(a sermon for May 16, 2021, the 7th Sunday of Easter, based on John 17:6-19)
It was one of those raw and powerful moments of utter honesty that parents aren’t really supposed to hear.
It was many years ago now; I was driving my oldest son Jake (who was about 10 or 11 years old at the time) and a couple of his buddies to a hockey game one afternoon and as I’m chauffeuring, the boys are in the back seat talking up a storm. The subject was movies; specifically, movies on video that they’d seen (because, of course, these were the days when you actually went to a video store to rent movies!). Now, all these years later I don’t recall what movie it was they were talking about, but I do remember one of the boys asking Jake if he’d seen this particular film. “No,” Jake replies, “Mom and Dad won’t let me see that one.”
I swear to you, friends, at that moment a hush fell over that mini-van, as if some horrible, never to be spoken secret had suddenly been revealed! And w was silence for a long moment until finally one of them asks – quietly, of course, so Mr. Lowry won’t hear – “Why won’t your mother and father let you see that movie?” To which my son – my beloved first-born – answers with a tone of derision and utter disgust in his voice, “Oh, in our house we have standards!”
Well, so much for being the cool Dad! I recall hearing that from the front seat and trying very, very hard not to laugh, but I also remember thinking at the time that at least the message that Lisa and I had tried to impart to our son had been received and understood, albeit reluctantly!
Now, if you “tuned in” to last Sunday’s online message for Mother’s Day, you’ll recall that we talked about the “hand-me-downs” of life and faith – both positive and negative – that we inevitably pass on to our children and grandchildren largely by our own example. But that having been said, it also seems to me that so many of the values that we hope for the next generations to embrace are not received automatically or without further effort; in other words, they need to be taught! The development of a good moral character that’s revealed in one’s ethical behavior and decision making; living unto the virtues of honesty and fairness; courage and loyalty; commitment and the willingness to work hard: all of these things happen in people because of those – parents and family members, primarily, but others as well – who teach it by word and example. And this is what we want for our children: we want them to make good choices for themselves and their families; to set their sights high and never sell themselves short, nor sell themselves out; to set for themselves the highest possible standards for their lives and living. That’s why just about every parent worth their salt at some point in their upbringing will end up saying to those children some variation on the truth that just because “everybody else in the class is doing it,” that doesn’t make it right for you; and that even though society, pop culture and Netflix proclaim certain pathways to be acceptable, popular and prosperous, that doesn’t make it so!
So yes, though our kids – of whatever age (!) – might view it with some skepticism, sarcasm and even rebellion, living with “standards” is a good thing! But make no mistake; it is rarely – for them, or for us, for that matter – the easy thing. Whether the difficulty arises out of some measure of so-called “peer pressure,” or if it’s out of you and I seeking to maintain personal integrity and some dignity in amidst all the conflicting points of view in this divided world, the challenge is the same. “Living with standards” means that your life will more often than not will be spent standing against the world; so that in a very real way you will be in the world, but not of the world.
And nowhere will that be more true than in living the life of faith.
Our text for this morning, the last in this year’s season of Eastertide, brings us back again to the so-called “farewell discourses” of Jesus found in John’s gospel, words of comfort and promise and power spoken just prior to the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. And in fact, the words we’ve shared today actually constitute a prayer; a series of petitions to God the Father for the sake of the church’s mission. You see, in these final moments Jesus realized that a distinctive community – that is, the church – had already been created by hearing the word, knowing the truth and in believing; but Jesus also understood that this new church would need protection… from the world.
Now, understand that when Jesus speaks of “the world,” he’s not merely referring to the political or even the religious powers that be; he’s talking about all in this world that’s arrayed against the true God, the world that would reject the truth of Christ and would move to crucify God’s own son. Jesus recognized that this same “world” that hated him would also hate his followers: “the world has hated them,” he prays, “because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” And so Jesus prays that though this church that he has gathered together will most certainly be in the world with all that that implies, they will not be of the world; that in all things they will be they will be “sanctif[ied]… in the truth,” because God’s “word is truth,” and, by the way, that “they may all be one” as God and Jesus are one. Jesus’ prayer is for a church – and the people who encompass that church – that will live in the same manner as that of Jesus: distinctively loving, purposefully healing, adhered to kingdom teaching, and willfully at odds with a world that neither worships nor understands the one true God.
