Jeffrey Sartain September 10, 2017
Scripture Romans 13:8–10
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light
Prayer: Love Spirit of God, meet us in this time of speaking and listening and make your love known—the love we depend upon, the love we need. Amen.
The last few days I have been thinking about Irene Kobernus. She is gone now, I’m sure. She was 80 when I arrived at my first congregation in 1990—so while that seems to me like it was about 10 years ago, of course it is quite a while longer than that. I’m sure her spunky little 5-foot flame long ago joined the eternal light of glory, but she’s been on my mind.
Irene was nearly as round as she was tall, and she liked to serve her new young minister comfort food—steak and mashed potatoes for lunch whenever I stopped at her farmhouse for a visit. I went for encouragement, which she served with gravy, and she always said to leave room for pie.
Irene was a widow, but sort of an exuberant one. I suspect that her husband had been sort of a wet blanket on her spirit. While she missed him after he was gone, she seemed to enjoy being able to celebrate her full “Irene-ness.” She gave me a glimpse of this when one day I complimented her outfit. She always matched from earrings to shoes. She said it was nice to hear a straight-up compliment. She said, “I used to get dolled up and then ask my husband how I looked. He always said, ‘You look about as good as most of them, Irene.’” She said, “The idea was to look a little bit better than most of them.” Once her doctor told her she should lose weight, but she told him she didn’t believe in that. She said, “I wake up every morning and I look in the mirror and I say to myself, ‘Irene Kobernus, how can you feel so good?!’ That’s what I go by.”
I’ve needed a little of that Irene Kobernus attitude lately, that upbeat, try-to-find-the-bright-side attitude. Let me clarify that Irene wasn’t a Pollyanna. Often she wept at her kitchen table when she talked about her son who had passed away when he was just 40, and her husband, too, whom she missed despite his grumpy attitude. Her tears flowed generously over her round face. Irene also kept no dirt under her rug; she aired it all with no shame—her failings and foibles and fears and frustrations. She cried as easily as she laughed and integrated it all as she dried her tears, put me into my car with a hug, and then squeezed herself in her own behind her steering wheel, which was pressed right up against her bosom so her feet could reach the peddles. She zipped off to bingo, or to circle or to visit a friend. Irene lived openly and with integrity but she also kept her joy alive—and I loved that about her, and hope I can do that, too.
This old world is a weary place these days. This is nothing new, but it is hard. It is hard to read the paper. People with open and tender hearts cry over the devastation of hurricanes and earthquakes and wildfires. People with deep values and faith worry over political standoffs, war-crazed despots and legislative actions that come down hard on our society’s most vulnerable members. And there is trouble closer to home, too; a church in transition with big questions before us. Not to mention the trouble in our own lives—our kids, our jobs, our illnesses, our relationships. These are real and present realities. So, I’ve needed to find some role models, to think about how I want to show up—and that is why Irene Kobernus came to mind.
Her guiding rule was to love—to love others and to love her life in all its complexity, to weep when it calls you to weep, but also to laugh, because life is beautiful and brief. And so I’m grateful to Irene today, and hope my little tribute to her will give you some hope, too.
Last week I had lunch with a group of interfaith colleagues—rabbis and pastors and spiritual directors and activists of all ages and races and orientations and theological backgrounds—a wonderful mix. Together in a church basement we asked one another: What is giving you hope? What is helping you be the kind of spiritual leader you want to be in the world where trouble comes on every day—when the news shows images of Nazis marching in front of synagogues, not on the History Channel but on the evening news, and when in our members’ lives, those whom we are called to love, their pains break our hearts?
Someone quoted social activist Adrienne Maree Brown from Detroit, who wrote, “Things are not getting worse; they are getting uncovered.” And then she goes on, “We must hold one another tight as we pull back the veil.”
Another pastor at the table said, “You’d find me rocking in a corner if it weren’t for all of you.” She said: “But I get up and I love the best I can because I know that’s what God needs me to do.”
Someone else quoted, “A ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships were built for.” So out to sea we went again, but not before we went around the room and we each spoke one word that summarized what we were taking away. People said hope, determination, resolve, vulnerability—and one man just hugged himself and said, “I don’t have a word, but it feels like this.”
