Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sunday Sermon

May 29, 2011

The Fifth Sunday after Easter

Most mission statements, according to Kevin Starr, needs a short statement, no more than eight words long, that includes "Verb, target, outcome." Can a church come up with something like that?

How about:
Jesus was a man on a mission.

He healed the sick, fed the 5,000, gave sight to the blind, raised the dead, washed the feet of the disciples, commanded them to love one another and showed them the way to God. His mission was clear. But did he have a "mission statement"? An essential expression of purpose? Something such as "To inspire and nurture the human spirit", as the Starbucks Coffee Company slogan says?

Sounds awfully spiritual, doesn't it? In the inspiration business, we Christians have some serious competition. But does Jesus need a mission statement? Or better yet, would one mission statement be enough in describing Jesus? Or would we need many mission statements?

Mission statements have become big business, with a wide range of organizations crafting them in an attempt to capture their core values, purposes and goals. The problem with most of them is they wind up sounding complex and boring, such as the one that reads: "Our challenge is to assertively network economically sound methods of empowerment so that we may continually negotiate performance-based infrastructures." I will not tell you were it is from, but suffice to say unless you’re a person with a rocket scientist brain working in some intense field, that slogan would do nothing for any of us.

Jesus would never want his mission to be so complex and boring. As followers of Christ, we can do better.

So what should be included in a mission statement for the followers of Jesus, based on the words he spoke the night before his death? "If you love me," he says to his disciples, "you will keep my commandments". That's a strong start, but this exceeds the eight-word limit. Maybe we are limiting ourselves too much with something as strong as Jesus.

"I will ask the Father," promises Jesus, "and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever". Advocate comes from the Greek word
parakletos - one who exhorts, comforts, helps and makes an appeal on another person's behalf. There are acceptable English translations for the word parakletos, which is why one Bible will render the word "Advocate," another will say "Comforter" and, still another, "Counselor." Depending on what version of the Bible a preacher uses, there could be any number of combinations of a sermon given to describe the Holy Spirit. All these English words describe the "Spirit of truth" that God will send to the disciples, and Jesus predicts that "you know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you".

This is a good start to an authentic Christian mission statement: Love Christ, do the right thing, receive the Advocate, Comforter, Counselor, Spirit of truth. But wait, there's more - "I will not leave you orphaned," promises Jesus; "I am coming to you." Jesus assures his disciples they will see him after his death and resurrection, and he predicts that the future will be marked by an amazing intimacy between God, Jesus and all his followers. "I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you," he says, describing in this tumbling jumble of pronouns a beautiful blend of divine and human elements.

Then Jesus circles back to where he began, making another link between loving him and keeping his
commandments (One could substitute, we might say, "Do the right thing," or "Do the God-thing" or "Don't Be Evil" for commandments) "They who observe my Don't Be Evil rule 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". Different churches might teach the concept of "commandment" differently; the point is that Jesus connects living right with loving right. For many people, loving and commandment-keeping are very different approaches to the Christian faith. For Jesus, they're one and the same.

After reading this passage, one easily sees how mission statements can become awash in jargon and marble-mouthed pronouncements. There's so much to say, and the temptation is to try to say it all. But remember the marks of an effective statement: verb, target, outcome. Eight words, no more.

Fortunately, Jesus includes several strong action words in this passage from John:
love, keep, know, abide, see, live. And he offers a clear target as well: the creation of a community of people who love Christ, keep his commandments and experience a truly amazing intimacy with Jesus and God. And what will be the outcome of this effort? To receive the Holy Spirit - receive the one who is an Advocate, Comforter and Counselor, as well as the continuing presence and power of Jesus Christ himself.

Verbs, target, outcome. A mission statement, it seems, boils down to eight essential words:

Love Christ, keep his commandments, receive the Spirit.

This is our mission: to be a community of people who love Christ and keep his commandments - seeing these actions as complementary, not contradictory. Loving and commandment-keeping are two sides of the same spiritual coin, revealing both devotion and order, affection and obedience. If we can hold them together, then we'll be in a position to receive the Holy Spirit.

