April 28, 2013
One of my many unforgettable moments in ministry occurred during the funeral of Bob Thomas in 1993. Many of you never had the opportunity to know Bob. He is one of the principal reasons this church still exists. In 1979, the aging congregation that worshiped here seriously considered closing the church’s doors. Bob envisioned a fresh way forward for the “eleven members plus Jesus” as he always described them. And here we are today.
An African-American, Bob made his mark throughout many turbulent decades before, during, and after the Civil Rights Movement. Oh, the stories he could tell, both hard and amazing! He was a humble, passionate follower of Jesus, a gentle giant when it came to servant leadership. Everywhere he went, Bob committed himself both to reconciliation and care for the most vulnerable.
Bob was always turning his dreams into deeds. While in his 80’s, he could often be found sitting next to Steve Hammond, 50 years his junior, as the two of them traveled on overnight bus trips with rowdy Oberlin College students to protests and peace marches in New York City and Washington, D.C. Even today, 20 years after Bob’s passing, he continues to inspire my journey.
At Bob’s funeral, held at First Church to accommodate the massive crowds, his nephew stood up and challenged each one of us present to continue to carry the torch that Bob was passing on to us. I thought about Bob’s decades of faithful public service and I determined that day to seek election to the Oberlin School Board.
A third of the John’s Gospel is devoted to the last week of Jesus’ life. This account of Jesus’ ministry comes to us in such a different form than the synoptic Gospels–Matthew, Mark, and Luke–provide. Chapters 13 through 16 in the Gospel of John read to me like a contemplative memoir of the final deeds, teachings, and instructions of Jesus as he prepares for his death and prepares to leave his ministry in other hands. Like Bob, and each one of us, Jesus had a torch to pass on.
The language of “glory” is used to describe how intimately connected Jesus is to the One he calls Abba, or Father. This isn’t a word that we use frequently outside of religious circles. The verb, glorify, or in Greek, doxazo, is employed several times in just two verses–a combination of past, passive tense and future, active tense. This usage gives the sense that the past and future are merging together in the moments at hand and the ones to come. The image of Jesus “now glorified” implies that his mission is nearing completion. The glory that is in God and in Jesus embodies the deep unity between the Holy One and the Incarnate Presence.
“In a little while, you won’t see me,” Jesus warns his followers and friends. They are dumbfounded. They do not want this to be. How can Jesus sum up his last instructions? There is so much to say—some of which they are not even ready to hear. But if they remember nothing else, Jesus wants them to remember one thing. So he offers them a new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you. By this shall all people know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The Greek word he uses for “love” is agape–that deep, unconditionally committed love of God.
In the Hebrew scriptures, the Jewish people are instructed to love their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus, however, asks his followers to both receive his love and share that same agape love. In this, God is glorified–not only glorified, but actually known and seen. The incarnate presence is re-introduced again and again in this world through the love that Jesus’ followers demonstrate.
There is something so deep and rich about these instructions. In an article for the May 2013 issue of Sojourners magazine, activist and author Shane Claiborne writes about his visit to Iraq in March 2003, shortly after the “shock and awe” bombing campaign. On leaving Baghdad, the group from the United States had a terrible car accident. Iraqis saved their lives. Claiborne writes, “As they took care of us, we found out that three days before, our government had bombed their hospital. The bomb hit the children’s ward. And they still saved our lives” (Sojourners, May 2013, “Friends Without Borders” by Shane Claiborne, p. 36).
At the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., a story is told about Rev. Joachim Alexandropoulas, an Orthodox priest on a Greek island during World War II. Nazis came to him one day, demanding that he immediately provide a list of every Jew on the island. When he met with the soldiers the next day, he gave them a list with only one name on it: his own (see workingpreacher, org).
Most of us may never encounter decisions about practicing agape love as stark as these. When I look out over these pews, though, at your faces, I see so many people who do know, experience, and share that kind of love in so many everyday situations.
I’m going to close with a very personal story about agape love. I have hesitated all week about whether to include it in this sermon because it is a deep “Sarah story,” and I guard those stories carefully. Yet, it is a testament to that love of which Jesus speaks.
Louis LaGrand is a grief counselor who has written several books on the topic of after-death communication, a field not as publicly discussed as that of near-death experiences. In his book, “After Death Communications: Final Farewells,” LaGrand speaks of eight ways that people across cultures, generations, and belief systems describe after-death encounters with loved ones who have passed on. The most common for me have been through either metaphors evoked by nature or what I call “heart to hearts”—a sense of Sarah’s heart communicating with mine.
One day, I was walking down College Street. It was not long after Sarah’s suicide, and the actual facts of that Thanksgiving Day in November 2011 were rolling through my thoughts and tormenting my heart. Unexpectedly, a voice touched my soul, saying so clearly, “I don’t want you to remember me that way.”
I was startled. Instinctively, arguments welled up within me. “Well, if you don’t want me to remember you that way, Sarah, why did you do this?” In my mind, I rattled off a host of other traumas that people experience in this world that cannot be simply erased from consciousness at will.
Eventually, I settled down enough to ask the obvious next question, “Well, Sarah, if you don’t want me to think of you this way, how do you want me to think of you?” I must admit, I asked that question in a rather petulant, demanding, grief-stricken way.
The response was brief. It was startling, unforgettable, and radically transforming. Just three words. Uttered in quiet gentleness.
“Remember my love.”
I could never make this up.
Sarah’s request became a gift that I could learn to give both her and myself. Nothing can erase the events of that day, but this spiritual discipline redirects my agony toward love. and it has been a Spiritual Discipline. Anytime Sarah’s actual suicide comes to my mind, which thankfully happens less often than in the early months after her death, but still does happen, I cast these three words, “Remember my love,” over those images.
Day by day. Grief by grief. Memory by memory. I flood the darkness with light, with radiance, with more light. Love embraces and holds it all–in life, in death, and in life beyond death.
‘If you remember nothing else, remember this,’ Jesus urges his followers. “Love one another, as I have loved you. By this shall all people know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”