More than “Boston Strong”

Trinitarian Congregational Church, Concord MA

Sunday April 28, 2013

Chalk drawings on Mt. Auburn Ave, Watertown

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:31-35


After it was all done, with feet back on land, her body temperature slowly rising again, she said “It was one of those rare occasions in life when things turn out better than you ever imagined.” On August 7, 1987, a 30-year-old woman who learned how to swim just up the road in Manchester New Hampshire, began in Alaska and swam across the Bering Strait. For two hours and six minutes, in water that started at 43F and dropped to 38, Lynne Cox swam across the US-Soviet Border for the first time in 48 years. “Experts believe she succeeded because of a combination of determination and her own body fat which insulated her like a seal.“ tactfully opined the BBC.  Swimmers may be unlikely diplomats, but Lynne’s symbolic act cut through the silent glaring of the Cold War. At a signing of a nuclear weapons treaty later that year, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev praised Lynne, saying “She proved by her courage how closely to each other our people live.” Just 2.7 miles. Just that close.  Let us pray…

If you have been to church even once before today, chances are you’ve heard the gospel lesson from John. This is the new commandment, that you love one another. Except that there’s nothing terribly new about it. Love one another. Got it. Heard it in the Old Testament, Heard it in the New Testament.  Not throwing stones at neighbors. Letting those newcomers sit in the good seats in my pew on Christmas Eve, no less. Love one another. This is children’s sermon stuff. Love one another. Let’s sign up for coffee hour duty and call it a day here. We’ve got things to do.

Except, that the weight of this passage is lost by taking it out of the full chapter. We separate ourselves from the strength of this passage. The Lectionary committee did what is so tempting to do, cutting and cropping and segmenting our lives. These five verses are placed right in the middle of denial and betrayal.  Look at Chapter 13. Before these verses in 13:21, Jesus says to his disciples, “One of you will betray me.”  After these verse, Jesus tells Simon Peter “Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”  This love Jesus names in verse 34 is spoken into betrayal and denial by those closest to him.  You who will deny me, you who will betray me: Love one another. It’s a love not contingent on the disciples’ good behavior, but on Christ’s Love. Love one another as I have loved you- without reservation, without condition, without consideration that you will return this love.

And again, the passage turns. In verse 35, Jesus says “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The love is not just for the disciples, but for a public witness to the world. Jesus expects the community of his followers to behave in such a thoroughly different way that people will KNOW that “you are my disciples.” It’s public. It’s perceptible. This love is fierce, and it’s visible.

A friend of mine works in elder services on the South Shore of Massachusetts. She told me once of a man in his 80’s who had kept his loving relationship with another man, his ‘housemate’ a secret for years. When his companion died, there was no community to hold his grief. He drove around and around the South Shore looking for a church to visit, a sanctuary to sit, to pray, to sing, maybe to feel another human’s touch even if just in the passing of the peace. He looked for a church that might be friendly, a church that would not betray his love. He drove past church sign after church sign, none signaling a safe harbor. For love to be visible, it must be recognizable. For a grieving man driving alone in a 1984 Cutlass Ciera who had not walked into a church in half a century, the words “Open and Affirming” meant nothing. He was looking for a visible sign, perhaps a recognizable flag, that the love of God could be extended, even to him.

Jesus is pressing his followers for fierce, visible, explicit love, even in fractured community. My now deceased maternal grandmother had a habit of sending newspaper clippings through the mail, in repurposed envelopes. No note, no explanation. The message was implied. I think I was supposed to infer something like “I read this article and it made me think of you. Love Gran.” Jesus is asking the disciples to send those newspaper clippings and actually write out the implied message. The command is to make a gesture so identifiable that others immediately recognize the love that shortens the distance between us fractured humans- a swim across the Bering Strait to an enemy’s shore, a flag of inclusion, a handwritten note that actually says “love Gran.”  These gestures of visible love aren’t just for the benefit of a closed community, but to show what God is like to the world beyond the community.

