May 17, 2009
SERMON OF MAY 17, 2009
Rev. Dr. M. Bruce McKay
Pilgrim-St. Luke’s United Church of Christ
“Chosen as Friends”
Psalm 98, John 15: 9-17
I grew up at a time when the athletic activities of children weren’t all planned and run by adults. I grew up playing with friends who together had to agree on their own rules and chose their own teams.
Choosing teams for baseball began with a bat. One captain tossed a bat to the other. That captain then put his hand on top of the other’s hand. They then moved their hands up the handle of the bat. The captain whose hand was the last to fit beneath the knob at the end of the bat got the first pick.
They then alternated choosing players for their team. I was never good enough to be the first player picked – and I was never bad enough to be the last player picked.
We had a rule that everyone who showed up got to play. But I can still see the look on the faces of those who were the last ones picked - especially if there was an odd number of players. For then, the person stood there, after everyone else had been picked, knowing that no one really wanted him on their team. No one had freely chosen him to play with them.
No matter how good an athlete we may or may not be, there comes a time in all of our lives when we feel like no one wants us on their team.
Now if you’ve never felt that way, then just “keep on livin’, as older folks often say.
Each of us knows something of what it’s like to be that last player picked.
Each of us knows something of what it’s like to feel unappreciated, unwanted, unneeded.
And Jesus said to his disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you. “
Did you hear him say that in today’s text?
Did you really hear him say that?
“You did not choose me but I chose you!”
Now Jesus isn’t just talking to the 11 still at the table with him the night before he died.
He’s talking to you and me, whether we’re male or female, young or old, gay or straight, black or white, Asian American or Hispanic American, left handed or right handed, good at the plate or not, good with a glove or not, good at anything or not.
Jesus is talking to each of us who find ourselves sitting here this morning waiting for a Word from the Lord.
And that word is “I chose you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last…”
He chose each of us to do this, not as his servant, nor as his student, nor as his follower, but as his friend.
Imagine that! Imagine that!
Imagine what it would mean for you to live each day knowing deep in your heart that Jesus has chosen you as a friend – a friend for life – a friend forever – in this world and the next.
We are each chosen as friends of Jesus to be friends of his and one another by bearing the fruit of his love for us – fruit that will last because it begins with God and ends with God.
And he tells us clearly how to do this - “Love one another as I have loved you.”
It’s as simple and as challenging as that.
The love of Jesus is full of joy – “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.”
The love of Jesus is also full of challenge – “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
We can’t know the joy of Jesus’ love for us unless we’re also willing to accept the cost of his love – the cost that comes with offering our lives to others the way he offered his life for us.
It’s a package deal. As Amy Liberatore sings in a song she wrote, “There is No Resurrection without the Cross.”
That’s the way it is with Jesus’ love for us and with the love he calls us to have for one another.
After all, isn’t that how it is with friendship?
You can’t be someone’s friend without being there for them, without acting on their behalf. Friendship isn’t defined by feelings but by actions – actions that may carry with them certain costs to oneself. The cost may involve time or money or doing something you may not feel like doing at the moment – but you know that it’s the right thing to do.
Friendship is rooted in relationships marked by shared vulnerability and mutual respect as opposed to relationships marked by hierarchy and the refusal to risk being vulnerable.
The Quakers have gotten many things right. They recognize that when Jesus names his disciples friends he changes the shape of the community they’re called to create. He changes the community from being a pyramid to being a circle. That’s why they don’t have ordained clergy and why they call themselves the Society of Friends.
I’m not sure seminaries are in synch with Jesus on this point. They tend to produce pyramid pastors, as opposed to circle pastors.
I know this because I’ve spent the 30 years since I graduated from seminary trying to move from being a pyramid pastor to being a circle pastor – someone working to find my place in the circle rather than secure my position at the top of the pyramid.
One of the African American mother’s of the church I served in East Harlem was Rose Balkcom. Rose grew up in South Carolina and moved to NYC with her husband after the Second World War. She is a very quiet, yet very strong person of faith. She raised three children in East Harlem, all of whom graduated from college.
We were once paired off during a retreat and asked to say what we appreciated most in one another.
Rose said that what she appreciated about me was the fact that I had never turned my back on her. That hadn’t been her experience with white males growing up in the segregated south.
I’ve always remembered her saying this and been grateful for the grace of our friendship – grateful for her never having turned her back on me.
I came to love Rose Balkcom as I know Jesus loves me – as a friend, as a very good friend.
Rose’s middle child, Sharon, was working on the 95th floor of the first World Trade Center Tower hit on September 11, 2001. Rose couldn’t bring herself to have a memorial service until July 27th the following year.
