Sermon transcript for May 10, 2015
“Friends of Jesus”
May 10, 2015—Belmont UMC
Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you. I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (verses 14-15)
Not everyone is comfortable thinking about Jesus in such personal terms. When I was growing up I would hear people talk about Jesus as their personal savior and I would hear, “my very own personal savior.” We like to use that word, “personal,” as in “my personal trainer” or “my personal shopper.” It’s a very marketable idea. The store or the bank wants to personalize my account. Somehow the word “personal” makes the rest of us feel excluded. (Some of our hymnody contains that same language. “What a friend we have in Jesus.” “And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own.” And as kids, we would wonder, “Who is Andy?” I like those hymns but the sometimes the words make me a little uncomfortable.
But in the Gospel text Jesus gets personal with the disciples. “I don’t call you servants any longer, I call you friends.” The word we translated as “servants” really means “slaves” and the meaning is one of greater contrast—one that would have surprised the first hearers. These are among the final words of Jesus—final words are the most important words and Jesus wants his disciples to understand the bond of affection and connection that marks their relationship.
Jesus gets personal with us as well. What Jesus is describing is a bond, a relationship centered in grace, God’s love, unconditional love, love that is a gift, love that we cannot earn. “I call you friends!” He says this to disciples who, in the weeks ahead may run away, deny him and betray him. At the end of the same Gospel we see the unrelenting nature of this friendship as the resurrected Jesus comes to the lakeshore to find the disciples who have gone back to their old life of fishing. He gives them the gift of a huge catch of fish and then greets them with breakfast on shore. He asks Peter the friendship question, “Do you love me?’ We’ll ask the confirmands several questions next Sunday, but the question that hovers over all of these questions is Jesus’ question, “Do you love me?” Will you live as a friend of Jesus?
Jesus says to the disciples, “I have chosen you!” It doesn’t mean, “I have chosen you over somebody else.” It means “I have chosen all of you.” Being chosen is a good feeling. It is a feeling of grace, a feeling of love. On Facebook, you can request someone to be your friend and they can either confirm or ignore your request. It’s a tough decision, allowing someone into your Facebook life, where the definition of “friend” is very loosely defined—especially your pastor. I read some of the things people post on their walls and I wonder if they recall friending me.
When I was in the 5th grade, we transferred from the small rural school to the larger elementary school in town. Everyday during recess, we played kickball or softball. Everyday the teacher would choose two kids to be captains and the captains would choose up sides—this is a terrible way to choose teams because someone always feels left out. Even though I grew up with a ball in my hands and was a pretty good softball player, I was an unknown entity in those first weeks and would always be chosen near the last. I had to prove myself to those new kids.
But one very small kid named Billy was always last to be chosen. Billy was not a bad player, but he was so small that he could not hit the ball far and he was not fast around the bases. So the captain who got stuck with Billy would always sigh and say something like, “OK, Billy, I guess you are on our team.” Billy would roll his eyes and go with it. I know he hated this day after day.
One day, my friend Tim was selected as captain and he got the first pick. He scanned the class lined up along the first base line. He was going to take his time and choose carefully. Then he said, “I choose, I choose Billy!” Everyone gasped! Then everyone said, “Go Billy!” No one was more stunned than Billy.
Grace is like everyone being chosen the first time every time. Jesus said, “I have chosen you! Living as the friends of Jesus is living as the recipients of this grace.
There is another component to friendship that bears stating here. There is a saying that we become the company we keep. I have a young friend who is a drug addict. I have known him and his family for many years and he has caused them a lot of heartache. He has been in rehab programs and jail numerous times, but he comes out of those places and returns to those old “friends” who lead him back into the darkness of addiction.
I have a 30 year old friend who texts me or calls me almost every day. We try to connect and have long conversations together. One day I asked him why he wanted to hang out with someone twice his age. His answer startled me, “I love you a lot and I want to be more like you.” I can promise you that no one has ever told me that before, but it was touching and it made me want to be a better person.
