Date: May 10, 2015
Bible Text: John 15:9–17 | Reverend Dr. Jo Forrest
I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
New York Times op-ed columnist and author, David Brooks had been teasing readers with a slow drip of content from his new book, The Road to Character until its release weeks ago. An excerpt on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Review on April 11 and subsequent Opinion columns challenged us to consider the difference between what Brooks calls the “resume virtues,” those accomplishments we list, quantify and celebrate of skill, talent and uniqueness in a culture that relishes mastery, versus the “eulogy virtues,” those attributes more likely to be lifted up upon one’s death of one’s character, enduring values and, his words not mine, “the God-given imprint that survives death.”
Now, I know some of you are sitting with a sly grin, anticipating Brooks would be the warm-up act in this sermon, or make a cameo, since you saw me, and I saw you, at the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, which hosted his book tour this past week. His message could not be more closely linked to this week’s gospel lesson.
Brooks was inspired to think about the means by which people develop moral character as he noticed, and confirmed through research, our culture has become consumed with outward appearance, accomplishments and fame — “resume virtues”. Quoting from Gallup polls, in the 1950’s, 12% of high school seniors would say they were “important”. In 2005, high school seniors would say they were “important” 80% of the time. By 2007, 51% of youth described being “famous” was an important life goal. The only redeeming research he lists is among middle school girls, who, if offered the opportunity to have dinner with someone famous, listed Jesus Christ as number two. Jennifer Lopez was number one and Paris Hilton finished third.
Brooks wondered how does one learn the “eulogy values” the ability to look beyond oneself, to be “kind, brave, honest or faithful…capable of deep love.” Taking advantage of his public forum for conversation, he asked in an op-ed, “Are these (values) taught in classroom or through life lessons?” Brooks’ journey and research began based upon the letter received from veterinarian, Dave Jolly who answered with the following:
The heart cannot be taught in a classroom intellectually…Good, wise hearts are obtained through lifetimes of diligent effort to dig deeply within and heal lifetimes of scars…What a wise person teaches…(is) perfected over lifetime of effort that was set in motion by yet another wise person now hidden from the recipient by the dim mists of time. Life is much bigger than we think, cause and effect intertwined in a vast moral structure.
In the Road to Character, he explores some of the greatest thinkers, leaders, and writers, and how, through struggles and humility, they came to live for others and in doing so developed strength of character. Going all the way back to Augustine of Hippo, who is one of the pillars of our Christian faith from the early 4th century, Brooks reveals the complexities he and others faced from what to do, who to be, and how to live were resolved after turning not inward but outward, caring about and loving the other person. Brooks builds case upon case to argue moral character emerges from the simplicity of returning to what truly matters in life and in death.
Last year, on Mother’s Day, my mom was here. I could not with confidence say this then, out of fear of my emotions, but I will tell you from every fiber of my being, one of my life’s goals is to be as good a person as my mother. She does not say unkind words. She is not Pollyanna, but does not allow any of her life to be given to speaking poorly of another in word or deed. She is the quiet one, who does not complain or scold, and whose life is lived in the model for kindness for all. She makes it look so simple, but I continue to prove just how hard it can be.
On Mother’s Day we pay tribute, honor and celebrate the gift we receive from mothers who literally give us life from a womb, loved us with unconditional love that shapes us, sends us out, and welcomes us back again.
To be a mother, whether as biological, adoptive, surrogate, or step-mother, or the countless uncles and aunts and grandparents, dads, nannies and friends who embody this sacred being for children of all ages, motherhood is heartbreakingly rewarding and difficult.
The poet Khahil Gibran writes:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you….
Your children, venture into the world, exposed to germs as toddlers and then the other infectious agents as they grow older, and I don’t mean just germs. You can only protect them from others and themselves to a limited extent.
During the protests in Baltimore, Toya Graham’s motherly sense kicked in when she heard her son’s school had closed early and the mall was shutting down, too. She ran, crossed the line of confrontation between protesters and police and pulled her son, Michael away, as she gave him a scolding, captured by cameras and microphones, he and others, will not forget.
Her bravery is being heralded to walk amidst those throwing bricks, but she just claims as a mother, I quote; “as long as I have breath in my body I will always try to do right by Michael and show him what’s going on out in society doesn’t have to be you” No doubt Michael was embarrassed on national TV, but he is alive.
Toya Graham embodies a mother’s love that gives us life, works to keep us safe, keeps us alive, teaches us right from wrong, and then sets us free. She knows she had but a few years longer to shelter her son, Michael, before he would be launched.
Gibran’s poem continues speaking of just this challenge to set children free:
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He
bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness;
for even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Our Gospel reading for today may seem out of sequence since we celebrated Easter six weeks ago, yet, the lectionary prescribes we return to the night of the last supper to hear Jesus’ voice again. Our ancient lectionary is tuned in to human nature and through this reading asks us, since Easter, have we learned to live in light of the resurrection? Do we understand the power that rolled back the stone of the tomb?
