On Sunday, May 17th, Noah Baker Merrill was our guest speaker in Meeting for Worship. Noah serves as the General Secretary of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends.
Below is the main body of the message, given by Noah Baker Merrill on May 17th:
I can still remember the dust rising in the air in the heat of that morning. Walking with a group of Cuban and American Quakers out toward those old limestone caves. They are the caves that during the hurricane, Cuban Quakers and so many others in their town on the coast of Cuba, took refuge in. As the storms were lashing their island, they prayed together. Not just the Quakers, but all the other people, the Atheists, the Agnostics, the people from other traditions. They prayed and were together, together in those caves.
On my first visit to Friends in Cuba, who have been there since 1900, they agreed to take me and a few other visitors to these caves. It was really hot, and we wondered if there was a place we could go to be cool. They said that there are these great limestone caves, and you can explore them. There won’t be anybody there. All we have to do is go in and we’ll feel that cool, quiet, under the earth. They even have an underground river below, so it’s almost like we imagine an air conditioner might be back in the United States. So we had gone out to those caves, a small group of American Quaker visitors and Cuban Friends. We made our way slowly into the cave complex, and it opened up into a big room underneath the earth and we realized that we were not alone. You see, we had stumbled into a Cuban military explosives exercise, and suddenly we were surrounded by soldiers. And they said, “Who are you?” We said, “We’re Friends.”
I greeted you this morning as Friends. It’s a wonderful way that as Quakers, we traditionally refer to one another, and it has this warmth and welcome about it, doesn’t it? That sense that wherever we go, we’re friends. We friends to whomever we meet on the street. We’re open and embracing of anyone we encounter and we are particularly friends with each other as we grow in love and in our relationships with each other. But it’s more than that.
In preparing to be with you this morning, I was reminded of that. The invitation and the challenge of that name that our spiritual ancestors chose for ourselves. Friends. Amigos. Because we’re not just friends of one another and of everyone that we meet. Originally, Friends took that name because they hoped, and they wanted, to live in the tradition of being friends with Jesus.
The soldiers, it turns out, knew something about Quakers, as they were from the surrounding area. And so after some discussion, during which we weren’t sure if we would be arrested or deported, or what would happen to us, they agreed that if we were as we said ‘just visiting’ and if there was no other intention for us being in the middle of a military exercise in the middle of nowhere, where we as visitors would have absolutely no reason for being, then they would go with us. So they walked with us, the Quakers and the soldiers, down into the darkness under the earth. We came down to a place where could hear that underground water rushing. After some really narrow passageways that we walked through, the cave opened up again into a kind of cathedral, and a stillness began to settle in that place. All of the noises, all of the talking, all of the jangling sounds, became quiet. We settled into waiting worship.
That passage, that the part about Friends comes from, is I’m sure one that is familiar to all of us, is from John, what some people call the ‘Quaker Gospel’. “For I have called you friends.” Jesus, near the end of his teaching of the disciples, says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
I love the way, that like so many teachings in the gospel of John, Jesus ties everything back to that essential unity. Earlier on he says, “If you know me, then you know the one who sent me.” God is love, and if you love one another as I have loved you, you know the love of God. That message runs throughout the gospel of John. And in the beginning, as God is reaching for creation, reaching for all of us, becoming one with us, becoming the story in Jesus that we need to help us understand that essential love, he seeks always the reconciliation, the connection and unity of all creation.
I think that’s what Jesus is getting at when he says this tiny little teaching that seems so simple. You wonder why he says all those other words. If this is it: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” So all we have to do is love? Well that seems pretty easy, right? All of us know how to love. There’s a comfort in that. There’s a simplicity in that. Of closing our eyes and settling into that sense of being deeply loved, and knowing that just because we were born, just because we are part of creation, we are deeply loved. Maybe the simplest message that we can hear, “Jesus loves me.”
I was talking to a friend a couple of days ago and he said that if you would sum up his whole religion it would be that. That God is love. There’s a comfort in that message from Jesus. One of his parting teachings to the people that he would call his friends. I think in that, there is an articulation as we learn and grow in God, from that place, reaching back all the way through the Bible. It’s there, hidden below the surface. Sometimes we talk about the Hebrew Bible as being a kind of different message than the New Testament, than the message that comes through Jesus, but I see that same message. That God is love. That same intimacy, that same comfort and connection reaching all the way back. Underneath the surface, when God comes and sits down with Abraham in the Old Testament, and knows Abraham as a friend. When Moses, even in the middle of the story when the Israelites are out in the wilderness of Sinai, part of the story, as many of us know, is that he goes up on the mountain and there’s fire and brimstone and you can’t look at the face of God and live. But there’s this other part of that story, when he’s down in the camp and he goes to pray, to be with God. He goes into what’s called the ‘Tent of Meeting’, and there, that different aspect of God meets Moses face-to-face. That tenderness, that comfort and that sense of wholeness and belonging is there. It’s always been there. And I think, at it’s core, that’s the invitation that Jesus is offering us in that teaching, “For I have called you friends.”
