Sermon by Reverend Dr. John Mann | May 17, 2020
John 14: 15-21
The text for today is pretty much just one word: If.
The setting is John’s portrait of Jesus – he’s talking to his followers about his impending death. He frames it in terms of a departure. But he assures them he’s not really leaving because he’ll be with them in Spirit.
So he tells them, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
What might that “if” entail?
We wonder, “What if?” as a way of imagining possibilities.
“If” can be conditional – “If you don’t walk the dog, there’s going to be a mess to clean up!”
“If” can be a kind of emotional blackmail – “If you really loved me, you would do what I say.”
Basically, Jesus was saying, “If you’re with me, then show it by your actions.”
What does “If” mean for us today and how might it relate to our actions?
It has been said that this pandemic is the biggest things to hit us since World War 2. That’s not an overstatement. This is big; it’s changed how we go about our lives. The underlying message is that we need to find that same WW 2 spirit in order to address the challenge at hand.
One time my mother told me about when she was in her 20’s during World War II. There were different campaigns in the town where she lived to support the war effort. They would collect bacon grease for some reason and people could turn in their bacon grease for a pennies according to its weight. She said someone was caught putting sand in the bottom of their bacon grease can to make it weigh more – just to get a few extra pennies.
In the UK they tell of people’s courage and determination during the London Blitz and other bombing campaigns. But they also tell stories of how when the all clear was signalled, people had to hurry home to get there before the looters.
Shortcuts can be a convenient passage between two points. But some shortcuts are like selling your soul. You can sell your soul for a few pennies, but you can’t buy it back for all the money in the world. There are not likely to be any shortcuts through our current crisis.
“If you love me.”
Perhaps the “if” here is the difference between knowing “about” Jesus and the experience “of” Jesus. It makes me wonder about the similarity in the actions of love and heroism. Both motivations are often called into play when doing the right thing is of critical importance.
The heroic people I’ve known are not always the most obvious. Not always the strongest, the most beautiful, outspoken or formidable by all appearances.
There was a fellow I met when I first moved to Scotland. His name was Wilson. Wilson was quiet and unassuming. He was rail thin and he walked with a stoop. He would approach the church steps on Sunday morning and grab the rail and pull himself forward. If it was a windy day, you’d think he might get blown away like a leaf.
Wilson had this sense about him of “forward progress.” When he was young, he was on the beach in Normandy during the D-Day invasion. He fought his way through Europe to the end of the war. So as an old man he wasn’t about to let a set of stairs keep him from moving forward.
When he died, the story was told at his funeral that at the end of the war he was part of a contingent guarding a large number of captured Germans. Hundreds of prisoners It was standing around behind barbed wire waiting for their fate to unfold.
One of the prisoners asked Wilson for a cigarette and Wilson gave it to him. When the prisoner lit it up, a British officer standing nearby came over and slapped it out of his mouth.
Wilson challenged the officer and said, “This man has been utterly defeated. Why not now allow him some small sense of dignity?”
I wonder about people who see the world that way; what spark in their soul allows them, or encourages them to create a different sort of narrative to what’s going on around them.
On Sundays, as the folks were filing out the door after the worship service, Wilson offered the same advice in parting, “Look after yourself minister” he would say.
His parting comment implied that we live in a world where looking after ourselves is advisable. How we look after ourselves is the important thing. What one sees when one looks depends on one’s own perspective. Some people say we need to be vigilant and cautious. Some people say we need to be afraid. What if we said, “Let’s be heroic?”
Not long ago I met up with a friend of mine for a cup of coffee at a safe distance. Mark Johnson is a pastor in Chicago, and he was sheltering for a while in Duluth. We went to the same church and high school in Portland. Later on, we were at Seminary at the same time.
I shared with Mark a story about something his brother did when we were in high school. It was around 1970. Before classes started for the day, a lot of students would gather in the cafeteria.
On this one day like any other day, the cafeteria was full and were all sitting together in our different groups, when this one kid, John, comes scuttling through the room. John was a loner. In a school with thousands of students he was on the bottom rung of whatever ladders there were. He always carried a brief case and he wore a black raincoat. He avoided everyone and everyone avoided him.
Except this one day when someone stuck their foot out and John tripped and went flying. His briefcase hit the floor and broke open and papers and dozens of pens and pencils scattered everywhere.
The whole room erupted in laughter as John scrambled around on the floor trying to pick up his things. My friends and I were laughing.
I can still see the picture – this African American kid, special needs, the center of everyone’s amusement at the start of another day.
But then the scene changed. Mark’s brother Craig Johnson stepped out of the crowd. Craig was a year ahead of me in school. He went over to John and got down on his hands and knees and started helping him pick up his papers and pens and pencils.
The mood in the room shifted. Suddenly what seemed so funny wasn’t funny anymore. This young man has been utterly defeated. Why not now allow him some small sense of dignity?
Mark knew that Craig had somehow befriended John, but he had not heard that part of the story. He said, “That sounds like something Craig would do.”
The realm that Jesus called “the kingdom of heaven” is counter-cultural. Truth can be found in unexpected places. The point Jesus often made was that folks need to alter their view in order to see things as they really are and then finding truth wouldn’t be such a surprise.
We see God not in some trampling out of the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored, but in the actions of love, peace and justice toward our neighbors.
That word “if” is only two letters but it is loaded with possibility. No matter what we believe, our actions are the true measure of our belief, and our character. Look after yourselves.