As we come to this new church program year, with all that is happening, that is what I want to put before us—the question: “What is giving us hope?”
The staff met this week and we asked that question. We were mindful that there are some very heavy hearts among us. We held in prayer those here for whom our senior minister’s departure is distressing. We held in prayer those who are worried about the world, those who can’t even turn on the news. We held in prayer those who struggle for a myriad of other reasons. And then we said to ourselves, What gives us hope?
Someone noted that Plymouth was founded in 1857—and has faced harder times than these: a civil war and world wars to follow; the leveling of our church by fire; the death of a beloved minister just a year into his tenure, Reverend Henry Nichols; a roiling debate among us over denominational affiliation more than once; countless deaths of our beloved saints; ministers coming and going under varied circumstances. It is a long history, and it is an inspiring one.
160 years ago last April a group of idealists met and established this church. Think about the context. Minneapolis was a rough frontier town, teeming with immigrants and lumber barons. There were more bars than churches to be sure—not that you can’t find some good people in a bar, but you know what I mean. It was a rugged place. And in our country, what was the context? There was great distress and division. In 1857, the same year the church was founded, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark Dred Scott decision that stated that a slave was “an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic,” and that slave owners had the right to hold onto their “property”—even in states and territories where slavery was illegal, states like Minnesota. This had launched a national, passionate, divisive and urgent debate.
In that complex and tumultuous time, our church, our brand-new church, knew what kind of congregation we wanted to be. We—and I say we because this is our church—we passed a resolution. The American Tract Society, a group in New York devoted to producing Christian literature, had refused to openly condemn slavery, and so we demanded that the organization “reverse its erroneous and time-serving policy” and “wipe away once and forever the reproach which it has attached to the Christian name.” Those are strong words coming from a fledgling little congregation on the Western frontier. That was a loving and bold resolution; and we made it together. We knew what kind of church we wanted to be.
Slavery was not a simple issue. There were layers of economics and politics that created strange alliances and caused thinking people to stop and wonder what cost might be borne by undoing an institution that was woven into the fabric of our life as a young nation, evil as it was. But even though it was a complicated time, we had no choice but stand for liberty and for justice. It was for us a matter of the soul; it was a matter of love—and of being the church God was calling us to be.
St. Paul wrote in our lesson today that the one who loves has done everything that is required. Paul wrote that this complicated life of faith is really not so complicated. He wrote that everything complex about life answers to this one demand: Love your neighbor as yourself.
Professor David Jacobson at the Toronto School of Theology wrote, “This simple passage lifts up the importance of love. Yet at the same time it refuses to set up love as a big, shadowy ‘ought.’ Instead, it sets love firmly in the light, that is, God’s dawning light of the new age. In other words, we don’t love because we should love. Rather, we love because God’s ever-loving day is about to dawn.”
Keeping all that in our hearts, our staff—Paula, Beth, Philip, Seth and I—chose a theme together as we thought about the program year beginning today: “160 years of daring spiritual community transforming the world with love . . .” and then we added, “Now more than ever.”
We are not naïve about this theme. It is a very bold statement. But what else can we be in these days if not a daring spiritual community? It is what this church has always been. Why come together if not to make a difference in the lives of those who most need us? Why worship the God who calls us to justice if we want only to remain comfortable? Why sing praise to the God who walked the human path, and struggled world-weary, and was at home with the world’s lost and littlest and least, if we are not going to bravely bind up our wounds, whatever they might be, and walk together in all God’s ways?
The times are complicated. Our emotions swirl and change by the day. Our lives are a mix of heartbreak and ecstasy, but God calls us to just one thing. God calls us to love this world and to love our lives—not as a command but as an invitation to joy. Even when our hearts are breaking; when we’ve failed; when anger consumes us; when we feel alone; when change unsettles us. Love is the one response to whatever life brings, it is the one response that moves us closer to the heart of God.
In words from Maya Angelou’s poem “Touched by an Angel”:
We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life. . . .
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.
Plymouth Congregational Church, in our 160th year, dare to love, simply love, and be the brave doers of justice we know God is calling us to be.