1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
Sermon Abiding in Joy
Good morning! Sometimes, when I get into this pulpit, I feel like I’m repeating myself. I suppose all pastors have some messages that they revisit from time to time. Here are some of the kinds of things I say frequently:
· Be the Church.
· Get outside of our walls and be the Church.
· Try new things.
· Deepen your relationships with one another.
· Grow new relationships with people outside of this congregation.
· Get outside of your comfort zone.
I frequently look at my old sermons and sometimes I’m a little surprised at how often some of those themes occur. Then again, my first two pastorates were interim pastorates, so messages about change kinda go with the territory.
You would think that might be different, now that I’m serving as your installed Pastor—there’s nothing interim or temporary about our relationship. But the truth is, the world of ministry is in a constant state of flux; there is change all around us. We’re subject to the larger forces in our society, including the decline in attendance and membership in all churches. Still, sometimes I wonder if you folks are getting bored with me, if I’m repeating myself too often.
Jesus also repeats himself.
And no, I’m not comparing myself to Jesus.
Our Gospel lesson this morning comes from a section of John’s Gospel that scholars call the Farewell Discourse. This is Jesus giving his final instructions to the disciples. These are really important instructions. How do we know this? Jesus has already given these instructions. We know they’re important because Jesus is repeating himself.
In Chapter 13, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and tells them, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:15). This is echoed in this morning’s reading when Jesus tells the disciples: “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last,” (15:16).
After the foot washing in Chapter 13, Jesus gives the disciples a new commandment: “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (13:34). We hear it again in verses 12-17 of this morning’s reading, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” and then Jesus expands on what that means.
I could spend more time explaining the concept of abiding or remaining in Jesus, but I don’t think this passage is particularly difficult to understand. It’s pretty clear. I think Jesus repeats himself for two reasons. First, to underscore how important it is, how central it is to our identity as Christians that we love one another as He loves us. Second, Jesus repeats this commandment because it’s really difficult for us to live into this.
We are all flawed disciples; we all come up short. We fail to fully live into Jesus’ new commandment, all of us. There are as many different reasons for this as there are people in worship. In fact, each of us probably has a bunch of reasons why we fall short. I think one thing that afflicts all of us is fear. I’ve said it before, fear interrupts faith. In this context, fear can interrupt our call to be disciples. Fear and anxiety.
I hear lots of conversations in this congregation about the future of this church. I hear stories of committee meetings that get derailed by conversations about what might happen if we don’t get more young families in worship. Once the discussion starts, it triggers a downward spiral of fear and anxiety. Usually, nothing constructive comes out of these conversations.
What do you think, should we ban these conversations?
Should we vote on this at Session?
I’ve heard that we once had a rule that there were to be no conversations in the parking lot after a Session meeting. Do you think this would work better than the old parking lot rule?
It sounds simple enough, but simplistic solutions such as that are rarely effective. Lucky for us, Jesus offers a better way forward. In verse 16, Jesus tells the disciples: “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.” Essentially, Jesus is telling the disciples to ask God for whatever they might need. That’s it. Just ask God. Just pray for it.
Can it really be that simple?
Yes. Sort of.
Context is everything in this story.
This passage is a sort of ordination. Jesus is telling the disciples that they are ready to do ministry without him. He tells them they are now his friends; they are no longer servants, but equals in ministry. He is reminding them that they can only do this if they abide in his love for them, if they love one another as he has loved them. And just as he is about to lay down his life for them, they must also be willing to lay down their lives for one another.
So, anything that they ask of God, for the purpose of ministry, for the purpose of loving the world as God has loved them—anything they ask of God in this context will be granted to them. This isn’t wish fulfillment. This isn’t, “Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz,” or whatever the equivalent was in Palestine in the first century.
This is Jesus telling the disciples to ask God for what they need to do the work of building the kingdom of God. They’re asking for holy manna; they’re asking for their daily bread. It’s a simple request. It’s the work that’s difficult!
For many of us, that work seems overwhelming. A lot of us are tired and discouraged. The work doesn’t seem difficult, it seems impossible. And the more we think about things, the more we descend into that downward spiral of fear and anxiety. We are abiding in the wrong places, the wrong states of mind.
Remember, we are Christians! We just witnessed the resurrection, and soon we’re going to witness the ascension. Our story is NOT a downward spiral. Our story is one of rebirth and renewal.
