On Responding to the Pull
May 7, 2023
Isaiah 41: 10
Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
John 15: 12-17
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing, but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
*** Today’s sermon is titled On Responding to the Pull.
Five years ago, when I answered the call to serve as your minister, I knew I had a lot to learn. In many ways it did not make sense for me to change careers at age 50. Teaching young children was a constant challenge, but I worked in a strong school community with good friends and, after decades of practice, I finally felt like I was good at my job. It was not a rational decision to
leave a job I enjoyed. It was not a rational decision to enter into a new and unfamiliar career that required returning to school, of all things. Looking back on it, I see that the real decision was not a choice between careers; the real decision was to follow a pull that had grown too strong to ignore.
There is a pull that draws us in to circumstances we know will be challenging. There is a pull that counsels our hearts to say, “yes” when our minds say, “no.” There is a pull that guides us to think beyond ourselves to consider the welfare of others. Friends, I know of no better evidence for the existence of God than this Pull that leads us towards goodness, wholeness, health, and stability. This Pull can easily be distinguished from our personal desires because this Pull most often is drawing us into something challenging, difficult, and in some instances, dangerous.
In our scripture reading for today from the book of John, we find Jesus preparing his friends for his arrest and his punishment at the hands of the Romans. Twice Jesus narrowly escaped being stoned to death and once he avoided being driven off a cliff. He knows his days are numbered. He has responded to the pull to speak truth to power; he has made many enemies by calling out the hypocrisy and selfishness of some of the religious leaders who are more concerned with holding on to their positions of power under Roman rule than protecting the Jewish community under their care. Jesus has responded to the pull to empower the people of his community that they might withstand the Roman occupation with their culture somewhat in tact.
The entire life and ministry of Jesus is often summed up in the ancient Jewish command to
“Love one another.” This, Friends, is the most difficult work of our lifetimes. Love one another. Love one another in our families. Love one another in our communities, even those who annoy or offend, and even the stranger we do not yet know. Love one another in the world, even those who vote differently, those who pray differently or not at all, and those whose own pain causes pain to others. Loving one another is the most difficult work of our lifetimes. Jesus said to his disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you” and then he added the following phrase: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Sometimes, in our love for one another, we are pulled into dangerous places. Jesus gave his life to prove that love is stronger than fear or death.
First responders remind us of this truth every day and today we remember and honor those firefighters who gave their lives in the line of duty. Today we also honor those who are serving at our local Fire Department, ready to respond in times of distress and danger. Today we celebrate that within humankind there is a willingness to protect one another, to come to the aid of another even if, and especially when, the circumstances are dangerous and life-threatening.
Friends, I know it seems like, in so many ways, our culture is unraveling. I know it seems like we are growing more divided and violent and desperate. We are living in the wake of a global pandemic with nearly 7 million dead, daily incidences of gun violence against innocents, and legislative interference in such private, personal choices as who we choose to love and when or if we choose to bear children. We can not blame one another for losing hope and sinking into apathy at times, but we should not dwell in despair, my Friends, because in the midst of it all
there is still that force of Goodness that we call God moving within the hearts and minds of humankind. That force is pulling us towards a better way of living and the force is so strong that it is, literally, dredging up all the latent racism, sexism, and classism…dredging up all the fear of the other, whoever is very different from ourselves. The dark underbelly of human culture is being exposed and it is so difficult to bear witness. But we can not remedy what we can not see. This exposure is a necessary part of the reckoning that must take place before we can build the kinder, more inclusive culture that Jesus and so many prophets before and since have dreamed
Before I close, I want to share a story with you that illustrates the power of the Pull towards helping one another, especially in times of distress. It was the winter of 1818 and New York city was buried under three feet of snow. Regardless of the weather, there is always the threat of fire. Fire departments were not a new thing in 1818. Since 1663, colonists had been organizing themselves to respond to fire emergencies. By 1818, there were rudimentary pumps with fire hoses mounted on wagons that could be drawn by horses, or people, to the site of the fire. But how could a wagon possibly maneuver in 3 feet of snow? Lots of people were needed and at the time, there was a cholera epidemic sweeping through the city. Many of the firefighters at Station
11 were not able to pull the wagon, but all who were able came including the only woman on the roster, Molly Williams. Keep in mind the year was 1818. Molly Williams was a slave and no one knows how she came to be part of the crew at Station 11 in lower Manhattan, but Molly responded to the call that snowy day and worked shoulder to shoulder with the men to pull the wagon to the fire and then they proceeded to fight the fire together. Little else is known about Molly Williams, although there is a photo of Molly in her dress uniform, complete with cap, a double-breasted jacket, shirt and tie. What distinguishes Molly Williams the most, in my opinion, is the fact that even though she, herself, was not free, even though she was the legal
property of another and not at all at liberty to make choices even for herself, she responded to the inner pull to help others in times of distress. If this is not a testament to the presence of God, I don’t know what else possibly could be.
In closing, I pray that when we are weary with the state of the world, we will remember to look for the places within us and within our society where the force of God, the force of Love, is at work. Wherever people are helping one another, wherever people are working for a better world, wherever people are striving to find love in the midst of differences, God is there, Hope is there. To our brothers and sisters who put their lives on the line to keep us safe, and to come to our aid in times of distress, I thank you for your service; I thank you for responding to the Pull, showing up at all hours of the day and night to care for your neighbors. You are shining examples of how to love one another. You keep our hope alive. May God bless you in all your endeavors. So be
God of grace and mercy, we lift our prayers with full hearts this morning. There are so many who are suffering in various ways. There are unprecedented numbers of people without shelter, there are communities in mourning in the wake of gun violence, there are nations at war, and on the surface of things it can appear that we, as a society are on the verge of collapse. But beneath the surface and in the midst of much strife we are still caring for one another in ways small and large. In this moment there are thousands of emergencies in progress around the world and there are people showing up to be of service, showing up to offer aid, showing up to save lives and often risking their own. Bless them, each and every one. God, we are grateful for the impulse
within us to give of ourselves. May we remember what we are truly capable of. And may we never, ever, give up our yearning for a better, safer, world. So be it. Amen.
I leave you with the following words, an ancient blessing from the book of Numbers, Chapter 6, verses 24-26:
May the Lord bless you and keep you;
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
Molly Williams, first known female firefighter and first known black firefighter
1818, Station 11, Lower Manhattan, NY