John 15:1-8, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”
1 John 4:7-21, “Whoever does not love does not know God.”
“So where are you from?” is the question that many of us ask, or are asked, when we meet someone.
And in the case of my wife Dena and I, we are often told, “You don’t sound like you are from around here.”
For the two of us, for a reason I don’t quite understand, our accents faded some as we were growing up, as we went to college, and as we left Georgia to go to school in Virginia.
Dena grew up in Warner Robins, so maybe being a part of a military community, with the diverse places and accents that would be in this self-proclaimed “International City”, perhaps that changed what might have been a southern drawl to something more neutral.
For me, the place where I grew up was called the “Maaaaaaaa-rrreee” community. The name is Marie, but that is not how you say it if you are from the “Maaaaarree” community. That place got its name from the little church that was just down the road, a half-mile from the house where I grew up. There were pine trees that had been planted in the land bordering on the back of that church. There was a cemetery across the road. And around that cemetery, there was our family land, land that my grandfather had owned and divided. This was the land where my father planted corn, wheat, soybeans and peanuts. It was the land where he allowed people to shoot dove when the season was in. It was also the land that he kept hogs on. On that same piece of land was the house that my father and mother had built, sitting right next to the white clapboard house where he was raised.
So, where was it that you grew up? What was it like there? How did that place nurture you? Even though some of us may have moved around a lot when we were young, think about those places. What is the soil from which you grew like a tender plant?
We are all like plants that grow. We have all been planted somewhere; we all have our roots in some soil in some place. But . . . in addition to that planting, there are the sacred places in our lives where we are rooted. There are those places where we have life because of our connection to God and the love of God. Maybe for you, this church is a part of that.
Our readings for this Sunday are from the gospel of John and from one of the three letters attributed to John. These words remind us of God’s love for us and that we exist because of that love. Apart from that love, we have nothing; we are nothing. Without that fertile soil and the ways in which our roots are nourished by that soil, we have nothing; we are nothing.
Each of us individually is that vine that Jesus talks about. Each of us knows the pain of being pruned. And there have been times where we have felt dried up and have not yielded fruit. And maybe you have realized at those times that part of why you struggled, part of why you felt dried-up is that your roots were not in this soil. There are times when we lose that connection to God.
In the gospel reading, Jesus is telling the disciples to ensure that they are connected, that they are rooted in God. The language here is “abiding”. It is that sense that we have our very being in God; our life is God’s life. And this is where the other reading reminds us that this rootedness in God is also a rootedness in community, in a particular place, with roots in a particular soil.
Yet, you and I both know that living in community is not easy; it is a challenge. Love is a challenge. Because we all have different ideas and opinions, different places that we are from, different experiences of life, different experiences of God.
And in this letter from John, there is strong language to say that we do not understand God’s love for us if we do not love each other, if we do not enter into deep, lasting, loving, trying, changing, challenging relationships with each other. Because we are all together like the vines connected to God. We will be pruned at times; we may have felt dried up and useless at times! And we also know that as communities, if we are without our connection to God, without abiding in God and knowing God’s love, we can do nothing; we are nothing.
So I ask you to consider your roots, to be grounded in the love of God for you and for everyone. Abide in God and share that love with those around you, with your community, with your city and state, with this country that needs more love and less hate, and with this whole world.
[Sermon for Fort Valley Presbyterian Church, 29 April 2018]