A sermon preached on Easter V, April 29, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY. Click here to read today’s scripture. Click the play button below to listen along to a recording.
The image on the front of your bulletin today is a photo of a sculpture by a Westchester County artist named Malcom MacDougall called Rhizome. You can see individual members rising above the surface, while you can also see that they are all attached to something larger, below the surface. This something larger also puts out roots that travel downward.
The word rhizome comes from botany. It’s plant in which the root is really an underground stem that sends out roots into the soil underneath and shoots through the surface above from nodes along its length. Ginger, iris, hops, bamboo, asparagus… all examples of this kind of creature.
It’s also called a rootstock or a creeping rootstock. What is unique about a rhizome is that it’s one big organism that lives underground. What we see above ground are the singular shoots that arise to receive sunlight and release oxygen. And underneath the surface of the earth, these shoots all come off the same organism. You can see this in the cover image.
Aspen groves are commonly known as the largest organisms in the world because their
root structures are rhizomatic. Even though we see individual trees above ground, each aspen trunk is connected into the larger root structure below the earth’s surface. This means that, although the individual trees may only live for up to 150 years above ground, an aspen colony can live much, much longer. For example, it’s estimated that the Pando aspen grove in Utah is somewhere between 80,000 – 1,000,000 years old.
I think this image is helpful in opening up today’s scripture a bit. This image of individual members connected to and sustained by the nourishment offered by the greater colony or community. This image of individual members gathering nourishment, not for themselves but offering it to the larger community so that the community can continue to thrive.
I find this image helpful because this is how God’s love works. When we abide in God’s love and allow ourselves to be nourished by God’s love, what we come to realize is that God is found in and through our love and care for one another. This is the perfect love that casts out fear.
The First Letter of John contains some of the most beautiful language in all of scripture. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God… God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment… those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
Considered to be a part of the Johannine writings, this letter is attributed to the community of John. This means it’s written, not necessarily by the same author as the Gospel of John and the Revelation to John, but through the same school of teaching as those books of scripture. The entire letter is only 5 short chapters, but it contains the most essential teachings of what a community centered in Christ is called to manifest for one another and for the world – this connective force which is God’s Love.
And in today’s Gospel, we learn that it is through Jesus we are able to do this. Jesus reminds his followers that he is the true vine, the manifestation of self-giving love in the world. Jesus, the one who teaches us that to offer oneself in love is the greatest way to receive love, because it is in giving that we receive.
It’s a mature understanding of what love is about. We don’t measure love by what we receive, but by what we give… that is, if we can measure love at all.
As Americans, I know we have trouble truly living into this. Well, as humans, really. I know I have trouble with this. The message of God’s love runs counter to what the culture around us tells us we’re supposed to get.
We want a return on our investment, right? We want more for our money. We tend to feel foolish if we don’t receive something for what we give and we feel gullible if we believe in people. Cynicism and skepticism give us a sense of control, so we won’t look stupid if someone proves to disappoint us. We demand punishment if someone does something wrong, thinking that, unless
someone is made to feel bad, we won’t feel better. We don’t believe in God’s power to transform others so we certainly don’t believe in God’s power to transform us.
This is fear, not love. And fear kills community.
Because when we are too busy in our fearful wanting and protecting, we withhold what we are asked to give. It’s almost as if we say, “You want me to give? Prove that you’re worthy first.” And sometimes we say that very thing.
And this is exactly how we cut ourselves off of the vine that is Jesus. Every time.
We think we’re cutting other people off, but we’re really cutting ourselves off. How can we expect to receive nourishment from a vine if we’re not willing to be fully a part of it, if we’re not willing to fully abide in it?
When we abide in Jesus, he abides in us. When we offer ourselves to one another, when we stop living in the fear that we won’t have enough, we are given so much more than we could possibly imagine.
Jesus says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Now, this isn’t about thinking of God as a vending machine because God is not a vending machine who does our bidding. We don’t pray to God to get what we want. God is not Santa Claus.
Jesus is saying that the practice of offering yourself, which is what it means to abide in Jesus, will change us, will fill us up, will complete us. And we will have all we need and more. We will have all we could possibly ever want.
John’s letter to us reminds us that God’s love is not about personal salvation. God’s love is about salvation through community, through loving one another as fully as we can. As we abide in God, God abides in us. And this is not done individually, this is done collectively – through loving one another, through being a part of the whole.
This letter was written to a community, not to an individual. “Since God loved US (not “since God loved YOU) so much, WE also ought to love one another… Love has been perfected among US in this… because as he is, so are WE in this world… WE love because he first loved US. 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.”
And we’re back to our rhizome. What we see are the individual members… above ground. And we make the mistake of believing that each individual person is just that, disconnected and separate. And that means we believe that we are disconnected and separate. We get upset if we don’t “feel” connected… manifesting as sorrow or loneliness or anger or resentment or envy… but remember that all feelings are transient, fleeting. Feelings don’t make the connection any less real. It is God’s Love that is constant and eternal.
So perhaps remembering the image of the rhizome, may help us to remember the truth. That we are all connected, and it has never been otherwise. And, because of that, we are responsible to the greater whole to stretch our leaves up, allowing God’s glory to shine forth through us, gathering nourishment and giving ourselves fully to the larger community, to love one another through Christ.
This is the perfect love that casts out fear. For why would we fear when we know for certain that we are connected to something larger than ourselves? And why would we fear giving of ourselves as completely as possible if we realize, truly realize, that we will receive whatever it is that we give away?
This is not an easy task, to always remember, to always give so completely of ourselves. We have so much in this world that tells us otherwise, that brings us back to fear again and again and again.
But take heart, my friends, because more than anything else, Christian community is about practicing this love – this perfect love that casts out fear. It’s not that we will ever be perfect, but we practice. We practice living into this perfect love. We practice abiding in Jesus. We practice loving one another.
And what we learn here at this Table every week in our practice together, we take into the world around us, the community we serve, becoming a bridge of God’s Love – connecting, inviting, sharing, and serving.