had planted a seed of spiritual awareness in me that led ultimately to my ordination to the diaconate in the Episcopal Church.

Washed over with memories and many emotions, I proceeded through a three-day journey of fact-finding. I stayed on track.

Most of what I learned, I already knew. The majority of these fleeing people – men, women and children – will be returned home where they will face more violence and possible death. Some will be granted safe passage and will end up throughout this country with family, or friends, or alone. Those who are granted asylum will, for the most part remain illegal. They will live in poverty, without sufficient education or economic opportunity, as will their children and their children’s children. This cannot be good. It can only lead to a socially and economically dysfunctional subculture.

Others will enter our country without sanction. Young men and adult men trained and hardened by gangs and drug cartels - men whose sole purpose is a life of crime and violence.

Yet others will enter as modern day slaves. Women and children who will be used and abused for economic profit – sold as day laborers or sexual playthings. These individuals will find their journey’s end in “stash houses” and brothels.

These are not positive outcomes for anyone – those who flee; or those on whose shores they land. As this human tragedy unfolds, there are no easy answers – perhaps there are no answers. We watch, we imagine that we can help – but how? If we are lucky we find a small area of service into which we can insert ourselves – gently, lovingly – realistically.

That brings me to what I did learn this week. I learned that humanitarian aid is hard to deliver. It is not easy to determine who is who and who needs what. It is not easy for just a few to coordinate attending to the needs of many. It is not easy to communicate across cultures – not only ethnic cultures but also religious, professional, and political cultures. It is not easy to watch people suffer and not be of much help.

Most importantly, as I watched a team of volunteers helping several mothers with children in tow complete paperwork, select clean clothing, and head for their first shower in many days, I learned something else – something that I already knew. I learned the same thing I knew 22 years ago when I first arrived in the Valley to care for people living with AIDS. It is the same thing that I have known for so many years. It is the one thing that has brought me to where I am today. It is what Jesus taught every step of the way as he journeyed to Jerusalem and the cross.

This week I learned, yet once again, how stunningly healing care delivered with unconditional love can be.     -------------  The Rev. Clelia Pinza Garrity

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Our Sunday Forum

Tomorrow, a small group of St. Paul’s parishioners will assemble in the Parish Hall directly following the 8AM service to learn more about the US border crisis and the dilemma of how to address the humanitarian needs of the unaccompanied minors fleeing from violence and possible death without becoming embroiled in the politics of Immigration Reform.

My hours of research on this current situation all point to the challenging and, for some, unpalatable fact that this tsunami of unaccompanied hispanic children are indeed refugees. They are refugees fleeing in chaos, not immigrants choosing to leave in an organized and joyful fashion - they are fleeing the tentacles of crime imposed by the MS 13 and MS 18 gangs that have invaded their neighborhoods; raped their mothers, sisters, and aunts; in cold blood killed their families, friends and neighbors; and threatened to do the same to them.

These are children who are handing themselves over to another authority, seeking refuge from the terror of organized crime and almost certain death.

My research also indicates that some of these children, indeed perhaps up to 60% of them, may actually have a legal right to be in this country, and that almost 100% of the children have nowhere to return to if they are deported to their home countries.

I believe that we all understand the need for border security and organized immigration that allows entry into this, or any, country based on a fixed and realistic set of policies and regulations.

I believe that we all agree that our borders need to be secured, and quickly.

I believe that we all know deep within our hearts that ultimately many of these children will be returned to their home countries, hopefully to a safer more peaceful life - but, perhaps not.

Finally, I believe that we, as a nation, must step up to this crisis of unaccompanied children who now reside here, within our borders, in the most humane, compassionate and just manner possible. We must accord to these children the same dignity that God has accorded them. We must see these children with the same compassion that Jesus saw the blind, the unclean, and the poor. We must be sure that we do not perpetuate their refugee status.

There is no simple answer here - no quick fix. But, there is the call, and therefore the mandate, for us to work together to afford these children their basic human rights delivered in ways that meet their developmental and cultural realities and needs.

As for those in our little group at St. Paul’s tomorrow morning — some will walk away a bit more informed; some will want to learn more; some will want to do something to assist. We will work on it. We will discern what we, this little group, might possibly do to ensure that compassion and love make their voices heard - heard above the voices of politics and fear.

