May 6, 2018 – Rev. Debbie Allen
When I was in 6th grade, I entered a project in the science fair that my father and I (well, mostly my father) constructed. I was good at the artistic features of this project, but the scientific and mechanical aspects were my father’s passion. It was an impressive project! We made a large diorama in a wooden box in which there was a hillside with a waterfall. The water flowed from the top of the hill to a small pool at the bottom and was then pumped back up to the top, so the waterfall kept flowing. It was meant to illustrate the cycle of water in nature and various other natural phenomena, but it didn’t always work. In fact, it worked at home, but never worked at the science fair.
Unlike this project, our scripture this morning gives us an image of an uninterrupted, constantly replenishing, flow of love that comes from God through Jesus. But this love doesn’t stop there. The disciples are commanded to love each other in the same way that Jesus has loved them. The love they have for each other then gives rise to a community of love and forgiveness. It is this community that our congregation will soon commit to, as part of our promise to those being baptized. If we are receptive to this flow of love, it cannot help overflowing into the world.
Richard Rohr calls this the eternal waterwheel of self-emptying and outpouring love that is always available and always abundant. The problem is that, much of the time, we aren’t conscious of it, we don’t recognize it, we fail to see how crucial it is for our very existence. Much harm comes from our ignorance and unwillingness to acknowledge the source of love that creates, sustains, heals, and harmonizes the relational world in which we live.
Ironically, we are obsessed with relationship in our culture, especially technological forms of staying in touch like FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram. Communication often takes place in brief written messages and images rather than the nuances and inflections of the human voice. We connect, we disconnect, and we reconnect without looking into the eyes of another person.
Jesus takes relationship to a whole new level when he commands his disciples to love each other as he has loved them. He doesn’t explain to them exactly what that means, but if we look back over the life of Jesus, we see that he was never possessive or subordinating. Jesus often approached people with questions and parables that allowed them to discover for themselves the truth he was conveying. Jesus gave others the space to accept or not accept his love.
We are generally at ease with these expressions of love, but are perhaps uneasy with Jesus’ example of love for enemies, the poor, tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes; a love that compelled him to challenge those in authority, denounce empty piety, and ultimately to embrace death on a cross.
The love of Jesus was and is a transforming power rather than a mere expression of emotion. It does not let us sit back comfortably and ignore what is happening around us. Jesus tells his disciples that, when he returns to the Father, the Spirit of Truth will remain with them to strengthen their relationships with each other, guide them, enable them to carry out the work of love in the world, and offer refuge when they are threatened by external forces. They will not be left alone.
Jesus calls this new relationship friendship. It is not quite what we think of as friendship because it is one-sided – Jesus chooses his friends, not the other way around – and friendship is contingent upon the disciples doing what he commands. The shift from servanthood to friendship has to do with the openness with which Jesus shares his Father’s work with his disciples.
For Jesus, friendship is such a powerful bond that, in its highest form, it is expressed through the sacrifice of one’s life for the beloved. Author and Episcopal priest, Suzanne Guthrie, confesses her dis-ease with this radical expression of friendship when she writes, I’d feel better if Jesus really ascended far away into heaven, remotely busying himself at the ‘right hand of the Father.’ The friendship of Jesus requires much from us, but it is also the source of true joy.
In the Celtic tradition, we are given a model for friendship that has much to offer us in today’s world of pseudo-relationships. The Celts believed that each of us has an anam cara. In Gaelic, anam means soul and cara means friend. A soul friend, says John O’Donohue in his book entitled Anam Cara, is a person to whom you [can] reveal the hidden intimacies of your life.
This form of friendship transcends distance and cannot be destroyed even by death. In the film, Babette’s Feast, we find an illustration of anam cara. This film is about the transformation of a small pious, Protestant community on a remote coast of Denmark. The group’s spiritual leader has died and his two daughters are unsuccessfully trying to hold the community together. The arrival of a French woman named Babette changes everything.
At the feast Babette prepares as an act of gratitude, an elderly soldier is present. In his youth, he had asked one of the sisters, Martina, to marry him, but she declined so she could fully commit herself to the community. Now he says to her, I have been with you every day of my life. Tell me you know that. And Martina says, Yes I know it. And then the old general says, You must also know that I shall be with you every day that is granted to me from now on. Every evening I shall sit down to dine with you. Not with my body, which is of no importance, but with my soul. Because this evening I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible. I hear in these words an echo of Jesus’ words to his disciples as he prepares them for his absence.
But there’s more to soul friendship. When soul friends come together, says O’Donohue, it is an act of ancient recognition and knowing. What he calls a third force not only brings us together, but holds us together. However, we can be blind to it. Our blindness is caused by the distortions of our ego and our inability to find the wellspring of love within our own hearts and invite it to flow through our lives (50).
The awakening of this love frees us to embrace our unique and sacred identity. We come to love our differences and to encourage one another to grow into the potential that is ours alone. The love of a soul friend gently mirrors back to us what we cannot see ourselves. This requires great trust.
I believe that Jesus is our anam cara, not only available to us as individuals, but to us as a congregation, as members of the body of Christ. As Carl, Sujata, and their daughters are baptized, and new members are welcomed; as we celebrate the sacrament of communion; as we meditate, pray and sing hymns together, let us open ourselves to the flow of love that is always present and trust that, in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible. Amen.
John O’Donohue. Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World. Bantam Books, 1997.