Easter 6B, Mother's Day, Sermons

“I still loves ya, Honey!”

Easter 6B/Mother’s Day            May 10, 2015         Acts 10:44-48; John 15:9-17

This Mother’s Day, although I’m sure there will be phone calls from the older children and there is a card from the younger one, the primary mothering relationship on my mind is with a puppy.

Teddy turned 11 weeks old yesterday, and while some things are improving, others are still challenging. He slept through the night last night – yay! But the first thing he did this morning was run off with something he shouldn’t have in his mouth – a very special handknit item – and even though he shouldn’t have it, he just looks so darn cute, it’s hard not to laugh.

We start puppy kindergarten tomorrow night.

The Housebreaking Bible informs us, “Let’s face it. If your dog isn’t housebroken, nothing else matters. Cuteness and personality can win big points for Fido, but his looks and charm may begin to wear thin once you realize that cleaning up after him has become your full-time job.”[1]

He's a good boy when he's asleep.
He’s a good boy when he’s asleep.

I don’t want you to think that he is entirely untrained, or that we are. House-breaking really trains the people as much or more than the puppy. We get into a routine we have forgotten since the last time we had a puppy – 2003 for one of us, never for the other. It feels like having a baby. Most of his seeming mistakes are really our mistakes (don’t stop to find the cell phone; he needs to go out and pee now, or you will be cleaning up a puddle!). I know from experience that the puppy wildness and the small bladder and the long naps will pass, and in time I will have a fine companion who is loyal and steadfast. I remind myself of that with regularity.

I also remind myself that just as we feel frustrated with backward steps, ours and his, God must have similar feelings about humankind. We seem to learn, and then we backslide. We make progress toward peace, and then we go to war again. We become more accepting of one minority group, but we turn back the clock with another. We gain an understanding that care for others matters, but we forget to ground our service in worshipping God and wonder why we burn out so quickly.

I’m grateful that even thought our looks and charm wear thin, we are still God’s full-time job. When Teddy gets wild because he is tired, I stroke him and say gently, “Settle, settle.” Then when he is safely in his kennel, I imagine God saying the same thing to me. “Settle, settle.”[2]

The other feature of our weekend, as usual, was baseball. Yesterday’s Little League matchup had its challenges from the beginning. Our team had only 8 players due to a combination of one kid playing on a travel team, another having a soccer tournament and a third calling out sick. And because fewer players means the good batters come up more often, not only did the team have only two in the outfield, but each time we reached the end of the batting order, we got an extra out, which was tough on the last of our 8 who had been called up to help from Senior Pony.

The bleacher was full of moms, grandmoms and granddads, and little sisters. We like this team because the families are uniformly encouraging not only of their own children but of all the kids on the team. One mom told us how they had already been to a soccer game with an older child, and had witnessed him just missing a goal. “It’s okay, sweetheart!” she yelled to the embarrassed middle schooler, adding insult to injury. She took me back in time to other bleachers, a small set right behind home plate on a field in my hometown of Portsmouth, Virginia.

My brother played on an integrated Little League team, which in the early 1970’s was still a fairly new thing. I don’t know how much the kids thought about it, but for many of the parents, it was their first time sitting as peers with parents of another race. One of the African-American mothers had two boys on the team, one a very good player, but the other… well, let’s just say the coaches had him on the team to get his brother on the team. Their mama, a big woman situated in the middle of the little set of bleachers, would call out every time there was a disappointment: “That’s all right! I still loves ya, honey!!!”

Disadvantaged from the start, our team nevertheless held the lead yesterday. The two loudest enthusiasts for our team were both preachers. Not me, I assure you. I am a quiet cheerleader, knitting a sock to cope with my anxiety about the outcome. Knit one, cheer two, I like to say. No, these two preachers are Jack’s grandpa and Will’s mama, both ballplayers themselves, and they have opinions about the coaching and the umpiring, and neither of them are shy to share those thoughts at a good preacher’s volume.

