By Kristen Bargeron Grant
Vol. 19, no. 8
[Editor’s note: Kristen Bargeron Grant is a former Resident Volunteer at the Open Door Community and a former United Methodist Church pastor. She preached this sermon just before leaving the Open Door at the completion of her term as a Resident Volunteer.]
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey God‘s commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey God’s commandments. And these commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. (1 John 5:1-6; NRSV)
As the Parent 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 Parent‘s commandments and abide in God’s love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Parent. 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 Parent will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (John 15:9-17; NRSV)
One of my professors in seminary used to say that for a sermon to be any good, the preacher had to have a wrestling match with the scripture, and that the preacher had to lose. If it’s true that that‘s all it takes to make a good sermon, this one should be a humdinger. (By the way, I don’t think that‘s all it takes, so don’t get your hopes up). Now when I first read the lectionary passages for this week, I thought we were going to get along just fine. There was really only one problem with them that I could tell, and that was that they talked so much about love. I know this may be a strange and perhaps even unwise thing for an about-to-be-ordained person to admit, but I don‘t really like preaching about love. It‘s not that I‘m anti-love. It‘s just that the modern version of love is so wimpy. When most modern folks talk about love, they mean a feeling that you have for some people and you don‘t have for others. You can’t really control it – when you have it, it‘s great, but when you don‘t, it‘s time to move on. And this is basically the same sentimental love that was talked about in the church when I grew up. Loving your neighbor basically meant trying to get along with everybody. That’s OK, I guess, but it didn‘t seem like that kind of thing that would have gotten Jesus nailed to a cross.
And that’s what I do like to preach about – the cross! Discipleship, the Christian life of obedience, a radical alternative to the powers of the world, etc. etc. etc. And I thought I could squeeze something like that out of these passages. After all, both the Gospel of John and 1st John were written to a community a lot like the Open Door, a community of resistance. And both of these passages talked a lot about stuff like overcoming the world and the importance of keeping Jesus’ commandments in order to live as Jesus’ disciples. But when I tried to nail down exactly what these commandments were that we were supposed to keep in order to overcome the world, there it was again, rearing its stubborn, ugly head – love.
Of course, Jesus teaches his disciples many things, but when he really wants to boil it down for them at his last supper in the Gospel of John, he says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” And just in case there is any confusion about exactly what that means, he goes on, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one‘s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Well, obviously, this is a different kind of love than the one I got in Sunday School. This is a love which demands everything, just as it demanded the very flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. And this is the place where the scripture sort of picked me up and body slammed me to the mat. Because I realized the real reason I didn‘t want to preach about love. It wasn‘t because modern love was so easy – it was because Gospel love is so hard. And I knew that I didn‘t know very much about living out of that kind of love.
Or at least I didn‘ before I came to the Open Door. Oh, I had a romantic notion of this kind of costly, self-sacrificing love, but that was love in dreams. What I learned here was about love in action. Now anyone who has spent much time here has heard about the difference between love in dreams and love in action. On my first evening of worship here in fact, I heard someone refer to this quote from Dorothy Day, who herself was quoting the Dostoyevski‘s novel The Brothers Karamazov: “Love in action is harsh and dreadful compared to love in dreams.” And I remember thinking something really profound like “huh?” Now in the time that I’ve been at the Open Door, I have learned a little bit more about what that means, about how harsh and dreadful love can be, about how hard it is to love when that‘s all you have to give, when the needs of our friends in the yard are so overwhelming and the soup pot is empty or the blanket closet is bare or the front door of the Open Door is locked. But it wasn‘t until very recently, when I learned the context of this quote, that I realized just how painfully it applied to me and my life here.
In The Brothers Karamazov, a wealthy woman named Madame Hohlakov tells the monk Father Zossima of the beautiful dream she has of the loving person she really wants to be: (Read highlighted quote) The dream is spoiled, however, whenever she thinks about how the person she dreams of serving might respond – with ingratitude, with petty comments, even with abuse toward her. She confesses that she would be unable to love anyone who did not repay her with love, or at least with gratitude, and her dream dissolves as she confronts the pathetic limitations of her love.
