May 2, 2021
We hear from John’s gospel in our second reading today. Jesus is with his disciples on the night before he is arrested… praying and teaching. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you.
READ John 15: 1-8
I want to start with a confession. I was dissatisfied with last week’s sermon… which isn’t unusual… there’s always some level of dissatisfaction with my sermons… that’s just the way I am. But last week was different. Because I was taking some time off and because we are pre-recording our worship services… it meant that I had to write and record the sermon before I left for vacation… so that meant that I had a whole week to sit in my dissatisfaction and think about it until I got back and then did the sermon again… this time live in our outdoor service last Sunday. Again, normally I’m dissatisfied about something or another with the sermon, but I don’t have time to stew in that dissatisfaction because Sunday is always coming and I just have to move on.
So anyway… as I thought and thought about what bugged me about the sermon… it finally dawned on me… my dissatisfaction lay in the same dissatisfaction I have when reading some of the Psalms… more specifically… the psalms where the person laments… and gives complaint to God. There are a lot of them like that. More than you think. Let’s use Psalm 13 as our example this morning. It’s a short one.
How long, O Lord: Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
Now I’m going to stop right there. Because I think we can all agree… that is a lament. That is a heartfelt complaint lifted before God. Here is someone bearing their soul… sharing their pain without reservation. These words stir the empathy in our hearts. If we are honest with ourselves we will find that we can relate to this person’s lament… because it is likely a lament we have had as well. How long? How long, O God, must we endure pain while we seek only to live into your goodness? And while my sermon last week comes nowhere close to the level of this psalm… as I thought about it… I could see that was how my sermon was structured. I spent much of it giving voice to my complaint… I lamented the state of things when it comes to the environment and expressed how powerless and small I felt.
Now here comes the twist. Because I do believe this is an appropriate time for us to lament. I do believe this is the right time to name our larger dissatisfactions with the world around us… that we are right at this moment to give complaint to the many many issues that are weighing on our souls. We are right to say there is a disconnect… because there’s another vision that is competing… that is compelling… that is driving our dissatisfaction… another vision that comes from the very God to whom we give complaint… a vision that ultimately will not let us settle with good enough. To lament to God is not to blame God or to cajole God to get into the game… get down here and fix everything… if you were really there… if you were really the God we say you are then there would be no evil in the world… there would be no inhumanity heaped upon our neighbors… there would be no cause for us to lift our voices. But that’s not what it is to lament. To lament is to state the truth… the whole truth before God. To present your tired, battered, world weary self… and then to knock the dust off… straighten your spine… take a deep breath and step right back into it. And that’s exactly what the last two verses of Psalm 13 does…
But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
No cheap grace. No easy solution. Resolve and commitment to rejoin the fight.
So… the twist is this… that’s never how I read those psalms before. I always hated those last verses of lament psalms. I always hated what I felt was an empty recitation of some standard but hollow pieties. I wanted to hear solutions. I wanted more. So last week when I gave my laments in the sermon and then… and then… the best I could get to in the end was this vague phrase that resurrection is that something else… that something else… this vague notion that is all our higher ideals… all those visions we’ve been given of God’s kingdom… all these pieties and assurances of God’s steadfast love surrounding us even as we have so much to lament… even as our complaints and dissatisfaction is high. I ended up at the same place… at the same place… as these psalms with what felt like a string of empty spiritual platitudes.
That was the source of my dissatisfaction… it was still there… the same dissatisfaction I had with how these psalms ended. I could not see the resolve and the commitment… it always read to me as a defeated resignation. I was not being given the word I wanted to hear so it was easy to cast it aside and move on towards something that would strike me as stronger and more substantial. But the Spirit won’t let go that easily. So what do we read today? “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
In this part of John’s gospel, Jesus is meeting with his disciples before his arrest… he is preparing them to be sent out into the world. To distill out the essence of this long section in John… the message is one you’ve heard before. Your faith is personal, but it isn’t private. Go and bear fruit… “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” Jesus knows its not going to be easy for those who will follow him. Next week in our reading from John, Jesus will tell his disciples, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you.” Not to spin off into some Christian persecution complex… because perpetual victimhood is a dead end… but from the beginning it was clear that being a disciple of Christ meant there would be cause to lament… because the vision given… the standards laid out for us… the principles and the values from which we are to operate… are not the default way the world works. As we bring this faith we’ve been given into the world, we will meet opposition. Our definition of justice will not always favor with the powerful in the ways they want. Our way of seeing everyone as a child of God will put us into conflict with those who have visions of superiority. Our calling to care for the least of these… to heal the sick… to feed the hungry… to care for the broken… will not always be greeted with thunderous applause. Our understanding that the world’s goods are to be shared generously will not find a friend in the natural greed that is within each of us. As we live out our faith, we will have to keep reminding ourselves… more times than we care to count… we will have to keep reminding ourselves… But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
Although John’s gospel is my least favorite gospel for many reasons… there is one thing I really do appreciate about this gospel… and I wish it was always the first thing that would be lifted up… and that’s this gospels grounding in love. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” It’s that same message that we heard in our first reading… a message that bears repeating again and again. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for 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.” Saints, if that is our foundation… that measure of love… if that is the ground from which our discipleship grows and bears fruit… if we start here and end here… then there will always be cause for lament along the way. We will experience dissatisfaction. But… if we give voice to our lament… if we call out those things that fall short of this vision of God’s kingdom… then we will find… with the Spirit by our side… the courage and the will to get up… and love all the more. Amen.