Lay Down Your Power for Your Friends
Updated: May 11, 2021
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: John 15:9-17
We forgot to hit the record button on Sunday during our hybrid outdoor/Zoom service, so there is no video this week. We'll be back to posting sermon videos next week!
It took many, many years, but I’ve come to realize that there are basically two different ways to practice my faith. With scarcity or with abundance. I was raised in a church that practiced scarcity: a scarcity of meaning, a scarcity of love. There was only one way to read the scriptures, and that was literally. If the scripture said that Jesus would return in a twinkling of an eye to the rolling of clouds and the sound of trumpets (which they do), then that is what would happen. Never mind that if he returned in a twinkling of an eye—which means very, very quickly, like in a split second—there would be no time to notice the sky or a heavenly orchestra.
If the scriptures said “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love,” as they do today, then it was up to us to find every commandment in the Bible and make sure we followed them—though with more emphasis on the ones about sexual behavior and using curse words and less on the ones about caring for the stranger and the poor.
There was only abundance when it came to judgment.
There were a hundred thousand ways to end up in hell, but only a tiny, narrow way to end up in heaven. Which I suppose could also be justified with scripture. “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it,” Matthew says. That’s one narrow way to read it, I guess.
Maybe others in the church I grew up in experienced it differently. Maybe it was abundant for them. I actually really hope it was. But all I felt was fear. Fear that if I didn’t follow the right rules in the right way, I would be sent to hell forever. When I was a kid, I used to pray every night that God would forgive me for the sins I didn’t even know I committed—to make sure I would go to heaven if I died in the night.
It took me a long, long time to learn that God was bigger than any rule we could imagine, any fear we could imagine. That’s why the scriptures often say such beautifully and wildly different things that often contradict each other. They’ll all trying to describe this unfathomable God and God’s unfathomable love from different angles.
All of this is why, when I read today’s gospel to prepare for this sermon, the word “joy” caught my attention.
Jesus said to the disciples: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
Practicing our faith shouldn’t fill us with fear or anxiety. Practicing our faith should fill us with joy.
Joy is a much richer word than we give it credit for. A lot of us use “happy” and “joyful” interchangeably, but I think there’s a difference. Happiness needs things to be a certain way, whereas joy, to me, is being able to see God in any circumstance. And I’m not saying “everything happens for a reason.” I don’t think God puts us in positions of suffering or pain so that we can experience some greater happiness from it later.
But I do think God is there to hold us through pain and suffering, to remind us that there is hope when things seem hopeless, to have grace for us when we’re not at our best. And, yes, to smile with us when things are beautiful, when we’re at peace, when we’re happy.
Having an awareness of God’s presence, no matter what the circumstance, is joy.
Joy is what brought me back to my faith after I left for a long time.
Jesus talks about joy, and then he points us towards how to live that joy. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Because, like I said, joy isn’t necessarily about happiness or comfort. Joy is about having an awareness of God’s presence and allowing it to change us. Joy is having an openness to God’s transformational love.
On Friday, Shauna Signorini led a group of folks from our church community through an exploration of identity, power, and privilege. She introduced what I thought was a very helpful tool to show us who in our broader society is closest to power and who is further away.
As you can see, white folks are closer to power than people of color, and white men are closer to power than white women. I don’t think there’s any disputing this. 93% of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are men. 93% of CEOs are white (Source). Our federal government is doing a tiny bit better: 74% of our Congress is male, and 77% is white (Source).
It’s not hard to see who is driving industry and making the biggest decisions at the highest levels of government. It’s not hard to see who holds the most power in our country.
But this wheel also shows us other ways we may not think so much about when we think about power. On Friday we talked about how a deaf person who came to St. Luke’s—in the sanctuary or on Zoom—wouldn’t be able to understand our service because we don’t have any accommodations for them.
People who only speak Spanish or people who can’t read would also be left out.
And, yes, our community is largely white and, well, not queer. While we have the best intentions for being welcoming to everyone, we still aren’t always aware of all the ways we live, move, and have our being as a community that may be harmful to our siblings of color. Or to our trans and nonbinary siblings.
On Friday, Shauna wisely pointed out that no community can be all things to all people, and I agree. But I can’t help but hear the words of Jesus when I think about all this. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Maybe we might rephrase this to, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s power for one’s friends.” Because laying down our life for our friends doesn’t necessarily mean dying. Maybe we’re called to lay down a way of life. Maybe we’re called to lay down a way of life that keeps us in power but harms someone else.
Maybe I’m called to learn Spanish so I can lead a service that is accessible to more of our neighbors. Maybe we’re called to install assistive listening devices so that our folks who are hard of hearing can participate more fully. And maybe we are all called to learn about how we have power in ways we’re not even aware of. Sacred Ground was a good start for this, but we have so much more to uncover.
And if we’re to trust today’s gospel, if we’re to trust Jesus, we know that doing these things is what leads us to complete joy in our faith. Because that’s what Jesus did. He laid down his power to become human. He laid down his life to love us who are harmed by suffering and sin, especially our own sin. And while it seemed in the moment that he was giving up everything, he rose in joy and glory.
May we have the kind of courage Jesus showed us—to risk our power, to risk our life, for a greater joy, a complete joy.