How to Sustain Hope: Abide in the Vine

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter           May 17, 2020                John 15:1-8

 

128d1a6af912a7c30f71077a1e53e5ceThere’s an old hymn that goes:
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.

My clearest memory of this hymn is from when my high school choir sang at the memorial service for our principal, who had died just before graduationand it’s been a favorite ever since. It speaks to me of the human condition in times of trial and our need to call upon God – even though ‘abide’ is a rather old-fashioned word. It means to ‘stay,’ ‘remain,’ or ‘dwell.’ But we don’t often use it outside of church.

  • Motel signs don’t say, “Abide with us tonight.”
  • Baseball announcers don’t sum up an inning: “One hit, a walk and two abiding on base”
  • The billboard you see while sitting in traffic doesn’t say, “Abide here, and you’d be home by now.”

The Bible doesn’t help. Different versions the Greek ‘meno’ different ways. The New Revised Standard Version that we usually use sticks with ‘abide’ from the King James Bible. But The Jerusalem Bible and New International Version use ‘remain.’ The Inclusive Bible has ‘live in’ and ‘live on in.’ The Message has ‘live in me’ and ‘make your home in me.’ The Good News Bible has ‘remain united to me,’ while The Weymouth New Testament has ‘continue in me’ and The Aramaic Bible in Plain English has ‘stay with me.’

This might be pretty boring, unless you’re a Bible geek like me. But here’s the thing: this word ‘memo’ appears 36 times in the gospel and letters of John – and 11 times just in these 12 verses. So it’s intriguing to imagine what John was trying to get at by using this word. He uses it to express how he understands the deep relationship that exists between God and Jesus – and us.

Another “I Am” Saying

Here we have another one of the seven ‘I am’ statements in John’s gospel. Two weeks45327508_e13169fd14_b ago, it was “I Am the Good Shepherd,” in which a human image symbolized who Jesus is. This metaphor today – “I am the True Vine” isn’t a human image, but conveys an intimacy even closer than a shepherd on a hillside; this vine is one with its branches. We, the branches, abide in this. It’s a state of spiritual being which then informs us in how we operate in the world.

People back in John’s day would have been very familiar with shepherds and grapevines.
But despite being modern urban dwellers, we didn’t have any trouble relating to Jesus as a shepherd, so we can easily get the vine imagery, too. We know grapevines and many other kinds of vines as well.

For instance, the Passiflora (passion vine) has many entwined branches that wind around one another in intricate patterns of tight curls, so you really can’t tell where one branch starts or another one ends. This is not just intricate, it’s intimate; the vine shares with its branches the nutrients that sustain them, the life force of the whole plant.

It’s Counter-cultural!

Now, this might seem like a very pretty picture and a nice thing for Jesus to say. But do you realize how counter-cultural this is? The idea of interconnectivity, of interdependence flies in the face of the rugged individualism that we Americans celebrate. Like maybe no other place in the New Testament, it challenges our understanding of personal liberty and self-reliance. James Bryce, who was England’s ambassador to the United States in the early 20th century, noted that “individualism, the love of enterprise, and the pride in personal freedom, have been deemed by Americans not only as their choicest, but their peculiar and exclusive possessions.” We can see that playing out today, right?

22105813005_fa274eca98_bWe’re talking about images like a shepherd and a vine. What might be a symbol of American personal strength and rugged individualism? The cowboy? Han Solo? My first thought was of the old Die Hard movies where Bruce Willis, as John McClane, single-handedly outwits and outfights the bad guys.

Can you think of any other examples (in books, movies, history) of rugged individualism?

Not everything about individuality and self-reliance is negative or anti-Jesus, but the metaphor of the Vine is a cautionary for us as we live in the real world, not in a vineyard or a sheep pen in ancient Palestine. And it’s a reminder for us of where and how we find our spiritual nourishment. The little piece that I put at the top of the worship bulletin with the picture of a vine puts it succinctly:
Like a vine wrapped around a fence, the Divine thrives in our world.
Like each flourishing branch of the vine,
we, too, blossom in our connection to God and neighbor.

Or as John might have put it: by abiding in the Vine, we flourish and blossom in love and service. But again, this idea goes against our usual ideals. Can you imagine an action movie based on Jesus the vine?

Can you think of any examples of interdependence, people working together to solve a problem or just live together? Or from nature?

