The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.
Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859.
Order of Worship | Easter 5
We acknowledge we are gathering on land where Miami, Osage, Shawnee, and other Indigenous peoples have lived and labored, fought, and loved. We continue to work and pray for justice and conciliation.
Call to Worship
VT 422 | Called or Not Called | Brody Thomas, vocals and instruments
VT 587 | In the Quiet Curve of Evening | Katie Graber, vocals and instruments
Scripture | 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-5
Sermon | Deep and Wide
VT 502 | Abide with Me | Point Grey Inter-Mennonite Fellowship
Mission Moment | BREAD
Sharing of Joys and Concerns
Extinguishing the Peace Candle
Cookie Sunday | 11:00 am
Thanks to everyone who helped lead today’s service
Sermon: Mark Rupp
Worship Leader: Kelsey Ryan-Simkins
Music coordination: Katie Graber
Children’s Time: Dan Halterman
Mission Moment: Phil Hart
Peace Candle: Brent Miller, Megan Stauffer-Miller, Lydia, and Isaac
Scripture Reading: Lavonne van der Zwaag and Joel Call
Zoom Host: Gretchen Geyer
A few years ago I sought out the sage advice of some of Columbus Mennonite’s fine gardeners. My husband and I had decided we wanted to do more with the limited gardening spaces we have at our current apartment. More specifically, we were hoping to find some kind of plant that would be a good fit for the north side of our garage where there is a small plot of bare earth and lots of boring gray cinder block wall as a blank canvas. Our hope was to find a plant that would vine its way up the wall, clinging to the cinder block as it climbed and covering the otherwise dull garage. And if it flowered, that would be a nice bonus too.
I never had any doubt in our many fine gardeners, so it’s no surprise that they had a recommendation for me right away. The plant they suggested was a climbing hydrangea, and they pointed out to me that CMC has one growing up the wall just to the left around the corner of the main entrance. I checked out the plant that I had probably walked by 100 times without ever really noticing and realized this was exactly what we were looking for.
Thankfully we were able to find one at the local nursery without too much trouble, and we got it in the ground without needing to wait too long.
I was warned that these climbing hydrangeas can take some time to really get going and probably wouldn’t even flower for a couple years, so I wasn’t too worried when the first year barely saw any growth. The second year we started to see a bit more growth, and the first branches started to vine their way up the wall a bit. I was a little impatient and worried when I realized the vines weren’t clinging to the wall very well, but over time the tiny little root tendrils began to latch on to the wall and allow for the branches to slowly climb to greater heights.
By the end of last fall, our plant had begun to really gain some height, and it had a decent core that seemed solidly attached to the wall. I even had to redirect one of the vines from growing too far in the wrong direction and trying to creep in the garage door. There were still no flowers, but we have been hopeful that this might be the year.
Indeed, with the early warm weather this Spring, it had already started to leaf pretty abundantly with lots of new vines shooting out in many different directions. As we have been wont to do during the pandemic (while so little else is going on in our lives), we found ourselves checking on its progress way more often than is probably reasonable.
And then the late April snow came.
I think my disdain for snow is probably already pretty well documented at this point, so I was already feeling a little peeved when I woke up and saw how much had fallen overnight last week. But it wasn’t until I made it to the kitchen and looked out the back window at our promising little hydrangea that my heart really sank. The sudden temperature change and the weight of the wet snowfall were too much for it, and the upper 2-3 feet of growth had not only detached from the wall but had snapped down at a sharp angle.
Maybe it’s because I already hate snow or maybe it’s because we’re all doing the best we can to hold it together and survive a global pandemic, but seeing the bulk of our once promising plant now broken and bent low really sunk me.
I had known for quite awhile that the lectionary passages for this Sunday included the passage from John where Jesus says, “I am the vine,” and so I had been watching the hydrangea’s vining branches out my home office window as I considered his words. I think I had been expecting some nice, quant object lesson to emerge as I wistfully contemplated what it means for us to be branches abiding in Jesus the vine, tended by God the vine grower.
I wanted a nice, flowery, hopeful image to share with the congregation, but instead I got what is probably a much more realistic depiction of what this past year has felt like for many of us. While it might be true that a late April snowstorm should not have been as much of a surprise as the sudden onset of a global pandemic, the experience of a large weight suddenly falling upon us, leaving us with huge parts of our lives that feel disconnected from what we once knew and, perhaps, took for granted, this feels strangely familiar.
And so I turn again to Jesus’ words, hoping new insights emerge to speak to this moment.
Any time I’ve heard this passage from John’s gospel, the parts where Jesus talks about pruning and withering and casting aside the branches that bear no fruit to be burned, these have always seemed a bit harsh, just another way to separate who’s in and who is out. And when I think of the image of my own backyard vine with it’s fallen branches snapped off from the source of their sustenance and life by forces beyond their control, I feel compelled to remind all of us that God does not will suffering and pain for any of us. The hardships and trauma we face are not divine punishment or pruning intended to cause harm. Any attempt to make sense of the pandemic or other sources of such immense suffering by asserting that they are God’s punishment completely misses the point.