That love, in my experience, is about so much more than just comfort. The love that Jesus is talking about is not the love of your buddies or the love of a romantic partner. The word that’s used by Jesus is the word for that divine, universal love. That love that has been at work since the beginning, redeeming all of creation. Calling us out of wherever we’re stuck, wherever we’re fully alive and into the wholeness that Paul talks about in his letter to the Friends in Rome. He says, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” That coming alive, that is happening right now and has been happening since the beginning, and it is about all of creation becoming whole. Because it’s not about this passage. It’s not just about Jesus loving us and God loving us. It’s about us loving one another. If you love one another as I have loved you…
One of the things I find about Jesus is that there is always the simple teaching and then there’s the much more challenging invitation, and the much more scary one. We know in the story, this teaching of Jesus comes before the arrest and the crucifixion and the resurrection. It’s like he’s planting this seed. He even says right in that same passage, “No one has greater love than this, to give up his life for one’s friends.” How could they possibly know? Imagine being those people, having that teacher say, “Yeah that’s a part of it. You could imagine someone giving up their life for their friends’. “ But he ties this, in the story that is told by John. Right in the middle of you are my friends if you love one another as I have loved you.
Sometimes love, practicing it with one another, in my experience, doesn’t feel like love. Sometimes it’s terrifying. Sometimes it brings us to places that we would never want to go. Sometimes it calls for something to die, like a deeply held belief in us that we just don’t want to let go of because we feel like we won’t be ourselves anymore. Sometimes it’s a relationship that we need to let go of. Sometimes it’s an activity. This challenge from Jesus, If you would call yourself my friends, if you would truly be friends, love one another and live in this world as I have loved you. To me sometimes, that’s an unsettling and at times, a terrifying prospect, but I know that it’s at the heart of what’s real and most useful in our life together as Friends.
I see that invitation to live in that unsettling, transformative, breaking open kind of love.
In the life of Job Scott, Quaker minister in the late 1700s in New England, he traveled all over the Quaker world in that time, preaching the gospel. Encouraging the younger generation in ministry. While Job Scott was still mourning the loss of his wife, he had a dream, a vision, that he was led to travel in the ministry among Friends in Ireland, and to preach in Ireland against religious oppression and economic injustice. In the vision he was also given the sense that he would board a boat, the boat would sink, and that all on board would be lost. He got on the boat anyway. As the boat went out into the ocean, it began to sink. He resigned himself, trusting that if he had been faithful to that voice, that love would still come of that faithfulness and that experience. The boat didn’t sink. He found his way to Ireland, and traveled in ministry in a way that was so transformative to Irish Friends that they wrote testimony in his journal about how many hearts had been stirred and how much space had been made for the love of God in Ireland. Job Scott died of smallpox before he could return. It’s an unsettling story, but the fruits of love in opening space for life in the structural injustice of life in that time are clear. Through the faithfulness of that Friend, who was willing to say yes, I will love after the example of Jesus.
Sometimes it’s not our lives that we have to give up, sometimes it’s our deeply held beliefs. I was once told a story about a prominent Quaker business man who had been a rock of his community and gotten involved in the early days of the formation of what would become an important witness of Friends in the world. They had been involved, you see, in war relief. And in support of young Quakers in going out into the world and using their faith to help bind the wounds of war. But this committee of people who were meeting in Philadelphia had been asked to take on another big project, one that would be really unpopular. One that would create a lot of discord and maybe some trouble socially for Quakers at the time. This businessman was dead set against this effort being turned into whatever this new thing was going to be. He spoke against it repeatedly in their business meetings. But the Clerk in those meetings was clear. The sense of unity in how God was leading their group was to say yes to that project. After the rise of that meeting, this rock of the community, who had spoken out and been so dead-set against the project, walked up to the Clerk’s table. He said, “You know, I am completely opposed to this, and I’ve said that from the beginning. But since we’re going to do this, it’s going to take some money. Here’s my check.” Sometimes that love that Jesus modeled for us asks us to let something die in us. More than a million children were fed by Friends in the years to come.
Back in the cave, this stillness continued, and nobody knew what was going to happen, but there was a sense of calm under the earth, and a sense of peace. And then, one of the Cuban Friends spoke, in Spanish, so that all of the soldiers could hear and understand, and he said, “There is a peace that is with us here, that is not the peace that the world can give, and once you have touched that peace, in a moment like this, you can go back to that place within yourself. If ever something happens in your life, or you are called to do something that runs counter to that peace, if you ask for that help, that peace and that love can be with you and guide you to give you the strength to do what needs to be done.” We settled into stillness again, for a long while. Then it was time to rise and to go. We began to leave that place and to travel through those winding caverns, back out into the heat and the sunshine.
As we walked together, something was different. Rather than the tension and the fear and the distrust, there was quiet joking and laughter. Something happened in that moment. In that moment, down under the earth, we were all friends.
May we be open. God, may we be open to the comfort of your presence. To knowing that no matter what we have done, no matter where we find ourselves, no matter how much we are struggling, that love that is with us in our most intimate and private moments and that love that holds the planets in place is with us. May that same love challenge us, unsettle us, and lead us if we can be willing, into that deeper love. That may cause some parts of us to die, that may cause us to walk through fear, to embrace the world that you invite us to help build for the creation waits, with eager longing, for those moments when in small ways or large, we are able to say yes to being your friends. Amen.