Fifth Sunday in Lent
In the Name of God, the Creator, Jesus, the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, the Sustainer. Amen.
This morning I have the honor and the pleasure of sharing with you something that is near and dear to my heart and defines my ministry. In fact, I would say to you that this topic and the ongoing discussion of it in the forum with Ginny and Dan Losito, Elizabeth and Nelson Fitts, my husband, Patrick, and hopefully you, is one of the most important topics in our Christian journey. When I was being interviewed by Marek and thirty or so parishioners in the summer of 2019, one parishioner who will remain nameless came into the room, looked around, saw the new kid on the block and went directly to me and said, “I have another engagement and I can’t stay but I have one question for you. What is the most important part of your ministry?” I gave him my response. He smiled, nodded approval, and left the gathering. It all worked out because here I am today. I won’t keep you on the edge of your pews any longer. The answer is relationships. Ministry, life, is about cultivating and developing healthy relationships. We are meant to be in relationship with one another. We are social creatures and if you have any doubts, I invite you to read both creation stories in the Book of Genesis and the Bible in general because it is all about relationships. In the first creation story, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). In the second account after “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7) he saw that it was not good for man to be alone and so he created “him a helper as his partner” (Genesis 2:18). God did not intend for us to be alone. For those of you who are single, divorced and not in a relationship, you may be wondering, “what about me?” Fear not, my dear friends, you may not be in an exclusive relationship, but you are in relationship with the Body of Christ. You and the people of Christ Church are in relationship with one another. We are your family, your helper, your partner.
My question to you today is, how are we to be in relationship with one another? I believe that the answer is in Scripture. There are stories of relationships, good and not so good, all through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. If we study the Scripture, I believe we can extrapolate the core practices of a healthy relationship. One of my greatest joys is walking alongside couples as they prepare for marriage. I ask, ok require, the couples to purchase the book, The Art of Being Together by Francis H. Wade and to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the seventeen principles. I tell them that this book does not have all the answers to cultivating and developing healthy relationships, but it does offer us key tenets, principles for living in harmony with one another. Over the years, I have extrapolated from the principles three key practices that apply to all relationships. Yes, I have saved you all today from hearing a sermon with seventeen principles to three. Thanks be to God, right? Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that there are probably more than three practices I could explore but for now, let’s just go with three.
First, the foundation of healthy relationship is love and a willingness to care for the person regardless of their situation, their health. For those of you who are married, we made a solemn vow before God and the congregation, to take the person to be their wife, husband, or partner, “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death” (p. 427, BCP). What this vow means is that no matter what happens to the other person, we are there for them. We are there to care for them. In our Gospel today, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, Jesus’ Best Friend Forever, and Martha, took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, and anointed Jesus’s feet, and wiped them with her hair (John 12:3). In her relationship with Jesus, Mary cared for him. The anointing is a gesture of hospitality, and it is also an anticipation of the Jesus’ burial. Right here, we see a profound example of caring for a loved one.
Recently, a newcomer shared with me that when his wife was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, he changed his job so he could care for her as her health declined. He did so for twenty years until her death. This man lessened his work responsibilities so he could provide the care his wife needed. This man loved and cared for his wife. Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13). Since I have been at Christ Church, I have heard of other examples of this kind of love and care. I have witnessed it with a young couple that I married last year. He entered the relationship knowing that she suffered from a serious chronic illness and is willing to love and care for her until they part by death. Practice one: Love and care for the other person, putting them before yourself.
Practice two. For a relationship to be solid, the bond must be unbroken. The couple must be faithful to one another. There must be fidelity in the relationship. I share with couples that I am marrying and the couples that I am counseling, that they must develop the huddle practice. Yes, I am going to use a sports analogy because I can’t help myself and it fits with what I am trying to communicate. When I huddle with Patrick, when our feet are firmly planted, our arms are locked around one another shoulders, and our foreheads are together, we are connected. We are stronger together than apart. Nothing, not another person, not work, should ever come between us. Nothing should separate us from one another. We are two individuals, but we are one when we are together. I draw strength from Patrick, and I pray he draws strength from me.
One of my favorite things to do is to read about the relationships in Scripture, whether they are between God and Jesus, between a husband and a wife, between friends, or a parent and a child. I am keenly interested in what holds them together. I know that they love another but what is the bonding agent? Can you guess? It’s loyalty and trust. Loyalty and trust are the glue that keeps two people in relationship with one another. Remember the story of Jonathan and David? King Saul, Jonathan’s father, was jealous of David and wanted to kill him. Jonathan was loyal to David and David trusted Jonathan when he told him to flee because of his father’s plan to kill him. Remember the story of Naomi and Ruth. After Naomi’s sons dies and she tells her daughters in law to go back to their homeland. How does Ruth respond? “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried (Ruth 1:16-17b). Ruth was loyal to Naomi and there was trust in their relationship.
The third practice in a healthy relationship is committing to and developing a lifelong partnership with the other person. Initially, I was hesitant to use the word “partnership” to describe a healthy relationship. It sounded very “secular,” like a legal contract instead of a relationship between two human beings. But after studying “partnerships” in Scripture, I have seen the light. A partnership means that both people are on equal footing and that both are to be a helper to the other, no matter the need or time. There are times when one partner has a greater need than the other and the other partner must respond with grace and dignity and without resentment to the other person. The partner should not feel less than or guilty because they have a need at this time in their life.
A partnership involves both people collaborating with each other on important life decisions. The interest of both people is considered and valued. It might be tempting to think that Scripture does not reflect gender equality or equality in general, but we need to look a bit deeper. For example, in the creation story in Genesis, “after male and female were created in God’s image, “they were given equal tasks of ruling and subduing all creatures. From the fact that Adam and Eve were given a collective responsibility, God’s intention for gender equality or equality in general is evident. Woo-hoo, Sisters! In this passage, we see the common humanity and equal value of a woman and a man or two people before God. The image of God refers to the mental and spiritual faculties that women and men share with their Creator. They share the imago Dei, and this divine image is a social reality. We can reasonably conclude that God intends for women and men or two people to serve together, to be in a partnership, in all aspects of life. Gender equality or equality in general was part of the creation story. Remember, Jesus sent the disciples two by two into the world to share the Good News. No single-handedness in God’s kingdom on earth.
There is one important point to remember in all this, and that is that we are human.
When we fall short, we must ask for forgiveness and always be willing to pardon. So, when we are trying to fulfil all of these practices, we must remember that we are doing just that; trying. If we keep that in mind, we will be able to forgive each other and ourselves; let it go, move on, and pick up the relationship again.
In summary, I offer three practices that cultivate and develop healthy relationships. First, we must love the other person with a greater love than we have for ourselves, and we must care for the other person in good times and times of need. Second, we must maintain an unbroken bond with the other person. Nothing and no one must break the huddle. And third, we must create and maintain a partnership with the one we love. We are to be helpers, partners with one another, considering the needs and desires of the other with grace and dignity. Partners always ask for forgiveness and offer pardon when needed.
These three practices are encased, enveloped in God’s love for us and God’s desire for us never to be alone. If you are not in a one-to-one relationship with someone right now, remember that Christ Church is your family, your helper, your partner. May we always remember that our relationships are on sacred ground. Amen.