Friends.

John 15:9-17 

9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 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. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servantsany longer, because the
servantdoes not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. 

What does Jesus’ love look like? Oftentimes I’m asked at weddings to read the “love chapter” found in 1 Corinthians 13. It has beautiful poetry, but it’s not about love between two persons…no one can love that way except for God. It’s a chapter describing perfect love, sit back, close your eyes, soak in these words as if God is speaking directly to you: 

13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,but do not have love, I gain nothing. 

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an
end.
11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly,but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. 

Wow. And, this is what Jesus is saying to us. Live, or abide, remain in my love. Jesus isn’t going anywhere, as a matter of fact, Jesus is present with us, right now…as we sit in our homes or in these pews, wondering what’s going to happen next in this pandemic, what is the new “normal”, we are not alone. Jesus is with us…and is chasing after us…won’t give up on us. 

One of my best friends in my twenties was Jay. I’ve talked about him before. Jay was simply amazing. Great athlete, musician, lots of charisma, looked like James Dean. His family had owned the patent to frozen yeast and also owned several bakeries throughout the world. He seemingly had it made. Yet, underneath, he was deeply struggling with the death of his dad in his teenage years and his mom’s impending death during much of our 20’s through MS. 


He was a Young Life leader, but after a while, quit that, left the church, and went into a season of life trying to numb himself of the pain.

Jay and I still got together, he was one of my best friends. But, there was a period of a few months where we weren’t around each other. We got together for dinner with a friend and he leaned over to me and told me, “I’m back”. He went on to say that he simply could not get away from God. That God kept on chasing him even when he was so numb from whatever he was using and whoever he was using. God’s love broke through. I believe that God’s love was even more real and deeper during Jay’s season of numbness. 

Years later, Jay continues to cultivate an understanding of love and grace. His legacy, friendship, and love for others bears so much fruit. Honestly, I’m standing here the person that I am in many ways because of Jay. 

Jesus was and is present with each of us. It’s hard, I know, especially in this season of disruption to recognize that…but when we begin to move towards understanding ourselves, asking the really hard questions and confronting the things in our lives that prevent us from experiencing the depth in knowing who we are and who God, we can begin to truly be present with ourselves, others, and God. We begin to experience love. 

I had a different spiritual director for a long time, Todd Long, before my present spiritual director, Father Richard Bollmer. Both of them have been great reminders to me of what it means to practice being present with my stuff and with God and others. Also, making sure that I take time to go and meditate, unplug, rest, and simply be either at home, in my office, or in special places like the Abbey of Gethsemani in KY. 

One of the disciplines that they have encouraged me with is to cultivate loving presence through “obedience”. Jesus, in this morning’s passage commands us to love God. An act of obedience is to love, and to love well. As we do that, we begin to understand deeply that Jesus is truly our friend and that leads to other friendships. 

Friendship means a lot to me. I am committed to folks and I want and need that commitment from them. As your pastor, I have made a commitment in my vows to be your friend. And, in your vows when you called me here, you committed to be my friend. As I’ve stated before, church is not a business, and it’s not just a family, it’s a family business with deep roots. 

As I practice friendship, sometimes in beautifully messy ways! I find that our friendships leads towards common good and growth. Many of my friends in this city and around the world are all working towards seeing goodness happen in communities with the church being at the center of that…being a place of generosity and momentum towards others and each other. 

We trust each other, deeply. Many of these friends speak for me and I for them. That trust is also happening here and we’re seeing the fruit of it in many ways already. 

Sometimes we may think that we’d like to simply shirk away from friendship, from being present. Yet, as we read this morning, God says to us, you didn’t choose this friendship, I chose you. I think that says so much about God…a practical takeaway from what I’m sharing is this…YOU are loved, God is present with you, cultivate that understanding, and know that God desires for the best for you…and for this church. 

I think that’s why I’m so confident about what we are about at Fleming Road UCC. I don’t know what the future holds, I don’t know what church will look like after this pandemic, but I know that we are here, present with one another and that we are together in this and will grow and change. We will move towards a great story…Jesus says again in this week’s passage that he will give us whatever we ask for! It’s interesting that Jesus said this in last week’s passage and now again this week…And, here we are, we are in this liminal space, this threshold in culture, and as a church, and as persons! We live in “apocalyptic” times…folks often think that means the end of the world, all of it…no, it’s simply a term that says that some things are ending in order to make room for something new to emerge..over time. And, in God, and in God’s love, we can place our faith in that it will be good for us and for others. 

