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John 15:9-17
Abiding in God's Love

Ten years ago this weekend, my friend Marnie and I found ourselves waiting expectantly–expectantly though not altogether patiently–in a church basement, wondering if we would be the only ones coming to church that night.  

May 4, 2014 was going to be the first service for St. Brigid’s, a brand new evening congregation at Christ Church Cathedral, in the heart of downtown Vancouver. Or at least we hoped it would be. Because there we were, wondering who–if anyone–would show up.

For months and months previous we had been praying and planning with a small group, a group about the size of this congregation here. Together we wondered out loud and tried in a variety of ways – some more successful than others–to engage folks who seemed to be absent from the church’s main congregation.

One of the early experiments was something we called Beer and Bible, which is exactly as it sounds.

We met in a different basement for that one – the basement of a local brewery – and sent out a wide invitation for people to come and discuss the scriptures, to come and reflect on what this vast library, these disparate stories of God’s people across time and space might have to say to us today. 

Week after week, a rotating cast of characters – some we knew, and some who heard about this gathering by word of mouth, second-hand invitation, overhearing our conversations, or internet search – came together in a public setting to considerthe story of God and God’s people.

We all had our reasons for showing up. We came together to wrestle with the scriptures, and ended up sharing the stories of our own lives along the way. 

Joys and sorrows. The things we knew. The things we hoped for. Over time it became an environment where people could say things, could ask the kinds of questions that they felt nervous asking anywhere else.

At times we spoke in hushed tones, unsure what it was we believed, unsure how faith and doubt could mix. At times, we spoke with excitement about new insights we received, or the places God was showing up in our lives. At times we were more reflective. “Isn’t it strange,” we would wonder, “the way God works through others, to minister in our lives?”

Often we laughed. 

At the centre of it all, Jesus, the true vine. At the centre of it all, Jesus’ invitation to his friends. It's an invitation Jesus extends to all of us:

Love one another as I have loved you. 

I don’t know what brings each of you here this morning. One thing I do know is that each of us has our own reasons. Some combination of faith and habit, memory and hope, love for one another, and yearning for connection with the divine: a word from God, a word of truth. 

As for me? Many weeks I show up desperately needing to be reminded, desperately needing to hear from the truth that I often struggle to believe. I need to hear God’s words of grace: you are my beloved, you always have been, you always will be, and nothing will ever change that

At some level, I wonder if those are words we all need to hear.

You are God’s beloved. Each and every one of you. You are God’s beloved.

We are God's beloved. And, being reminded of this truth, our invitation is to go into the world to remind others that they are beloved too.

Central to today’s gospel passage is Jesus’ invitation to abide in such belovedness.

We’re in the middle of Jesus’ farewell discourse, the part of the scriptures that takes place on Maundy Thursday, the night when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, the night when he gathers his friends for one last meal, the night when he will be betrayed and handed over to trial, crucifixion and death. 

The night must have been thick with wonder, worry, and fear. Watching and waiting, not knowing what was going to come, not knowing what the future would hold.

What does Jesus do? He invites his disciples, he invites all of us, to abide in his love. With all that is about to take place, this is the love that they will need to sustain them in the face of adversity and persecution. This is the love we need to sustain us come what may. 

The early disciples were facing a particular struggle, and as congregations here in the South Okanagan, we face our own. We are not in any danger, it seems, of active persecution. If anything, we are in a world that meets Christian faith with eyebrow-raising indifference. And yet, for those of us who seek to abide in Jesus’ love, that indifference can - at times - feel like an affront to our faith. Where once we shared this faith and practice with many, these days we look around and it feels like we only share it with a few.

And so today, Jesus reminds us, invites us again, “Abide in me as I abide in the Father. Abide in me as I abide in you. Love one another as I have loved you.” John’s gospel is full of these flowery words, leaving this commandment both beautiful and seemingly abstract. 

And yet, Jesus’ commandment to love, the one he gives on Maundy Thursday, follows on the heels of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet, and Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Love is service. Love is action. Love, it would seem, looks like deep and abiding care for one another. Love is literally and figuratively washing each others’ feet. Bunions and all. 

Love is given and love is received when we minister to one another.

It is in vulnerable exchange, the giving and receiving of ministry, that Jesus is present, that Jesus transforms lives. And this is a ministry we all share, by virtue of our baptism. We don’t need to wait for a priest to show up to live into this ministry. It's one we share already, now. 

Jesus’ invitation is clear and direct, and it is for each and every one of us.

Love one another as I have loved you. 