If we can provide even a cup of water, that might be enough. Rev. Clelia P. Garrity. LCSW

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Best Practices for Haiti Medical Missions Initiative: Update

It has been just one year since my friend and colleague Hilda Alcindor and I agreed that we wanted to coordinate a symposium to discuss best practices standards for US-based medical missions to Haiti. A date and meeting site were determined, emails to over 30 mission team leaders currently active in Haiti were sent out, Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori and Bishop Jean Zache Duracin were invited, as were many other key members of the Haiti Partnership Program. Prayers ascended. We were on our way!

On September 6-7, 2013, the first Best Practices for Haiti Medical Missions symposium was held in Miami, FL. There were 45 Haitian and American missionaries in attendance for this two-day event that produced many wonderful ideas and seeds for the development of a formalized ministry that ultimately would be supported by the Domestic and Foreign Mission Society (DFMS) and the National Church.

On May 1, 2013, after many hours of discussion and planning, I was appointed as the Coordinator of the Best Practices for Haiti Medical Missions initiative. A $25,000 grant was issued by DFMS to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Delray Beach, FL, my home parish, to support my work as coordinator of this initiative.

The ensuing two months have been quite active. A website has been developed, a monthly Constant Contact email newsletter is reaching over 850 individuals each month,  review by Haitian and American medical personnel of a standardized formulary of prescription and over the counter medications best suited for medical missions in Haiti is underway and will be published this fall, a protocol for best practices of ophthalmology in Haiti has been adopted and published on the Grey Dove website, new partners with experience and multiple medical and surgical resources for missionaries have surfaced and joined out initiative, a rapid response to the Chikungunya virus outbreak among the Best Practices network partners has resulted in sending 160,000 500 mg Tylenol tablets to the Haiti Partnership Program for distribution, and a Second Annual Best Practices Symposium is in the planning stages. It will be held in Atlanta, Georgia on October 4, 2014.

Needless to say, there is much work left to be done as the Best Practices initiative moves forward in its goal to encourage US-based medical missionaries working in Haiti to adopt agreed upon and published Best Practices standards and to move quickly toward the development of sustainable programs in their mission communities. Programs that will function without ceasing once the mission team is no longer there.

Keep us in your prayers; join us in our work. Peace always, Rev. Clelia P. Garrity

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Test

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
June 29, 2014
Genesis 22:14; Matthew 10:4-42

The Genesis reading this morning is far too compelling to ignore. Indeed the story of the testing of Abraham is one of the most significant chapters in the bible.

The story of Abraham is the story of promise, faith, testing, and providing.

The Promise was, of course, God’s promise to make of Abraham a great nation, and to bless Abraham and make his name great so that he would be a blessing to all peoples on earth.

God commanded Abraham to uproot his entire family – his tribe – and lead through an unknown and desolate wilderness filled with hardship to a land that God had designated as Israel. There Abraham and his wife Sarah, who was elderly and barren, would have a son and would call him Isaac, and “Isaac God promised “will give rise to all nations from whom kings of people shall come.” (Gen 17:15-19)

Preposterous as God’s promise may have seemed, Abraham responded with complete faith. Abraham and Sarah and their entire family left their homeland. And, in disbelief and against all odds, they had a child and named him Isaac.

Things were going according to God’s promise. It seemed as though the promise had been fulfilled.

But then came the test!

God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…”

Wow – That’s a test of faith. Kill your own son? And, if Isaac is dead, how can the promise be fulfilled?  There will be no heir to give rise to all nations.

But, once again Abraham responded with complete faith. He took Isaac up the mountain and began to prepare the fire upon which his son would be sacrificed.

Isaac, not so trusting said, “Father. The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for burnt offering?”

Abraham replied, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering my son.”

And indeed, God provided.

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven. The angel said, “Abraham, Abraham!”

Abraham said, “Here I am.”

The angel said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns…So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; and it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

Abraham had passed the test! Isaac was saved. God had provided!!

Wow! What a nail biter!! What an astoundingly graphic reminder that faith is not faith without being tested.  What an excellent illustration of how holding onto faith, no matter what the test, allows God to provide in ways that cannot be foreseen or understood.

