John 17
Duke Memorial UMC
May 17, 2015

My friend Marilyn sees the world in black and white. There’s out there and there’s in here.

Out there are institutions, faceless, nameless institutions for people with intellectual disabilities. Out there low-paid shift workers are in constant turnover. Out there Marilyn has a caseworker. She’s another file, one of hundreds piled on the desk of her huge-hearted, pure as gold, but completely overburdened social worker. Out there Marilyn is a clinical diagnosis, a Medicaid waiver, a problem to be solved.

But in here Marilyn is a gift. In here is a community called L’Arche. Here Marilyn is a core person, a person who makes up the center of our life together in L’Arche. She loves to buy me Starbucks mugs she finds on sale for 50 cents at the Goodwill. She’s a devout Catholic who goes to Mass as often as she can. In here Marilyn is a beloved sister, daughter, and friend.

When I hear these words Jesus prays for his disciples I think about Marilyn:

“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”

In today’s Gospel reading we hear the prayer Jesus prays for the disciples before his betrayal and crucifixion. It’s a prayer for them, and it’s a prayer for us. It’s a prayer about what it’s going to be like now, when the doubts come rushing back in, when Jesus’ risen body disappears, into the clouds, without a trace. It’s a prayer for those of us who are still here, still figuring out what we do in this messy, complicated, beautiful, terrifying, broken world.

And this world is complicated. The “world” shows up a lot in the Gospel of John. In this prayer we hear that the world the disciples will face is fearful and painful. It’s a place marked by conflict and persecution. Chris Hoke in his book Wanted helps us get a better grasp of what Jesus might have meant about being hated by the world. You may remember Chris came here last month for a book reading. Well Chris spends a lot of time with people who don’t seem to fit in to the world. Gang members, inmates, street people. And in one chapter he talks about a Bible study he does with homeless street kids, gutter punks who hang out at this free clinic on Monday nights. He’s reflecting on how the examples these kids give of how they have experienced “the world.” Chris writes,

“I was struck by how their examples were not stories of being wronged by individuals, necessarily. They didn’t seem to be complaining about the anonymous employee who locked them in the dumpster, for instance…. They all gave examples of general procedures, policies put in place to deal with unwanted people.”[1]

I think that my friend Marilyn would have a similar definition for the world. The world is a way to deal with the unwanted, the broken, the people who can’t keep up.

For Jesus’ followers, being in the world was going to be rough. And it has been. Some of you may know that I am a licensed minister in the Mennonite Church. Mennonites have a strong sense of being separated from the world. First this was because of persecution. Over time if became a choice to separate from the world.

Some Mennonites take this idea of being hated by the world into the very clothes that they wear. It’s a way to identify the visible church. It shows you who is in and who is out.

If we’re honest, our experience of the world is not that simple. It’s not as easy as identifying someone by her cape dress. We don’t get a line that divides “out there” and “in here.”

In fact a lot of us get along pretty well in the world. We can keep up with the pace. We can make it in the system. We have the right social networks and safety nets and retirement plans.

Jean Vanier is someone who knew how to make it in the system. He had a career, first in the navy then as professor of philosophy. Until one day he felt God calling him to live with the poor. The problem was that he’d been in the world for so long that he didn’t exactly know where to find the poor. So he went his priest and asked him, “where do I find the poor?”

In the 1960s the answer was in institutions for the mentally ill and the disabled, horrific places of abuse and squalor. With no training, no experience, nothing but a call to somehow figure out how to be in this world but not of this world, Vanier took three men out of the institution and lived with them in a home. That was the first L’Arche community.

For a while Vanier was consumed with wanting to “do something” for these men. But after a while, after eating together and caring for another, they became friends. They learned together to see the brokenness in one another and the way that God was transforming them.

What I love about L’Arche is that it doesn’t make sense in the world. It’s not a place where we “do something” for someone else. No one is rehabilitated. No one becomes a good citizen. No one becomes a productive member of society. But people are healed. They are healed of loneliness and busyness.

One of my strongest memories of L’Arche was how long it took to make dinner. Our core people would return from their job sites in the late afternoon and it was already time to start cooking. For one, we had a lot of people to feed. Four core people, three assistants, a few volunteers, a friend from the neighborhood who happened to stop by. But what also took time was that we cooked as a community. We didn’t cook for our core people, we cooked with them. It took time to find out a role for the people who were helping. It took creativity to think about how chopping and simmering and setting the table could involve even the people who couldn’t use their hands.

It wasn’t efficient. To the world it looks like a waste of time with a people who put a drain on society. But to God it looks like the kingdom.

I often wonder if that’s the reason the people who chose to be near Jesus were the people who couldn’t make it work in the system. They were outsiders, sinners, sex workers and tax collectors and shepherds and children. These were people who didn’t matter, people who would get run over or left behind if they couldn’t keep up. These people saw that Jesus was offering something different. Maybe it just made sense to them what Jesus was trying to do. Here they saw someone else who didn’t seem to operate in the system.

