August 9

Rev. Dr. Regina L. Walton on The Beloved Community

By Marsh Chapel

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John 15:1-8

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I’m very happy to be back with you at Marsh Chapel, and greetings to you also who are listening on the radio. Our theme this summer is the Beloved Community, so it’s a little funny to begin with a story about a hermit, but that is what I’m going to do. This story comes from my favorite religious psychologists, the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth century. It’s called “The Angry Brother and the Water Jug.”

“A brother was a [monk in a monastery] and was often moved to anger so he said to himself, ‘I will leave and go live by myself, and, because I won’t have anything to do with anyone and will be at peace, my passion will cease.’ So he left and lived in a cave by himself. One day he filled a small jug with water and put it on the ground and all of a sudden it fell over. He picked it up and filled it a second time and again it fell over. Then he filled it a third time and it fell over. Enraged, he grabbed hold of the jug and broke it. When he came to himself, he knew he had been mocked by the [Evil One] and said, ‘I’ve left and gone to live by myself, and even here, I’ve been defeated. Therefore, I will return to the [monastery]. There needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere.’ And he got up, and returned.” [Tim Vivian, ed. Becoming Fire: Through the Year with the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Cistercian Publications, 2008, p. 190-191]

The desert fathers and mothers were a quirky bunch, but I love them. With just a few words and a few key details, their stories express so much about the human quest to know the divine. Brevity and clarity. Would that preachers had these gifts as well! But they elude so many of us in the pulpit.

The monk in this story thinks at first that his brothers are getting in the way of his spiritual development. He has a quick temper, and in community he has a lot of other people to exercise it on. Much better, the thinks, to live alone, with no annoying fellow monks around. Then he’ll make some real progress. Of course he realizes, after he smashes the innocent water-jug, that it is not his fellow monks who are the problem, but himself. Community, he’s come to understand, is not a stumbling block after all: it is a training ground, a school of virtues, a school of love.

This is a sermon in two parts: the first is about Christian community, and why we should bother with it. And the second part names three qualities of beloved communities as I see them.

When Jesus in John’s gospel talks about beloved community, he uses the word “abide.” Jesus says in John 15, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”

“Abide” is now archaic; except for the movie The Big Lebowski. We don’t say, “Abide here in the car while I run into Starbucks.” (pause) “Abide by the law” is one of the only current uses of the word. Some other contemporary translations of the Bible use “remain in my love” instead. But there is reason to retain “abide” apart from the poetry of it. None of the synonyms for “abide” fully capture the state of being that Jesus is describing. It can mean “remain,” or “stay,” but it also has shades of waiting and expectance, waiting in this state of love until Jesus comes again, to “dwell,” (another archaic word) in Christ’s love. Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, translates this verse as “Make yourself at home in my love.” He is connecting “abide” to another word to which it is related, “abode.” (The place where you abide.)

    God welcomes us into God’s love, and this love is our shelter. But Jesus, in asking his disciples to abide in his love and to keep his commandment to love one another, is using a poetic word to ask them to do something extremely difficult. The abode that he is inviting them in to has many other guests all trying to make themselves at home as well.

To abide in Christ’s love requires something from us. It is not just a cozy meeting of like-minded individuals. It is hard work. All of us trying to make ourselves at home in God’s love; we bump elbows sometimes.

That is part of the appeal of being what is commonly called “spiritual but not religious.” Or as it is sometimes abbreviated, SBNR. One can be SBNR without any kind of community. Or, SBNR community can be fluid and without much accountability, like a yoga class. One advantage of finding God in watching a sunset, or on a mountaintop, instead of at church is that, well, you don’t have to deal with anyone else on the mountaintop! It’s just you and the view.

But the story of the Angry Brother and the Water Jug challenges the SBNR view of things. “There needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere.” Getting away from it all spiritually will only get us so far.

Emily Dickinson is one of my favorite poets. Actually I think of her as my former employer, since I used to work as a docent in her house when I was in college in Western Mass.  She famously wrote, “Some keep the Sabbath going to church/I keep it staying at home/With a bobolink for a chorister/And an orchard for a dome.” Beautiful lines. Deeply true for her, since she loved nature with all her heart, and really hated going to church. Actually if there had been radio church in Dickinson’s day, I think she probably would have tuned in, if only for the hymns.

