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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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The Well-Connected Christian

00vineyard(a sermon for May 11, 2014, the 4th Sunday of Easter, based on John 15:1-8)

I’d actually heard this before, but to be honest with you I wasn’t sure I believed it; so I looked it up for myself, and sure enough: there are well over 300 words in the dictionary that begin with the hyphenated word “self.”

It’s true (and I counted, I want you to know)!  The word “self” has a definition on its own, of course; it relates to one’s “complete individuality,” “separate identity,” and “personal interest.”  And as you look at the long list of words that follow, it becomes apparent that most anything you can name can easily apply.  There’s “self-assurance,” and “self-determination;” also “self-control,” “self-improvement,” and “self-defense.”  You can be “self-made,” “self-starting,” “self-employed,” “self-sufficient” and “self-disciplined;” but you can also be “self-serving,” “self-seeking,” “self-indulgent” and “self-righteous,” but that’s apt to lead you on a path of “self-pity” and “self-destruction,” in which case you’ll stand in the need of “self-help” in order to regain your “self-respect!”

I must confess I could have gone on all day like that!  But, in all seriousness, I also have to tell you that as I skimmed through those pages in the dictionary, the thought occurred to me that this all represents a fairly clear reflection of a culture that has become – okay, I’ll say it – all-too…  self-absorbed!  It is true that just about every single day in ways both subtle and direct we are bombarded with the message that who and what we are is determined by what we make of ourselves: that the ways we help ourselves, heal ourselves, forgive ourselves, love ourselves, and ultimately seek to be ourselves will determine the direction and mastery of our own fate.  This idea that taking control your own life – to do it by yourself and to do it for yourself – is what’s going to make all the difference in your life; it’s the strong message of the world today…

…and it’s a lie.

Now, don’t misunderstand me; I’m in no way denigrating the need for self-exploration or the quest for greater self-understanding, because I think that’s not only laudable but also essential in today’s world.  I simply find fault with the contention that each of us is somehow autonomous and stands apart from the rest of the world; that everything we are and can ever hope to be comes about solely by our own effort, and that this alone determines our fate.

And that’s because in truth, friends, I find very little in my life that hasn’t been, at least in part, influenced, nurtured or challenged by something or someone else: my parents, for instance; you know, I’m 55 years old, which I suppose makes me pretty close to a grown-up (!), I have a life and a family of my own, but believe me when I tell you that there are places back in Maine where I am still primarily known as “Keith and Sylvia’s boy!” And that’s OK – kind of neat, in fact (!) – because that’s one of my strongest connections!  Likewise, the very fact that I grew up in a small town in northern Maine influences who I am and my world-view.   My wife Lisa, who I love, and my three incredible (and pretty much grown) children: they also make me, in large part, who I am; as does what I do for work as a church pastor, and as a servant of the Lord.

The point is that I don’t stand alone – none of us do – in fact, to quote the title of an admittedly obscure Beach Boy song of the late 60’s, “you need a mess of help to stand alone.”  Ultimately, you need connections in order to live with any kind of fullness: you need to be well-connected with family (in whatever form that takes!), with friends of every variety, with your environment, with all the many blessings of life and living.  You need all of these, and more; but above all you need a connection with God.

It sounds so simple on the face of it, but make no mistake: this is radical, counter-cultural thinking, and in fact, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ, who says to you and me, “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from you can do nothing.”  Larry Benning makes the point that “every one of us in this culture is under pressure to be our own creator, our own source of life… our own god.  But then along comes Jesus who says to us, ‘Uh-uh!  You are not the source of your own life, your own healing, and your own worth.  You are not your own creator no matter how much time [and how much energy] you spend on [it]…  I am the Vine.  I am your source of life; you are the branches who need the vine to live,” and without me, you will most certainly wither and die.

It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that!  In Jesus Christ, you see, we have a unique and personal relationship from which everything else that we need in our lives proceeds – our life, our health, our food, our relationships, our forgiveness, our hope for today and for eternity – but without that relationship, ultimately we have nothing.  No matter how hard we work at it personally, no matter how many other straws we grasp at in trying to make it happen on our own, true life cannot grow and flourish in the same way that it does in that close relationship with Christ.

It’s no accident that Jesus chose the analogy of the vine and its branches to explain this to his disciples and to us; it’s the simple truth that though a grape vine will grow easily to the point where it will take off wildly in almost every direction, it’s only when that branch is securely connected to the stem of the vine that it’ll flourish (or, to put it in biblical language, it’s only the branch that “abides” in the vine that bears much fruit).  Without that connection there’s nothing; even if something does end up growing, the grapes that result are inevitably tiny and withered and bitter.  Moreover, such “unabiding” branches have a way of negatively affecting the whole harvest; and that’s why vine growers are diligent about constantly pruning all these useless branches, so that the ones abiding in the vine will produce fruit that’s abundant and of high quality.

