Asbury First United
Text: John 13: 31-35
The Word today reveals three secrets to lasting happiness in life—in personal, family, marital, relational life. This is the joy of worship, wherein we care for the Body of Christ, to rediscover the things that make for peace. This is the joy of Mother’s Day, to reflect on the healthy habits of being that have made us happy.
Before we unwrap these three secrets—one spoken and one shown and one shared—let me greet you from your General Conference. Press reports on religion accentuate the conflicted negative. Your Pittsburgh Conference, however, was largely light and salt. You can tell by what was said and the way it was said.
Mike McCurry—a lay delegate from Washington and the former White House press secretary—received a gracious introduction with this humorous response: “I wish my parents were in the room to hear such a glowing, flattering introduction. My father would have enjoyed it. And my mother would have believed it!”
This conference is the legislative body of our church, not the executive branch (Bishops) and not the judicial. So much time is spent in tedious legislation. I chortled to record that my committee began its work by making a list of shared “values” from delegates from around the world. The list once compiled was lengthy. Imagine my joy to hear read in the list: #1 efficiency, #9 efficiency, #22 eliminate duplication!
We hosted a breakfast about stewardship. One layman said his favorite stewardship story was about the pastor who was asked, “Preacher, if I give lots of money to the church will it get me into heaven?” Discarding all the theological responses to the contrary, the pastor paused and replied, “Well, it’s worth a try!”
Our mother church has not lost her voice. For all our weaknesses, United Methodism is still the finest expression of Christianity I know. One reason for confidence lies in our reasoned reverence for Holy Scripture.
Every Sunday we gather for exuberant singing, happy fellowship and earnest prayer. We listen for the Word of God, read and interpreted. We are people who read the Bible with joy! We love to search the Scripture! We have the courage to question, to play with, though never toy with, the Scripture (R Wilmoth). For us, “the work is play for mortal stakes”. And in the deep unities of Scripture we lean again into the secrets of happy life.
Jesus reveals one of these secrets in what is said. We learn from what is said to us by those whom we love. Our minds cannot change unless our hearts are changed. No argument will ever be as strong as ardent care. What changes people comes from what is said by those they know who care.
At Sing Sing 90 years ago, the warden’s wife became one of those people. She attended to the imprisoned. When she found a blind prisoner, she learned Braille and taught him. When she found a deaf prisoner she learned sign language and taught him. In that hardest of spaces, she spoke the language of Jesus. When she died and her coffin was pulled past the gates, the men stood in silence in her honor, and asked if the gate could be opened so that they might fill the chapel, promising to return. The warden took them at their word, and to a man they kept the promise and returned. We listen to those we trust.
My friend told me how important his mother’s advice always was to him. He was a single child in the Midwest. His mother used as a refrain, “What would Jesus do?” a saying so popular now. One night he was double dating with a friend, and hopped into the back seat of a car, only to hear his mother say from the porch, “Rod, just remember, what would Jesus do?!”
Our deeds are important. So Matthew, Mark and Luke. So are our words. So John. John best reminds us that what lasts is what we say. What did Jesus say on the night he was glorified? How did he put it as they washed his feet? John celebrates the secret in speech. You know these trail markers for John 13: 31ff: the first ‘he’ refers to Judas, who ‘had gone out’ to betray; God, Christ, Spirit—all for John are known in the ‘glory’ that is the cross, the strange divine manner among us; the little preposition “in” holds the mystical magic every day—celebrate, dance, love, sing, live—God in Christ, Christ in God, we in him, they in us; the ugly reference to the Jews reflects this passage produced in the infighting of the 2nd century; a new commandment…new…new…something new..are we ready for something new? Jesus has said something to us that is the very secret of lasting happiness. What is it?
He binds what he says to what he shows. Form and function come and go together. So Jesus is the Word of God for us. As I have…so may you…As you have heard from me, so you may…As I have treated you…so you may…
We learn from others. Especially in the home. What parents say is crucial. So too what parents do.
The other day I saw a young mother walking in a department store. She had too little girls in tow to starboard, and her own elderly mother to port. The girls pulled ahead, and grandma lagged behind, and between daughters and grandmother and promises to keep I thought I overheard this practical prayer from the mom in middle: “Lord get me through this day.
Phyllis Trible taught us long ago that reading the Bible involves your own perspective. It matters what you bring with you into the reading room. I see women, and men, on this Sunday, trying desperately to balance the generational claims of relationship. You are trying to raise another generation to be Christian boys and girls, women and men. They know what they see.
A little boy was wandering around a hotel swimming pool, dipping his foot in the water. He said to one woman, “Are you a Christian?” “Well, I guess I am…I go to church sometimes.” And the same question to another: “Oh, yes, I try to be, I go to church now and then, and I read the Bible when I have a chance.” Then he came to a third who said, “I most certainly am a Christian young man. I worship, pray, tithe, read the Bible and I teach Sunday school too. But tell me, why do you ask?” “Well, said the 9 year old, I want to go swimming, and so I need to find somebody I can trust to hold my quarter, and I guess I found someone!” (ex libris: R Wilmoth). We look to examples all around us.
