Thursday, May 18, 2017

May 21, Easter 6, Volunteer Sunday: Eager to Do Good

1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. A well-known statement of Jesus to his disciples the night before he died. Less well known is that opening statement from the First Epistle of Peter: Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? The two statements in combination are my topic today.

But first let me thank The Stone House Singers for helping us celebrate our volunteering. Now you singers are not paid, correct? You are all volunteers, right? Not me. I get paid for this. How do you like it that I who am preaching the sermon on volunteering am also the one person in the room who isn’t doing it?

Do you consider the Lord Jesus a volunteer? Did he get paid for being Messiah? We know that St. Paul was a volunteer—he earned his keep by making tents. St. Peter seems to have gotten a stipend when he got promoted from disciple to apostle, but I’m guessing the readers of his epistle were volunteers. Like you all. So let me thank you, today especially Phil, Michael, Jenn, Dave, Jessica, Pete, Karen, and all of you, all of you because you are here today voluntarily.

The Christian faith, at its heart, is voluntary. Because it appeals to belief it requires freedom, not compulsion. It’s based on choice, not coercion. On attraction, not fear. The church has no police. Our only form of penalty is to keep you from communion, which most people do without anyway, so what use is that? The church assumes free will, volition, from the Latin voluntas, voluntatis, voluntate, voluntarily. Every Sunday is a volunteer Sunday. To keep you all volunteering is what I get paid for.

Which does take some doing, even though you all know that what you get back from your volunteering more than compensates for what you put into it.  And even though you understand the fulfillment and the satisfaction of having done something that costs you, it does cost you. Maybe time away from your family. Time away from your own pursuits that no one else looks after but yourself. Time away from your own self-care.

In our modern democratic culture the cost of your religion is rarely other than an opportunity cost. Your choosing for one thing reduces your opportunity to do something else as well. But you know there have been many times when your religion might cost you life and limb and many places where to support a church results in discrimination and even persecution. Your voluntary choice for church is also a choice for suffering, not suffering as a desirable but suffering as inevitable.

For us, supporting the church has cultural advantages and is regarded as respectable. It offers good programs and I don’t have to list them. But in the time of St. Peter’s epistle, the church had no programs besides its weekly gathering, and in the surrounding culture it was not respectable and it brought you disadvantages and social penalties.

So it’s a real question that the epistle opens with, it’s not rhetorical. Let me translate it extremely literally: “Now who is the one who will be harming you if you are zealous for the good?” Because you will be harmed! Maybe not in a religiously neutral situation like our own, but in a situation when your religion is not respectable, or even illegal, you will be harmed for doing good, especially when the good you do is to counter the prevailing power that maintains its power by doing harm. All governments are violent, all of them. Some less than others, but all of them. All governments lie, some less than others. Yet even when they lie, you be eager to tell the truth. Even when they are violent, you be eager to wage peace. And when they do harm, you be eager to do good.

One of the ways of doing good is the contribution of your voluntary time to the alternative community of the church. Now there are many free-will communities in the culture for you to contribute your voluntary time to. They have their value. Choirs. The Park Slope Civic Council. Alumni associations. Sports clubs. I’m on the board of my housing co-op. But there is only one kind of voluntary association that I know of the only purpose of which is goodness itself, the source of goodness, the extension of goodness, and the maintenance of goodness against evil.

There is only one voluntary association I know of that trains you to head towards suffering, be that your own or someone else’s. There is only one voluntary association I know of for training in transforming love, transcendent love. This training in transcendent love makes use of many different exercises and fitness routines, and these are the volunteer jobs in a church, all the various kinds of service, all different aspects and expressions that woven together make up the complexity of love. That is what you are volunteering for, from coffee to counting money to serving communion, to train yourself in practical love and to contribute to a community witnessing to transcendent love.

If you love me you will keep my commandments. As typical in John’s gospel it can be taken different  ways. The verb forms allow all of indicative, subjunctive, and imperative, yielding an if-then condition either present-imperative or future-probable or maybe intentionally both. If ye love me, keep my commandments. If you are loving me you will be keeping my commandments.

I confess that loving Jesus has always felt awkward to me. I have no difficulty in loving God simply as God, but loving Jesus means also loving God as a human being, and loving a human being implies affection, but how can I feel affection for a human being at such a great remove in time and space? God as God I feel so close to, and my love of God is not about affection. So how do I love Jesus? If not by affection, then by action? By keeping his commandments? Okay, and what are his commandments? That we love. It’s circular, which is also typical of John. We love by keeping his commandments and we keep his commandments by loving.

My granddaughter is old enough now to be done with singing that Barney song, “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family.” It isn’t just any love that you practice here. I call it transcendent love because it is the love between God the Father and God the Son, and I call it transforming love that God took on our suffering in Jesus-being-eager to do good to those who harmed him, and I call it voluntary love because you do it in freedom. You choose for that love voluntarily behind its various manifestations in the down-to-earth realities of the congregation. You are eager for this love. You are eager to do good precisely against all the harm being done in the world. You are eager for love.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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