Some of you may be familiar with the Lutheran author Nadia Bolz-Weber. She usually Sunflowers_(44662222)gets in the news because somebody deemed something she wrote or said to be too controversial. But this little piece sounded innocuous. It’s calledI Want To Be a Sunflower for Jesus.” She says:

“I’m nothing if not independent. Reportedly my first sentence was “do it self!” Yes, I will do it myself, thank you. See, I want choices. And I want independence. But apparently I get neither. What I wishJesus said is: “I am whatever you want me to be. And you can be whatever you want to be: vine, pruner, branch, soil…knock yourself out.” What Jesus actually says is: “I am the vine. You are the branches” Dang. The casting has already been finalized.

“I guess that even if we don’t get to choose our role—God has determined that we are branches, Jesus is the vine and God is the vine grower; I wish that at least I could choose what kind of plant to be. Vines, and branches off of vines, are all tangled and messy and it’s just too hard to know what is what. If I’m going to bear fruit I want it attributed to me and my branch. If I’m too tangled up with other vines and branches I might not get credit.

“So Jesus…can I be something a little more distinct? Perhaps you are the soil and I am…the sunflower? Big, bright, audacious and distinctive? Nope. Vines and branches that bear fruit. That’s what we get. So not only are we dependent on Jesus, but our lives are uncomfortably tangled up together. The Christian life is a vine-y, branch-y, jumbled mess of us and Jesus and others. Christianity is a lousy religion for the “do it self!” set.”

Oh boy, can I relate! Have you ever had to do a team-building exercise? The one I remember most clearly was the one where you’re stranded at sea in a life boat with other people. You managed to save 15 items from the sinking ship and now you all have to agree on how to rank them in terms of which are most important for your survival.

Can you think of one that you’ve participated in? 

Those things are hard! I usually get frustrated because, as Nadia said, “our lives are uncomfortably tangled up together.” We have to collaborate with people we don’t agree with or sometimes even like. You have to be able to know when to compromise on a plan and when to stand your ground for your idea. It’s so much easier to either a) take over and tell everybody else what to do or b) abdicate responsibility and let somebody else make all the decisions. Either way is not what Jesus had in mind, knowing no doubt that it is a very messy process when we are tangled up together.

Again, not everything about individuality and self-reliance is negative. Consistent spiritual practice helps us discern when to go out in front to lead and when to lead in cooperation with others.

I was in a Zoom meeting last week with other pastors in our conference, including John Kuehner from Unity Lutheran in South San Francisco and Joshua Serrano from Holy Trinity San Carlos. Since we’ve all had to leave our church buildings, they’ve been leading virtual worship together, taking turns preaching. And they were very open about how well that’s working out and also how challenging it is because they have different styles and even some theological differences. According to Pastor Kuehner, it has been a lesson in humility, of letting go of ego and attachment to his way of doing things – a valuable exercise. I doubt there will ever be an action movie about these two pastors andtheir congregations, but I would say they are an example of tending to their place and abiding in the Vine in their little part of the Church.

I wish there would be a movie, though; at least a YouTube video. Or a Netflix series we could binge watch. Something that would go viral, catch a lot of attention from thousands and thousands of people who have maybe never heard this saying from Jesus or who’ve never thought about what it might mean for them. What difference would it make on our national scene if we started understanding ourselves as intricately connected to each and every other person? What if we woke up one morning and discovered that, instead of rugged independence, our American ethic was now resilient interdependence?

68edd638-d531-411a-b945-dae6d25fc6edThere is actually a movement calling for the celebration of “Interdependence Day.” It was begun on September 12, 2003 following that year’s observance of 9/11. The idea was to make “clear that both liberty and security require cooperation among peoples and nations.”

Other groups also celebrate Interdependence Day the Fourth of July. As one Sacramento group reported, “we joined communities across the United States in celebrating our nation’s birthday with an emphasis on bringing diverse communities together.” Neither of these initiatives get much press. But I give them credit for trying.

I see the role of the church the same way – to model what it looks like to abide in Christ and to operate in the world as branches on the Vine. In our political and cultural climate today, it’s hard to imagine living in that kind of world. We are more divided than ever. And now, as we are forced to shelter in place, we are even more separate from one another.

But I wonder. What if, in our daily lockdown routines, we become more intentionally aware of abiding in Christ? Maybe you already do this, perhaps called a different name. I’m thinking of Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God in every moment, whether doing a daily chore or saying bedtime prayers. He described his practice as “one single act that does not end.” Now that is abiding.

