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“You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”
This time of year, I can almost feel the walls of this church breathe a sigh of relief. The end of the school year for our kids draws near; our University students are finishing their semester, and the fourth years are heading for graduation in another week on the lawn across the street.
Here at St. Paul’s we’ve had some huge Sundays and Big Events, one after the other since Christmas Eve.
We’ve had the Yule Log Hunt, Lenten luncheons, guest preachers and speakers, visits from bishops, Holy Week and Easter, Baccalaureate Sunday, the Parish Tea, weddings, funerals, and more meals than I can count.
And today is one more Big Event – Youth Sunday, with our youngest members leading our worship. Today we are celebrating their gifts and declaring once again that Christ’s body needs everyone, of every age, and every gift.
We might feel something like the disciple, Peter, discovering again the Holy Spirit is at work in people long before institutional religion catches up and notices.
And note that Peter stayed “for several days” to enjoy the party. Peter enjoyed big events. If you are feeling a little fatigue from big events, so am I.
But before you think you have graduated from church for the summer, just hold on. Today we get this reminder in the Gospel of John about why we are here, and what we have left to do: “This is my commandment,” Jesus says, “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.”
The gospel lesson comes fast on the heels of last week’s teaching from Jesus about how he is the vine and we are the branches.
To put this in context, the Gospel of John was written many decades after the time of Jesus, and it is important to hear these lessons with the ears of those who wrote this down.
They faced persecution and possible death at the hands of the Roman Empire. To hear Jesus say there is no greater love than to “lay down one’s life for one’s friends” had a particular poignancy in those evil times.
But there is more lacing through this lesson than martyrdom. There is also Jesus explaining what he means by loving our neighbors and “abiding in love” with him by being a true friend to each other.
Many through the ages have heard a mystical tone in the Gospel of John because Jesus is teaching about how we are connected to God and to each other as spiritual beings.
Yet the lesson can sound daunting for those of us who are not particularly mystical or monastically inclined. Even if we wanted to devote eight hours a day to silent prayer and meditation, that is not the reality of most of our lives.
So I want to make a few simple and practical suggestions about how we can live into this concept of abiding in love with God and each other.
I take my cue from a wonderful short book that I heartily recommend you add to your summer reading list: “An Altar in the World” by Barbara Brown Taylor.
In her book, Taylor writes about the “practice of paying attention.”
Wake up each morning and give thanks for the day, for new possibilities, new opportunities. If the only prayer you make is to give thanks for the day, that will be prayer enough.
Take a few moments out of your day to notice the small details around you – the trees, the pebbles, the food on your table, the roof over your head. Approach everything with a touch of awe and wonder – and with that old-fashioned word: reverence.
Go for a walk and notice where you are walking. Brown calls it “the practice of walking.” Don’t get so caught up in the destination. Notice where your feet are stepping, and notice what is around you.
Notice other people. Brown calls it “the practice of encountering others.” Notice your loved-ones, and notice your friends. Give thanks for them especially when that might feel like a challenge.
Then take a moment to notice the people you encounter every day who you might otherwise ignore as part of the landscape:
The checkout clerk at the grocery store, the stranger who passes you on the hallway at school, or the person who sits behind you in church.
You don’t have to say anything to them, but just notice each of these people, and give thanks that they share the world with you and are as beloved of God as you are.
I have one more idea for the practice of paying attention: Let’s call it the “practice of compassion.”
When Jesus says “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends,” he is talking about compassion.
We don’t have to be martyrs to be compassionate, but we do have to open our hearts and feel some of the pain and brokenness around us.
From our open hearts will come compassion, an from compassion comes the practice of giving – and giving in every sense of the word.
God gives each of us more abundance than we often realize. Each of us has time, talent, and treasure.
God gives us everything we need, beginning with the gift of today.
We can live thinking we never have enough. We can be like the rich man of the parable who cannot bear to part with anything, or we can be like the poor woman who gives everything of herself knowing God will give her even more.
And then let’s take our compassion to another level and change the practices of the world that cause suffering – ignorance, lack of education, lack of jobs, lack of health care, prejudice, crime, violence, hatred.
When we do this, be aware something more. Notice how each of these practices of noticing, walking, encountering others, and compassion are changing you to the core of your being.
I promise you will never be the same again, and the world will never be the same again because you are here in it.
“You did not choose me but I chose you,” Jesus says, “And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”
By James Richardson, Fiat Lux