When Judas had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the son of man has been glorified and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and will glorify him at once. 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. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples. If you have love for one another.
– John 13:31-35
Well, hello again. As we turn to a time of sitting with this passage, will you pray with me?
Oh God who sees us, might we turn our faces towards you? And in this turning, turn towards one another. That indeed, we might be known for our love. Might we live this command, and might it be our song. Amen.
I’m so glad to be with you this morning. We are in the midst of our Lenten series. Lent is the 40 day period leading up to Easter where, as the church, we pause to reflect and remember; to remember the God who came embodied, who came to be God with and amongst us, to invite us all to turn ourselves and find our way home. And as Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem, we journey turn our faces and follow this way as we come to Holy Week, looking for the God who continues to turn toward us.
And indeed, this season we’re considering this great turning: examining the way that God embodied with us as Emmanuel changes everything. The way that love turns the laws of the world upside down, and makes new ones possible, as we pray each week: that God’s kingdom come here on earth as it is in heaven. And today, we are considering what it means that as God turns towards us, we are invited to not only turn back toward God, but to turn also to one another. As I contemplated this idea of turning to one another a few images came to mind. The first image that came to mind for me was this (the “I am a Man” images) from the 1960s civil rights movement. The signs that say: “I am a man.” This image depicts the cry for recognition, for equality, and for human dignity.
Another image that came to mind is this: of a couple on couch with a divide between them. Whether it be on a couch or on a bed, the space that looms large, even in our most intimate of relationships, where we don’t any longer know how to cross that divide. And then from this week, following the senseless violence in Atlanta, I was reminded of this image of our very own Madison Chau at a rally to cry out against racism and violence against Asian American and Pacific Islander persons. A cry: “See me. See my people.”
In one way, these pictures seem like they’re talking about very different things. But in another way, I believe that there is a deep common thread that unites them. It’s the deepest sort of human longing that each of us have, whether it’s individuals or as peoples. It’s the cry and the longing for recognition, naming the desire to be seen, to be honored in our dignity, to be told that we are loved and we are valued, making ourselves visible when forces seek to render us invisible and unseen.
Much work and analysis has been done at both the relational and societal levels regarding the cries for visibility and recognition. And in so many ways, I think our passage today, the theme of the call to turn toward one another, speaks of this. In the personal relationship realm, some folks who’ve done a lot of work on this are connected to the Gottman Institute. The Gottman Institute is located in Seattle, Washington. It’s a group of psychologists whose research and work explores flourishing inside of relationships. One project of the Gottman Institute brings people into what is known as the “Love Lab,” where they monitor a person’s heart rate, and what’s going on in them, in order to be able to explore the relational dynamics between a couple.
And with quite frightening accuracy they’re able to predict whether a couple will remain together and even more so, if they will be happy and satisfied in the relationship. And one of the most significant determiners of this is how people respond to what they label as “bids.” The bids that we extend to one another, bids for recognition. These bids turn up in many forms in our personal relationships of every kind, whether it’s the very classic, tropic sort of thing you think of, of the partner who walks out of the closet in an outfit and says, “Does this look okay on me? Does this make me look fat?”
Now, sometimes in our common conversation we’re like, “Well, you know how you’re supposed to answer it. No matter what the person is wearing, you always say, oh, you look great in that.” Why do we say that? And what’s going on inside of that question, “Does this outfit make me look good?” Now Andy Garbers, my spouse, would say, “You don’t always have to actually answer that, well, of course, because the outfit itself might actually not look good on the person. It’s not that the person doesn’t look good. It just might be an outfit you don’t like, or maybe the outfit just it doesn’t fit right. Or something is going on with the outfit. It’s not about the person.” That’s my life being married to Andy Garbers.
And yet, when we come out and ask that question, so often what we’re actually asking are a whole lot of other things. In saying: “What do you think?” as I come out the closet, I might actually be asking you, “Do you still love me? Do you think I’m attractive?” I might be actually telling you that I’ve been having a really hard day, and that the cultural mores and norms are really impinging on my wellbeing, and I’m not doing so well today. And I just need to know that you’re for me, and you’re still glad I’m your person.
These bids, whether it be an invitation to, “Oh, look, do you see that bird out there?” Or whether it be a, “Oh, this is one of my favorite songs,” or “Oh, I had a really hard day.” Each of these in their own way are bids longing for connection, for affirmation, for reassurance that we are for each other. That we’re in one another’s corners. That we see each other. The reminder that we aren’t alone, no matter what it is that we are carrying. And so Gottman, in their work, says in response to these bids, there are three significant options that we have in terms of how we respond.
The first is an invitation to the possibility that we turn toward one another, just like our sermon today. The turning toward involves when a person asks us the question, we literally actually oftentimes turn toward them. We acknowledge that they have said what they did, or the question that they had. We honor it as a valid one. We respond out of the knowledge that we have of the person and/or get more curious if we’re not quite sure how to reply. We turn toward one another. But sometimes what happens is that in these bids for recognition, we actually turn away.
Now we have so many good reasons we turn away. Just yesterday, I had a migraine all day and found myself turning away from Andy, in a moment, in a bid for recognition that he had extended. And I knew exactly what was happening, but I was tired and my head hurt. Sometimes we turn away, whether it is, we literally just don’t turn when the person asks for that moment of recognition, whether it is we miss the question. In some way, we turn away from them, and the intimacy of whatever type of relationship that is, is melted away, and over time if we turn away, the divide becomes so great that it is difficult to bridge.