What practices do you have that you might describe as abiding in Christ?Screen Shot 2020-05-17 at 1.58.26 PM

As we become more aware of where our blind spots are (mine is driving in traffic), we can pay more attention to inviting Christ to abide with us there. I started to post pictures of traffic on Instagram, called Bay Area Traffic Meditations. It started out as sort of a joke. But to be honest, as I’m driving and keeping an eye out for a good picture that I can take (when traffic is stopped or when I’m a passenger) and a little meditation to go with it, it actually does help to bring a different spirit to me. I don’t know that I’d say I’m abiding there yet, but that’s one place that’s a challenge to me.

And these challenges we have are not just individual ones. As followers of Jesus – our Shepherd, our Vine, our Way – we are called to talk the talk and walk the walk (drive the drive). Together. And I wonder, in our interconnectivity as we abide in the power of the risen Christ, what change of heart might we bring to heal the divided places of our world?

Be not afraid. Possibilities abound!” was my Easter message and it’s no different on this sixth Sunday of Easter. How do we maintain Easter hope? How do we believe that new possibilities can come out of impossible situations? By abiding (or remaining, living in, staying with – whichever works best for you) in Christ, the Vine that feeds and nourishes us, that connects us to both God and one another, that enables us to sprout leaves and produce fruit for all to see.

What change would you love to see in the world?  Can you abide in presence and prayer – and real hope, Easter hope, that as part of the Vine, the great body of Christ, you just may help to bring about the change you wish to see?

What change would you love to see in the world? 

Amen

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JOHN 15: 1-12
Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Abba is the vine grower who cuts off every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, but prunes the fruitful ones to increase their yield. You have been pruned already thanks to the word I have spoken to you. Abide in me, as I abide in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.

I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them will bear abundant fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. Those who don’t abide in me are like withered, rejected branches, to be picked up and thrown on the fire and burned.

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Abba will be glorified if you bear much fruit and thus prove to be my disciples. As God has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. And you will abide in my love if you keep my commandments, just as I abide in God’s love and have kept God’s commandments. I tell you all this that my joy may be yours, and your joy may be complete.

This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you.”

Spiritual Resilience in Quarantine

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter    John 14:1-14  

Let-Not-Your-Heart-8198B1Let not your hearts be troubled.

Jesus said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Well, I say, “Easier said than done, Jesus!” Don’t get me wrong; I’m not arguing with Jesus; I know he’s absolutely right in teaching us that we don’t have to be troubled, even in the direst circumstances. But I must confess that my heart is indeed very troubled. And just telling myself – or even Jesus telling me – “don’t feel bad; don’t worry,” just doesn’t cut it.

As we enter our ninth week of sheltering in place, with no end yet in sight, we have a multitude of issues confronting us. This epidemic is affecting all parts of our lives: how we do work, how we do school, how we shop, how we vacation (or not), how we do church. We worry about the unemployment rate and the precarious state of the economy. We often hear that we’ll never go back to the way things were, but we don’t know what that means.

Then there’s the threat of the virus itself. The number of those infected is staggering; the number of dead is heartbreaking. Predictions by the Center for Disease Control and other reputable experts are not encouraging. While no one knows when this will end, pandemics in the past have typically lasted between 12 and 36 months. One former epidemic intelligence service officer in the division of viral diseases at the CDC said, “My expectation is that COVID-19 will continue to be a threat for a good part of 2020, and that we’ll start to see the page turn in 2021.”

That should make us feel a little better, knowing that people who know what they’re doing are on the job and looking out for our welfare. Unfortunately, not everyone is looking after our welfare. The number of people refusing to comply with social distancing and other safety precautions is very disheartening, as is the politicization of it. Protesters, saying that having to wear a mask is a violation of their civil rights may have the right to protest. But they put the rest of us at risk by doing so. So do the ones claiming that the epidemic is a hoax. States and communities prematurely opening up will have an adverse effect on everyone else trying to stay safe.

7b4d5cdb-48c5-499c-9feb-57bff8752c95And if this all wasn’t bad enough, along comes the news about the shooting in Georgia of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, shot as he was jogging near his home. That was back in February. But it wasn’t until last week that the two men – seen on a video taken at the scene – were arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault. So, yeah, my heart is troubled.