When a bad call almost took the ball away from us at what should have been the last out, a call that went against the first baseman, both Will’s mama and Jack’s grandpa leapt up off the bleachers, about ready to go over the fence. Luckily for the umpire, they held back and quickly turned their attention to the disappointed boy standing near 1st, Will.

“You’ve got this, Will!”

“We believe in you!”

When the next ball was a line drive just past his easy reach, and he caught it and held it, the team dogpiled on him! And the mama and the grandpa high-fived.

We still say Sweetheart, sometimes, or call the now big kid by the little kid’s nickname.

“That’s all right! I still loves ya, Honey!”

This love for and encouragement of our kids is what we want all parents to provide, and I believe it’s what God is always providing for us.

Yesterday I also attended a training for mandated reporters over at St. Paul’s UCC in Mechanicsburg. The presenter tried to help us understand the difference between parenting we might not approve and actual abuse or neglect. Some parents are just cruddy at it, she said. And there’s no law against cruddy parenting.

The forty people gathered, some pastors, but mostly volunteers, chuckled at that, remembering things we have done less than perfectly as parents or youth leaders or teachers. We chuckled, but a little uncomfortably, because we knew what was coming, a definition of behavior that does qualify as abuse or neglect. When we are confronted with real stories of terrible parenting, criminal parenting, we wonder how it can happen.

For every person who celebrates mothers today, there is someone grieving over words of love never spoken, or wishing for love that was less conditional, or to be the kind of mother she dreamed of being. Despite our tendency to make heroines of human mothers, no human person will get it right all the time.

Jesus knew that of course, as he sat with his disciples after dinner on the night he was betrayed and arrested. Abide in my love, he said. This is the last chance I will have to talk to you! Hear this. Live this. I am dying, literally dying, to make this point. My love is sacrificial and total.

We don’t always get it right. Teddy wants to love us, so much that he carries off our shoes to lavish his affection on them, or puts his teeth on us the way he did his littermates. How have we tried God’s patience? What do we tug on obsessively, even when we are not sure why?

“Settle, settle,” says God. I am here, and I love you. There is no greater love, says Jesus, than the love I have for you.

We don’t always do things the way we want to do them. We stand with the bat on our shoulders and think we have our eyes on the ball and imagine it sailing out of the park, but instead it goes foul. We stand ready with the glove, but misjudge the catch. The lesson of the baseball game is to keep playing. Get ready to come to the plate again. Pick up your glove and play another day. Be open to the possibilities.

“That’s all right! I still loves ya, honey!!!”

This is the love God shows us all the time. This is the love God commands us to share with others – our children, other people’s children, all God’s children.

God is not an umpire waiting to call us “out.” God is an enthusiastic spectator, wanting us to do our best, sitting on the edge of her seat like a mother at a Little League game, calling out her love for us when we fear we have failed utterly.

“That’s all right! I still loves ya, honey!!!”

In the name of the One who birthed us, saves us and never gives up on us. Amen.

[1] http://www.housebreakingbible.com/wp/

[2] The Teddy portion of this sermon is adapted from a reflection I wrote for 50 Days of Fabulous. http://50days.org/2015/05/backward-steps/

Easter 6B, Sermons

The Things We Do For Love

(A sermon for Easter 6B–May 13, 2012–John 15:9-17)

When I was a little girl growing up in a Virginia so long ago and faraway it feels like a storybook, my mama told me what her mama told her even longer ago:
“Pretty is as pretty does.”

My daddy’s mama had a word to add:
“Make yourself useful as well as decorative.”

At church I heard more pieces of advice
“Go and sin no more.”
“Forgive 70 x 7 times.”
“Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
“Go and make disciples of all nations.”
‎”Be angry, but sin not.”
“Love your enemies, and pray for those that hate you.”
“Never spank in anger.”

Wait, that one was my Cornell-educated social worker mother, not Jesus, to give us a sense of how times have changed.
And just as I want to say, really, pray for those who HATE me? I also have to say to my mother, of long ago memory, “Never spank in anger? When else would you want to?”

