We live in an age of discontinuity. The old verities that once guided former generations are now up for grabs. The traditional jobs that provided a lifetime of security are in short supply while the gig and sharing economy has for many been a race to the bottom. No benefits. No pension and no living wage. Bill Clinton’s mantra for success – play by the rules and work hard these days does not necessarily guarantee much of anything. If you are born poor, the overwhelming odds are that you will die poor. Churches that once dominated the skylines in our large cities now stand mostly empty on Sunday mornings.
Change. Change is the one constant. And Love is the other constant. Hear some of the final farewell words of our Lord from the gospel of John:
“I give you a new commandment that you love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Love can be a soft mushy word. Lots of feeling but little substance.
“I give you a new commandment that you love one another.” Certainly, it is essential that the Church, the Body of Christ be one of affection and deep concern for one another. But too often, being human beings, we so invariably fall short of that. Bickering and snark can rule and destroy the community. Paul in Corinthians, complains about the strife that has consumed that community over speaking in “tongues.” Strife consumed the early church over the inclusion of, and table fellowship with, the Gentiles, the so called “uncircumcised.”
So, what does this Love look like? It is something that goes beyond tribe and kin. Let me tell you what this Love looks like
The other night we had at Pilgrim Place two of the great hymn writers of the church, Jim and Jean Strathdee. They were our musicians at the church I served in the upper Mojave Desert, Ridgecrest United Methodist Church. Yes, I was under Methodist management at the time.
As part of our vespers service that evening Jean told the story of her mother, Inez Stevens. Early in their marriage Jean’s father was in the navy. Lou was stationed near Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bombed it on December 7th, 1941. For six months she didn’t know what had happened to her husband. There was absolutely no word. In the meantime, Inez was a teacher in the San Joaquin Valley of California. Many of her students were Japanese. She loved those children like they were her own. Many of those families were completely mortified at what their home country had done. Their shame was more than they and their children could bear. Yet, when those families were deported to concentration camps, Inez and Lou made arrangements to safe-keep the farms of two of those families during the length of their internment. After the war, upon their return, she and her husband turned the farms back to them. This was a gift freely given.
Fast forward many years to the memorial service held for Inez. One of the largest contingents at the service were her former Japanese students. They had never forgotten that bond of affection and the righteous deed that Inez and Lou had done for their community. By far the largest amount for a fund in her memory came from the Japanese community. Friends, this is what Love looks like.
“I give you a new commandment that you love one another.”
What does Love look like? Paul says that this Love is patient and kind. It does not insist upon its own way.
I have lately had to take St. Paul’s tutorial on this love. On every trip to West Virginia. Early on, our fellow, Scott, who takes care of the farm and now is organizing for House of Hope – Ohio Valley, cautioned me, “You know, John, a lot of these people here voted for Trump.” And those of you who know me, know that I can be as rabid a partisan as any. I’m definitely not a fan.
Let me tell you what I am learning about what this Love looks like. On my part, it has meant a lot of listening. It means deeply hearing the struggles of many working in an economy of low wages, part-time jobs and no health insurance. No retirement package. It means deeply hearing the struggles of families caught up in addiction to painkillers and meth. It means hearing the despair of communities that have lost the next generation for lack of employment.
And in the end, I know exactly why they voted for Trump. In my heart, I cannot blame them. I understand. Many feel as though this nation has abandoned and disrespected them. Left them behind. Let me tell you what Love looks like. It means the willingness to feel, and take into our being this pain. This is what I’m learning. This is what that sort of Love looks like.
So, when I head out to West Virginia, when it comes to politics, I have to say that I’m agnostic. The only important thing is the work we are doing to combat opioid addiction. That’s it. Nothing else counts. I’m learning that that’s what Love looks like. “Love one another.” This is the listening we will have to do as we approach the 2020 election if we are going to have half a chance of making our democracy work. We are going to have to find those areas where we can work together and let all else rest. And I’ll try to be on my good behavior.
What does Love look like? It looks a lot like the effort a group of us put in a week ago at the Cathedral Center. Six of us represented St. Francis at the Episcopal Enterprises Academy. For most of us, it meant getting up early, early to brave the 10 Freeway morning rush hour traffic. It meant spending a good eight hours in class. It meant homework. It meant digging in and really working on what our mission might be here in San Bernardino and how we might financially support it with some entrepreneurial activity that would pay the bills but also benefit those we are called to serve. That’s what Love looks like. It can involve tedium and some stress. It isn’t always fun. It’s often hard work. And sometimes even drudgery.
In the Inland Empire, in San Bernardino, as in West Virginia, many feel left behind in this new gig economy. Blight and crime infest many neighborhoods. Wages are stagnant and our homeless population grows. Entire families are destitute on the streets.
The other Sunday, at the conclusion of coffee hour, a young fellow came into our midst. He was a mute and could only with great difficulty understand what was spoken to him. But we could communicate through writing. I can imagine how embarrassing it must have been for him to ask for food for his family. No, he didn’t want cash. He only wished for someone to take him to Food for Less and buy the few items on his list his wife had given him. I had no difficulty whatsoever understanding when he mouthed the words several times, “Thank you.” Yes, Love looks like food. This man is no longer a stranger. He’s our brother in Christ. That’s what love looks like.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
All the talk of the saints gathered up in the bosom of God — all the talk of God wiping away every tear – all the talk of making all things new – it all rings pretty shallow if folks don’t see any signs of newness and hope right here and now. They’ve got to see and taste it.
As Mark Twain once quipped that would be a little easier to believe in the possibility of redemption if the redeemed looked a bit more redeemed.
Friends, you and I are, most likely the only copy of gospel Love most people will ever see. As has been said, you and I are the hands and feet of Christ. You and I are the mind of Christ. You and I are the beating heart of the gospel Love we proclaim each and every Sunday.
Let us give thanks for those blessed exemplars like Inez and Lou Stevens who have paved the way, who have shown us what this Love looks like. Let us learn for our own time the new duties and the sublime joys of this gospel Love.
This Sunday after church, I’ll be with Nan Self, a mentor and part of the campus ministry team that is responsible for me even being in the church. Today Nan celebrates her ninetieth birthday. She is another blessed disciple who has also left it all on the field. Through her ministry over the years, the whole body of Christ has been built up and glorified. Happy birthday, Nan. Thanks be to God for your example of gospel Love. Nan, you are what Love looks like. What does this Love look like? Let me tell you what it looks like. It looks like a community gathered around this altar remembering a teacher, a friend, a pioneer, who says to those assembled. “This bread is my body broken for you. This cup is the cup of the new covenant poured out for you and for all. Broken and poured out for the knitting up of this broken world. This one Lord left it all on the field. And in his fellowship is our most exquisite joy and purpose. Amen.
Year C, Easter 5, May 19, 2019
Sermon Preached at
St. Francis Episcopal Mission, San Bernardino
Acts 11:1-18; Psalm148; Revelation 21:1-6; Luke 13:31-35
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney