Jul 24 | “Countercultural Love,” (Sermon, July 24 2022)

I was invited to preach at West Vancouver United Church on this day for their Essentials summer preaching series. I did go off script once or twice, so if you’d like to hear the whole thing as it happened the livestream is included below.

My theme was the title of this post. The passage was John 13:34-35.

Thank you very much for inviting me to be with you today. I’m Clare, my pronouns are they/them/theirs, and I’m an Anglican priest serving as pastor to the St. Brigid’s congregation at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Vancouver.

I was surprised and honoured to be asked to come and be with you today. When Simon reached out to me, he told me about this lovely Essentials series, and then said, “Your theme is countercultural love. What Bible passage sums that up for you?”

Okay so it’s time to get real. I’m an Anglican. We do things by the book. It’s the thing I love most and the thing that drives me…not just bananas, but like BANANA BOATS.

So Simon says, “Which passage?” and I say, “Uhhh I’m sorry, you mean I actually have to pick one?” Come on, man, we preach from the Revised Common Lectionary! I haven’t picked a passage since homiletics class back in seminary! I legit took like three weeks to get back to Simon.

So I picked the passage we just read, but there’s probably like a thousand more I could have picked. It was just the first one that came to mind. That probably means it was the best choice.

So buckle up, I guess.

“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.’”

A little background. I’ve never felt called to traditional parish ministry. My most ordinary job was children, youth, and family minister at a large semi-suburban parish. I basically went back into the closet the whole time I was there.

So when that position was done, the one big plan I had for what to do next fell through, and I didn’t really have any other prospects or ideas. I just knew that I was not in the right headspace to go into full-time traditional parish ministry.

I applied to a bunch of places, including the Mission to Seafarers, which would have been really fun! But nothing was quite right.

Until I found St. Margaret’s, and Hineni House.

St. Margaret’s is a little Anglican parish just off Knight Street close to King Edward in East Vancouver. Across the street was the rectory, which the church owned and where, in former days, the priest lived. It had been renovated and transformed into an intentional community house for young adults, and they needed a new community director.

Now people, and especially Boomers, kind of blue screen when I say the words ‘intentional community.’ I’m not really sure why, because Boomers were pretty into them back in the ‘60s! An intentional community is a voluntary residential community of like-minded folks. Those who choose to live there commit to working communally for the good of the home and each other in a variety of ways.

Hineni means “Here I am!” It’s what Abraham says to God. Hineni House was interfaith and queer and trans-positive. The job of the community director was to recruit and provide programming and spiritual care for the residents. I reported to the priest of the parish as well as a dedicated council of folks both within and outside St. Margaret’s.

In the late spring and early summer, I recruited, mostly through Facebook and word of mouth. People applied and went through a rigorous interview process where we tried to ascertain whether they’d be a good fit for any intentional community as well as for this one. Once they were accepted, they moved in, and programming began in September or October, running through to the summer again. We could fit up to five people. Many were students, but some were already working.

The original intent was to invite them to join us at church, but it was not a requirement. Some were already connected to faith communities, while others were actively deconstructing or had no faith background at all. While one or two did become more involved, mostly their relationship to St. Margaret’s was mediated through me.

Once a week, I went over to the house and we all sat down to dinner together. Then, we moved into the living room and whatever topic was on the dock for that week. We shared our spiritual autobiographies. We learned about the Enneagram and conflict styles. We had difficult conversations with one another about the work of the house or our relationships. We hosted guest speakers, everyone from Rabbi Laura Duhan-Kaplan, who talked about Kabbalah, to my buddy Coll Thrush, a history professor at UBC who talked about how his Celtic heritage informed his Pagan spiritual practices, to my other buddy the Rev. Seth Wispelway, a UCC minister who co-ordinated a contingent of faith leaders at Charlottesville and ended up in the middle of the fray in 2017.

For five years I pastored this funny little community. Fifteen people passed through its doors during my tenure. They were women, men, and nonbinary. They were from Canada, the US, Northern Ireland, Mumbai, Goa, Egypt, and Hong Kong. They were straight and queer. They were religious, spiritual, and agnostic. All of them were under 50; the majority were under 30. Many struggled with mental illness and trauma. They all needed love, friendship, and a safe, open space to talk about God, religion, and their place in the world.

And they taught me, more than the Church ever had, about what it meant to model Jesus’s mandatum novum, the new commandment.

In the passage we read, Jesus begins the chapter by washing his disciples’ feet. It’s this amazing moment where the irony is so vivid. Verses 3 and 4: “And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.”

In the translation from The Message, it says, “Jesus knew that the Father had put him in complete charge of everything.”

