homily for April 29, 2018
I once heard a story of old rabbis who were gathered around a table at night studying and arguing over scripture. They met regularly, not in an elaborate room in a synagogue but around a kitchen table, packed in together shoulder to shoulder as they wrestled with the finer points of what God was saying to them through the holy texts. One night in this midst of their session Rabbi Benjamin became overwhelmed by fatigue from the day and began to drift away: his head drooped onto his neighbor’s shoulder, and he began to snore softly.
Suddenly, the attention of the group shifted. Rather than contemplating the mysteries of Torah, they began to debate what to do about Rabbi Benjamin. True to the nature of the gathering, they began to argue the finer points of whether or not to let their friend sleep and catch his rest, or to gently rouse him so that he could rejoin their study.
Then one of the wiser ones among them said simply, Do not wake him. In fact, we should envy him, that he is able to abide in the word of God and in our fellowship, and that he can rest so completely. While the rest of them were struggling to understand the Torah, Rabbi Benjamin was simply abiding in it.
We have our own weekly study of the Gospel here on Thursday mornings, so I want to say to those who gather around that table: don’t get any ideas. We brew the coffee strong, and if you start to nod off, we aren’t about to let you get off that easy. Perhaps, though, Rabbi Benjamin really did have the right idea: when we’re faithful to God’s invitation when we gather to study, to pray, to discern, to plan, to serve, or to worship, we might do well to occasionally forget about our purposes and goals and simply abide with one another.
When Jesus invited his disciples to abide in him he gave them the image of the vine and the branches. I am the vine, he said, and you are the branches. In all that we do and all that we are, Christ’s presence in us gives us life. How easily we forget, in a world that so treasures individualism, that a branch disconnected from the vine will whither and die. How quickly we forget that God created us not just to live but to bear fruit, and that we only do that when our living connection to the vine – to Jesus – can nourish and inspire us.
Christ is in us, and we are in Christ; our brothers and sisters are branches of the same vine, and loving them perfectly – which is what we aspire to do (more about that in a moment) – is how we bear fruit.
To abide is to dwell in the presence of our beloved with attention and affection. If that seems overly simplistic and quaint, consider that we live in a world that seems to value affection for oneself and one’s own tribe over all others. Consider that today’s marketplace is called an “attention economy” that, ironically, cultivates a profound in-attention. To abide is to live a different life entirely. It is a return to our own holiness; to abide in Jesus is to be fully alive.
When Mary sat at the feet of Jesus as Martha hurried around them she did so with attention and affection. Yet so too does Rabbi Benjamin, even while he’s asleep. To rest in God is an act of faith! To offer gratitude is an act of attention and affection; to play and to laugh may be the very highest form of abiding. That’s the beauty of sabbath, when we put down the intensity of life and simply rest in the presence of God.
Jesus is describing a community of Christian love, a fellowship not just of friends with mutual affection but of his Body in the world. Following Jesus means staying connected to him, indeed staying as close to the vine as we can. We do that when we break bread in Eucharist, when we’re diligent in prayer, when we serve and study and sing together, and above all when we love one another.
The vine is such a perfect metaphor because it calls to mind rows and rows of disordered, tangled branches that couldn’t possibly be what a holy community looks like, but that seems to be exactly what Jesus is describing. There’s no hierarchy here…no branches that are especially saintly or troublesome, just a bunch of branches that are either connected to Jesus, or are drying up on the ground. A vineyard is a great investment of time and effort, and it takes a whole lot of work to bring fruit out of that tangled web, but through pruning and cultivation, the vine grower (God) is able to bring from it the finest of wines.
This new community is grounded in love, but not quite love in the same sense that we often use the word. You see, we really have an impoverished view of love because we only have one word for it, and for us it can mean anything from strong opinion to romantic affection, from “I love my children,” to “I love this new app I downloaded.” We seem to have domesticated love itself.
God’s wild and generative love can be approached in many ways, but it can’t be fully known and certainly won’t be captured in simple sentiment. The new testament uses not one but many words to describe love: love of fellow disciples (agape), loving all others equally as ourselves (caritas, or charity), self-emptying love (kenosis): the early Christians knew that it took a small lexicon to approach the great mystery of God’s love, and even then they could only know it partially.
What they knew, though, was that this mystical love came to full expression in their love for one another. We read in 1st John, Beloved let us love one another, because love is from God. This community saw themselves as filled with the highest form of love, of agape. This is a love that recognizes in one another something infinitely holy and precious, and that through it they could see and honor the presence of Christ in one another. It was the very love that made them the Body of Christ.
God’s love is made perfect when we love one another, and perfect love casts out all fear. I can’t help but notice that the word “hate” isn’t in this passage: only fear. Fear competes with love for our attention; when we let fear have its way with us, our affections become distorted, and our attention becomes warped around things that lead us away from God, that lead us to live life as branches unto ourselves. Fear severs our connection to God, and when it does, bearing fruit becomes an utter impossibility.
But love made perfect casts out fear. Look at our world, look inside ourselves, and we can find great fear. Fear of the other, fear of change, fear of failure…all these are powerful and real but they do not have the final word, for God has given to us the gift of love, and with it the capacity to cast out all fear. The vinegrower is not finished; resurrection means that God even walks through the valley of dry branches and says to us, Mortal, can these twigs live? Fear turns us into kindling, good only for fuel, but perfect love breathes life back into our cells, and restores us to fruitfulness.
Do you remember where in Gospel Jesus speaks of the vine and the branches? It was the night of the last supper, after the feet had been washed and the meal shared. Like the old rabbis, they too were gathered around a table as the night was growing darker outside the window. Judas had already left, and Jesus knew what was coming. There was plenty of reason to be afraid.
Yet his message was one of life and love. Live in me, stay close to me, and let me live in you. In me you will bear fruit. In me you will cast out all fear. In me you will find life.
Homily for April 29, 2018, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The 5th Sunday of Easter, Year B, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.