A Sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
Preached March 26, 2017
At Urban Abbey
John 15:4-5, 9-11 and John 15:12-17
I hate romantic comedies. I really do. Well, maybe I don’t hate them as a form of entertainment, but I do hate the notions of love that we glean from them. In romantic comedies, love is all about infatuation. It is that thrill of the chase, that attraction that makes your heart race and your mind unable to focus on anything else. Every romantic comedy ends with the couple finally getting together, maybe walking down the aisle, maybe driving off into the sunset. And everything is puppy dogs and rainbows.
This week as I prepared to preach, I read a commentary on this scripture from a book called The Cultural World of Jesus. And it told me that in the ancient Mediterranean world, notions of love were not about affection. They were not about this feeling of love, but they were about attachment and bonding. Love was more about doing than feeling. To love was to act out of commitment to and solidarity with another person. To physically and emotionally care for them. Not necessarily to feel warm fuzzies when we think about them.
And because love was about doing rather than just feeling, it makes sense that Jesus names a radical act as the pinnacle of love. He says, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." Of course, we know what happened, that Jesus quite literally died for the love of his friends. And sometimes you hear Christians talking as if this is the whole story. They talk about how it was so great that Jesus gave up his life for us. And I do think that Jesus’ willingness to die for his friends was an amazing expression of the depth of God’s love and commitment to Her creation.
But the scripture doesn’t stop there. Jesus isn't just talking about what he is going to do here. He's talking about what his followers are supposed to do. He says, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." This is no saccharine love, no Hallmark kind of love. Jesus says I am so committed to you that I will die for you, and I want you to do the same for each other. This is no easy ask.
Luckily, we are rarely in situations that call for such a sacrifice. But I do think that every time we are asked to love in the way that Jesus calls us to love, the kind of love that is about doing rather than just feeling, we are at risk of losing something. We risk losing the time that is required to nurture a relationship or help a loved one through difficulty, we risk losing resources when our love extends to physically caring for someone – whether we share our money or open up our homes or prepare a meal. When we open up our hearts to care, we risk being hurt and disappointed. Loving like Jesus calls us to love involves risking all kinds of loss.
And that can be scary. It’s scary to commit to that kind of love. I confess that I struggle with this. When I am confronted with someone who needs love, my first instinct is to think about scarcity. I am afraid there is not enough. I don’t have enough time, I don’t have enough money, I don’t have enough energy to offer another person love. I can’t make room for someone else. My life is too full already.
When I reflect on this, I think my fear of expanding my circle of love is somewhat rooted in this ridiculous myth I carry around – one that I've been trying to shake off for some time. I used to believe this: that there are some people who doing well, who have all their stuff together, and so they can give love because they have resources to spare. And there are some people who are broken and struggling, and they need love and care to be given to them. And so to have a healthy community, you need an equal number of people who have all their stuff together to the number who are struggling and need help. Which on the surface seems to make good mathematical sense. Except my experience has taught me that it doesn’t really work that way.
I learned this when I was part of Church of the Village. I’ve talked about it before. Church of the Village is located in a quite upscale area of New York City (as in, Taylor Swift has a condo there), but Taylor Swift was definitely not coming to our church. In the great socioeconomic divide of New York, we were definitely populated by folks on the lower end of that divide. And when I got involved there, I thought this: we just need to get some healthier, wealthier people in here to take care of these folks who are struggling, and then we will be alright.
Of course there were some instances where it might have seemed that was how it was working.
There was Frances*, a retired well-paid executive at a global agency of the United Methodist Church, who invited more than one person from church, at different times, to live with her when they lost their housing – which was an alarmingly frequent occurrence for people trying to survive in that expensive city. And sometimes her generosity worked beautifully and the person she was helping got on their feet, and sometimes it turned out to be pretty messy. But she taught me about what real, risky love looked like.
But Frances was by far the most "together" person who taught me about risky love. More often than not, I learned from people who had experienced difficulty and loss and were still trying to make ends meet. And often, they were the first to step up and care for others -- even if they didn't quite have their stuff together.
There was Donna who gave Mother's Day presents to all the moms in the congregation on her salary as a public school security guard. There was Sharon, an addict in recovery who started attending church after utilizing the food pantry and immediately became one of most active volunteers in our feeding ministry. There was Tim, who lost his housing and had to move way out to Staten Island to find something affordable, and who used his little extra money to buy something each week - new socks or food or a coat - for a homeless young man whom he saw on the way to church every Sunday, who lived in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.
You see, these folks weren't protective of their time or their resources. And I think it was because they had experienced the abundance of God's love and presence. It was God’s love and presence that had gotten them through their lowest moments.
And because of that - it was the people who I had once seen as broken - who I thought were the broken people who needed my help - who were able to help me and help others. Because they had experienced loss and resurrection. And they understood Jesus' command to love as not some burden, but as the Good News of what their lives were going to be now that they had experienced the transforming and boundless love of God.
I tell you these stories, and I rely on remembering these stories because it reminds me that when I am called to risky love, I don't need to be afraid. I don’t have to save this world on my own. Not just because I can’t, but because the economy of God's grace is not like our economy. When we give love away, it is not lost. It is multiplied. The more you give away, the more you sacrifice; the more willing you are to give, of your care, of your time, even of your resources; the more you are able to truly love and truly live.
And that is not some burdensome slog of a life. It is exactly the life of liberating love that God dreams for us. In the first part of our scripture today, Jesus tells his disciples – and he tells us - about this self-giving way of life not as a something we owe to God, not as a punishment, but as a gift from God. And he tells us this for a very particular reason: "so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete."
May we receive this gift.
May it be so.
*All names have been changed.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Which of your resources (your time, your money, your physical or emotional energy) are you most worried about sharing? What are you afraid will happen if you give too much of them away?
2. Do you know anyone who seems to live from a place of abundance and generosity? What does that look like? Why do you think they are able to live and love generously?
3. How can you cultivate an awareness or mindfulness of God’s abundance in a world that urges us to believe that there is never enough?