November 6, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
What Lets Us Go
(sixth in the series “Following Jesus through the Fourth Gospel”)
A few weeks ago, the Rock Island Police Department offered a community meeting on the topic of Nine-One-One. We got to go upstairs in the police station and see the mission control center for the Nine-One-One calls that come into Rock Island. Several times, the communication specialist emphasized that there is one question the dispatcher will ask a caller before any other question.
If you had asked me before this meeting, I would have guessed the most urgent question would be something like: Are you breathing? Or maybe, Is the building you’re in on fire? Or maybe, Can you still hear the gun shots? No. None of those questions. It’s not even, What is your name? Or, Do you speak English? The question that must get answered before any other question is this: What is your location? Where are you?
And they will work with you to figure that out. They’ll ask, Do you see a piece of mail that might have the address of your location? Breathing, fire, gun shots, all of that, comes next. First, you’ve got to know your location.
Where are you? is one of the most powerful questions we human people can ask. You are not here; I need to find you. And so it is that Where are you? is also a common question to ask when somebody dies.
If you’ve answered the phone and you’re hearing the news that someone has died, you might feel the impulse to show up and be close to the people you love. Even before all the questions of how, and why, and how could this happen, you might hear yourself speaking the words that go, “Where are you right now? I’m coming over.”
Where are you? is also a question we might ask a person who’s dying. They might be drifting in and out of consciousness, in and out of our reality. It’s like the dying person is going somewhere else, but where? Maybe your body is here and you still have a pulse, but really, where are you? Because the thing about where we are, this can change, this keeps changing.
Now the goal of the question is not to render a judgment. It’s not to ask a follow up like: What are you doing in that neighborhood? Why did you go there? No. Recognizing that we are in different places is important because that’s how we can meet up.
The reason to ask “Where are you?” is so the very next thing we can say is, “We’re coming to help. We’re on our way.”
Today we’re continuing our sermon series on the Gospel of John. Now this gospel is famous for lifting up pairs of opposites. There’s day and night, life and death, insiders and outsiders. The problem is not the opposites, the problem comes if we think of the Gospel as a series of still images, as though light is here and darkness is there, or Lazarus is here and Judas is there, and everything is neatly sorted into its right place. When really, that’s not it at all.
In the Fourth Gospel, time is ticking, and the earth is turning, and everything is in motion. So night spills into day, and life spills into death, and the outsiders come in and nothing and nobody stays in their assigned place. One man gets up from the dead; another gets onto his knees to wash feet.
The scripture we hear this morning comes when Jesus is sitting around the table with his disciples, and he is trying to prepare them for his death. He has just described the Holy Spirit as the one who will come alongside you, and “I will no longer say very much” he tells them, “so let’s rise and be on our way.” Okay. Except then Jesus sits back down, so everyone sits back down, and he starts in on a new description of their relationship.
I am the vine, and my father is the vinegrower, and you are the branches. “Abide in me,” Jesus tells them. “And I will abide in you.” This mutual abiding is what allows the branches to grow fruit. See they have to be connected to the vine; more than anything, it’s their location that matters. Now where are you? In Christ. And Christ is in us, and the Father is in the Son, and the Son is in the Father, and we abide in each other. We abide in God… Except what if we don’t?
I recently had the privilege of reading this passage with a person who is not affiliated with any religion. We got to verse six and he gave me a look that said, “What am I supposed to do with this?” In verse six Jesus says, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered and throne into the fire.” This man felt like this verse was talking about him.
Now if some people are the branches who bear fruit and other people are the branches who wither and burn, then this is a terrible threat. But I don’t think Jesus is talking about two opposite groups of people. I think Jesus is naming different places we all find ourselves at some point or another.
There might be times when you find yourself deeply connected to the love of Christ… You see the sun rising over the river, and feel a warmth down deep in your bones, it’s like your whole being has become a prayer. You feel God in you and you’re in God; your soul is singing in harmony with creation.
Then there are other times. You can’t even find the words to say a prayer. Sure, maybe you believe all the same things you’ve always believed, but something has happened to your faith. Like it lost its breath or it’s burnt out. When we find ourselves in that place, please know Jesus is not gathering up our pieces to throw in the fire.
Jesus is the one who’s saying, “Where are you? I’m coming to help. I’m on my way.”
In the scripture Ed read Jesus is pleading with the disciples to abide in me, as I abide in you. Just be here, just live here, and the love of God will flow through you and bear fruit. As though maybe we could keep this forever. As though Jesus is calling us to make our home in him, then maybe we could just stay home. I will live in Christ, Christ will live in you, God will live in us. We’ll be a self-contained system comfortable and safe, love bounding from one to another and back again… As though love would let us.
I know it is good to be home. In recent years, we’ve been asking people, What do you like most about Church of Peace? The most popular answer is: The church feels like a family; it feels like home. We are always learning how to love each other and how to grow deeper in this love.
If you have ever been ferociously homesick —I don’t mean a wistful, “oh I miss being in my own room” —I mean ugly sobbing-on-the-floor homesick, then you understand. If you have ever been longing for family that is not there, for a person who is not coming back, then you can understand why finally feeling at home in a loving family might seem like a well-answered prayer. You made it here. For the love of God, let’s stay in the house and hold onto each other.
In my time of being in this home with this family, what I keep learning is, the love shared in this place does not stay in this place. This is the love of God. The compassion here spills into prayers for a sister who lives in another state, into making the third floor welcoming to children whose parents come into our church to learn English, into bringing Dr Seuss to the children at the Academy.
Pretty soon you can’t even tell the difference between who’s part of the family and who isn’t. You can’t tell the difference between inreach and outreach, it’s all the same love. And this love will not stay inside where it’s safe.
Jesus is trying to prepare the disciples for his death, and we’re not wrong to hear the comfort in his words. But he is concerned about something greater than making them feel safe. He needs the disciples to get up from the table and go into the world, and Jesus, see, I really don’t want to. I’ll live in you, and you’ll live in me, and can’t we just stay here. But that’s no way to bear fruit.
See time is ticking, and the earth is turning, and everything is in motion. Opposites spill into each other, so abiding in Christ has very little to do with staying home and exactly everything to do with going out to the place that is dangerous.
Love is what lets us go answer the door and let a stranger come in.
Love is what lets us go right into the terror —whether that terror is coming into this place, or going to the garden where Judas is waiting with the soldiers to arrest you, or going to sit next to the person who hurt you fifteen years ago. Love lets us go where we’re afraid to go because, you know, that’s where we’ll meet up with each other.
Maybe this is comforting or maybe this is threatening, but this love that dwells in God, that dwells in you, cannot be taken away by any force— not death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything in all creation.
This love is what lets us go answer the phone, so as a church we can say: “Where are you? We’re coming to help. We’re on our way.”
You can expect, that’s when we’ll hear Christ say, “Welcome home.”
May it be so. Amen.