Our Methodist Church can happily recall the example of Peter and Paul. In the first generation of church life, there was major division just like the one we have today in our church. Does our division alienate the orthodox from the progressive? Do we wonder about the balance of tradition and gospel? Are we awkwardly trying to discuss intimate matters of the flesh, particularly the use of the male body? Peter and Paul faced it all, nearly 2000 years ago. Why can we not recall? The gospel was best received by uncircumcised people. Let me be direct without being offensive. The good news was preached and heard by men who were not circumcised—a revulsive horror to the traditional Jewish Christians. Hard enough, we may suspect, for Paul himself. If you simply substitute gay men for uncircumcised gentiles, you will see the exact parallel with our debate today. What was the example given us? In the first ‘general conference’, Jerusalem 48 AD, left and right, Paul and Peter, traditional and progressive found a way forward. For the sake of the gospel they included all those ritually unclean, repulsively uncircumcised, culturally different, gentile men—and sent them Paul as their apostle. Peter went to the Jews, Paul to the Gentiles. The church agreed to disagree, agreeably. With one footnote: all would remember the poor. What does our text say today…new..?commandment? Paul and Peter found a way to handle something new, and still to make full space for what had been received.
This is the example that Jesus has shown us, in his life, and in the lives of his own.
More than we acknowledge, the examples of those around us sustain us in hidden, powerful ways.
Near Pittsburgh Frank Lloyd Wright built his famous home for the Kaufmann family, called “Falling Waters”. It is built into the stone, on top of the flowing water, alongside the verdant forest, amid the wondrous rolling beauty of southern Pennsylvania. It protrudes, suspended nearly in thin air, like our own lives so often seem to be. The house is held up by cantilevers, like a diving board or a teeter totter. The strength and saving grounding are hidden away in the rock, and out the house stretches. I think that is like the hidden, silent strength that parents by example give to children.
Jesus continues to show us something that is the very secret of lasting happiness. We even find it in church and even in our conferences, including our annual conference. Can you be a Christian without conference—without really investing in, enjoying, participating in, giving to and receiving from holy conferencing? I suppose you can, but you really miss all the fun, you miss the best part! There is more. At every step, Jesus is inviting you to deepen your capacity, to sharpen your acuity, to soften your heart. What has Jesus shown us, by the light of John 13?
Today we dimly realize, again, just how much Jesus has said to us and shown us and shared with us.
I think of that young mother, balancing daughters and grandmother. They stop at the counter, in Kaufmann’s, and she buys some perfumes and body lotions. Later she wraps them and gives them as symbols of affection.
We need to learn in the north from our southern Methodist cousins. At least this. We need to learn again to attend to the Body of Christ. It will be 2-4 quadrennial before the truth of Galatians, Peter, Paul and the New Creation, fully permeates our denomination and full openness comes. The day will come. But in the meantime, perhaps we arrogant northerners, so long in the driver’s seat, now outnumbered and outvoted, might summon the humility to learn from our defeats and our southern cousins. They care to apply the body lotions of hospitality and generosity to the Body of Christ. They attend to the Body, like a mother tending her children and parents. They attend to the Body, like a young mother fretting for toddlers and the aged. It is just the Mind of Christ that we seek. It is not only the Spirit of Christ that we need. It is not solely the Truth of Christ that we lack. We need 12-16 years of body lotions, applied to the church in the north.
Oddly, or divinely, were we to invest ourselves fully in the house not made with hands, our more minor differences would quickly dissolve, as those between Peter and Paul did so long ago.
Martin Luther King said once that story of the church is like a great extended family that receives a tremendous bequest: they receive an inheritance of a wonderful, beautiful, spacious, luxurious home to share. There is only one stipulation. All must live in it together. Now we may have a few rooms we need to add to this house not made with hands. We may have new addition, a new creational addition to add to the back of the house. But as 95% of the general conference affirmed—in rejection of the fringe right wing’s suggestion of separation—“we affirm our united covenant to live together. It is no accident that the single deepest moment of real unity in Pittsburgh happened after that vote, with the slow, hand clasped singing in 2000 voices of ‘blest be the tie that binds’.
We need to apply some ointment, some healing salve, some body lotions to the Body of Christ.
I remember visiting a young woman who had been raised by her grandmother. When in the last months of her grandmother’s life, the young woman would visit; I was privileged to watch their consort together. She would stand by the bedside and comb her grandmother’s hair, and straighten her glasses, and rub her arms and hands with lotion. A wordless rebaptism that meant more than all the Psalms of David and all the Parables of Jesus and all the paragraphs of the Book of Discipline. This too is the secret of lasting happiness which Jesus has shared. What is it?
BLOCKQUOTE> The secret spoken: Love one another
The secret shown: Love one another
The secret shared: Love one another