She might have needed to check in with herself about that, just like we need to check in with ourselves about all these seemingly simple, ultimately complicated instructions for life that came from Jesus. How’re we doing on that forgiveness piece? Heck, how am *I* doing on that? … More on that later.

The truth is that any phrase we hear over and over again takes on a life of its own. From this week’s text, for instance, comes a verse that even non-religious people probably know, but they don’t necessarily know from whence it came or exactly what it means.

“Greater love hath no man…” Wait, I’m hearing it in my head in the King James Version. We read it this way:

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13, NRSV)

But I hear it this way, no matter how many other ways I read it:

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13, KJV)

How many of you know this, have heard it this way, too? I associate it with war movies, and the noble sacrifice of one character who makes it possible for all the other characters to live. I grew up with parents who lived through World War II, and I watched a lot of movies on our black-and-white TV that all seemed to have the same basic plot as “They Were Expendable.” A group of men from different walks of life are gathered with a mission to perform, and some or all of them are going to die, but usually one makes the sacrifice. You can see it coming almost from the beginning of the movie.

In that room where Jesus gathered with his disciples on the last night of his human life, he was the only one who could see what was coming. Everyone else was still struggling to understand basic principles of his teaching. He spent the whole evening, according to John’s gospel, making one last attempt to impress on them the importance of love.

‎”This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

It’s not the only time he says something like this. Later he says that’s how people will *know* they are his disciples, by the way they love each other.

And then he goes on to talk about laying down his life.

If he’s asking us to do the same, we may want to put this back on that list I started with and simply set those verses aside as being the rule for more dedicated and faithful people than we can ever hope to be. And while I don’t want to let us off the hook—a life of faith often involves some sacrifice of what we want—it’s also possible he was simply talking about himself.

You see, he was getting ready to lay his own life down to accomplish a purpose we can’t duplicate. He was laying down his own life to save us from isolation and sin and disconnection, to show in the reality of his death and his resurrection that God exists and cares for us.

In these words spoken in the brief space between dinner and arrest, he tried to tell them again what to do. Love one another.

That’s not always easy. It sounds nice, but it’s not always easy.

Think for a moment about someone you find hard to love.

No, really. Think about it.

I suspect the disciples were just like some of the people you’re thinking of. They were individuals from different walks of life, just like those guys in the foxhole movies, and they were tired from being on the road and on the run for three years, and they were puzzled by this man who they loved, they really did, but why was he telling them to love each other? Wasn’t it enough to love him?

They didn’t understand that he was preparing them for a time when they would have to manage on their own, when their actions and decisions would be made not by asking him what came next but by calling on their memories of things he did and things he said. You’re not my servants, he said on that last night, and in that one idea he up-ended all their ideas of how the world worked. He took away the hierarchy of master and servant and brought them onto his level, as friends. And he made it clear that as friends, sent out together to continue his teaching, they would need each other’s love.

“Go and sin no more.”
“Forgive 70 x 7 times.”
“Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
“Go and make disciples of all nations.”
‎”Be angry, but sin not.”
“Love your enemies, and pray for those that hate you.”

These are just some of the things we do to live that love Jesus was talking about with his close friends on the last night they were together before the world changed completely.

Or maybe they are some of the things we don’t do, but think we should.

‎”This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

And Jesus loved. My goodness, did he love. He loved us all, broken and difficult as we might be, without regard to where we live or what we eat or how we pray or who we love…or can’t manage to love. He simply loved us.

God loves us, with tremendous patience, and I imagine a good sense of humor because how else could God do it, and taking a long view of our possibilities, and never forgetting grace—the promise that we are forgiven and loved not because we deserve it but because God wants to do it.

I only have to look back about eighteen hours to remember the last time I did not love with patience and humor and the long view, and I’m counting on God’s grace because it’s possible I need to be forgiven for it.

I need to be forgiven for it.

Think again about someone you find hard to love.