Our actions do have consequences, yet we live in a world entangled by actions and consequences that often have little to do with the direct choices we have made. Instead of getting caught up trying to figure out where to place blame or why suffering happens, Jesus invites us to understand that the judgement of God is always about pointing us to the fruit. It is about reminding us to pay attention to what brings new life and what leads toward death, and to be willing to do what’s necessary to make way for life. Instead of being the cause of suffering and pain, what we find is a God who shows up to sit with us in that suffering, a God who abides, assuring us over and over again that love is stronger than hate, that new life can always spring forth from places of death.
In John’s gospel there are seven instances where Jesus teaches using “I am” statements. I am the bread of life, the light of the world, the door, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life. Here in John 15 we find the final instance of these “I am” teachings; the final chance to directly teach his followers who he is and, by extension, who God is before the events of holy week begin to unfold. “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” All of these teachings reveal something about who God is, and this final teaching reminds us that God is the source of life, the source of all goodness and love that flows outward into the world.
This teaching is also an invitation to abide in that goodness, to draw deeply from the well of love that empowers and sustains us. As the final “I am” teaching, maybe Jesus could see that his time with the disciples was running short and wanted to help them understand what it means to continue to thrive and grow. The vines and branches that grow upward and outward will continue to be fruitful if they remain deeply connected to their source. But let’s not forget that the invitation Jesus offers is “Abide in me as I abide in you.” The ground of our being, the source of love is always there available to us if we remain open to it.
But what does all of this really look like? What does it mean to abide in God as God abides in us?
There is some debate over whether the author of the gospel of John is the same as the author of the epistles of John. What is clear enough, however, is that they seem to come out of the same school of thought. Using much of the same language, our passage from 1st John offers us a much fuller picture of what it means to abide with God.
One commentator I read this week referred to the 1st John passage as a “dart board” passage: if you put it up on the wall, you can throw a dart and anywhere you hit will be a bullseye because it’s all so good. Sure enough, this passage contains the verse that Joel referenced last week that I think sums up my own views on faith in the most simplest terms: God is love.
But more so to our question for this morning, that verse goes on to speak to the idea of abiding that Jesus mentions. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Abiding in God means abiding in love. But just in case we get tempted to leave it there in these floating abstract terms, the author makes sure we know in no uncertain terms what it means to love God when they write, “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.”
Too often we get stuck on this notion that loving God means picturing an old man in the sky and trying our hardest to put some emotional attachment behind this image we have created in our minds. Even when we become too smart for the notion of an old man in the sky, this kind of theology can be hard to fully eradicate. We forget that the simple dictum, “God is love” means that God is not a thing or a person in any way that we can conceive or see with our eyes or imaginations. God is more verb than noun; God is more like a way of relating, an experience of deep connectedness that melds immanence and transcendence.
Abiding in God means falling in love over and over again with the people and the world around us because it is in these experiences of connection that we come to know God.
This past week, theologian and historian Diana Butler Bass wrote a blog article reflecting on the question she has received many times in the last few months: How is Christianity going to be changed by the pandemic? She admits that nobody can really know, but she suggests that the best course is to focus on the present, to assess where we are now before we even begin to think about where we might be headed.
And where we are now, she offers, is lost. This past year has brought many losses, but it has also left us feeling lost, mislaid, dislocated, and (I would add) disconnected. Bass outlines four ways that we as a society are experiencing this dislocation: temporal, historical, physical, and relational. We barely know what day or month it is, we’ve lost a sense of where we are in our stories both personal and communal, the virtual world has left us clamoring for practices of embodiment, and so many of our daily interactions have been completely upended.
With these present realities firmly in focus, the task of the Church becomes clear: relocation, reconnection, repair, and re-grounding. At the end of the article, Bass points out that the root of the word religion comes from Latin roots meaning “to bind together.” Perhaps the future of the Church will continue to be what the Church was always meant to be, a place of deep connection and of binding together that which has come undone.
Here at Columbus Mennonite we are asking our own form of the question that Bass was presented with. It has become our practice over the last few years to wrestle with “open questions” that are meant to get us thinking about where God is calling us next. Last week during the congregational meeting we had a chance for small groups to reflect on these questions, and I couldn’t help but continue to think on them as I studied the scriptures for this week.
Our questions for this year are: As Anabaptists, how do we become the kind of community we hope to see in society? How do we take that out into the world? And, how are we being called to grow and change?
Growth and change. Becoming the community we hope to see. Out into the world.
These open questions are supposed to be too big for any easy answers, so I won’t try to offer any here. What I will say, however, is that whatever ways we are being called to grow, my hope is that we can heed the call to abide, to make sure we are tapping into the deep roots of love and connection that will sustain us as we spread branches wide to bear whatever new fruit is beginning to bloom.
After a few days of sulking over the sudden dislocation and disconnection of our climbing hydrangea, I had a thought. I did some quick Googling and found that it might be possible to take some of the growth that had become disconnected from the root and propagate new plants. Possible though definitely not a given. And so now a few of the dislocated branches sit in jars of water as I hold on to the idea that maybe, just maybe the source of growth they need never really left them.
I don’t know what will become of these hopeful little branches, but I do know that no matter how disconnected, dislocated, or lost any of us may find ourselves feeling these days, that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God, our source of being that abides in us as we abide in it.
And so, my wish for us, my friends, is:
- That through rain or snow or global pandemic, we would continue to find ways to grow and change
- That wherever that growth and change take us, we would always remember we are never far from love, the source and purpose of our being.
- And finally, that we would fall in love in new ways every single day and in each new connection find our eyes opening to the Divine all around, within, and before us.