May 26, 2019
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
(Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; John 14:23-29)
Do you recall the day you first learned to write in cursive?
Probably not. You probably don’t remember when you learned to read either. I only recall being scolded by my teacher, when asked to read out loud, I was reading too fast. Speed reader for my age, I guess.
You may remember the process to learn cursive. You might remember life in first grade when you were taught to read, or life in third grade when you were taught to write in cursive. But you don’t remember when reading and writing “happened.”
Not like learning to ride a bike. You’re either pedaling like crazy and keeping your balance, or you’re lying in a twisted heap with your ankles through the spokes. You might remember when you learned to ride a bike. I still have the scar on my knee.
But, cursive writing. The S had the bends in the right places, and the W rose and dropped wonderfully at the command of your tiny fingers clutching that big pencil. Then, beaming brightly, you unveiled the writing to your parents, who happily approved your advancing skills. It was a moment of victory to slant those letters precisely the way the teacher instructed and within the lines, too. Mastering cursive writing was one of those skills that marked a rite of passage; not only was your schoolteacher proud of you, better yet, writing in cursive clearly meant you were becoming grown up.
Okay, that might be an exaggeration. But only slightly, because it sure felt like it.
But cursive writing and the teaching of cursive is on the way out. Cursive writing is gradually being deleted as more and more students rely on keyboards for communication. Text messaging, instant messenger, e-mail: These are the skills that students are relying upon, and with that reliance has come a steady decline in handwriting skills.
So, cursive writing is disappearing. One could say, so what? Isn’t digital communication better, easier and more efficient?
Maybe, but easier and more efficient is not always better, especially when it comes to developing character and building relationships. The question is: What happens when you gradually begin to lose skills that were once used to build character and demonstrate that a person was maturing because she was able to master a skill through careful practice? It is not surprising that along with the gradual disappearance of cursive writing has gone the habit of letter writing; a habit often called an art. So the culture loses cursive writing and no one notices, because in its place is faster, easier and efficient — the triune god of our time.
But while this god is wooing us night and day, Alan Wolfe, author of the Transformation of American Religion, comments that cursive writing is not the only thing that is gradually disappearing. A host of important religious concepts along with the moral practices that undergird them are also disappearing, and not only in secular culture but among many, if not most, churches.
For example, over the last two generations, the notion of a Holy God whose love will not tolerate sin and to whom all lives are accountable has nearly disappeared. It has been replaced by a benign Being whose love winks at personal sins. This God is often described in the vaguely religious language of contemporary spirituality and defended by those who decry the punishing, grace-less God foisted upon the people by fearful religious institutions and the preachers who offer a poisonous brew of guilt and shame. I am not sure that either are the correct path.
Against such a backdrop, who but the most fearful could possibly be against a God whose tolerance is so expansive that anyone can find a place regardless of moral habits?
Sin itself is a concept that depends upon a biblical moral universe of duties and obligations where people are accountable to one another and answerable to God. The concept has disappeared, rendered hopelessly quaint or even tacky, a sign of poor taste in public conversation, replaced by personal choices whose consequences are measured by their effects on one’s sense of personal well-being, rather than a larger universe of moral obligations that have their foundation in a response to a righteous and just God. This may seem hypocritical from one who teaches liberal Catholicism, but hear me out. Remember, it isn’t really about a set of rules, many of which are legitimately out of context in today’s world.
As C.S. Lewis famously reminded readers in Mere Christianity, a fuzzy, tolerant God is a far distance from the God whose mercy and grace are amazingly profound for the simple reason that God despises immorality. Grace is meaningless when there is no sin to be forgiven. In the wake of this steady cultural trend to throw off oppressive moral codes, including those of institutional religion, people have also thrown off the notion of binding moral obligations that are nonnegotiable. We believe that whatever good we do, we do because we want to, not because we have any obligation to do good.
Under these conditions, where everything is optional, how shall Christians respond to the instructions of Jesus to keep his word? In his final conversation with the disciples, he repeatedly tells them that loving him and obeying his commandment belong together. Cutting against the grain, Jesus actually says that by our obedience we show our love for him. The very thing that many associate with feeling and personal choice — love — is what Jesus says his disciples are to do because he commands them to do it. One word. Not a long list!
This is not simply a possible option among many options that we can keep when it’s convenient for our schedule. It’s a binding moral obligation for the followers of Jesus.
But, there’s more: Jesus promises that the consequences of a life of obedience to love are peace, intimacy with God, the abiding presence of the Spirit. In other words, according to Jesus the path to human fulfillment — peace, meaning, integrity — lies in a life of obedience to him made visible by our loving others, day in and day out.
