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“And They’ll Know We Are Christians…”

(a sermon for May 19, 2019, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, based on John 13:31-35)

I first read about this a number of years ago, and apparently these days it’s a growing trend: several medical schools across the country are actually adding to its curriculum classes in something called “Medical Improv.”

What we’re talking about here are, in fact, acting classes in which medical students are taught theater arts and the skills necessary to improvise a scene; all this so that these new doctors might learn to  choose their words and gestures deliberately and have their interactions with patients become more empathetic, compassionate and thoughtful.  And furthermore, this according to an article in USA Today, “as accomplished actors, physicians who find themselves too swamped, stressed-out and suspicious to really feel any compassion for their patients can at least act like they care.”

Now, lest you think I’m simply picking on the medical profession, this article goes on to suggest that similar courses of study could easily be developed for all sorts of helping professions (I don’t know about you, but I can think of lot of occupations where this might apply!); jobs where the stress level is such that often the people in those occupations begin to distance themselves emotionally from the people they’re caring for, so often to the detriment of the care receiver.  In all seriousness, the hope is that by taking acting lessons these caregivers will be taught to respond as if they are emotionally connected to the people they’re helping; even if the best they can do at first is to simply to go through the motions.  Is it a case of, “Fake it till you make it?”  Maybe; but the idea is that perhaps, eventually, they’ll come to realize what they’ve been missing and genuinely feel the compassion and care that up till then they’ve only been acting out!

Actually, when you think about it, it’s not all that bad an idea; and I dare say it speaks to an issue far deeper than distracted physicians and grumpy tech support specialists!  The fact is, we are living in a world in which the predominant culture has become so busy, so fast-paced, so focused in the quest for achievement and yet so utterly impersonal in the effort that things like simple human compassion and care risks becoming displaced by the overwhelming nature of life and the drive to get things done!  Moreover, we often make decisions and set priorities – as persons and as a people – without any real concept of how our actions will affect others; we have let our differences of opinion not only divide us but weaponized us;  we have allowed the miracle of technology to become a poor substitute for true communication and as an excuse for not actually talking – or more to the point, listening – to one another; and we have sought to give our families the best of everything but in the process have neglected to teach them about the things in life that truly matter: honesty; integrity; respect for others, especially those who are different from us or with whom we disagree; and a clear sense of right and wrong.  In short, ours is a world where love is not always the operative choice; and make no mistake, what with all its own squabbles and divisions the church is not wholly immune to this, either.  Truly, what Jonathan Swift said back in 1711 sadly often still holds true today: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but no enough to make us love one another.”

Understand, friends, that I say all this not to sound overly morose on a Sunday morning, but to suggest to you this morning that this idea of learning how to be “acting out the love” might well be in order, in the fervent hope that such love will take root in the darkest places of our lives so that it might grow and become genuine.  Indeed, given all that it’s up against in these times, the chance of true love prevailing might well seem unlikely; but then, that’s always been the nature of love, isn’t it: something good and positive and life-changing bursting forth in the face of the unknown. As someone has aptly said, “Genuine love always leaps before it looks.”

And friends, I think that this is what Jesus was talking about when he said to his disciples, “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.”

It’s interesting to note that even though in the church we are very much still in the midst of our Eastertide celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, our text for this morning takes us back to that fateful night of betrayal and desertion, what we know as Maundy Thursday. So at this point in the passion story, Jesus has already spoken about the certainty of his death, he’s already foretold Judas’ betrayal and in an act of humble servitude he’s washed the disciples feet. The crucifixion is less than 24 hours away now, so in everything that Jesus says from here on out there’s this palpable sense of closure; particular in what he has to say to the ones who have been closest to him along the journey, his disciples.  And that’s understandable; after all, he’d been together with this group of twelve for nearly three years, and they would be the ones who would need to carry on after he was gone.  So not only were these essentially words of farewell, but as John relates the story it’s Jesus sharing just a few last words to them that could somehow communicate the wholeness of God’s plan. This goes on for a couple of chapters in John and is often referred to by Biblical scholars as the “Farewell Discourses,” but what’s interesting is that it begins with something very basic: that they should love one another!

Now, at least as they first heard it, this would have been a word very familiar to the disciples’ ears.  Even though Jesus referred to it as a “new” commandment, as faithful Jews the disciples already knew that the law came down to loving God and loving neighbor; as another teacher of Jesus’ time, Rabbi Hillel, had observed, “the rest was commentary.” So of course, Jesus; we should love one another.

