Plymouth Congregational, UCC
Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Our scripture today comes from the Gospel of John…it is part of Jesus’ long conversation and prayer with his disciples at the Last Supper. words of instruction and love which foreshadow his death. We hear the historical Jesus speaking to his disciples amid the impending crisis of his arrest. We hear Jesus speaking through the gospel writer of John to a late first century Jewish Christian community that was besieged with persecution from other Jews as well as the Roman empire. And we hear the Spirit of God speaking through Jesus, through the gospel writer, to us on this May morning, to our 21st century Body of Christ, Plymouth UCC. Let us listen through the filter of our strengths and struggles, our gifts and challenges, our fears, our hopes and dreams for the opportunities of God’s work through us.
As God, our loving Father and Mother, 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 God’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 God. You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that God will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
For the Word of God in scripture; for the Word of God among us, for the Word of God within us …. Thanks be to God.
Do you feel chosen by Jesus to be God’s friend? To abide in God’s love and joy in such complete fullness that it bears the fruit of transformation in your life and in the lives of those around you? This is not a life just for saints and holy hermits. This is the life that God has for all of us to if we keep commandments of Jesus to love one another. Jesus tells us in our scripture, when we love one another, heeding all Jesus taught us about love, we are his friends and thus, friends of God. This love is reflexive, reciprocal, regenerative. As friends of the loving God, we are empowered to follow Jesus’ commands to choose love.
After the death of my mom in 2014, I was visiting my dad and had time to talk with him about death and life after death and heaven. Many of you know he was an ordained pastor and preacher, a theology professor. As we sat in the local coffee shop in his little town in Missouri, he confessed to me, “I do not know about heaven. But what I hope is that after death I will learn to love as God loves.” Perhaps this is the aspiration that Jesus has for us, as he did for his first century disciples and friends. To love as God loves. What might that look like? I think that is the invitation here.
It begins with knowing we are “chosen.” I struggle with that. I’m just an ordinary person, one among SO many, why would God notice me? Yet Jesus tells us we are each chosen to be friends. The idea is bigger than my brain can conceive. I can only tell you that I had an experience this week taught me about “being chosen.” I sat down to practice, emphasis on that word for I am a true beginner, to practice centering prayer. I got settled and centered. Then our dog, Bridey, stuck her nose in my lap, right in my open hands. I tried to gently push her away and stay centered. She did it again with her big purple toy bone. Again I tried to disengage… she persisted and finally draped herself across my lap putting her face in mine with “kisses.” I think God is like this… choosing us time and again… in our face at unexpected times with love…that we might first see as distraction. It might even be in the middle of some spiritual practice that you think you should “do” to get close to God. God is always with us, sometimes distracting and disrupting like a loving, playful dog – or cat – calling you to love.
Jesus says that we become friends by keeping the commands to love. In the midst of this we know we are chosen. It’s a bit circuitous. Looking concretely to examples of friendship in my life…the most life-giving friends, those relatively few people that are my closest, most tried and true friends, the one who have been with me through the nitty gritty of life and have loved me through it all … I have found in true friendship I seek to take on the best characteristics of my friends. If we take on the best characteristics of our true friends in this life, then as friends of God through Jesus, might we take on the characteristics of the loving God who has chosen us? My dad longed to love as God loves, which is a huge mystery that we will never finish exploring in this life or the next. I wonder if after 80+ years of practicing friendship with God through following Jesus he was closer than he thought.
I am reminded of another surprising experience of being chosen to love as God loves. In the spring of 2009 I was chosen by the pastor emeritus of the church I served in Denver to be part of the Rocky Mountain Conference Global Missions Team mission trip to Venezuela. Very early on a frosty Sunday morning in April, I met the other nine members mission trip team at DIA to set off for Miracaibo, VZ to partner in mission with our Venezuelan denominational partners, the United Evangelical Pentecostal Church of Venezeula or in the Spanish acronym, the UEPV. After being prayed over and anointed with oil by this same elder stateman pastor right at the United ticket counter, we took off. During our layover in Miami we walked from our gate to the International Concourse through a large airport art display. In huge glass cases there were six-to-seven-foot-high letters made of brilliantly colored flowers, like something off a New Year’s Day Rose Bowl parade float. They spelled out, “All You Need is Love”… Prophetic words.
