Sermon for May 19, 2019, Easter 5C. An audio version will be available here for several weeks.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
I heard something quite beautiful this past week, followed by something else, that made me sad. I was listing to an interview with a person whose name you would know if I said it, but in the interest of not making this political I won’t, because, the specific politics, in this case, are beside the point.
He was being interviewed because he had just written an article about why he cannot hate a person, also in politics, who had attacked him personally in the media. He could have hated the person who attacked him and considered him an enemy, but he said that he remembered being struck by a powerful concept that made a lasting impression on him while reading Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” That concept was the call to love, even our enemies. Dr. King quoted from Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew in that letter, calling his followers to love our enemies, bless them that curse us, pray for those that despitefully use us. (Matt. 5:44). That was beautiful.
By the way, that letter that Dr. King wrote from that jail was to clergy, both Christian and Jewish, who were alarmed at the civil rights protests which had become so violent, on the part of law enforcement and fragile, angry white people. Those well-meaning white clergy were advising Dr. King to wait, saying his timing was wrong. Dr. King replied that black people had been waiting for their God-given constitutional rights for 340 years, and that the word “wait,” so far, has always meant “never.”
Anyway, the man who wrote the article about his quest not to hate was then asked a question. The interviewer asked, “…what does that look like on a daily basis?” To which he replied, “I don’t know. I haven’t figured that out yet.” I found that sad; in fact, tragically sad.
In the text we have today, from the gospel of John, we hear Jesus saying,
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
The fact that someone could know about the importance of love, and have the desire to implement love, but not know how is “really messed up,” as younger people might say. I want to take just a moment to ask, “How did we get here?”
The ironies involved are profound. Last week I told you a bit about the Gospel of John; how it was written six or more decades after Jesus life on earth. I mentioned that most scholars believe that in John’s gospel, we do not have the literal words of Jesus, but the memory of Jesus, processed by a community that is trying to live as his followers in a different context. In John we hear Jesus say all those, “I am” statements: I am the door, the vine, the light, the way, the good shepherd, and so on. And at his conclusion, John’s gospels says that all of these have been written so that we might believe, and that in believing we will have life in his name.
So, what we see developing is an understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus that is in the process of evolving. This took some time, but eventually (by the 4th century) the church was saying that believing the right things about Jesus was the main thing. They made creeds and forced everyone to say them and to say that they believed them. The first of these that was the product of a church council is called the Nicene Creed, named for the town in which the council was held. At Nicea, the main text they referred to was the Gospel of John.
The huge irony is that in John’s gospel we hear Jesus say so clearly that the way to be known as his follower is not a list of correct beliefs about him, but rather, love. How could we have lost sight of this?
And John is not the only place this point is made. In the other gospels, Jesus said that love is the fulfillment of the Law of Moses, and that all the Law and the Prophets hang on the commands to love God and neighbor. Paul said that all the commandments are summed up in the love command, and then says,
“Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”(Rom. 13:10)
That last line is powerful, and we are going to reflect more on it in a minute, but let us just pause to take this in. The church has been saying for years that correct belief is the main thing. Jesus and the New Testament say love it the main thing.
And that’s why it was beautiful that the man who wrote that article “got it” and therefore refused to hate in return. But maybe the fact that the reason he had no idea about how to get there practically was that the church he was raised in spent so much time telling him what to believe instead of how to love. Let that sink in a minute.
Someone I was reading spoke of having “spiritual technologies.” A technology is a set of procedures and processes that help you accomplish your objective. If our goal is to fulfill Jesus’ command to love, we need spiritual technologies to get there. So I am going to pause right here to give you two.
The first has been called the Lovingkindness meditation. When a person you feel inclined to hate comes to mind, you simply repeat this three-phrase mantra to yourself:
“May he or she be happy, may he or she be well, may he or she be filled with kindness and peace.”
Hatred is wishing harm to another person. Love is the opposite. Whenever hateful, vengeful, bitter thoughts, or even irritation thoughts arise in our minds, we do not have to allow them to stay. We can intentionally, mindfully re-direct our thoughts that the lovingkindness meditation:
“May they be happy, may they be well, may they be filled with kindness and peace.”