Aristotle wrote about the deepest kind of friendship being the kind that exists for the very sake of friendship itself. (Nicomachaen Ethics 1170b7) I doubt we can have many of those friendships because they require presence and time that most of us don’t have. But these friendships are the most formative. David S. Cunningham writes of these friendships, that. “A true friend who loves God, will, in time, teach us how to love as God loves.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2 p. 500)
Thomas Aquinas noted that the goal of the Christian life is to become friends with God. (Summa Theologica Italiae, 23-24) Through this friendship we hope to take on the characteristics of God and love as God loves us. To be a friend with Jesus means we will become more like him in every way.
Jesus chose us and “appointed us to go and bear fruit.” Our lives are to mean something, to bear fruit, to live into a purpose beyond ourselves. I thought about those who have lived as friends of Jesus and in doing so have blessed my life and the lives of others. I want all of us to remember that we are friends of Jesus who are called to serve and live in such a way that our lives make a difference. What difference will our lives make?
I was touched by an article written by Glen Henson who shared his story of being raised by an alcoholic father in an angry, fighting and dysfunctional family. His only memory of church was attending séances in the Spiritualist Church or attending the Hardshell Baptists (his father’s favorite). Surprisingly, he grew up with a career centered in the church as a seminary professor and a writer.
The reason he gave for this transformation in his life were the luminous saints, “ordinary saints scratching around in the soil of my soul.” We might describe them as those who had lived as friends of Jesus. He mentioned Mr. Helms and Mr. Thurman, deacons in the church who always kept their word and he remembered his Uncle Ossie and Aunt Fleta, who were always helping members of the family and who took him in during college. And there was also Mr. Busch, the General Store owner, who kept forgiving their debt, because he knew they were too poor to pay him.
(Weavings, May/June 2003, p. 28 ff)
Henson told of the walks in his neighborhood, seeing the home of a single mother, a home in need of repair and paint. One day he knocked on her door and offered to help. He spent a scorching summer repairing and painting the woman’s house. It was his way of thanking those saints who had lived as the friends of Jesus.
Today we give thanks for those who have lived as friends of Jesus. Today Jesus greets us in this place and invites us to live as his friends, recipients of God’s love, chosen to walk with Jesus and called to make a difference by embracing God and embracing others.
Sermon transcript for May 3, 2015
“Love One Another”
1 John 4:7-21
May 3, 2015—Belmont UMC
Last Sunday we focused on God’s love for us and our response to that love. Much of that response is summed up in these challenging 3 words: Love one another. When I read those words I always picture the church of my childhood, Mt. Zion UMC, in Robertson County. It’s an old church, one of the oldest Methodist Churches in Middle Tennessee.
Mt. Zion is the church in which I was baptized as an infant, welcomed as a new confirmed church member when I was 10 years old. My early thoughts and beliefs about God were formed by teachers, preachers, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents who were part of that church. We went to Vacation Bible School there in the summer, revivals in the fall, and we celebrated Easter and Christmas with special events and pageants. Homecoming at that church was/is a big event.
John wrote these simple words to the early Christian community, “Love one another,” and many years later we learned ‘love one another” in the elementary class at Mt. Zion. We wrote those words on handmade Bible markers and painted them on flower pots holding tiny marigold seedlings for our mothers on Mother’s Day. I’m not sure we understood the full impact of those words, but we learned them and we internalized them, and here they are again in our scripture reading for today.
As a pastor I have become sort of a family chaplain and I wind up doing funerals for many of our family members. The last funeral I did at Mt. Zion was for my great uncle Tom. He was 92, a big man, a farmer, with long arms and huge hands. He wore overalls and a straw hat. He loved working with cows and mules. When he was younger, he married a widow with two sons. He raised the boys as his own. They always called him “Thomas.” His sons said, “He wasn’t very demonstrative, but we always knew that he loved us.” He was a part of a generation of men that do not hug and I say, “I love you,” but they find ways of letting you know that they love you.
He did not like getting dressed up, and he had wanted to be buried in his overalls, but my aunt said, “Absolutely not!” He quit going places where he could not wear his overalls, like church, but he kept his prayer life up and he watched a TV preacher once in a while.