Late that night we were met at the Maracaibo airport by our Venezuelan partners, included their bishop Gamaliel Lugos. It was a swarm of joy as people rushed to carry our bags and help us into cars. Over the course of the next ten days people of the UEPV, never failed to amaze me with their deep and enthusiastic engagement with life lived in and through the love of God. They lived large in a country riddled with poverty and injustice. Their love of Christ was inseparable from their political commitment to building a new world of justice in their country. They lived out Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and they were raising up women as leaders, working for women’s rights. They seemed to abide in God’s love to such an extent that joy was their MO, their modus operandi, each moment of their lives. As friends of God, they literally lived by the motto, “we will struggle, but we will not die.”
The bulk of our time was spent in the small town of Ospino in the foothills of the Andes. We stayed in a guest house, but our real home was a few blocks away in the small house of Gladys and Omar Gonzales, who hosted each of our meals. They gathered teams of people to prepare meals for our group of 10 or so as well as 6-8 Venezuelans who came from several areas in VZ to help with the week’s designated work project and to worship with us in the evening. They fed us using fresh fruit and vegetables from the Gonzales’ open air market next door, grilling arrepahas on their George Foreman grill, roasting meat in their backyard. Omar and Gladys became for us un familia, family. They laid down their lives for us. You do not have to die for to lay down your life for a friend. You do have to open your heart so wide that life might not always be convenient for you as you offer hospitality and love to others, but it will be joyful!
Two things I experienced in VZ through the ministry of the UEPV opened my eyes and heart to an expanded vision of being chosen as a friend by God’s love. The first was the circumstances of our work project on the finca, the farm owned by the denomination in Ospina. It was not a working farm but more of a community center for ministry. It had two or three buildings surrounded by a large amount of land…that was growing increasingly smaller because of squatters, people so poor that they grabbed any small piece of land they could to build shacks and grow a few vegetables. The shacks would literally spring up overnight. The UEPV could have legally prosecuted these people who stole the land from the finca. But they decided it was part of their ministry of Christ’s love to let the squatters have the land, to engage them as neighbors and invite them into their God’s community. A sacrificial decision, laying down their lives for friends. Ironically, our work project was to help build a wall around the remaining land so that the UEPV could continue their work of community ministry. That was the stated project and progress was made, however, the real work was made manifest in the smiles, laughter, …the halting sentences of banter and praise for a new post hole just dug made across the language barriers. Often there were songs echoing across the field strewn with mangoes falling off the trees and the sound children playing an impromptu baseball game with the mangoes too green to eat.
The second experience was the nightly worship at Iglesia Pentecostal de Los Olivos, the local UEPV church. This church had been taken out of the denomination by a fundamentalist pastor. He was now gone and the church, much to the relief of most of its members, was returning to the denomination. Our presence was the catalyst to invite UEPV folks from around VZ to join in the celebration of reunion and to commission new pastors for the church. Pastors brought their people from little churches in surrounding towns to welcome Los Olivos back to the UEPV vision of working for the poor and women’s rights, for working ecumenically with other denominations, and for creating indigenous Venezuelan worship using their songs and liturgies. The love in the very lively worship was palpable and we were embraced by it. On the last night they actually commissioned our beloved hosts, Gladys and Omar as the new lay pastors.
Each night Bishop Lugos spoke, reminding us that God is not only with us, God is in us, abiding in us, just as we abide in God. At the end of the service he would ask us to pass the peace, saying, ”I Love YOU.” It was intimidating at first. I didn’t really know these people or even know all the people on the mission team well. I didn’t speak Spanish. Yet I had to plunge in saying in English, I love you, I love you, … in Spanish, te quiero, te quiero. And it wasn’t fake or mushy or overly sentimental or even awkward. I had for a brief time been in the nitty gritty of life, with these folks, meals shared, walls built, prayers prayed, abiding in love across the barriers of language and culture in God’s love. It was true and real. If we were all together in our Plymouth sanctuary I would invite us break out of our white, Protestant, intellectual selves and try this practice. I think you would find God’s love in your face as viscerally as the dog kisses that interrupted my prayer time.
My friends, I tell you this longish story today to invite you to take the risk of knowing you, too, are chosen by God. Reach out. Accept the invitation. It will take you to some strange and wonderful and hard places. And it will be worth it. What is calling to you through the ministries of Plymouth that will empower and nurture your friendship with God? Jesus says to us, “I have chosen you in God’s love to be friends of God. Keep my commands to love and you will discover, even in this life, in your heart of hearts what it can means to love as God loves.” Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.