Abraham responds to a call from God that demands the discipline of absolute faith.  Absolute faith that inspires and forms the basis for the theology of King David, Jesus of Nazareth, St. Paul and our own Christian faith.

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance.” (Heb 11:8)

“By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. (Heb 11:11)

“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son…He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead. (Heb 11:17, 19)

In his book on Genesis, Walter Brueggemann says, “This text provides a singular statement on the meaning of faith. The governing promise concerns the land. The promise of a land is made to a landless people.

The second promise is the promise of an heir (Isaac) made to a barren hopeless couple. The first promise of the land depends on the fulfillment of the second, on the reality of a second generation. The question of this promise is the question of all faithful people: ‘Is anything too hard for the Lord?’

And then, Abraham is tested by the command to offer Isaac. It is this command that places everything in jeopardy. The faithfulness of God is called into question. The responding faithfulness of Abraham is deeply tested.

The three issues together, (1) believing a land will be given; (2) believing an heir will be born; (3) believing that God can provide beyond testing all direct us to the issue of faith.” (Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation: Genesis)

The faith to which Abraham is called means the acknowledgement of a particular God who can violate religious conventions, shatter normal definitions of reality, and bring about newness.

Isaac  -  long anticipated, finally given, then demanded back, and at the end saved by God’s graciousness  -  Isaac, is the embodiment of the newness God can bring about in our world of perpetual barrenness.

This ancient but seminal story of the testing of Abraham gives hope to the possibility that through faith in the promise of God we may be delivered from the barren world of oppression, injustice, and hopelessness.

This is the newness, the salvation that Jesus referred to when he proclaimed in the Gospel of Mark, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)

This ancient narrative of Abraham and Sarah defines in unambiguous terms a predicament that has been central to our world from time immemorial. The predicament of choosing to live either for God’s promise, and in so doing meet the test by disengaging from the present barren way of things, or to live against the promise, grimly holding onto the comfort and status quo of the present.

This ancient scenario of Abraham and Isaac and the challenges that their­­ faith encountered in the face of testing fast forwards throughout Biblical history and brings us directly to our gospel reading for today. Today’s message from Jesus comes at the end of a long discourse that he delivers to the 12 disciples whom he chooses to send out from Galilee. Their task was to “gather the lost sheep of Israel” and “proclaim the good news.”

Jesus does not mince words as he outlines the difficulties and dangers that the disciples will encounter as they “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons.”

The disciples will not be paid for their work, they will not be allowed to take even a change of clothing, and they can expect to be rejected - cast out by many households that they enter in their journey throughout Galilee. Jesus does not mince words about the hardship that these 12 will face when he says to them, “See I am sending you out like sheep in to the midst of wolves…”

Jesus warns the 12, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword…” (Matthew 10:34) In that same passage Jesus is clear that God’s love is indeed tough love, “…whoever does not take up the cross is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:38)

Jesus has promised the Kingdom of God, but God’s  Kingdom – the promise - does not come without a test: The test of being a disciple of Jesus…the test of being a sheep among wolves…the test of taking up a sword and following the cross.

The Kingdom promise has been made, the test of spreading the Word presented – will the disciples have the faith to echo in their hearts and minds those words spoken by Abraham so long ago, “God himself will provide...”

Today’s gospel reading puts a sharp focus on the grim challenge that the promise of the Kingdom puts before us.

Those who accept the Kingdom promise with faith and welcome Jesus’ disciples by engaging in the challenge of restoring the Kingdom of God – it is those who will be welcomed in God’s eternal Kingdom.

Those who shy away from a commitment to the Kingdom, preferring instead the comfort of the status quo will not fare well in the eyes of God.

This, of course, is our Kingdom challenge as well. As Christ’s disciples in this world our mission is to restore all people to unity with God and with each other in Christ.

How do we achieve this mission? We achieve this mission through prayer and worship and by proclaiming the Gospel and promoting justice, peace, and love.

This mission – our Church’s mission - is carried out through the ministry of all its members – through all of us sitting right here in this Church as participants in the larger community of God’s people who worship with us throughout the world.

We are all ministers of the Church – all Disciples of Christ. Our task is not to retreat from the world but to act within it – to meet the test - with faith that in times of testing God will provide.

