same old song

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I preached last Sunday at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, a church with which I have a long and meaningful connection, so my sermon is personal for me and for them. Even so, sometimes something that speaks to the particular also has a wider reach. Thanks to their awesome AV team, I have video as well.

My text was John 13:34-35: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

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For the first time in many years, I have preached weekly through the seasons of Lent and Eastertide. I have been a bridge pastor for a church a couple of towns up from ours on the Connecticut shoreline. We, like you, have followed the lectionary, and the timeline of the stories held together pretty well, telling stories of Jesus’ ministry, then his trial and death, then his resurrection, and then his appearances to those whom he loved and who loved him. But the last couple of weeks, the passages in the lectionary have jumped back to before the resurrection. Our text today takes us back to the night before his death, the night when both Judas and Peter betrayed Jesus, the night when he ate with his disciples and washed their feet.

When we gather for services on the night we have come to call Maundy Thursday–which is Latin for “Mandate or Commandment Thursday”–we can tap into the solemn nature of the service and the rich significance of our rituals, but what we can’t reproduce is the uncertainty of what it felt like to be in that upper room, with little more than an ominous sense that life as they had known it was over. For me it carries the same kind of power as Holy Saturday, the day between Jesus’ death and resurrection, when those who had walked with him had no real sense that Sunday would come.

I learned a term from the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, an Episcopal priest and Hebrew Bible Scholar at Brite Divinity School: Holy Saturday Christian. In a “pastoral letter” she wrote to her students after they had dealt with particularly violent biblical texts in one of her classes she wrote,

I am a Holy Saturday preacher. I wake in the aftermath— if I have slept—to the knowledge that the Beloved is still dead. And I take comfort in the God who is and has said I AM with you. And I rail and scream and curse at God knowing God hears and is there with me to hear. And I try to sleep one more night to see if it will be easier the next day.

And that is where the sermon ends. It is still too soon to talk about resurrection. But God-with-us sits in her chair grieving with us. Waiting with us, walking with us as we make our way through and make sense of our grief.

Maybe that is why we are going back in the story. Even in the shadow of the resurrection, we still have to make sense of our grief. Jesus’ words indicate that grief, like life and faith, is a team sport. Here I am this morning, second in line to fill a pulpit left vacant by one who loved you and talked to you and walked with you for a long time. Christ is risen. Christ is risen, indeed.

And the grief just keeps on coming.

Jesus was speaking to that reality when he said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

God gave the first ten commandments to the Hebrew people to help them learn how to live in the wilderness. In the upper room, Jesus offered his commandment to help his loved ones learn how to live in their own uncharted territory. But what makes it new? Isn’t loving one another singing the same old song?

As Ginger and I both worked on sermons this week, she came across an observation that what was new was Jesus called the disciples beyond loving our neighbors as ourselves and said, “Love one another: the people right here in the group. Be known for how you love each other. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he said, which begs what feels like a rather obvious question: how did Jesus love?

The first person that comes to mind when I think of how Jesus loved is Zacchaeus because the way Jesus loved him was to say, “Come down because I am going to your house for dinner.” Jesus let Zacchaeus be the host. Jesus was going to let him offer what he had.

Several years ago, I was at Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville, and learned that the way they began their services was to allow anyone in the congregation to offer whatever they wanted in the ten minutes that preceded the beginning of worship. The Sunday I was there, one of the men who was experiencing homelessness and came to the breakfast they offered each week had signed up to sing. Both his voice and his guitar were beaten up, and he sang with all his heart—and it was not good. The room was hushed and attentive. When he finished, there was a chorus of amens. “We had to learn to give up being perfect,” the pastor said.

The second thing I think about is how many people were changed by what seemed to be incidental contact with Jesus. Most of his ministry took place in the context of interruptions: people who stopped him, or called out to him, or just reached out to touch him because they knew he would listen.

