Sunday, May 3, 2015

Phil Kniss: Wonderful words of life

Easter 5: The living Christ provides life and love
1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

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So today’s sermon is giving me a sense of deja vu.
One week ago I was standing in this spot
    preaching about the love of God,
    using scriptures from 1 John, and the Gospel of John.
Which is exactly what I am doing today.
    Come to think of it, I preached on God’s love the week before that,
        except from Luke’s Gospel.
    And also on Easter Sunday . . .
        and on Sundays during Lent
    And on Membership Sunday . . .
        and well, just about every Sunday I stand behind this pulpit.
    And when Pastor Barbara fills the pulpit,
        she pretty much sticks to that same old topic.

You’ll have to let me know whenever you get tired
    of hearing me talk about the love of God.
    Then I’ll pull out my best impression of Jonathan Edwards,
        the 18th-century preacher famous for his sermon,
        “Sinners in the hand of an angry God.”
    I could preach of God dangling sinners over a flaming pit,
        and say, like he did,
            “As easy as it is for us to crush a worm under foot,
                so easy is it for God to cast his enemies into hell.”
    Or . . . not.

Today’s scriptures of God’s love should convince you that there is
    no subject worthy of sermons . . . except for the love of God.

If what you want is to be shamed, condemned, and frightened,
    I could use sermons to do that.
If what you want is to accumulate more information about God,
    to store in your brain, because it might come in handy,
    I could use sermons for that purpose.
But if what you want is to have your life shaped
    into the kind of life God created you for,
    then I simply must confront you Sunday after Sunday
        with the overwhelming love of God,
        because I am obligated, as a minister of the Gospel, to preach it.

And that’s what I’ll do this morning, with a little twist.
    Preaching on God’s love does not mean
        always preaching sunshine and sweetness.
    A true high-resolution picture of God’s love,
        has more shades, more textures, more complexities,
            than you might imagine.
    In fact, preaching about God’s love will not always be easy to hear.
        But it’s something we must hear.
        Because, God is love.

God . . . is . . . love.
    Nine letters. Three one-syllable words I’ve heard my whole life.
    I literally remember being taught these words,
        as a Bible memory verse.
    Probably Summer Bible School at First Mennonite Church
        in St. Petersburg, Florida.
        I was probably three or four years old.
    The teacher repeated the words slowly,
        “God . . . is . . . love . . . 1 John . . . 4 . . . 8b.”
            Saying the reference took longer than saying the verse.
            But I memorized it.
    It would be a few more years before I could take on all the words of
        John 3:16—“For God so loved the world,
            that he gave his only begotten Son . . . ”
        Same message.  God loves you.
    I’m thankful my church and my family
        faithfully taught God’s love.
    I’m grateful the foundation of my faith was then, and still is,
        the persistent love of God.

I’m sure that many of you could say the same thing,
    if you grew up in the church.
Someone shout out the very first Sunday School song you learned:
        [sing] “Jesus loves me, this I know.”
    And after that, it was probably,
        “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”
    And after that, maybe,
        “Praise Him, praise Him, all ye little children,
            God is love, God is love.”

We in the church want our children
    to absolutely know God loves them.
    Because accepting the love of God
        is the foundation upon which we build faith.

The love of God is a constant in a world of variables.
    It is our confession.
        In the words we speak.
        In the prayers we pray.
        In the songs we sing . . . our whole lives.
    When we are very young,
        we belt out “Jesus Loves Me” off-key.
    Later, maybe we’ll harmonize in the congregation
        on Charles Wesley’s “Love Divine All Loves Excelling.”
    And Mennonites can never resist one verse in German,
        of “Gott ist die Liebe.” God is love.

However it expresses itself, it’s just part of who we are.
    We sing it, we speak it, we live and breathe it:
        “God is love.”

Like the text this morning from 1 John 4.
    Some form of the word “love” shows up 29 times . . . in 15 verses!
    John tells his readers, over and over,
        that God is all about love.
        God is love. (1 John 4:8b . . . but also 16b, take your pick.)
    Since God is love, John concludes,
        we should also love each other.
    Showing love to one another is the way to be true to who God is.
        If you live in God, and God lives in you,
            there is only one possible result—there will be love.
            If there is not love, there is not God.

So that’s one text for this morning.
    And if that’s all there was,
        it could seem a pretty simple matter to preach about.
    We just keep repeating it, like a mantra,
        “God is love.” “Love one another.”
    As true as that is, it is also not very specific.
        It’s in the specifics, that love gets a little complicated,
            and multi-layered.

The more we examine love in scripture,
    the more we discover that love is not what our culture thinks it is.
    Author Leonard Sweet wrote, rather imaginatively,
        that our culture has turned the concept of “love”
            into the spiritual equivalent of acid rain,
                it looks and feels good coming down,
                but it eats away at the stone of our great cathedrals.
        It looks life-giving, but it’s been polluted,
            and over time it erodes truth and beauty.

Love, the way it gets thrown around in popular culture,
    is often cheap, and shallow.
    To the point where most people think love is an
        emotional state you fall into, and have no control over,
        instead of a way of life that you choose.
    To the point where, in the top 100 movie quotes of all time, #13 is
        “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,”
            which is utter nonsense.

In John 15, Jesus makes sure we don’t confuse love
    with nonsense and sentimentality.
    He puts God’s love in a context that gets real, and gets complicated.

Here we are told that Jesus is a vine,
    we the branches,
    and God the gardener.

That’s an entirely different metaphor than last week.
    Last Sunday we imagined God as Shepherd, and us as sheep.
    We pictured Jesus the Good Shepherd,
        taking risks to protect, to guide, to love the sheep.
    That was comforting,
        even if it did get turned around,
        and we got asked to take the risk of also being the shepherd.

