Readings (NRSV) and Psalm (ELW):
Psalm 98 Shout with joy to the LORD, all you lands. (Ps. 98:4)
1 John 5:1–6
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In Tuesday’s New York Times a column by David Brooks appeared under the title, What is Your Purpose? Brooks poses these questions for the American context:
Every reflective person sooner or later faces certain questions: What is the purpose of my life? How do I find a moral compass so I can tell right from wrong? What should I do day by day to feel fulfillment and deep joy? (The New York Times, May 5, 2015)
David Brooks is not a particularly religious person, but he seems to recognize in his own Jewish background the need to ask the vocational question, “What am I to do?” More importantly he moves behind that question to the question of “Who am I to be.” It is for him the question of character. (See The Road to Character, Random House, 2015)
Brooks connects with the human desire to be fulfilled and happy just as Jesus connects to this desire in today’s gospel.
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. (John 15:10-11)
Jesus is addressing his disciples shortly before he willingly goes to his death. He is not only saying farewell, but Jesus is also pointing the way on a path toward the consciousness of God’s presence in the world. Such awareness is not easy for us human beings. We live in a very palpable age of self-fulfillment. It sounds great at first as we continue along the stages of formal learning and we enter our careers and set out to achieve great things.
But self-actualization is not as great as we want or have been led to believe. We live in an age of self-actualization. This age is fraught with the promise of happiness if we but only achieve our potential and accomplish in a blaze of glory what is our purpose in life. But this false promise instantly turns into a demand that hangs heavily on our shoulders.
Who are we kidding? Those of us who do not necessarily feel that we have self-actualized sit in envy of those who appear to have “made it.” We feel we would be so happy if we had written that book, set that record, made so much money, invented that world altering device, etc. But have you not observed the crisis of success in the lives of those around us. Who has not stared in disbelief at a loved one, a friend or a colleague that actually has achieved such things, but who falls into a state of depression. While we think we would experience ecstatic joy, they slip into the “slough of despond.” (John Bunyan)
Yes, our age demands of us, “Become who you are!” Make something of yourself. And so we set out in our individual ways to do this. And it is at those moments that we discover we are in a circus act flying in the air from one trapeze to another knowing that things can go wrong and we can fall crashing down even as we curse our circumstances and blame those around us for failing to support us and become victims rather than the conquerors we would be.
This dynamic does not happen only among adults or adolescents who are achieving. It is going on right now even in the lives of our children. I remember when I was growing up in a small town, in an even smaller house with siblings all around. My mother ran a great home. We had all the toys we wanted in spite of, by then, the five or six people who lived in that two bedroom house. Mother just wanted us to play, and play we did! Lincoln logs, electric trains, puzzles, military figures: we had it all. The house would be wall to wall chaos. Suddenly Mother would announce, “Let the cleaning begin!”
Like every child in those days of “Leave It to Beaver” I was oriented to my mother in daily life while my father worked long days at the farm. We children drew life from our mother. Yes, we competed for our mother’s love. Each of us had our own way of doing that given our varied personalities. Some would cook, some would work in the yard. We would earn good grades at school. We would impress our neighbors with good behavior, especially when we would get cleaned up for Sunday church.
I remember one certain day that my mother was not particularly happy with us children. We didn’t want to clean house. We were quarreling and picking on each other as children do. In spite of her pleas for help in straightening up our domicile, we did not cooperation. I remember clearly the thinking of my own childish mind that if I were to clean up the house and even clean it up with perfection I could win my mother’s love and leave my siblings in the dust as they unsuspectingly ignored what I was doing.
And I did do it. I had our rooms in perfect order. I had vacuumed the floors, dusted the shelves, and straightened the closets. It was to be the greatest gift and would make my mother happy and she would love me and even love me more than the others. It worked! My mother lavished praise on me and I basked in her gratitude and show of affection.
And then it hit me. Some way even in my childish brain I realized that I had turned my mother’s love for me into an exchange. It had been reduced to a “deal.” If I do this, my mother will do that. I remember thinking that I had condemned myself to a life of cleaning house in order to earn my mother’s love and affection. But even a child does not want a mother’s love to be reduced to commercial exchange of “this for that.” A child wants to be loved simply because we are. On that day the child slipped away into a closet that had just been cleaned and quietly wept.
It took years for the child to grow and to realize that the child does not cause everything to be. We grow when we realize that a mother loves because she is a mother and not because the child is lovable. We are such dependent creatures who have a long way to go before we realize that the character of others–mothers, fathers, siblings, teachers, pastors, and friends—are not produced by us. They grow from the same vine to which we all are attached. Character grows from the realization of who we are and what we have to offer and not what we have to achieve.
Dear brothers and sisters, twice in the gospel reading we hear the commandment that we should love one another. Certainly the author of John means to communicate a message to his own Christian community that the character of each member is derived from the presence of Christ in the community. That character is modeled by Jesus Christ himself who is the one, who deserted the commercial, economic model of life governed by the double-entry accounting systems of our world.
Jesus abandoned such a model out of his knowledge of God the Father. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is not the hierarchical god who is predictable according to our rules. No, the God of Jesus Christ does not make deals but rather pours out the divine self into a world that continues to evolve. God’s character is revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ as the god who does not demand that we climb our way up to god’s divinity. This God is the self-giving God who is willing to spend the divine life on the world that God loves.
That is why for us the cross is not some simple symbol that says that God paid our bill. Our relationship is not the result of a deal. The cross is a symbol that says God is present with us now in our current state. We are not challenged to become like the gods. We are invited to know ourselves as the beloved of God and, thus, enabled and empowered to give ourselves up for the good of our neighbor.
How liberating it is to know the mothering love of God in its unconditional character. We grow to greater maturity when we realize that God acts toward us out of God’s own character, that there is nothing we can do to alter that character. When we experience God’s presence in our lives, we come to know the character to which God calls us. We are set free to become who we are—children of God who are able to give outright without thought of exchange but in the joy that we children are loved and, therefore, can turn to a life of loving. Amen.