This kind of life requires hard work and practice. You could call it Cursive Obedience. And it’s not something you remember learning to do. It doesn’t “happen.” It’s a learned process. It’s a life. It’s a lifestyle.
Remember how hard you had to work to learn to write in cursive? The purpose of all that practice was not just cruel punishment (though I thought so, and to this day I still rebel and write in print, not cursive!), however, as I started to say, it was not just cruel punishment, but the ability to communicate well in writing. Without the practice, there is no fulfillment.
Likewise, to practice the commandment of Jesus in a cursory way, choosing if and when to obey him based upon our own inclinations, will never lead us to a deeper relationship with God where we know that peace that is promised. We don’t like to link obedience to fulfillment; it seems graceless and stern. But in fact, those who live a life of obedience often testify to joy and peace.
Love is neither easy, fast nor efficient.
Annalena Tonelli was a humanitarian who spent her life working for human dignity and setting up tuberculosis centers in Kenya and Somalia. When she was assassinated in October 2003 in Somalia, by rebels who objected to her work among the poor, The Washington Post featured a story about her life (October 8, 2003). In a previous interview, she was asked what gave her the motivation to devote her life to some of the poorest and sickest people on earth, especially over so long a time when most people give up in despair or exhaustion.
What was it that enabled her to be so positive and even filled with gratitude? She rarely ever talked about her religious foundation, thinking that people would dismiss her, but on this occasion she spoke of the key to her sense of peace and fulfillment and named the reasons that others often fall away.
“The reason that more people don’t feel this way [peaceful, joyful, grateful] is that they don’t try hard enough. You have to give time, you have to be patient; and then year after year, you’ll see that what matters is only love. But if you are impatient because people are not grateful or you were full of limits, you will not be happy. You need time.”
You need time. But then, you’ll see that what matters is only love. Annalena Tonelli said it, and that is what Jesus said to his disciples, too. Keep my commandment, love through thick and thin, day by day, year after year, and you will know the peace of God. No list of moral rules, though they are definitely implied, but merely love.
How do we obey Jesus’ commandment to love over a lifetime without becoming grim or simply falling away? After all, love is only easy on Hallmark cards; in actual life it can be quite demanding. On the one hand it is akin to the practice of learning to write in cursive or learning any other skill. You simply do it in faith.
But there is something else, too, something that brings the necessary delight into our obedience. In his book Living the Message, Eugene Peterson comments on the secret to faithful obedience in Jeremiah’s life. He says, “He did not resolve to stick it out for 23 years, no matter what; he got up every morning with the sun. That is the secret of Jeremiah’s persevering pilgrimage — not thinking with dread about the long road ahead but greeting the present moment, every present moment, with obedient delight, with expectant hope: ‘My heart is ready!’”
What a wonderfully hopeful way to imagine discipleship over the long haul: with obedient delight offering our hearts to God day by day.
This obedient delight, says Jesus will bring you the peace that this world can never give.
Let us pray.
On this Memorial Day, let us pray for those who lost their lives in war, for those in danger today, and for families and friends who care about them. We pray to the Lord.
For competent leaders and visionaries who guide us when our path is unclear. We pray to the Lord.
For the Church, that we may continue to extend peace to all those in need, especially victims of war, violence, loss, and other traumas. We pray to the Lord.
For our local church and our four parish family, that like the early church, we may be guided by the Holy Spirit as we make decisions and fulfill our mission. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for love in the world, for an end to hatred, an end to war, an end to violence, that God’s peoples can live their lives in peace and harmony. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for a Spirit of justice in the world: that the needy, the exploited, the abused, and the victims of war may know freedom, relief from oppression, and dignity as daughters and sons of God. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list; that they may find healing, hope, grace and long awaited answers to their prayers through Christ’s presence. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Gracious God, we continue to rely on the promises of your son, Jesus, as we carry on his work to bring all people to you and your kingdom of peace to fruition. Come, O God, and speak words of comfort. We live in a world sorely in need of your peace, the peace that only you can give. Our resources have grown scarce; our nations turn against each other; our families collapse from within. We look around us and sometimes the bad news is all that we see. O God, who calls each one friend, for our hearts are troubled, our spirits often afraid. We dread stock market crashes and worker layoffs, violence in schools and lack of medical care. We fear worst possible outcomes, rather than trust that you will not ever leave us. Eternal Companion, walk beside us through our darkest valleys. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA