Grace Lutheran Church, Lily Lake
6 May 2018 + Easter 6B
“I am a failure at prayer” …so writes Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor. And, I have to confess: So am I. Like Taylor, I have more books on prayer and spiritual practices in my home library than I know what to do with. I have taken classes and even led workshops on spiritual practices. No practice I try seems to “stick” for longer than a few weeks.
I am, it seems, especially bad at silence and sitting still. Last year, I attended a workshop on centering prayer during a daylong retreat. It’s a lovely practice, in theory: sitting in silence, eyes closed, doing and thinking about nothing for twenty minutes, just dwelling in the presence of God, the idea being to re-center yourself by the end. All I could think of: When will this be over?!
“Abide in my love,” Jesus says in today’s gospel. It’s so simple: just abide, dwell, sit, be in the promise and presence of the love of Jesus. But we don’t do this abiding-in-love thing very well, do we? Sure, we like to talk about it. We might sing “Jesus loves me, this I know” in Sunday School, but when it comes to actually practicing it and living it, I think, more often than not, we fail to fully realize what it means, how profound of a promise it really is. So what gets in the way of abiding in the love of Jesus?
On the one hand, there are the things we do to ourselves: We don’t let ourselves abide in that love. Maybe we don’t think we’re “worthy” enough of Jesus’s love, that we don’t deserve it, distrusting the promise and doubting our own self-worth, doubting the certainty of God’s grace. Or maybe we just don’t think we have enough time to abide, to dwell, to sit, to be. Ours is a culture that is so often individualistic, competitive, consumeristic, fast-paced, where our worth is determined by how much we can accomplish and not simply by who we are.
In her poem “Prayer,” Marie Howe captures this perpetual dilemma. Listen to this excerpt:
Every day I want to speak with you. And every day something more important
calls for my attention…
Even now I can hardly sit here…
Why do I flee from you?…
Even as I write these words I am planning
to rise from the chair as soon as I finish this sentence.
There’s always something more important, or so it seems. Things that call us away, make it impossible to just sit and be, to abide in the love of Jesus. Distractions about growing to-do lists, worries about getting everything just right, tending to strained or broken relationships, anxiety over illness or unemployment…
There are also two sides to every coin: Not only do we have a problem abiding-in-love ourselves; we seem to project that on others. We especially haven’t done a very good job of proclaiming the promise of abiding-in-love as the church. Sure, we might say “all are welcome,” but do we really mean that, all the time? All are welcome, we say, except… those people. People we’d rather not think about, let alone have sit next to us in the pews, whose political views or social identities differ from what we believe or think is acceptable. People we ourselves have determined are somehow outside the bounds of abiding in the love of Jesus. And so we set up systems of exclusion and oppression.
Recently, I’ve been reading a collection of writings by Joel Workin, a seminary student at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. In a sermon preached to his internship congregation, Joel addressed head-on the widespread misconception that persons living with AIDS were something to be afraid of and to be avoided at all costs — those people, he writes in his sermon, like the tax collectors and sinners Jesus dared to eat with, much to the chagrin of the Pharisees. Such persons faced a very real sense of alienation, perhaps most especially in the church. They were told: you don’t belong here, you are outside the bounds of abiding in the love of Jesus. In the midst of this, Joel’s prophetic word was profound: Persons with AIDS are not people to be afraid of. “We don’t need to run away,” he says. “We can, we must stay with them, eat with them, just as Jesus ate with those people.”
Exclusion and alienation is not the message of Jesus. Not for persons living with AIDS at the height of the epidemic, not for anyone told by the church they are “less than,” not for anyone who feels for any reason they are undeserving or don’t have time for abiding in the love of Jesus.
“Abide in my love” is a promise, plain and simple, no strings attached. It is the assurance of Jesus’s presence to be with us no matter what.
Jesus’s words in this gospel reading come at the heart of what biblical scholars call the “farewell discourse,” the last words of Jesus to his disciples before he is betrayed, put on trial, and sentenced to death by crucifixion. Already the disciples know one of them will betray Jesus, and they’re getting the sense that the hour when Jesus will leave them is getting closer. But Jesus meets their anxiety with words of reassurance: He calls them friends for the first time — a new way of understanding the fellowship they all shared together, a sense of mutual dependence and trust for getting through life in Jesus’s absence.
Friends, Jesus says, I chose you — reminiscent of Jesus’s earlier call to the twelve, here a reminder of that chosen-ness. Or in one paraphrase: “You are here. With me. Now is not the time to wonder whether or not you should be here, are meant to be here, are worthy to be here” (Karoline Lewis). You are here.
Friends, chosen by Jesus, who exist in a community of love, rooted first in the love between Jesus and his Father, extending ever outward, as an act of intimacy between God and all of us. This is what it means to abide in the love of Jesus. It requires nothing of us: We love because God first loved us. God’s love flows to us, through us, and from us.
In John’s gospel, we hear the promise of abiding-in-love from the Word made flesh, the Word who makes his dwelling among us, the Word who abides with us and we in him.
Over and over, the promise of love is not an abstract concept but a real, tangible experience. We feel the water on our forehead from the font. We taste the bread and wine at this table. We hear the word proclaimed in our midst. We experience the presence of our neighbors in our communities. In all of this, we receive the invitation and the promise of the risen Christ: “Abide in my love.” Just be, just as you are, no strings attached. Thanks be to God.