Perhaps more than any other time in recent history, our state has been visible these past two weeks. We prepared for a Patriot’s Day weekend when the whole world would watch. Dean Jep Streit of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Boston (who ran the marathon many times) once remarked to a friend that he loved the Boston Marathon because it was a world-class athletic event that anyone, with some grit and preparation, could participate in. The Boston Marathon is high on excellence, broad on participation- which on our best days we aim for in Church too. And then, we became visible in ways entirely not chosen by us. In the midst of all the pain and anxiety of the past two weeks, we have seen fierce, visible signs of love for one another.

We have seen the same hospitals proving medical care for the victims and the perpetrators of violence.  When their churches were still a crime scene, Old South worshipping at Church of the Covenant, Trinity Copley at Temple Israel.  When a Palestinian Muslim woman was knocked down in Malden and young men who look “foreign” on the MBTA were stared at too long, many rabbis and pastors attending Friday prayers this week at the mosques in Roxbury and Cambridge. When he could see police with machine guns from his parsonage window, Fr. Arakel went across the street to St. James’ Armenian Orthodox Church in Watertown to let the police search the sanctuary, make them coffee and let the first responders charge their cell phones to text their own worried families. We have seen powerful signs of fierce love that rebuilds our fractured community.

And yet, we have more work to do.  You know this. Even with a suspect arrested, we are far from done attending to this experience. As Christians, we have an obligation to our common, public life to offer visible signs that acknowledge our pain, not merely mask it. Even if we want desperately to be “Boston Strong,” a win by Red Sox’s can’t save us from our grief.  “Boston  Strong” is not enough to will our way to wholeness. Resiliency is not something we can buy. Sam Adams Brewers have put in a trademark application for a “Boston Strong” Beer. Already 8 other companies have trademark applications in for “Boston Strong;” You can buy “Boston Strong” hats, tee-shirts, bumper-stickers, tattoos, coffee, beer. Almost immediately, “Boston Strong” became something to consume. Six months from now, when we lay awake wondering whether a police siren starts another manhunt, it will not be “Sweet Caroline” we sing to ourselves to calm frayed nerves.  We cannot just be critics of signs, but as Christians we are obliged to be creators.  What are the stories, songs, narratives of grief and redemption that we can offer? Even in our own grief, we have work to do. Scripture offers a vision of heaven like a city. God doesn’t vacuum up the righteous in the rapture, but instead God comes to dwell and redeem our communal living.

You heard it in the text we read from Revelation 21: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” The heavenly city is not a place of poverty or violence but restored relationships, bursting full and inhabited by that glorious global mix of people you catch a glimpse of on Commonwealth Ave. Maybe one reason that the Boston Marathon is so symbolically powerful is that people run towards a city, not flee from it.

For a part of the country notoriously slow to warm up to outsiders, many, many writers have said over the past few days that we were all made Bostonians by the events of the last two weeks. I feel it too. Those were my streets that were bombed. Those were my neighbors injured. That was my apartment under lockdown. How many of you are not originally from this area? You know how hard it can be to break in, to be a home here in New England where the ‘new church’ was built in the 1800’s and the ‘new family’ has been here for 3 generations. History weighs heavy here.  Places are made sacred by prayer or death, sometimes both. Maybe we have been made one city by acts of death. The challenge next is to be made one by acts of visible love.

It was just 2.7 miles across the Bering Straight between Alaska and the Soviet Republic. For comparison sake, it’s 2.7 miles as the crow flies from the door of this church to MCI (Massachusetts Correctional Institution) Concord. That’s how far. That’s how close. In this place it is entirely possible to live 2.7 miles from one another and keep up our New England stonewalls of silence between neighbors. In this place, it is entirely possible to live just 26.2 miles apart and have entirely different experiences of safety and security, education and opportunity, life and death. Jesus speaks, into the brokenness of community a new commandment of Love.  Look for the place this week where you can offer a visible sign of love. Fierce love. Love not for the lovable, but for those who would deny you or betray you. Offer some superfluous sign of love that rebuilds fractured community. That is just how simple and how hard the Gospel is.

Published by RevEverett

I'm a pastor in the United Church of Christ here in Boston. I serve as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Cycliss, seamstress, my book is "Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels." NJ by birth, MA by choice. Opinions are my own. Love abounds.

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