A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, May 2, 2021, the fifth Sunday of Easter.
Text: John 15:1-8
Her name was Grace. She was one of the first folks I met as I arrived with my friends in the small village in Tamil Nadu, South India. Though I imagine Grace may very well have died long ago, I’ve thought of her often as I take in the horrific headlines and images from the toll COVID is taking in India right now. In the caste system of India, Grace was an “untouchable.” She was poor, her skin a deep ebony, and she was literally “out-caste”—out of the caste system…beneath it. Grace also had the unhappy circumstance of being unmarried; her family had no money for a dowry and, as a result, Grace was destined to be on her own, with little or no support from anyone else. But we learned as we talked with her—in broken English—that she made a way for herself by doing sewing for folks in the village. She shared her home, a ten by ten foot cement dwelling, with six other family members.
In 1994, our Liberation Theology seminar group from Yale Divinity School went to this village to experience an Indian community that was predominantly Christian—a rarity in a country that was at least at that time only 2-3% Christian (and this one was also a community of “untouchables” or “Dalits”). We were planning to stay overnight in the church building that was on the small dirt square of the community. But late in the day, after we had worshiped at an evening Bible Study, Grace approached me with an astonishing offer. This woman who barely had enough to feed and care for herself, invited me into her home. She invited me to stay with her for the night. And so I did. She gave me tea and shared stories of her life. And that night, I slept on the hard dirt floor of that ten by ten room, with 7 other people and a chicken. In the morning, Grace boiled water (a rare and precious commodity!) for me so that I could brush my teeth. I don’t know that I’ve ever received such an invitation before or since or experienced such sacrificial hospitality and care.
Grace invited me into her home, into her life. And as I left, she called me “sister.”
Today, Jesus invites us into his life. Jesus says, “Abide in me.”
We learn today that Jesus is like a vine, green, full of life, reaching down into the depths of the earth and soaring upward toward the light of the sun. Jesus is like a vine and we are like branches of the vine. When connected to that strong, green, vital stem, we flourish and grow. We produce fruit. But we know that the branches only bear fruit because they receive nourishment through the stem, through the vine. If they are cut off from that source of life and strength, they grow dry and lifeless; they die; they produce no fruit. And sometimes, branches need to be pruned—things need to be let go, cleared out, in order for that branch to produce fruit at its full capacity.
This powerful image teaches us about what it means to abide in Jesus Christ. “Abide” is not a word that we hear that often these days. And because of that; some modern translations of scripture choose to use other words instead. But this word “abide” is a great word, a rich word. To “abide” means more than to “be with,” it also means to “stand with,” to be “faithful to,” to “stand firm,” and “never to leave.” And in the image of the vine and the branches, we hear Jesus’ words to us as an invitation. “Abide in me” and receive everything you need for life and for growth and for fruitfulness. Stand with me, be faithful to me, never leave me, because, if you do, you will cut yourself off from the gracious gifts of God that are your source for strength and life. Stay connected to me, trusting my life-giving support and love even in the midst of change, when you need to let things go.
While it is our choice whether to accept this invitation to stay connected and receive grace and life in Christ—we also learn today that Jesus invites us to do what he is already doing for us. Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” (“We love because God first loved us.”) Everything we do in relationship with Christ is a response to what Christ has already done or offered to us. Jesus “abides” in you…Jesus stands with you, in solidarity with your every struggle or suffering; Jesus is faithful to you even when you have lost faith in yourself, others, or God; Jesus will never leave you, even when you turn your back. This is the grace of God. It is nothing that we deserve because of who we are or what we have accomplished. It is just given to us free, this love of God. You didn’t make the first move—God did. And God has invited you to share the bounty, the beauty, the fruitfulness of life in Christ. In United Methodist circles, we talk about the grace of God that is present and active in our lives even before we know anything of God as “prevenient grace.” This is the grace of God present and active in our lives before—or even if we never!—“confess that Jesus is the Son of God.” (1 Jn. 4:15) Prevenient grace is Holy Spirit nudging and working in our hearts and minds and relationships to encourage us to receive the invitation to life in Christ and all that flows from that life.
Sometimes, in the course of human life things happen that lead people to disconnect—even to renounce their faith, to renounce God. Jesus doesn’t say such a choice will have no consequence—all our choices have consequences and to deliberately cut ourselves off from the source of life and love will be harmful to us. How could it not be? We can renounce the sacraments, teachings, and relationships of intentional Christian community or just take these things for granted and go through the motions as though they didn’t mean anything. We can choose to do all in our power to ignore or deny God and God’s gifts. But the promise Jesus makes is that grace abides with us no matter what. You may choose not to believe in God, but God believes in you and has chosen to love you. God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. It won’t change. Ever.
This word comes right on time this week—at least for me. Some of you will have tuned in for this past Wednesday’s FB Live in which I talked about “languishing”—the mental state that hangs out in between flourishing and depression. Languishing is what I have labeled in this season being “COVID fine,” namely doing alright but not really at full capacity. It dulls motivation, disrupts the ability to focus, and increases the odds you’ll not get as much work done without really pushing. I am personally feeling this right now—even as I give thanks that full on depression hasn’t set in, which for me is always a possibility. I know that not all of us have been able to keep depression and anxiety at bay. A reminder for us today as we enter this mental health awareness month : there is help available for you. It is not a moral failure to admit that you need help. We all need help most of the time in one way or another. If you need resources, do not hesitate to reach out to any of your pastors and we will do all we can to help you find the support you need.
While not everyone will be struggling with mental health, I do observe that most people I know both in and out of Foundry are in a pretty volatile place emotionally. The past year with all its pandemics is catching up with all of us in one way or another. And today, we receive this word from Jesus: abide. It is a simple word, an always needed reminder, that the source of our life, flourishing, capacity to bear the fruits of love, compassion, patience, and justice is found in God. Whatever we are feeling, facing, fearing… Christ abides in us, is available right now to give us grace sufficient for every need. All we have to do is stay united with Jesus, in relationship, in solidarity, in faithfulness and love. Abide in Christ as Christ abides in you.
Twenty-seven years ago, as I left that village in South India, I was embraced by Grace. Her love and hospitality and sacrificial giving will forever be for me symbols of the free gifts of God. I didn’t do anything to deserve her attention, her trust, her love, her floorspace. She just offered it all, freely. Grace invited me into her home, into her life. And as I left, she embraced me as family; she called me “sister.” Today, Jesus invites us into his life. Jesus says, “Abide in me.” And we are embraced by grace. And we are called “children of God,” “siblings in the Beloved clan,” those who are sent into the world to embrace other members of God’s family with the amazing grace of Jesus Christ, and—together—to create a human family in which poverty, skin color, tribe, or faith tradition no longer allows a sibling to be out-caste or “untouchable,” a community in which all needs are met and all know themselves to be truly Beloved.
Prayer: Generous God, thank you for your amazing grace given to us in Jesus. Help us remain united with Jesus through every challenge, change, and pruning season; sustain and renew us, that we might produce the fruits of love, justice, compassion, and care that will nourish others and truly serve your beautiful, broken world. Amen.