Livestreamed service

Exodus 20:1-17
Mark 3:31-35
Luke 14:12-14
The Sung Word: “On the Day We Are Together Again,” words and music by Humbird, arranged by Will Robertson, sung by the Congregation Bet Haverim Chorus; used with permission.

        I want to begin this morning by stating the obvious, which is that I am no expert on relationships. Like all of us, and perhaps even more than most of us, I have failed at more than a few relationships, sometimes because I wanted too much or gave too little, sometimes because I was still learning how to love, and other times—and this is the most humbling of all—because I didn’t care enough about other people.

        So I speak this morning—and every Sunday morning, for that matter—not out of expertise, goodness, or having arrived anywhere, but from a place of expanding awareness, deepening humility, and growing gratitude for the fundamental truths of the gospel:

        That we are beloved beyond all human comprehension. That we need not be defined by our past failures and mistakes, and that God is forever doing new thing after new thing after ever-more transformative new thing in us and through us. That the gospel calls us to let go of our tendency to resign ourselves to what was and to settle for what is, and—instead—to live in hope and faith, to join the Holy One in reimagining and bringing about new life for us and for all God’s children and creation.

        And this morning, as we move more deeply into the season of Lent and also stand on the threshold of one whole year of previously unimaginable pandemic life, we come again to relationship. The life of Jesus, the season of Lent, the challenges of the pandemic, even the Ten Commandments invite us to reimagine our relationships, to reimagine what relationships are, to draw the circle of relationship so wide that it has no beginning or end. Jesus, Lent, the pandemic, and, yes, even the Ten Commandments invite us to discover or rediscover how central relationships are not only to life itself, not only to the life of faith, but also to the Holy Mystery that is God.

        Community, which is nothing if not a collection of relationships, shared experiences, and mutual commitments, is at the heart of the Christian understanding of God. Parent, Son, and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer; the Holy within, around, and among us; a Holy Trinity always dancing, ever seeking us out, following us with goodness and mercy all our days, offering identity, belonging, forgiveness, redemption, power, and new life. Which is to say, relationship.

        Having been created in the divine image, we are made for relationship.  We are created to love and be loved.

        And yet, from almost the beginning, we have struggled with relationships. We have tried to run away from God. We have loved ourselves and our ways more than anything and anyone else. And so we have walled some people out. We have treated some people as other- and less-than. We have fought over everything from political power and natural resources to borders, religion, ideology, and the value of entire categories of God’s children. We have a propensity to hurt even those closest to us, in part because we ourselves are wounded.

        And so it is that what we know as the Ten Commandments are not so much divine do’s and don’ts or a tool of modern moral and religious control, as a set of guidelines for relationships, the outlines of freedom, and a sacred structure for life together in community.

        The first four commandments set out basic principles for our relationship with the Holy, warning us against worshipping ourselves or anything other than the one true God. The remaining six commandments focus on our relationships with other people: We are to honor our parents. We are not to murder; not to take, abuse, or even covet the spouses and property of our neighbors. We are not to speak falsely against our neighbors.

        What ties the Ten Commandments together is the primacy of relationship and the centrality of love. We cannot love God if we do not love our neighbors, and our capacity to love others comes from being grounded in relationship with the God who is love.

        Jesus said as much. Asked to name the greatest commandment, he said we are to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. And then, in the very next breath, he cited a second commandment: “ ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments,” Jesus said,  “hang all the law and the prophets.” 

        In other words, it is on these relationships—to God, ourselves, and our neighbors—that our lives are built. It is by these relationships that our lives have meaning and purpose, and it is in these relationships that we become—through commitment, conflict, healing, and recommitment—the human vessels of divine love that we are meant to be.

        Jesus was constantly redefining and reimagining relationships—every thing from who constitutes family to who should come to dinner to who is worthy of our time, trust, and attention. The short answer to every question is, of course, everyone; no exceptions.

        But right, reimagined relationship is not about progressive theology or politics. As we have been reminded again this past week, one can have the best government policies and yet abuse individual people. Another governor can technically be “pro-life” but continue to promote policies that endanger all lives.

        We don’t think or talk or even preach ourselves into new ways of being. Rather, as Jesus taught, we live ourselves into new ways of relating and loving and being.

        I don’t know how you want or need to think about reimagining relationships, or what it would mean for you to live it. Maybe one or more of your relationships would be made new by your recommitment to it. Maybe God’s love would bring healing and newness to other relationships if you could let go of old ways of criticizing and excluding, demeaning and using. Maybe what needs reimagining for you is the possibility of even having the relationships you want.

        It may be—dare I say it?—that many of us need to reimagine our relationship with the Holy. How much time and energy do we invest in prayer, meditation, or devotional reading? How faithful are we in worship and in nurturing the habit of encountering God in one another? How willing are we to let God’s Spirit transform us?

        What I do know (I think) is that the pandemic—for all its death and disruption, loss and suffering—has challenged us to be more aware of the importance of relationship, both the particular people in our own lives and all our so-called neighbors. As someone has said on social media, we have not “lost” a year of our lives to the pandemic so much as invested a year of our lives in protecting and nurturing the lives of others, including many people we will never know.

        According to the New York Times, “one in three Americans has lost someone to the coronavirus.” I’m not sure how they came up with that statistic, how close one has to be to someone who has died of COVID-19, but surely many of us know someone who has died (including our own Nick Kendall) or someone who has lost someone.

        And now, one year on—one year since we last worshipped together, one year since many of our children were in school and some of us were in our offices, one year since some of us have received a paycheck, one year since some of us have seen our parents or children or siblings or friends, one year since some of us have given or received a single hug—it feels like a really good time to reimagine our relationships. To thank God that we and our beloveds are still here, and to choose at least one way to nurture at least one relationship.

        This, like the Ten Commandments and the gospel of Christ, is not an assignment or a set of restrictions. Rather it is the pathway to new and fuller life, to deeper and more life-giving love.

        On the day we are together again, let us not pick up where we left off. Rather, let us begin again: more willing than ever to give ourselves in love, to meet the other person more than halfway, to listen more than we speak, to go out of our way to be kind, to make time for each other, to seek out people who are not like us, to be so grounded in the love of God, so transformed by the ways of Jesus, that we can’t help but love our neighbors.

On the day we are together again
I will pull you in close like a hoop with no end
We will have never been happier to sit in uncomfortable pews .  . .
We will share the same Communion table again …
I will pass you the bread, the candlelight will bend …
We will hug one another again . . .
We will pass the peace again . . .
We will love one another even more . . .
We will be among people who respect our worth …
We will welcome the strangers we meet . . .
Oh, hope is a message that survives somehow
And the ones we love who are gone
We remember their stories, we sing their songs
On the day we are together again
I will pull you in close like a hoop with no end
On the day we are together again.