Below is the audio and text of my sermon, "What We're Doing Here," based on 1 John 4:7-21 and John 15:1-8.
“I don’t even remember what I’m doing here.”
I’m not much of a tent revivalist, so I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, but if I did ask people in this room to raise their hands if they have uttered these words during their time at Wesley Seminary, I bet it would look a lot less mainline and a whole lot more charismatic in here.
“I don’t even remember what I’m doing here.”
Maybe you came into seminary, fresh out of your campus ministry or your young adult mission program, or perhaps transitioning into a new career of calling and passion, fired up for disciple-making and world transformation.
Maybe you thought that the seminary experience would be like Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together,[i] a time of deepening commitment and community and spiritual discipline.
Maybe you came in having experienced the anointing of the Spirit, filled with passion for God’s Word.
And then one day, you found yourself lying in bed or staring at a blank Word document, looking around for that fire, that spirit, that motivation, that discipline.
Maybe it was the seemingly endless barrage of papers and reading.
Maybe it was a mental health crisis or a physical health breakdown – or both.
Maybe it was a disappointing encounter with a classmate or professor, or an experience of racism or sexism or homophobia in what you figured would be a safe space.
But whatever it was, you found yourself saying:
“I don’t even remember what I’m doing here.”
Call it burnout, or diagnose it as depression or anxiety, or name it the dark night of the soul, but I don’t know a single seminarian who hasn’t felt this way, at one point or another during their time here. And I would be remiss if I didn’t say, that it seems to me that if everyone has this experience, then maybe – with respect to all of the wonderful things happening at Wesley, and all the wonderful people – maybe we are doing something wrong, here.
That maybe a system in which grade point averages seem to be weighted heavier than spiritual growth; in which busy-ness and burnout seem to be the norm; and in which monetary and staffing resources can be mobilized for recruitment or new buildings but are suddenly scarce when it comes to spiritual and mental health; is not just a system with some flaws in need of administrative fixes but an unhealthy system in need of some serious healing.
If that sounds harsh, let me put it to you this way:
I think all of us, whether graduating folks such as myself or first year students or the president of the seminary, all of us could use a good, healthy reminder about what it is that we are even doing here.
Fortunately for us, I think our lectionary texts for this week offer us just such a healthy reminder.
Now, scholars debate the exact relationship between the gospel of John and the first epistle of John, neither of which, in the oldest manuscripts, are attributed to anyone in particular. But there are enough linguistic resonances between the two texts for most scholars to agree that there is at least a shared context, perhaps a shared community or group of communities, from which both of today’s passages emerged.[ii]
Both texts make the claim that there is no Christian community, no fruitful Christian discipleship, without a deep connection to – and an inhabiting of – the love of God. God’s love, made present to us in real and material ways in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, is the source of Christian life. It is the vine of which we are intertwined branches, the sustenance that produces fruit, the shelter under which we dwell.
The literature of the Johannine community calls us back to the place we started, to the original source of our calling as disciples. I don’t mean our individual “call stories.” I mean the love that vastly precedes our stories, the fertile soil out of which our experiences of Christian community grow. These texts are a re-membering, a re-turning to, the love that’s loved us from the start.
In English translation, the Johannine literature can seem complex, but that’s because we’re struggling to translate simplistic Greek without sounding redundant. Our own Dr. Sharon Ringe theorizes that the vocabulary had to be simple because the Johannine community was an in-between community, an immigrant community in the Jewish diaspora struggling to translate concepts between an Aramaic-speaking older generation and Greek-speaking young folks.[iii] African American New Testament scholar Thomas B. Slater refers to the Johannine epistles as an example of “Grandma Theology” – with simple, repeated refrains and riffs on traditional sayings that even your grandma can say “Amen!” to.[iv]
One of those repeated refrains is the Greek word, meno. The word shows up a combined total of 16 times in our two texts this morning, although English versions often obscure the repetition with various interpretive choices. You could translate it as “abide,” or “remain,” or “stay,” or “dwell,” or “live in.” It’s a word that speaks of rootedness in an uprooted world; interconnection in a world of disconnection; indwelling in a world of isolation and alienation. And it offers us exactly the healing antidote we need to that sinking feeling when we don’t even remember what it is that we’re doing here.
The Johannine authors imagine this divine, loving interconnection with a three-fold directionality: from God to us; from us to God; and between all of us in community. First, God initiates connection. John’s Jesus is the vine from which the branches must sprout. No vine, no branches. The epistle writer puts it simply: “Love is from God,” and also, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us,” sending Jesus to atone, to reconcile, to overcome disconnection and alienation and to express solidarity and incarnational love. Before we can act, it is God who meno-s, abides, dwells, interconnects with us. So the first thing we are reminded of this morning is that when we do not know what we are doing, God takes the initiative to heal and to restore our sense of connection.