After the service Rose wrote me a letter. In it she said, “Thank you for helping our family remember and celebrate Sharon’s life at the memorial service last month. It was such an honor to have you drive some 16 hours to be with us. Your participation in the service made it complete...You and your family are very special to us. We are grateful for all of the support and prayers you have sent our way during this most difficult year…Please give our love to Phoebe and the boys. Love, Rose, Joan and Gordon Balkcom.”
I am equally grateful for the blessing of Rose Balkcom and her family in my life – for her loving friendship – and for the joy it continues to bring.
“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
As Paul Tillich reminds us, “Joy is possible only when we are driven towards things and persons because of what they are and not because of what we can get from them…Joy is nothing less than the awareness of our being fulfilled in our true being, in our personal center. This fulfillment is possible only if we unite ourselves with what others really are.” (Quoted in Lectionary Homiletics, May 17, 2009, p. 56)
We are each chosen as friends of Jesus to be friends to one another by bearing the fruit of his love for us. In doing this we taste the joy of being who we were created to be.
We can only do this in community with one another.
We can only do this by working to make a difference in the world, even when the world is telling us it’s crazy to even try.
In her book Small Wonders, Barbara Kingsolver explains how she does this when she’s feeling hopeless and alone.
“When I come down to this feeling that I am an army of one standing out on the broad plain waving my little flag of hope, I call up a friend or two and offer to make dinner for us. We remind ourselves that we aren’t standing apart from the crowd, we are a crowd. We’re a prairie fire, a church choir, a major note in the American chord…We’re the theater of the street, the accurate joy of children’s hearts, the literature of tomorrow’s wisdom arrived today, just in time. I’m with Emma Goldman: Our revolution will have dancing – and excellent food. In the long run, the choice of life over death is too good to resist.” (Quoted in The Impossible Will Take a Little While by Paul Rogat Loeb, p. 323)
“You did not choose me but I chose you” – in doing this Jesus gives each of us the choice to choose life over death. That’s what we are called to do and who we’re called be for one another. The only way we can do this is by being friends of one another. By loving one another as Jesus loves us we can be a prairie fire of hope no matter how difficult the journey gets or how hopeless we may feel.
I used to be troubled by our church not growing as rapidly as I’d like. Despite my reluctance and that of many of you, we’ve set numerical goals for growth in membership, assuming that the way to keep score in this business of being the church is by counting the number of people in our pews.
God has used Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, prophet and poet to temper the importance of numerical growth versus growing deeper in our relationships with one another and with God.
“Merton wrote a letter to a young activist in which he said: `Concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.’” (The Politics of Friendship by Bill Wylie-Kellerman, in www.sojo.net, preaching the Word, May 17, 2009).
We build these relationships in community with one another as the very Body of Christ himself at work in the world. The only way to measure our faithfulness as friends of Jesus is by measuring the depth of the community created through our abiding in His love. While we haven’t reached the number of members many of us might like, we have reached in many ways a greater depth of community than I ever imagined was possible.
Having every member of our community, every member of the Body of Christ that worships here, know that they are chosen as friends of Jesus to be friends to one another is essential if the Body of Christ is to be healthy and whole.
Our friendship with Jesus and with one another is always personal, but it is never private. For loving one another, as Jesus loves us, is about both personal and social transformation. It’s about changing people’s lives and changing life in the world in which we live.
The Brooklyn Dodgers were playing the Boston Braves in the summer of 1947. Jackie Robinson had joined the Dodgers earlier that season, becoming the first African American player in Major League Baseball.
Robinson was greeted with venom from hostile players and crowds in every stadium. He faced fastballs thrown at his head and brutal epithets from opposing dugouts and the stands. During this game the taunts and racial slurs reached a peak.
Pee Wee Reese, at that point, walked from his position at shortstop over to Robinson at second base. Reese put his arm around him and stood for what seemed like a long time. The fans grew quiet and remained so for the rest of the game.
This gesture by Pee Wee Reese spoke eloquently and powerfully these simple words: “Jackie Robinson is my friend – not just my teammate. Jackie Robinson is my friend.”
Robinson later said that Reese’s arm around his shoulder saved his career.
I have a poster in my office at the house of Jackie Robinson swinging a bat, at the top of the poster in large letters it says, COURAGE.
We can’t create a prairie fire of hope and joy on this corner without courage – the courage it takes to build deep, trusting relationships.
The courage it takes to speak truth to power.
The courage it takes to create community in the face of separation and alienation.
The courage it takes to love one another as Jesus loves us.
We find this courage by choosing life over death.
We find this courage by knowing that Jesus has found us.
We find this courage by knowing that Jesus has chosen us as his friends so that we may choose to be friends of one another and bear the fruit of his love.
All we have to do is move from shortstop to second base – from our house to our neighbor’s – from our sanctuary into our community – from our own world into the world of another whom Jesus also calls friend.
When we do this we have his promise that we’ll find both friendship and joy!
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.