Last week we heard some verses from I John about love. Today the lectionary gives us more love in I John and John. While Love is foundational to faith, it can be hard to talk about love without sounding trite. Heart icons, over the top reviews of restaurants and movies. Many of us love our families. Some of us love our work. I love you, Hyattsville Mennonite congregation. How hard can it be, to keep Jesus’ commandment to “love one another.”
If we are trying to go a little deeper with our understandings of love, we might pay attention to Dr. Cornel West. Cornel West is not known for being a warm, fuzzy, lovable guy. He is controversial and often shows up where trouble is about to break out. He was in the front of the clergy line last summer in Charlottesville as we walked to the park where white supremacists were gathering. The same Cornel West is often quoted as saying, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”
So taking a cue from West, Jesus sounds like this in John.
This is my commandment:
do justice to one another as I have done justice to you.
There is no greater justice than to lay down one’s life for ones’ friends.
I am not sure it is any easier when we slip “justice” in there instead of “love.” What can it mean? “There is no greater love, there is no greater justice, than to lay down one’s life for ones’ friends.”
I have often imagined this means we have to do as Jesus did: walk the walk until it leads to death. But where would that leave us, as followers of Jesus, if we all died? Dying is one way to lay down one’s life but could there be other ways?
The last week of April I was at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center in western PA for the Allegheny Conference spring pastors study. This group of pastors has almost entirely turned over in the past four years. Only one of them was not present through the tensions and turmoil that roiled the conference from 2003-2015, so they were genuinely interested in how we, as a congregation, kept hanging in there with the conference all those years. How was it that we lived love with each other?
I admit, I am getting tired of telling this story. I am getting weary of the HMC/AMC troubles being my primary case study for church conflict as well as lived theology, ecclesiology and even Christology. Still, I humored them and described our situation.
“Some of us were ready to switch conferences and try to go where we could be full members, where we could use our gifts. And some of the LGBTQ folks were concerned about the LGBTQ youth in the Allegheny Conference congregations. They didn’t want these kids to feel like we had abandoned them. These loving adults asked us to stay for the kids. So we stayed.”
I explained to the pastors that as a congregation we decided we would keep showing up. It seemed like it was the least we could do: we could go to conference meetings and the delegates (mostly straight) could receive the slings and arrows that were getting thrown, not because we wanted to be heroes but because we love our LGBTQ friends.
I am not sure we ever really tell the story quite this way and even as I gave this description to the pastors, I felt myself flinching. Then I heard someone in the room say, “You realize that is substitutionary atonement theology.” And then I really cringed because I have resisted this understanding of Jesus’ death for many, many years. The idea that Jesus died so that in some mysterious way, the rest of us can live – it makes me uncomfortable. It makes no sense in my view of the world and it seems so cruel.
Was that what we were doing, as a congregation? Laying down our comfort, our desires, our ability to share our gifts with the larger church because of our love for our friends here and across the church. Did we all lay down parts of our lives for justice and love? Did we lay down, whatever small something it was, for our friends?
But as I said, I am tired of using our shared history as a case study. It has defined my ministry since the beginning and I am finally ready to move on. So what else might we look at in order to try and understand what it means to lay down one’s life?
It is one thing to do as Jesus says here in John, to lay down your life for your friends. But we might ask, like the expert in the law in Luke, “Who is my neighbor?” Who is my friend? or even what is my friend?
You might have heard about the mother and daughter, Red and Theresa Terry, who were living on small platforms in trees on their property in southern Virginia. When a court order gave permission for the Mountain Valley Pipeline to be built across the Terry property, the two women tried another way to raise awareness and save their land. They moved up – into the trees and received help from family and friends, until another court order was issued that prohibited anyone from feeding or aiding them. They lived through rain, snow, high winds, subfreezing temperatures, “in their efforts to stop tree-clearing and to rally opposition against the 303-mile pipeline.”
When the judge said that if they stayed in the trees, the fines they paid would go directly to the pipeline companies, the women had to make a difficult choice. Yesterday, at 4pm, Red and Theresa Terry came down out of the trees and will continue to raise awareness in other ways. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/federal-judge-rules-against-tree-sitters-protesting-gas-pipeline/2018/05/05/000b14b8-5016-11e8-af46-b1d6dc0d9bfe_story.html?utm_term=.ae901ed7893d This mother and daughter love the family land, love the earth, so dearly that they laid down their lives in the treetops. Is this love in public? Is this justice? Or is it fanaticism? Who decides?
