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A Future with Hope: “The Sustaining”, John 15: 1-17
November 8, 2020
Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church
As most of you know by, we record our Sunday services on Thursday evening. So right now in real time it is two days after the American election and a clear winner has not yet been declared other than the candidate who declared himself a winner on Tuesday evening. I awoke this morning to the news that yesterday people had started gathering outside polling stations, both supporters of Joe Biden and supporters of Donald Trump and, depending what state they are in, they have been chanting “count that vote” or “stop that count.” It’s just one more indication of how deeply divided the American people are right now.
As I stood in my kitchen listening to those chants, somewhere deep inside of me another chant rose up. It’s a chant I have shouted at protest marches and events for various causes over the years. It goes like this “the people united will never be defeated.”
Being cut off, at odds or divided from one another, being cut off from justice, freedom and truth as we understand it, is a horrible thing to experience, as anyone who has experienced it knows. Separation and division always seem to me to have incredible power. I look at the divisions in the states right now and I wonder who or what is going to be powerful enough overcome those divisions. It looks impossible. Sometimes I look at the divisions in our own country and I wonder the same thing. How are we ever going to heal from centuries of broken relationships between settlers and indigenous people, between white people and people of colour, not to mention relationships between people of differing political opinions?
I’ve also witnessed first hand the pain and despair divisions within families can cause: brothers and sisters who stop talking to one another, adult children who refuse to return their parents’ calls or come to their houses for a visit or let their children visit grandma and grandpa. I have seen the way that division in families can feel like a knife driven right through a person’s heart.
And as we gather on this Sunday closest to remembrance day, the spectre of the sobering reality of division and long term damage brought on by war looms large before us.
There are so many things that lead to the separations and divisions in our lives that seem impossible to overcome but it is not those things and the power they have over us that I really want to talk about today. What I really want to talk about is the power of love to heal our divisions, to win the hard fought fight for justice in our world and ultimately to unite us as one because whether we know it and claim it or not, united is actually who are what we really are. In the end of the day, there is always more that unites us than divides us and it is important for us to remember that.
Today we have heard some of the final words the writer of John’s gospel has Jesus speak to his disciples. This passage about Jesus being the vine and us being the branches comes from that part of John’s gospel known as the farewell discourses. Jesus, gathered at table with his closest followers speaks words of wisdom to sustain them and keep them united and connected to him through what he knows will be the terror and the struggle of what comes next in the story, his crucifixion and his death, his separation from them.
I have to confess that I spent a lot of time researching information about grapevines this week. Did you know that the best grapes are produced closest to the central vine? Did you know that whether the vine produces fruit or not it has to be pruned? That piece of information sent me right back to the scripture reaching where it says in John 15 verse 2 that every branch in me that bears no fruit will be removed. I thought that meant that I needed to cut out the things in my life that are not life-giving. It’s a good piece of advice. And then I read that indeed even if I do bear fruit I still need to be pruned back in order to make more fruit. While I was wondering what it means for our lives to be pruned back I read on to the next verse in the passage in which Jesus says this: You have already be cleansed, or pruned (same word in Greek) by the word that I have spoken to you.
Then I noticed that the word Jesus speaks most often in this reading is the word love. Actually, the most frequently used word spoken by Jesus in this passage in abide meaning to endure or stay in place, to live but the word abide is almost always connected in one way or another in this passage to the word love. Stay connected, endure in love.
I realized this passage isn’t really about grapes and vines and how they grow even though that’s very interesting. This passage is about love and how love grows and how we need to stay connected to the love that has already grafted us onto its’ root and has already made us one. And it’s about what happens if we don’t stay connected.
Bishop Michael Curry, the first African American to serve as the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US has just written a book called “The Way of Love: Holding onto hope in troubled times.” A few weeks ago I listened to a podcast in which author Brene Brown questioned Bishop Curry about the power of love as he describes it in his book. She told him that she wasn’t as sure as he was that love was going to be enough to do the trick in terms of healing the deep divisions in their country right now. She said that she thought being mean, angry and fighting might work better.
He reminded her that fighting and organizing are actually manifestations of love. The civil rights movement, he said, was a manifestation of love. And then he said. We just need to remember that when we are fighting for love, we’re not fighting one another. We are fighting the systems that oppress and harm one another. Because when we fight one another, we become separated, divided.
His comment made me think about the unruliness of the grape vine. When a grape vine is not pruned back, when it is not held close to love, it grows wild. It attaches itself to all kinds of things other than love. Sometimes it attaches itself to hatred even when it started growing out of a place of goodness and love. How often do we end up demonizing one another over differences when what we really want to do is bear the fruit of love and goodness in our families, in our places of work and in our world?
When we allow ourselves to get too far away from the source of love, our way of loving can gets unruly. Wars can break out. Which is why Bishop Curry says that one of the most important things for us to do is to find ways to keep drawing on and connecting with the source of all love. That can be hard for those of us who are used to drawing on that source in this place and in this community. Community is one of the places God gets mediated which is why community is so important. And yet we are finding new ways to make those connections, which I think speaks to the power of love. Love has a way of reaching out and finding us even when we are having a hard time finding love. The longing we have for love is somehow an expression of love’s longing for us. We need to stay connected to the source of love or at least to keep longing for it.
The other thing that Bishop Curry says about love is that as our burdens get heavier, our love gets stronger. He says that love is like a muscle that gets stronger with repetition and with the carrying of heavy burdens.
I was really struck by this because recently I have been listening to folks talk about how 2020 is making us more resilient. Terrible things are happening all around us and then there are the terrible and challenging things that just happen in life whether there’s a pandemic or a presidential race or not. We are going through a lot right now and for the most part, we are finding our way through it. And each time we look back on our lives and remember how we have gotten through difficult times before, we build up even more resiliency.
It’s love that keeps us healthy even when our physical health is at risk. It’s love that keeps us strong even when we are weak. It’s love that has the capacity to unite us especially when we seem divided because in the end love always finds a way. Love wins.
At the end of today’s reading Jesus gives a new commandment to his followers, not a suggestion, but a commandment. As he prepares them to face into the violence and the systematic hatred that will lead him to the cross, he tells them to love one another, not to get all tangled up in demonizing each other and blaming each other and pointing fingers, but to stay close to the vine, to stay close to love and in so doing to know that they, that we are united, united in love’s universal and everlasting embrace.