I know that this sounds sappy; maybe even banal. I tell you it is hard, but I will also tell you that it is an effective spiritual technology.
The second spiritual technology which will help you become the loving person you want to be is simply meditation itself. A regular discipline of silent meditation, which can also be called contemplative prayer, is an essential tool, in my opinion, that increases our capacity for compassion and our mindfulness of our non-compassionate thoughts. If you need help to start a meditation practice, let me know; I would be happy to help you get started. Meditation is simple. The hard part, like keeping to a healthy diet, like physical exercise, is doing it.
Okay, now back to the text. Jesus speaks of being glorified. That means being shown to be godlike. Glory, or radiance, like the shining of a bright light, is about as specific as you can get about what God is like. Later in John’s gospel, we hear Jesus saying that the glory he has been given by God he, in turn, gives to his followers. (17:22)
At the end of yoga, the instructor normally thanks the class and says, “Namaste,” which means, “the divine in me recognizes and honors the divine in you.” That’s right. We all share in glory because we all have been made in God’s image, and God’s Spirit is in all things, including us. If we all have God’s glory in us, of course, we are called to love each other.
Let’s make this practical. I re-read all those biblical texts about how important love is, and how love fulfills the whole biblical law because “love does no wrong to a neighbor.” There are a million things we could bring up here, but as I reflected on the news I’ve been hearing lately, one jumps out. It seems clear to me that we are on a path towards doing great harm. Here are some reasons.
According to the UN report,
“The rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world….The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever.”
We now have a former coal lobbyist directing the EPA, and, by the way, criminal prosecutions for violations of environmental standards is now at a 30 year low. Not only that, the EPA will not continue a scientific review panel that advises the agency about safe levels of pollution in the air, as if that were no longer a concern of ours.
We also have a department of the interior secretary who had been a lobbyist for energy and agribusiness interests. We are now apparently seeking “energy dominance,” including clearing the way to produce and export more oil and gas, instead of doubling down on renewable energy sources.
We are rolling back regulations on undersea oil drilling, like no longer requiring blowout preventers, as if we couldn’t remember the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010.
All of that in spite of everything we have been living through recently — from horrible fires to massive floods and storms of unprecedented power for destruction.
People Who Will Be Harmed
And I think of my newly married son, and wonder about the world we will be handing on to his children when they start a family. How can we say that we love them if we are so willing to harm them?
Because that is what the climate emergency is about. Our planet will survive us no matter what we do. Our planet existed for millions of years without us and will continue to be here, whether it can support human life or not. But the point is that what we are doing is going to cause massive harm to our own families unless we make serious and substantial changes.
Even major companies like BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and Ford are calling for a summit of CEO’s to address the foreseeable economic impacts of climate change, and calling on Congress to produce comprehensive climate legislation before it is too late. Just like civil rights, waiting is no longer an option. We may have up to 12 years to fix this; maybe less.
It’s not merely a matter of loving the planet itself — which a person who believes it was created by God might be expected to do. It is, even more, a matter of loving our grandchildren by not harming them. Those grandchildren share the glory of God. What will it mean for them to live in a world of far less bio-diversity, of rising sea levels, of increased land and ocean temperatures?
The Love Command
Today’s gospel is a call to the church to stop focusing on what we believe, and instead focus on the real point of our faith: following Jesus means implementing the love command. The love command calls us not to cause harm. Harm is a moral issue. That is why the climate emergency, to us, is a moral issue.
No amount of short term economic benefit justifies causing harm to our descendants. No convenience that we are used to makes it right to cause harm to our grandchildren. Harm cannot be love.
So, just as love called us in the past, and continues to call us, to champion civil rights for the glorious people of every race, just as love calls us to end discriminations of every kind, against God’s gloriously diverse people, so love calls us, not to sentimentality, but to action.
We have heard the new commandment, so we pledge ourselves to the coming generations. We love you. We will not wait. We will do all we can to see that you are not harmed.