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The Promise to Abide

a sermon for April 29, 2018, the 5th Sunday of Easter, based on John 15:1-8 and 1 John 4:7-21)

Well, to begin with… let me just say that no matter how many times I return to this particular passage from John’s gospel, I’m never really expecting what I find there!

I don’t know; maybe it’s because last Sunday we heard from Jesus all about his being the “good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep,” (John 10:11) – and yes, we are those sheep (!) – or maybe it’s simply because it’s finally springtime around these parts, and the idea that very soon now there will be leafy, fruitful vines bursting forth all around is just exactly how I want to think of Jesus when he tells his disciples and us, “I am the vine, [and] you are the branches.”  I mean, it does fit; it’s an image that green and life-filled, it’s pastoral in every good sense of the word and it speaks so beautifully of resurrection as we move through this Eastertide.

So why is it that I never seem to remember that it’s only two verses into this 15th chapter of John when Jesus states, quite ominously that God who is the vinegrower, “removes every branch in me that bears no fruit” and even prunes the branches that do (!); and if that’s not threatening enough, Jesus then goes on to say, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch that withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”  Now this all sounds more than a little bit judgmental, don’t you think; as I said before, not at all what I was expecting from this passage of scripture!   I was expecting, wanting, dare I say needing to hear about the blessings that come in abiding in Jesus, this one who is “the true vine,” but what I’m getting here is an image of myself akin to all the dead leaves and fallen branches that these days are being hauled out to the curb to be taken away truly only God knows where!  Actually, go back to the reading from that perspective and “I am the vine and you are the branches,” ends up kind of feeling like less of a blessing… and more of, well, a threat!

And in all honesty, that’s how sometimes these verses have been read throughout the centuries; in which Jesus basically announces to one and all that they are to “abide in me,” staying loyal and faithful in all things (that is, “bearing fruit”) or else face the fire, and die; which, if that’s the case, ends up a rather bleak prospect for any of us!  But I ask you, how that kind of interpretation reconcile with everything else that Jesus says here: his acknowledgement that we are, in fact, connected to him in the same manner as branches are attached to the vine; the fact that even those branches that bear fruit and even more fruit (as is stated over and over again in this 15th chapter of John) are subject to pruning; and what about the fact that Jesus says to his disciples that they’d already been cleansed by the word that he’d spoken to them?  No, for all the claims of judgment we hear in Jesus’ words, there’s something else at work here… not judgment, but instead a promise.

And we know this, friends, because of what Jesus says to them in the middle of all this talk of vines and branches.  You see, it’s not simply that he says to them, “Abide in me;” it’s that he says to them, “Abide in me, as I abide in you.”  And that changes everything.

It’s important for us to remember, you see, that in this Eastertide season we are well aware of the truth and significance of Jesus’ resurrection; and thus everything you and I look at in scripture, in particular the words and acts of Jesus himself, we view through a different set of lenses.  In other words, we know how the story of Jesus is going to come out, but as Jesus was speaking these words about to those closest to him on that Maundy Thursday night, they did not!  Moreover, Jesus knew what was about to happen, both to himself and to the rest of them.  As David Lose puts it, “They [the disciples] are about be cut down by his crucifixion and death,” and so now with this imagery of vines and branches and the need to bear fruit, “he is assuring them that it will not be mere, senseless cutting but that they will survive, even flourish.”  It may well seem as though you’re about be thrown in the fire – because after all, branches don’t do well when they’re not connected to the vine; without connection to a life source, life is not possible – but, says Jesus, “Abide in me, as I abide in you,” and you will have the connectedness with me not only to endure and to persevere, but to have life, and to have it abundantly, even in the face of everything that’s about to come.  And what’s more, Jesus adds (and as is translated by The Message), “But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon.”

It’s worth pointing out that by the time John recorded all of this for his account of the gospel, the members of the early church – the first generation of  those who would have known how the story came out – would nonetheless have heard Jesus’ words in the context of their own struggles: remember that by that time, many of these early Christians were scattered or in hiding for fear of persecution at the hands of Roman soldiers, most thrown out of their synagogues for the sake of confessing faith in the risen Christ, and almost all of them feeling fairly well abandoned and cut off from what had inspired them to “abide” in the first place!  So even all those years later, Jesus’ words about the connectedness of vine and branches might well have sounded as confusing to them in the distress and uncertainty of their own lives as it did for those first disciples some years before!

