Sermon by Rev. Ron Farr, UCC pastor, Emmanuel Congregational UCC, Watertown, NY, Laity Empowerment Project
This summer, my wife Patty and I traveled out west in our little Prius to visit some of the big national parks: Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Tetons, Bryce Canyon, and finally the Grand Canyon. To stand on the south rim of the Grand Canyon is an awesome experience. The canyon is a mile deep. It is so deep you cannot see the Colorado River at the bottom of it. The canyon is 18 miles across and over 200 miles long. It is amazing to watch people approach the railing for the first time to view the canyon. Many draw near in a hushed awe, as though they are entering a church. They gaze out in silence with a dumbfounded look, as though it is just too big to believe, too immense to fathom!
The day Patty and I visited the south rim, I sat under a tree in a remote place at the edge of the precipice to try to take it all in myself. About ¼ mile away, I could see one of the main lookouts with about 100 people standing there, all staring out. What I could see, that they could not, was that at the edge, where they were standing, the cliff dropped down 800 feet. For a long time I watched these little figures gazing out, trying to grasp this immensity before them, something too vast to take in, and too fascinating to walk away from.
Today you and I are those little figures standing at the edge of a more vast canyon. And what we are gazing into is the immensity of Jesus’ teaching and vision which, like the Grand Canyon, is so vast that we cannot quite comprehend it, but still we try. When Jesus taught about God, love and grace, about forgiveness and deep community, it felt to many who heard him that his teachings came from another world – a bigger world, a more spacious, expansive way of thinking and loving that exploded their conventional views.
And so, not surprisingly, the disciples and the people who first heard Jesus speak, often did not get what he was saying. And oftentimes, we don’t get it either. Jesus relentlessly pushed his disciples to understand God and the practice of love in bigger ways. Jesus pushed people to think deeply and originally with his open-ended parables and stories. He pushed people to see each other in new and more transcendent ways. He pushed people to be transformed, to grow, to expand, to move beyond where they were emotionally and spiritually. He pushed them to “be born again,” to live in a new and more expansive consciousness that he called “the kingdom of God” or the “kingdom of heaven.”
At the last supper, Jesus was pushing his disciples one last time to the edge of another vast canyon of revelation. During their Seder meal, Jesus poured water into a basin and started washing the disciples’ feet, one by one. When he got to Peter, Peter said, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus said, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter shook his head and said, “You will never wash my feet!”
Wow, look at Peter blocking Jesus, saying “You will never wash my feet.” What is he so afraid of? What does he see that we don’t? Peter is resisting the new frontier that Jesus is nudging him into. It’s too intimate. It’s too deep. It’s too outside what Peter expects of Jesus and what he expects of himself. Peter is terrified of the intimacy of Jesus stepping off his pedestal and tenderly washing Peter’s calloused feet. Peter is terrified of the equality, the vulnerability, the ocean of love pouring out of Jesus’ soul. This tenderness, this vulnerability, this intimacy, this mutuality with God and others, Peter was not ready for.
Look at what Jesus is trying to teach Peter. Jesus is ushering him and the other disciples into a new kind of community, the beloved community, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it. This is a community that bypasses the world’s values and lives by different rules. It is a “community of equals” where there is no first or last, no top dog or underdog, a foot- washing community in which people accept each other and bear each other’s burdens.
It is an inclusive community, where everyone off the street is welcomed to the banquet, even strangers, even people like Judas whose feet were lovingly washed just like everyone else’s, because everyone is a child of God, whether he or she be lost or found, Democrat or Republican, friend or foe, gay or straight or transgender.
This beloved community is a community of ministers, where every person in it is seen as a minister in his or her own way in one’s workplace, home, church or world. The old paradigm of “the minister” being the head of the church and the rest of the congregation being a bunch of volunteers – that is over. Now, everyone owns and deepens their own spiritual life, their own relationship with God, their own ministry efforts. In the new community, everyone participates, everyone prays, everyone ministers and works for justice, and there is no hierarchy of gifts or ministries. All gifts and ministries are cosmically important in God’s eyes, whether they be a widow’s gift of one penny, or a billionaire’s gift of 500 million, whether one be a kindergarten teacher or the president of the United States.
