Lake Louise Christian Community July 2, 2017
Texts: Colossians 3:12-14
2016 was a big year for my family and me. General Conference was held in 2016. I needed to leave early on Friday to get back to Minnesota to attend the graduation of our youngest child, our daughter Sarah, from a Doctor of Physical Therapy program on Saturday. Jurisdictional Conference was held in Peoria, Illinois in July, and on July 13 I was elected a bishop. In between General Conference and graduation and the Jurisdictional Conference was the session of the Minnesota Annual Conference. It was an important annual conference session for me. I was going as Minnesota’s endorsed candidate for the episcopacy, deeply grateful for the conference’s support over the years. I knew it would either be my last annual conference or the last annual conference when I would be a candidate for bishop. I was not intending to run again after 2016. My wife Julie was going to be attending annual conference for the first time in many years – she had usually been teaching while our annual conference met, but in 2016 Minnesota moved its annual conference later in June.
Given the importance of this annual conference, I packed carefully, or so I thought. As conference parliamentarian, I brought my Book of Discipline and Robert’s Rules of Order, along with various Robert’s Rules cheat sheets. I brought my robe and stole so I would process with clergy at ordination. I thought I had it all together until we were about 75 miles from home and I realized that while I had been careful, I had also been forgetful. I turned to Julie in the car and said, I forgot to pack shirts and ties. I had some shopping to do when we arrived in St. Cloud.
Your July theme is “traveling light” with all its multiple meanings. Traveling light can connote a letting go – perhaps of things in your past which haunt you - - - by the way, a favorite definition of forgiveness is “giving up all hope of a better past;” perhaps simplifying your life in some way; perhaps letting go of some rigid part of your sense of self that is blocking you from moving forward in God’s Spirit. Traveling light has an ecological connotation, living more lightly in relationship to the planet which sustains us. In this place we understand the importance of caring for the natural world. Traveling light can also connote being a light that travels. How might we be light for one another on the journey of life? How might we be lights in our world?
Well, if we want to travel light, packing well is important. We may want to simplify, but we also don’t want to forget important things like shirts and ties. Packing well asks us to inquire – what is most needed, what is most important in the journey of life with Jesus, the journey of life in God’s Spirit? Colossians 3:12-14 is an attempt to respond to just such questions, and it even uses the metaphor of clothing. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Forgive. Clothe yourselves with love. I really appreciate how Eugene Peterson renders this passage about what it might mean to pack well.
So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It is your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.
Packing well for traveling light on the journey with Jesus, for life in the Spirit, means recognizing again the central importance of love to Christian faith, to Christian life. Love is at the heart and soul of the Christian life. We discover our true value in being loved wildly by God in Jesus. We discover our purpose in living such love extravagantly. One of my theological teacher and mentors, Schubert Ogden, writes: “a certain understanding of God is the most fundamental presupposition of the Christian witness” and this certain understanding is that God is “all-compassion… pure unbounded love” – taking a phrase from Charles Wesley (The Understanding of Christian Faith, 26, 28).
To say that love is at the heart and soul of Christian faith and life, is the key to packing well for this life, is perhaps the least original thing any preacher can say. You did not need a bishop with a Ph.D. to come to Lake Louise to tell you that love is central to Christian faith – God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, our response in loving God and neighbor. I am sorry if my lack of originality disappoints. Sometimes, though, it is also good to be reminded of deeply important truths that can get lost in the rush and din of our busy and noisy lives. Perhaps hearing again of the utter centrality of love will ground that truth just a little more deeply in our hearts and in our souls. Perhaps it will encourage us to live that truth more frequently and profoundly.
While it is no surprise that being a Christian, a follower of Jesus, a Spirit-traveler through life, is about love, it may also help to be reminded that love is complicated. We don’t need a movie with Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep and Steve Martin to remind us of that (It’s Complicated). It is relatively easy to say that love is at the heart of packing well for living lightly, that it is the heart and soul of Christian faith. It is more difficult to live it.
What might it mean to live lovingly in our complicated world, in a world marred by injustice, diminished by oppression, marked by hunger and poverty and disease and war and environmental neglect. The late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose words often strike deep chords even years after he died, once wrote, “love as a substitute to justice is odious, but love as a supplement to justice is an absolute necessity” (A Reinhold Niebuhr Reader, 50). I disagree with precisely how Niebuhr splits love and justice, but his words remind us that love is also about doing justice, and that’s complicated.
What does it mean to love as we consider immigration policy? What does it mean to love as we seek to fashion health care policy? What does love mean as we consider climate change? How do we continue to incarnate the courage to love when it seems not to be the currency of the day? We have a very prominent person in our society who is lauded by some for his willingness, when struck, to strike back ten times harder. That appeals to many. Love, I think, means something different.
So to say that love is our all-purpose garment, the thing that we should pack first when seeking to travel lightly, is really quite complicated. Yet we cannot fail to pack it, and we cannot avoid wrestling with what it means to try and live more lovingly in a complicated world.
Even as we wrestle, though, it is also good to be reminded of some of clearer things love asks of us, and I want to do that, and begin wrapping up, by sharing with you a poem.
“What I Learned from My Mother” Julia Kasdorf
I have learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look into their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
(http://writersalmanac.org June 27, 2017)
Create from another’s suffering your own usefulness. To every house you enter, offer healing. Above all, wear love. It’s your all-purpose garment. Never be without it. Pack well. Travel lightly. All in the name and Spirit of Jesus. Amen.