Sunday, April 24, 2016

Simple and Easy

Simple and Easy from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Revelation 21:1-6
1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people's, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning a crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."

5And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." 6Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life."

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

John 13:31-35
31When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.

33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going, you cannot come.' 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

So I'm driving home from the church one night a couple of weeks ago. I'm listening to NPR. It's one of those long-form shows where they spend twenty minutes or so tracking down a story in depth. This particular story was about the wonders of the human mind.

They were interviewing a retired physicist who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. One of the diagnostic tools for that disorder is a clock. "Take a pen and paper," the doctor might ask, "and draw a clock that says it's 11:05." Sounds like a pretty easy task. Draw a circle, add some letters, draw lines in the right place. Easy. Most of us have been reading clocks, telling time, since early elementary school.

But this man, for all his background in physics, for all his years as a professor, teaching advanced mathematics, could not do it. What he could do, it turned out, was figure out why his mind could no longer make a clock.

As miles floated beneath my truck, I listened with fascination as this obviously brilliant man explored why he couldn't tell time. "You're reading three levels of information" he observed. When we look at the clock, the hand that catches our eye first is the longer one. But that's the second one we read, the long hand is the minute hand, the short one, confusingly called the "big hand" do to its width rather than its length, tells you the first piece of information. The hour hand points at the big numbers, the minute hand, though, counts by 5s. So when it points to the "1" it really means "5."

Telling time may be easy for most of us, but easy and simple don't mean the same thing. The man in the NPR story couldn't tell time, but he was eventually able to understand why the easy task was not at all simple.

Jesus's commandment is simple. "Love one another." It's nowhere near as complicated as telling time and whether or not the preacher's been talking for too long.

Too bad simple and easy don't mean the same thing.

After all, can you imagine a world where those who follow Jesus simply love one another? Not even going outside our own community to our neighbors, which, by the way, still a commandment.

Christian history includes some chapters we might rather forget. In Ireland, one kind of Christian systematically oppressed another kind, who in turn resorted to violence out of frustration that no one was listening to them. In South Africa, one kind of Christian lifted themselves above another group to preserve their own position out of fear.

In another century, we spent thirty years in wars that carved up the European countryside, just because one village or another was the wrong kind of Christian. Further back than that, Crusaders sacked Christian cities in Eastern Europe, or allowed them to fall to other invaders, just because they were the wrong kind of Christian.

Here in the South, most of us remember a time when even as specific a group as Presbyterians were separated along the lines we drew back during the Civil War. The Northern church and the Southern church didn't get back together until 1983.

Of course, we're the exception. This church has always acted with flawless love, right? We've got to look at church history for examples of Christians not loving each other because there aren't any examples of us failing to love one another. Right? It's got nothing to do with the fact that it's gentler to hear and easier to deal with if we can hold it at arms length. Right? Right...

Jesus's new commandment to love one another is simple, but I'd imagine if it were easy we'd have made a habit of it by now. "How embarrassing it is for many of us who call ourselves Christians that... we have found so many other ways to identify true believers and often have a hard time putting this commandment into practice even in our own family lives" We can track it through Christian history, but we can also look to it in our own families, and our congregation.

Jesus speaks, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another." Simple. Too bad simple and easy don't mean the same thing.

But despite our very human failings, there is always grace. On our best days, we struggle to follow this new commandment. On our worst days, we don’t even try. Yet irrespective of our efforts and failures, the one who is sitting on the throne is still making all things new. No matter how many times we fail to enact even the simplest commandment, these words are trustworthy and true: It is done, for the LORD is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we may. The LORD has got the final outcome already in hand, and we don’t need to worry. The end is in God’s hands, when “the home of God is among mortals.” Not even our many missteps can stop God’s will from being done. For what has proved impossible for mortals is the easiest thing in the world for God.

That’s why Jesus’s explanation of the love commandment is based on his own love for us. Love that will not let us go. Love that shines brightly in the darkness. Love that is glorified in the shame and suffering of the cross, in the abandonment of the grave, and brought to fullness in the resurrection. We are little ones who are weak, but we know that Jesus is strong.

The love of Jesus Christ is such that “he will dwell with [mortals]; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;” 

The love Jesus has for us is more than a model or a moral influence. The love Jesus has for us enables and empowers us to love one another according to this new commandment. The love that we share with one another is an expression of the grace we have in Jesus Christ.

It is because we are transformed by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we are able to live a commandment of love. Moments when this congregation, and individual members in it, have chosen love over judgment, love over division, love over our own self-interest. We can remember the times we’ve failed, but those are just bad habits we’re trying to break. Our identity as a community is built upon the commandment to love one another. That’s who we are. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

After all, there are a lot of other ways we might wish Jesus had identified us, because they’re easier…

I give you a new commandment: that you bring everyone’s favorite recipe to church covered-dish meals… that you volunteer to help make chicken pot pies every month… that you sign up to feed the youth… that you have a particular political stance… that you live, or look, or love a certain way… that you join in social justice issues…that you stand with traditional values…that you let others do what works for them…

But we got the simple, yet difficult commandment instead. “Love one another.” The Son of Man who has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him, has commanded us to make sure that every action we take, including some of those I’ve just mentioned, is the content of loving one another.

We've got some challenges to face in the years ahead of us. We're in the midst of a financial challenge right now, but we're already starting to address it and grow into it. 

The days are surely coming when we will have to wrestle with what it means to belong to this church, as lifelong members blend with new families. We'll have to share some of the responsibility with new folks, to learn from them even as we teach them who we are. 

The days are surely coming when we'll struggle to figure out how to engage with a changing culture in ways that honor our tradition and history. We'll find new ways to participate in God's mission while retaining our identity as a particular community.

The days are surely coming when we’ll have to reckon with outcomes we did not expect. We’ll have to give up the idols of what a “successful” church looks like and find ways to be faithful in the place where God is leading us.

But if we face those challenges in ways that first and foremost hold on to our love for one another, we're going to be just fine. God has a firm hold over the outcome of our efforts, our responsibility as a community is to love one another. Just as Christ has loved us, so we are to love one another. In this way people will know that we are Jesus's disciples.

The ancient commandment to love the LORD our God with all our heart, soul, and strength includes the instruction to fix the law, among other places, to our wrists, so that it's always at hand.

The next time you check your wristwatch, remember that simple and easy don't mean the same thing, and remember also the new commandment that we love one another.

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