In the Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The path of discipleship is narrow, and it is easy to miss one’s way and stray from the path, even after years of discipleship…The way is unutterably hard and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it…When we know that, we are able to proceed along the narrow way through the straight gate of the cross…the narrowness of the road will increase our certainty…that the way which we must tread as citizens of two worlds, on the razor edge between this world and the kingdom of heaven, could hardly be a broad way. The narrow way is bound to be right.”

Let us remember the Kingdom promise as our way narrows; as the test of discipleship looms before us. Let us remember that we pray each day. “Your Kingdom come; Your Will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Let us be faithful instruments of God as we carry out our mission today and every day – right here; right now.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Letting Go - a note concerning Best Practices

Yesterday I made a tough call – I postponed an upcoming June 10 mission trip to Haiti. The reason – Chikunguya Fever, an illness similar to Dengue. Not fatal, but certainly not pleasant.

The decision to postpone was reached only after two weeks of tracking this newest of health challenges for Haiti; a detailed discussion with a Haitian doctor in Port au Prince, who is also a trusted friend; a lengthy conversation with our team’s medical director; and many hours of research and prayer.

This is not the first trip to Haiti that I have postponed – actually, it is the fifth such trip, all planned with detailed and loving care in an effort to support our brothers and sisters in Haiti who have faced incredible challenges throughout their brief but turbulent history.

Two trips were delayed due to hurricanes, one due to the malaria epidemic when it was at its peak, and one due to the extreme political unrest that preceded President Martelly’s election. Each of these trip delays was a painful reminder of just how little control we have when it comes to carrying out the wishes and intentions of our hearts through mission work in the world as Christ’s disciples.

The June 10 team is disappointed and I would imagine a little angry. Several of the team members have never been to Haiti and were experiencing that wonderfully innocent enthusiasm of a first time missioner. Two experienced missioners were set on going despite the possibility of contracting Chikunguya. Others were resigned. I am heartsick.

Yet, once again, I will be unable to connect with those whom I am trying to help. Those who are geographically so close; but, in reality, so very far away.

As I struggled through the night combating thoughts of failure with prayerful requests of guidance from God, I came to this conclusion – one I can live with.

The Best Practices for Medical Missions to Haiti has put me in touch with gifted medical personnel in Haiti. They have been to the proposed June mission site. I will send them to do the work that we had intended to do. As for the other components of our planned trip – they can wait patiently for a few months. Indeed we can continue to perfect the plans for a poultry farming project and work harder at raising funds for the solar project already handed over to a Haitian company for an initial design and implementation plan.

This morning God’s message has burst through the feelings of failure. I am seeing a bit more clearly that if the Best Practices project goal is to create sustainable projects that “will be there after we have gone” then that is what we must do. We must gradually let go of our need to be continually present while the seeds of our work grow at the hands of those who own the fields. Freedom and growth comes from a love that does not cling. We all know that – We all need God, and perhaps Chikunguya too, to remind of that, so that with our love and prayerful support others can grow.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

If We Fail in Love...

Sixth Sunday of Easter
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church  -  May 25, 2014

John 14:15-23

Those of you who know me, know that I –like everyone else - have my “idols.” Walter Brueggemann and Thomas Merton are right up there on top, along with Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoffer, and Henri Nouwen. On a more secular level, let’s not forget Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Katherine Hepburn, and Helen Mirren. All fascinating and gifted people. People who have had the talent and courage to in some way “make a difference.”

However, at the very top of my list is someone that we don’t hear about all that much these days. Someone who entered my life very briefly many years ago as the priest who counseled and married my first husband and I. Someone who I really wish I had had the opportunity to know better and to work with. Someone who was incredibly passionate, direct and “right on.” Someone who had the most charismatic, yet love-filled being that I have ever encountered.

Someone whom I will never forget - William Sloane Coffin.

William Sloane Coffin, as some of you may know, served as chaplain of Yale University and Williams College, was senior minister of Riverside Church in New York City, and president of SANE/FREEZE: Campaign for Global Security. He became famous at Yale, where I knew him, in the 1960s for his opposition to the Vietnam War. He was jailed as a civil rights “Freedom Rider,” indicted by the government in the Benjamin Spock conspiracy trial, and was immortalized as Rev. Sloane in the Doonesbury comic strip.