But the final and most devastating way that we can respond to one another is we turn against one another. So say one walks out of the closet and asks: “Does this look good on me?” If we say cruel and hurtful things to the other person arising out of our own places of vulnerability, insecurity, anger, things that we have not dealt with. If we do this, we turn against, and our most intimate of relationships and friendships become places of violence, places where I won’t come out and ask you that question again, because now the person closest to me has made me believe that I’m worth nothing. And in all of our relationships, whether they be ones here at church, with our families, our friends, we have these options and opportunities for how we will respond to the bid.
Will we turn toward? Will we turn away? Will we turn against? Now, while Gottman’s research has focused specifically on intimate partner relationships, these same questions are questions that echo on societal levels as well. Those signs that those men were carrying during the civil rights era of the 1960s were nothing if not bids…. bids for recognition. Bids to call and invite a country and their white fellow citizens to turn toward them, to see them, not to turn away and ignore the question, ask what is wrong with them that they dare ask for recognition, let alone to turn against them believing that they were less than human. These calls and cries, these bids, are present everywhere in our personal lives, in our life as a church, and in our nation.
This exploration of the longing for recognition and desire to be seen also permeates a major part of the discourses inside of my doctoral studies. The field of study is known as the theory of recognition. Many theologians, ethicists, social scientists, and philosophers who, following World War II, sought to make sense of the thing that which was incomprehensible, namely: How does genocide happen? How do people who have been neighbors so turn against one another, that it allows for death camps? This wrestling with recognition and the cry for it is something both at the theoretical, but it is something at the tangible and embodied level that we live and wrestle with each and every single day. And our passage in John 13 is nothing if not an example of what recognition and the turn toward one another looks like.
For earlier in this chapter, as many of you know, during the festival of Passover, which we celebrate each Maundy Thursday, Jesus gathered with his disciples, washed their feet, embodying and demonstrating to them what it means to turn toward one another in the most humble and loving sort of way. God embodied with us got on his knees, and washed the feet of his disciples, showing them that the act of service, of putting himself as lower, was the way that God shows up in the world to save and heal.
As the passage continues, we are told that Jesus knows that Judas will betray him. And we don’t know exactly why Judas does this. Likewise, we don’t always know in our intimate relationships, why we turn away or why we turn against. We have reasons from our own stories. Maybe Judas was terrified. Maybe Judas knew that everyone was going to turn against Jesus, and the revolution that he thought was coming, wasn’t going to happen. We don’t know why. But even as Jesus turned toward him, Judas couldn’t complete that turning back towards Jesus. And instead he turned against, turning Jesus over to the authorities that would lead to his death. And yet Jesus, after the Passover and washing of the feet, says to them, “Listen, here’s the thing. I’ve got a command for you.”
This is not St. Aquinas’s tomes of theology. Just one command is issued here: that you love one another, as I have loved you. That’s it. For by this, will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. And the greatest commandments that we know and that we have talked about so much are to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and yet to actually do this, to turn toward one another, to turn toward God is really, really hard work. It’s vulnerable. It takes a lifetime. We mess up all the time, and yet the invitation and the call remains—for us to be a people who, as we turn toward Jesus, we then turn toward one another again and again.
“Do you see me? Are you still for me? Do I matter?” These questions and these hauntings, they sit with us and we wrestle with them.
When I was interviewing to come to this church three and a half years ago, I felt a deep sense of call to be here. In the midst of a world in which we struggle to talk to one another across political lines, I knew of this church, a place in which people who didn’t always agree, came together as good Congregationalists to wrestle. To, in seeking Christ with one another, to serve and love all of God’s world.
And one night I had a dream. I had a dream that the spirit in the water underneath this place (for indeed, we are surrounded and built on a wetland, sustained on pylons) bubbled up from the ground beneath this place and a new wind blew. And the Spirit rushed through the hallways, through the meeting house and blew off the doors on this place. And when I woke, I knew that I was called to come here, because God was doing a new thing. A thing connected the beauty and the power of our past, but with breath of fresh for all of us.
God is doing a new thing. And it’s been hard. We’ve lived in the midst of COVID, with our former senior minister, Daniel’s wife Dawn, dying. As many of us are facing the challenges of aging and isolation. And there’s so much going on in our world that tells us that we can’t and shouldn’t even talk to one another. That in the midst of a history, even in our country, which we have spoken about this week that includes things like the Chinese Exclusion Act, that to name and grieve about that labels us as being of a particular political party.
But that’s not why we’re here. We are here because we follow this Jesus. This Jesus who gets on his knees and washes all of our feet and calls us to turn toward one another. That’s it. That is the point. We are called to be a people who are known by our love. And I know I miss it! I know in the wrestling about our name change that some of you aren’t sure if I love you, and some of you aren’t sure if you want to love me. And it’s hard. But if I know and believe in anything, I believe in this Jesus and I have known in my own life what it feels like to be seen. To have the little girl and the young woman and the 30 something person I am have moments of fear and terror, where I’m not sure if I’m lovable or if maybe I’m actually alone.
And God continues to turn toward me and say, “I see you and you are loved, breathe, my dear one, and welcome home.” And I have seen and experienced this in relationship as well. I have seen it in this place. When we remember that God has turned towards us and we are called and invited to turn toward one another, so that we turn towards this world, because that’s what the church is. It’s a place of human, frail, vulnerable people who are loved, and who, if we will but turn our faces towards this Jesus, let ourselves be healed anew and afresh, our feet be washed again this Lent. That we then live as that kind of servant people in the world, washing the dirt off one another’s faces, offering safety and shelter for those who have been harmed, refusing the dichotomies that label people or each other clean or unclean. And instead say we, we will be known by our love.
Let us turn toward one another. I’m willing to do that. Are you?
Let us turn, and let us know that we are Christians, and let the world know that we are Christians by this love.
Oh, God of love and Christ, glow afresh and anew in our hearts. Let us turn toward you, that we might turn toward this world. For it’s in your name, and in your love, we gather.