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February 15, 2009 | 8:00 a.m.

A New Status

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 107:1–9
John 15:9–17

“I do not call you servants . . . ; but I have called you friends.”
John 15:15 (NRSV)

“The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend,” the Book of Exodus says. In the book of Isaiah God refers to Abraham as “my friend.” It is a staggering thought. Jesus said to his disciples,“You are my friends,” and commanded them to love one another, even to the point of laying down their lives for each other. It is a high price to pay . . . but the implication is that it’s worth every cent.

adapted from Frederick Buechner
Whistling in the Dark

In the Arlington National Cemetery, near our nation’s capital, there is a gravesite designated “The Tomb of the Unknown.” Years ago it was referred to as “The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.” Since then, as the unidentified remains of those in other branches of the armed forces of our nation who had died in war have been added to the site, it has been called “The Tomb of the Unknown.”

Unknown, unidentified, unnamed, nobody. The disclaimer on the tomb is the phrase “Known but to God,” an attempt to counter the awful sense of nihilism or nothingness suggested by the word unknown. The battlefields of history have been littered with the bodies and the body parts of those whose identities had been obliterated, and the morgues of the world are crowded even now with the corpses of nameless nobodies.

One of the side effects of the current economic crisis and the proliferation of job loss, income reduction, and investment wipeout is the abject sense of personal failure many people experience. The shame and humiliation that often accompanies this negative evaluation drives people into isolation and wreaks havoc with self-esteem. They end up thinking of themselves much like the little boy who was being evacuated from London during the blitz in World War II. When asked by a woman who picked him up in her arms to put him on a bus who he was, he responded in a frightened, tearful voice, “I ain’t nobody’s nothing.”

By the way, here at Fourth Church we are currently developing strategies to reach out to people in the congregation and the community who have been hard hit by this economic turndown to do what we can as a church to aid and encourage them so that no one need feel that he or she is “nobody’s nothing.”

Any one of us may sometimes experience a sense that in the larger scheme of things we are nobodies, that we don’t count for much, that we don’t matter, that we won’t be missed when we’re gone, that we are fundamentally invisible, and that any one of us is, as one person once described himself to me, nothing but a “peeled zero.” A nobody. A nothing. Unknown. Like the nobodies described in an article in an issue of the New Yorker magazine some time ago about Mexican and Central American migrant workers in south Florida who work for paltry pay under appalling conditions of exploitation and abuse. When one of them was asked what the government was doing to improve their lot, he answered, “Who cares what happens to a bunch of pelagatos—a bunch of nobodies?”

It is understandable that we might link our sense of worth, our sense of being a somebody, to certain conditions and circumstances in our lives, in the absence of which we may wonder about ourselves. Am I still a somebody if I am no longer working or getting a particular salary? Am I still a somebody if I am not married or in a special, significant relationship with someone? Am I still a somebody if I can no longer do the things I used to be capable of doing? If I hear voices and act strange, am I a nobody? Do I have to have skin of a certain color or live a certain lifestyle to be a somebody? Am I a nobody if I don’t? Do I have to be a man in order to avoid domestic violence, and if I’m not, am I a nobody? Am I still a somebody if I fail or if my health fails? Am I still a somebody if I don’t live in a certain part of town or drive a certain make car? Sometimes we link our sense of ourselves to that which is at last fleeting, tentative, and temporary. And when that is no longer available to us, it can be easy for us to conclude that we are unknown nobodies, as disposable as a used Kleenex tissue.

I am reminded of the popular song some years ago that declared, “You’re nobody ’til somebody loves you; you’re nobody ’til somebody cares.” Some people, of course, will go to any length to ensure that somebody cares, even if that care carries with it the threat, if not the actual consequence, of disapproval, negative notoriety, even death. Better to be noticed negatively than not to be noticed at all. Others prefer to remain anonymous and not be recognized as a somebody. The renowned poet Emily Dickinson thought so.

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody too?
Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Yet for most of us, being a nobody holds little allure and attraction. There is within us an intense force at work to counter such a disparaging view of ourselves as nobodies and an infinite longing to be or to become a somebody and to have that affirmed by others. Take the case of Mackenzie Green, for example, whose story is also told in the issue of the New Yorker magazine referred to earlier. She is a San Francisco bail-bond agent who earns her keep by tracking down people who have been arrested but have jumped bail. Hers is a life of cunning, conning detective work and sometimes violence. The product of a very dysfunctional family of alcoholics and a hardscrabble existence as a child, she also wrote sad songs to hold her personal demons at bay. One of them, entitled, “Recess Time,” has these words:

When I was just a kid I’d spend a lot of time
Sitting by myself when it came recess time.
While other kids laughed and played and had a lot of fun
I’d dream about the things I’d do in years to come:
I’d dream about the day that I’d become a star.
Everyone would know my name; I’d travel far.

A star, a somebody—isn’t that the dream of many of us, in one way or another?

