050921 Easter 6 Lightening the Load

The sermon begins at minute 17:20 of the video

Acts 10:44-48; I John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

        In the email I sent to the congregation yesterday, I included a quote about mother-lines as a way to frame Mother’s Day. Carol Lee Flinders writes, there are genealogical mother-lines, but there are mother-lines of imagination and vocation too. There are mother-lines that arise out of affinity and proximity and reciprocal need, and mother-lines that have to do with artistry, the intellect, the activism, and shared spiritual yearnings. Lovingly and even reverently sustained mother-lines have played crucial roles in human evolution and recorded history. Since not all of us are mothers, not all of us have good relationships with our genealogical mothers, and not all the women in the room are mothers, the idea of mother-lines of imagination and vocation allow others to be honored and recognized on this day.

       This morning’s texts speak to these mother-lines in the sense that all of us are called to be birth givers through our vocations. During Advent, we are reminded that the announcement to Mary that she would give birth to a son of the Most High serves as an invitation to each of us to bring God into the world. That’s good news. But it can feel overwhelming. At times we feel it as a weight too heavy to bear. We can get snarky when someone reminds us that Jesus said, my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like that. The burden feels really heavy.    

       Jesus gave an important clue about why it can feel heavy when he said, don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today (Mt. 6:34). We know the truth of that, but we can’t always access it. We know that to add worry to an already-heavy burden is unwise and self-destructive. But we all do it, don’t we? And it’s not just tomorrow that we worry about. Religious folks find lots of other ways to add the burden of worry. One common way is to turn faith into a weapon we wield to call forth God’s blessing. If we have enough faith, we can carry out our responsibilities with success. If we lack faith, we will miss out on God’s blessing. So, we start measuring our faith by how well we’ve wielded the weapon, and we worry that we don’t have enough. That adds weight to already heavy burdens, and loads us down even more. And the cycle repeats itself over and over again.

       But faith isn’t a weapon, is it? It’s a gift. I love the way Serene Jones addresses this by unpacking the meaning of the cross as a primary focus of our faith. She writes, the meaning that counts most on a day-to-day basis is the one nestled deep within the beholder’s heart; and hearts are too unwieldy and often unpredictable sites of meaning-making. The cross makes sense in ways that do not make sense. Imprinted on our conscious minds, it animates our unconscious compulsions and drives in ways that escape us. We live within the story but are not always sure quite how. We both know it and don’t know it. . . . Grace is grace. It comes.

       Grace is grace. It comes. I love that. We can’t make grace come. It just comes. But we can work in harmony with it. We can join the dance of life in a way that moves between responsibility and grace. We can accept our responsibility for the specific ways we are called to give birth, even as we acknowledge that it isn’t all up to us. In the delivery room, a mother can push; but it’s not only up to the mother to make the baby come. When we cooperate with grace, the burden becomes bearable.

       So, we can dance with both responsibility and grace. But our dance can also block grace. Paradoxically, the way we block grace isn’t usually by failing to carry out our responsibility. No, we block grace because our standards for what is enough are often higher than God’s! Let me say that again: our standards for what is enough are often higher than God’s! The church – and our mothers – have gotten a lot of work out of us by making us believe that God has high expectations for our performance. But God’s standard for enough includes Grace is grace. It comes. If we think we can manipulate grace and faith by working harder, or believing stronger, we will struggle with the burden of guilt, because when failure comes, or when life is more difficult than we think it should be, we blame ourselves for not having enough faith, or not relying enough on grace.

       What does this both/and dance between waiting for grace and working with responsibility look like? This morning’s passage from Acts may hold some clues. While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. What did Peter say? One thing he said was that God shows no partiality. That was a pretty revolutionary thing for a Jew to say to a bunch of Gentiles in that moment. It mattered that he showed up  and said them, even though he barely understood them himself. He certainly didn’t know what the implications of those words were. But he delivered the message anyway. Then we’re told that, while he was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. That’s what the dance looks like. Show up, do your job, and leave room for grace. That’s how grace works. “Grace is grace. It comes.”

       When the dance is done well, it’s inspiring. It makes us believe that maybe we can dance too. Last week, I was listening to a recording of Joan Baez and Mercedes Sosa sing Gracias a la Vida. Here were two women who have dedicated their lives to improving the lives of people in their countries and around the world. In that moment, they came together to sing a song about life. But throughout their lives they had improved lives by singing, and by marching; and by protesting, and by advocating. In the dynamic of change and of life, they understood that giving is all mixed up with grace, that working is all mixed up with waiting, and that pain is all mixed up with joy. As they sang Gracias a la Vida, they bore witness that giving and grace, and working and waiting, and pain and joy are los dos materiales que forman mi canto – the two elements that make up my song, and your song as well, which is the same song. And everyone’s song, which is my own song. Watching them sing together gave me chills, not only because they both lived out those words over many years, but because the lyrics beautifully express the profound truth that Serene Jones stated: that we live within the story but are not always sure quite how. Grace is grace.

       The writers of the letter of John and the Gospel of John observed the same dance of birth giving, but expressed it in their own ways: God’s commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you. Here the mix involves commandments on the one hand, and love and joy on the other. It’s not just about blind obedience. It’s about tapping into the joy and love to which we were born. Yes, it matters that we obey the commandments – that we act, speak, and do what Jesus taught and lived; just as it mattered that Peter spoke, and that Joan Baez and Mercedes Sosa marched and protested.

       But that kind of  doing is not a burden, because the doing is born of God. Peter’s preaching didn’t bear full responsibility for bringing the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles; the Spirit came because she was born of God. Joan’s and Mercedes’ marching didn’t singlehandedly bring justice to their people; their singing grounded people in gratitude for life. In a few minutes we will sing an offertory song that evokes this wisdom. It reminds us that we are the prayers, dreams, breath, and spirit of generations past; and that we are the lovers, builders, seekers, keepers, peacemakers, and wisdom of the present.