Of course, we know all about that, don’t we?  Truly, there are so many of us, maybe even some of us here, who do understand in their lives what it is to feel cut down, cut off and abandoned.  The people who work day in and day out in dead end jobs – if they have a job at all – all the while simply struggling to make ends meet for the sake of themselves but especially their families; the children and youth who are the victims of an ever increasing spiral of bullying and abuse, to the point where they’ve begun to believe what they’ve been told about themselves; the ones who suddenly find themselves having to cope with “the new normal” of their own debilitating illness, or else of finding themselves in the role of caregiver to a family member who can’t do it for themselves; or countless others who “feel cut down – maybe mowed down – by life and its circumstances:”  if you’ve been there, or if you are there, then you know very well what it is to face the fire.

And that’s where Jesus’ words have such power.  Quoting David Lose one more time, when Jesus says, “Abide in me, as I abide in you… This is more than good advice.  More than an invitation.  This is a promise, that no matter what happens, Jesus will be there with us.  That not matter what happens, Jesus will hold onto us.  And no matter what happens, God in Jesus will bring all things to a good end.”  And it doesn’t mean, Lose goes on to say, “that everything happens for a reason,” and that into every life some rain must fall.  “Rather, it is to say that that no matter what happens, we have God’s promise in Jesus to work for good.”  And it means that whatever is going on in our lives right now, as much as what feels like a death cut “is mere pruning” and the assurance that growth is coming, new life will come and soon enough there will fruit in abundance; just wait and see. Because this is Jesus’ own promise to abide, and it is grounded in the infinite love and care of God, who is ever and always the Vinegrower..  As the writer of our Epistle reading for this morning proclaimed it, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

This is who God is, beloved… and, might I add, because of this promise to abide, it’s who we are as well.

The author and Episcopal priest Suzanne Guthrie is, as it happens, also a passionate flower gardener; and I came across a piece by her this week that seems to be pretty appropriate for this time of year, in which she writes that “you have to be ruthless to garden successfully. Out go the weaker plants and weeds, divide the thriving ones before they crowd everything else out… hunt for and destroy slugs in the buggy evening… and prune prune prune down to the nub.”  Guthrie actually goes on to compare this process to the season of Lent, and says that this why so many people love Lent, because “you are busy ‘rooting out the vices and planting virtues’ as the old monastics say.”

But there’s another lesson to be learned about gardening, it’s “about the life source in the soil, in the air, in rain and moisture in the ground, in the mysterious process that transforms an ugly brown tuber into a glowing scarlet dahlia.”  And spiritually speaking, she concludes, it’s a reminder that even though in life we also are so often “pruned, pruned, pruned down to the nub,” and are part of a community that helps make it happen !), we are also “inseparably grafted to the Vine – the source of [our] deep and enduring happiness and love.”

I read this, friends, and it actually got me to thinking about these couple of months we’ve shared here at East Church.  On the one hand, together we went through the season of Lent; making our yearly journey to the foot of the cross and looking very intently within ourselves to perhaps recognize why we were there when they crucified our Lord. Lent, by its very nature and intent, is a season of penitence and fasting and prayerful reflection, and if we’re honest and deliberate about it, it does represent something of a spiritual “pruning;” if not down to the nub then certainly to the heart.

But I think you’ll agree with me when I also say to you that this year Lent was a bit different, wasn’t it?  This year, Lent included a pancake breakfast open to anybody who happened to be passing by; we had a Murder Mystery Dinner on St. Patrick’s Day that featured corned beef and cabbage, a few bad accents and lots of laughter; and then there’s the ongoing and, I might add, fairly significant (and reasonably healthy!) competition between the “Apple Crushers” and “Sunday Shooshers,” with all the pennies, coins and game-changing dollar bills that will benefit the ongoing ministries of our congregation; and this is to say nothing of all the rest of the mission outreach that were at least, in small part, inspired by the desire for a few extra points for your team!

All this to say that this was not, at least not in my pastoral recollection and experience, a typical Lenten season!  In fact, rather than being a somber 40 days leading up to Easter, it was actually rather… festive!  But not festive in a frivolous, disrespectful, sacrilegious kind of way, but rather as Guthrie describes it: just as any good gardening requires a connection to the life source in the soil, in the air, and in the rain and the moisture, what we were doing here at East Church – what we’re continuing to do in this place in this Eastertide – is about connecting to our life source; to the act of embracing anew the promise that Jesus has made to each one of us to abide, and as branches determinedly cling to the vine, we also decide again and again to abide in his presence, his power and, above all, his love, so that we may have life and have it abundantly.

