Sunday, February 26, 2023

HOMILY: "Abiding in Christ"

A Meditation on John 15
The First Sunday in Lent
February 26, 2023


The Jesus we meet in the Fourth Gospel is at home in the world of poetry and metaphor. Poetry and metaphor. Which isn’t at all to say that he’s a recluse or a hermit—because he’s not. He’s most definitely engaged in celebration and sacrament. He’s most certainly committed to community and a fellowship of friends. But when it’s time to teach, when it’s time to invite reflection, when it’s time to cast a vision—the Jesus we meet in the Fourth Gospel conjures up a metaphor. Provoking conversation. Inviting curiosity.

In the fifteenth chapter, for example, Jesus sketches this picture of a vineyard, and a vine grower, and a vine with many branches. A metaphor. He’s just washed his friends’ feet, much to their bewilderment, by the way. And he knows that they’re again befuddled by his strange example. And he senses conflict around the corner and maybe violence up ahead. The moment is ripe for reflection. Among them as it is for us. Who in the world is this teacher? Why in the world does he seem to welcome his own demise? And what does his life, and maybe his death, have to do with our mission? So it is that Jesus conjures up another metaphor.

This one.

There is a vine, and from that vine, many branches; and the mission, the project, the vineyard is dynamic and evolving. Many of the branches are growing and stretching and shooting forth fruit and nourishment, in living color and holy wonder. Others have served their purpose, as branches do: they’ve withered perhaps, or grown brittle and rigid, and they no longer bear any fruit. This is the life of any vineyard, the fertility of it, the cultivation and love necessary for its purpose. Again, it’s a metaphor. A way of stimulating curiosity. The moment is ripe for reflection.

The grower walks the vineyard—all over this vineyard—with love in her eyes, and joy in her heart. She revels in its rhythms and delights in its seasons. And those branches that still shoot forth fruit and nourishment she prunes—each cut a sacrament, each pruning a commitment to the vine’s vitality. And the others—the others that have withered or maybe even died—she removes and bundles and burns with thanks.


So it is that the vine grows and the branches in it, and with it, and for it. Not in straight lines or predictable patterns, but in evolving mission and befuddling mystery. Like a vine with many branches. Alive and organic. The handiwork of the Holy Spirit. And Jesus casts this particular metaphor for us, across these forty days, these six weeks of Lent, and invites us to imagine our faith, our church, our ministry in this way. To be connected as we are to Jesus’ story is to abide in it. (And that’s a beautiful word, isn’t it? Let’s abide in it!) To be rooted in Jesus’ story is to abide in its kindness and passion, to abide in Jesus’ own love and Jesus' own mercy. To abide together—that seems urgently important: to abide together in hope and faith.

And that’s what this whole business with the pitcher of water, and the big empty basin, and his washing of their feet—that’s what it’s all about. That’s the thirteenth chapter, by the way. The set-up for the metaphor. If the question is “Who is this, washing our feet?”—the text says “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” If the question is “Why does he humble himself like this?”—the text says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” If the question is, “What kind of movement bears witness to this love?”—the text says, “Those who abide in me, and I in them, bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

So this, then, is our Lenten theme—so brilliantly captured by our Liturgical Arts Team this week. In this one vine, many are our branches, abiding in God’s promise, loving as Jesus loves, bearing fruit and mercy and justice together. And please don’t miss the opportunities ahead, between now and Easter, for fellowship, feasting and fun. The Spaghetti Dinner next week, and the Night to Remember on St. Patrick’s Day. All kinds of opportunities for the nurturing and celebrating of relationships and partnerships among us. We intend, this Lent, not only to talk about the vine, the branches, the fertility and joy of abiding together in God’s promise; but just as importantly, to embrace this vocation, this imagination, this vision of a church where love and respect and kindness are cultivated in community, tended like a vine with many branches. So don’t give up joy, don’t give up fun, don’t give up delight for Lent!


In the spirit of this metaphor, I want to look back at a couple of recent experiences and ahead to another. Last week, here in worship, one among us experienced a medical emergency, and needed special care and attention. It was a moment like other moments in our lives—when a dear friend is overcome by fatigue, or illness, or grief. When that same friend simply can’t soldier on any longer—but must yield to the strength and concern, to the compassion and kindness of others. And this is exactly what happened in the back pews last Sunday: as several of you set aside hymnals and bulletins to kneel by a sister in need, and to offer her your companionship and care, and then to call the paramedics. Who arrived quickly and got our friend the help and attention she needed.

Two of you went the extra mile—and sat with that same sister through the afternoon, answering her questions, negotiating details at the hospital, and (when all was said and done) driving her home to spend the night in the place she loves best. You two didn’t even know her when the day began, but in this community of friends, in this vineyard of grace, you responded as disciples do. You offered her your love, your presence and patience, your faith and hope. In this one vine, many are our branches, abiding in God’s promise, loving as Jesus loves, bearing fruit and mercy and justice together. The metaphor shines among us. It reminds us of the grace in our roots, the mercy in our bloodstream, the Christ in our midst. And it inspires courage and creativity.

And there was another moment, two weeks back, during our noontime service downstairs. The band that day was set to sing Bob Dylan’s great 60s anthem, “I Shall Be Released.” But the vocalist that day—extraordinary though she was—had never sung that particular song; and it was pretty clear, as we got to that point in the service, that she was nervous about it. And when the pianist set the stage with his first few chords, his introduction, she just couldn’t find the tune, struggled to match words and notes, and we could all see the panic in her eye.