Before the pandemic, I rode the train from Guilford, Connecticut, where Ginger and I live to New York City one day a week for in-person meetings. I work as an editor, so I was working remotely before the pandemic since I read for a living. On my walk from Grand Central Station to my office, I always stopped at a little stainless-steel trailer at the corner of Madison Ave and E. 35th Street to get a cinnamon raisin bagel.

From March 2020 until April 5 of this year, I didn’t go to New York. My first day back, I wondered if the cart would be there—and it was. When I stepped up to the window, the man in the cart smiled and said, “Cinnamon raisin bagel!”

He remembered me. To say I felt loved is not an overstatement.

But beyond that, I started to realize that I had bought bagels from him for a couple of years and had never stopped to learn about him. The next time, I said, “May I ask you name?”

“Caesar,” he said. “Tell me yours.”

A couple of days later, I asked about his cart and he told me more of his story. I had always assumed he was a poor guy at the mercy of someone who owned a bunch of carts and that he was probably overworked and underpaid. Turns out Caesar owns his cart and has been on that corner for seventeen years. And he bought if from a man who sold bagels and coffee from it for thirty years before that. “It’s good,” he said, “I have about 40,000 customers a year.” And he remembered me.

I have been changed by my incidental contact with Caesar, or perhaps I should say choosing to make the incidental intentional is what has opened my heart a bit more.

Another thing that comes to mind about the way that Jesus loved was that for him love was an end unto itself. Jesus was not recruiting to staff an organization or setting best practices for greater effectiveness; he was not trying to bump up the membership numbers for the annual report, or make sure there were enough giving units to meet the budget.

He loved those around him just because they were wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved.

When Paul wrote about love, he said

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Jesus said, “Love like that.” Choose relationship over doctrine; choose relationship over history; choose relationship over anxiety about the future, over uncertainty, over legacy, over comfort. Love one another like it’s what matters most.

When I started preparing for today, the biggest challenge was to not make the sermon about me because of how I feel about you. I have family connections to Wilshire. My grandmother was on staff here. Bruce McIver officiated at my parents’ wedding, just as George did at mine. The first retreat I did for Wilshire was for Neal Jeffries in 1982, as best I can remember, and I think this summer may be my twentieth camp. I tell people that Wilshire feels like my home church even though I have never been a member—I’ve rarely been inside the building for that matter.

I feel like I belong because one summer long ago a seventh-grade boy who had just lost his father let Ginger and I comfort him. I feel like I belong because I can’t hear the song “I Would Walk Five Hundred Miles” without seeing your faces. I feel like I belong because of Darren and what our friendship means to my life. I feel like I belong because of Collin and Ellen and Tyler and Anne and Marilu and Mindy . . . and I could spend the rest of the day naming names and telling stories because you have loved me like Jesus: you made me belong.

Keep doing that. Keep making room, keep growing and changing, keep taking care of each other; keep singing the same old song that never gets old. We are not going to last forever; Wilshire is not going to last forever; may our legacy be that we loved each other with all our beings. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

6 COMMENTS

  1. This is great, Milton. Thank you. The story about Caesar gave me goosebumps. Here’s to cinnamon raisin bagels and remembering one another.

  2. Beautiful message, Milton! Thank you for posting it! Your writings are so helpful to me, a retired UM deacon minister of music. Finding a place to worship is not easy these days and your and other’s words are a beacon of hope hard to come by in these fraught days. Thanks again!

  3. Thank you for another beautiful message, Milton. Bless you in your ministry whether in the kitchen or the pulpit. Love and hugs

  4. Milton, I loved this. It brought me back to High School when you preached one Sunday night during a Youth Week. Your sermon was about friendship. I have always remembered that sermon…..not every word of course, but the message was about how fortunate we are to have friends to love and be loved. Even if it is just one good friend. I have been so fortunate over the years to have many friends….close friends. What a blessing to have friends for 40, 50 and even 60 years. I have always tried to stay in touch and love them through the years. Thank you for sharing this sermon. Take care Milton……You’re FRIEND, Kerry.

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