Is this how someone who is in complete charge of everything acts? Taking the form of a slave?

It’s hard for us living in the 21st century white West to understand what this would have looked like to those gathered around that table. Here’s an interesting piece of trans history: The cosmology of the Roman Empire stated that gender was fluid, and that cisgender men had to continually assert their masculinity through acts of dominance in order to stay cisgender men. To remove one’s outer garment and take a submissive posture in front of one’s social inferiors put you at risk for losing your status as an authority figure – and as a man!

Close your eyes and picture a very traditional family banquet. Who’s at the table? Who’s in the kitchen? Is it the head of the household? Probably not, right?

But here is Jesus, putting his manhood and his status as teacher at risk – but not so that he can make them the masters and him the servant.

He’s using his privilege, and he is modeling how they should be with one another.

He is teaching us that if you have power in a relationship, you don’t deny that you have it. You find ways to subvert it.

And you love one another.

If you love one another in a way that subverts hierarchy, subverts the capitalistic impulse that demands we view relationships as transactional, in a way that’s embarrassing to the established order – either by breaking down walls of shame or calling out abusive behaviour that corrupts and destroys the creatures of God – everyone will know that you are disciples of Jesus.

One of the last things I did before the pandemic began was take the people in that iteration of Hineni house, all women, on retreat. It was March 6th to 8th, 2020. We rented a gorgeous AirBnB in Garden Bay on the Sunshine coast and settled in for “Called to Holy Ground,” focusing on what it meant to find God in wild and lonely places. We read from the Bible and the Qur’an, studying the stories of the burning bush, Jesus’s temptation, and Surah 19, the Qur’anic story of the birth of Jesus, which takes place under a palm tree out in the desert. We even had a little desert box, like the ones used for Godly Play.

When frantic emails from our bishop and diocesan office started flying, we were snuggled in this lovely home. We cooked. We made music. One taught another to crochet. Another read to us from an old short story collection. We shared the Eucharist around the massive oak dining room table.

It was the last time we were able to gather in person for months.

When the Hinenites (that’s what I always called them) came home, completely unprompted, they made a pact with one another to stay together. Not all of them honoured it in the end, but the fact that it was an organic movement of love was what really mattered.

This was only one example of the ways they showed up for one another. There were other times that were more difficult – health emergencies, mental distress, moments of trauma and anger. Not all of them had happy endings, but in almost all cases, the care and love and resilience shown to one another was boundless.

Things happened in that house that I never saw happen in the church, in nearly a lifetime of lay and ordained ministry. Endless nights of listening to the topography of each other’s pain, terrifying and painful phone calls, heartbreaking hospital visits, awkward silences, prolonged and averted eye contact, spontaneous moments of grace, forced conversations to bypass simmering resentments, side-splitting laughter, long walks with these beautiful souls trying to figure out what they were supposed to be doing in the world.

At the beginning of this year, it was decided that after increasing difficulties due to the demands of a pandemic, the program would be put on hiatus. This year’s group put together a goodbye ritual. We circumnavigated the house looking for things in the grass that jumped out at us, bringing back stones, leaves, and flowers to place around a lit lantern. We heard a beautiful blessing from Jan Richardson. We anointed one another. We prayed, we sang, and we blessed one another around the old wobbly-legged coffee table.

It was one of the most moving spiritual experiences I’ve had in any tradition.

Things happened at Hineni House because God was actually given space to move and grow. Things happened because, rather than planting Love in perfect rows in a carefully manicured garden, it was sown on the side of the road and allowed to be invasive.

Which, to be perfectly honest with you, seems to happen less and less often in the church.

Do people know that we are disciples of Christ by the way we love one another?

Do people know that we are disciples by the way we show up for one another?

Do they know we are disciples by the way we allow Love to be invasive within us?

Do they know we are disciples because we risk our status and our privilege in order to subvert the expected behaviours of our society, like our teacher did?

Do they know we are disciples because we make a mockery of the established order: the one that says, “F you all, I got mine,” the one that demands much of the afflicted and little from the comfortable, the one that sees the land as property rather than a living being that sustains us, the one that has endless patience for abusers but none for the abused?

Do people know we are disciples because we say, “I love you no matter what”?

Do people know we are disciples because we say, “I know you’re better than this”?

Do they even know that disciples of Christ are supposed to do this?

Not everyone in that house succeeded in all of these things. But almost every night, I saw them try.

Do we try?

What is countercultural love? It’s not just unconditional. It’s not just beautiful to witness. It’s subversive. It’s self-sustaining. It’s usually painful, maybe the worst pain you will ever experience.

And it’s the only thing that will save us.

Sermon begins at 40:13

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