Rev. Sarah Buteux
May 26, 2019
Easter 6, Year C
Posted by First Churches of Northampton, Massachusetts on Sunday, May 26, 2019
There has been a lot of talk about endings this past week, and not because people have been breathlessly anticipating Jesus’ words of farewell in our reading this morning. No, all the talking, tweeting, writing, and hand wringing has been about the end of what? HBO’s Game of Thrones. People have been pondering, arguing, and debating not just the finale but the whole final season: was it too rushed? did it make any sense? was it satisfying?
Over a million fans are so disappointed in the ending that they have signed a petition to re-film the entire last season. The anger, disappoint and outright hate from critics and fans alike has been quite stunning, and, in my mind, a little disingenuous. Because honestly, I don’t think they are as disappointed in how it ended as in the fact that it had to end at all.
All the ranting reminds me of that Woody Allen quote about how life is “nasty, brutish and short…and we’d all like just a little bit more.”
Or his joke about the two old ladies at a resort in the Catskills. One says to the other, “Boy the food in the place is really terrible.” And the other says, “yeah I know, and such small portions.”
I think people – myself included – are simply grieving the loss of characters we loved, and anger is a stage of grief. No ending could possibly satisfy us because any ending ultimately takes them away from us, and we all want just a little bit more.
My dad and I have always agreed that one of the bittersweet marks of a good book is how much you miss the characters when it’s finally over, and we will miss Arya and Sansa, Tyrion, Sam, Danny and Drogon – won’t we Betty? – at lest we will miss them until George R.R. Martin finally completes “The Winds of Winter” and “A Dream of Spring.” At which point all the talking, tweeting, writing, and hand wringing will surely begin again.
Because endings are hard. Saying, “goodbye” is the worst. It’s so hard that I think even Jesus makes kind of a hash out of it.
When it comes to things as painful as goodbyes, I’m a rip the bandaid off, chin up, and get on with it sort of gal, but not Jesus.
I don’t know if you’ve ever read the full farewell discourse in the gospel of John, but it is slow going. It’s 3 long chapters of the disciples asking anxious questions about where Jesus is going and Jesus responding with answers that are more confusing than comforting…answers that aren’t really answers at all, like:
“I am going away and I am coming to you,”
“Where I am going you cannot follow, but you will follow afterward,”
“If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going…” – not helpful, Jesus.
“A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while and you will see me… You will weep and mourn and the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn to joy.”
It’s probably a good thing there was so much wine at that meal. Or maybe he’s saying things like this because of how much wine there was at the meal. It’s hard to say.
Jesus sounds a bit like the Sphinx from the superhero comedy “Mystery Men.” Anyone remember the Sphinx? Anybody remember “Mystery Men?” Well anyway, the sphinx is the wise teacher of a band of bumbling would be super heroes who tries to inspire them with saying things like:
“When you doubt your powers you give power to your doubts.”
“He who questions training only trains himself at asking questions.”
“When you can balance a tack hammer on your head, you will head off your foes with a balanced attack.”
Like the Sphinx, Jesus words are a little maddening, but just beneath the surface there is this promise of comfort and calm and peace that surfaces briefly in the section you just heard. Today’s reading picks up about midway through this discourse, at the tail end of the last supper.
The “other Judas,” – which would have been such a great topic for this sermon if we knew anything about him besides the fact that he was the other Judas, the nice Judas, the slightly more loyal than your average Judas, Judas – asks Jesus, how he is going to reveal himself to his disciples in such a way that they can see him once he’s gone even if the world can’t …see him …because he’s gone.
It’s a good question. And the beauty of Jesus’ answer is that it is as relevant for us, as it was for them. Jesus says that he will reveal himself to his disciples when we love him and we will love him by keeping his word. How do we keep his word? Simple. Not easy. Just simple. We keep his word when we love one another the way Jesus loved us.
That at least is clear. What is so fascinating or unfortunate or unfortunately fascinating is how spectacularly these disciples are going to fail to love Jesus over the next few hours. Which is why his next words are so important:
Peace I leave with you;
my peace I give to you.
I do not give to you as the world gives.
These words are so important because they show us the way Jesus loves us.
Jesus loves his disciples so much that he forgives them even before they mess up.
Jesus loves them so much that before they even have a chance to abandon, deny, and betray him, he lets them know that he has made peace with them already.
When Jesus says, “love one another they way I have loved you,” he means love one another unconditionally, forgive one another no matter what. Jesus knows how badly his disciples are about to fail him and he lets them know – before they even do – that they are forgiven already.
