Sermon transcript, 3 May 2015
It all comes from the Vine by Fr. Dana
Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 66:1-12, I John 3:14-24, John 15:1-8
We desire the power of God; we desire the power of the resurrection. We celebrated Easter Sunday not long ago: the most powerful time and the most powerful event in the universe. But Jesus didn’t get to the resurrection directly. He couldn’t get to the resurrection until He had gone through death. And He didn’t get to death until He had gone through obedience. He was obedient until death, and that obedience started when the Father asked Him, “Would you go down there to the earth, to My creation, and give Your life for them?” It didn’t start in the garden of Gethsemane: it started back in heaven.
How can we receive that power? Today’s Gospel begins with Jesus saying, “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser (John 15:1). Later He says, “Abide in Me, and I in you.” (John 15:4a)
Where is the joy?
Dcn. Andrew and I just returned from a clergy meeting and church growth seminar in Cologne, Germany. And yesterday, after it was all over and most of the people had left, we had a chance to reflect on what we had heard and experienced. We had joined probably more than a hundred people from the CEC throughout Europe. Dcn. Andrew said that one of the differences between the people in St. Stephen’s and the people we had seen there was joy. There we had seen a joy in serving God and others that has not been seen in London for quite some time. Do not take that as a criticism: that is not how he meant it or how he received it; and I agree with him. It’s not that you are deficient: you volunteer to help and do all kinds of things, and you’re happy when you’re helping; but true joy seems to evade you like a butterfly that’s just out of reach. We could be wrong, but I would ask you to think and pray about it: is it true?
I believe it because I know what that’s like: I can remember sitting in a small group in Oklahoma back in 1984 (the early Palaeolithic period for some of you!), and I remember finally blurting out what had been bubbling in my heart for a long time; I didn’t have a word for it, but for a dozen years something had been going on, and finally I just let it all out. Where is the joy? I was saved at the age of nine, about 21 years before that. Being saved wasn’t a problem, but where was the joy? I was doing what was right because I knew it was right, but the joy in doing it wasn’t there. Ask yourself: are you feeling that? It’s not that you’re doing the wrong thing – you’re doing the right thing; you’re doing it because it’s the right thing, you’re doing it because you love Jesus… But do you ever wonder, shouldn’t there be some joy in this? – The joy that comes out of your heart, not because people appreciate me, not because everything is good, but just joy in serving the Lord.
“Am I loved?”
My next thought is: If there is this difference, why? What has produced the difference between the people that we met or met again in Cologne, and the people here that we know and love? You and they have a lot in common: they’re not that much different from you. They have families where both parents or Filipino, or where one is Filipino and the other is European – and in most of those the female is Filipina… but I wonder if there isn’t one struggle that you have that they don’t. Some of them have been around as long as you – I don’t know the exact dates of how you spread through Europe – but I think it might be safe to say that none of those churches have gone through a significant period without a full-time resident Rector, certainly after having one the first time; they’ve never had that experience of being left – Not alone: you weren’t left alone, and Fr. Donn (bless him and his family) poured himself out to be here for you, to stand in the gap for you; you weren’t left alone, but you were still left, and that does something. – Just like a divorce: even if both sides agree that this is the best thing, and there aren’t any children, it still hurts; and it does something inside. I just wonder if that’s not the case.
And I think there’s a reason for that, both in terms of marriage and your relationship with your Rector. Have you ever heard the saying that each of us has a God-shape vacuum in our heart? There’s a space in our heart that wants to be filled, and it’s peculiarly shaped so that only God can fill it. It’s not the only analogy that works, but I believe that it’s true. Everyone has a fundamental need and a driving desire for the answer to one question – and our Patriarch talked about this in the last few days. That question is: “Am I loved?” And the question that’s in the hole in your heart is not just, “Am I loved by someone?” but “Am I loved by God?” Everyone has it; not everyone will acknowledge that that’s what that is, but they will still try to fill that hole with everything else in the universe: sex, money, drugs, rock and roll… you name it; and none of that works. Everyone has this fundamental need and this consuming desire to know the answer to the question, “Am I loved?” And if the answer is “I’m just an accident of circumstance” or “I evolved from something”, then the answer is automatically “No, because there is no one to love me like that” – which is why that particular religion is so dangerous.