For a while I worked at a university in Oregon. One of my jobs was to set college graduates up with a year or two of volunteer service. The Jesuit Volunteer Corps had the very best slogan of all the programs. “Ruined for life.” They knew that the kinds of experiences, the kinds of relationships, and the kinds of time wasting they were setting up for young college grads would ruin them. These young people wouldn’t be able to go back to the system and live in it in the same way. They’d be ruined for it. Instead, they were ruined for life.

Being ruined for life means that the world as you knew it gets upended. Graduates from JVC begin to doubt. They begin to doubt that the story of upward mobility and excellence is a good story.

Someone else was ruined for life after a chance meeting after an encounter with the people of L’Arche. In 1985, after serving on the faculties of the University of Notre Dame, Yale Divinity School, and Harvard Divinity School, Dr. Henri Nouwen packed his bags for Richmond Hill, Ontario to become the assistant to Adam. Nouwen traded lecture halls and famous pulpits to sit beside a young man who couldn’t speak or walk. He fed Adam, bathed him, prayed beside him.

To the world it looked like a waste of time, a waste of money, a waste of the gifts of intellect God had given Nouwen. But that’s not how he saw it. Nouwen instead was ruined for life. About his time with his housemates in L’Arche Nouwen wrote:

“While at first it seemed quite obvious who was handicapped and who was not, living together day in and day out made the boundaries less clear. Yes, Adam, Rosie, and Michael couldn’t speak, but I spoke too much. Yes, Adam and Michael couldn’t walk, but I was running around as if life was one emergency after the other. Yes, John and Roy needed help with their daily tasks, but I, too, was constantly saying, ‘Help me, help me.’ And when I had the courage to look deeper, to face my emotional neediness, my inability to pray, my impatience and restlessness, my many anxieties and fears, the word ‘handicap’ started to have a whole new meaning. The fact that my handicaps were less visible than those of Adam and his housemates didn’t make them less real.”[2]

What Nouwen and I both discovered is that L’Arche is a place that holds up the light of Christ. When Jesus prays for the disciples, when he asks for God’s protection, when he says they do not belong to this world what he means is that no one is meant to live “out there.” We keep trying to make it in the world. Some of us can and some of us can’t. Some of us can for a little while, until we too come up against mental illness, disability, addiction, something for which the rules and systems of the world have no tolerance.

None of us belongs out there in the dark. The Gospel of John reminds us of this because it keeps calling Jesus a light. Jesus doesn’t come to condemn the world, he comes to disperse the darkness. The world can’t understand the light so it snuffs it out.

Today we’re coming to the end of our series on doubt. You may be thinking, “I still have a lot of questions. I still have a lot of doubt.” My hope is that, perhaps, those doubts have shifted. In fact, I hope you have new doubts as we’ve encountered together, week after week, the risen Jesus Christ. Karl Barth writes that we are still asleep until we begin to be nagged by the questions of doubt. He doesn’t mean just any questions, but the deep questions, the gut questions – “What is true? What is good? What is valuable?” These are the questions that Jesus unsettles in us. Because Jesus unsettled everything. My prayer is that you will find that, in Jesus, this doubt is awakened.

If you do find yourself awakening to these questions then it may be time to put your doubt to the test. When I was at Duke I had a teacher who told this story in lecture. One day he was walking with a professor from another department. This professor – I can’t remember if he was in philosophy or law – he wanted an explanation of prayer. How did it work? He wanted to know. Philosophically, how did one understand the efficacy of prayer. My teacher stopped him right there. He said, “There’s no theory of prayer. You don’t figure out how prayer works. You pray. I’ll show you how prayer works. Let’s get on our knees, right now, in the middle of the sidewalk, and pray the Lord’s prayer together.”

Putting your faith to the test. I hear that phrase all the time. But what about testing your doubt? What about taking that unsettling, that “restless disquiet” and seeing where it takes you? What if you put it in the hands of those whom the world has hated?

If you’re up for it then waste your time. Waste it on someone whom the world considers a waste of time. Don’t serve someone. Don’t fix it or make it better. Find your way to a people who don’t seem to fit into our world. Get to know them. Ask them what it’s been like for them to live in the world.

Talk to Roger Lloyd about having a meal with the IHN families who stay at our church.

Get to know Jenn and Sarah from Friendship House.

Spend some time with the folks at Reality Ministries.

Talk to our friends Randy or Nicole or Michael who panhandle on the corner.

Find your way to the people who surrounded Jesus, the people who felt that there was no place for them in this world. You might find that these deeper questions that Easter awakens are pulled to the surface. What is true? What is good? What is valuable?

At the end of those questions is Jesus. In Easter Jesus places us in the insecurity of systems that bring death, the world that will leave all of us out in the dark. To death Jesus says no. To you, in the certainty of goodness and truth he says yes. Hallelujah the Lord is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Hallelujah.


[1] Chris Hoke. Wanted. Harper Collins Publishers, 2015.

[2] Henri Nouwen. Adam: God’s Beloved. Orbis Books, 2012.


One thought on ““And the world hated them.” Sermon on John 17

  1. Thank you for this. It is helpful to think about the value of wasting time, and to be relieved of a need to fix or serve, as I prepare to take my first appointment following this annual conference.

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