Earlier this Spring, a number of us (over eighty!) across the Diocese read a book called “When Church Stops Working.” The authors’ main contention is that it is not primarily our job to fix the problems of the institutional church in fits of anxiety and busy-ness, but to focus first on abiding in God’s love. 

The authors remind us that as we gather to eat, tell stories, pray, remember, and rehearse the story of Jesus’ life and its meaning, we open ourselves to the Spirit of the Living God who gives us life.

Whether in a beautiful sanctuary like this one, in a brewery basement, on the schoolyard, in our workplace, or on the terrace of a local winery, we are called to rehearse and reflect on the ever-unfolding story of Jesus’ love for us and all creation. 

It is not first and foremost in buildings and programs and numbers that we will find ourselves animated, and enlivened to love the world as Jesus loves us. What it will take is the cultivation of practices that connect us ever more deeply with the source of all things:

  • Sharing our stories of faith lost and found.
  • Sharing our stories of the ways in which Jesus has worked through others to bless us, to heal us, to invite us back home. 

If Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, it would seem to me that the institution and structures of the church–our buildings, our ways of organization, and administration, are at best, the trellis on which the vine hangs. 

Driving across the mountains from Rossland and into this valley on Friday, that’s the image that struck me, row after row. There is the vine. There are the branches. And yes, they lean on trellises, but the trellises are not part of the plant, even though they do play a role in the whole growing process too. 

Created properly, the trellis allows more sunlight to reach the plant, contributing to vine size, structure, and canopy. But the trellis is neither the vine nor the branch. It is not a living thing. At times trellises fail. Perhaps over time, the trellis rots, is damaged, needs to be replaced. Even so, the plant is connected to sun and water and soil, all the things it needs to live.

Ultimately, the goal is not the health and wellbeing of the trellis, but that of the plant. And so, depending on the conditions, the vinegrower might replace that trellis with something similar. With a changing context, or a different type of crop, the old trellis might be replaced with something constructed with new materials or new techniques to help the plant--to help faith, hope, and love grow. 

We are not the trellis. We are God’s people, the branches. What is God's invitation? What is God's call? 

To abide in God’s love. To cultivate practices that bring us deeper and deeper into relationship with God. To be connected to God, and in God, to be connected with one another, that we might become a channel for God’s love and peace in the world. 

St. Brigids - that congregation we started ten years ago with its own particular way of worship, its own particular way of organizing, was in some ways just a trellis. It was a trellis designed to support new growth, renewed faith. But it was not the plant itself.

Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. All too often, it seems to me, we get confused about which is which. 

At the end of the day, the question is not how do we preserve the trellis, but rather, how is God seeing fit to best support the growth and sustenance of the crop? What happens if that changes? 

At the end of the day, Jesus does not say “lay down your life for the trellis,” nor does he say “lay down your life for me.” Instead he says, “lay down your lives for one another.”

What burdens are we willing to shoulder that each others’ faith and our collective faithfulness might thrive? 

Ten years ago, God showed us that while there were already good and beautiful things happening in Vancouver, including through that Cathedral community, it was time for a new crop to be planted. One with a different varietal, a different terroir. 

And while I had some part in what was happening there, it still feels to me as though God was the one planting a new vine in different soil. A particular trellis was erected to support this young vine and its growth. At times that trellis failed. It had to be built and rebuilt multiple times in its first few years. 

By way of mixing metaphors, or perhaps creating our own distinctive Meritage, I want to offer this distinct but complementary image as well. 

A number of years ago, Phyllis Tickle, an Episcopal laywoman–an educator, author, and editor, noted that every five hundred years the Church holds a giant rummage sale, and that we are living through one of those now. We are at a time in the life of the church where God is transforming us as individuals, and as the church. In the midst of it all, the call remains the same.

Whether we like it or not, we are in the midst of a period of time where all that the church has collected in main rooms and dusty corners is being put out on tables and auctioned off. What we’re trying to figure out these days is what of the church’s gifts–structures, postures, proclamation–still serve its participation in God’s mission today.

Abide in me as I abide in you. Love one another as I love you. 

I share these stories not to focus on some other community in some other place, but by way of illustration. Whatever you're experiencing here in this congregation is being experienced throughout the western church. There are ancient communities and brand new communities and communities in between that continue to wrestle with what it means to be faithful in this age.

Abide in me as I abide in you. Love one another as I love you. 

And while in our meeting later today we may end up talking about the trellis, it seems to me, it should be only in service of this question: 

What are we already doing as a Christian Community here in this place, to abide ever more deeply in God’s love?

And, then, we might continue to pray that God would show us might help to bear the fruit of the spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.