Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Post-election sermon

Today, I wanted to share (my best representation of) a sermon I had to give on November 10 at the women’s prison as part of a preaching class.

Half our students are women who live at the prison, half women enrolled at the divinity school. It has been an amazing experience to see how God's call to preach is at work in each of our lives...but that is a story for another day.

On November 9, I was alternating hour by hour between numbness and tears, and the prospect of speaking a word of God the next day, in this context, seemed almost impossible to me. At the eleventh hour, this word came to me by the Spirit and the love of my friends. I share it with you out of a sense that it’s still a relevant, though incomplete, word for our communal work and reflection in the coming days.

Photo by Gage Skidmore
Photo by Gage Skidmore

Today, I’m going to name that I’m standing here before you in grief and in heartbreak. There was an election this week and many are grieving. I don’t think I’ve seen an election in my lifetime where so many people were openly weeping. I have heard friends speak of fear for their own safety and the safety of their families, particularly immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ people. I have heard friends speak of feelings of exclusion.

I also know this is not everyone reality this week, and may not be the reality of everyone sitting here. Some people in our nation today are feeling relieved, even joyful. Some feel that whatever the political realities may be, nothing much changes anyway for the sake of the oppressed. For example, it is true that our nation has been incarcerating beloved children of God and companies have been profiting from this captivity, and that really hasn’t changed over the past couple decades, no matter which party or person has been in power.

I name all this not to divide but because it’s the place in which the Word of God is encountering me today; it's the place from which I bring a testimony of God’s grace today. I hope that this will be a word for all of us, regardless of what is on each of our hearts.


John 13:1-5, 12-15, 34-35
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from the world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him...

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done for you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you...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."

What I find especially remarkable here about Jesus is that, though he knew catastrophe was upon him, though he knew that he was going to die very soon, thought he knew his own friend was going to betray him, he still acted as he did. He drew his own people close to him and loved them to the end.

This is remarkable because Jesus is like us in every respect, fully human. He couldn’t turn off his pain, or fear, or anger. And surely he felt all these. Pain, that this cross was the extent he would have to go to bring God’s love to the world. Fear, of that moment of abandonment coming on the cross. Anger, that his own friend—the one he loved so much taught so much, entrusted with his mission—could misunderstand so severely, and betray him. And yet, having loved his own in the world, he now loved them to the end.

I wonder if he cried as he let the water drip over their feet and wiped it tenderly away. I wonder if, as he scrubbed that dirt between Judas’ toes, he prayed for God to change his heart. I wonder if he was able to look any of them in the eye, knowing they’d soon leave him. Whatever he may have felt, he chose to love. He knew that is what we need, when we come to an end or to a time of testing—to keep serving, touching, loving fiercely, showing one another hospitality in hard times.

And then, he invited them to follow his example, to wash and serve and touch and love fiercely. Jesus says it’s a new commandment, but of course it’s not entirely new. From the earliest revelation of the Old Testament law, one of its cornerstones was to love your neighbor as yourself. Tonight, what’s new is that this love has been enacted before them, and not only in Jesus’ symbolic act of foot washing. Also in Jesus’ incarnation—embodying God for us, coming to be with us and to love us to the end. Also in Jesus’ impending death on the cross—living out the fullness of his love for them.

What he calls the disciples to do in this new commandment is to look to the love he has shown and simply love one another, care for one another.

Sometimes Christians forget to focus on this command, because it seems like love of a softer, easier kind. Jesus also called us to love our enemy. And some of us may be thinking about that now. Loving an enemy—loving one who voted differently, or one who said hateful things about women, perhaps—may seem impossible right now. Let’s hold this command lightly right now, though it is and will be so important in the coming days. Today, Jesus is asking us to love one another.

And then there’s the command to love our neighbor—to love the least of these among us. Some of us may be thinking of this, too. One of the things my husband and I have been particularly worried about for the future is that many of the immigrants in this country will be threatened. The first thing he said to me when we woke up yesterday morning and saw the news, was “We need to pray about what Jesus might call us to do in the next few years. If they start rounding people up, we might need to take someone in. We might need to love our neighbor in a risky way we haven’t done before.” This type of love, too, will be so important. The disciples later on would be called upon to go to jail and prison and be flogged and ridiculed for Jesus. But for today, let's give ourselves grace and time in figuring out what this kind of love will demand from us.

Of course, for some of us, these categories overlap. Loving our enemy may be loving a friend, as it was for Jesus, washing Judas’ feet. Loving the least of these in this time may overlap with loving one another, because surely there are those in our own communities right now who are scared or hurting.

But for a moment, today, let's focus particularly on Jesus command to love one another. Because loving our own community is not easy either, especially in a painful time. It would have been easy for Jesus to be angry and blame his disciples, as he approached his end. And when, two days later, Jesus’ body lay in the ground after a cataclysmic and traumatic 24 hours for the disciples, it would have been the most natural thing in the world for them to play the blame game, too. “Peter, you told those people you didn’t know him? You should’ve stood up for him!” “James, you ran away. You completely deserted him when he needed you!” “How could this even happen? Thomas, you shouldn’t have let us go back to Jerusalem! Why did you hop on board so quickly when he told us it was time to go back to Jerusalem. We could all still be together in Galilee now.”

But the nature of their community in the days following Jesus’ death suggests that they didn’t say these things. Even if they had, they would only each have been trying to cover their own guilty and fear, all the wouldas, couldas, and shouldas in their own minds. Instead, the day after Jesus died, they huddled together in the Upper Room to be with one another. I imagined they cried and told stories and prayed. They loved one another on that dark Saturday because that was what Jesus had commanded them to do. Because of Jesus, they knew the power of simple acts of kindness in dark days.

This is the love that we are called to today. I know, because I’ve been experiencing it. Yesterday, after I crawled out of bed on only a few fitful hours of sleep, tearful and exhausted into my day, I was given so many gifts of grace and hospitality and love. Someone brought donuts to class. Someone hugged me and cried. Someone dragged me to the chapel to pray when I didn’t know if I could. Some friends sat down and ate lunch and told stories. Other friends near and far reached out by phone or email or text. A teacher gave us a silence, and a chance to say simply what we were carrying with us.

The love I have been receiving from those around me has given me light and strength to share love in return, to call friends and family. And even, last night, to find great love in my heart for a person with whom I disagree deeply about this election.

I know that for all of us, no matter how we find ourselves today, there have been days and will be many days ahead where it will feel like an end, where we won’t know how to make sense of our world or step forward in faith. I hope that in these moments, we can learn from the example of Jesus who, at his own end, chose to show love and hospitality and grace to his friends.

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