First Presbyterian Church – Lafayette, LouisianaActs 17:22-32
May 29, 2011 – Easter (6A)
May 29, 2011 – Easter (6A)
1 Peter 3:13-17
How many of you have a word that bothers you – a word that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up and your gut clench a little bit? Anyone care to share his or her word? I have a good friend who feels that way about the word 'pumice', and I don't know why. My word is 'irregardless'. It's a double negation. Though there are those that would defend its usage as satire, I've never heard it used in jest. I've only heard it used to say "without regard," which would simply be regardless.
A word that makes some people a little uncomfortable, especially in church, is intimacy. Consider what images come to mind when I mention the word intimacy. The topic of intimacy or the thought of becoming intimate with someone seems not to apply to church, at least not in our culture – but that is exactly what our scripture passages are about. Intimacy implies particular knowledge between people. It assumes a closeness that comes from shared experiences and events.
Our Gospel lesson speaks of intimacy. It is a portion of the farewell discourse in John's gospel. In the chapter before, Jesus was eating with his disciples – an act of great intimacy – then he got up and washed their feet! Think about how much vulnerability was required of Jesus and the disciples for him to do this.
Then Jesus sends Judas out to betray him and tells the disciples that he is leaving them, but only to prepare a place before coming to get them – and there will be another Advocate to watch over them. All of this is both comforting and cryptic at the same time.
The Advocate is nothing less than God's Holy Spirit – the indwelling presence of God in whom we live and move and have our being. That may be getting a little closer to home, but it's still a strange mix of comforting concepts and cryptic, insider language. Perhaps we would do better to think on our experiences of intimacy and advocacy.
Take a moment to think of a close relationship from your childhood – maybe your first best friend or aunt or uncle. Picture that person's face in your mind. Consider the joy of being known and accepted. For me that person was Kevin King.
I can still remember the feeling of sitting on the edge of the playground. I was the new kid, and Kevin was the first guy to consider me worthy to play with. Being chosen when there is no reason to be chosen sticks with you, and we became the kinds of friends who did not just share common interests. We became the kind of friends who knew and understood each other's character. Intimacy, for us, was not simply sharing our Star Wars toys – it was believing that our toys were more fun to play with when we played with them together. Kevin taught me about intimacy.
Another friend of ours, Bindul Shaw, taught me about advocacy. Bindul's parents were from India, and their home was a most hospitable place. I loved learning about their culture and sharing his friendship. One day on the way in from recess I referred to Bindul, quite proudly, as my 'Indian friend.' He said, "I'm not an Indian." I thought he was messing with me, so I said, "Yes you are, your parents are from India!" With a very serious face this 3rd grade boy looked me in the eye and said, "My parents were born in India, but I was born here. I'm an American. I can be your friend, but I am not your 'Indian' friend." Well - that shut me up, and from then on I knew how to be a friend to others who were not like me. Or at least, I knew what was required to be a friend to others who were not like me. I had to see them for who they were. Bindul, I would even say, taught me what was required to be an advocate for others. If I was to be his friend, it meant that I had to embrace the need to be sure others saw him as my friend – not my "category of person" friend.
Advocacy, like intimacy, requires knowledge of someone else's story. That knowledge inspires a common purpose. That purpose, once realized, creates a sense of vigilance – knowledge, once gained, cannot be ignored.
If we take these ideas of intimacy and advocacy as forms or paradigms, we find that they are reflected in the law that is written on our hearts, and even a madman can sometimes express them. John – the Choir Director, not the Gospel writer nor the madman – and I were talking the other day about a choral piece I heard at a Chorale Acadienne performance. It was based on the poem Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart while in an asylum. In 1943 Benjamin Britten took this poem written by a man reflecting on God's presence while in the grips of mental illness and and formed it into the choral work known as Rejoice In The Lamb. I've asked Sue Turner to share a portion of this cantata to demonstrate how powerful the ideas of intimacy and advocacy can be.
For the Mouse is a creature
Of great personal valor.
For this is a true case--
Cat takes female mouse,
Male mouse will not depart,
but stands threat'ning and daring.
"If you will let her go,
I will engage you,
As prodigious a creature as you are."
For the Mouse is a creature.
Of great personal valor.
For the Mouse is of
An hospitable disposition.
Thank you, Sue! Of course the more traditional phrase is to ask if you are a man (or woman) or a mouse. Here, on this Memorial Day weekend, we are reminded – albeit by a madman and a mouse – of the idea of self-sacrifice and valor. Here we are reminded of what it means to live as hospitable creatures, honoring the sacrifices of others through sacrificial living. Here, as in 1 Peter, we are reminded that intimacy and advocacy can get you into trouble.
"Who will hurt you for being nice?" he seems to say, and it sounds almost tongue in cheek when it gets followed with, "if you do suffer for it, consider that a blessing!" What? Suffering is a blessing? Maybe suffering for standing up to the cat gets you points for bravery, but what about suffering just because you look tasty? What about suffering because you have chronic pain? What about suffering because of things that are out of your control? Yes, even then – maybe even especially then.
For the ancient Israelites, items to be used in the temple were blessed and dedicated for one purpose only. Blessing indicates being set aside, being known, being selected. Sometimes this level of selection is something we would rather not have, and I don't mean to say that God is doling out pain and suffering – rather that God is present in all things. Still, the opportunity of suffering can leave you feeling like my friend Ashley.
Several years ago, a group of friends went mountain bike riding. They got a little separated on the trail. The lead bikers waited for the rest to join, but Ashley never showed up. A couple of bikers from another group passed by and my friends asked if they had seen anyone else on the trail. They said, "Oh, you mean that woman who is screaming prayers to Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Kali and anyone else who will listen?"
That was Ashley! That was the Athenians – hedging their bets with the unknown God. The monument still exists. You can see it all around in a culture that is hungry for spiritual fulfillment but not interested in religion. I used to think that was simply a cop out. Lately I have come to believe that the church has its own way of hedging its bets.
The church can easily be a place where intimacy is non-existent. It can become a place where experiences are shared, but only with a few. It can become a place where programs are designed (or lamented for when they don't exist) as a way of doing the work of caring without really getting involved with the messiness of relationships.
The church can also be a place where members call and check in on those who do not show up. I know of a member who calls another homebound member every night, whether there is anything to say or not. I know a member who gives of his personal resources to support individuals that are truly in need.
I know some members who cannot be here for our community grill suppers, but they donated a grill because they believe in the importance of building relationships with our community. I know a group of people in this congregation that believe in the power of prayer to open us up to God's abiding presence, and so they practice the spiritual discipline of prayer for others every Wednesday.
There are hundreds more stories like these that I barely know. What I do know is this: through Jesus Christ we have been chosen through no merit of our own. By God's grace we are formed into a covenant community, because God has decided that all of creation is more fun when shared with us. Since we have been selected by God and given the gift of God's Holy Spirit, we cannot help but join in the playfulness of God's work to advocate for others, to see them as God sees them – even suffering with them, maybe even suffering because of our love for them.
In the end we find that there is no "us" and "them". There is only God. There is only the opportunity to love as we have been loved, and through God's love become - for someone else - the Advocate that we have received.
For as it was written in the Gospel of John, "They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them."
The God of the universe is longing to be revealed – even through you, even through me. Though there is some sense that this will happen in a final judgment, I would rather hedge my bets by experiencing and demonstrating God's abiding presence here and now. Wouldn't you?
Some will surely scoff at the idea of experiencing God in the here and now. Others will surely say, "We will hear more about this." In all things, may God be glorified by our response to the invitation of the Advocate, no matter how imperfect it may be. Amen, Amen, and again I say, Amen.