Am I loved? How do you know you are loved? If I asked you that question, “How do you know you are loved by God?” how would you answer me? He created you… It tells us in the Bible… Both of those are true. The Bible says we are loved, and we know the Bible is true; therefore I must be loved. That’s all we need to know, right? In my head I know I am loved. How far will knowledge get you? When the storm comes up and life starts overwhelming you, “The Bible says God loves me”. Yes, it does. It’s one thing to know the facts; it’s a totally different thing to experience the truth. If you only know the facts, then you have to keep reminding yourself: “God loves me; God loves me… Why the hell am I here? God loves me…” Once we’ve experienced the truth, we don’t have to convince ourselves, we don’t have to argue: we know… One of my past Bishops used to say, “You know it in your knower” – the part of you that knows not just facts, but the part of you that knows so that it doesn’t matter what happens, what I know is truer than what I see. You know the facts: you know God loves you; but you still long for your experience to flesh out the bones of the facts. The bones by themselves are dry. “Can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3) How can they live? God has to breathe into them (Ezekiel 37:4-10).
I ask you: you’re living and moving and having your being in Jesus Christ; but is there this feeling that just won’t go away? Is there this wondering: What would it be like if every action that I did came from the heart of God instead of from me working so hard just to get one foot in front of the other? – It’s work; why can’t it be joy?
God loves you; but then, if God loves in you, why did your Rector leave? If God loves you, why did your first husband or wife leave? Why? – Especially in those relationships that are so important in our lives because they are in the image of God’s relationship. The Covenant of Marriage is a Sacrament; the Ordination of a Priest is a Sacrament: they both have vows that are made to God, to do certain things, to act certain ways, to love. And if you’ve been hurt because of a human – because both are human: both your spouse and your Priest – and your Deacon and your Bishop and your Patriarch – are all human; and the fact that they have been through a Sacrament and have made vows does not guarantee that we’ll always be faithful. You’ve been through the vows, and it didn’t guarantee that you would be faithful either. Hopefully, love overcomes unfaithfulness; but it still happened, and it still hurts.
And there was a time when you as a church needed someone – and Fr. Donn did his superhuman best to be that someone from hundreds of miles away on a part-time basis because there were other people he was committed to – but you needed someone here on the ground to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the trenches, in the battle, behind enemy lines. – Because that’s really where we are. The earth is the Lord’s, but for a time He has allowed it to be occupied by the enemy. We are citizens of heaven – we are not citizens of this earth – and so we are here behind enemy lines, fighting the battle. And when the captain suddenly disappears, it hurts.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t forgive him and we don’t love him. Just acknowledging that it hurt does not put blame on someone else. We’re not trying to make excuses or point blame; we’re trying to get down to what was left inside after the sword was removed. Have you watched The Lord of the Rings, the movies? Remember when Frodo gets stabbed and a little piece of the sword breaks off in there. And it doesn’t matter what you do on the surface: if you don’t get the point of the sword out, he will die. And my question is: Is there a little tiny shard of the past – whether it’s St. Stephen’s, or maybe it’s something else: maybe it’s a marriage, maybe it’s a combination of things – is there something in there, so small that it doesn’t really show on the surface, but it’s sapping … stealing everything the Lord puts in? – Yes, it’s there, but it’s work…
Where the power comes from
Was that time in the history of St. Stephen’s when your joy started leaving, or was it another time not related to St. Stephen’s? Was there ever a time when it was a joy to serve? – I mean really a joy. It was still hard – you still had to come every Saturday to set up, you still had to do 9,000 tonnes of laundry and ironing, and pull things out of storage and put things back in storage: it was hard, but it was joyful. – Not just happy – we can be happy now – but “I don’t mind this a bit”. Because with the joy comes the energy, the power to do this. If I’m not getting power when I’m doing this, I’m draining my battery, and every night I have to go home and plug myself into the wall to get re-charged. And sometimes the night isn’t long enough to get me recharged, or I forget to plug myself in until 2:00 in the morning.
