One final sermon in the little mountain valley...and it falls on John 14:15-16 If you love me, follow my commandment and I will give you a helper, the Spirit of truth.
I just returned from a two day out where we spent most of our time running mundane errands around Wenatchee. After the oil was changed and the good will boxes were dropped off we found ourselves with hours left to waste until it was time to run to the airport. Not wanting to just drive around town all day or spend hour upon hour at the library, I said “Let’s go to church!” The pastor at Grace Lutheran in Wenatchee is a friend of mine and I thought we might be able to receive shelter and rest inside the church building.
Sure enough we found Pastor James right away and he graciously showed us the youth room where we could lounge on a musty old couch and be comfortable for a couple of hours. He also apologized he couldn't give us more of his time on this late Friday afternoon, but he had an appointment. “It’s an unusual meeting I have today” he shared with me, pastor to pastor kind of shop talk. “I received a call yesterday from a man who had just been diagnosed with cancer and he wants to come to church and he wants to be baptized. He needs support and is coming to talk with me this afternoon.” I immediately began to wonder about the kind of welcome this now-ill man might receive at Grace Lutheran in Wenatchee. What made him call a Lutheran pastor? Did he know about this community? I asked Pastor James how he thought the community would receive this man, wondering if they could sustain the walk with one who would need much and could give little. He responded, beaming “They can do miracles”. I thought so, I replied, “I thought I had heard you were those kinds of people.” And off he went to do the mysterious, ever challenging work of ministry.
I grab onto experiences like this because I know how frail and broken and messed up the church community can be. For every heartwarming story, I know two heart breaking stories all set in the context of “the church”. I know her wider reputation in the world as hypocritical and narrow minded, as corrupt and bigoted. So I hold onto stories like Pastor James and Grace Lutheran of Wenatchee and put them in my back pocket so that the next time one of my many, dear friends out there in the world who wants nothing to do with organized religion asks me about my job at “the church” with the look on their face they just smelled something bad…I can tell them about that one building in Central Washington offering refuge to a wondering pastor and her daughter and simultaneously welcoming the sick and seeking.
I do not come from a long line of preachers, and most of my friends come from more of a theater and music crowd. For most of my adult life I have been the token spiritual one, the college student who spent Saturday nights perched on a bar stool fielding religious questions and higher power wonderings. Most conversations, were deeply genuine and earnest, others were more suspect of why I would miss out on precious sleep to get up and go to work at “the church” the following morning.
It is a fair suspicion; one that is raised within my heart with a regularity that I find disturbing.
Even with all my doubts and frustrations and admiration for the church worn on my sleeve, my friends still call with really fun questions too. Like when a college pal turned English teacher found herself tasked with planning the Baccalaureate service for that year’s graduating class she called me to help plan the service, or even more special was helping choose the music for her daughter’s baptism. I feel so honored to be that churchy friend, who gets pulled into discussions about wedding liturgy and grave-side blessings and my real favorite is “I want to try out a church…” Because that last one comes from a hungry heart seeking something else, something counter-cultural and Divine, something broken and quirky as the body of Christ and as everlasting and sure as God’s love. It takes vulnerable faith and bubbling courage to break through a church’s doorway.
So why do it? Why work in the church? Why live in a gospel-centered worshiping community? Why tried out churches or ask for a word of God’s love spoken at weddings and funerals? The very core of who we are as feeling, thinking, and exploring humans chases after hungers – it is what keeps us moving. And I believe the hunger for something perfect, something loving and eternal keeps us moving toward God and toward one another.
For this is what Jesus has prepared for us.
If we back up a bit in John’s gospel to chapter 13 we have Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. If you were here for Maundy Thursday, the Thursday just before Easter, you may remember that John 13 was enacted here as we washed one another’s feet. Pair after pair came to the silver bowls, took postures of servant-hood and washed with grace and humility. This was how Jesus began to prepare the disciples for their post-Easter lives, it would be formed first and foremost with humility and love for one another. It was after this embarrassingly kind move that Jesus gave the new commandment, he said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” And the disciples, who spend so much time vying for the place of honor and scramble to have the right answer are silenced, designed and dazed by such a self-less command.
Tonight’s gospel reading follows the foot washing scene, Jesus still talking and preparing the group for his imminent death and he presses upon them “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” If only Jesus’ commandments, very recently issued, were as black and white as some of those original top 10 commandments. Do not murder, or do not take the Lord’s name in vain – these are things measurable check points we can strive for…but the new command is different. It is impossible to complete, unattainable by human effort and strain: As Jesus as loved you, you also should love one another. No wonder the church is a mess, this is a doosy!
Jesus, knowing our weakness, continues and says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the spirit of truth…I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. The formation of the community of faith continues, by the promise of the coming Holy Spirit.
In two weeks the church will celebrate her birthday – on Pentecost Sunday. This is the Sunday we hear about the Spirit falling on the disciples and their faith being restored and their mission clarified as they continued to share God’s love with all people through the study of the Word and the caring for one another in humble love and service. The community was formed that day by the Spirit and it is this promise that keeps me tied to the messy, glorious, simultaneously selfish and self-less church.
The promise that Jesus made after washing feet and showing the new command to his followers was made to the whole community! Even after Jesus’ physical presence is gone, the disciples are promised that they will know God’s love and they will know it together. They would not be tied together by similar economic standing or geographical location, they would not love one another because of supreme righteousness and unfaltering faith, they would not even be bound by guilt or shame or any of the other human motivations which drive and direct us. The church of Christ was and is bound together with a holy union that is founded in the love of God, fulfilled in the new commandment of Christ and shaped by the Spirit which inspires and creates anew again and again and again.
There is no other way so many crazy Christians could have kept the church running for thousands of years, certainly the Church would have been driven into the ground by corrupt priests or power-hungry kings, or maybe by contemporary politics and individualistic cultures.
Yet, here she stands. Our gathering tonight is a sign of the constant, reforming, relentless movement of God’s kingdom into the world. Can we love what Jesus has left us? Is this legacy enough?
I fear that too many people wrestle with a more internally placed question: can the community Jesus promised love and include you?
One of the Apostle Paul’s first ministerial words was at the temple of the unknown God, which we heard about in the first reading. Paul tells the people gathered there that God is not held in gold, or silver, or stone or even in images of art or in our imaginations…church does not mean a building, nor does it mean liturgy, nor does it mean traditional or contemporary, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, sinner or saint, welcome or rejection.
What Jesus manifested to his disciples was love and humility – two of the greatest forces in this world. What Jesus commanded was a life lived in the posture of love and humility – this is the church. And what Jesus promised was help to a community gathered together, sending a Spirit to break into the isolation of our hearts. Break them open in humility and sew them back together in the love of God made perfect in Jesus Christ. And every broken person is welcome in that community, bonded together by the Holy Spirit, called church.
It began with stinky feet and a wash basin, it has been carried on a command and a promise which we fail and break consistently. But we, the community gathered up by the Holy Spirit will also thrive and serve in immeasurable, mysterious ways because that is what Jesus has called the church to be and to do.
And the next time one of my dear friends, out there in the big world asks me about my work in “the church” I will tell them about getting knocked over with forgiveness by the body of Christ which gathers in a mountain valley.
Thanks be to God for the humility of our servant-Christ, for the witness of Pastor James, for people who move to mountain communities to be gathered into something more than self, for Christ who makes God’s love shown in our faithfully and faulty living. Thanks be to God for the promise of help in it all.