Sunday, September 23, 2012

the Packers, the True Vine, and Baptism: a sermon on John 15:1-12

John 15:1-12

Jesus said,

”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. You have already been pruned 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. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

As the Father 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 my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”


Click here to listen along.

Good morning.

If you're new to Light of the World, or you haven't been able to make it to worship in the past couple weeks, we should start off with the fact that I am the brand-new Intern Pastor.  I just started at the beginning of September.  Some of you are familiar faces to me now.  Some of you are terrifying challenges to my ability to remember names.  All of you have shown me a wondrous and gracious welcome, and I am beyond grateful for that.

But I thought, at the start of my internship, that we should probably get something very important about me out in the open.  I don't want there to be questions, or wonderings, or whispers, or anything confusing.  And a couple of you have met my partner, Kristi, and know some of her story.  So I just want to make things clear, right from the get-go, so that especially during this fall which is already shaping up to be highly contentious, there aren't any questions about where I stand.

So just to be very clear, right up front:  I am a Packers fan.

Kristi, my partner of seven years, grew up in Wisconsin, and she first introduced me to the glory of the green and gold.  And Pastor Deb has assured me that this is okay -- that Light of the World is, in her words, "an ecumenical congregation."  She meant specifically that Light of the World is a congregation of Packer backers, Viking fans, and even people who cheer for the Chicago Bears.  But in my first few weeks I’ve come to find that this spirit of openness permeates more than the subject of football-- that there’s an openness to diverse traditions, ideas, and callings.

And into that openness, today's reading from the gospel of John speaks:  We are diverse.  We spread in many directions.  We look similar, and yet can be very different.  And this is okay.  This is more than okay, because as spread out as we are, we are part of the one True Vine.

Jesus is the vine.  We are the branches -- curling tendrils spread out, leaves seeking sun, blossoms opening their faces.  We are tended by God, cared for, worried over, loved and guided with tender hands.  And out of all that feeding and tending and loving, Jesus promises, comes fruit.

If you abide in me, Jesus promises, you will bear much fruit.  "Abide in me", he says.  "Abide in me as I abide in you."  "As the Father has loved me, so I love you; abide in my love."  John quotes Jesus as repeating this over and over:  abide, abide, abide.

The interesting thing about the word "abide" is that it's difficult to translate.  The original Greek word is meno.  Other gospel writers use it here and there, but John's gospel has it all over the place.  And that's because it has so many meanings.  At the beginning of John's gospel, when John the baptist sees Jesus and cries out "Behold, the lamb of God!  I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it rested on him."  "Rested" is that Greek word again - meno.  And throughout John's gospel, when Jesus goes from town to town teaching and preaching, he's invited to stay in certain villages and homes.  And when he stays somewhere, it's the Greek word again -- meno.

So when Jesus says, "Abide in me, abide in me, abide in me," he says:
Abide in me the way the Holy Spirit rested on me by the river Jordan.  Abide in me in power, in grace, in a strength to change the world.
Abide in me the way I lived with people for days and weeks, eating together, talking, working, teaching together.
Abide in me the way a branch clings to the vine that feeds it.
Abide in me.  Stay joined.  Be rested.  Be nourished.  Live.  Feel your hunger filled.  Eugene Peterson translates it as "Make your home."  That is how much Jesus loves us -- that he wants us to feel comfortable enough to grab our own snacks from God's fridge and put our feet up on God's coffee table.  Make your home in me, Jesus says.

Make your home in me -- and then invite others in.  Because the kind of love Jesus calls us to live in is not a love that can exist in a bubble.  "Love one another as I have loved you."  Go into the world.  Meet new people.  Meet people that welcome you into their homes, and stay with them.  Meet people who are hungry for a message of mercy and forgiveness, and give it to them.  Meet people who run you out of their town, and move on from them.  Meet people who need healing, and help them.  Meet people who need to belong, and welcome them.

Go outside your comfort zone.  Meet people your parents taught you to be afraid of.  Meet people who other people say are sinners.  Meet people who ask hard questions, and know that you can ask them right back.  Ask your friends hard questions.  Give meaningful answers.  And through this, discover new things about yourself -- and about your God.

