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6th Sunday of Easter          ___                Luke 17:6-19          ___                May 13, 2018

Last Sunday we spent some time hearing about sheep and the Good Shepherd in the 23rd Psalm.
We heard about the value of togetherness and community as an integrated part of the abundant life that Jesus promises to his followers.
In today’s Gospel John lifts up some similar sentiments when we hear about vines, branches and abiding.
In an effort to help us wrap our heads around this theme, let me tell you a short story.
It’s a story about a grandfather and his two-year old granddaughter and a trip to get some ice cream.
After parking his car, the grandfather lifted the granddaughter out of her toddler seat, the grandfather offered her his thumb.
“You have to hold it tight until we’re inside the ice cream shop, okay?” he told her. “This is a busy street.”
The little girl took one look at his outstretched hand, wrapped her left fist around her own right thumb, and said “No, thank you. I can hold my own.”
“No, thank you, I can hold my own," might be the perfect slogan for American Christianity.
We are products of a contemporary culture that celebrates the individual and distrusts the communal.
We often represent the Christian life as a one-on-one transaction between a single believer and his or her God reflected in the sentiment: “I’ve accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.”
In other words, we live in a religious culture that promotes more of a “Me and Jesus” relationship at the expense of not only our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, but also our neighbor in need.
If we do align ourselves with a larger Christian community, we generally do so with a consumer mindset, trusting that we’re free to join up and free to quit as personal preference dictates.
In other words, many would prefer to be proud Lone Rangers, minus Tonto.
We believe in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and encouraging others to do the same.
We see dependence as a moral weakness.
We cherish our personal space, and feel claustrophobic when other people press too close.
We believe, of course, in loving our neighbors, in theory, but we feel most comfortable loving them from a distance.
Given this context, I can’t imagine a more counter-cultural and challenging vision of the Christian life than the one Jesus offers us in this week’s Gospel reading when he says: “I am the vine, and you are the branches,”
“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me, you can do nothing.”
In light of all this talk of vines and branches I have done a little reading about vines and one of the vines I read about is the Jasmine vine.
It’s my understanding that this vine is both fragrant and beautiful, but here’s the thing: it doesn’t care one whit about personal space.
It’s a messy, curly, jumbly thing.
It stretches, it spreads, and it invades.
It grows in all kinds of tangled up directions, and its densely interwoven tendrils are just about indistinguishable from each other.
If this is Jesus’s metaphor for the spiritual life, then I think Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber says it best: Christianity is a lousy religion for the “I’ll do it myself” set.
We are meant to be tangled up together.
We are meant to live lives of profound interdependence, growing into, around, and out of each other and when we hold ourselves apart we run the risk of causing pain and loss to the community because the fate of each individual branch affects the vine as a whole.
In this metaphor, dependence is not a matter of personal morality or preference; it’s a matter of life and death — branches that refuse to cling to the vine die.
When I read this text I must confess I am often uncomfortable with this sentiment.
I don’t want to believe it, because it’s inconvenient and a tad bit offensive as a child of this self-centered culture.
It implies that my life is not my own.
That my choices affect people I don’t even know.
That I am bound to the community of God’s people whether such boundedness suits my temperament or not.
Worse, it requires me to hold two seemingly contradictory truths in perpetual tension.
On the one hand it tells me that the point of my Christian life isn’t about me —my growth, my catharsis, my contributions, my achievements.
I am inextricably connected to a larger whole, and apart from that whole, my spirituality — profound and precious though it might feel to me — is without value.
Apart from the vine, I am not only barren; I am dead.
In other words, I’m not the fruit in this metaphor.
In short, I need to get over myself!
On the other hand, it tells me that I matter—that YOU matter-- more than we can possibly imagine -- that every branch matters more than we can possibly imagine — because the fruitfulness of God’s vine is no trivial thing — it constitutes the life and nourishment of the world.
In today’s reading we hear about gravevines and here is the thing about grapevines apparently, the best grapes are produced closest to the central vine, where the nutrients are the most concentrated.
Therefore, to cut myself off from the vine, then, is to diminish my fruitfulness.
It is to deny the world the fruit of Christ’s saving, cleansing, healing love.
