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St. Paul’s – Easter 6 – 5/9/21

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood / A beautiful day for a neighbor / Would you be mine? Could you be mine? / It’s a neighborly day in this beautywood / A neighborly day for a beauty / Would you be mine? Could you be mine? / I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you / I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you / So let’s make the most of this beautiful day / Since we’re together, we might as well say / Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor? / Won’t you please? Won’t you please? / Please won’t you be my neighbor?

These lyrics may sound familiar. They are from the hit television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. This show’s premise was to help children understand the changing world around them and give them a safe neighborhood where they could be their true and best selves.

I appreciated Fred Rogers’ attempt to show that a neighbor could be anyone and everyone. In 1969, there was one episode when Mister Rogers asked Officer Clemmons, a Black police officer, if he would like to cool his feet with Rogers. Rogers proceeded to offer his towel to Clemmons as they used the same towel to dry their feet. This demonstration was an act against racial prejudice. Mister Rogers aimed to present to children (and their parents) the message that we are all neighbors no matter our skin color, ethnicity, or status in life.

However, a few years past my Mister Rogers Days, I’ve noticed society’s ever-growing lack of acceptance of what the freedom fighter from Nazareth prescribed in John 15. Sixty or so years after Jesus dies and amid persecution, John offers a commandment given by Jesus, Love one another as I have loved you. Inhale the love that flows from God to Christ, to the Holy Spirit, to us. 

Unfortunately, far too often, capitalism has coached us to approach our neighbor through a transactional lens – what do I get out of the deal? If not conscious and cautious, we can be found guilty of being self-centered and afraid or unwilling to embrace our neighbors, all of which is antithetical to what Jesus prescribes in John 15. Christ offers a self-emptying love that makes us show up for others as he showed up for us even when it is costly. Not because he would benefit from showing up but because love seeks no personal gain but the benefit gained by humanity when it is transformed by love.

G.K Chesterton once wrote that The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting.  It has been found difficult and left untried.  Imagine what would happen to us, to the Church, to the world, if we took this commandment of Jesus’s seriously?  What could Christendom look like if we obeyed orders and cultivated impossible love?

I ask these questions fearfully, because I don’t know how to answer them, even for myself. I mean, I know fairly well how to do things.  I know how to make care packages for the homeless.  Or bring dessert to the church potluck.  Or send checks to my favorite charities.  But do I know how to love as Jesus loved?  To feel a depth of compassion that’s gut-punching?  To feel a hunger for justice so fierce and so urgent that I rearrange my life in order to pursue it?  To empathize until my heart breaks?  Do I want to?

Most of the time — I’ll be honest — I don’t.  I want to be safe.  I want to keep my circle small and manageable. And I want to choose the people I love based on my own affinities and preferences — not on Jesus’s all-inclusive commandment.  Charitable actions are easy.  But cultivating my heart?  Preparing and pruning it to love?  Becoming vulnerable in authentic ways to the world’s pain?  Those things are hard.  Hard and costly.

So what can we do?  Where must we begin?  Jesus offers a single, straightforward answer: Abide in my love.  Following on the heels of  last week’s lectionary, Jesus extends the metaphor of the vine and branches and calls us once again to abide.  To rest, to cling, to make ourselves at home.  Not simply in him, but in his love

Abiding in something is not the same as emulating it.  In the vine-and-branches metaphor, Jesus’s love is not our example; it’s our source.  It’s where our love originates and deepens.  Where it replenishes itself.  In other words, if we don’t abide, we can’t love.  Jesus’s commandment to us is not that we wear ourselves out, trying to conjure love from our own easily depleted resources. Rather, it’s that we abide in the holy place where human love becomes possible.  That we make our home in Jesus’s love — the most abundant and inexhaustible love in existence.

As is so often the case in our lives as Christians, Jesus’s commandment leads us straight to paradox: we are called to action via rest.  Called to become love as we abide in love.  The commandment — or better yet, the invitation — is to drink our fill of the Source, which is Christ, spill over to bless the world, and then return to the Source for a fresh in-filling.  This is our movement, our rhythm, our dance.  Over and over again.  This is where we begin and end and begin again.