When I came to the Open Door, I came with a dream not unlike Madame Hohlakov‘s. I came because I thought that this was the kind of community that I talked about earlier – a community of the cross, a community of discipleship, a community of radical obedience to the teachings of Jesus. And the Open Door is all of those things. But I also came here with a dream of my own ability to love. It was a dream in which I would feed the hungry and fight the system tirelessly, fueled by the camaraderie of my sisters and brothers in the struggle. I would live a life of radical discipline and obedience to God, and I would do it really, really well. I would dip again and again into my own well of strength and love, and that well would be bottomless.
Well, it doesn’t take too long at the Open Door before you find out just how quickly you scrape up against that dry stone at the bottom of your well. It doesn’t take too many Tuesday morning breakfasts, followed by house duty, followed by a clarification meeting to come to the end of your own strength. It doesn‘t take too many people cussing you out in the yard to take you to the limits of your own love. And when you come crashing to the hard cold bottom of your own well, and you lie down there broken and bruised in the dark, that‘ when you start to understand a little about that harsh and dreadful love in action.
So what do you do then? Dorothy Day says that the only solution is – guess what? – love. But not my love and not your love, and not even the love of a wonderful intentional Christian community. The only solution is God’s love.
In other words, this is the same thing that Jesus tells the disciples – that we must abide in the love of Jesus. And if we can go by these words, and by the experience of many who live in this community, the only way to abide in the love of Jesus is to face the awful limitations of our own love. Because abiding in God’s love means more than believing that God loves us in some kind of fuzzy, snuggly, happy way. Abiding in God’s love means that we need that love like the air that we breathe; it means that we depend on it for everything we do and for all that we are. It means coming so face to face with our own limits, our own sin, our own brokenness, that we know that without God’s love we would be lost, as lost as the branch would be without the vine that gives it life.
Sounds like fun, huh? But here‘s the good news. Jesus tells us that if we abide in his love, we really can love each other in the way he loved us. We can give up our lives for our friends, over and over again. And not only that, but we will have complete joy in doing it. Now how does that work? Well, it’s the secret of the Gospel, the secret of God’s radical abundant love – the secret of giving up a life which is broken and bruised, only to gain a life which is healing and whole. It doesn‘t happen all at once, but it does happen, as Dorothy Day has said, slowly by slowly, little by little in daily sacrifices of love. It happens here every morning when Ira gets up long before dawn to make good hot coffee for the homeless and for the community. It happens every evening when Ronald Williams raises his hand again and again to do our dishes. It happens when Tonnie King works his behind off to make sure that we can serve meat at the Tuesday morning breakfast, even if it means getting up to cook it himself. It happens when Gladys says a hard truth in love to help another community member on his or her way to the cross. It happens when Adolphus gets cussed out by someone who has just eaten in the Soup Kitchen, and then he comes back in to lead the community in a reflection about loving Christ in the poor. It happens when Dick gently delivers the sad news that the community has asked someone to leave. It happens at the Tuesday Morning Breakfast reflection, when someone confesses that despite all of their good intentions, they have been acting in racism. It happens every Thursday night, when Phillip makes a long day even longer by cheerfully leading the Harriet Tubman Free Medical Clinic. It happens again and again and again here, and probably in many ways I will never know.
I‘ve been talking most of this meditation about what has happened to me at the Open Door, but now I want to say a word to the Church at 910, as I leave you to go to another church. As most of you know, the Open Door has been going through a time of some insecurity about its ability to carry out its mission. But Jesus makes an important promise in this passage, a promise that if we abide in God’s love and offer our lives to one another in love, we will bear fruit, fruit that will last. We can‘t choose what fruit we will bear – as Jesus reminds us, we did not choose him, but he chose us, and the fruit we bear is that which grows from the vine of Jesus‘ love. But I can tell you this. From now on when I think of what it means for us to lay down our lives for our friends, I will think about Ira making the coffee and Ronald washing the dishes and Marian binding Scott‘s bleeding head and a thousand other pictures of sacrificial love from this community. Last week at my slightly-premature going-away party, when I had to stand up and say something intelligent in exchange for my cake and ice cream, I said that the Open Door was the best Christian education I had ever had. Another way of saying that is that you have taught me how to love, the harsh and dreadful kind of love, the Gospel kind of love. That is the fruit you have borne in me and in so many others, and God willing, it is fruit that will last.