You might remember Antonia Alvarez, the mother of four from Minnesota who preached here in December? She came to DC to fast for two weeks on the US Capitol grounds in the cold of winter. Her deep love for her children, three of whom are DACA beneficiaries, led her to fast and pray for Congress to take action on immigration reform. Congress did not act. Tomorrow Antonia will conclude another 15 day fast, this time on the grounds of the Minnesota state capital. Antonia is a woman with little power, as politicians would name power. But her body, her voice, her faith, her determination, her love, she offers and lays down for her friends. Her friends are her children, as well immigrants and other oppressed people across the country. And in this way, she inspires others to also lay down their lives and use their power for justice, for love.
It is really big, loving so much, feeling so strongly, that you are willing to lay down your life. It is a grown up choice, not one we would expect of children. It is a choice to be chosen by the one who is laying life down. It is not to be demanded or mandated. This may be why I have struggled so much with substitutionary atonement; too often we have said that “God sent Jesus to die.” God made Jesus die, so we can live. That is not laying down one’s life, that is abuse.
But if Jesus made the choice on his own, if Jesus saw the injustice all around him and spoke out against it and it was his speaking and acting for healing and justice that led to his death, well that feels different to me. Seeing the injustice, naming the injustice, standing in the way of injustice until there is a consequence – whether that is living in a tree, paying a fine, fasting and extreme hunger, jail time, that is laying down the life you currently have in order for someone else to have the chance at a better life. That I can understand. That is the way Jesus lived. He wasn’t eager for death, he often went off to pray alone, and at the end he prayed for there to be a different ending. It was a hard and drastic choice for Jesus to stay and not run.
And it is not the only way to lay down your life. Martyrdom is not what we are aiming for. What we are seeking is justice; what we are seeking is to love our friends and neighbors.
Some of you have probably heard me say that I feel like I am getting ready to be arrested. In the context of laying down life, let me explain a little more. In 1967 Dr Martin Luther King wrote –There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little or even nothing to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life. Rev Dr William Barber and the Rev Liz Theoharis are reviving this vision that was cut short April 4, 1968. This renewed Poor People’s Campaign is active all over the country and preparing for 40 days of action starting next week.
This group, grounded in faith, is challenging the idea that the moral issues of our time are prayer in school and abortion. “Instead, we declare that the moral public concerns of our faith traditions are how our society treats the poor, women, LGBTQ people, children, workers, immigrants, communities of color, and the sick–the people whom Jesus calls ‘the least of these.’” https://www.facebook.com/brepairers/
I have attended several trainings with this group and though I feel late to the party and do not consider myself “poor,” I plan to find ways to participate in this campaign in the coming weeks.
Fifty-one years after Dr King indicted a complacent nation, we see that complacency still has a hold of us. The past 18 months I have wanted to find ways to resist that. One of the songs from the Poor People’s Campaign gives voice to my feeling.
Somebody’s hurting my sister and its gone on far too long
And we won’t be silent anymore.
I could go on now and try to convince you to join me, to lay down your life. I would love to have some of you get trained and be involved in these forty days of action with me. Right before Jesus says “Love one another” he says, I tell you all this that my joy may be yours, and your joy may be complete. And it is joyful work when we work for love and justice with friends. You all know that from the work you do for love and justice, in the work you are part of here in the congregation with outreach to refugees and Sanctuary DMV and the racial justice group and Community Cafe and Warm Nights…
I could go on and on. But I won’t. Instead I invite you to find those places where you see that justice is lacking, where you see “love in public” is needed. I invite you to look for where you can find joy and friendship while acting for justice and love. Because joy and justice go together, like love and pleasure. When we lose sight of the joy in justice, we are noisy gongs and clanging symbols.
So work for justice with joy, whether that is on the edges of the denomination or in the trees or on the capitol lawn, or in the streets …
I tell you all this that my joy may be yours,
and your joy may be complete.
Love one another as I have loved you.
There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for ones’ friends.