But our texts also make it clear that God’s initiative invites response. As God menos with us, we meno – we re-connect – with God. The language of John 15 seems harsh at first: “Whoever does not abide in Jesus is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Sounds merciless. But have you ever felt that way? Cut off from the source of your life and your call? Withered, dried up, burnt out? I sure have. It feels a whole lot like, “I don’t even remember what I’m doing here.” How easy it is to lose our sense of connection with the divine. How easy to forget to pray, to forget to find spaces of worship and wonder in our lives. How easily cut off we are, how easily burnt out.
The Johannine authors also emphasize that there is no abiding in God separate from reconnecting with each other in a community of disciples. The epistle writer is characteristically blunt: “those who do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Jesus doesn’t do the incarnational love thing so that we don’t have to. The branches of the vine do not exist in isolation from each other – they all intertwine.
So there you have it. Three point sermon. God connects with us, we connect with God, we connect with each other. Easy, right?
Of course it isn’t.
Of course there’s a million and one things in this world that are trying to cut us off from God and each other.
When depression and anxiety come calling, making us feel cut off and isolated – we experience disconnection.
When shame and fear override our willingness to take creative risks – we experience disconnection.
When stress and burnout obscure our vision and our call – we experience disconnection.
When systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia inhibit us from seeing each other as fully human – we experience disconnection.
When sexual violence becomes stunningly commonplace on college campuses --
When yet another unarmed African American man is killed by police --
And yet another transgender woman of color is murdered for who she is --
And yet another natural disaster causes havoc and unmasks economic disparities --
And yet another violent conflict fueled by U.S.-funded militaries breaks out in the Middle East –
We experience disconnection.
It is easy to sentimentalize this morning’s texts. It is easy to make words like “abide” and “love” into pastel-colored bookmarks and Christian bookstore kitsch.
But it is hard, in the midst of a world fraught with disconnection, alienation, and isolation, to live lives of connection, lives of abiding and indwelling love. And that’s our original call, vastly prior to any considerations about ordination committees and seminary degrees.
A lot of us have been taught, I think, that we need self-care and spiritual practices and supportive community so that we can be rested and healthy when the time comes to go back out and do all that hard church work that we’re just temporarily taking a break from. The unintended consequence of this way of thinking is that we end up believing that if we just bear down, if we just push through, if we just finish one more paper or schedule one more meeting or create one more program, then we’ll have done enough, then we can rest, then we can enjoy life together. What the Johannine authors challenge us to see is that time spent abiding – praying and playing, connecting with God through the means of grace and with each other through the tough work of Christian community – isn’t a break from the real work of the church. It is the church. It’s who we are created to be. The fruit-bearing ministry of Christian discipleship is only ever a participation in the work of God in the world. And it turns out that God is up to exactly what God’s been up to from the beginning: overcoming disconnection and alienation; re-creating connection and community; through risky vulnerability, incarnational solidarity, and abiding love.
What does that look like in action? As usual, there are more questions than answers, and more stories than how-to guides. So here is one such story. Last January I had the opportunity to spend a week or so in Baltimore with Wesley’s urban ministry immersion. We were a diverse group, with students from as far away as South Korea and as close to home as Sandtown. We were quite a sight, a gaggle of seminarians, African American and White and Korean and Latina, wandering around in a city which, like so many of our cities, is still largely divided along lines of race and power.
One of the sites we visited during our time together was the United Methodist Board of Child Care, a ministry for children who need levels of support beyond what the traditional foster care system can provide. As we toured the campus, one of those children, a young boy who couldn’t have been older than 10, turned the corner and found himself face-to-face with a big group of strangers.
He stopped in his tracks. He stared at us. And he said, with the sort of direct candor that comes naturally to kids:
“Who are all these white people and black people?”
What might it look like to reconnect with our original calling, to go forth to participate in God’s fruit-bearing mission of overcoming disconnection and re-creating connection?
Well, I don’t know, exactly. I’ve got a long way to go, myself.
But I’m pretty sure we’re doing something right when people stop in their tracks. And stare at us. And say:
“Who are all these white people and black people? Who are all these Korean people and African people, these Hispanic/Latina people and Filipina people? Who are all these gay people and these straight people, these cis people and these trans people, these people with varying levels of physical and mental ability? Who are all these people – together?”
And that -- not out of the mouth of the preaching award recipient, but out of the mouth of a kid who’s already been taught too many lessons about disconnection – that
Is what it is that we are supposed to be doing here.
[i] I totally stole this line from Leigh Finnegan.
[ii] See C. Clifton Black’s discussion of this topic in “The First, Second, and Third Letters of John – Introduction,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume XII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 366ff.
[iii] I owe this idea, and many of the ideas driving this sermon, to Dr. Ringe’s class on the Fourth Gospel that I took in the spring of 2014. Many of Dr. Ringe’s insights about John’s gospel are capture in her book, Wisdom’s Friends: Community and Christology in the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Wesminster John Knox, 1999).
[iv] Thomas B. Slater, “1-3 John,” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 504.