Every summer for the past 15 years, I have gone to a retreat center where I can look out on a meadow and hear lots of birds, maybe even a bobolink or two, and that time apart is very important to the health of my soul. That time of awe and wonder in God’s creation has given me many wonderful gifts. But it can’t give me everything I need. The peace of the meadow refreshes me, but only for a while, until I’m stuck in traffic again. The bobolink, with its peaceful chirping, can help to give me some clarity about the parts of my life where I am falling short. But the opportunities to actually do that work of inner change require leaving the meadow. Because, in order to grow into the full stature of our exemplar, Jesus,  “There needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere.”

Patient endurance is a good synonym for “abiding.” “Patiently endure in my love.” “Hang in there in my love.” It’s a process.

The New York Times pundit David Brooks in some columns and in his book The Road to Character says this:

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

[David Brooks, The Moral Bucket List, The New York Times, April 11, 2015]

We Christians might call eulogy virtues “the fruit of the Spirit,” from Paul’s list in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

I’m a parish priest. What I hope we are on our best days at my parish, Grace Episcopal Church, Newton Corner, is a School for Eulogy Virtues. We are all students, and Jesus is our teacher. It’s a funny kind of school, since no one ever graduates. We don’t graduate, but we do grow. It’s an organic curriculum, the Jesus-following life.

And Jesus, our teacher, says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Stay close, Jesus says. That’s how you become more like me.

The best grapes are produced closest to the vine, where the nutrients are. That’s why the branches are pruned, so they don’t get too long. Long branches ramble away from the vine, and produce small and sour grapes.

So spiritually, we want to stay close to our energy source. Otherwise, we are just putting our sour grapes out there, into a world that has enough sourness and bitterness already.

How do we do this? How do we abide in Christ’s love, staying close to our energy source? In my tradition, the Episcopal Church, we take the vows of our baptismal covenant as the blueprint for abiding. The first set of questions is about our Christian beliefs, but then there are questions about how we are to live our lives.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”

“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

“Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” This is not easy stuff, by the way.

“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

And the answer to all of these questions is, “I will, with God’s help.” Because, there needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere. We answer these questions not only with our lips, but with our lives, every day. And of course we fail at them all the time, and ask God’s forgiveness, and begin again. That’s part of abiding, too—the grace of always beginning again.

Very few of us are cut out to be spiritual hermits. In community we learn from each other, and we learn about ourselves. We abide. At my parish, our abiding usually involves food, and lots of it. Abiding and constant snacks go quite well together, actually. (pause)

Jesus uses the image of vines and branches. Branches tend to be all tangled up with each other. There’s a messiness in that. Many of us would prefer it if Jesus had used houseplants as his model, each one of us in our own little self-enclosed pot. But we’re not houseplants; we’re vine branches, tangled, woven together, and sometimes in each other’s way.

Beloved communities are examples of mutual abiding. They are also places of radical welcome. That is why the story we heard from Acts, of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, is a story of the Beloved Community to me. Two people in the middle of nowhere—not much of a community, on the surface. But nevertheless, a story of how we come to abide in God’s love, and one that that Christians are made, not born. Following Christ is a process of becoming. This story is from the early days after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, when the disciples are learning to listen for the Holy Spirit guiding them. And Philip hears the Spirit telling him to head south on the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza. Holy Spirit as GPS. The text says, “This is a wilderness road.” And as he walks along this road, he comes upon the chariot of an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official in charge of the Queen’s treasury. Philip hears the Eunuch reading from the scroll of Isaiah, since these are the days when everyone read aloud. And he says, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the Eunuch says, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” This story reminds us that the Bible was just as confusing then as it is today. And it reminds us too that the Church has always been struggling with issues of sexuality and race and culture. After all, being a eunuch was hardly a lifestyle choice promoted by ancient Judaism. The eunuch had been at the Temple in Jerusalem to worship; but he likely would not have made it past the outer gates, because of his sexual difference. He was a proselyte, or maybe what was called a God-fearer, a Gentile who was attracted to Judaism, but for cultural or ethnic reasons did not convert. In any case, he had made a very long journey to sit in the outer courtyards of the Temple. A person of great importance in his country, he would remain a second-class citizen in the Jewish faith. And yet a hunger to know the God of Israel drew him over many miles to Jerusalem.

