Based on John 13:31-35
“Remind me why you hate playing Hedbanz with my mom and me,” I text my husband. Family conflicts make excellent sermon illustrations.
“Because you ask silly questions in completely random order (question mark),” he responds.
“Well, that’s not cheating (period),” I answer.
And, then all on my own, it comes back to me. The faded context surrounding the emotional memory of a crying ten-year-old and a husband giving me “the silent treatment.”
“No, I remember, it’s because we give hints to be helpful instead of replying with strictly yes or no answers (period).”
“Yes,” he writes, “that too.”
If you know nothing about this “quick question game of what am I?” called, Hedbanz, you now know that however this fun, family guessing game is played, you probably don’t want to play the game with me. Or my mother. Hedbanz is a fast-paced game that begins with each player clipping on a plastic headband, picking an unseen card and sticking it in their headband for everyone else to see. Each card in the deck lists either an animal, a type of food or man-made object. The game commences as each player takes turns asking yes or no questions to figure out who they are, with the first player guessing who they are correctly, winning the game.
If you have previous experience playing Hedbanz or were able to follow my quick synopsis of the game, it is probably clear to you that my mother and I are not cheaters. (Period). We are problem solvers. (Period). Case in point: If a person is struggling to guess that they are, for example, a cat, a soft “meow” is a much more helpful than a simple yes to no answer. This thoughtful strategy is particularly helpful in a scenario where the questions are leading in circles culminating in a game that quite literally may never end. It is an unbearable task, watching someone struggle to identify who they are, particularly when the answer is clearly labeled right in front of you.
Years ago, The Land defined who we were using a form and format familiar to any responsible organization; the development of the infamous vision and mission statement. These succinct sentences, describing who we were to be, would be memorized in our minds and mantled on the platform of all our public communications. They would function as a compass for a journey on a road less taken and a shield to dive behind if ever our legitimacy was to be questioned along the way. And, while having these statements rarely does much in the way of determing the success or failure of an organization, they do provide a mirror to a people desperately seeking a concrete answer to the question, “Who are we?”
The outcome of our collective gaze into the mirror identified an alternative expression of “church” summarized in the simple tagline; food, faith and farming. These three words offered a gentle framework for the focus of our ministry; food shared with an awareness of the hands that made it, faith practiced as an understanding that centers us, and farming cultivated as that which roots and returns us to the food that first brought us to this table. Understandably, there have been many discussions around the implementation and practicality of this vision. There have been questions around the relevancy of these three expressions to one another and arguments made for and against their integration. Confusion, and even resistance, seem inevitable where once we played a game identifying one card and now we are told we need to identify three.
In the midst of this, my pastoral role has been to hold lightly the frustration and dis-ease that comes from birthing something new into the world, standing firm in the fog, guarding the logic of their compatibility and equanimity as expressions enrichening our practice of discipleship and our understanding of God. This work has felt both overwhelming and essential to shepherding a vision through a cultural climate that often mimics the threat of a human-sized, often invisible, shredder.
The conversation that has felt less essential has been an unexpected and repeated concern about the order of our defining tagline. Truth be told, the order, “food, faith, farming,” originated because the order of food, then faith, then farming, sounded the best. It wasn’t until the fifth person emailed me to insist that the word faith come first that I began to think theologically about the middle position of the word faith.
For me, the placement of “faith” in between food and farming was justified by a theology defining faith as that which holds all things together; An active presence making connections where before we saw none. Additionally, this placement of faith highlighted for me a spiritual striving to center our lives in the continuous commitment to wander beyond the bounds of our understanding. Persevering through a perpetual uncertainty that surrounded us because our lives were grounded in faith. Regardless, I admit there are excellent theological arguments for placing faith in any one of the three slots in our tagline. What I struggle to understand, is why, in the midst of so much legitimate confusion, this is the problem that seems to require a solution.
