Back in 2009, Old South Church held a quite wonderful evening auction to raise money for Habitat for Humanity. Habitat was determined to save a Dorchester neighborhood by purchasing and rehabilitating foreclosed properties on Blue Hill Avenue. It was a good cause and just about every member of this church put their shoulder to the plow of this auction. We had a grand dinner, a master of ceremonies, a multitude of interesting items to auction … Harry Huff provided musical entertainment. We raised over $20,000 for Habitat and had a lot of fun.
That evening Harry auctioned two hours of Cocktail Piano Entertainment for a private party (music of Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Ellington, etc.). The bidding for Harry’s item was fierce. Bill and Marilyn Adams prevailed. There ensued a delicious evening comprised of good food, great friends, much laughter and joy and, with Harry on the bench, the kind of piano music that makes you smile, that makes the world’s ills disappear for a few hours while those gathered ‘round the piano bask in comradery and revelry. Harry was good at that. Amen?
Another item auctioned off that night, item #73, was mine. It was entitled: Sermon of Your Choice. The description read: “Choose any biblical text (e.g., Women shall keep silent in the churches) to be preached on by Old South’s Senior Minister.” Harry Huff got into something of a bidding war with other members over that item, and he won. He asked me to preach on a text that was very dear to him: the story of the beloved disciple, the disciple whom Jesus loved.
So, “love” was the theme and Harry and I chose Valentine’s Day, Sunday, February 14, 2010. Harry planned fitting music. The prelude included Love Bade Me Welcome: a poem by George Herbert set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Rob Woodin performed baritone solo. The choir presented Ubi Caritas et Amor (Where true charity and love dwell, God is there) based on 1 Corinthians and set to music by Duruflé. Adriana Repetto sang a solo: John Ireland’s Many Waters Cannot Quench Love, based on verses from both the Song of Solomon and John’s Gospel. For the postlude, Harry arranged a medley of Richard Rodgers compositions. Falling in Love with Love, If I Loved You, People Will Say We’re in Love, My Romance, My Funny Valentine. Sam Ou was on cello. Harry sat right there, piloting the great E.M. Skinner organ, or, as Harry sometimes called it, the “Copley Philharmonic Organ.”
I preached from the story in John’s Gospel that Harry had chosen, verses about “The disciple whom Jesus loved.” The relationship between Jesus and this disciple whom he loved, is much pondered, but not a lot is known.
Here’s what we do know. We know that Jesus and twelve men were local celebrities. There was a kind of magic about them, a certain vibe. They went everywhere together and, wherever they went, things happened: crowds gathered, storms were stilled, people were fed, others were healed, still others forgiven, politicians and celebs showed up, public arguments broke out. And there were parties. People put on parties for Jesus and his followers: great gatherings with plenty of food and wine and animated conversation.
So, what happens when they step away from the public eye? What are they like in private, out of ear-shot, and out of view from the media and the people?
In Johns’ Gospel we are given a peak, a tantalizing glance into the personal life of Jesus and his relationship with the twelve. It is the night of the Last Supper. Jesus and the twelve are in the upper room, behind closed doors. There has been talk of betrayal. John tells us that one of the disciples, the disciple whom Jesus loves, is reclining next to Jesus. Peter motions to this disciple, and whispers to him: “Ask Jesus which one of us will betray him.” The disciple whom Jesus loves leans back against Jesus and asks him, “Lord, who is it?”
The phrase, “the beloved disciple” or “the disciple whom Jesus loved” appears five times in John’s gospel but not once, not ever, in any of the other three gospels. What did John see or know that Matthew, Mark, and Luke did not?
What do you see in the glimpse we have been given of the “beloved disciple”?
Some scholars postulate that the beloved disciple may be James, Jesus’ brother; or perhaps Jesus’ good friend, Lazarus. Some scholars argue that the beloved disciple is actually Mary Magdalene. Most scholars believe that the evidence points to a male disciple, likely named John. But is it John the Disciple, or John the Apostle and author of the fourth Gospel? Are they the same?
The truth is no one knows. Despite pouring over the ancient manuscripts with magnifying glasses, and despite comparing this extant manuscript with that, scholars have not uncovered enough evidence to rule one way or another. So we are left to wonder, to imagine.
What do you see as you peer into this scene?
If people generally fall into one of two categories, if we are all either lovers or fighters, Harry Huff was a lover … which doesn’t mean he didn’t have a lot of fight in him. Harry had plenty of fight in him … plenty of spit and vinegar in him. Somebody say Amen! But he was a lover and he was drawn to this story in which Jesus has some sort of special, intimate, tender, affectionate relationship with one of the twelve.
Perhaps, if you were a young, church-going gay man, growing up in the mountains of eastern Tennessee in the 1950’s – at a time and a place when you could be killed for being queer – perhaps, you can see why this story of the beloved disciple, the disciple for whom Jesus had a special love, so captured Harry’s attention and imagination. Back to the text.
Later that evening, after the meal, after Judas runs off to betray Jesus, after Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, Jesus delivers what New Testament scholars call his “farewell discourse.” Some describe this farewell discourse as Jesus’ last will and testament. Jesus says: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Buddhism teaches the means to enlightenment, ultimate liberation, nirvana.
Islam teaches submission or surrender to Allah.
Judaism teaches a means to keep in covenant with the One God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt.
The heart of Christianity is rather different. I don’t know which is harder, more arduous and difficult: the attempt to achieve enlightenment or the attempt to love one’s enemies. But they are different.
Christianity is about love and loving because that is what Jesus came to do and to be; because we perceive that the original instinct of God to Create, that is, to Author life, is a predisposition to love … in the same way that parents are predisposed to love the child of their creating.
There is something else about love. It is a boundary crossing thing. I am thinking of the boundary crossing, illicit loves of Romeo and Juliet; of Cleopatra and Mark Anton; of Lancelot and Guinevere; of Richard I of England and Philip II Augustus of France; of Heloise (the nun) and Abelard (the philosopher); and, the love and marriage of Mildred, who was black, to Richard Loving, who was white … a love that provoked in 1967 the landmark civil rights decision invalidating the laws that prohibited interracial marriage.
Today, however, on the Sunday nearest what would have been Harry’s 65th birthday, we are focused on a different boundary: that between the quick and the dead, between the living and those who dwell with God in highest heaven.
Christian love is a boundary crossing thing. A kind of love that transcends the boundaries between life and death, heaven and earth, time and eternity – between we who wear these earthly bodies, this flesh that will not last – and those who, like Harry, have graduated to angel wings, who shine in heaven. Harry, beloved of God and beloved of us, is not dead, for Christian love transcends death. Harry is alive, wondrously, resplendently alive: thriving in our memories, flourishing in our music, and dazzlingly alive in God’s transcendent love.