This is inspirational stuff, Christ’s vision of inclusive community, a community of equals, a community of ministers, a community of openness and grace and unconditional love that rejects no one, and affirms the value of all human beings, and therefore the diversity of cultures and personal perspectives. This global embrace propels us to work for justice and peace and awakening. This is the progressive Christian vision of community that propels First Churches here in Northhampton, and propels my good friend Todd, who you have called to be your pastor and vision-caster. This is the vision of church that Jesus has taught you to pray for each week, saying, “Thy kingdom come … on earth…, as it is heaven.”
Yes, this is inspirational stuff, but it’s hard to appropriate. It’s harder than we expected. That’s what Peter found out. That’s what most churches find out. Most of us lack the inner spiritual maturity required to live this vision. Peter finally allowed Jesus to wash his feet, but just a few hours later he was publicly denying even knowing Jesus. Jesus’ call to personal transformation, openness, honest self-reflection, love and deep community, it’s all a little too vulnerable, a little too intimate, a little too risky. Every once in awhile, we are inspired by the immensity of what our church could be. But normally we just stumble along like Peter, and we don’t even realize we are blind or have stumbled off the path. This pattern has repeated itself again and again for 2000 years of church history.
Churches get “sleepy” sometimes, they go unconscious, they “plateau” spiritually, they settle for the “status quo,” they don’t go deep enough into their spiritual lives, into their prayer lives, into the immensity of Jesus’ mind. Their worship is good, but may not be life-changing. Their business meetings may be efficient, but they are hierarchical and do not express the new heaven and new earth. How does a church awaken from its slumber? How does a church become a place of transformation, a place of depth and healing? How does a church become an inclusive “community of equals” that empowers each person to blossom, and use their God-given gifts? What do we have to do?
We have to listen. We have to listen deeply and lovingly to each other in our small groups and board meetings. We have to be spacious and open, be willing to grow and stretch like new wineskins as Jesus said, be willing humbly to learn from perspectives that are not our own. The fact is, when we listen to God, God’s view is always more expansive than our own. When we walk with Christ, everyone becomes our teacher – ordinary folks, children, the lilies of the field, people of other cultures and religions, and people we cannot stand. They all become our teachers when we listen for truth, when we listen for how God is speaking to us through them.
And we have to create “safe space” in our churches. Any church that wants to affirm diversity must make “safe space” a top priority for every group, every worship service, every committee meeting. Because if people don’t feel safe, they shut down, they stay superficial, they don’t express their souls, they cannot find their voice, they cannot think out loud about faith or their lives. They retreat into silence. And if everyone is silent, if there is only one person in church who is talking about the spiritual journey or about how God works in our lives – which would be the paid pastor – that’s a picture of a dying church!
We all must express the voice of our souls if we’re going to empower each other! And in a community of equals, discussion of contentious issues that eventually leads to truth, and decision-making that eventually leads to consensus happens ONLY if everyone participates and speaks. Safe space is the thing that draws people out and allows diversity to flourish. So it is imperative that progressive Christians ask themselves, “Do people experience me as a ‘safe person,’ a person who they can be real with, be honest with, share their dreams and sorrows and mistakes with, without a hint of judgment from me?” How do you answer that question?
And we need to be “prophets of vulnerability” with others. Sometimes, we need to be the first ones to speak about deeper things, about what is precious to us, about our own shadowy behaviors, about how we’re seeking to grow, what God is teaching us. This is risky. Some may think less of us. But our vulnerability helps others to relax, and our brave example encourages them to find their voice, and emerge from their spiritual paralysis.
Lastly, we have to develop “eyes that see treasure” in ordinary people, just as Jesus did. He saw transcendent treasure in corrupt tax collectors, in prostitutes, in Roman soldiers, in the poor who most people ignored. Jesus saw gifts that nobody else saw – that’s why people loved being with him and were changed by him. So our practice must be, as the German Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said in the 1300’s, “to see as God sees, to feel as God feels, to know as God knows.”
To see the world through such eyes changes everything. We see beauty everywhere, we fall in love with creation dozens of times each day, and we see the treasure in others that they themselves cannot see. When we can speak of that treasure that we see in them, we become powerful advocates of who God built them to be, we help them believe in what they have to offer, we empower them to use their gifts for God.
These are some of the inner building blocks of deep Christlike community – such community cannot evolve here in First Churches or anywhere without them. And more than anyone I know, Todd, your pastor, who you are about to install, knows these building blocks. He lives them. He practices them. He knows how to encourage their development in others.