The world, yes, and the life we live within it can be an overwhelming and fearful thing.  But as we abide in God’s love, personified and amplified in Jesus Christ, we discover as once again the Epistle proclaims it, that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear… [and that] we love because he first loved us.”

So let us abide; and as we do, let us bear the fruit that God desires from us.  Let us love as we have been loved…

… and let our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Shepherded

(a sermon for April 22, 2018, the 4th Sunday of Easter, based on Psalm 23 and John 10:11-18)

It is almost certainly the most familiar and oft-quoted opening lines in all of Holy Scripture:  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  Likewise, the first part of our gospel reading for this morning is just about as iconic:  “I am the good shepherd.”   These are two passages of scripture that just about everyone knows one level or another, and for good reason; indeed, it’s the very imagery by which countless people throughout the centuries and from every nation, every culture and every walk of life have found comfort and peace, and quite literally how they come to know and begin to understand the deep and graceful love of God Almighty!

However… I have to say here this morning that each of these wonderful verses also offer up something of a challenge not only to our interpretation and understanding of scripture, but also in our perception of ourselves and who we are; something of which I was reminded this week, courtesy of a quote I found from one Jason Micheli: “To profess that the Lord is your shepherd,” he writes, “is to confess that you are a sheep.”   Now I don’t know about you, friends, but I have to be honest: I’m not at all sure how I feel about that!

Not that I have anything against sheep, mind you; it’s just that they don’t necessarily fit the image that I have of them!  Let me give you an example:  at the church where I served as pastor in Ohio, one of the traditions was that on several evenings each Christmas we put on a “live nativity” for the community.  It was actually quite a production; we had this huge stable set up in the front yard of the church; the children and youth of the congregation dressed up as all the main characters and acted out the story;  there was special lighting and beautiful music playing through the loudspeakers, and best of all, there were live animals from nearby farms that visitors could meet up close and personal: donkeys, llamas, even a camel on a couple of years that they could find one (!); and of course, as would befit any good manger scene, there were also plenty of sheep!

And it was wonderful; except for that one year when someone inadvertently left the latch on the sheep pen open; and when one sheep, who it must be said was not particularly pleased to be cooped up to begin with, bolted out of the sheep pen!  Now as I understand it, one of the youth group kids playing shepherd immediately lunged to try and keep that sheep from escaping, but to no avail; because he was off and running, across the busy main street of the town and out into the December darkness!  And so then, of course, right behind the sheep went several other of our youth group members chasing after him (including, I should point out here, Sarah and Zach)!

In remembering this yesterday, Sarah told me that it was really quite a thing that there were all these kids running through yards and alleyways – and all dressed in biblical garb, mind you (!) – trying in vain to catch up with this sheep who was, understandably, trying his best to stay away from them!   Eventually, after several attempts the kids did manage to corner the animal on somebody’s back porch and eventually he was brought back to the manger safe and sound; but not before he’d covered several city blocks and inspired a few calls to the police (we even made the local paper’s police blotter that talked about several reports of an “errant and wayward sheep” running rampant through the neighborhood).  It was all best summed up in the words of one of our church members, actually the farmer who had lent us that animal for the nativity, “He was just a bahhh..d sheep!”

And therein lies my problem with being characterized as a sheep, or even a lamb!  To quote Jason Micheli once again, “Lambs are lame. Sheep are stubborn. Sheep wander. Sheep get lost. Sheep fall into valleys;” in a word, albeit one that’s unkind, by themselves at least, sheep tend to be… well, stupid.  Whatever else you can say about them, you see – their wool, their meat, their intrinsic beauty (!) – the fact remains that sheep are totally dependent on their shepherd for their care; they ever and always need to be led and guided and protected by the shepherd, or else they will inevitably end up “lunch for wolves!”

So… given all that, it is indeed one thing for you and I to think of God as our shepherd; but it is quite another, is it not, to recognize ourselves as the sheep of his pasture; as those who would so easily and so foolishly wander away from the fold.  I mean, we’re smarter than that, aren’t we?  Maybe when we were young and still learning, we could find ourselves making unfortunate choices that went very badly, but now with time and experience, not to mention a touch of grey in the wool (!), we know better; and certainly we’ve learned to take care of ourselves!  God created us to be free and fierce and independent, is that not true?  We have had set before us “the ways of life and death,” and we’ve been taught of what it means to live in faith and with love!  So why, then, is it so important that we have be “shepherded” through life like some mindless, feckless member of a nameless, faceless flock?