Towards the end of his life Coffin wrote in his book CREDO,Credo – I believe – best translates ‘I have given my heart to.’ However imperfectly, I have given my heart to the teaching and example of Christ, which among many other things, informs my understanding of faiths other than Christianity. Certainly religions are different. Still most seek to fulfill the same function; that is they strive to convert people from self-preoccupation to the wholehearted giving of oneself in love for God and for others.” (Credo, p. xv)

Later, in one of his sermons, Coffin preached “Make love your aim, not biblical inerrancy, nor purity, nor obedience to holiness codes. Make love your aim, for (and here he quotes 1 Corinthians 13): ‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.’”(1 Cor. 13:103)

Coffin ended the sermon with these words, “I doubt if in any other scriptures of the world is there a more radical statement of ethics. If we fail in love, we fail in all things else.”

In today’s brief but powerful Gospel reading from John, Jesus emphasizes, once again, his all-consuming theme – love. Today’s gospel passage begins and ends with love.

Jesus opens with, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” He concludes with “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

It is interesting to note that in John’s gospel Jesus gives only a single commandment, and that commandment is: To Love – “Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

We hear this commandment first as Jesus washes his disciples’ feet after the last supper. We hear it again in the chapter directly following today’s gospel passage as Jesus continues his dialogue with the disciples by referring to himself as the true vine, and God as the vine-grower. He says to these reluctant believers once again, “…abide in my love (or, be one with me in my love)…This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:9; 12-13)

The author of John’s gospel would have been quite pleased to hear William Sloane Coffin’s claim to his fellow Christians, “If we fail in love, we fail in all things else.” Most certainly Jesus would be clapping his hands in joy.

The disciples may have been puzzled and reluctant to fully understand the importance of Jesus’ great commandment, but William Sloane Coffin and so many others have not only taken it to heart – not only understood its centrality to the well-being of humanity – they have also put it to work through their work in world.

In the Bible, the word love is mentioned between 500 and 700 times, depending on which version of it you are reading. In John’s gospel Jesus uses love verbs 57 times. Overall, love is the core principle that defines our identity as Christians and drives our life of faith and mission as we live and move and have our being as Christ’s disciples in a fragmented and troubled world.

Love, in the sense that Jesus used the Greek word – agape – is selfless, sacrificial, and unconditional. It is not simply affection or friendship, and it is, of course, not eros, or needful love.

The love – agape - that Jesus refers to is not something be achieved by certain acts, or anticipated as an end product.  It is not a lust for pleasure. It is not a desire to work hard, and to be the best. It is not the camaraderie found at a gathering of friends. It is not a love to be found in the future.

The love that Jesus refers to is an unconditional love. It is a love, agape, to be entered into in the present. The commandment is: To Love. It is the love of God or Christ for humankind. It is the covenant love of God for humans, as well as our reciprocal love for God. It is also a love that mandates agape for our fellow man.

The love that Jesus refers to is a love that is our salvation. It is a love that brings us into one being with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus assures us, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my father, and you in me, and I in you.”

Jesus concludes this part of his message with two verses not included in the lectionary version of this gospel passage. “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.” (John 13:21-23)

Everything that matters, that is, our relationship with God, our salvation – our eternal peace – exists right now. We don’t have to wait for God. Abundant life is available in the here and now. If we understand and abide in Jesus’ command to love in the broadest sense of agape, a world filled with peace is a possibility.

Memorial Day is a time to remember those who have died in service to this country. It is a time to honor the men and women who gave themselves and their lives in the many wars waged in the hopes and dreams of a better, more peaceful, world.

However today, as never before, does it seem less and less possible to achieve peace through war.

Today, as never before, does it seem critically important, indeed - essential, to achieve peace through a series of international, inter community, and interfaith dialogues that are brought about by bridges of communication built with love, with agape.

Love, agape, is our refuge, the rock of our salvation.

John reminds us “Those who keep my commandments are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by the Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Paul reminds us, “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice in wrong doing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes in all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”  (I Cor 13:4-8)

William Sloane Coffin reminds us, “Fear destroys intimacy. It distances us from each other; or makes us cling to each other, which is the death of freedom.... Only love can create intimacy, and freedom too, for when all hearts are one, nothing else has to be one--neither clothes nor age; neither sex nor sexual preference; race nor mind-set.”

Love is our salvation. “If we fail in love, we fail in all things else.”