Because abiding in Jesus’ love, being part of the True Vine, also means being pruned.  Being cut back when the growth isn't healthy.  Being turned in a direction that helps the whole vine grow better.  And pruning can hurt.  It's hard work for God, for the farmer, who is charged with knowing where to cut back and where to let flourish.  Where to say, "This blossom is beautiful, but the direction you're growing is dangerous."

And it's hard work to be pruned.  We don't always have the vision God has.  We can't see down the path.  We have habits and thoughts that keep us in the here and now -- which isn't a bad thing, except when we sacrifice the future.  Growing and stretching and producing isn't bad -- except when it comes between us and the True Vine.

Because whatever can't live with Jesus is worthless.  Whatever cuts us off from love is cutting us off from life.

So God wants to cut away all that.  God wants to cut away our sin, our fear, our anxiety, our anger, our sadness, our hatred, our worry, our depression.  Anything that keeps us from abiding in love, from resting in and nourishing ourselves from the True Vine -- that has to go.  And we know this.  And we want to let it go.  But God, it hurts.

And that's the promise of baptism.

Today, we'll make promises during Jack's baptism.  We'll make promises to invite him into God's church, to help him read the Scriptures, to nurture him in faith and prayer.  And we'll welcome him as a new branch in the True Vine.

But the most important promise in baptism is God's promise.

Baptism is not a one-time event.  You will probably only be baptized once, but from that day on, your baptism is a part of every day.  You can remember it every time you wash your hands before a meal, every time your wash your feet after a long day, every time you wash your face before bed.

God's promise in baptism is that we are new every morning.  That no matter what still needs to be cut away from us -- our sin, our anger, our pain -- the one True Vine holds on to us with a grace that will never, ever let go.  God's promise in baptism is that our sins are forgiven, over and over again, and the Spirit will give us new life -- a life that grows fruit.

Because being part of the vine isn't only for us.  What I grow isn't only for me; what you grow isn't only for you.  The fruit that God grows in you is for your neighbor.  The fruit that God grows in us is, literally, for the light of the world.  The fruit that God grows in us is love, and a love that is grown to be shared.

Being part of the True Vine means there is strength in you, strength coming right out of the heart of God and into your little leafy veins, strength that can take you so much farther than you thought you could go on your own, strength that means you can love far more than you ever imagined.

That's the promise of baptism -- that God is working in us that much, every day.  Loving us.  Pruning us.  Helping us grow.  Filling us with the Spirit to produce fruit -- fruit that will feed the world with love.  And keeping us, in all our differences, as parts of the one True Vine.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

Longing for God's Help: A rereading of Psalm 42, on internship

Like a deer wandering in trees' shadow
does my heart wander, looking for God.
When shall I finally behold God's face?
When will I again feel God beside me?
Tears have been my food, both night and day,
while those who would judge me ask, "Where is your God?"
Where is my strength, my rock, and my Redeemer?
Where is the One in whom I put my trust?
All that I knew and was sure of is gone.
My hope is in God, who I strive to praise--
my only help is my God, who I cannot see.

I pour out my soul when I remember:
how I walked with the people of God,
how I led them in the house of God,
how we sang and shouted praises,
a great multitude keeping festival.
I led your people, O my rock and my God;
why do you not lead me?
My soul is cast down, my heart trembles;
I long for God's people, for the people of the living God.
My hope is in God, who I strive to praise--
my only help is my God, who I cannot see.

My heart is fallen, my soul withers;
I strive to remember you, even in my exile.
Deep cries out to deep; the waves of my sorrow
crash against the thunder of your strength.
Be near me, O God, as near as the day and night;
remind me of the beauty of your steadfast love,
and sing to me if you are near.
Have you forgotten me?
Why do I walk in sorrow, with a heavy heart?
My pain is like a wound struck deep,
and again and again they ask me:
"Where is your God?"
My soul is cast down, my heart trembles;
My hope is in God, who I strive to praise--
my only help is my God, who I cannot see.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Poetry: football on a fall day

There are a bunch of teenage girls 
playing in the yard next door. 
They’re tossing a football around — 
full regulation size — 
their fingers can’t get around half of it. 
Their throws are desperate and pitiful and short.

I want to hug every single one of them. 

