A Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter
Year C – 28 April 2013
David Hathaway Knight, Priest Associate
Send your spirit, God, to open our hearts and our minds to your word, and strengthen us to live according to your will, in Jesus’ Name. Amen,
On this Fifth Sunday of Easter, the church beckons us to look back for a moment to a conversation Jesus had with his disciples shortly before his crucifixion. It was his last opportunity to say what he needed to say to his disciples. He speaks to them with an intimacy that is full of the poignancy of these final moments with them. To these grown men, he says, “Little children, (he calls them) I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews I now say to you, ‘where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. 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.” Of all the moments that Jesus had ever spent with his disciples, these perhaps were the most important of all.
As you and I look back over some of our most precious relationships, we too may well remember a final conversation with someone we love, someone who knew that she or he would not be with us much longer. Etched in my memory forever, and in my wife Jeannie’s memory as well, is a moment of sacred time we had at my mother’s beside in the hospice unit of the Berkshire Medical Centeron a day in July of 1997. It was seven months after our son Jamie had died. After four years of a courageous battle following her diagnosis of ovarian cancer, my mother’s cancer had finally progressed with vengeance. She had not long to live and we all knew it. Jeannie and I were at her bedside before Jeannie was about to fly back to Richmond that afternoon. As we stood beside her, my mother took us both by the hand. First, she looked at Jeannie with a twinkle in her eye that was so characteristic of the way she often looked when she was about to say something. Then, as she spoke to Jeannie, she glanced over in my direction and then back at Jeannie and said to her, “Look after that rascal over there. He’s a handful, as you know.” Then, her expression became focused. She had something important to say. She looked directly at us both as if to say, “Little children, listen to me:” Her words were succinct: “Don’t be afraid to die. I’m going to look for Jamie, and I will find him!” Now, you’d have to know my mother. While she was usually right, she may not have always been right. But my mother, right or wrong, was never, ever, in doubt. Someone who knew our family well once quipped that she had raised a son like that. Now isn’t that crazy? But on that day in July, there was not a particle of doubt in her mind as she said those words to us. That was a holy moment that Jeannie and I will never forget. Her last words, “I will look for Jamie, and I will find him,” would become one the threads onto which Jeannie and I would hold as we looked for any strands of hope then, and as we still do. She was speaking to us about her belief in the hereafter. She spoke to us with an intimacy the poignancy of which has never left us.
Several days later and I remember it was a Tuesday. Mother, whose physical condition had weakened, still had power in her convictions. She said to me, as often she had said in those final weeks, “What is going to happen to your father?” I tried to assure her not to worry, that my sister and I would see that he was in good hands. We were currently working on a plan that was not yet quite firm as there were some details yet to be finalized. When I tried to tell her not to worry, she looked at me with those eyes as if to say, “Details, Son, details! Don’t give me this ‘We’ll take care of him business. Details.’” Later that afternoon, there came the welcome call from Tom Cunningham at Westminster Canterbury. Tom said, “David, tell your mother you have friends in Richmond. We will accept your father as a resident in our new memory support unit when it opens on October 1st. I ran back to mother’s room, told her the details—what they would get as a rebate on their apartment at Kimball Farms, what his apartment in the Westminster Canterbury would cost, and what the monthly fee would be. I told her I would fly with Dad First Class, on his dime, to his apartment that would be ready and waiting for him when he arrived. And there was space in his room for his beloved Steinway grand piano. Mother squeezed my hand, tears streamed down her cheeks. That night, she died peacefully knowing that all was well. That too was holy time, a conversation given to us to remember forever.
That essential conversation Jesus had with his disciples as his time drew near and those essential conversations that you and I remember having with a loved one are God’s gift to us in the transitions that mark our journeys along life’s path. They are not only conversations that give us a glimpse of the hereafter, but ones that also help to shape the course of our earthly journeys.
It is clear that Jesus’, in that moment before his departure, did not offer those words to his disciples as a suggestion for them to consider. He gave them a commandment: “Love one another. 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.” In reference to Jesus’ words, someone here said it well in a conversation a week or so ago when she said that Jesus will know that we love him when he sees that we love one another.”
Those final conversations with loved ones can be essential ones, yet there are other conversations along the way that become essential as well. Jesus commands that we must love one another as he has loved us. But notice that he doesn’t say that in order to love one another, we must always be in agreement with each other over everything. In a marriage, no two partners will always agree on everything. In a family, there will always be differences. In the church, there will be diversity and there will be differences and there will be disagreements. If we are to love one another as Jesus love us, what matters is not that we always agree with each other, which is not possible anyway, but rather how we relate to one another when we differ and disagree. If love is at the foundation of our relationships, then we are not afraid to have our differences, and we handle them with mutual love and with respect for those differences. We come to discover that we can be in conversation, that we can listen to one another’s viewpoints and not feel threatened by the presence of those differences that are part of normal life. It’s when in a marriage, or in a family, or in the church, we paper over those differences and do not discuss them out of fear that we might ruffle somebody’s feathers we can miss so much even if things seem to be smooth on the surface for much of the time. The simple truth of the matter is that if we cannot discuss differences in the context of love and respect, we cannot solve anything. As stuff then gets buried, over time it erupts in unhealthy ways. I was in a gathering a week or so ago and was struck by the insight in what someone said. This is someone who was born and raised inRichmond and has lived here all her life, so she could say this with impunity. She said, “You know, people in this part of the world would much rather be polite than discuss any differences that there might be among us.” And then she added, “And that’s not very healthy.” In all fairness to the good people in this part of the world, however, the same could be said about people just about anywhere. Most of us are not naturally comfortable with conflict yet as we can become aware of the blessings that are to be found in loving, respectful conversations that allow for, and yes, even celebrate the differences that are inherent in any gathering of people we begin to flourish in our life together. There is a little framed inscription that now hangs in our living room by the front door. It was by the front door of Jeannie’s grandparents’ home in Wynnewood, PA, for many years and in her great grandparents’ home before that. It simply reads, “Christ is the head of this house, the unseen guest at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation.” It’s a wonderful reminder about who it is who can be the guide for those essential conversations that we have along life’s journey.
And so what does it look like for us to love one another as Jesus has loved us? As we go about our life and our duties in the church, the world out there is watching. What do we, as the church, have to offer that differs from other gatherings of people characterized by dissention and division? How can we listen to one another in an effort to discover where the Holy Spirit is leading us? How can we be sure that everybody has a place at the table?
Today we have just welcomed two of the newest Christians on this planet, Charles Bailey Atwill, III, and Thomas Kemper Brotherton, III, into the congregation of Christ’s flock through the sacrament of Baptism. May this church be for them a place where they, with our prayers, our support, and those conversations with them as they mature, may grow into the full stature of Christ. May they come to see that we love one another as Christ has loved us, and that we can be models for them and they, as they grow, for us of how we are to love one another.
The words of Walter Russell Bowie, written in 1910, still speak with clarity to us in this our own day:
Give us, O God the strength
to build the city that hath stood
too long a dream, whose laws are love,
whose ways are servanthood,
and where the sun that shineth is
God’s grace for human good.
Already in the mind of God
that city riseth fair:
lo, how its splendor challenges
the souls that greatly dare—
yea bids us seize the whole of life
and build its glory there.
Hymn 583, Stanzas 3 &4