But here, in the same Gospel of John, a few chapters later,
    Jesus illustrates again the message of God’s love,
        but with a new set of images.
    Images not as warm and fuzzy as sheep.

Now Jesus as vine, and we as branches—is not too hard to grasp.
    Jesus is my life-source.
        And as I stay connected to the vine, I will bear fruit.

    But then we see a picture of God as gardener.
        Now if this is God, and God is love,
            this picture makes us pause, if we’re honest.
    God is depicted as someone who comes along
        whacking off vines that aren’t bearing enough fruit,
        and throwing them into the fire.

We didn’t get that impression last Sunday.
    God the Good Shepherd never whacked any sheep across the head
        who weren’t growing enough wool.
    The Good Shepherd never kicked any sheep out of the sheepfold.
        If they wandered off, he went looking for them.

    This is harsh.
    If the branch doesn’t bear fruit, whack it off and burn it!
        How do we reconcile that with “God is love.”

But if we spend a little time with this image, and this text,
    we might see the heart of the matter.
Is this mainly a story about a pruning knife and bonfire?
    Or is it about the deep and abiding love of God?
        Obviously, I think it’s about love.
    This is about the love of a gardening God
        who dearly loves what’s growing in the garden.
    There is nothing this gardener wants more,
        than to see these branches green and healthy
            and connected to the vine.
    Nothing would satisfy this gardener more
        than finding beautiful, luscious grapes
            hanging on the branches.
    That’s what this story is about.

Some of you are serious gardeners.
    I’ve walked through many of your gardens,
        and the beauty is awe-inspiring.
    It’s not just the beautiful fruit and flowers that amaze me.
        I’m awed by all the love and care you put into it.
    You gardeners love the earth and love creation,
        and love to partner with God to nurturing life.

    So . . . if you love those plants so much,
        why is it, sometimes,
        I see piles of perfectly good branches stacked by the curb,
            ready to be hauled off.
    Well, you’ve been pruning, out of love.
        If you love gardening, you also find joy
            in cutting back excess growth
            in just the right amount,
            at the right spot,
            at the right time,
                in order to shape the plant,
                and plan for future growth.
        You cut off, in love, without malice,
            what looks good today,
            to maximize its beauty tomorrow.

    You never cut off a branch for spite.
    Neither does God.

That helps me read John 15.
There is nothing God desires more for me, a branch on the vine,
    than to see me grow and be fruitful—
        than to have me receive his life and love through the vine,
        and pass on that life to others through the fruit I bear.
    That’s what the loving, gardening God desires,
        and that’s what God works for.

This is a metaphor of God’s love, not God’s arbitrary wrath.
    God doesn’t whack off whole branches, and whole people,
        to separate them from God’s life and love.
        That’s not what is happening here.
        That’s not to say there is no judgement for evildoers,
            or that there isn’t a price to pay for rebellion against God.

But this is a metaphor primarily about pruning, motivated by love.
    God the good gardener doesn’t cut off arbitrarily.
    No, God gets rid of unnecessary growth.
    We have a tendency to allow extra stuff to get attached to our lives.
        Stuff that distracts, saps life and energy,
            keeps us from setting fruit.
        That’s true for the branches, individually,
            and it’s true collectively, as a church.

        Yes, when God prunes,
            it might be painful to let go of some of that stuff.
            It may look perfectly healthy,
                but if it’s sapping life, and not letting the fruit set,
                it needs to go.
            Because we were created for fruit-bearing.

    God does not cut us off from the vine,
        as long as we are being and becoming
        the fruitful vine God created us to be.

What is needed from us,
    is openness to the nurturing care of a loving God.
    We are not expected to manufacture fruit.
        We are not a factory.
        We are a living branch.
    The life that produces fruit flows from God,
        through Christ the vine, and
        through us the branch, and
        on to the fruit.
    We are the conduit.
    What is asked of us is only to abide in God, to stick with God.
        Stick with me, and I will stick with you, Jesus says.
        God will do the rest.
            God will send the life and nutrients.
            And fruit will come.

It’s what we call grace.
Life and love are gracious gifts from God.
    We don’t manufacture fruitfulness.
    We don’t create healthy branches.
    We don’t save ourselves from the lopping shears or the bonfire.
We just stick with God.
We allow ourselves to be placed where God can do what God will do.
    And life will follow.
    And love will follow.

That is one of the wonderful words of life to us this Easter season.
    God is love.
    And if we abide in God’s love, God’s love will abide in us,
        and we will be different people because of it.
        We will be fruitful people because of it.

This image of the vine is also a wonderful image of the church.
    As every branch finds its life source in the one vine,
        we are organically connected to every other branch.
    That same life courses through every branch and leaf and tendril.
        What comes from God flows
            into us and through us,
            into others and through others,
            and back to us, and then to still others,
                and we become an intertwined and interdependent
                community of life and love and hope.
        We become God’s fruitful garden.

Thus, love of God will result in love of each other.
    That’s how it works, organically.
        If there is not love for others in our body,
            if there is not an orientation towards others in the church,
            if there is not a natural bent toward our sisters and brothers,
            then there is reason to suspect some blockage,
                in the flow of life and love from God to us.
            Maybe we let a foreign object clog things up.
            Maybe we let our lives be taken over
                by wild, unmanaged growth of extra stuff
                that’s distracting us, and sapping life from us,
                    and some pruning is in order.

Whatever the case, I invite us,
    the garden of believers at Park View Mennonite,
    to open ourselves to all that this rich image
        might mean to us,
        that we might live the fruit-bearing life God intends.

—Phil Kniss, May 3, 2015

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