Having been around a lot of pastors this past week (and I mean a lot–close to 2000) we do something that kind of comes naturally when we pastor types get together: we talk about you. Yes, my brothers and sisters, we talk about our parishioners. We share stories of joy (I had lots of those) and we share horror stories (I had none of those). The common question that was asked of one another as we stood in lines, waited for speakers to start, and as we were drinking coffee was “tell me about your people.” I also got the common question “where is Clinton?” and I didn’t even want to bother trying to tell them where Elvira was. But I loved the question “tell me about your people.” And sometimes I wondered how do I tell a complete stranger about my people that would adequately express to them my love for all of you? I wanted to say to them “I serve a small rural congregation. The majority of my people are farmers. My front yard is a cornfield and my backyard is a cornfield.” Because I was pretty sure if I said that what people for would hear is “blah blah Iowa. Blah blah corn. Blah blah boring.” That’s not who my people are.
At the same time, we didn’t have the time for me to say “let me tell you about the Petersen family…any of them.” I didn’t have time to say “let me tell you about this amazing little ministry we have in the food pantry.” I didn’t have time to say “let me tell you about our Friday night fires.” So, more often than not, I ended up saying “my people are fabulous and I love them.” But here’s the thing, everyone pretty much said that same thing. Not once did I run into a fellow pastor, no matter the denomination, who told me “I really want to strangle my parishioners, but I continue to serve them.” Because had they done that, I might have done something not very Christian or pastoral. When it comes down to it, no matter if you make us tear our hair out or not, we love you. And I am speaking of all congregation members of all congregations. Part of our call as pastors is to love you. Do you know why? Because God loves you. I know that sounds super cliche, but it’s true.
Jesus comes to us once again this week in the Gospel of John in what is known as his farewell discourse. He is preparing for his death. He is trying to prepare his disciples for his death. He is trying to prepare us for his death. The disciples, and if we’re honest, we are never fully ready for his death because Jesus’ death means coming face to face with what put him there: our own sin. And despite knowing what is coming, despite knowing that his days are numbered and that, perhaps despite knowing that the disciples may not fully understand (much like we never fully understand), he spends his last moments declaring his love for those around him.
And do we hear him? Brothers and sisters, I am asking you a question, do you hear him? When Jesus speaks to you, do you hear him? Do you hear him with every single God-knit fiber of your being or do you just shake your head and say “that’s nice Jesus” as if instead of saying “I love you” Jesus said “pick up some more milk next time you go to the grocery store.” Do you hear God when God says “I love you” or do you go searching, fruitlessly, for whatever will fill the hole in your heart? This is the hole that only God can fill with God’s love but we fill it up with all kinds of other stuff. Not all of it is bad, mind you, but remember that sin is anything that turns us into God and God into us. Sin is anything that comes between us and our relationship with God.
So instead of the love of God, we try and get filled up with love from one another. Which again, this isn’t bad. But remember, we humans are not perfect. Am I right? We humans are not perfect. We can, will, and do fail one another. We may not always set out to do it, but we fail one another. Or maybe instead of the love of God, we fill up that space with work, or the idea that we must be, have to be, are required to be busy. Is it just me or is “being busy” now becoming the ideal status symbol? Whenever I talk with anyone and ask them “how have you been” they usually respond with “busy.” I’m just as guilty of it myself. Or maybe instead of the love of God, we fill that space up with something even more destructive: drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, or just plain ol’ complacency.
When God speaks, do we listen? When God says “I love you” do we listen or are we too busy listening to the voices either around us or in our head that tell us otherwise? When God says “feed my sheep” do we feed all the sheep or just the ones we find worthy? When God says “forgive” do we really forgive, or do we just give lip service and continue holding that grudge? When God says to visit the imprisoned, do we visit those who are literally in prison while forgetting about those who are imprisoned by the demons in their mind? When God says to care for the sick, do we care completely for the sick (even if that means coming in contact with stuff we know is kind of gross and disgusting) or do we only care for the sick if it’s someone we really really love? Because here’s the thing, brothers and sisters, if we don’t listen when God says that other stuff, are we really going to listen when God says “I love you?”
In this text today, not only do we hear that God loves us, but that we belong to God. Did you miss it? In verse 10 we hear something you’d probably only expect to read on a Hallmark card (but Hallmark stole it from the Bible). It says “All mine are yours, and yours are mine…” Jesus says “hey God, all of your people are my people. And all of my people are your people.” See, when I talk about “my people” I love you because at the root of it, you’re not my people. You’re God’s people. And just in case you hearing that you belong to God isn’t enough for you, try this on for size: verse 12 “not one of them was lost….” Not one of you is lost. Not one of you will be forgotten by God. Not one of you will be left to your own devices. Not one of you will be out of the realm of God’s love. Do you hear me?
Maybe if you don’t hear me, you will hear God. Maybe if you can’t hear God, you can taste God. Because when you hear the words “the body of Christ, given for you” what I want you to hear is “I love you.” And when you hear the words “the blood of Christ, shed for you”
what I want you to hear is “I love you.” And when you hear the words “you’re forgiven” I want you to hear “I love you.” And when you hear “the peace of Christ be with you always” I want you to hear the words “I love you.” And with every pounding of the nails, I want you to hear “I love you.” And with every whiplash, I want you to hear the words “I love you.” And with his last dying breath and the final curtain tear, hear the words “I love you.”
Repeat those words in your head, brothers and sisters, until any evil words die and the hole in your heart is finally filled with what it is intended to be filled with: God’s love.