Is it someone in public life? Or maybe a whole group of people? Maybe it’s someone long dead but still rankling you. Is it someone close to home? Maybe it’s someone right in this room.

Love one another as I have loved you. It’s a commandment, an order, and it’s not all hearts and flowers. It’s work. It wears us out.

Yesterday I had the privilege of officiating at the wedding of Sara Brobst and Jeremiah Bartlett. When I have the opportunity to give a brief reflection at a wedding, I usually talk about how love is not just a noun describing a romantic feeling but a verb we choose to live out from one day to the next. It’s not easy or painless.

But I didn’t need to say any of that, because one of the readings we heard a famous segment from the story of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” a book by Margery Williams about a stuffed toy who wanted to know what it means to be real. He asked the Skin Horse, one of the older toys, to explain it to him and learned that you become real by being loved.

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?’

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Love wears us out and makes us real, the giving and the receiving of it. We become.

My mother and Edward with their model of the Peaks Island ferry landing, Summer 1990.

The person who still rankles me is my mother, nineteen years, almost, after her death. It’s mixed. There are other things she said that I will never forget but don’t like to repeat. There are visions of her on the floor with my older son, building with blocks, or holding my second son in her arms, rhapsodizing over his little feet. There are memories of the last moments we spent together, hard and tender, as I realized how little I knew about what to do at a deathbed.

Love wears us out and makes us real, the giving and the receiving of it. We become.

And here’s the wonder of it. God made God’s own self real. God became. God became human and material and touchable, because God loves us. God even let us deal out death to God’s own self in Jesus Christ, to show a love beyond our imagining.

And in return Jesus asks us, he commands us, to love one another. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. He commands us to love one another, and that has implications for the way we talk to each other and the way we spend our money and the way we commit our time and the way we represent Jesus to people who don’t know about him yet and the way we cope with the people who are hardest to love.

It requires tremendous patience, and a good sense of humor because how else could we do it, and taking a long view of each other’s possibilities, and never forgetting the grace we have been given. I’m not always good at it, but I’ll keep trying. Will you? In the name of the one who had laid down his life for love of us. Amen.

Acts, Easter 6B, Marriage Equality

Can Anyone Withhold?

(Thinking about Easter 6)

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days. (Acts 10:44-48)

It’s still the Easter Season for a few more weeks, and at this time of year we get stories of the early church, from the Book of Acts, instead of a Hebrew Bible reading each Sunday. The Acts of the Apostles is sort of an adventure book about the early church, rather than a CNN-type documentary. It conflicts with accounts in the epistles, and we have no way of fact-checking it. But it brings us those famous and modestly well-known first Christians and gives us a sense of who stands behind our faith.

Peter had to come around to accepting ministry to the Gentiles. Despite what Jesus told the disciples about taking the gospel to the wider world, Peter feared the different and the “unclean” until a dream taught him to know better.

I live in a state where the legislature and the governor last week made marriage legal for any two people who love one another, reaching the conclusion that we cannot withhold civil rights from people who have received love just as others have. This gradual process, not quick enough for some and too fast at any speed for others, continues to unfold. We’ll have a challenge to the law, a collection of signatures on petitions, which may lead to a referendum with a campaign for and against the measure.

I wonder how it felt for Peter to baptize the Gentiles that day? Was he happy? Thrilled? Solemn? Simply busy making sure they were all included?

It’s selfish, but my first thought on the passage of the law was about myself. When, I wondered, will I have the chance to perform a marriage ceremony for couples who could not have had one before? I thought about couples I know, committed couples, couples whose commitments have been blessed by other pastors, but who could not attain the rights and privileges my husband and I got very easily when we decided to marry. I wondered if they would even care about having a church wedding, if there has already been a ceremony of blessing and commitment?

God, you see, already recognizes their relationships.

When I got married the first time, my Cousin Jack told us that the marriage license and the wedding ceremony in church didn’t really matter to each other. It’s merely a convenience that your pastor can sign the piece of paper and make it all legal.

This is one convenience I will be happy, thrilled and solemn to offer, when the time comes.