Of course, there are good things happening these days. We live in California, for heaven’s sake. The weather is beautiful. We’ve got family and friends and a church community. I picked up our new kitty, Miley,  from the SPCA yesterday and we’re enjoying watching her explore the apartment and assess us as her new staff. In so many ways, life is good. Still, there is a lot that can weigh heavily on our hearts. We feel grief for our old way of life, even as we hope for a better one to come. We feel anger at injustices, magnified now in this crisis. We feel anxious about what the future might bring. We don’t have to deny any of our emotions. Even when Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

But we’re not going to ignore Jesus either. Do you think he didn’t know what was going on in the hearts of the disciples as Good Friday loomed before them? His instruction to unburden their hearts wasn’t given in a vacuum. He knew his friends were hurting. This section of John’s gospel is from the four chapters in John called the Farewell Discourse given by Jesus the night before his crucifixion. The disciples were understandably devastated. In saying “Do not let your hearts be troubled” Jesus didn’t ignore their feelings, which is why we have to read the rest of the passage in order to find help for our times of grief, fear, and anxiety.   

You might be thinking, “Wait a minute. Good Friday was over a month ago. It’s Easter; why are we going back over the crucifixion?” That’s a good question. And there is a reason. During the seven weeks of Easter, the gospel readings for the first three weeks were resurrection appearance stories. But the readings for the four weeks after that are all about how to go about life with untroubled hearts, all about  Jesus teaching us about living in intimacy with God, how to be spiritually resilient in the face of difficulties.

3 Promises and a Problem

There’s an old model of preaching that says every good sermon should have 3 points and a poem. Diverting from that model just a bit, my sermon today could be called 3 promises and a problem (with thanks to Bruce Epperly’s blog, The Adventurous Lectionary).

7160652549_3b117436c0_cPromise #1 comes right away in verses 2-4, so often read at funerals and memorial services: “In God’s house there are many dwelling places; otherwise, how could I have told you that I was going to prepare a place for you?” Other translations say ‘many mansions’ or ‘many rooms.’ But mansions, rooms, dwelling places – it doesn’t matter; the place is not necessarily a ‘place’ at all; it means being in the intimate presence of God. The promise here is of a future life in God’s presence.

But the “dwelling place” is also wherever God is present: everywhere and in every challenging situation. God is just as real in the here and now world of pandemic as it will be when we die. So this vision of God’s presence encourages action, not passivity, in responding to the real problems of our real world. The promise is of an absolutely divine future – which then enables us to experience eternal life in the here and now. We can face anything because of our trust in God’s everlasting love.

Old_vine_cabernetPromise #2 is in verse 10: “Believe that I am in God and God is in me . . .” Jesus is speaking of the spiritual unity between himself and the Creator of the universe. Look at Jesus and you’ll see the heart of God dwelling in Jesus in his deepest self.

This statement has existential implications for us. It should remind us of the next chapter, where Jesus speaks of the divine connectivity of vines and branches. Because we’re intimately connected to the vine, we can receive and manifest divine love in and through our lives. Later, in chapter 17, he continues to talk about the interconnectedness of divine and human presence and activity and prayed: “that all may be one, as you are in me and I in you; I pray that they may be one in us . . . that they may be one, as we are one – I in them, you in me.” We are intimately related to God in Christ.

Which brings us to Promise #3 in verse 12: “You will do the works I do – and greater works besides.” Now this is puzzling; Jesus is pretty vague here. Does he mean we can heal the sick and raise the dead and defy the ordinary limits placed on human life? Does he mean that we can forget about physical distancing and open up our churches, confident that we and our neighbors will be immune from the virus? Now that would be great, wouldn’t it? But we know that would be irresponsible.

Jesus doesn’t specify what he means by “greater works.” But given the vision of the commonwealth of God presented by Jesus, we do know that we can do greater acts of hospitality, spiritual nurture, and healing. We do have power when we align ourselves with the way of Christ, maintaining our connection to the vine, and letting God’s vision guide us in every moment. The lack of specificity is actually helpful, because in not fully defining “greater works,” we’re free to push our limits both as individuals and as a congregation, even while we are sheltering in place.

I Am the WayIf ‘I am the Way’ is the answer, what is the question?

The problem comes verse 6: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” Those of you who will be reading my book will hear this story again because it was one of the defining moments in my decision to pursue a doctorate in how Christians relate to people of other faiths. I was at a funeral and I happened to sit next to my friend, Kitty. When the gospel was read, including this verse, it felt like a blow to my heart. Kitty is Jewish, and hearing the “good news” through her ears was disorienting, disturbing and unacceptable. This verse is one of the passages used to promote the exclusivism of Christianity, that there’s just one way to heaven – Jesus, that our religion is right and all the others are wrong.