But here’s the thing; Jesus wasn’t finished.  Jesus goes on to say, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  And that was something altogether different. By adding this, Jesus was putting his disciples on notice that words of love alone won’t do the job; neither will simply and mindlessly adhering to some loose guidelines of fair play.  No… you are to love one another as I have loved you.  You’re to love with your whole heart; you’re to love with a firm commitment that translates to the way life is actually lived; you’re to love with action that is self-giving and self-sacrificial; you’re to love in ways that demonstrate healing and forgiveness and the utter willingness to offer up your own life if by doing so love will be demonstrated.

You are to love and to live… just like Jesus did.

And, friends… it still applies.  In fact, I would say to you that these four little verses in John’s gospel, almost incidental in their placement amidst the larger story of that fateful night, pretty much says everything we need to know about who we are as Christians and as the church.

What we need to remember from this text is that Jesus did not offer up these words as a casual suggestion, nor even as a credo attached to church membership; this was and is a true commandment for those who would follow Jesus.  As his disciples, we are expected to love one another as Jesus has loved us; truly, we are known as Jesus’ disciples by our love.  It’s not that we won’t fail in the endeavor; indeed, we have failed and we will again (as a cartoonist by the name of Jim Wetzstein has opined, it’s a “good thing that Jesus didn’t say, ‘I’ll love you the way you love one another.’ Because, man, then we’d be in trouble!”), but Jesus is clear that we can’t give up on the effort! What you and I do out of love, whatever we seek to do out of love – even when it falls short of the mark – ends up speaking volumes to the world about the one who has loved us, about Jesus Christ; our love brings Jesus Christ to a disconnected world.  Because love does not happen in a vacuum; just as we understand that a child cannot learn to be kind without having experienced kindness, the love of Jesus Christ is something that needs to be passed on from person to person, life to life, heart to heart.

But by the same token, in order to show this love of Jesus it follows that we need to have received it as our own.  And that’s why it’s crucial, especially in this world and life that has become increasingly disconnected from the kind of genuine love that finds its expression in true faith, that you and I be about the business of actively seeking out the kind of life that puts Christ at the center of it!  Do you remember the old story about the man who over the course of several years, worked to carve an elephant out of a big boulder in his front yard?  The neighbors kept asking him not only how he could possibly create something like that out of something as immovable and unchangeable as a rock, but also how he could keep at it for so long; and his answer was, “Well, I just chipped away at everything in that boulder that didn’t look like an elephant; and once that was gone, there it was!”

Well, likewise in a world where we’re literally surrounded and bombarded by that which would seek to pull us away from love and keep us from Christ’s presence in our lives, we need to keep chipping away at anything that doesn’t look like Jesus.  We need to get rid of the anger, and the hatred, and the prejudice and the envy that’ll fester in our hearts given the slightest opportunity; we need to let go of the old hurts, the past regrets and the lingering guilt that holds us back and keeps us from moving ahead with life; and we need to do away with anything in our lives that doesn’t look or feel like love. Because it’s only in doing that we can truly receive the love that Jesus has to give us, and thus be able to share it with the world.

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  What an incredible thing it is to be known by our love; how wonderful to be recognized by all those around us as Christ’s true disciples because of our love.  And what a joy to belong to a community of faithful followers – the church itself – that is girded on such love. Love, you see, has the effect of transforming everything we do: in love, our children are instilled with a sense of well-being that they carry throughout the whole of their own lives and bring as a legacy to their own children and grandchildren; in love a spirit of true unity and acceptance grows where once there was division and exile; in love comes the awareness that every word, every deed, every decision made has the power to hurt or to heal, but that doesn’t matter because healing is the first and only priority.  In love, you and I are made true disciples of Jesus; can you imagine what could be done for Jesus’ sake? Can you envision what the world and our lives could be by God’s grace and by our love?

Well, I’m here to tell you this morning that it begins with… acting it out.  As I said before, it begins by loving and living… just like Jesus did.

What a shame that something as defining as faith we so often do by rote; how sad to find ourselves merely going through the motions.  The Christian life – our Christian life – is never meant to be anything less than our embracing of the whole power and wonder of life and living!  How horrible it would be to wake up in the morning and not say that “this is the day the Lord has made,” and not rejoice and be glad in it?  What a tragedy it would be for us not to seize that day for the sake of the Lord in loving one another as Jesus has loved us.