A few days ago, I read a story by a man named Scott Cowen. In 2005, Cowen was serving as the provost of Tulane University. In case you aren’t old enough to remember, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, which is where Tulane is located.
Cowen took shelter on campus. He spent five days there, without electricity or running water. Eventually, he was evacuated to a hotel in Houston, but his family were in their summer home on Long Island. He felt alone, overwhelmed and isolated. He called his wife. While they were talking, he broke down. In tears, he confessed that he had no idea what to do next.
Cowen’s wife gave him some simple advice: make a list.
To this day, Cowen makes lists; he thinks it’s an essential strategy for regaining control in a complicated or chaotic situation. He offers the following steps for managing in times of crisis and chaos:
· Make a list.
· Focus on what you can control.
· Seek out other voices.
· Don’t hesitate to ask for help or comfort.
· Take care of yourself.
· Give back.
Cowen’s list applies to all walks of life, particularly secular contexts. For our context, I would add one more item to that list: PRAY!
First and foremost, pray to God! Ask for clarity. Ask for God to show you a way forward. Offer your fears and anxieties to God. Tell God everything you’re scared of, and then ask God to lighten your burden. If you don’t feel an answer or hear an answer right away, that’s okay. Don’t worry. Just keep praying.
Then make a list. You might look at all the things you can do for this congregation. If you’re having trouble with that list, start with the things you’ve already done. Be generous to yourself. You may contribute more than you realize. If nothing else, you can write the word, pray, on that list. You can always pray for this congregation, for its leaders, and for all its people. That’s really important! Even if that’s all you can think of, pray, and then come back to the list the next day. You might find that you have another item to put on the list.
As you’re working on that list, focus on the things that you can control. For the most part, you can’t control how many people walk in our doors on a Sunday. You can’t control whether or not young families will come to worship. You can’t control that, but you’re not helpless. You can invite people to come to church. As with your prayers, you may not get an answer at first, but keep trying.
Similarly, you can’t control whether or not we’ll need to replace the boiler. But you can control your offering. You can also control your participation in the life of this congregation. Maybe you can offer your service to the Property Commission, or one of the other committees that is vital to the functioning of FPC Freehold.
As you make lists and focus on the things that you can control, seek out other voices. Talk to people. Share your ideas. Talk to people about the prayers you have offered to God. Find out what their ideas and experiences are. And listen to their feedback. Sometimes an idea that makes perfect sense to me—even if I think it comes from God—won’t make any sense to you. Talk to other people so you can refine your ideas. And if you haven’t come up with any new ideas, share that with other people. Taking care of this church is the responsibility of the entire congregation; it is not your burden, alone.
Let me repeat that: taking care of this church is not your burden alone. So, if you do have a brilliant idea, get some help with it. Join a committee. Bring your idea to the committee and then all of you can work together on the project you have identified.
Take care of yourselves. Self-care is vitally important as we seek to restore this congregation to health and sustainability. And if you are hurting, ask for care and comfort from the other members of this congregation. Bring your concerns to our prayer angels. And remember, the burden of taking care of this church does not necessarily belong to you when you are struggling. If you are already hurting, you don’t need to make further sacrifices at this moment. Let us care for you.
Finally, give back. We offer our talents, our time, and our treasure to this congregation and to the glory of God. There are so many ways we can give of our time and talents. If you can’t think of a committee to join, please ask. I’d be happy to introduce you to any of our committee chairs, or even another member of this community who has a similar interest.
You are all faithful stewards of this congregation. If you have the means to increase your financial support of this congregation, please consider increasing your pledge. You might also consider a one-time donation to help reduce our mortgage, or you might make a planned donation to leave some sort of legacy to the mission or maintenance of this church.
Your financial support won’t bring new people into our sanctuary, but it will help to ensure we don’t leave a legacy of debt to future generations.
I’ve laid out enough ideas for one sermon. Yes, it’s a lot of information, but it’s also a reminder that we are neither helpless nor hopeless. We are Christians! We are an Easter people. Our story is not just the cross, but also the resurrection and the ascension. Our story is the building of the kingdom of God, the ongoing work of reconciliation. To do this, to live into this reality, we have to set aside fear and anxiety. We have to act, so that we may abide in joy. Won’t you join me in this? Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, as you depart from this place, abide in joy. Be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Ame