Philip joins him in the chariot, and they continue on together, as Philip opens the scriptures to him, and tells him about Jesus, and about baptism, and about adoption as God’s children through Christ.

When they pass by some water, the Eunuch says, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

And so the wilderness road becomes a place of beloved community, of radical inclusivity. The eunuch goes home, no longer on the outside looking in, but a part of the whole, a member of the body of Christ.

Philip doesn’t just welcome him; he forms him in faith. He interprets the scriptures to him. He listens to him. He answers his questions and addresses his confusion. In all of this he is led by the Spirit.

Philip walks the wilderness road, but he brings all the resources of his faith with him. He is open to the Spirit and its surprises—but it is the practices that he has cultivated in synagogue and with Jesus and the disciples, of prayer, of scripture reading, of discernment—that’s what he has to offer.

We are in a moment, as people of faith, when we are called to walk the wilderness road. We are called to reach out and walk alongside new people, in new places, and to be open and adaptable in ways not imaginable before. But we won’t be very effective in all this, if we leave the resources of our tradition behind us. We won’t be effective out in the wilderness if we have left behind the practices of prayer and scripture reading and worship and discernment that nourished us within the walls of our churches. We won’t succeed with the new technology, as rapidly as it evolves, if we also don’t remain plugged in to the “old school” technology: of relationships and showing up for each other in authentic ways. We won’t succeed as faith-based activists, if we are not also faith-based contemplativists, always listening for the Spirit’s guidance. Philip’s witness to the eunuch teaches us this.

So Beloved Community is about abiding, with God and with each other, in Jesus’ name. And Beloved Community is about radical welcome, taking the tools we’ve learned in our sanctuaries, and carrying them out to the Wilderness Road.

And there’s one more thing: Beloved Community is about what we will not abide.

Martin Luther King Jr., graduate of this university, spoke about the Beloved Community as the outcome, the end result, of nonviolence. It is the fruit that grows out of this good soil.

So inherent in the Beloved Community is a continuing stance against violence and oppression in all forms. The epistle reading from 1 John reminds us of this: “We love because he first loved us. Those who say ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

Today is the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I hope to God that we are on the verge of a new Civil Rights movement in this country. There are things that we cannot abide, if we want to be the Beloved Community. If we dare to proclaim that we follow Jesus. We live in a complicated world. But there are three things that should not be complicated for us in the church. There are three things that are really no-brainers for us to get behind as American Christians of any stripe, for us to march for, and to demonstrate for, to be a force for change. Three things about which there is no excuse for our silence; we simply cannot abide them.

First: systemic racism, especially against African Americans and people of color. I believe the church is especially called to stand up to systemic racism as it is expressed in our public schools and in our criminal justice and prison systems. There are special opportunities for the witness of the church there.

Next, the peculiar institution of American gun violence. It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, it is this way nowhere else in the world. This epidemic, combined with the epidemic of racism in our land—you read the papers too. You know. It has to stop. We have unique opportunities as people of faith to witness against gun violence, and for peace. To change the laws. To change our culture. So many lives needlessly ripped away. But perfect love casts out fear.

Third, the destruction of the environment. It’s right there in Genesis: this world, this created order, is good, and sacred. Time is running out. We have abused our position as stewards of the earth. Jesus called us to lives of simplicity and generosity, to live in harmony with each other, resisting the forces of greed and waste.

We serve the God of love and life. In these three areas, the shadow of death is creeping over us. We serve the God of reconciliation, of resurrection, of re-creation.

There needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere. And God’s help is everywhere. Indeed, that is the only way we can hope to have any impact on these issues at all. The only way. Struggle and patient endurance and calling on God’s help. That is the stuff of abiding. May God bless us, and empower us to live out this calling, together, and in Christ’s name. Amen.

–The Rev. Dr. Regina L. Walton, Rector, Grace Church, Newton, MA

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