Believe it…accept it. Receive this love and bear fruit! And, remember these words:

Jesus embodies this love, Jesus is here, present with you through his spirit the Holy Spirit, that connects all of us and all of this…and ultimately keeps us firmly in friendship with God.  

May we love one another and our neighbors (which means everyone) well! 

Vineyard.

John 15:1-8 

15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunesto make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 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. 5 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. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and becomemy disciples. 

A few weeks ago, I was running by the church one morning.  It was the day that folks came to take down the tree in the front of the church.  It was quite the operation.  Neighbors of our church, a young family, were watching.  I stopped to talk to them as we have met a few times before.  They asked about the tree, I told them it was dead and that it needed to come down.  They asked what we would replace it with.  I told them I didn’t know.  As the conversation went on, I shared with them a vision from some members of our church of starting a community garden on our property somewhere…they responded with, “if y’all ever do that, we are in, we’d love to help as we love to garden!”  

Debbie, my amazing spouse, also loves to garden.  We have a small garden bed next to our house, as well as flower gardens around the house (which we try to keep our dogs out of!).  The other day, when I came back from my run, Debbie was working in the garden with a young neighbor friend of ours, Aniya.  This young girl simply loved getting her hands dirty and being with Debbie.  

It’s safe to say, that gardens are great metaphors and images.  

In our passage this morning, the imagery of God as a master gardener speaks to us as a beautiful metaphor. God has given us life and cultivates us to be the best versions of ourselves, beautiful creations. God even plants himself into humanity. Jesus, Immanuel, God with us. Jesus is often called the “seed” of humanity, and that seed grows or works its way throughout humanity, producing much good and beauty in each of us. 

The metaphor of Jesus being the vine, the connection, the bridge if you will between humanity and God…really, is in Jesus’ entire being. Jesus is the “word” that’s been given to us as mentioned in this passage, the expression of God. The one that we are called to follow. The one who’s vine we are the branches. 

The master gardener prunes, works on us, takes away the things that make us dead. Sometimes that pruning, or the literal Greek in this text is “taking away”, can hurt. We don’t like it when we are told that we need to change, that we need to grow. We create habits for getting by that may get us through the day, or even years, but really aren’t healthy or helpful to others around us. We have pride, we have insecurities. 

That’s not only true of each of us, but it’s also true of us collectively as a community and as a church. When I read or hear some of the things on Next Door Finneytown, or talk to other faith leaders across our neighborhood and the city, or listen to business owners or civic leaders, I hear a lot. Sometimes, honestly, there can be some who play something like middle school politics, but it’s more “grown up”. I also see it within our churches and families. We often get into places relationally with each other that simply don’t move us or others forward towards growth. 

We need to be loved on by a master gardener, and cultivate a desire to be with the master gardener…and to be outside, with people, in this master Gardner’s garden…the world!   That love that the master gardner has for us also means pruning some of the things away that are ugly in order for us to see within ourselves, others, the church, and our neighbors that true beauty that we are. 

It’s been pretty obvious for us as a church, community, country, and world, that this pandemic has been a time of pruning, even lament, yet it is producing growth. 

How do we cultivate this way of life where we can see the growth? By remaining in Christ, connected to the vine. This passage is an imperative in the Greek in verse 4. Jesus is stating emphatically to remain in him. Then he says that he will remain in us. This is not a cause and effect statement, or a transactional statement. Jesus is saying that he will remain in us, period. His presence with us is not conditional. He does say though to us, to remain in him. To be connected, to be willing to grow and be beautiful for yourself and for others. I also like the translation, “abide”.  We are to abide with Christ and Christ abides with us. 

If we remain in Jesus, if we follow the trajectory of his words and his life, we seen a radical inclusion of all of our stuff inside of us and outside of us. A radical inclusion that means that we are loved unconditionally, and those around us, no matter where they are in life, are also to be included. 

That can be messy. You have seen it in our relationships, and if you haven’t, you will some day!! I am a fairly solid and mostly competent pastor to Fleming Road UCC (most days), but I also make mistakes, and I certainly don’t have all of the answers. And, our church has made tons of mistakes over the centuries of our mutual existence in the three churches merged into one. None of us have all of the answers, that’s why it’s imperative that we remain in Christ, and remain connected to him and conversely with each other, we can be pruned, we can own our mistakes and lean in on grace, and grow together into a beautiful part of the vineyard here in Cincinnati. 

And, we will bear much fruit in the process…we already have! Live into that, live into God, as God lives in you!!!