I want to make them promise 

they’ll never believe anyone 
who tells them they can’t play with boys. 
I want to tell them that when someone says 
“You throw like a girl” 
they should point out that they, in fact, 
are girls. 

And then I’ll teach them like my mom taught me — 

fingers on laces — 
snap the elbow — 
perfect spiral down the field.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Sermon for August 11 and 12, 2012 (my last sermon at LCCR)

Texts for the day here.

Kristi and I came through the doors of LCCR for the first time in March of 2008. After my graduation in 2007, we'd spent several months looking for a new church home for us. We were both newly confirmed Lutherans, and in the best Saint Olaf tradition we were lovers of good music with an ear for good prayers and good liturgy.

We were slowly working our way through the list of Reconciling in Christ churches that might fit us when my Augsburg Fortress co-worker, John Schlobohm, came over to my desk one day and said, "Hey Emmy, do you like kids?"

This is one of those questions you have to be very careful about answering. It can mean anything from "Do you want to babysit?" to "Do you know how to find Bible coloring pages on the internet?" to "Do you want to commit yourself to caring for the emotional, physical, and spiritual needs of forty-some children and youth, along with their parents and families and friends, for the next four years of your life?"

Well. You know what my answer was.

And when I first started, I had a very simple understanding of what I would be doing. For me, fresh-faced and entirely inexperienced at twenty-three years of age, I thought I fully understood my job as the Children's Education Associate. My job was to tell the story of Jesus.

Over time I came to understand that "tell the story of Jesus" was too narrow a definition. My job was to tell the story of God.

But the longer I worked with lesson planning and Christmas pageants and committee meetings, it became clear that the story of God was impossible to tell without also telling the story of God's people.

And then it became clear that the story of God and the story of God's people, which we call the Bible, is really more of a drawing together and interweaving of a lot of different stories, so then my job was to tell the many stories of God and God's people.

And of course, some days, my job was to tell the many stories of God and God's people in such a way that I prevented complete and utter anarchy from breaking out in the sixty minutes of Education Hour.

So let me tell you a few of those stories.

Our lectionary, the readings chosen for each Sunday, cycles through the major stories of the Old Testament every three years. This year -- Year B -- spends a lot of time in First and Second Samuel, the books that tell the story of how Israel, a group of affiliated tribes that conquered and settled in Canaan, became a country led by a king. From May through August this year we read through the grand arc of Israel's struggle to become a nation. The birth and young life of the prophet Samuel. The peoples' cry for a king to lead their country, and Samuel's reluctant anointing of a young man named Saul. Then Saul's unwillingness to follow God's commandments, and the secret anointing of a new king named David. But David too would fail as king. Last week we heard the story of how he took Uriah the Hittite's wife for himself, even though he had plenty of his own, and how he then commanded the army to let Uriah be killed; how the prophet Nathan came to him and said, "God knows what you have done, and God will raise up trouble against you from within your own house."

And so it comes to pass in today's reading. The corrupting power that ruined Saul and David now touches Absalom. He usurps the throne, without his father's blessing, the prophet's anointing, or the choosing of God. David and his family flee Jerusalem, fearing the crowds and armies. And now, in today's story, they battle. Today the army of Israel, now following Absalom, goes out against the small gathered army of David. David still longs to reconcile with his son, to sort things out, perhaps even to pass on the kingship to him at the right and proper time, and so he tells his army: "Deal gently with Absalom. Let him live." But goes with his armor-bearers to kill Absalom, trapped in a tree.

And so the story of the great king David, leader of the people Israel, ends today in a devastated parent's cry: "My son, my son, my son Absalom!"

The psalm today picks up that cry of devastation, of abandonment, of despair and fear: "O Lord, hear my voice! Out of the depths I cry to you." The voice of the psalmist speaks alongside the story of David: "What about my sins? What about my past? Will they too raise up trouble from my own house? I know I have no power to save myself; my only hope is in God."

This is good. This is what the lectionary does, at its best. It brings us food, in the form of stories. Stories from many people, many places, many different times. All these fruits of the stories of the people of God come together, laid out on a table of a common theme, so that we can eat and be nourished. The lectionary can, in one sense, be a waiter, our guide through the meal that is the Biblical story. The lectionary can be a server that pairs good food and good wine, so that two or three stories that seem so different can nourish that one hunger in us.

