The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Deeper than nostalgia

Easter 7C


O God: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before.  Amen.

Have you ever encountered a really great love song?  One of those songs that sneaked up beside you and touched the most private recesses of your soul when you didn’t expect it?

I was reminded of one of those experiences the other day.  While wandering through Center City, and smelling the blooming wisteria, my mind wandered back to springtime a few years ago.

I had been away visiting family and friends around the South.  I flew into Nashville where I borrowed a car from my parents and spent the next week on a road trip through Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, before finally heading back to Tennessee to fly home to the northeast.  I stopped all along the way to reacquaint myself with the people and places that make up many of the stories of my life.

It was a great week.  I love a good road trip, and it was one of those times that really fed my soul.  The car I had borrowed was a convertible, and the weather was just perfect, so I drove along those many miles with the top down, listening to mindless music too loudly, seeing familiar sites, and all the while accompanied by the fragrances of the South – honeysuckle, Confederate jasmine, and pine.

It really was a great week.

When I was finally headed home, I decided to keep wrapping myself in that blanket of nurturing familiarity just a while longer, so I listened to one of my favorite bands: the Indigo Girls - one of their earlier albums that best fit my mindset.  Hearing it on that trip was like seeing another old friend again after a long time away.

Out on the highway, in the middle of nowhere, it hit me: this old familiar song – a love song – that touched me in a new way.  It isn’t your typical love song.  It’s not meant for a person, but for that peculiar union of place and time.  It’s something like “nostalgia” but deeper in your gut than that word usually seems to imply.

The song is called “Southland in the Springtime”.  The chorus says, “There’s something about the Southland in the springtime, where the waters flow with confidence and reason.  Though I miss her when I am gone, it won’t ever be too long, ‘til I’m home again to spend my favorite season… there’s no place like home and none more pleasin’, than the Southland in the springtime.”

As those words enveloped me my eyes welled with tears.  It wasn’t because I was sad to be leaving the South.  It certainly wasn’t because I was sad to be headed home.  It was because those words were, for me, so true.  They touched my own experience of those past few days (and those days’ relationship with the rest of my life) in a very deep and intimate way.  They caused a divine comfort to surround me – like an embrace from something or someone that was more than present.

I had that same feeling when I read this Gospel with new eyes about a few years.  I forget exactly when it was, but I was preparing to preach on an passage from the 18th chapter of John and I was feeling stumped by it.

John’s Gospel can be that way sometimes – at first glance it can sometimes seem a little obtuse.  The style of writing can, at times, come across as so deliberate and calculated, that it almost seems to explain away any hope of clarity.  “As you, God, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me….  The world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me.  I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Right.  It almost sounds like the kind of puzzle you might find in the Sunday paper: see if you can rearrange these words to make a coherent sentence.

I’ve learned that – though it’s true in all of the Gospels, it seems somehow more so in John – that context is key.  When I’m stumped by a passage or a story, sometimes the key to beginning to understand it is as simple as reading the things around it.  Allow it to set its own stage.  Some of its meaning might begin to flow from there.

So I first REALLY read the seventeenth chapter of John while preparing to preach on the eighteenth chapter of John.  I remember sitting in the church where I was serving at the time with a Bible, feeling utterly confused.  I’d already read the appointed text and about a chapter after it before turning back a couple of pages to begin reading the chapter before.

Then it struck me.  This is a love letter.  It’s a love letter about us – about me and about you – written millennia ago to God, but with us – the church of the ages – in mind.

It really is quite humbling – to be so loved through the centuries.  It’s humbling to recognize that the Bible isn’t just a collection of stories about people long ago, but that it’s connected to our story.  We were mentioned right there in the seventeenth chapter of John.

Jesus’ prayer for us was not about what we would do.  Instead, it was about who, and how, we would be.  He prayed that we would be “one”.  He prayed that we would be in relationship with one another and that those relationships would be characterized by love.  That’s how Christ lives even now: in our love.

We need that prayer now more than ever.

Our culture values individualism.  We honor those who are said to have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.  Even those from more evangelistic Christian traditions than ours talk about each individual’s “personal” relationship with Jesus.

But that is not Christ’s prayer for us.

In this closing episode of his long goodbye, his prayer is not that we will be strong, rugged individuals.  He doesn’t pray that we will be capable of tending to ourselves in matters of our own livelihood and faith.

He prays that we will be faithful in our relationships.

It’s a love song that reaches us “like a tapestry passed down through generations” – like an embrace from someone who is more than just present.

In the collect today we pray that we will not be left “comfortless”.  This final “good bye prayer” of Jesus - his love song to God about us - is our comfort.  It’s the answer to our own prayer.

May we all know that love.  May it be as familiar to us as a pleasing scent that brings back fond memories.  May we practice it in each of our own relationships, and may we all experience Christ living, still, in that love.  May we allow our individual threads of this still-living tapestry of history to interweave themselves into the still-living community of Christ.  May his prayer - his love song - be our own.  In it, may we all be one.  Amen.

(a previous version of this sermon appears here.  You can also hear the song "Southland in the Springtime" in that post.)

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