6th Sunday of Easter
On Monday this week I got a call from my dear friend Kozen. As you may or may not know, Pastor Earl from White Salmon United Methodist has accepted a new call up in northern Washington and will be leaving his church at the end of May. He and Kozen have become very good friends over the last several years, and as a group, MAMA (Mt Adams Ministerial Association) has become very close. For a long time, MAMA was just me, Kozen, Earl and John Boonstra, but as all things do, our group is changing as new ministers coming to town and old ministers move on.
I’m sharing this with you because when Kozen called on Monday, he was feeling rather sad about Pastoral Earl leaving. We talked for a while, and then he said “I’m sending you an email of Pastor Earl’s sermon from last Sunday.” So I got the email, and it was, in many ways, a love letter. Like the Gospel of John from which our lesson comes today, this sermon was part of Earl’s “farewell discourse.”
So if you don’t mind, I’m going to share parts of Earl’s sermon with you today, along with some of my own thoughts and reflections about Jesus’ farewell discourse in today’s Gospel reading.
Jesus’ farewell discourse, his teachings about love, are placed in the Gospel story before his crucifixion. He was preparing them for life without his daily presence. When we have this in mind, these love letters become a bit sad; Jesus is saying goodbye to his faithful friends.
This set of teachings holds the disciples and us in a place of tension. On the one hand, it means things will be different. Life as it has been is going to change. On the other hand, if we are abiding in God’s love, those changes will lead to growth and abundant life. And so it is within this tension that Jesus calls the disciples his friends.
When I taught Ethics in high-school, we studied Aristotle’s work on friendship. Aristotle believed there are three kinds of friendship: 1) those that are useful to us (networking); 2) those that are pleasurable to us (people we enjoy hanging out with); and those that are formative (people who challenge us, who deeply care and love us). For Aristotle, the third type of friendship was the most important, and the most difficult to achieve because it required of both parties a mutual respect, a mutual granting of dignity, and responsibility for one another.
It is this kind of friendship that Jesus talks about with his disciples. In the ancient world, if you were a slave to a good master, the relationship was as positive as it could be…very little to no abuse, meager but living wages; you may even be a trusted companion. But as a slave, you were never equal to your master; there was always a power differential. That’s why it’s important that Jesus tells the disciples that they are not slaves, but friends. They are equal. There is mutual respect. There is responsibility to one another. Friendship, is in essence, a covenant…not to be entered into lightly. And it is in the spirit of this friendship that Jesus has given the disciples everything they need to go ahead with the spreading of the kingdom of God. What does he give them? A reminder of God’s abiding love, and the commandment to love one another. Why does he do this? So that their joy may be complete. Jesus doesn’t leave behind a “how to” manual for his friends. He leaves them with love and friendship. It is that love and friendship that calls the disciples into ministry and into the joy of the kingdom.
As Pastor Earl reminded his congregation (and me):
“Too often we get “love” all twisted and bent out of shape. For a multitude of reasons we associate “love” with our feelings; how we “feel” about others. Even Webster’s dictionary associates “love” with “feelings”. Love: strong affection; an attraction; a warm attachment; enthusiasm or devotion.
So our “love” for others is often based on our “feelings”. If they are kind….. if they are generous… if they are respectful…. If they do nice things for us… then we “love” them. But…..if they don’t love accordingly to our standards…. to our likings, to our approval… if they don’t love the way that we love…if they don’t do it our way….if they don’t, we don’t have to love them. Many of us are “conditional lovers.”
So what does real “Christ-centered” love look like?”
As I shared with you last week, Jesus calls us to abide in love...It is a love the lives within, takes rest in, dwells within. It is not a mushy, warm-fuzzy, emotional love, but a love that calls us into a covenant of mutual respect and responsibility with one another.
Pastor Earl had other words of wisdom to share that I think are worth repeating:
Everyone here today… can find a reason not to love someone. Maybe it’s because of your childhood…. Maybe it’s because you were conditioned that way… Maybe it’s because you had your heart broken…. Maybe it’s because of some ill-taught, ill-conceived set of principles... Maybe it’s because they are just weird, strange or eccentric…. Maybe it’s because they are Korean, Iranian, or Mexican…. Maybe it’s because they are female, black or white. Maybe it’s because they are richer, smarter, and/or more talented…. Maybe it’s because they are gay, bi-sexual, or transsexual.
Maybe it’s because… they remind you of who you are not. And then again, maybe it’s because they remind you of who you really are.
Everyone here today… can find a reason not to love someone else. It’s really easy and it takes very little energy and/or effort. Your reluctance to love others is not because of who they are…your reluctance to love others is……because of who you are.
And as the gospel of John reminds us, Jesus said,
“You did not choose me but I chose you.” Jesus chose us. He chose us to be his friends…to love one another, respect one another, and be responsible for one another. He chose us to bring about the Kingdom of God. With that in mind, are we willing to be called friends and abide in his love?