There again…

…isn’t it also true, as the Psalm today suggests, that so many of us have found ourselves at various parts of the journey “walking through the darkest valley,”  encountering evil at its most fearful and personal level?  How many of us can attest to times and situations when we’ve found ourselves “in the presence of [our] enemies,” and wondering where, if at all, “goodness and mercy” was to be found; and if we’d ever again find ourselves amidst green pastures and “beside still waters.”  I know I can… because I’ve felt that way on more than one moment of my life; but I can also tell you that in those moments, I was glad, and so utterly relieved to be able to cry out in my own despair that “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Oh, yes, friends; there are times for each of us when we know what it is to be pursued and even “snatche[d]” by the wolves of this world; a problem made even worse by the fact that so often there are, as Jesus describes them in our gospel reading today, “hired hands” in this life who purport to care for and protect us but who run at the first sign of trouble.  Whether you read that as any manner of “false prophet,” see it as the disloyalty of so-called “fair weather friends,” or maybe even as some of the other worldly ways and means on which we place so much dependence – things like money, power, popularity and on and on – the fact is, just like all good sheep, we do have an awareness of what it is to feel lost in this life, to be scattered and to be utterly in danger.  And as much as at times we want to deny it, we also know that what’s proclaimed elsewhere in the Psalms is very true indeed: that “the LORD is God. [That it is God] who made us, and we are his; [and that] we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture,” and that because of this, and so much more besides, we stand in the need of being shepherded.

So isn’t it wonderful, then, that you and I are being shepherded by the one who says, “I am the good shepherd,” the one who “lays down his life for the sheep.”

It’s been said, you know, that there’s not a single phrase or verse in John’s gospel that John did not have a very good reason to put in there.  Our passage for this morning is actually one of several “I am” sayings that John includes in his gospel story (“I am the bread of life” (6:35), “I am the light of the world” (8:12), “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25) are amongst the others); each one designed to show forth not only the depth of our human need but also to proclaim the infinite capacity of God, in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, to meet those needs for us.  So it is in our reading for this morning; that despite our cries to the contrary, you and I do stand in the need of a leader, a protector, a caregiver and a singular, recognizable voice to lead us to life. We need a good shepherd, one with power, with loyalty and with unending love; and that’s what we have in Jesus.

Of course, when Jesus first said these words, the people heard them in the context of Israel’s image of a Messiah who was to come to rule the people, and who would embody the very attributes of God.  This King, in the words of Alyce McKenzie, would be the one whose duty was “to act out of concern for justice for the poor, to be a shepherd who looked out for the rights and needs of the widow and the orphan,” and who would protect, even at the cost of his life, “the most vulnerable of the flock.”  This would reflect the whole vision of what the Psalmist was talking about when he said, “The Lord is my shepherd!”

As the people would soon learn, both at the foot of the cross and at the entrance of an empty tomb, there was so more to what God was doing in Jesus Christ than just the coming of another King, another worldly ruler.  Indeed, as another “I am” saying in John proclaims it, Jesus was, and is, “the way, the truth and the life,” (14:6) and the goodness of his shepherding of you and I, as well as all those whom he love is that Jesus has the power to care for and to protect us no matter what, even to the extent of laying down his life on our behalf.  By the grace of the Father, he said, “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”  Life – life abundant and life eternal – is ours in the name of Jesus Christ who is truly the “good” shepherd of the sheep, who are you… and me!

I’ll admit, there are still times when I wish I could be a little less of a sheep; that I could be wholly and completely non reliant on anyone else’s help or guidance.  I would love to be able to daily live my live doing my own thing, out there happily grazing in the pasture without fear of anything or anyone (“Fat, dumb and happy,” is that the phrase?  I don’t know…).  But life isn’t like that; and that’s why I need a good shepherd; that’s why we all need the good shepherd in our lives.  Maybe we don’t always understand why life unfolds the way it does; maybe it is hard to figure out what God is doing at any given moment, or how it is that we’re ever going to get through the times and situations of our lives.  Sometimes we do feel lost, scattered and alone.

All I know is that on those occasions when like that “bahh..d sheep” of the living nativity, I want to bolt out into the darkness, no matter how determined and stubborn I may be about wandering off, there will also be a good shepherd just as determined to bring me home to safety and to the security of endless and eternal love.

In our lives and in these times, beloved, that’s about as good news as we ever need to hear.  So let us rejoice in that kind of love,

… and let our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2018 in Family Stories, Jesus, Psalms, Sermon

 

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