Well, likewise in a strong, “abiding” relationship with Christ, we are given what we need to thrive and grow and bear the fruit of a faithful life: things like generosity, kindness, humility, the capacity to love others as we are loved, the desire to do the things that make for justice and peace, and to have, dare I say it, self-control in all things!  The trouble is that for most of us there is just so much useless foliage in our lives that literally sucks away the nourishment and strength and beauty of our lives in Christ; and these are things like anger and hatred and greed; old regrets and even older misunderstandings, misguided ideas and (here I go again!) a tendency toward “self-ishness.” And what Jesus makes very clear in this passage is that these are precisely the kind the things that lead the vine grower (that is, God) to start pruning:  “Whoever does not abide in me,” he says, “is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”  A harsh thought, to be sure, and pretty judgmental; but it underscores the need for you and me to truly “abide” in Christ in and through every part of our lives.

Actually, you know, the very word “abide” is an interesting one:  it’s an old-fashioned word that technically means to remain with something or someone; but we don’t talk about “abiding in a hotel overnight,” or that Alex Preston, our favorite “American Idol” from New Hampshire will continue to “abide” after this week’s nationwide vote!  No, “to abide” has more to do with persevering, continuing, lasting, staying with something no matter what, and that’s a rare thing indeed.  We live in a world where things quickly change, contracts are easily broken, and people regularly move on from situation to situation; but in Christ, we are given a relationship that abides:  he in us, and us in him.

Jesus makes it clear that our relationship with him is not about beliefs, first principles or philosophical propositions; it is to abide in him: to live in him, cling to him and be a part of him.  William Willimon writes that in the end, faith in Jesus “is a simple willingness to stumble along behind Jesus, a willingness to be behind him.  The faith is in the following.”  And if we do; if we abide in him, stay with him, follow him through all and in all, then we are going to grow and flourish; our lives and our living will be like fruit fresh on the vine, glorifying God and giving us a sense of beauty, purpose and joy in everything we know and do.

One of the truly moving aspects of our daughter Sarah’s graduation at Hope College in Michigan last weekend was how in at least one respect it closely mirrored the experience of their opening convocation four years ago when she and her classmates started as freshmen.  Lisa and I were there on that orientation weekend back in 2010 – because, trust me, we needed as much orientation as they did (!) – and the most memorable and remarkable part of that event was how the entire faculty of Hope College came into that convocation and literally encircled the whole freshman class, symbolizing how they would be surrounding these students with their nurture, and wisdom and love over the next four years.  And now it was happening again: as these now graduating seniors were walking to the baccalaureate service at the chapel, and later on into the commencement itself, the faculty created a pathway for the students; and they clapped and cheered and high-fived them all as they walked through, all 900 of ‘em!

It was a pretty impressive thing to see, I must say; and at least from this Dad’s point of view, just as emotional an experience as it was four years ago!  It’s the same reason that Hope College doesn’t do “honor parts,” or choose to have some of the students wear “honor cords” at the ceremony; not that there’s anything wrong with that, and not that the students aren’t recognized for that kind of academic excellence.  It’s just that where the graduation ceremony is concerned their philosophy is that these young adults began this journey together and they’ve reached their goal in the same way: together, ever and always linked to one another and most especially anchored in the love and HOPE of Jesus Christ.

Granted, I was pretty filled up with parental pride at that point, but I have to tell you that I came away thinking that to be a pretty good parable for the kingdom of God!  It’s the good news of the gospel for this day and every day: that whatever other endeavor or discipline we employ to find meaning for our lives, in the end what will truly give us true “self-fulfillment” is going to be that good and abiding connection we have with our Lord Jesus Christ!  What a thing to think of our Lord as the one who walks with us on every step of the journey; who applauds our achievements, who slows us down when we veer off track and joyfully “high-fives” us with every new day!  That is, after a fashion, exactly who our Lord is; truly, ours is the Lord of Life, you see, the whole of life; he is the one who will walk with us every step of the journey, enveloping us with love and unending hope; and when we come to the place of finally bearing fruit – just as we were created and nurtured to do – he will rejoice with us in the incredible harvest of our very lives!

We are truly “well-connected,” both with Christ, but also with one another – so what is true for us as individuals is also true for us as the whole church of Jesus Christ!  So let us continue to grow and flourish as are meant to do:  because no matter where we are in life’s cycle of seedtime and harvest, there’s plenty of fruit to be borne – plenty of ways for Christ’s joy to be in us, so that joy might be full.

Something to think about as we work on our own personal “vineyards,” beloved…

…and as we do, let our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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