There’s something really wonderful about playing in the dirt...whether you are a master gardener, you grow your own vegetables, or you just like to tinker with flowers in pots, playing in the dirt, smelling the soil, pulling the weeds...there’s something joyous about it. Some years I’m a better at it than others. Some years I spend hours tending to my little patch outside the back door, talking to the ever growing sage and lavender, wondering to whom I can give away clippings of my monstrous rosemary plant, carefully watering each daffodil, tulip, and flower pot. Other years, it’s a wonder nothing dies...the little patch gets no attention at all. My grandparents were much better gardeners than I will ever be.
My grandmother never wore gloves when she gardened. Her hands were callused, dirt under the fingernails, her knees damp from the soil. My grandfather loved his vegetables and in the summer would set up a little road-side stand to sell you a variety of beans, carrots, squash, and tomatoes. But his love was wine! In his later years, he would set up his road-side vegetable stand, get you engaged in talking about the weather, politics, sports--whatever you seemed interested in--he’d sell you some vegetables, and then just as you were about to leave, he’d ask if you were interested in trying some of his homemade wine. If you had time to pass, you’d come in, sit at the kitchen table, continuing the conversation you’d started out by the road, and enjoy a glass or two of grandpa’s wine. He’d send you home with a bottle--for free--in hopes that you would return soon. The next time you came by, the wine was $10--cash only, no checks.
My grandfather loved the land and all that it produced. He was proud to watch his garden, and his vineyard, grow. One afternoon I remember going out to look at the little vineyard with him.
The vine is the part that grows out of the ground from the roots. It’s a little thicker and not really tall. But what I realized is that the vine is what nurtures the branches. It is through the vine that the branches get water, nutrients from the soil, and the ability to thrive. The branches depend on the vine. But the branches also have work to do. They are responsible for growing, becoming entangled with one another for support, and producing the buds which will lead to fruit. Sometimes, they have to be pruned in order to continue to grow. Without pruning, they can’t prosper.
In particular I found the branches to be really interesting. Unless you look really carefully, it’s hard to tell where one vine and its branches end and another begins…they’re all tangled up. And they’re long…it’s as if they’re reach extends forever.
I can’t help but wonder what Jesus thought about when he shared this pseudo-parable with his disciples. Did he have a particular vineyard in mind?
In the Message translation of this particular passage, Jesus says, “I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing.”
I love this image of being joined in an intimate and organic relationship with Jesus. When the gospel of John was written down, much time had passed since Jesus’ death and resurrection, the early Christian community was still trying to figure out who and what they were all about. Chances are there were no eye-witnesses to the Jesus event still alive, so those early Christians were basing their beliefs and their community on stories, hope and love. Even though time had passed, they still believed that they were intimately connected with Jesus and abided in his love.
To “abide” in the Biblical sense means to dwell or to stay. Dwell in love. Stay in love. God’s love dwells within us. Our love for each other is based on God’s love which stays in us. This is the message we receive from the reading of 1 John. That we are Beloved. All week this reading has been with me in my heart and in my mind because it is so intimate. It’s like a love letter. It’s poetic and beautiful. It’s a reassuring message to hear that we are the recipients of the most wonderful, living giving perfect love.
Jesus is our vine…he gives us life, he nurtures us, he grows us.
So what do we do with this love? How do we abide in Christ?
On a grand scale, I witness the outpouring of love and concern for those affected by natural disasters, such as our collective response to Nepal’s devastating earthquake, or the earthquake in Haiti a few years ago, or Hurricane Katrina. Our response is an outward sign of abiding in Christ.
On a smaller scale, I witness the outpouring of love and concern, and a desire to serve, when I read news reports of men and women being arrested for feeding the homeless in their communities. They are a living in God’s love.
On an even smaller, more immediate scale, I see the love and care that we here offer one another in times of crisis, in times of great sadness, in times of joy. Your willingness to help and serve others in the community--to provide clothing for children, shelter for the homeless, food to the hungry and aid to those in need.
Are there other examples of how we live and grow in Christ that you can think of?
Jesus said, “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.”
We are the branches…we get tangled up together, supporting one another, extending our reach through one another, growing and changing the world around us.
Let us pray:
Jesus, you are the true vine and we are the branches. By your Spirit, produce the fruit of love, joy, peace, and patience in us for others to taste and enjoy. Keep us from hanging on to love for ourselves. Prune all selfishness from us and fill us with your love. Keep us firm and steadfast in our faith that we might remain in you and bear much fruit. Amen.
(prayer adapted from https://ctkpalmcoast.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/daily-devotion-on-john-151-8/ and http://re-worship.blogspot.com/2012/04/prayers-of-people-john-15-1-8.html)
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.