sermons, songs, etceteras
This sermon was originally preached on May 15, 2022 at Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield, MN. The service may be viewed here. Song lyrics are included below.
Fifth Sunday in Easter Lectionary Texts:
Acts 11:1-18 | Psalm 148 | Revelation 21:1-6
Gospel Text : John 13:21-35
Good morning, Beloveds. Today I’m going to go off script and take you back in time for a minute to my previous life. As you may know, each pastoral intern is responsible to create and design some kind of project during our year with you. I know one of your former interns designed a Lenten discussion series, and another created a beautiful prayer wall in the Spiritual Direction room.
I stumbled upon what’s become my project somewhat accidentally — or, perhaps a better word would be providentially — when Tom invited me to sing a solo back in November on All Saints Sunday. As I searched for songs that would be appropriate to the day, what happened instead was that I wrote one of my own. Not long after that, I wrote another that followed the Baptism of Jesus and his first miracle at Cana, marking the beginning of his ministry.
It’s been a long time since songs have come to me like that and more or less written themselves. After my son was born and we moved here from Nashville where I’d spent eight years as a professional recording artist — aka a rock star — I thought that part of my life was done. When I entered seminary four years ago, I felt certain my songwriting days were over. So I was surprised, delighted, and overcome, really, when songs poured out of me in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, two years ago on the 25th of this month. After that, songs went quiet again until they started blooming again this year. And that’s how I decided that for my project, I would continue writing songs to mark significant moments in Jesus’s life and in the life of the Church, to leave with you when my time here is over.
The tricky thing is that songs, like babies, aren’t always born on time. For example, ever since I attended my first Maundy Thursday service a few years ago, I’ve wanted to write a song for it — one that might explore what it means to love like Jesus, who went to his hands and knees to wash the feet of his best friends, almost all of whom would betray, deny, and abandon him to the lonely darkness of his death. That desire rang in me again as we approached Holy Week last month, but my eagerness turned to anxiety as the song I tried to write about Jesus’s New Commandment to Love others as he Loves us failed to materialize.
Perhaps the song never came because, despite my empathic nature and ability to hurt with those who hurt, it feels impossible most times for me to even imagine loving those who do the hurting. Indeed, I don’t even have to imagine the pain of betrayal, because, like many of you probably, I have been betrayed by those closest to me; I have felt the sting of being abandoned by those who claimed to love me most. I have stood by helplessly as things I shared in trust and vulnerability were twisted, publicly, and turned into a weapon to humiliate me in front of my whole world.
So no, the pain isn’t the problem for me; it's the Love. Because all I have in me toward those people — people I trusted and loved and who betrayed me — is rage. I don’t know how to love them, and frankly sometimes, I don’t want to love them. Those who hurt us don’t deserve our love any more than the disciples deserved Jesus’s love, any more than we deserve Jesus’s love — which is the point and the impossibility.
Maybe this is a lot to take in. As a pastor, it shouldn’t be so difficult for me to preach love, right? It’s right there in the Maundy Thursday text, which is also today’s text: Jesus gives a new commandment to love the way he loves, and the way he loves is to wash the feet of betrayers, to set the table for deniers, to try one last time to rally the abandoners to a purpose he knows is beyond them, which is why he later promises his Spirit to help them.
Like every law or commandment God ever gave, this new one is simple, and clear, and direct: He tells them to love each other like he does: selflessly and sacrificially with everyday things like water and bread and wine, because communal love is the thing, the only thing, that will sustain them in his absence. To the Father he will later pray not for them to be taken from the world but that in it, God would protect them from the evil one — and all the malice, hatred, and lack that evil brings. But to them, in this moment, he says, “where I’m going you cannot follow. You will remain in this world, and in order to survive here, your love for each other must be as audacious, resolute, and foolish as my love for you right here and now in these moments before and of greatest suffering.”
In his book ‘A History of My Brief Body,’ Queer Indigenous poet and author Billy-Ray Belcourt says that, “To love someone is to firstly confess: I am prepared to be devastated by you.”
Let me say that again: “To love someone is to firstly confess: I am prepared to be devastated by you.”
I think that’s what Jesus did for his disciples, for me, for us. And I think that’s what he asks of us in this New Commandment, which he gave in the thick of devastation. Love each other, recklessly, knowing it may break you.
My friends, I will tell you what I told Tom earlier this week: I think this is crap! But if as a pastor and leader I am called to model the way of Jesus, then the first thing I must do is confess that I don’t know how to do it. Sometimes I don’t even know how to think it.
Which brings me back to songs.
Earlier I told you that songs are rarely born when or how I want. Sometimes I can’t find the words, and sometimes the words I try just aren’t honest. And so I wait for the words — and the Word, the Living One, the spirit of Christ — to find me.
As I’ve pondered this scene in the Upper Room over the past couple months, considering this New Commandment, the people and the pain and the Christ, what came up was not a love song, but a confession. And one not of preparation, but of its lack.
I’m going to share it with you now, because beyond this, I have neither answers nor advice nor wisdom to offer. But I can give you my humanity and my truth, and invite reflection upon yours. And I can hope that, perhaps, this confession will be the seed that grows into a garden of love.