Saturday, May 9, 2015

Love, Obedience, and Mom

1 John 4:16(b) – 5:6
Easter 6
May 10, 2015
William G. Carter 

Well, she told us not to go next door. So I am certain my mother was angry when she looked outside and my sister and I weren’t where we were supposed to be.

When I was a kid, there was no such thing as a fenced-in yard, especially on our little acre on Day Hollow Road. We were free to roam and encouraged to do so. The creek across the road was a laboratory for aquatic life. The small hill going down to the creek provided our mountain climbing experience. We were raised as free-range children, and for the most part, turned out pretty well.

There were only two stipulations: be home for supper and don’t go next door. Supper was a no-brainer; the food was the portal to the rest of the evening activities: usually a bath, a story to settle down, and if we were lucky, a fresh episode of the Beverly Hillbillies. But I could never understand why we couldn’t go next door.

The people were nice enough. Polish, I think. The mama seemed ancient, even though she was only a few years older than our mom. As I recall, she smoked hand-rolled cigarettes in a kitchen that always seemed a little dark. Maybe my mother didn’t want us over there. I don’t know.

But I will never forget the day my sister Debbie said, “Did you see that they are growing grapes next door?” Well, those neighbors were Catholics. Of course, they were growing grapes. Two little uptight Presbyterian kids didn’t know the multiple uses for grapes. All we knew is that grapes are tasty. And those grapes were big and purple, dripping with the succulent morning dew. They were ripe for the picking.

Now, as the first-born Model Child, I believe I quoted my mother: “Mom said, ‘You may eat from any of the fruit from our garden, but not from the vineyard of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” My sister retorted, “But did Mom say we couldn’t eat those grapes right over there.” Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, I stood there silent. She stepped over the invisible property line and then looked over her shoulder, as if to say, “Aren’t you coming?”

The vines were just thirty feet away. We reached them at exactly the same time. We stretched our arms in choreographed motion. Each of us had fingers touching huge, succulent grapes – and then she saw us. Years later our mom confessed she was afraid we had wandered somewhere dangerous. But any fear was now transformed into fury. “I told you to stay in our yard, and not go over there,” she bellowed. Her voice froze us in our tracks. We knew what was coming next. Within a flash, she had leapt thirty feet in a single bound, grabbed each one of us by the ear, yanked us back home, and provided a high volume soundtrack for our return journey.

We had been bold – but clearly it was the day of judgment. She had given us the commandment but we had done the opposite. Now there would be punishment. Those were the days before kids were allowed to get away with things. We expected and received the necessary swat, which my sister totally deserved, although Mom never believed in discrimination. Then we sat on chairs pointed into different corners, while the kitchen timer kept track of our penalty time.

I don’t tell you this episode as a form of therapy, although it does feel good to get it off my chest. No, I tell you this sad tale because it intersects with our scripture texts. As one of his last charges, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will obey me.” That’s the essence of the second half of John 15. And then we have this longer section from the First Letter of John, a passage full of “love” and “obedience,” while touching also on fear, punishment, and judgment.

The early church hung onto these words because they offered a path for making a way through the world. Jesus was risen, which meant he had gone back to heaven. At any moment, he promised to return and be with us, especially if we were in trouble. But the church has largely experienced his presence as an invisible presence. We hear the echo of his voice, which he described as the Holy Spirit still speaking on his behalf. Jesus speaks through the preaching and the teaching of his words. It’s another proof for his resurrection that he continues to address women and men with his living words.

But words aren’t always enough. They must be joined to actions. Sounds and syllables may sooth the ear, but it is the good deed in which the words take flesh.

Maybe you heard about the young college student who was running behind on getting home for Mother’s Day. The semester was winding up, time was short. So he went into the Hallmark store and said, “Show me your best Mother’s Day card.” The clerk behind the counter said, “I know the very card.” Indeed it was beautiful. The words flowed from the heart. The card said everything he wanted to say. This is the card. Even though it was $8.99, he bought it. And his mother broke into tears when she opened the envelope and read the card.

A year later, in early May, he was running behind again. Classes were hard, final exams were brutal, so he stopped in the same store and made the same request. He paid for the card, signed his name, put it in the envelope, and gave it to his Mom. She was not pleased. She looked at the card, looked up at him, looked back down, and said, “You gave me the same card as last year.” He hadn’t noticed. Never paid attention! Because to him, they were only words. Empty words.