It is sobering to see how Peter recoiled repeatedly from the things Jesus taught. We have to ask, “Are we doing any better than Peter did?” Maybe not, but as we stumble along, all our efforts to love, be open, express God’s energy, are sacred, even if our efforts are sometimes flawed or out of focus. Listen to this fable entitled “The Rabbi’s Gift.” It reveals how we stumble into the beloved community.
“There once was a great monastic order that had fallen on hard times. There was only the abbot and four monks left, all who were over seventy years of age. In the deep woods surrounding the monastery, there was an old rabbi who lived in a hut. The abbot decided to go and talk with the rabbi and see if he might be able to offer some helpful advice.
“The rabbi warmly welcomed the abbot. “I know how it is,” the rabbi commiserated. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost nobody comes to the synagogue.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. In leaving, the abbot again asked the rabbi, “Is there nothing you can tell me that would help me save my dying order.” “No, I am sorry,” the rabbi replied. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”
“Upon the abbot’s return, the other monks quizzed him, “Well, what did the rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” said the abbot. “The only thing he did say was something cryptic that I couldn’t understand. He said, ‘The Messiah is one of you.’”
“In the days and weeks that followed, the old monks pondered this, and they wondered whether there was any possible truth in what the rabbi said. “The Messiah is one of us?” they thought to themselves. “Could the rabbi possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If so, which one? Do you suppose it is the abbot? He has been our leader for more than a generation. Brother Thomas is a holy man, maybe it is he.
“Certainly it could not be Brother Eldred who can be so crotchety at times. But, actually come to think of it, he is almost always right. What about Brother Philip? No way. Philip is so passive, a real nobody, he couldn’t be the Messiah. But, he does have a gift of somehow always being there when you need him – maybe it is he! Well, the rabbi certainly didn’t think it was I. I’m just an ordinary person. I’m not very eloquent or saintly. But suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me! I couldn’t be that much for you, could I?
“Now as the monks contemplated all of this, they quietly began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them actually might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they even treated themselves with greater respect and kindness. Occasionally people would visit the monastery or have a picnic lunch on the grounds. They found themselves strangely attracted to the place – they sensed such extraordinary respect and love between the five monks. Soon more and more people came to the monastery. Younger men wanted to join as novices. Within a few years the monastery was full and thriving again.”
Here is a story of the transcendence of love, a story of the creation of deep community that expresses the coming kingdom of God. The five old monks just sort of stumbled into it when they started having extraordinary respect for each other, when they listened to each other as respectfully and as lovingly as they would to the Messiah. And they did so even though some of them lacked insight or were crotchety at times. What happened to them can happen to us.
After the trauma of the crucifixion, the risen Christ sought out Peter and said, “Peter, do you love me?” And Peter said, “Yes, Lord.” Jesus replied, “Then feed my lambs.” Jesus asked again, “Peter, do you love me?” And Peter replied, “Yes, Lord.” Jesus said, “Then take care of my sheep.” Jesus asked a third time, “Peter, do you love me?” And an exasperated Peter said, “Yes lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” “Then, feed my sheep,” said Jesus. This was Jesus’ way of restoring Peter, of helping him refocus and get back on his feet after denying even knowing Jesus three times. The risen Christ is among us today to do the same thing for us.
Today, Jesus is looking into our faces, and he is saying. “Do you love me?” And we say, “Yes, Lord, we really do. And we really love the immensity and the beauty of your vision and your gospel, though we still cannot quite grasp it.” And Jesus replies, “If you love me, then create safe space that is kind enough and spacious enough for everyone.” Again he asks, “Do you love me?” “Yes Lord.” “Then listen deeply and lovingly to each other, listen to each other with extraordinary respect.”
“Do you love me? Then develop eyes that see treasure in the ordinary people around you, and especially in those you disagree with. Do you love me? Then create relationships of equality and depth with each other, as I did with you. Take care of each other, take care of this planet, accept each other, learn from each other, wash each other’s feet.
“Be ‘prophets of vulnerability,’ be the first ones to love, the first ones to share your spiritual journeys and how God is calling you to grow, even if you don’t have the right words. Do that, so that you give courage to others to do the same. And be an advocate of everyone’s gifts, so that the light that I have planted in each soul will be expressed in your community.”|
You and Todd have already been building this kind of church with each other. But now there are new steps to be taken. You stand at the rim of a beautiful, limitless canyon. Don’t ever stop gazing out and trying to grasp what you see there in the mind of Christ.