Greg Jones of Duke Divinity School was invited to speak on 5th anniversary of the tragic shooting at the West Nickel Mine School in Amish community in Pennsylvania. In 2006, a gunman killed 5 girls and injured many others before taking his own life. Remembered not only for what happened but for how the Amish community responded: in hours following the shooting, Amish came to comfort the family of the shooter. 30 members of the Amish community attended the shooter’s funeral and set up a charitable fund for his family.
At the 5th anniversary gathering, Jones heard from the families of the girls who died that they were embarrassed that the world thought it was easy for them to forgive. No, they said, it’s a lifetime’s work and it is a journey. They forgave because Christ calls them to forgive. But after the public statement comes the journey of faith.
As you may know, since 2006 they have traveled to the sites of several other massacres, such as Virginia Tech to offer support and hope to those affected. What’s especially notable about this work is that it meant for them letting go of a deep tradition, which is separation from the outside world. They let go of this for love’s sake –– they leaned into a new thing God was calling them to do, both for others’ sake and for their own, so that they could live into the forgiveness they had pronounced.
God is love. We love because he first loved us…. those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (from 1 John 4)
When I feel threatened or overwhelmed I do not want to love. I want to retreat. When what I love has been taken away, I do not want to forgive, I want to retaliate. When the system feels rigged or divisions seem daunting, I do not want to repair the breach, I want to sit down in the ashes. When I feel like I deserve some balm in Gilead, I don’t want to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” no matter how many “Alleluia’s” get stuck onto the end of the dismissal.
When I hear Jesus say in today’s gospel, “Abide in me,” here’s what I wish he meant. I wish he meant, “camp out.” Come on in and sit down and we’ll lock the door from the harsh world out there and sing kum-ba-ya. I wish he meant abide in the songs you love, the traditions you love, the ways of doing ministry you love. I like my songs, my traditions, my assumptions.
I like to believe that my training and life experience have set me up to see things the right way and that if I just keep doing what I know, and more of it, God will be pleased and I will thrive.
I have to admit that it even takes me a while to get on board with the baptism in our reading from Acts. The Ethiopian eunich hasn’t been through a proper catechumenal preparation! He doesn’t have a sponsor! The altar guild hasn’t had time to set things up!
But God loved me, and forgave me and welcomed me into the amazing grace of drawing on his Spirit. I am called not to be hermetically sealed up, but to be a branch on a vine – the vine of his very being – and that means changing, growing, seeking light and letting myself be nourished by elements outside of myself.
If a vine doesn’t grow, it isn’t healthy. If it doesn’t bear fruit, something is missing – something like the whole point of being a vine! “Abide in me” is an invitation to a journey with and in God, not a retreat from that which we do not wish to face in the world or in ourselves.
In 2013, Duke University’s Center for Leadership Education conducted extensive interviews with over 30 CEO’s of major corporations to get their perspective on what it is to function well in our world now. What they heard boiled down to two main points:
1. The challenges they face are less foreseeable than they used to be.
2. Knowledge is less reliable.
As for CEOs, so it is for us – We live in times of enormous change and disruption.
In parenting, “the challenges we face are less foreseeable than they used to be and our knowledge is less reliable,” in social work, nursing, and education, “the challenges we face are less foreseeable than they used to be and our knowledge is less reliable,” and in the church, “the challenges we face are less foreseeable than they used to be and our knowledge is less reliable.”
So what does it look like to be faithful in times like these?
I think the place to start is to remember that wherever we go, whatever winds blow on us, whatever feels like its being pulled out from under our feet, God abides in us. That’s the promise of Easter – the promise to which we respond at our baptism (and our confirmation). God, who is love, and who showed us what love looks like in Jesus, made us, walks with us, and will never abandon us.
Remembering that is a practice: It looks like prayer, scripture study, service, contemplation. Remembering that allows us to start each day knowing that we are the branches of a vine, part of a work and a community shot through with holiness, power, and possibility. Remembering that means we can love, we can forgive, we can revise old practices in the service of a new era and walk with courage and curiosity, rather than fear and futility, in a quickly changing world.
Let me give you a small example.
Jon Spector found and sent me this week a clipping from a Watertown Newspaper in 1890. It was a three-paragraph article reporting on the Easter day services at the Church of the Good Shepherd. It included a précis of the sermon. Jon notes that this kind of detailed reporting of the goings-on at churches wasn’t just confined to Easter; it happened throughout the year.
Now wouldn’t it be great if a newspaper reporter was in our pews every week! Guess what? It’s not going to happen. That era is gone. We could sit around and mope about it, or we could recognize that only a small percentage of people in Watertown read the Tab, that most people find out about churches when a friend invites them or by looking them up online. If we want to share the good news in our sermons we need new wisdom about how to do it and we need to be willing to develop some new muscles – like actually inviting people to church or putting our sermons online where people can find them.
The point of being a branch on a vine is to bear fruit. Bearing fruit is the point of Jesus’s lesson in today’s gospel: He mentions “fruit” seven times in eight verses. So what is the fruit? Paul tells us in Galatians that it is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5: 22-23).
Are these missing in your life? Abide in Christ and know that you are free to adjust, change, renovate, be curious, and let your branch find the sun so that it can bear these fruits. Let your abiding- active, intention abiding – nourish you so you can find the wisdom you need to make life-giving choices, to let God’s love shine through you.
God is love. We love because he first loved us…
“Note the sentence carefully. It is not ‘we ought to love because he first loved us’ as if God’s love were the ground for a new imperative. It is ‘we can love because he first loved us.’ God’s love is the ground for a new possibility” (Judith Jones, workingpreacher.org).
So let us abide, by friends. And let our abiding begin here at this altar, where we take a small piece of the life of God into our hands and then into our bodies, to remind us and renew us as ones in whom God abides. And then let us love. Let love be our fruit, now and always.