So she looked at him with sad eyes and said, “If you really love me, you’ll clean your room.” In every generation of Christian people, the words must be embodied in our actions. You can’t talk about love without actually loving somebody.

In fact, here’s the thing about the Gospel of John, and the First Letter of John. Both speak of the “commandment of Jesus” (singular). He says, “If you love me, you will do my commandment” (singular). And what is his commandment? What is the gravitational center of everything he teaches, according to John? “This is my commandment,” says Jesus, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” (15:12, 13:34)

“If you love me, you will love one another as I have loved you.” This is his “commandment.” This is the way the Gospel becomes real in every generation. This is the fundamental obedience that sets every Christian free: to act for the well-being of those around us, as an expression of the love first shown to us by God in Jesus Christ. This is the love that can be commanded. It is an act of self-giving grace for the benefit of somebody else, as an expression of the grace given to us by Jesus. And this commandment is not burdensome.

Well, I can say that now. But let me take you back to the family kitchen on the day when sister Debbie and I were busted for disobeying our mom. There we were, on separate chairs, pointed into different corners. And even though I was a young lad, a new emotion began to well up from the dungeon of my soul. I hated my sister. She got me into trouble. It was all her fault (never mind that I didn’t stand up to her). She led me into temptation. I could have probably sneaked over by myself and got some grapes, and actually ate a few, but it was her idea to go – and that’s how we got caught.

I despised my sister. Even when the kitchen timer finally dinged, and she sprang off like a shot, I sat in the chair and sulked for a while. I was not going to budge, especially if it meant going off with her on another costly adventure. She may have been ready to move on, but I was not. So I sat in my dark cloud. I pouted. It felt really good. Well, not “good” in any liberating way, but in a self-righteous way, I felt like a victim – as far as I cared, she was completely to blame. It was all her fault. And I never wanted to see her again. Ever. At least, not until supper time.

Again, my Mother intervened. Years later, she would buy two copies of a poster that she found at a Christian book store, the same poster for each of us. It was the picture of two kids bickering, and beneath was the scripture verse that comes from our text: “Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). That’s the poster she installed on both of our bedroom walls when we were teenagers.

But on that fateful day, she did something far more significant. She called for my sister, who returned nervously. She looked at me with my dark, sullen face. She said to me, “So you’re in a bad mood?” I scowled.

So she asked me to stand up. Then she turned my little chair out of the corner, and turned my sister’s little chair to face it. Then she said, “I’m going to set the timer again. And you are both going to sit here, and glare at one another, and you are not allowed to smile. You can’t turn away, you have to make ugly faces at one another, and you cannot smile until the timer goes off.”

Well, that worked for about ten seconds. My frown began to melt and she said, “Stop it! I told you to make an ugly face.” My sister giggled and Mom ignored her. “You have to stare at another,” she said. It was terrible. It was such hard work. It took forever for the timer to ding, even though she had set it for a lot less time. It was so hard to hate my sister when I was forced to look at her. Oh, that was hard work.

Do you know why my Mom did that? Because she is a good Mom, and because she knows the heart of the Gospel is the commandment of Jesus to love, to love one another, to look one in the face and to take each other seriously.

And I was thinking about it: we are having a family cookout at my parent’s house at four this afternoon. My sister will be there. I never know what to get any of them for Mother’s Day. So this year, I believe I will stop by the supermarket and pick up a large cluster of grapes. Maybe I’ll take a bottle of fermented grape juice, too. We’ll pop it open and retell the family story.

“This is my commandment,” says Jesus, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” The quality of our love is in direct proportion to the maturity of our faith. It’s all of the same piece. As someone has said, this is “the logic of Christian morality: we love, because he first loved us.”[1]

Someone was telling me about a new set of words that they are using when a child is baptized. Actually it’s an old set of words from the French Reformed Church, dusted off for a new day. I like it very much, and sometime I’m going to say it when a child is baptized here. This is how it goes: the minister splashes the child with water, in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. And then the minister says:

Little one, for you Jesus Christ came into the world:
for you he lived and showed God’s love;
for you he suffered the darkness of Calvary
and cried at the last, “It is accomplished”;
for you he triumphed over death and rose in newness of life;

for you he ascended to reign at God’s right hand.
All this he did for you, little one, though you do not know it yet.
And so the word of Scripture is fulfilled: “We love because God loved us first.”[2] 

You heard what he says. “This is my commandment…”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] D. Moody Smith: Interpretation: First, Second, and Third John (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1991) p. 115.

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