Which brings us to this incredible fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Christ according to John and, in particular, to the words of our scripture lesson. As part of what is often referred to as Jesus’ “final discourse” with his disciples, the chapter begins with Jesus telling them, and hence us, that he is the vine and they and we are the branches.

One of the ways to look at the image of vine and branches that Jesus used in his discourse with his disciples is to see it in hierarchical terms, a kind of spiritual chain of command. I am the vine; you are the branches. I am the boss; you are the bossed. Do as you’re told. I’m on top; you’re on the bottom. A more apt view might be that of a different kind of chain: a food chain. I am the vine, deeply and firmly rooted and grounded in the fertile soil of the unconditional love of God. You are the branches attached to the vine through which the nutrients of that love flow to you so that you can flourish as branches capable of bringing forth the fruit you are created to produce. Stay close to me, attached to me, connected to me, for without me you will no longer be able to be who you are, and without you I will be less able to do what I have been called to do in the world.

That’s why, implies Jesus, I no longer look upon you as servants in a hierarchical relationship, but as my friends who, out of our mutual love, become partners with me in God’s mission of love and peace and justice in the world.

These two views of the image of vine and branches are not mutually exclusive. They coalesce in the mutuality of friendship, the hallmarks of which are trust and obedience on the part of all concerned. A soldier will go through hell for and with a commanding officer whom he trusts and will risk his or her life in obedience to that officer in command when assured that the officer would do likewise. Jesus was “obedient unto death,” as Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, for our Lord ultimately trusted the God he himself incarnated.

“I do not call you servants any longer . . . ; but I have called you friends.” What a stunning declaration!

I can well imagine that the disciples’ mouths must have fallen open, so radical sounding were the words. No longer servants, but friends. No longer dominance and submission, no longer big shot and little shots, no longer upstairs-downstairs. Now, Jesus was declaring, we are brothers (and sisters), equal partners, collaborators together in a common venture to show God’s love to the world. No pulling of rank in relationship, but participation in reciprocity with one another. What Jesus was saying was that whereas it is true that you are a nobody until somebody loves you and cares for you, it is also true that you are a nobody until you love somebody, until you care for others. What Jesus was also acknowledging was that whereas they could do nothing apart from him, he could not accomplish his mission without them.

Now admittedly, when it comes to this business of loving, we are not very good at it most of the time, and we often get confused, especially when it comes to loving people we don’t like. We wonder how in the world we can love our enemies, as Jesus urged, when sometimes we don’t even like our friends. But by staying close to Jesus, by paying attention to how he lived and related to others, and by relying on God’s grace to empower us, we can choose to do the loving thing needed, even when we may not like someone. The Samaritan, in the story Jesus told, did not necessarily have warm, fuzzy feelings toward the man who had been mugged on the Jericho road, but he did choose to do the thing needed. Besides, there are times when liking someone may in fact interfere with our doing the loving thing needed, when what may be called for are candor, confrontation, and challenge. By deepening our bond with Christ, the embodiment of God’s love, our willfulness and reluctance can be transformed into the willingness to do the thing needed that we can do to bind up the wounds, mend the brokenness, and counter whatever terror may stalk not only those known to us, but also those nameless and faceless nobodies who huddle in doorways, hide in alleys, and sleep on the back wards of the world.

“I do not call you servants . . .; I call you friends,” said Jesus. To be a friend to someone is to be a somebody and to affirm that the someone is a somebody and not an unknown nobody. To be befriended by someone is to be a somebody, not a faceless nobody. In the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we declare that those being baptized are known to and welcomed by God, not only into the world, but into God’s love and into Christ’s church. And when we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we do so having been welcomed by our Lord to his Table, signifying that he died so that we who were nobodies might know that we are now somebodies in God’s eyes and in God’s love. When Jesus died, he died for you and for me, for us all. He did so as our friend.

To be called to be friends to Christ and to one another is to be called to honor. And there is no greater honor than to be called “friend”. No longer “pelagatos,” but friends. And friends are those who are willing to give the last full measure of their devotion to one another and, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, bind the wounds of others, even their enemies, “with malice toward none and with charity for all.”

Years ago, a well-known and popular radio and vaudeville comedian named Eddie Cantor told the story of a poignant moment he experienced when he was doing a benefit for a children’s orphanage. During his performance, he noticed over in a corner a little girl sitting on a step, her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. When he had finished his act, he jumped off the stage and went over to her, knelt down in front of her, and softly said, “Honey, you look so sad. Is there anything I can do for you?” The little girl lifted her head and looked at him, her large brown eyes filled with tears, and said, “Love me.”

That plaintive cry is the cry not only of a little girl, but of all humanity. Down underneath all the fear and sadness and anger and violence, “Love me.”

You see, that little boy in London during the war got it right. He just didn’t know it. He got his grammar tangled up in a double negative. We are not, no one of us, nobody’s nothing. We are no longer locked into a demeaning servitude. We have been given a new status, a new standing, a new name.

Jesus said, “You are my friends. You are somebody. Love me. Love one another.”