This text necessitates that we go back to the basics. As branches that obtain our nutrients from Jesus, the True Vine, Jesus says to us, I want your joy to be complete, so love one another. His commandment reminds us that at the end of the day, there is no greater love than the love Christ has exampled for us. As followers of this love-exemplar from Nazareth, we must forever fight those systems of death, oppression, and division that make it difficult to embody non-transactional agape love towards our neighbor. When we act on Jesus’ commandment to love others, we are infused with the Spirit-power of the eternal True Vine who sustains us amidst the ugliest barriers that seek to divide and conquer.

Surely, he can sustain us for this love work since he chose us for it. As the chosen, we recognize that we don’t have to elbow each other for a seat at the global neighborhood table. Instead, our faith commits us to craft a longer table as a way of life; after all, they are our neighbors, and there is room for everyone in this neighborhood. Rev. Haddon Robinson said, Your neighbor is anyone whose need you see, whose need you are able to meet. A neighbor is someone who says, ‘What is mine is God’s, and what is God’s belongs to my neighbor because my neighbor belongs to Him.’

This standard is one that not only Jesus exemplified for his disciples, but one that we are being beckoned toward until Jesus returns.

Many of us, after this long, brutal year of pandemic, are exhausted.  We’ve seen and encountred so much loss.  We’ve known the helplessness of empathizing in situations both local and global where we’re unable to intervene.  We’ve been denied many of our go-to ways of expressing love — inviting people into our homes, giving each other hugs, worshipping together in person.  In the face of so much pain, isolation, and death, what can love do?  It’s easy to get lost in this question — or worse, give up on the question altogether, and retreat into numbness, anger, and apathy.

But if, as my former students intuited from chapel sermons years ago, the way of Jesus is all about love, then we need to find ways to press in.  At the very least, we need to keep asking questions, and pursuing answers: How shall we love as Jesus loved? How shall we sustain such depths of compassion and remain healthy?  Do we have it in us to risk a hunger for justice so fierce and so urgent that we’ll rearrange our lives in order to pursue it?  Do we want to?

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it has taught us the fierce urgency of loving now. It has enlightened our awareness of the fragility of life and the roles of others who we may have ignored. Everyone is essential during and after a pandemic in the global neighborhood. Each of us are the candles someone needs in order to find their way along the path of tough times and miserable moments.

When we choose to love, we become friends of Jesus. In other words, there is a unique communion we share with Jesus once we fulfill this commandment. To know that we were chosen indicates how deep and how wide Jesus’ love is for us. And as a result, Jesus proclaims the final call to action, Go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. My friends, this is our call to action, a call to duty. This call is not constituted by a contract; rather, it rests on a covenant. This call is bigger than our individual selves, but it requires our individual response – love one another as I have loved you.

A story for mothers day is told of a 13-year-old boy named Robert Jr. Johnson, affectionately referred to as RJ. He lived with his mother, Selena, and his father, Robert, Sr. Just like any teenager, there were moments when RJ would obey his parents and other moments when he would disobey.

The family was preparing for the Christmas holiday. RJ knew that he had to help clean the house prior to guests arriving. This Christmas, RJ was not in agreement. He wanted to use his break the way he wanted to, and that did not include cleaning the house. A few days later, his mother walked around the house and noticed that everything she had asked RJ to clean was clean. With a beaming smile painted on her face, she walked into her bedroom and found a note on her dresser. RJ wrote this letter, and it said:

For cutting the grass – $20

For cleaning my room – $15.25

For removing the garbage – $10

For washing the dishes – $10.50

For vacuuming the house – $10

Total Owed: $65.75

RJ’s mom wrote him a note in response. Her letter said, as sung by the great gospel singer, Shirley Caesar:

For the nine months I carried you, holding you inside me – no charge.

For the nights I sat up and doctored and prayed for you – no charge.

For the time and tears and the costs through the years – there is no charge.

For the advice and the knowledge and the costs of your college – no charge…

When you add it all up, the full cost of my love is – no charge.

May we be joyously reminded of the one who made the ultimate sacrifice for us all at no charge to us. At no charge to our neighbors, God helps us to do as Christ commands us – love them wherever we find them in the global neighborhood.

And in this moment, I’d invite you to join me in prayer.

God of unconditional love and grace, 

we thank you for your Word that reminds us of our call to action – 

our call to love. 

May the commandment of Christ to love be our lifestyle. 

May we who embrace your Word be reminded 

to bear the fruit of love and justice for our neighbor.