For those whose Bibles are printed with Jesus’ words in red ink, chapters 13 to 17 of John’s Gospel are a sea of red with Jesus’ instructions, comforts, reminders, and prayers spoken to the disciples, but written and intended for us.
The comfort from chapter 14 is beloved and requested readings at memorial services, words spoken on the night before Jesus was handed over to death: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe in me…in my father’s house there are many rooms.” We have had so many memorial services in this sanctuary already this year with these words spoken to remind us the resurrection is something we are to believe in. Just as the disciples learned to trust in Jesus’ feeding and teaching and healing, they, and we, are to trust in the reality of an eternal life. God’s love will not be stopped by political powers. God’s love is too great to be held back by the tomb.
In these memorial services, we also hear wide-ranging eulogies offered by family and friends. “Granddad would tell me stories, ending with a moral or value, but he was willing to spend time with me and teach me how to build things.” Or “she always radiated a smile for everyone, cashiers at the grocery store would think kindly of me because we shared the same last name.” Or, “my son lived with ‘go big and be kind’ attitude that inspired everyone.” I hear something new and different at each service, and yet always the same. In eulogies people will say; “I felt loved, I witnessed love embodied in action, and because he or she lived, I know love.” These are the eulogy virtues.
Before Jesus stepped through the horizon of death into eternal life, he comforts the disciples and then turns them towards life, to live as he taught and blessed by God. We hear the only command Jesus gives: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 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.”
To abide in Jesus means not relying upon the security — or lack of security — in the world. To abide in Jesus means to rely upon the strength from which you came and that will continue to claim you no matter where you may venture. The inner peace of love is stronger than any worldly achievement.
Jesus also reminds the disciples, the one who doubts him, the one who will betray him, the one who is confused, it was a motley, but representative group of humans…“You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.”
Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine and lecturer at Yale Divinity School, wrote, in the cauldron of his cancer, the following:
In any true love — a mother’s for her child, a husband’s for his wife, a friend for a friend’s — there is an excess energy that always wants to be in motion. Moreover, it seems to move not simply from one person to another but through them, toward something else…That is why we can be so baffled and overwhelmed by such love (and I don’t mean merely when we fall in love; in fact, I’m talking more of other, more durable relationships): it wants to be more than it is; it cries out inside of us to make it more than it is…to manage this highest form of loving does not mean that we will be showered with earthly delights or somehow be spared awful human suffering. But for as long as we can live in this sacred space of receiving and releasing, and can learn to speak and be love’s fluency, then the greater love that is God brings a continuous and enlarging air into our existence.
It is just that simple…we are able to love through God’s love for us. We are able to be more together than we can ever be alone and through this strength we are able to love the unlovable. We can make it as complex as we like, but it is just that simple: love each other.
We read these words, as we are meant to, in the context of Easter. God has given the ultimate love gift, one that recognizes and answers all the pain in the world, and it’s not a warm, fuzzy feeling. For God to bring good out of all things—even out of the cross —is an act of love.
David Brooks believes our unwillingness to talk about morality and theology in the public square is making us inarticulate, unable to employ weighted vocabulary or rely upon the critical thinking of those who preceded us. But, he claims, “Everyone is born with a moral imagination — a need to feel that life is in service to some good.”
He seeks to inspire conversation by asking the question “do you think you have found the purpose to your life, professional or otherwise?” That question will serve people of any faith tradition or those without faith. It is a secular question.
In this community of believers, we have a different question asked of us by Holy Scripture. Let me reframe Brook’s question in light of Jesus’ command with a couple to ponder on this sixth Sunday of Eastertide and Mother’s Day. Have you practiced abiding in Jesus’ love? Do you love others? Are you aware of being chosen by God?
Our Covenant Bible study is about to conclude in a couple of weeks. Meeting faithfully each week since last fall, the group has labored through daily homework, reading some of the obscure, violent and destructive histories. They read the pithy and profound wisdom texts, the foundational texts of our Christian heritage, and will have read from almost every book in the canon. In a few weeks, our children will step up to recite the 66 books and selected passages after years of memory work and singing the same song over and over. Yet, if we sum all these efforts it is to one thing: God chose us in a covenant and calls us to love one another. It is just that simple. We are chosen. We are to abide. We are to love.
 David Brooks. The Road to Character. (New York: Random House, 2015).
 Steve Almasy. “Baltimore mom who slapped son: He was embarrassing himself,” CNN. http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/29/us/baltimore-mother-slapping-son/index.html
 Kahil Gibran. “On Children” Public domain. http://allpoetry.com/Children-Chapter-IV
 Christian Wiman. My Bright Abyss. Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) 22.