Bearing New Fruit
John 17:6-19, Psalm 1:1,3
Arlington Congregational Church
May 16, 2021
Rev. Mary Kendrick Moore
I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.
During this time of the Easter season, we travel through scripture that for seven weeks takes us through some of the passages relaying stories and thoughts from the time between the resurrection of Christ and the stories of his ascension to be with God. Some view the ascension of Christ as a literal occurrence of what today we might describe as a sort of paranormal experience; others may relate to the ascension as something parallel to our own grief process when we lose someone we love – it takes a while to accept that someone is gone from our day to lives; and during that time we relive and recount the memories that keep them close to us. Celtic spirituality even describes times when we hover between this life and the next. In this vein, I think we could agree that John 17 sounds like a letter written from the hand of someone who knows they will not be with us much longer. Like the cancer patient who says to their child, “I know my time in this world is not for long; please know that I have loved you all of my being and I want you to remember me and take what I have taught you and go on to make your way in this world.” So hear these words of Jesus again, from a modern paraphrase, as if he is praying or writing a letter to God.
“I spelled out your character in detail to the men and women you gave me. They were yours in the first place; Then you gave them to me, and they have now done what you said. They know now, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that everything you gave me is firsthand from you, for the message you gave me, I gave them; and they took it, and were convinced that I came from you. They believed that you sent me. I pray for them. For I’m no longer going to be visible in the world; they’ll continue in the world while I return to you. God, guard them as they pursue this life that you conferred as a gift through me, so they can be one heart and mind as we are one heart and mind. As long as I was with them, I guarded them in the pursuit of the life you gave through me; now I’m returning to you. I’m saying these things in the world’s hearing so my people can experience my joy completed in them. Make them holy—consecrated—with the truth . . . In the same way that you gave me a mission in the world, I give them a mission in the world.” (John 19:6-19, adapted from The Message)
These words of Jesus were spoken after the resurrection and before fully transitioning from this world. Our lives too are filled with transitions, where we move from one realm to the next. We have shared one already today – graduation, where we honor the work that it takes to make it through high school, or college, or an advanced degree; and we honor those times not just for what is past but for what it means for the future. We honor births, not just because the act of creation has happened once again, but for the future that a child may experience. We honor retirements, with deep gratitude for a life of work and service; but also with hope that the next phase of one’s journey will bring new inspiration and meaning, and yes, rest.
If I could weave a style of music throughout this sermon, it would be the blues. For as I spoke about last week, with the act of mothering having its moments of melancholy, so do all life transitions have a bit of melancholy. We celebrate graduation and one’s accomplishments while the graduates may feel a tinge of the blues as they think about going away to college and missing their friends or beginning their first job and giving up some of the comforts of parental provisions.
The songs of the blues tradition are known for their portrayal of the deep sentiment that comes with life’s transitions – hills and valleys, the ups and downs. When you lose your job, you get the blues. When the one who loves you leaves or dies, you get the blues. When your pet dies, when your dream doesn’t come true, when you lose your way – the blues tradition tells the stories of all of those life experiences that leave us hurting and longing and hoping. The lyrics can sound a lot like our modern country music singing about who left who, who hurt who, and just what ain’t going right.
“While blues lyrics often deal with personal adversity, the music itself goes far beyond self-pity. The blues is also about saying what you feel, ridding yourself of frustration, letting your hair down, simply having fun, and in so doing, overcoming hard luck. The best blues is visceral, cathartic, and starkly emotional. From unbridled joy to deep sadness, no form of music communicates more genuine emotion.” [A Brief History of the Blues, by Ed Kopp, August 16, 2005, allaboutjazz.com]
Blues music comes down off of any high holy reach to persuade everyone how awesome God is to instead dig down into the deepest pits of human experience. We are the people that the blues are written for. We are a church of imperfect people. We start there, with all of our foibles and misplaced intentions. It’s why about half of the Psalms could have been blues lyrics, like this one, as the Psalmist cried out, “For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery and my bones are a wasting away.” (Ps. 31:10) Can’t you just hear that as a country song?
Our world is singing a lot of verses of the blues right now. The pandemic has brought us one great global transition, moving us from one realm to the next. We have probably not felt this vulnerable since the World Wars. So, for many of us, that’s a vulnerability we have never felt before. Cyber attacks are running rampant; the inequities of healthcare are in our face as some countries are able to get vaccinated and others are still waiting. We can hardly bear to say the number of people who died of COVID. Our emergency rooms have seen a huge increase in the number of teens experiencing mental health crises. Employers are looking for workers; workers are looking for work they think is fairly paid and meaningful.
During the past 15 months, a lot of us had or still have the blues. While many of us have enjoyed extra time on our hands, the intensity of the loneliness and isolation was palpable. To go as long as we have without hugging each other goes so against our grain. And now, slowly, we are beginning to unmask. As we begin to dig out from under the rubble the pandemic has left behind, we wonder exactly what normal is any more. What does resilience look life after the past year? How do we create the space in our souls for resilience? What does resurrection look like in this Easter season?
I do believe one thing has never changed – each day we wake up, the only place we can begin is the start line that we are on. Jesus said once, “Each day has troubles enough of its own.” So be honest, and let’s start there. Listen, and let be. Like the Psalmists wrote honest prayers, you might even sing in your mind a few lines of your own blues song. If you are really brave, jot them down on a piece of paper and ponder them this week.