Faith could finish the tagline, reflecting the words of Mathew 20:16 where the first will be last. Likewise, we could use the words in 2 Timothy 4:7 to justify its location in the third slot as the passage indicates that it is with faith that we finish the race. We could maintain the middle placement of “faith” in the center for the reasons explained previously. We could put it at the very front, listing each word in order of priority to ensure that if these words were in a competition and we had to choose which one to ditch first to help the others survive, faith would be the last to go because, for us, it was the first to arrive. Any which way the words are arranged; an argument could be made for or against. In the gridlock of personal opinion, it is not the order of the words but the conversation about them that distracts from clearly communicating our identity.
I’m not sure how many times Jesus teaches or demonstrates that love in action is the defining characteristic of a disciple, but in this morning’s scripture he decides to remind everyone one last time. Behavior trumps belief. “The “new” turn in the commandment” writes Osvaldo Vena in her commentary of John 13: 31-35, “is that Jesus’ “own” are asked to enter into the love that marks the relationship of God and Jesus. Our participation in this relationship will be evidenced the same way that Jesus’ is: by acts of love that join the believer to God. Keeping this commandment is the identifying mark of discipleship because it is the tangible sign of the disciples abiding in Jesus.”
Jesus liberates us from linguistics. He releases us from any requirement to effectively explain what the church is and thus removes any excuse for not being the church in the world. We are obligated not to say who we are but to show the world who Christ is. For us, this will require a constant redirect from the anxious hold of neurotic wordsmithing toward the risky release of beginning to do that which we say we are about. Love in action through the food we share, the faith we practice, and the farm we cultivate.
Osvalda Vena continues her analysis of Jesus’ words, writing, “To love one another as Jesus loves us is to live a life thoroughly shaped by a love that knows no limits, by a love whose expression brings the believer closer into relationship with God, with Jesus and with one another. It is to live a love that carries with it a whole new concept of the possibility of community.” The communication of God’s work in the world is not reliant upon our being clear about who we are but by being committed to what we are called to courageously do that God’s love and grace might be experienced by all people.
Last August I was invited to an E-470 neighbors meeting to give a brief presentation about The Land. When the meeting was over and we all stood up to leave, the president of the Murphy Creek Residential neighborhood walked over to me. Filled with certain hope, I smiled widely as she reached out to hand me a business card. Assuming it was her business card and that something I had said must connected, I was shocked to see the name on the card was definitely not hers. It’s hard to admit this now, but I was even more disappointed when she explained who the business card belonged to. A pastor of a new church meeting in the Murphy Creek elementary school. I hid my disappointment that she did not want to be best friends forever and asked if this was a church she attended. She smiled and said, no, but suggested that I might want to call him.
I did not want to call him. He was a male, evangelical pastor starting a new church out of a school. He definitely did not approve of women preaching and he probably hated dogs and babies and kittens. It took me six months get over myself and dial his phone number. I don’t remember anything I said to introduce myself or even much of what he said in response but every month since that phone call I find myself surrounded by a group of male church planters I now lovingly refer to as, “my boys.” And, while I am certain there is nothing in an academic, theological discourse that would connect us, I have walked into something that is both tangible and transforming; An unexpected place at a table of others doing what I am called to do and laughing about it along the way.
It is not faith in God that is primarily in question in today’s culture, but a fear and skepticism of us, the people of faith who call themselves Christians. Our words have walled us in and isolated us from those we wish to reach. The bridge we must now build will not serve to connect the other to God but from the us to the other. A bridge built of tangible signs of God’s grace and love through action. For this we must commit to love for love itself. When the love is not mutual. When the effort is not returned. When the happily ever after is planted like a seed which will sprout long after our work here.
I want you to know that I am also afraid; that we won’t be able to explain away the assumptions that prevent others from reaching out, from heading our way. I want you to know that if there was an easy way around the process of this fast-paced, guessing game we find ourselves in the midst of, I would definitely throw out an audible “meow.” But the cards of our identity are not are own and the directions that accompanied them says little about how to explain the game and everything about how to play it. A love that embodies grace enough to resist giving up while simultaneously giving away all that we hope would transpire in the life of others. It will need to be enough that we are committing ourselves to a process of drawing us closer to the holy within and around each of us.
My prayer for us this morning is that the work we do would become the words we speak, and that God’s call to love without return and without regret, would be the purpose of all here who say they believe. Amen.