Rev. Rainey Dankel | 5.29.22


Key Passage: [Jesus prayed:] “…I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that …you have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23)

I am one of four children in my family, and my mother’s primary focus for a large part of her life was in caring for us. She spent time with each of us, making sure that we were well fed and clothed, and supporting us in our many activities of school, church, sports, music, art, ballet, and scouting. She could always tell what was on our minds, even without our speaking about it. She knew us so well.

I remember one night, when I was awakened by something, perhaps a bad dream, and I cautiously tiptoed towards my parents’ bedroom. I had never done that before. The door was partially closed. It was dark in the hall and in the room. I pushed on the door a bit, without saying anything, and stepped into the room. The next thing I heard was my mother’s voice calling my name and asking me what was wrong. I don’t remember our conversation. I just remember that my mother knew who was standing in the dark before I said anything. I asked her later how she had known that it was I and not one of my siblings. She just said, “I knew.”

Today I am thinking of the mothers and fathers, teachers and caregivers who are grieving the loss of their children and loved ones. In three weeks of horrific deaths by mass shootings, there are so many people who are reeling from the loss of innocent life, especially as it affects children. As we gather in sympathy and grief, how does Jesus’ prayer comfort us? How do we as bearers of God’s love find healing and in turn become healers?

In today’s Gospel Jesus is with his disciples at their final meal before his death. He has offered a sort of summary of his teachings, a final lecture from a beloved teacher, reminding them of his commandment to love one another and promising the presence of the Holy Spirit with them. He then prays for them, asking for God’s continuing protection and for them to know his love through all that will yet unfold. Jesus prays not only for the friends with him in that room but on behalf of all who will come to believe—all the generations yet to come—including us. Jesus’ prayer is that we will know the love that Jesus and God share and in that relationship of love we will experience God’s love for us and for all people.

The disciples have seen Jesus’ self-giving love demonstrated in his life—in acts of healing and forgiveness, in stories of God’s care, in reaching out to the marginalized, and in his refusal to respond to violence with anything but forgiving love. Jesus constantly says that this self-giving love comes from the One he calls Father. It is through the loving relationship of Creator and Child that this love is made visible and embodied in Jesus’ life. Jesus prays for this love to dwell in each of his friends, bringing them into that unifying relationship with God that enables each of the followers to become God’s love in the world.

Jesus describes this relationship as one of unity: just as Jesus and the Father are one, so through Christ we become unified with God’s love and through that love, unified with each other. The unity that God’s love brings is crucial as it becomes a witness to the world. The power to love and forgive and live in harmony is the most powerful witness to the power of God’s love embodied in Jesus. As followers of Christ, we become that embodiment, “so that,” as Jesus prays, “the world may know that …you have loved them even as you have loved me.” As we live into the forgiveness, healing, and reconciling power of God, we learn to live together and to spread that love into the world. We become participants in God’s great love for us. God knows us, each of us, and loves us as precious children.

This passage is often cited in pleas for unity across Christian churches. The “divisions” into denominations and different approaches to Christianity seem to present a fractured picture to the world. That is certainly an important point, and when we as Christians demonize each other, disrespect and hurt each other, we certainly send a dreadful message to those looking on from outside. But the unity I want to stress today is not necessarily doctrinal, organizational, or even political unity. I think Jesus’ prayer today is for the unity that grows out of received and shared love, reciprocal love, which we are called to share with the world. As embodied witnesses, we become the means by which the world experiences the self-giving love of Jesus, so that all may come within the reach of God’s saving embrace.

Jesus prays that we will be filled with the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, our companion. As Christ’s community in the world, we are united to each other in love, and we witness to the forgiveness and reconciliation we have experienced as we offer it to others. What does that love look like in today’s world? A searing image for me right now is that of Irma Garcia. She was one of the two teachers murdered in Uvalde. Her lifeless body was found in her classroom embracing two of her students who had also died. A student who survived said, “She kept trying to put herself between us the shooter, and holding us close.” In her last moments, her focus was on protecting and comforting her beloved children. What greater love can there be. This is Jesus’ sacrificial love for us.

Jesus commands us to love one another. It’s not about an emotion, for commanding feelings is fruitless. What is commanded are orientations, actions, and behaviors that bring this love alive and into the lives of others. We pray for those who are suffering. We participate in vigils to stand in solidarity with those who are grieving. We attend rallies to call for changes in laws and policies that will reduce the violence. We participate in Sacred Ground conversations that deepen our knowledge of the struggles faced by people in our country, and we practice listening that treats others with respect, even when we deeply disagree with their politics. We look for opportunities and practices that witness to the power of God’s love to enable us to give and receive forgiveness and to experience new life. We are united in working for peace as God’s love flows in and through us.

The place where we work at loving each other is in the church. We learn how to love as we encounter and engage with fellow followers of Jesus. The peace which Christ places in each of our hearts enables us to reach out in peace. We seek unity with each other, not by being nice, but by being willing to share ourselves with each other, to support each other, to forgive each other, and to grow together as part of God’s beloved community. These are the practice drills that help us develop spiritual muscles to love fiercely and reliably. We do it haltingly, often failing. We pray for forgiveness, and we try again.

In our Baptismal Covenant, which we will renew next Sunday, we promise to respect the dignity of every human being. Seeing the image of God in each person is not some easy statement, but a promise that we can only live into “with God’s help.” In a few weeks, we will learn about an opportunity to practice respect. David Isay, the founder of the public radio program Story Corps, is coming to Richmond as one of four cities in a program called One Small Step Initiative. They will be pairing strangers of divergent perspectives to engage in conversations about their lives, in an effort to repair the fabric of our country, to decrease the contempt we often feel for each other, and to help Americans see one another as human beings. On Thursday, June 16, there will be a meeting at St. Paul’s to learn more about this program.

As Jesus departs from this earth, he prays that we will be unified in love. As we stand with those who are grieving, as we listen to those with whom we may not agree, as we search for ways to give and receive healing, we are drawing closer to God’s heart.

Poet Amanda Gorman gives voice to the many emotions we are feeling these days in her poem “Hymn for the Hurting.” I am particularly moved by her reference to transforming love. That’s where God is at work, mending our broken hearts and lives. Here are her words:

Everything hurts,
Our hearts shadowed and strange,
Minds muddied and mute.
We carry tragedy, terrifying and true.
And yet none of it is new;
We knew it as home,
As horror,
As heritage.
Even our children
Cannot be children,
Cannot be.

Everything hurts.
It’s a hard time to be alive,
And even harder to stay that way.
We’re burdened to live out these days,
While at the same time, blessed to outlive them.

This alarm is how we know
We must be altered—
That we must differ or die,
That we must triumph or try.
Thus while hate cannot be terminated,
It can be transformed
Into a love that lets us live.

May we not just grieve, but give;
May we not just ache, but act;
May our signed right to bear arms
Never blind our sight from shared harm;
May we choose our children over chaos.
May another innocent never be lost.

Maybe everything hurts,
Our hearts shadowed & strange.
But only when everything hurts
May everything change.