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Rev. Elizabeth Michael
Preached at University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill, NC
New Testament scholar Frances Taylor Gench offers this short description of Jesus in the gospel of John: “Wordy is the Lamb.” Indeed Jesus is a little loquacious in the fourth gospel. We read today from chapter fifteen, the second of four consecutive chapters that together form Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse.” Some 2700 words this wordy Jesus offers as he shares one final night with his friends. There they are at table, the last morsels of their last meal together still fresh upon their lips, the weight of betrayal and denial heavy in the air. In the distance, the powers of Jerusalem gather under the cover of darkness to set into play the greatest drama the earth has ever known. But here the space is intimate, the mood urgent, the hour at hand. So Jesus gathers these whom he loves, and he begins to talk to them. And among other words he has for them, he offers these:
John 15: 9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
I mentioned Lily Mendoza in a newsletter article some months ago; her words have been working on me still, and so I ask your indulgence in telling you about her again. Dr. Mendoza, now an academic at Oakland University, writes first and foremost as a member of the indigenous peoples of the Philippines. She reflects on what it has meant for her people to emerge from a long history of colonization and to reclaim an identity defined not by subjugation and oppression but by the gifts and wisdom of their one true lineage. She talks about the process of decolonization as a journey out of the clutches of a death-dealing social system and into another, freer, more hopeful world. In order to make this transition, she writes, “It is not enough to see and grieve what is wrong in the world; one also needs to fall in love.”
I hear so many echoes of her words in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, in the narratives of those God is decolonizing from the realm of sin and death and liberating into the kingdom of heaven. God’s is a two-part work of redemption—troubling our contentment with the status quo of a suffering world and offering, in the words of Madeline L’Engle, “a light so lovely [we] want with all [our] hearts to know the source of it.” Not only do we grieve what is wrong; we fall in love with what might yet be.
This two-part work is why the journey from Egypt to Promised Land took so long—God’s people had to lose their taste for Pharaoh’s food, and they had to learn to love the bread that fell from heaven. It’s why when John the Baptist came calling out, “Repent!,” joining a long line of prophets in begging God’s people to turn from their sinful ways, he offered also, “The kingdom of heaven has come near!” And then Jesus came painting a vision of that kingdom where the lowly are lifted up and the broken-hearted are bound up and the lost sheep is scooped up into safety and it was a vision so beautiful that people couldn’t help but fall in love with it. And it’s why as Jesus now prepares to leave his disciples at the hour that the world grows darkest, he knows that he cannot leave them mired in despair. He must turn them toward one another, turn them back to love. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love….This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.”
In John, love has a very specific source and flow. It originates in the relationship between Father and Son, living and moving and finding its being in the mutual indwelling of the divine. Love then moves through the Son to his disciples and then among the disciples before yielding fruit in the wider world. Love is both our origin and our end; it is the nature of the God who brings life into this world, and so it is also our natural state. It is the life blood that flows within the body of Christ; it is the conduit of God’s power in the world.
And, love is the content of Jesus’ greatest commandments. Which truthfully at times has put me in something of a quandary. Feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, keep the Sabbath, tend carefully the goodness of the earth’s soil, these commands I know how to follow; I can chart a course of action in which, with a bit of effort and intention, I’ll prove obedient.
But love is a different animal. Love is big and complex and, most significantly, involves a complicated other, encountering that other in all their uniqueness and all their freedom. And Jesus turns us not merely toward one particular other, but, following the orientation of God, toward the whole world, full of billions of others who are complicated and free. “Love one another.” It is a vast and unwieldy commandment, resistant to charting a course of action but nevertheless demanding our souls, our lives, our all. I am not always sure how to keep it.
I have been helped some by an address the writer Jonathan Franzen gave as a commencement speech at Kenyon College several years ago. Franzen shares with the soon-to-be graduates that when he was in college, he came to enjoy nature and so became committed to the cause of environmentalism. As he drew closer to the natural world, he beheld everything that was hurting it—“an exploding world population, exploding levels of resource consumption, rising global temperatures, the trashing of the oceans, the logging of our last old-growth forests”—and found himself outraged and in pain.