Uncle Tom never said, “I love you,” to me either, but he came to hear me preach one time. It was a big deal to see him in church, wearing a suit no less. He came up to me after the service with a smile on his face and said, “Boy, I don’t know what to think about you.” I translated it, “I’m proud of you and I love you.” Several years ago he took me aside and said, “I want you to preach my funeral when I die. Say you will.” “I promised that I would.” I translated it, “I love you and I trust you to say some good things about me when I die.” Uncle Tom represents a whole host of people who taught me, “Love one another.”
John writes, “God is love;” this is one of the early affirmations of faith for the Christian community. The whole nature of God is summed up in these words. The Bible is God’s love story—the story of God’s unrelenting, unconditional, unilateral, and sacrificial love. Paul Tillich wrote, “In every moment of genuine love we are dwelling in God and God in us.” (source unknown)
“God is love” is evidenced by God’s great longing for God’s people and for the whole of creation. “God is love” is expressed in covenant making and keeping, it is revealed in liberation from bondage, expressed in the passionate words of prophets and psalmists. It is a longing that is expressed in the life and death of Jesus. “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us, and sent God’s own son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)
“Dear Friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other.” (v. 11 CEB) Love one another means to love as God loves. It means loving as an affirmation of the true nature of God. It means love extended to people we would not automatically think to love—love that stretches our sensibility and rationality.
I remember hearing a prayer in the early days after the 2001 terrorist attacks on our country, in which the person prayed for our attackers, and expressed a willingness to love and forgive. It was a surprising prayer, an uncomfortable prayer to hear, but we all knew that it was a prayer centered in the nature and heart of God.
Jesus taught us to love our enemies. We tend to think of love one another as loving the people in this room, or the people in our families or the people we like. God’s nature is to extend God’s self to everyone—even those outside our small, well-defined, and often exclusive circles.
We can be rather tribal in the way we group up. We are on the eve of another presidential campaign cycle and we will watch people group into red and blue tribes.
Brian McLaren has written about this tendency and calling for a unity energized by diversity. He writes, “That doesn’t mean all our tribes need to wear the same paint and feathers, speak the same language, cook with the same spices, and celebrate the same religious holidays. But it means all our human tribes . . . need to convert from what we might call dirty energy to clean energy to fuel our tribal life. True, the dirty energy of fear, prejudice, supremacy, inferiority, resentment, isolation, and hostility is cheap, abundant, and familiar. That’s why societies run on it, even though it’s destroying us. More than ever before in our history, we need a new kind of personal and social fuel. Not fear, but love. Not inferiority, but equality. Not prejudice, but openness. Not supremacy, but service. . . Not the spirit of hostility, but the holy Spirit of hospitality.” (We Make the Road by Walking. P.218)
God’s love holds nothing back. Throughout scripture, God chooses those we would deem unlikely, affirms possibility within them, awakens hope in them and causes them to do great things. That’s how God’s love works.
I watch this happen in our church community. I see adults, teachers, choir leaders faith friends, and counselors encouraging young people and bringing the best out in them. They affirm in these children and youth what they may not be able to see in themselves. I’m sure most of us in this room have been on the receiving of such affirmation.
It means living out the covenant of “steadfast love.” We say in our baptismal liturgy, “We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God and be found faithful in their service to others.” We promise to be responsible for their care, to love them and to model love and forgiveness in all we do. We cause their faithfulness to happen by our love and affirmation of them.
Mother Theresa said, “I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.’
Welcome to the love one another community! This is the place where we learn to love one another, to embody the true nature of God, to break down barriers to widen the circles and, in the words of Mother Theresa, live as little pencils in the hands of a writing God, sending love letters to the world.
The second thing that happens is that we feel compelled to respond. 1 John tells us, “Little children, let’s not love with words or speech, but with action and truth.” (3:18)/The love of God is compelling and we begin to think, “I can’t just leave this on the table. I have to do something with this.” And thus begins a wonderful and adventurous journey of faith.
Today, if you don’t remember anything else, remember this: The most important thing is that God loves you. And God has loved you from the very beginning.