By its very creation and definition, that’s how we’re gathered – that’s who you and I are – as the church of Jesus Christ! What that means is that as Christians, as disciples of our Lord Jesus, we live out our lives in this world, and yet we are never to become too comfortable, or at rest or peace in this world. We are meant to live with an on-going tension of our having been called to a higher standard of living, the standard of love exemplified in Jesus that then is mirrored in us: reflected in the words we use, the choices we make for ourselves, and the actions we take in this world. To live as a Christian in this world means witnessing, sharing and embodying the good news of Jesus Christ; but moreover, it means not living unto the subtle but powerful pressures put upon us by a world that neither knows nor honors Christ.
And that’s often a struggle… and if you’ve ever found yourself at odds with others because of your faith, then you know what I mean.
Once, when I was in high school, I entered a local “Voice of Democracy” contest, which if I remember correctly, was sponsored by the VFW and involved writing and recording a personal essay on patriotism. Well, at the time I was very much into the glories of nature at that time and so I chose to write this very impassioned elegy to the natural beauty of America and who it had inspired me as an American citizen. And I closed the essay with words something to the effect of, “And I thank God for it.” (I know… I was always the preacher!)
But after I passed in the essay, the next day, the English teacher in charge of the competition called me into his classroom after school, and said to me, “You know, this is a good essay, but you need to take out that last line about God.” I asked why, and he said that it didn’t belong and that it made the essay too sweet and sappy. But it’s what I believe, I said, and he replied that that was all well and good, but it still didn’t belong in the essay; this wasn’t a sermon, after all! So, he said, if I was going to enter this contest, I should take the line out.
Well, I went home and thought a lot about that. And I would like to tell you that it was all for the sake of religious freedom, but it probably had more to do with 16-year-old bravado… and when the time came to record the essay for the perusal of the judges from the VFW, I left the line “and I thank God for it” in the speech.
And… I won. First prize!
Now, I will also tell you in all honesty, I never sought nor expected that teacher to recant his earlier opinion… but I’ll never forget what he said when the VFW came to school to award the prize. He said, “Congratulations. I still don’t think it belonged in the speech.”
Truth be told, it was not my first taste of being in, but not of, the world, nor would it be my last, by a long shot! And I am sure that in small, and perhaps even in large, life-changing ways, you could describe similar experiences in your own life. Because you know what; one of the fundamental misunderstandings of the Christian church, especially in this country and in these times, is that we somehow exist as the mainstream. The church has never been the mainstream: the church has always existed out there in the fringes of society, culture and the places of worldly power; the church has always been “out of the loop” where trendiness and socio-political correctness is concerned; offensive to a world that places so much value on power and prestige. By being adopted on this journey called discipleship, Christians are fated to be permanently “ill at ease” with this world in which we live! It is as the fabled British writer and commentator Malcom Muggeridge, himself a long-time skeptic who was led to belief, once wrote in a prayer: “The only ultimate disaster that can befall us is to feel ourselves to be at home here on earth. As long as we are aliens we cannot forget our true homeland which is that other kingdom [that Jesus himself] proclaimed.”
We are in, but not of, this world.
We are called to a higher standard than that of the world’s ways and means; we are called to the highest standard, that of the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Living out of that love can be hard work at times, and will involve some struggle. But the good news is that even as we struggle, Jesus prays for us. Jesus, who more than anyone else, understands the difficulties under which we live, and intercedes for us that we might be guarded and protected from the world’s power and influence. And it’s that kind of abiding presence and strength that gives us the courage to truly be his disciples, and collectively to be the church.
I don’t know what, for you, the rest of this day will bring. Nor can I begin to predict the kind of challenges that will be yours in the coming week; after the past couple of weeks in our own family, one thing I can definitely say is that life, and its challenges, are unpredictable. I cannot say how’ll you’ll be confronted by the world and its priorities. But I do know this: if you go into this new week with the prayers of Jesus and blessing of God, you will have what it will take to be in the world, but not of it… so that the world will not overcome the light of the gospel in your life, and that that light will shine brightly in every type of darkness.
May we go forth in that knowledge, and may our thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.