But there was a lot of love, a lot of grace in the room that day. “You got this,” said someone in the back. “We are here for you,” said another. And by the grace of God, seriously, the pianist backed off and said he wanted to start again and pitch the tune a little higher for her. Which he did. And that little community in the chapel leaned in with love, and the band did too, and you know what? She not only found that tune—she completely rocked that song that day. I see my light come shining, from the west down to the east. Any day now, any way now, I shall be released!

I’m tempted to say now that it was a triumph of the human spirit. But it was so much more than that. That day, her song was a celebration of the curious, collaborative, compassionate calling of this church. We choose to show up for one another. We choose to believe in the possibility and promise of new life and new ministry, and new friends singing new songs to our delight. When she’d finished “I Shall Be Released,” when she’d sat down to joyful applause, it wasn’t just her triumph we’d witnessed, it was God’s. It was God’s and it was ours. And that is how it goes sometimes, a lot of times actually. In this one vine, many are our branches, abiding in God’s promise, loving as Jesus loves, bearing fruit and mercy and justice together. The metaphor reveals the promise. And it reminds us of who we are and where we’re going.


You see, to be rooted in Jesus’ story, to be connected in Jesus’ community, is to love one another. It’s not always easy, of course, but it is always a blessing. To be in mission together, as Jesus’ siblings, is to love one another. To confront injustice and offer up our witness to God’s intentions for creation—it all begins and ends with this. That we love one another. And it’s not about saving our souls from God’s wrath. And it’s not about proving ourselves more worthy of God’s blessing than others are. Jesus makes all of that so very clear. It’s about stepping up when a friend falls ill in worship. It’s about loving a singer into her song. It’s about abiding in God’s great love, and God’s eternal mercy, together.

And I hope you caught this in the text this morning, where Jesus says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” God’s desire for you and me—for all the world—isn’t judgment, division and contempt. Don’t let anyone get away with that. That’s theological malpractice! God’s desire for us is joy. Joy. It's the kind of joy where you fall to your knees to wash the feet of a friend, or maybe a foe. It’s the kind of joy where you discover your wellness, your wholeness, yours—in the lovingkindness of a diverse community, or in a communion shared with a band of defiant dreamers, or in a gathering of neighbors determined to protect one another from hate. “I have said these things to you,” Jesus says, “so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” What does his life have to do with our mission? I’d say, just about everything. His joy in us, and our joy, a cup spilling over, the kind of joy that can only be shared.

This afternoon, many of us are heading into Portsmouth to stand and pray with friends at Temple Israel who are dealing, this week, with another wave of hate crime and graffiti across their city. That violence was directed at our Jewish friends there, and at BIPOC businesses and at the LGBTiq community too. And it’s scary for them, because it’s nurtured in a culture of rage and grievance and coupled with an alarming national obsession with handguns, rifles and automatic weapons.

I want to say this today. As a Christian, as a pastor, and as a Christian pastor in this state, I have to show up this afternoon in Portsmouth. I have to show up for my Jewish friends there and all across the country, and for my queer daughter in Portland and my dear queer friends here and in every church I’ve ever served, and for every black and brown citizen, and every black and brown immigrant, and every black and brown child who calls this land home. I have to show up—with my body, in the flesh, as a brother committed to sharing whatever courage, whatever love, whatever faith is in my heart. And promising my undying solidarity so long as even a hint of this hatred persists among us. That’s what I’m doing this afternoon. And I hope many of you will do the same. If Jesus’ joy is in us, it’s the kind of joy that can only be shared.

Because here’s the thing. The vine that connects us? The vine that feeds us all, that calls us to celebration, that unites us in sisterhood and brotherhood? That vine does not prioritize one faith over others. It just doesn’t. It does not privilege one race over others. It never has. It does not set one gender or one orientation or one way of loving above all the rest. That one holy vine is God’s sweet and stunning creation; and it is joined to many branches by the love that bears all things and believes all things; and it is animated by the love that hopes all things and endures all things; and it is created for God’s joy and the joy of a wildly diverse and colorful community of beings and neighbors and friends.

If we abide in God’s love, my friends, if we follow in the steps of our teacher, we will risk our own discomfort and even our own safety to protect those who are threatened and targeted by hate in this country. If we abide in God’s love, if we follow in the steps of our teacher, we will cast a vision and live into a promise of unity and diversity and communion across our many differences. Is there any doubt in your mind that that’s Jesus’ intention for the church? Is there any doubt in your mind that that’s Jesus’ intention for us? There is none in mine.

As Lent begins, as we travel the path together, I hope we’ll all be open to the guidance of the spirit, and the passion of the vine, and the dynamic vocation of our community here. Not because we’re better or more holy or more enlightened than any other community; but because we are needed and named and called out by God. To be loving. To be brave. To show up. I hope you’ll watch for signs of God’s desire, God’s pruning in your life, and God’s invitation and promise too. You are the branches of this sweet and holy vine. You are the ones God has chosen to bear fruit, to sing new songs, to stand with the persecuted, to comfort the afflicted.

This, this is what Jesus means when he says to us again: You are my friends. You are my friends. You are my friends.

Amen and Ashe!