Rev. Annich’s sermon begins shortly after the 35 minute mark. The offertory, Prayer of the Children, sung by Grant Heineman, Carl Jenks, Jed Koop, Seth Ungemach, begins at minute 56.
The Big Island of Hawaii has been on my mind and in my prayers in recent days as its residents contend with the ravages of Hurricane Lane. Some years ago, Richard and I were privileged to lead a weeklong workshop there and we fell in love with the land and the people.
One of the most memorable experiences we had on The Big Island was attending Sunday worship at a small Episcopal church in the city of Hilo. It was a beautiful place, with a large roof and no walls, surrounded by lush vegetation that seemed to spill into the sanctuary from every angle. Men wore sarongs, people held their dogs on their laps, and we, in our tailored slacks and light jackets, felt terribly overdressed.
Prayer was a highlight of the service—people offered up petitions, intercessions, and thanksgivings with great gusto. One woman, clearly one of the well-loved elders, stood up and announced that she was close to 100 years old and very grateful for every day of life, but especially grateful for her new garage door and the kind workmen who had installed it a few days earlier. People clapped and nodded their approval. She was a powerful witness to God’s presence in all the details of life.
I had an experience in that little church that I will never forget. At some point, as I sat there, uplifted by warm breezes and a strong sense of the Spirit moving among the people, I looked up at the chancel. There above the choir loft my eye was drawn to a stained-glass window of the Holy Family—Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus. I don’t remember what they looked like in human form. I hope they weren’t the typical Anglicized, white-washed version of Middle-Eastern people, but their physical forms were not what caught my eye. What captivated me was the light shining through the window, illuminating the outline of the family in exquisite jewel tones. As I contemplated it, my heart was suddenly filled with an indescribable, other- worldly joy and I heard these words from the deepest recesses of my being, “This is your true family.”
Now I knew I still had a human family. I wasn’t having a psychotic episode or delusions of grandeur. I wasn’t thinking that they needed to Photoshop a picture of me next to the baby Jesus. However, what I did experience in that moment remained with me for some time afterward. It was, quite simply, a profound almost otherworldly reminder that our truest identity lies in the fact that we are beloved children of God. Let me remind you of that again—our truest identity lies in the fact that are beloved children of God.
Human lineages are complicated, aren’t they? We love our families and close friends so much, and yet some of the greatest suffering and brokenness we’ve known has been in the context of our most intimate relationships. The Bible is our human family scrapbook, a record of the many ways we’ve messed up relationships with God and one another over and over again. At the same time, the Bible repeatedly tells us that God loves us more than anything we can imagine. Each one of us here is loved beyond our wildest imagination. God created us and nothing can change that fact or separate us from God’s love.
The words of Jesus recorded by John in today’s Gospel reading are part of what is known as the Farewell Discourse–Jesus’ instructions and encouragement to his disciples in light of his impending death. They were especially meaningful to John’s audience several generations after Jesus as they faced terrible persecution because of their faith. To think about belonging to a lineage of love was critically important to those at risk of losing heart, and quite possibly losing their lives.
Listen again to the beginning of the reading, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” There it is—a lineage of love. Jesus passes on to us what he has directly received from God and commands us to keep passing it on to others. This is our truest identity—an intimate relationship with God, Jesus, and one another, held together in the bonds of love.
I chose to preach on the Farewell Discourse because I’m always moved by the image of Jesus’ thinking about the end of his time on earth and preparing his disciples to go on without him. In his attention to detail at the end of his ministry we catch a glimpse of God’s concern for all the details of our lives.
As I end my time with you here at Forest Hill Church, please know how much I love you and how very grateful I am for the love you have shown me. We’ve worked hard together on a lot of issues: discerning where God is calling this church, reaching out to the world beyond these walls, feeding the hungry, providing sanctuary to Leonor, learning about racism and acting on ways to dismantle it, extending compassionate care to one another, and always studying, learning and praying.
It’s been a rich three years. It hasn’t been perfect, and for any ways I may have unwittingly hurt you, I sincerely ask for forgiveness. For the most part, though, I think we’ve had a good run. I’ve loved working with John, who is the best partner in ministry I’ve ever had, and I’ve loved working with your very talented, very dedicated staff. So we will grieve the end of our time together, but not as people who grieve without hope, because we’ve seen that God has been faithful in the past and we have a strong sense of the purposes to which God is calling us in the future.
In the mid-1990’s my husband, Richard, was asked by his bishop to assume an interim position in a wonderful congregation that was unfortunately beset by divisions and strife. The bishop told him that being an interim was like being a good physical therapist—helping the system connect with its strength so it could move forward in a healthy way. I related to that metaphor in May and June when I was really struggling with vertigo and had to spend weeks in physical therapy. I absolutely loved the young man who attended me—he was smart and kind and funny—but our time together was only for a moment. When it was over I was surprisingly wistful because I really enjoyed his attention and care. Even more to the point, though, I was grateful because he had helped me reconnect with my own strength.
I have such confidence in Forest Hill Church and in your ability to share God’s love with each other and the world. I’ve consulted with a myriad of congregations and pastors throughout my career and I sincerely believe that this church family is strong, resilient, and faithful. I do not in any way doubt your ability to proclaim God’s love in word and in action and to welcome people into the lineage of God’s love that nourishes you and gives your lives meaning. Change is always a challenge, but I am going to count on you to navigate the changes ahead with courage, as you continually call to mind all the ways God has loved and led you in the past.
Now please don’t think this is all airy-fairy God talk or that our human relationships don’t count. On the contrary they count very much. In fact, we work out our identity as God’s children in the trenches of our human relationships. As we give and receive forgiveness, stand boldly for justice, care for the earth, listen to and encourage one another, and give thanks for our blessings we practice what we know to be true about who we are. Of course we stumble– a lot(!)– because we’re human. We say things we ought not to say and do things we ought not to do. We get so wrapped up in our own egos and personal pursuits that we neglect people who desperately need our attention. And at those times, we must come back to God’s lineage of love where there is always forgiveness. At those times we can remember the wise words of St. Francis de Sales. “Don’t despair of your shortcomings. Start over each day. You make spiritual progress by continually beginning again and again.”
Jesus commands us to abide in his love, not to feverishly thrash about in pursuit of some counterfeit form of happiness or in anxiety and hopelessness. We’ve talked a lot about Journey Inward, Journey Outward here at Forest Hill for that very reason. We need centering practices such as meditation and prayer because we can’t abide in God’s love or act in meaningful ways when we are frantic, scattered and anxious. If we are going to obey Christ’s command to love, we have to do what we can to quiet our noisy minds and divided hearts on a daily basis.
Friends, we are part of a lineage of love— from our mothers and fathers, mentors, friends and teachers, and most importantly, from God in Christ Jesus. There are so many opportunities here in this church and in this community to invite new friends into the lineage. Henri Nouwen reminds us in his book In the Name of Jesus, “The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”
Yes, God calls limited people like you and like me to be the gateway for unconditional love, and in responding to that call, we are always transformed. You know, when we buy a new appliance or maybe an article of clothing, we get those instruction manuals that tell us to be sure to follow the Manufacturer’s Operating Instructions for best results. When we act out of love we are following our Manufacturer’s Operating Instructions because love is who we most fundamentally are.
Go forward in the knowledge of who you truly are, trusting that, in joy and in sorrow, God will continue to care for you and promises never to let you go.
May God bless you and keep you.