Friends, they will know we are Christians by our love.

Let us make sure that we show them who we are… by our love.

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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Posted by on May 19, 2019 in Church, Discipleship, Easter, Jesus, Love, Sermon

 

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Filled With the Fragrance

(a sermon for April 7. 2019, the 5th Sunday in Lent, based on John 12:1-8)

The smell of a field of wildflowers in summer, or of a pine forest in early springtime…  

…that distinct whiff of a breeze coming off the ocean at low tide;

…the aroma of baking bread,  an apple pie fresh out of the oven, and, oh yes, the turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day (!);

…the distinct fragrance of wood smoke coming from cedar kindling burning in the fireplace;

…even the faintest scent of the perfume that your grandmother used to wear, or of the “Sir Walter Raleigh” pipe tobacco that was your father’s favorite back in the day;

…sometimes that’s all it takes!  Years and years may pass; you might live a thousand miles away, and maybe it even involves people and memories that you haven’t thought about in… forever!  But then, you’re out somewhere and catch one whiff that one familiar smell… and you’re back: back at Grammie and Grampie’s house when you were just a little kid; back at the hunting camp “shooting the bull” with your father; back out on the beach watching your own children running around, dodging the seagulls and building sand castles. You know what I’m talking about here; for each one of us, there are bound to be some specific fragrances that we forever associate with special times, places and people!

And it’s no mere sentimentality; there’s actually scientific precedent for this.  People who study such things tell us that while the memory of words and logic and data go to the so-called “thinking” part of the brain, the memories involved with our five senses – most especially the sense of smell – go to the emotional part of the brain which is known as the amygdala. That’s why the smell of certain foods will always remind us of home; and that’s why even the hint of that one long forgotten but oh-so familiar fragrance brings back a lingering, very precious memory of that loved one and of what he or she meant to us.  What happens in such a moment, you see, is that the fragrance enters the nostrils, but then it fills the heart.

Actually, you know, in reading our text for this morning, I wonder if, years later, there was a moment when Mary – perhaps she was out in the marketplace gathering food for the day and there was this lingering scent from someone on the street who passed by her, or maybe there was just the fleeting aroma of something, someone off in the distance – I wonder if suddenly Mary stopped, breathed in deeply, and then said to herself, “Jesus…”  I wonder if there was a time when Lazarus – himself having experienced what it was to have been brought from death to life – if he again smelled that perfume and remembered where that glory had come from and who had brought it forth.  Or, for that matter, what about Martha, busily serving her guests at the house in Bethany, or the other disciples who were no doubt nearby when Mary broke the alabaster jar and began to anoint Jesus’ feet; was there a time when they once again smelled the sweet smell of perfume that filled the room that day and thus immediately were transported back to the scene, perhaps lost in the memory and sighing a bit as they remembered; perhaps even whispering aloud, “Oh yes… that was the beginning, wasn’t it?”

Like I said before, sometimes the fragrance is all it takes to truly remember.

The thing about this passage from John’s gospel is that it’s deceptively simple.  Coming as it does after the raising of Lazarus and just before the “Triumphal Entry” of Palm Sunday, this account of a dinner at Lazarus’ house almost seems like a bit of exposition; a transition, if you will, into the events of the last week of Jesus’ life.  I mean, on the face of it, it’s a dinner party, isn’t it; and with everything that implies:  good food and conversation shared amongst friends; hospitality to the “max” courtesy of the ever-diligent Martha, and a warm, relaxed atmosphere that lingers well into the night.  But then this thing happens that nobody’s expecting: Mary takes this container of perfume made of pure nard – which, by the way, is this very aromatic amber-colored oil derived from plants grown in the Himalayas, of all places; and which was so expensive that scholars estimate that it not only represented a year’s worth of wages in Jesus’ day, but in today’s currency might have had a value of as much as $10,000 (!) – and then proceeds to pour out the lot of it (likely a pint or so) so that she might anoint Jesus’ feet, wiping the excess oil and its perfume with her long, flowing hair!