Sometime later, then, he “made a conscious decision to stop worrying about the environment.” He believed there was nothing significant he could do on his own; he thought it better to do the bit he could to keep his carbon footprint small and save himself the rage and despair.
“But then a funny thing happened,” he writes. “It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. I did this not without significant resistance, because it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher[…]But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one-half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.
And so, yes, I kept a meticulous list of the birds I’d seen, and, yes, I went to inordinate lengths to see new species. But, no less important, whenever I looked at a bird, any bird, even a pigeon or a robin, I could feel my heart overflow with love.[…And] now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again. The news on that front was no better than when I’d decided to quit worrying about it — was considerably worse, in fact — but now those threatened forests and wetlands and oceans weren’t just pretty scenes for me to enjoy. They were the home of animals I loved.
And here’s where a curious paradox emerged. My anger and pain and despair about the planet were only increased by my concern for wild birds, and yet, as I began to get involved in bird conservation and learned more about the many threats that birds face, it became easier, not harder, to live with my anger and despair and pain.”
Jonathan Franzen gives me a way to walk forward into Jesus’ gigantic commandment. Begin with love in the particular. Start with this one specific and vital one before you, be it bird or child or beloved friend or fellow human being who persists in being difficult to love. Pay attention to this one, consider all the particularity of this one, let yourself be awed by this one, and then witness the way love knits you still more intricately into the created order. See this love sustain you through times of trial. Abide in this love as it ushers you into a world that was not open to you before.
I can offer firsthand testimony to this process. I came to you twenty months ago, at a time in our country’s life when it felt like the fabric of our life together was being torn apart at its seams, when pain was pandemic and palpable, when there was no shortage of occasion for rage and despair. How easy it could have been to get mired there, stuck in sadness and grief for all that was wrong in our world, captive to a cynicism that had little to do with Christ. But you, University Presbyterian, you were among those who brought me back to love.
It did not have to be that way. You might reasonably have kept your hearts closed to a pastor who carried the title “interim,” choosing not to get too invested in a short-timer. But instead you made yourselves available to me, shared with me your stories and your sorrows, your dinner tables and your devotions. You have been generous with your ears, listening with an attentiveness yet unparalleled in my preaching experience. When I have learned at your expense, you have offered ample helpings of forbearance; when I’ve had good news to share, you’ve been effusive in your joy.
I have known this love not only in myself; I’ve beheld it also in your orientation to others. When one among you has faced head-on the power of death itself, you have filled the seats of this sanctuary and made cookies and lemonade and, on one memorable occasion, grilled cheese sandwiches; you have gathered in close and leaned on one another and said, “I am so sorry,” and “What can I do?” and “I have no words, but I am here.” And when the news was filled with borders closing and boats of terrified refugees sinking, you hung up a great big banner that said, “We Choose Welcome,” and you made yourselves vulnerable to those stories and to the ones who came bearing them. And I know you will do it more and more.
Some have said this church is poised to move from strength to strength in the season ahead; I confess I have an additional hope. I hope, indeed I expect, that you are poised to let the Crucified One draw you still closer to himself, that you might abide ever more deeply in the one who emptied himself, that you might become still more vulnerable to the love that lays down its life for the sake of the world.
I cannot help but hope it, for here I find myself, now having fallen in love with this one specific and vital part of God’s creation which resides at 209 East Franklin Street. And true to the ways of love, I will never be the same. So many thanks, my friends. God be with you.
 Frances Taylor Gench, “John 15:12-17,” Interpretation, April 2004, 181.
 S. Lily Mendoza, reflecting on her book Back from the Crocodile’s Belly. Interview with Radical Discipleship accessed 5.12.18 at https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2015/02/13/on-the-trail-together-confessing-resonanes-in-anti-oppression-work.
 Jonathan Franzen. Essay adapted from speech, “Liking is for Cowards; Go for What Hurts” accessed 5.12.18 at https://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/opinion/29franzen.html.