A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 6, 2012. The lectionary readings are Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:24-30, 1 John 4:7-21, and John 15:1-8.
When I was about ten years old our family moved from Raleigh, N.C. to Charlotte. The house we moved into had a big back yard. At the very back, the yard ended with a sort of ledge overlooking a twisted, unruly creek. The creek was on city property and was a part of a storm drainage system, so it had to be. But like a lot of gardeners who look out at creation, my parents might have allowed that God created it, but it sure didn’t look like he was doing much in the way of up-keep. So our family got to work. We straightened out the creed a little, building up the banks and tried to encourage the native vegetation. To keep back erosion, my mom transplanted a few things and moved things around, and then my father did an amazing thing. As I recall him saying, “My father and grandfather would roll in their graves if they saw what I was about to do.” And then, easily enough, Dad began to fertilize honeysuckle.
Generations of gardeners have fought this worthy enemy. Though lon-icera peri-cly-men-um can sound nice enough, it’s still just low-down, dirty, invasive, uncontrollable honeysuckle to many. It will take over a mailbox post. It will completely smother out a vegetable garden or flower garden. Along with its mutant cousin from you-know-where, kudzu, honeysuckle can take over a house. But here my father was, fertilizing the stuff, because he knew it would take off. He knew it would help to fill in the creek bank, prevent erosion, and please countless bees and butterflies, along the way.
In fertilizing a weed, my father was turning a negative into a positive. He was using something that normally caused problems, made for heartache, and created chaos, and turning it into something for good.
If we were a church that put catchy phrases on a signboard outside to lure people in for worship, the sermon in a nutshell, today’s might say something like this: “Ours is a God who throws fertilizer on weeds.”
The Gospel, of course, puts it nicer. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” Yes, there’s the pruning. Yes, there’s the pulling up of the dead parts—sometimes, it’s more a yanking and we feel the pain of God’s good pruning for years. But with eyes of faith, we look back and see the care of God, cleaning a way forward, strengthening what is strong in us, dispensing with the useless, and tending us with love and care so that we grow into a beautiful and long-lived thing. As today’s communion motet puts it, “King Jesus hath a garden of divers flowers.”
The writer of the First Letter of John (whether that was John the Evangelist or someone from his community writing in his name) and our Gospel share the use of a funny, sort of old fashioned word. In some ways it’s a word that suits a sermon about honeysuckle and hot summer days. That old-fashioned word is the word, “abide.” When is the last time you ever heard someone use that word? “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them,” we’re told. And again, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”
The Oxford dictionary lists 17 uses for the word, “abide,” and out of 17, 8 are obsolete. The word seems to be of another time, almost forgotten. “To abide,” has to do with persevering, with continuing on, with lasting. It has to do with the stamina and the stomach of a thing, with persistence and with plugging away.
It is a rare word, but it is an even rarer thing. Not much seems to abide any more. Pension funds disappear. Business contracts are ignored. Relationships seem to crumble. Commitments are not honored. Little seems to abide.
While we may think our age is unique in its lack of abiding in anything, I wonder if it’s not because of the difficulty and demand of that word that John uses it. Remain in Christ, John is saying. Stay with him, stay in him, stay about him. Focus, trust, keep on. Even when tempted to turn away, even when you’re distracted, even when you’re tired or depressed or angry. Remain in Christ. Abide in him.
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the 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.” (John 15:4-5)
Abiding in Christ has to do with being a part of the vine, allowing God to prune and cut away whatever keeps us from his love, or keeps us from the kingdom of God.
When we’re in trouble, abide. Especially when we’re stuck, or worried, or in special need of God, we can call on this old idea and abide in God’s love. We may not think there’s any help for us. Either we’re feeling a little weedy ourselves, or we’re feeling like some awful, invasive thing has taken us over. We might feel like we’re at the bottom of a honeysuckle patch and there’s no light and little air. Abide. Wait it out. God is there, tending. God is here—the watching and careful gardener, clearing away what needs to be cleared, cutting away what needs to go, and making a way for continued growth. Rest on others, who are strong today. Rest on others who are faithful today. Abide, and rest, on the strength of Christian community like this one.
Abide, also when you’re in full strength. When everything is going well, when we’re strong, we should abide in God and abide in the vine of God’s loving community because not far from us, maybe right next to us, is someone who’s in trouble, who needs help, and who needs to support, the strength, and the love that we might be able to provide.
“To abide” is to keep on, in bad times and in good times, and perhaps even more important for us is abiding in God’s love means staying the course even in those value-neutral, but tricky times when we’re busy. Many of us ignore God not so much out of disbelief, or out of anger, but out of forgetfulness, as we get distracted. But forgetting about God is a little bit like leaving for a vacation. The weeds and vines keep growing and when we come back, or come back to ourselves, we see the garden if overrun. Busyness can invade our peace, our prayer, and our sanity. Abide.
It is the first week of May and before too long, school will be ending, casual Fridays reappear, schedules will readjust. There will be celebrations of graduation, anniversaries, weddings, and all kinds of other things. But the doors of the church will be open and our programs continue. Faithfulness to Christ does not happen by accident. If your work routine changes, then adjust your spiritual life accordingly. If you plan to go out of town, spend some time on the internet and find a church to attend when you’re away. Take your Prayer Book with you. Take your Bible with you. I invite you to plan to be faithful, create disciplined ways of praying, of worshiping, of offering alms and charity and mercy to others.
Whether we’re feeling a little weedy, or perhaps this a time in life when we’re in full bloom, may Christ abide in our hearts and we abide with him, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.