It is a gesture as extravagant – and as sensual – as it sounds; John, in fact, makes a distinct point of saying that in this moment Lazarus’ “house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”  And it’s an amazing moment; though, in all fairness, it’s also a bit confusing.  First of all, why wouldn’t Mary simply wash Jesus’ feet, as was customary in terms of offering hospitality to one’s guests?  And if she were going to be anointing Jesus, why anoint his feet rather than his head (it’s worth noting, by the way, that in Matthew and Mark’s version of this story, it is Jesus’ head that’s anointed with this precious perfume, which makes Mary’s actions here all the more striking)?  And quite honestly, wasn’t what Mary did there rather impulsive and more than just a little exorbitant?  John does make it very clear here about Judas’ questionable motives in making his comment about how the money wasted by such an act could have benefited the poor; yet in all honesty, we can scarcely blame him for casting doubt on Mary’s good sense!  Admittedly, the whole thing does come off as a bit over the top, if not totally unnecessary… as the question becomes, why?  What was Mary doing?

Well, part of our answer comes from Jesus himself:  “’Leave her alone,’” Jesus says in response to Judas’ angry dismissal of what Mary has done. “’She bought it…’” (that is, this very costly perfume) “’…so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.’”  She bought it for his burial!  That’s very interesting; because not only would this explain the anointing of Jesus’ feet as opposed to his head (since in Jesus’ time, the anointing of a body for burial always began with the hands and feet, those places where the signs of death are often first detected), but it also suggests that Mary knew what was coming.  The Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt, in a pair of commentaries she’s written on this passage, writes that “Mary may have been the only disciple in the room who truly comprehended what was to come in the next days. And while one would be hard pressed to say that Mary was comfortable with this certainty that Jesus would die,” nonetheless, she anoints his feet as was – or would soon be – the custom.  “Perhaps there also was nothing else for Mary to do by then,” Hunt goes on to say.  “Perhaps this was all that was left – for her to kneel before Jesus, anoint his feet, and then to wipe them with her hair.  Perhaps there was nothing more for her to do but to do as she did: holding herself still in the deep acknowledgement of the gift of the one who was right before her.”

And so it was; this gesture of true faith, of exorbitant, extravagant, grace-filled act of utter thankfulness and of truly sacrificial love, offered up in fullness in anticipation of an infinitely greater sacrifice to come… and not only was the room was filled with its beautiful fragrance but also and most especially by an all-encompassing awareness of what it represented. In one sense, it was a memory yet to be! It’s no wonder that in Matthew’s account of this story, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (26:13)  And so it was.

So, friends, how about you?  Do you remember?

I think it’s safe to say that our particular tradition of faith does not usually include the fragrance of candles or burning incense as part of our shared experience of worship; in fact, I must confess that quite often what I smell the most up here on a Sunday morning is coffee brewing out in the Fellowship Hall!  No, our “act and attitude” of worship and devotion tends toward the sense of sight and sound, along with the occasional tender touch of care and compassion; and, might I add, on a Sunday such as this, the taste of a piece of broken bread and a sip of wine from a shared cup.  So maybe this room isn’t overflowing with the scent of $10,000 perfume; but that doesn’t mean it isn’t filled with the fragrance of love.  It’s there in our remembrance of what Mary did in that act of singular devotion; it’s there in the memory of how Jesus turned his heart toward Jerusalem and willingly submitted himself to death – even death on a cross (!) – so that we might have life abundant and eternal because “God so loved the world.” (John 3:16)  It’s there as we offer up our own precious gifts of faith and love for the sake of that world and of the people whom our Lord loves beyond measure and in a way unending.  And it’s there in in our worship and praise of the one who gave his all to us; in the words of Dennis Ignatius, Malaysian ambassador and Pentecostal Christian, “When we lift our hands in praise and worship, we break spiritual jars of perfume over Jesus.  The fragrance of our praise fills the whole earth and touches the heart of God.”

I like to think that as we worship together, as we sing songs of faith and love, as we pray for another and for a hurting world, what we do breaks spiritual jars of perfume in this place!  And I hope and pray that the same  will happen now as we come to our moment of “holy” communion; it’s time for our table meal with the Lord, that we somehow experience his presence in bread and wine, perchance to truly remember the sacrifice that he has made – and continues to make – on our behalf.  As we so often do in this congregation, in a moment we will sing, we’ll pray, we’ll pass the plate from person to person as we take and eat and drink, and we’ll be thankful for what we’ve been given… but the best part of it all?  As we do, the air around us will be filled with the sweet fragrance of his love and power; a fragrance that we pray will linger in our hearts and lives today and tomorrow and on every day that comes; a fragrance that will continue to remind us that we are ever and always loved.

So breathe it in, beloved; breathe it all in…

And may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2019 in Communion, Jesus, Lent, Love, Sermon

 

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