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What Jesus Asks

If you were here two weeks ago, you may remember that we heard the very beginning of what is called “the final discourse” from the gospel of John.

Here’s the setting of that discourse: Knowing that he will soon be arrested—and seeing his cross on the horizon—Jesus has just shared a final meal with his disciples. He has washed their feet, and then he begins to remind them of what they must remember, and what they must do when he is no longer with them.

When we pick up today, four chapters later, Jesus has come to the end of that teaching. He has run out of words for his friends; he has nearly run out time. His final act is to pray. Today we overhear a portion of the prayer in which Jesus entrusts his friends to God’s care. We hear what Jesus asks.

 

John 17:20-26

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Solomon Malinsky was my eighth grade biology teacher. A former navy man, he came to teaching late in life. Let’s just say that he had tattoos before they were fashionable. His voice was loud, his metaphors colorful, his enthusiasm boundless.

Mr. Malinsky loved a good field trip. Everyone’s favorite involved taking large nets into the mangrove swamps. There we would spend the day in soggy sneakers, sorting our finds on the sand of that open-air classroom.

When we were inside, his classroom often reeked of our experiments, forcing us to throw open the windows to the Florida heat. Escaped fruit flies hovered in the air as their tiny sisters and brothers taught us about dominant and recessive genes. Good microscopes lined the back of the room. No one fell asleep in that class.

It’s funny what sticks. More than forty years later, I still can recite my eighth-grade definition of the word osmosis: movement from an area of greater concentration to an area of lesser concentration through a semi-permeable membrane. Maybe it’s that definition that made me think about Mr. Malinsky as I was living this week with the 17th chapter of John.

When Jesus prays: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,” the membranes that separate persons seem more permeable than we ordinarily assume them to be. Jesus seems to imagine that you and I could be drawn right into the life he shares with the Creator of the universe—that you and I could feel the brace of  Trinitarian love—that we could know a depth of community hard to fathom in this broken world.

Maybe I thought of Mr. Malinsky because I was thinking about permeability—or maybe I thought of him because a lot of what I know about community, I learned on the little campus where he taught.

It was an odd place—an experimental program of the public school system. We had our own campus—a large sandy lot covered with pine trees. The classrooms were all portables, covered in siding. There were no permanent buildings, no cafeteria, no gymnasium. Most days we brought our lunches from home and ate under the trees. When it rained, teachers open their doors and shared their lunch hours with us. When classes changed, we just took off our shoes and ran. It may not sound like it, but I remember the place as beautiful.

We arrived there on different timetables. I came at the start of 5th grade and stayed until I left for college. There were 42 of us in that graduating class.

Because there were recurring threats to close the place, teachers didn’t have any job security. That meant we got the ones who really wanted to be there. It remains one of my deepest experiences of community.

The word “community” derives from Latin. It refers to a public spirit, something shared in common. According to the gospel of John, that public spirit for which Jesus prays is none other than the love of God.

When Jesus prays that this fledgling body of believers he is leaving behind will be one—he isn’t praying for sameness; he’s praying for connection. He’s praying that they, and by extension we, will be animated by something larger than ourselves. It’s Paul’s exquisitely apt metaphor of the Body of Christ, in which each person’s presence and vitality—each person’s uniqueness—is essential to the well-being of the community.

This kind of unity isn’t something we are capable of manufacturing. We cannot steel ourselves for this kind of life—we have to yield to it. Because the life-blood that sustains this body comes from God. The love of God is what makes this kind of life together possible.

Paul knew that well. He followed his 12th chapter, which is all about the body, with the 13th chapter, which is all about love. Paul, of course, had nothing to do with the chapter breaks—we have a later editor to thank for those; for Paul, it was all one piece. And I suspect that Paul would be astonished to know that we mostly reserve the chapter on love for wedding ceremonies. When he wrote “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” Paul wasn’t contemplating marriage—he was envisioning members of a community who would never turn their backs on each other—because they knew that God would never give up on any of them.

Lest you think that we have entered the world of fantasy, I want you to know that people are watching for just this kind of life in rooms like this one. In fact, that was the heading on an email I received after the congregational meeting two weeks ago in which you called new pastors. That was the heading: “People are watching.”

The author has had more experience of discord in the church than one would expect from someone his age, so he was reluctant to open his heart to this community—but this is what he wrote, in part, following that meeting:

Not only does the world watch, but so do our youth. So do we all. Many of the friends I grew up with will have very little to do with church….I have had a difficult time investing in church relationships until this year out of self-protection.  I was so overcome today with the tenderness, conviction and commitment…. that I had a difficult time making it through “The Church’s One Foundation.”

The months since we started coming to UPC have been extremely restorative for me. Not because of the preaching (or) the music… (although they are wonderful!), but because of the love and commitment our church has had to each other during this time.”     [emphasis mine] 

 It is your willingness to love that has re-opened his heart.

