Easter V; May 15, 2022
I have served as a pastor in quite a variety of settings over the last forty years, but there are some things in common everywhere. Two particular women represent this well. They were both members of the church I was serving and they were both in the same nursing home, so I would always visit both of them on the same trip. Both were widowed. One of them was always complaining: the place cost too much (and she had a lot of money, by the way; the other one had none), the food was bad, and the Church didn’t pay enough attention to her. The other one was always grateful: she appreciated that she had a place that looked after her, that she had food to eat, that the Pastor and other people came to see her.
I knew what kind of person I wanted to be: grateful for what is, rather than griping about what isn’t. And so I come to my last Sunday as an installed pastor with that hope: that I will share with you my gratitude. I have had my share of woes in the ministry; who hasn’t? But I don’t want to gripe about those; I want to be grateful for those who have painted the rainbow of my experience.
I am grateful for people who say, “Yes;” for people who offer their gifts and skills for the Church; for people who pray for their Pastor; for people who email me jokes; for people who say, “I have something I need to tell someone, and I trust you;” for people who say, “I need prayer” and invite me to stand at the abyss with them; for people who want to get together and do something fun; for people who ask a question that leads to a sermon or a study or a great conversation; for people who generate novel ideas; for people who sweep the floor, who make the coffee, who take Prayer Care Ministry bags to the homebound, who write notes….
When Jesus told us to love one another as he has loved us, it occurred to me that key to loving one another is the attitude we take toward one another. I choose to be grateful for you and for all those with whom I worked at Princeton Theological Seminary, and especially the people of Divine Grace Presbyterian Church in Miami, Arizona; of the Presbyterian Church of Superior, Arizona; of the Presbyterian Church of Wyoming, Ohio; of Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati; of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Clarinda, Iowa; and of Presbyterian Church of the Master here in Omaha. Jesus occasionally gave vent to his frustrations with the disciples, and he knows that pastors have our frustrations with his Holy Church, but he was grateful for them and I am grateful for all of you. I encourage you to be grateful for one another.
You can always find something to gripe about. This occurred to me as I thought about the context of our celebration today. The world is a mess; have you noticed? It would be easy to awaken every morning and start whining about COVID-19, about Russian aggression, about rampant lies and disinformation, about growing White nationalism in our politics. That would be easy. It is also easy to awaken every morning and give thanks for having awakened in the morning. Give thanks for health care professionals who continue to work at public well-being, for those making a positive difference in conflicts, for those who tirelessly tell the truth despite rampant public lies, and for those who do not give up in the face of backlash.
This leads to a couple more thoughts about loving one another as Jesus has loved us. Honesty in the face of disinformation and lies is a sign of true love. When it came to his disciples, Jesus didn’t pull his punches but was honest with them. He called them out on their prejudices – against children, against women, against foreigners – and their failure to understand. He called Peter out on his bravado. He pointed out where they needed to grow. He taught them hard truths and encouraging truths.
White middle-class North Americans have a tendency to pretend everything is alright when it isn’t. Here in the Midwest it may be particularly bad. One community where Kathleen and I lived and worked we often said that people would do all sorts of things in their homes and everyone seemed to think it was alright as long as they kept their lawns perfect. If we attend to appearances more than to reality then we are not loving one another as Jesus has loved us.
When I say “telling the truth” I mean exactly that; some people use that phrase as an excuse to be abusive. In the guise of telling someone else the truth, a person may harangue or scream at another. That is not telling the truth; that is emotional abuse. One Church I know is a good example of healthy functioning around such behavior. They had a new, young pastor who was struggling to figure out how to do things, including how to lead a Session meeting. One of the elders lit into the Pastor at one meeting and gave him a very harsh what’s-for. Another elder said to him, “You’re not allowed to speak to our Pastor like that.” The Pastor didn’t have to say it; one of the elders did. No, I’m not the Pastor in that story, but I am grateful to have served the Church where that happened.
Usually when I have preached on this passage, I have called attention to the great sign of Jesus’ love for his disciples: the Cross. That Jesus was willing to go to the Cross as God’s peace offering to humanity is a remarkable sign of love. And it gives me the chance to tell you a story from more than forty years ago, one that some of you have heard. I was in Puerto Rico for the summer; I spent two weeks in the beautiful city of Mayagüez. A favorite place was the harbor, where I would watch the sunset and would pray. One evening I was there until well after dark, and was praying, “Lord, what shall I preach? I expect that I will be preaching for about forty years, but what do I say for forty years? What shall I preach?” Then I looked up into the sky and saw a Cross in the sky: five stars making the sign of the Cross. It was the Northern Cross, I believe, the central part of the constellation Cygnus, but it was also the answer to my question.
Frankly, I do not know if it is possible for us to love one another to that extent, at least not in the ordinary run of days. So it is of comfort to me that Jesus said to his disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you” before he went to the Cross. He had not yet loved them all the way to the Cross, so perhaps what he asks of us is more manageable, after all. Since Jesus commands us to love one another as he had loved us up to that point, that is why I focus on these three things: love one another by being grateful for one another; love one another by being honest with one another; and love one another by hanging in there with each other.
As many times as Jesus got frustrated with his disciples, he never gave up on them. He continued to teach them, to tell stories to help them grasp what it meant to be loved by God, to help them find good priorities for their lives. It is so easy to give up on the Church. All my life people have told me stories about how the Church has hurt them; I understand. Most pastors do, since most of us have been severely hurt by the Church as well. Jesus understands. His disciples all abandoned him: one betrayed him, one denied knowing him, and the others ran away. Yet Jesus returned to them and said, “Peace be with you.” Time and time again they quarreled, they misunderstood, they led with their own desires rather than with the will of God. And he hung in there with them.
He hangs in there with you and me, as well. So how dare we give up on his Church? If one community of faith hurts you or tries to lead you astray, there will be another one not far away who will take you in and love you. After I was forced out of a pastorate, like my two immediate predecessors, I was tempted to think that church members were the worst people anywhere. But my friend told me, “Go to church every Sunday.” I did (I usually do what I’m told), and I found communities of faith that were struggling to follow Jesus, I heard preachers who faithfully proclaimed the Gospel. Jesus has always hung in there with his Church; if we are to obey his command to love as he has loved us, so will we.
I guess my summary thought is: Remember who you are. You are the people of Jesus, so love one another as Jesus has loved you. I don’t know if this really fits the theme but I’m going to say it anyway. Probably most of you here at Church of the Master will associate me with the massive renovations we made to the building. More important than the building itself is to use it for its intended purpose: to be a place to worship God, to learn God’s ways, and to practice loving one another as Jesus has loved you. Remember: Presbyterian Church of the Master is not this building, but the community of people who gather in this building and who are striving to love your neighbors and to love one another as Jesus has loved you.
Well, time to stop; perhaps it’s past time to stop. Love one another as Jesus has loved you. Do that, please, by being grateful for one another, by being honest with one another, and by hanging in there with each other. To all of you who have loved me I say, “Gracias.” And to all of you to whom Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you,” I say, “Amen.”
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master