When we encounter the blues, we really have three choices. We can turn away and ignore them. That almost inevitably leads to deeper pain or depression. Or, we can puff ourselves up and believe that we are the superman or superwoman of the universe and can surely handle this on our own. Or we can get real; be the human beings we were created to be. Singing country music out loud might actually be some good medicine. For speaking the words of pain, speaking out the voice of hurt and despair where another can hear it breaks open the festering wounds of our heart and soul. That breaking open, that sacred pouring out, creates a river of life that we can get on and ride –to live fully, to make each day an Easter kind of life where we get up and start fresh.
There were several verses from Psalm 1 that accompanied the gospel lectionary passage for today, saying, “Happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.” (Ps. 1:1,3) In all that they do, they prosper.
Translation – the resilient are like trees planted by streams of water. Jesus loved metaphors – trees, rivers, vines, fruit; I think because he read the poetry of the Psalms! On the tree that is you, planted, tall and firmly rooted, what does the fruit for this season look like? It is hugging your grandchildren again? Figuring out how to work from home because you decided you like it? Reshaping your college plans? Returning to old hobbies? Or starting new ones?
One thing is clear – the resurrection of Christ was about something new. A new way, a new and renewed energy, a new commitment. We are created in a way that we can learn and grow our life long. One surefire way to cultivate resilience and resurrection in your spirit is to try something new.
Before we get too far and this sounds like I’m talking one about your life experience as an individual experience, here’s where it gets tricky. For this kind of Easter living to work really well, two or more have to be gathered. For one to sing out their song, think of how much more power this has if someone hears. Trees bear fruit for the sheer delight and the nurture of another living being.
Remember I said we are a church of blues-y imperfect people? All of them are! When someone lets us see their human side, and I’m talking about their gritty, grumpy, grieving, sniffling, crying, complaining, downright blues-y side, we have the same three choices as when it was residing within us. We can ignore it and walk away, which has the same effect as looking in a mirror and not seeing yourself.
Or we can puff ourselves up and feel good about ourselves. This is the kind of feeling that goes along with “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Lillian Daniel, UCC minister and writer, tells a story that brings this into full focus. She got stuck in the airport due to weather and when she rented a car and invited a stranger to ride with her to the city where they were traveling, and two more strangers then invited themselves along.
One of her fellow travelers described that his pastor was desperately in need of reeducation about spirituality. He shared how proud he was after his own son shared these words he had written: 'Children are starving with empty bellies in faraway lands. They have nothing to eat. All around them they hear the sounds of gunfire and bombs going off. And it made me realize that we are so lucky. We are so lucky to be living here and not there.'"
This parent said he was blown away by his son’s words, saying, “He gets it, he really gets it. It was gratitude. That's our religion—gratitude. And at that moment, when he recognized all that suffering and how fortunate he was, I could not have been prouder."
Puffing ourselves or our religion up with, "We're so lucky that we are here instead of there,” is bred from isolationism and not immersed in the hard work of community. In the Easter resurrection world of Jesus, one doesn’t feel lucky about not being hungry without actually doing something to feed the one who is. When we witness pain and insulate ourselves to feel lucky, or too busy, or too important, or not important enough, or too competent, or not competent enough, we fall short of the vision of what God would have us do. The blues remind us that a life based on luck just doesn't pan out, and those songs call us to long for something new. Turns out that we need the church – we need each other; and we are called to be real, to open ourselves up to our shared life together.
We humans do a lot of embarrassing things. And we end up in some bad fixes that aren’t, and sometimes are, of our own doing. If we commit ourselves to this crazy thing called church, humanity is close by. It's as close as the one who crawled an inch out of depression to get to church; as close as the one who wonders if there is a place for her there; as close as the one who cut you off; as close as the one who you don’t understand, as close as the preacher who didn't prepare enough, as close as the one who doesn’t know what their test results are going to be, and as close as the one who is thirsty for some word of hope, as close as the one who gets caught up in the beauty of something bigger than his own invention. And so, for the church as well, the path to resilience is often to try something new. What new fruit will this community bear?
There's a community of folks who, over thousands of years, has followed a man who was not lucky—who was, in the scheme of things, decidedly unlucky. But he was willing to die alongside other unlucky ones, and he taught that there is much more to life than we could ever conjure up alone.
With the humbling realization that there are some things we simply cannot do for ourselves, communities of human beings have worked together and feuded together and just goofed up together. We come together because that is who we are. Thousands of years after Jesus came to walk among these same types of people, we're still trying to be the body of Christ, and believe all the while that we are getting caught up in something bigger than our own invention. [Lillian Daniel, You Can’t Make This Up, September 1, 2011, Christian Century.org.]
Still trying to be the tall firmly rooted tree with roots reaching out to the water that comes from creation itself; still trying to spread our limbs outward to provide rest and shade, a respite from the world, as they come through our doors. Still trying to bear the fruit and nuts that become the seed of future generations. We are the tall firm tree. We, as people, as we reach our roots into our river for a drink for our thirsty souls. We the church are the tall firm tree, as we drink from the river of faith and history and stretch out the tendrils of our roots toward a dry, parched world. May that tree always bear new fruit for our world. Amen.