There’s one more email I want to share, also with permission, from another new member. She wrote this after last Sunday’s service:

I stopped going to church after my 9th grade confirmation for a lot of reasons, but central to that decision was the sense that my thoughts, feelings, experiences, questions made me different and, therefore, my adolescent brain told me I must not “belong.” As more and more of life happened, though, that decision left me feeling more and more isolated – was I really the only one who desperately wanted to “believe,” but had doubts?  Was it truly not possible to be a Christian, yet also believe with every fiber of your being that some of the messages we may have learned in the context of our faith were wrong?  Is there really no room for a world in which science and religion can not only peacefully co-exist but maybe also inform and refine one another? With the thicker skin of age and experience I put myself out there, [and] tried various churches.…I credit…my neighbor, for getting me to try one more…. then you all for showing me that I had quite literally after all these years found “my people.”  The acknowledgement each and every week that doubts are normal and okay literally still brings tears to my eyes as I write this—who knew it was not only okay to think this, but to say it aloud! Each week…I feel more informed, more connected, and most importantly part of something bigger— and that is just totally new for me.  

….When I first started going I was reluctant to talk with others for fear they would see something in me that meant, again, I did not belong or that they would reveal something about themselves that yet again highlighted for me that church just must not be a good “fit.”  But, not once in the nearly 2 years I have been attending has this been the case.  Rather, people of all ages and backgrounds have surprised me with their genuineness, openness, and willingness to welcome—and I have felt welcomed, which is HUGE.” 

Friends, Brene Brown says that one of the surest signs of a whole-hearted, faithful life, is the capacity to keep our hearts vulnerable to relationships that may not work out—to take that kind of risk with each other. Not to worry so much about how we will be received, but just to go ahead and open our hearts to the possibility of love. Jesus says that our capacity to live in that way—to love without measuring costs—to love the way God loves—that will be the way the world will know—or not—that Jesus was sent for the sake of love, not condemnation.

 

Back to Florida: I’ve lost track of the timing, but on some trip home during my young adult years, I learned that Mr. Malinski had suffered a heart attack. I went to the hospital and held those weathered hands for a long time. As we sat in silence, I remembered back to the eighth grade. That year turned out to be a hard one for my family, for reasons that aren’t mine to tell. I guess the turmoil affected my work, though I didn’t know it at the time. I just remember that one day as class was ending Mr. Malinsky barked my name and said I should stay behind. I still can see his eyes looking down at me. I can still hear him saying “Something is bothering you and I want to know what it is.” I don’t think I had enough perspective to answer, but I have never forgotten that he asked.

Solomon Malinsky saw me, and he held the door open so that grace could flow through. I don’t know who have been your Solomon Malinskys; I don’t know where you have tasted community in a way that sustained you. But I suspect that Beth Auman Visser is a player in many of the stories you would tell. Beth has the capacity to see others through the eyes of love, and then to help us become what she saw from the start. In large part she has exercised that gift by teaching us to sing. When we sing, we breathe as one. When we sing, our boundaries become more permeable. When we sing, we have the chance to make God’s glory—God’s presence— more visible and audible to the world. And so, my friends, I invite you now to stand as you are able, and to sing—

 

When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried:
Alleluia!

How often, making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound
Alleluia!

So has the church, in liturgy and song,
in faith and love, through centuries of wrong,
borne witness to the truth in every tongue:
Alleluia!

And did not Jesus sing a psalm that night
when utmost evil strove against the light?
Then let us sing, for whom he won the fight:
Alleluia!

Let every instrument be tuned for praise!
Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!
And may God give us faith to sing always:
Alleluia!

 

Margaret LaMotte Torrence , Interim Pastor

Email: margaret@upcch.org

Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 111

Bio:

Margaret came to serve as UPC’s interim pastor in September, 2017. She expects to remain in Chapel Hill until a new pastor is called, likely in 2019. She grew up in Sarasota, Florida, living across the street from the church her father served. Margaret met her husband, Lee, when they were first-year students at Davidson College. She did not sense a call to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament until she was in her 30s. By that point their family also included a son, Nate, and a daughter, Hanna. They all moved from California to Princeton—to begin seminary, kindergarten and preschool respectively—while Lee worked to make it all possible. In the intervening years, Margaret has served churches in New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida. She and Lee live near Asheville, in a home they share with Margaret’s parents. Margaret considers it a great privilege to serve in community with others who are seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow that leading. She is grateful for the many sisters and brothers who have shared their lives and stories along the way. When she is at home in the mountains, she finds particular joy in hiking, gardening, stacking stones, and volunteering with a remarkable ministry known as the Haywood Street congregation. Margaret frequently leads conference worship in Montreat.