But this is not what Jesus was talking about. Diana Eck, director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University has a good take on this. She asks,

“If ‘I am the Way’ is the answer, what exactly was the question? I once asked a class of 150 religion students to state it. Nobody remembered the question, but most everyone knew the answer. However ‘I am the Way’ is not the answer to any question one might wish to ask. It is the pastoral response to an anxious question.

“It was poor uncertain Thomas who asked the question that night, as John tells it, the last night Jesus spent with his disciples. After having washed their feet, he spoke to them in words of farewell: ‘I’m going where you cannot follow, not just now. I’m going to God’s house of many rooms to prepare a place for you, and you know the way where I am going’

“And what did Thomas ask him? Did he ask, ‘Lord, are Hindus to have a room in God’s heavenly household?’ Did he ask, ‘Will Buddhists make it across the sea of sorrow on the raft of the Dharma? When the prophet Mohammed comes 600 years from now, will he hear God’s word?’ No, on that night of uncomprehending uncertainty, he asked, ‘we don’t know where you’re going; how can we know the way?’ And Jesus answered, ‘I’m the Way.’ It was a pastoral answer, not a polemical one. It was an expression of comfort, not condemnation.”

In light of the promises of the rest of the passage and of the entire Farewell Discourse, that makes so much more sense. When we interpret John 14:6 inclusively, then it becomes our fourth promise: God is with us on the way wherever we are – in our grief, anxiety and fear, as well as in our times of joy.

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How to Build Our Spiritual Resilience

As we seek to build our spiritual resilience in this trying time,
Jesus promises:

 

  • that because our eternal future is secure, we are free to live fully in God’s grace now, no matter what the circumstances;
  • that because we are intertwined like branches on a grapevine with God, we have access to spiritual resources that we cannot even imagine;
  • we can put these into service for the good of the world; 
  • following the Way of Jesus, we are assured of Holy Presence in whatever we do.

Still, to be honest, I need to practice living into this Way, especially when my heart is heavy. And for that good news, we can again hear Jesus, on Easter evening, coming into the locked room saying “Peace be with you.” And then breathing on the disciples, filling them with the Holy Spirit.

866110617_14d583e540_cBreathe!

We should be especially thankful for our breath in this pandemic time, as one of the symptoms of COVID-19 is shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. Breath is crucial for our physical existence. It’s also the key to living into our relationship with the Holy One.

Breathing deeply, intentionally aware of each breath, is a sure way into the Way. For many, it’s helpful to have a mantra or a phrase to go along with your breath. It could be anything. One I particularly like is (on the exhale) ‘there is nothing’ and (on the in breath) ‘only you.’ Another one can be said on both inhale and exhale: ‘toward the One.’ Some people like the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” 

Or as St. Paul said in Galatians: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

I’ve even used some of my 5-word Easter messages as mantras:

Be not afraid (exhale). Possibilities abound (inhale).

Emmaus is nowhere (exhale). Emmaus is everywhere (inhale).

And this one I just discovered from Breath Prayers for Anxious Times:
True Vine and Gardener (inhale), I abide in You (exhale).

Another resource is How to Trade Stress for Peace through Breath Prayers: Stress Relief from an Ancient Spiritual Discipline

You can choose one (or more) that’s meaningful for you. I invite you to try it the next time you are in one of those heart-troubling times or when your anxiety is keeping you awake. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus has given us the roadmap for our spiritual resilience. No longer easier said than done, although it does take practice. Thankfully, our salvation isn’t dependent on practice makes perfect. But the practice is one sure way into the heart of God – and peace in our hearts as well.

Amen

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JOHN 14:1-14
Jesus said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith in me as well. In God’s house there are many dwelling places; otherwise, how could I have told you that I was going to prepare a place for you? I am indeed going to prepare a place for you, and then I will come back to take you with me, that where I am there you may be as well. You know the way that leads to where I am going.”

Thomas replied, “But we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?”

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Abba also. From now on, you do know and have seen God.”

Philip said, “Rabbi, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

Jesus replied, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and still you don’t know me?

Whoever has seen me has seen God. How can you say, ‘Show us your Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in God and God is in me? The words I speak are not spoken of myself; it is God, living in me, who is accomplishing the works of God. Believe me that I am in God and God is in me, or else believe because of the works I do. The truth of the matter is, anyone who has faith in me will do the works I do – and greater works besides. Why? Because I go to God, and whatever you ask in my name I will do, so that God may be glorified in me. Anything you ask in my name I will do.

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