And then you have Paul, who never sticks to the rules. Today's reading from the letter to the Ephesians is sequential -- we read from chapter 3 last week, and so on. Today's reading doesn't pair as well with the stories of Absalom and the psalmist's despair. Today Paul is writing to build up a new church, to encourage them, to pray for them, to help them form a story that will become one of the stories of God's people.

Paul, who never sticks to the rules, became, as he says, a prisoner and a servant of Christ Jesus for the sake of the Gentiles, the pagans, the people outside of the nation of Israel. Paul goes from becoming The Very Most Righteous to seeking out the ones considered the very most unrighteous. The church in Ephesus was mostly Gentile, mostly people who had little or no knowledge of the stories of God and God's people. They were people who did not know the stories of Moses and the Israelites in the desert, the story of the commandments, the stories of caring for one another even in the wilderness, of manna from heaven to remind the people to rely on God and take only what they needed. The Ephesians did not know the stories of Samuel and of Saul and of David, of what can happen when power corrupts you, of how your live can turn sour and rotten when you live only for yourself. So Paul, who never sticks to the rules, lays down a few of his own: "Do not sin. Do not steal. Work honestly; share with the poor. Be kind, forgive one another. Live in love, as Christ loved us."

So we have these three very different stories coming together with us this Sunday. Three stories -- three authors -- three times and places -- three casts of characters, three heroes, three struggles. Three beginnings, and middles, and ends.

And yet these three stories are drawn together. The whole of the Biblical narrative, from many places and times, from many people who often fall short of their very best -- all of these are drawn into God's one grand story, the arc of light that crosses people and places and generations and eras. Some are dramatic, lit by flashing lights and underscored with orchestras. Some are quiet, slow-moving, a brook that wears away at the walls around it. And yet all these stories are drawn up into God's one grand story, God's unfolding tale of salvation and restoration, the one great feast where all are fed.

At different times we will find our own nourishment in different stories. In the mourning of David, in the lament of the psalmist, in the rules of Paul, we can taste something of ourselves, and be fed from one great feast.

Because it is not only the Biblical stories that become a meal to fill our hunger. Our own stories are drawn into God's one grand story here, at the communion table, where we share one bread -- the bread of life.

We are drawn by God, pulled by the One who sent Christ to us, so that our many stories might be seen in the light of God's one grand story.

In every story there is a beginning, and a middle, and an end. Today, you will send Liz and Annette and me out into the world, to continue the lives of ministry we've grown here. The drawing of our stories into LCCR's story comes to, if not an end, a rest.

And so we mourn with David, and so we lament with the psalmist, at the ending of this time here, at the changing of relationships, at a new time where we must leave our family.

But yet we also hope with Paul.

For Paul, when we eat of this bread and drink of this cup, we are forever changed. We are members of one another. Not members of a club, or a corporation, or a cooperative, or a country, but of a family. We become members of the body of Christ. And if this new life is eternal -- and for Paul it absolutely is -- then this is a new family that you belong to, for always. And if this is for always, then we'd better play nice. There isn't room or time or energy for living in anger, for living in corrupt power, for living for self -- not when we are living in the one great grand family of God.

And if this is new family for always, then today is an end -- but it is not the end. Our stories go on. Your stories go on. And our many stories will always be part of the story of the family of God.

For all our stories are drawn into God's one grand story, and all of us are fed with the one living bread.

Come and eat, and live your story.


Readings for August 11 and 12, 2012

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

The king gave orders to Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, ‘Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.’ And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom.

 So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.

Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. And ten young men, Joab’s armour-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him.

Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, ‘Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.’ The king said to the Cushite, ‘Is it well with the young man Absalom?’ The Cushite answered, ‘May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.’

The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’

Psalm 120

Out of the depths
I cry to you, O LORD;
O LORD, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.
If you were to keep watch over sins,
O LORD, who could stand?
Yet with you is forgiveness,
in order that you may be feared.
I wait for you, O LORD; my soul waits;
in your word is my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord more than those who keep watch for the morning,
more than those who keep watch for the morning.
O Israel, wait for the LORD, for with the LORD there is steadfast love;
with the LORD there is plenteous redemption.
For the LORD shall redeem Israel
from all their sins.

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

John 6:35, 41-51

Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’