“I am the vine, you are the branches.” (John 15:5a) You can be connected to the vine and damage can come that doesn’t cut you off, but it removes a big part of your ability to receive from the vine, so that what comes from the vine is dripping on the ground or drying out or just not getting through. And if it’s not getting through, you’re starving; you’re not green and lush and healthy and robust and growing all the time: you’re just trying to keep from turning brown and falling off. “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me… for without Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4, 5b)
Help them know they are loved
I’m only beginning to learn that the most important thing a Rector can do for the flock is to help them know they are loved – not by telling you (although hopefully I do tell you), but more importantly by what I do; and I confess I haven’t been really good at that. I’ve already failed in many ways, and I’ve only been here not quite a year. I didn’t fully understand. Before teaching, before exhorting, before encouraging, before planning, before anything: loving. Not in a way that I think says “I love you”, but in a way that you think says “he loves me”. Not because I’m God, but He put me here as His overseer, and so what I see Him doing is what I need to do. Today starts a new day. And I’m only at the beginning of that, and so I ask you to pray for me.
That’s the good news. The bad news is, you have the same responsibility. Think about it: When a visitor walks through that door, they have the same question: “Am I loved? Does God love me?” They may not phrase it that way, but they want to know, “Am I loved?” and the real question is, “Am I loved by the One that matters? Because He created everything.” When they walk in, how will they know the answer? How will they know, “Does God love me? Am I loved?” Am I the only one who can show them? I hope not; because if so, we’re in deep trouble. How will they know? What if they’re not Filipino? That could be tough. It is tough, because we’re like a family; but it can be done. How can you show them they are loved? I don’t have a simple answer to that, and I’m not looking for one; but I do have a more important question: If we don’t show them that they are loved, why should they come back?
This is a challenge; this a huge challenge – not just for you but for me as well. And the answer is in the Gospel: we can only show them that they are loved if we are connected to the Vine and there isn’t anything that’s hindering the flow of nutrients from the Vine to the branches. Jesus is the Vine; we are the branches. It isn’t good enough for Him to sit over there and for us to sit over here and we look at Him, if we’re not receiving anything.
Yesterday’s New Testament reading from Colossians 3:12-14 said, “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. 14 But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.” The fact that most of you are here means that you have put on longsuffering: have many of the adults been here less than five or ten years? You are the ones who have hung in there; you are the ones who are longsuffering. Some people couldn’t: they had to leave. And we’re not going to condemn them: we’re all at different stages and different maturities in our walk. But if you didn’t forgive one another, you wouldn’t be here, because I’m sure we all have things that we could harbour unforgiveness about, and if we thought about them we’d leave.
We can’t change the past; but we can make sure there’s no little sliver of the sword inside that still steals our joy, steals what we receive from the Vine; and that’s what will make the difference – not just for us but for people who will come in that door. Maybe I blew it when they came in the door: maybe I should have stopped my sermon and said something. “Like to think that your sermon was so important that you couldn’t just stop and say…?” We learn from our mistakes: if we don’t, we keep making them; but we can learn. We can’t change the past: we can heal it, we can let God heal it, we can acknowledge it – which is the first step to healing; but we can’t change it. What we can change is the future. And by healing the past we free up the future. I am not willing to let the past hold my future hostage, to let my future or St. Stephen’s future be chained to something in the past: because it will keep us from being who we’re called to be and from doing what we’re called to do.
But the only way we can change is if we abide in the Vine. “Abide” is not “in the presence of” – it means “connected to, receiving from, all the time”. We’ll see how God wants to work that out: it’s not announcing a big new programme: I don’t have a big new programme. I just know that that’s what God wants to do, and that we will change the world if we love the way Christ loved us.