When Obligations Become Gifts

A Reflection on the Gospel for

May 10, 2015, The Sixth Sunday of Easter


David Somerville+

African American writer, Octavia Butler, knew both the blessings  and challenges that come from  friendship.  In a moment of personal isolation, she wrote  “[I was] comfortably asocial—a hermit…. a pessimist, …an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.” I believe that Butler would have enjoyed a friendship with Vicki J. Kuyper, author of Be Patient, God Isn’t finished with Me Yet. Is God, dear reader, finished with You?

In the love that transpires between two persons, the well being of both grows until the expression, “When you’re  happy, I’m happy” becomes more than just an old slogan.  It becomes a reality that occupies space, and makes good things happen in time. Love between persons, then,  can be viewed both as an entity and a process.  It functions something like the person and work of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ.  He, for a thirty-three year moment, was with the people of God in our space and time of creation. He is still with us now, released from the strictures of a place and a time, because the father’s intention continues: to restore his children, who had “erred and strayed” from their image-hood in God.  We, the faithful, know that one of the earliest events in the history of our salvation began with God’s friendship with a man of obedience, Abraham. The story of his willingness to sacrifice his only son upon the command of his friend, God, suggests what this image-hood can mean.

Friendship can lead to frightening situations; it is also sacred.  How so? Certain kinds of friendships become more than sources of happiness for the people involved; consequences flow from the presence of the  happiness in any “two or three” that are “gathered together”.  The consequences begin to pass from the lovers of each other to the wider neighborhood, and continues toward the transformation of a local culture with a new consciousness of something long familiar to committed Christians — abundant life.  This to me is what the upcoming Gospel for Sunday, May 10th, is really about.

John 15:9-17 can mean different things to different people.  One of them is this: Jesus tells me that the love of mutual friendship that seeks only to value each other unconditionally is like a craftsman’s tool, a hammer, chisel, or, perhaps, a potter’ wheel. They are what the craftsman needs to bring beauty out of the natural stuff of creation – like a chunk of marble or lump of clay.  The friendship and love that grows from the raw but fertilized material of people encountering other people is what God uses in his work to make the world anew out of the old stuff of natural differences— stuff like racism, and the xenophobia that stems from a whole host of things, ranging from how the stranger eats to the way he expresses his sexuality.

Last Sunday in Garland, Texas,  a blogger/provocateur, one Pamela Geller, put on an event to exhibit cartoons of Muhammed which had been submitted by her participants.   The ostensible purpose of the event was to celebrate the United States constitutional right of free speech.

Then it happened.  Two men with assault rifles appeared and began shooting.  They were killed on the spot by a police officer who sustained a non-life threatening injury. Were it not for the quick reaction by the cop, there could have been multiple casualties.

The Texas incident suggests something important.  Every local culture, whose power-brokers believe that theirs is the only style of life acceptable to God, is in need of something like a vaccine for a deadly virus.  The virus is the fear and hatred that spawns the cancer of intolerance.  Tolerance (which, of course, is not the same as tacit approval) is one of the fruits of Christ’s commandments to his disciples, whose imperfect souls in togetherness, are the historical seedbed of what would become the church.

Jesus speaks this coming Sunday of his uncompromising command, “Love one another”.  Now in the normal parlance of the world, following a command is something that one does for another.  The motive is from a force greater than the power of the soul commanded.  It does not come from within; it is imposed to the follower from the outside. Following commands like that are tiring, hard work, and often are experienced as drudgery. They usually cause the development of repressed anger, the top soil for the weeds of sin.

We generally associate obedience to commands by a tyrant to be spiritually empty. After all, if you had not heard of the commandments of Jesus, would you list “following commands” as your favorite activity?  Probably not.  The kind of “selves” that we were, before our baptisms, associates obedience to drudgery,  not the Christian experience of joy through service to others.  Occasionally we relapse to our old selves, and become like the way Octavia Butler described herself.  We too in our lesser moments are a conflicted “oil-and-water” slurry of “ambition, laziness, insecurity, uninformed certainty, and drive.”

When I first heard of Pamela Geller’s exhibition in Texas, I carelessly assumed that she lived in some woodsy fortress in the mountains of Arizona, Idaho, or Montana. Not so.  Her base-ops is a luxury apartment in New York’s Upper  East Side”, and the website she operates through is called Atlas Shrugs!

Jesus’ commandment to love one another is a source of strengthening because the mutual transpiring of one’s goodness with the goodness of another is something we all need, because it is by its nature strengthening. It is the Holy Spirit at work, and here we discover that one of the tongues of the Holy Spirit is silence.  It is the language that enables a deeper communication with one another free from the temptation to judge the other who is different.  That is something we also need as a part of our strengthening because we are sorely tempted to judge others, rather than to offer listening, and undemanding presence, as a form of prayer. Obviously friendship, as a form of silent prayer  might do more to influence the other than getting into an argument.  Earlier in the day, as I was writing this article, I heard a CNN correspondent doing just that:  arguing with Pamela Geller. I had to turn the television off.

Before her death in 2006, Octavia Butler spoke of her experiences in transformation through her relationships with others.  She observed that “Sometimes being a friend means mastering the art of timing. There is a time for silence. A time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves into their own destiny.” A wise friend of Pamela Geller’s would not be one that seeks to win by debating  with her, but one who would be her companion,  the kind of friend that would stay with her for a while as she takes the road badly traveled.  The friend would then know to stop short of the cave entrance at the end of this road into which Geller chooses to rush, the place where angels fear to tread.

There is more that Octavia Butler says after her wisdom-style remark (Ecclesiastes?) about “a time for silence, and a time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves into their own destiny”.  She adds also that there is “a time to prepare to pick up the pieces when it’s all over.” Take a second look at that.    Isn’t Butler’s remark a really a good way to describe our life in baptized ministry?


Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/

2  Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s