Jesus doesn’t give as the world gives. Jesus just gives.
Think about it: in this world, you have to ask for forgiveness, typically after you’ve messed up. In this world you need to make peace, usually after you’ve made a mess. But not with Jesus. In Jesus, thanks to Jesus, because of Jesus, God lets us know that we are forgiven already.
Remember Romans 5:8? Say it with me if you memorized it in Sunday school: This is how “God demonstrates her own love for us … While we were still sinners, (what?) Christ died for us.”
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Not after we realized we were sinners. Not after we got our act together. But while we were in the thick of our sin, Jesus came to let us know with his very life, that there is nothing God will not do to reach us.
You are forgiven already.
God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.
You can’t screw it up.
You can’t forfeit it.
You can wander from it, close yourself off from it, live in flagrant denial of it, but when all is said and done, when you stand before the throne of God – or however it works -you will be loved and you will be forgiven, because you already are…because you always have been, because you always will be.
Love one another the way I have loved you.
Give that a moment to sink in, because as citizens of this world we are not used to being loved and forgiven like that. We’re just not.
But imagine if we were.
Imagine if we loved one another the way Jesus loved us, accepted one another the way God accepts us.
Imagine if we forgave one another the way God forgives us.
Imagine how it would it effect our relationships at home, in the world, and especially here in the church to know that nothing can separate us from the love of one another,
that no matter how badly we screwed things up we would always be allowed to start over,
that no matter how far we strayed we would always be welcomed back home,
that we would be forgiven no matter what,
that we could always try again.
It’s a little terrifying, when you think about it.
If you are like me, your mind immediately begins to think about how people would abuse and take advantage of such love. Am I right? Or have I just been watching too much Game of Thrones? I mean what’s to stop people from doing their worst if they know you’ll always forgive them?
Nothing. The answers is nothing. I think that’s the scandal at the heart of the gospel. Love can’t protect us from what is worst in each other. All love can protect us from is what is worst in ourselves.
But when we risk loving anyway, things can change. People can change. When we hold out for the best in each other rather than gird ourselves for the worst, something shifts. Not just in us, but all around us.
We see this in Jesus. We see this in the one who forgives even while he is being crucified. We see a change of heart in the thief hanging next to him and the centurion standing guard below; we see a change in Peter after the resurrection, a change in the disciples as Jesus’ love overcomes their fear, a change that took hold of them all and then began to spread like yeast in the dough or weeds in the garden.
Jesus shows us how one person’s wholehearted unfettered love can change the world and Church, when we love like him, we show the world the power of Jesus.
And yeah, I know I’m starting to sound like the Sphinx, but think about it: the church at its worst is like a country club for saints. It’s a place where people gather together in the name of God to play it safe.
It’s a place where people are so afraid of messing up and offending God or others that they make it a point to only include the right people, the good people, the respectable people. And if you can’t live up to certain standards or affirm the right beliefs then you have to go lest one bad apple spoil the bunch.
But if, in God’s eyes, there’s no such thing as a bad apple, if – in God’s plan – every last one of us is forgiven and redeemed already, then the church at its best is a place where we don’t ever have to be afraid of loving the wrong people.
Church at its best is the place where we can err on the side of compassion and inclusion, where we can take a chance on each other again and again and again.
It doesn’t mean we can’t set boundaries. As my good friend Andrea loves to say, “All people are welcome in the church, but not all behaviors.” It just means that we always leave the light on. We don’t give up on each other because we know God won’t ever give up on us.
To paraphrase the great theologian Lilo, or may it was Stitch: “Church” means “family.” “Family” means “no one gets left behind.”
Sarah Bessey, one of the many spiritual writers I follow, says:
“I want to be outside with the misfits, with the rebels, the dreamers, second chance givers, the radical grace lavishers, the ones with arms wide open, the courageously vulnerable, and among even – or maybe especially – the ones rejected by the Table as not worthy enough or right enough.”
I love that, because I think that is the sort of love Jesus is calling us to share with the world. The only thing I would change is the word “outside.” Because friends, I want to be inside the church with the misfits, the rebels, the dreamers, the second chance givers, the radical grace lavishers, the ones with arms wide open, the courageously vulnerable, and even – or maybe most especially – anyone who has ever been rejected from the table in other churches that we might welcome them to God’s table together.
“How will you reveal yourself to us?” asked Judas.
Friends, Jesus reveals himself whenever we find the the courage to love and forgive the other until we can see Christ in them too.
May our church be the place where we do that, over and over again, where we find the strength to love and forgive together. Amen.