So how do we do it? First, we
love Christ. The writer Anne Lamott was a 30-year-old single, hip, intellectual agnostic who didn't think she wanted to have anything to do with Jesus. In her book Traveling Mercies, she tells of how she became pregnant by a married man. She had an abortion and was sadder than she'd been since her father died. She drank and took pills to dull the pain. Then, one night, lying in the darkness, she became aware of someone with her, hunkered down in the corner. She knew it was Jesus. "I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft," she writes, "watching me with patience and love."

For the next few days, Lamott sensed Jesus following her everywhere, like "a little cat." Finally, she took a long, deep breath and said out loud, "All right. You can come in." Looking back on the experience, Lamott says, "I was dying, and I got a second chance. I do believe I was saved."

We love Jesus because he first loved us. He comes to us with patience and love, and he saves us.

Then we do the right thing:
We keep his commandments. This doesn't mean we suddenly achieve a state of moral perfection, with an ability to check off all the ethical imperatives in the Sermon on the Mount or become a “goody-two-shoes”. But it does mean we respond to Christ's love with a desire to live an orderly and obedient life - one that's organized around the new commandment of Jesus to "love one another." Loving and commandment-keeping come together when Jesus says to his disciples, "Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another".

Such love isn't so much an emotion as it is a deep desire to order our lives around the example Jesus set. It means championing the cause of the underdog, reaching out to the downtrodden, working to build up God's kingdom on earth and being willing to sacrifice for others. "No one has greater love than this," says Jesus, "to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you". On this Memorial Day weekend, we pause to give thanks for all the men and women, throughout our nation's history, who have given their lives for others.

Loving sacrifice is how we keep Christ's commandments. In a concrete way, it shows the world that we are friends of Jesus Christ.

Let me use another analogy. A parent or grandparent may ask a small child, “How much do you love me?” And the child will respond with stretched wide open arms and an enthusiastic “This much!” Real love has no bounds. As wide as the child can open his or her arms; this is a whole universe to a small child. This is the unboundedness of responsive love that nurtures, strengthens, and helps build strong character and values. “If you love me …” Jesus says. Of course we love Jesus! Why else are many of us here today? And, as with a small child, we might want to open our arms wide and exclaim “This much!” - As much as the whole universe.
Yet it would seem that Jesus puts a limit on how much we can love him; “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Commandments are finite and measurable. Is it true that Jesus is limiting our love? Of course not! There is much more to what Jesus is saying than what meets the eye. Instead, it expands our love to include the whole of our living. When Jesus says to keep his Commandments as a sign of our love for him, he is not only speaking about the Ten Commandments; he is saying that if we love him, we will live as he lived. Loving Jesus as he asks requires us to live in such a way that others know the Resurrection is real, that Jesus is really present, that Jesus cares for us deeply.
Our love for Jesus is shown in the same way as the early disciples showed their love; by doing in our everyday living. Like Philip and Peter and John, as we read in our first reading, we are to proclaim the living Christ by the way we heal hurts in others; bring a healing touch to those who are ailing in any way; strengthen those who are weak or paralyzed by fear, doubt, or selfishness; those who feel ostracized; encourage those weighed down with too much stress, work, or indecision. All this and more is keeping Jesus’ commandments by living his way of life; a life of deep care for others. The most encouraging aspect of this Gospel reading is that Jesus sends us the help we need to love and live in this way.

Finally, our mission comes to its conclusion when we
receive the Spirit. This is the final phrase in our mission statement, the outcome of our loving Christ and our commandment-keeping. It's usually experienced in a community of faith, such as the Presbyterian congregation where Anne Lamott is a member. She writes, "One of our newer members, a man named Ken Nelson, is dying of AIDS, disintegrating before our very eyes." He has a totally lopsided face, ravaged and emaciated, but "when he smiles, he is radiant. He looks like God's crazy nephew." Ken says he would gladly pay any price for what he has now, which is Jesus - and his congregation.

During the prayers of the people, Ken talks "joyously of his life and his decline, of grace and redemption, of how safe and happy he feels these days." He is dying but is full of the Holy Spirit - full of God's Advocate, God's Comforter, God's Counselor.

This is our purpose:
Love Christ, keep his commandments, receive the Spirit. No jargon. No gobbledygook. Just eight words of authentic Christian mission. When we go into the world and love all others we meet without condition, we are loving them as Christ would love them, hence we are loving Christ. Let us go into the world and do just that!
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.