Abiding in God’s Love

“Abiding in God’s Love”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
March 27, 2022

Psalm 1:1-4
Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on God’s law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

John 15:1-11
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. God removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit God prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just 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. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. God is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As God has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept God’s commandments and abide in God’s love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

– – –
John’s gospel can feel a bit heady at times – like at the end of this passage, where Jesus’ words seem to loop in on themselves – but as often as it feels not-quite-tethered-to-earth, it is also full of concrete, evocative images that help us understand, through metaphor, the mystery that is Jesus.

In that vein, today we have one of the famous “I am” statements: “I am the true vine,” Jesus declares, the one lovingly nurtured and shaped by God the vine-grower, and if you abide in me, you’ll bear good fruit.

It’s not a word we use very often these days, “abide”; probably our strongest association with it is the classic hymn, “Abide with me; fast falls the eventide.” What does it mean, and what is Jesus trying to say when he uses it (eleven times here, in true John fashion)?

The Greek word, meinate, can be variously translated as remain, stay with, await – there’s a definite sense of long-term presence. 

When I think of the word “abide,” I think of the word “abode” – again, a not-so-commonly-used word for “home.” To “abide with” is to “be at home with.” It implies comfort, ease, belonging, security. Funnily enough for a phrase related to a building, an abode – for many of us the feeling of being “at home with” has less to do with place, and much more to do with the way we are made to feel welcome by people. Think of the way friends welcome guests into their house using the phrase “make yourself at home”; it conveys the idea of setting yourself at ease, relaxing, not standing on ceremony, being yourself. Or the song by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, the chorus of which says “Home is wherever I’m with you.”

My godparents travel a lot and my godfather Clarence used to be a very active member in Rotary. When he and his wife Jane would travel, they would always go to the local Rotary meeting. If you had ever met Clarence, you would have no problem imagining him walking into a room and charming all the people even when he speaks none of the language, becoming best friends with everybody. It’s a gift he has.

And so as they’ve made their way around the world visiting various countries, they’ve also made a big network of friends, people that they will come back to visit and stay with in various places. And one of the places they have good relationships like this is in Turkey. There’s a family that lives in southwestern Turkey that they met through Rotary, whom Clarence and Jane have been to visit several times and vice versa; I’ve even traveled to Turkey to meet them. Several years ago, the wife of this family was diagnosed with cancer. And the doctors in Turkey had taken a look at what kind of cancer it was, and had outlined some treatment, but they just did not have available to them the world-class treatments available in Houston, where my godparents live, at MD Anderson, the famous cancer hospital. So Jane and Clarence invited this family to come and stay with them while the wife received treatment there. 

The family arrived, the wife went into the hospital, and one day when the rest of the family was at the hospital, the daughter, Merit, stayed home. She was sitting in the living room on the couch when Jane happened to walk in without Merit realizing it. She watched quietly as Merit put her hands on either side of her on the couch, almost as if to reassure herself about where she was, and she said, “I feel at home here.” 

Even in the middle of the storm her family was facing, halfway across the world from her actual home, Merit was able to relax into the love of friends – to trust them, and to find some measure peace.

Even in the middle of the storm her family was facing, halfway across the world from her actual home, Merit was able to relax into the love of friends – to trust them, and to find peace.

To me, that story perfectly evokes what it means to abide in God – to be in a strange place, either literally or figuratively, an unknown, possibly scary future ahead of you – and yet, to feel comforted, to trust, to tap into a deep sense of peace, to feel at home. It isn’t necessarily easy to do, but it is powerful.

– – –

It’s interesting to me that in the same passage that Jesus talks about being at home with God – a place of comfort and belonging – he also talks about being pruned back in the places that bear no fruit, and he talks about branches that wither away and get cast into the brush pile for burning. Talk about a shift in tone!

Last week we talked about what it means to lose our lives to save them – to let go of what is draining us, what is separating us from God, even when it promises security or stability or status, so that new life can sprout forth in its place. Pruning – an agricultural technique that concentrates a plant’s resources into making fewer, better fruit instead of spreading them so thin the fruit ends up small or tasteless – and getting rid of dead branches to prevent disease and rot – are a great metaphor for that idea. We all have certain behaviors, habits, and perspectives – maybe endless complaining, or holding grudges, or assigning blame, or excessive worrying – that can crowd out the good, life-giving branches God is trying to grow in us. And we’ve all been through a crisis – whether it’s the pandemic or something more individual – that has caused us to reevaluate what we want to give our time and energy to, and what can get tossed into the metaphorical brush pile. 

But it’s one step further to think about that process as an intrinsic part of being at home with God – to realize that part of what abiding with God, and God abiding with us, means is that our best selves begin to flourish at the same time that what’s unnecessary, or even detrimental, fades away, the one making room for the other.

I talked with one of you this week whose family is facing a really difficult time – mental and physical health challenges, financial worries, relationship tensions, and a lot of uncertainty about the future. You talked about the only way you knew to get through what, many days, feels like a battlefield: to draw closer to God by spending time talking to and listening to God, by journaling or reading books or listening to music that grounds you in God’s presence, because those practices are what make you more like Jesus in your everyday life: more compassionate, more generous, less likely to take personally a loved one’s lashing out, less likely to lose your patience with yourself or the people around you. You know that abiding in God produces good fruit in you, and that when you can abide in God, you’re less likely to grab onto weak, dead branches to try to hold yourself up in times of trial. And you know – because you reached out to me, and you reached out to your church family – that abiding in God can look a lot like Merit sitting on my godparents’ couch – turning to other people who want to be at home with God, too, especially when it feels too hard to do on our own.

– – –

I’ll end with an agricultural story, because I come from farming families and because it’s what Jesus would do.

As journalist and wine enthusiast Sylvia Wu tells the story: “In the 1860s, when new botanicals were being brought from the [so-called] New World to Europe, a tiny louse, later named phylloxera, hitchhiked to Europe in live vines from America.

From its arrival, the pest ravaged all of Europe and almost wiped out plantings of Vitis vinifera, the wine species of the [grape] genus, in [Europe] and beyond,” Wu writes.

A little wine shortage may not seem so terrible – but when you come from farming stock, you can only too easily imagine facing year after year of low yields and destroyed vineyards, entire families and regions worrying that their livelihoods will be destroyed. It must have seemed like the end of the world.

“After various failed attempts to eradicate phylloxera,” Wu continues, “scientists discovered that domestic vines from [the] America[s] are naturally resistant to the insect, which feeds on the roots.

“In 1881, the International Phylloxera Congress” – yes that’s right, an international lice congress – “held in Bordeaux defined grafting as the most effective and economical solution to the vineyard pandemic” – her word, not mine.

Grafting – taking the European branches that had already undergone centuries of careful cultivation and surgically attaching them to the more vigorous American roots so that the branches could be strengthened and nurtured by the hardy, pest-resistant roots – was the solution.

Maybe it is for us, too, especially as we continue to face a pandemic and the ups and downs of our ordinary, sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal lives. “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine,” Jesus says, “your best shot at getting through this intact and thriving is to abide in me.”

A few verses later, Jesus says “Make yourself at home in God’s love; I have. That’s where the sweetest fruit is to be found – it’s where you’ll find joy; not some flimsy, fleeting, high overturned by the first sign of distress, but real, deep, lasting joy – the joy of knowing yourself to have come home.”