And this leads to the reoccurring use of the word, “Abide”, a word that
eight times in the reading.
So what does it mean to “Abide”?
Pastor Eugene Peterson in his contemporary version of the Bible, entitled The Message, has Jesus instructing his disciples this way, “Live with me, make your home in me just as I do in you.”
I like this because I am one of those folks who has moved in out of many homes over the years.
If you have ever moved into a new house, you’ll know that it takes a while before the new place feels like home.
It takes time to feel “at home” somewhere else, to get to the point where we feel we have a right to be there, and can treat it as our own.
So this is one way to understand this word “abide”.
There are other words we might also use.
We might define abiding as: to tarry, to stay, to cling, to remain, to depend, to rely, to last, to persevere, to commit, to continue, to tolerate, to endure, to acquiesce, to accept.
To hang in there for the long haul.
In short, to make ourselves at home.
That being said, it is important that we understand what Jesus is saying here when he says; “Abide in me, as I abide in you.”
He’s not talking about a quick visit, getting together with him once a week for an hour on Sundays, then going our separate ways, but of a relationship that is permanent and stable, where he is woven into our lives and we are woven into his.
Like any healthy and fulfilling relationship, this involves on-going communication.
It means sharing one’s hopes and dreams, one’s joys and sorrows and at tiems it might even involve seeking forgiveness and hearing words of forgiveness.
As people of faith we communicate in part with our Lord through daily prayer and spending time immersed in scripture.
By doing this we become so familiar with the old, old story of Jesus and his love that we too become part of the story of God’s amazing grace here and now.
So what are we to make of all this?
According to John, ”God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.”
There is that word “abide” again.
If you want to abide in God you have to love, says John, because that’s where God is.
That small act of kindness, that decision to build people up instead of pulling them down with vicious gossip, responding to the needs around us rather than turning away, that’s where God is, that’s where we find him at home.
If we want to abide with him, we need to learn to abide in those places too, to make love a habit, a part of our natural environment,
Some time ago an Anglican priest in England welcomed a class of seven year olds on a field trip to the cathedral.
As they made their way around the church they discovered all sorts of cool things and they had a lot to say for themselves as only seven year olds can do.
Within the group there was one little boy with some special needs and had the gift of seeing the world in a completely different way from most of us.
As the kids were leaving the church and thanking the pastor for the tour and visit this particular little boy thoughtfully looked at the pastor and said, “You know, you’re beginning to look a bit like God.”
Wisely, the pastor did not allow this to inflate his ego, but rather recognized the fact that he was in fact looking a bit old with his silver hair and beard as well as his white robe traditionally worn during worship.
The pastor sharing the story is noted to have said that he loved the sentiment and it caused him ponder what it might be like if others would look as us and think that we really were “beginning to look a bit like God”, not physically, but that we were more loving, more forgiving, more joyful, more disturbed by injustice, more courageous about doing something about it than we had been.
Well, if that’s going to happen, it will only be because we are abiding in love, and therefore abiding in God, close enough to him, aware enough of him to make a difference.
Abiding in God makes our lives richer and deeper, of course, but it’s not just an exercise in self-improvement to give us a nice warm glow.
It’s far more important than that.
It is what gives us the resilience we need to cope with the messiness and difficulties of living in community, intertwined with one another and the world around us.
Out of concern Jesus speaks a word of warning about the branches that aren’t joined to the vine and how that separateness runs the very real fear of withering and dying – if we think we can cope with life all by ourselves we are going to find ourselves without the strength we need when we need it.
Abide in me, says Jesus.
Stick around.
Stay with God, be at home in him.
That’s the message of these passages.
So, here is the Take Away for this morning…
Pray for one another. Read the Bible together. Be at home with one another.
Most of all, love. Love generously.
Love often. Love until love becomes such a habit that we hardly have to think of it.
If we do this we will be blessed, and others will be blessed through us, and maybe we will even find ourselves “beginning to look a bit like God.”

[Want to actually hear the sermon? Go to zionmilaca.org and click “Hear the sermon” under Pastor Blenkush's picture.]

[Feedback is always appreciated.]

Pastor Stephen Blenkush

Zion Lutheran Church
Milaca MN 56353

Love like Jesus!

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