"LONELINESS" - 1 John 4:7-16; John 15:1-8, 12
A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
I John 4:7-16; John 15:1-8, 12
From Sunday, April 29, 2018
In recent days, I have been thinking increasingly about the word that serves as the sermon title today: LONELINESS.
LONELINESS seems to be a growing subject, not just in the field of psychology and pastoral care, but a prominent topic in the medical field; and the current situation has been described as an “epidemic of loneliness.” It has even been noted that LONELINESS is a crisis as serious as opioid addiction or veteran suicides. Over the past decade, a body of data has emerged linking LONELINESS to heart disease, stroke, cancer, type-2 diabetes and almost every illness studied.
More and more people are confessing that they are chronically lonely. This has long been a concern among the elderly – perhaps you know the song by John Prine: “Old trees just grow stronger; old rivers run wilder everyday; but old people just grow lonesome, . . .” And the song urges us to be more attentive, more compassionate, more caring: “say hello in there.”
But it is not just the elderly who are lonely. Loneliness has increasingly become a common syndrome, a chronic challenge, for the young and the middle-aged.
In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, the former Surgeon General wrote of seeing “firsthand how loneliness affected people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds across the country, . . . . from middle and high school students in urban and rural areas who turned to violence, drugs, and gangs to ease the pain of loneliness” to “factory workers, doctors, small business owners, and teachers who described feeling alone in their work.”
And just as all who wander are not lost, all who are alone are not lonely. Loneliness involves low quality relationships, or inadequate companionship.
Here is how one person describes it. “In maternity wards, we give birth among strangers. In hospice centers, we die among strangers. On the journey between, we sit beside strangers on buses, airplanes, mute and watchful.” And often in our neighborhoods, we remain detached from our neighbors. Yet all through life we are created for and longing for connections with others.
Some say this epidemic of loneliness is largely an affliction of our own collective creation by the way we have made communication, and access to services, and everything else so convenient; through our computers and touch screens and phones, we have ironically created the foundation for dislocation and isolation. We can be so connected electronically that it is possible to have very few real, personal relationships. (see Jacob Appel, M.D., RTD, Sunday, April 15, 2018)
LONELINESS. . . . We all know people – some all to well – for whom loneliness is a real and daily issue.
Our Scripture passages today speak a word of solace and encouragement, and want to re-direct us in this epidemic of loneliness. Those words of I John 4 are some of the most poetic and powerful: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God. . . . By this we know that we abide in him and he in us.”
Then this from the gospel of John, chapter 15:
”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide 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. 5I 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. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. . . .
12And this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Some of you good Bible students know that in the gospel of John, Jesus makes a number of statements that start with “I am.” He says, “I am the bread of life;” he says, “I am the light of the world.” In fact, there are seven of these “I am” statements from Jesus in John’s gospel; and this one – “I am the true vine” is #7.
Bible scholar and teacher, Dale Bruner, translates this verse in this way: “I, I am the real Root of the Matter, and my Father is the Orchardist.” Bruner says that because most of us live surrounded by trees more than vines (we live in RVA and not Napa Valley), he prefers that language. “What root and trunk are to trees, Jesus is to human life.” He says, “I, I am the real Root of the Matter.”
The double “I” reflects the Greek, which gives great emphasis to Jesus’ emphasis: “I, I am.” And, Bruner says, all of us are always looking for the root of the matter. What are we supposed to give our energy to? What deserves our loyalty and affection? What warrants our heart, soul, mind, and strength? What gets our time and talent? What is the lens through which we want to see everything? What will focus our lives?
And in this final “I am” saying, Jesus puts it there one more time with emphasis: “I, I am the real Root of the Matter.”
Some of you know the name Brene Brown, a writer and psychologist whom I have mentioned before. This is how Brene Brown puts it: “There are no guarantees in the arena. We will struggle. We will even fail. There will be darkness. But if we are clear about the values that guide us in our efforts to show up and be seen, we will always be able to find the light. We will know what it means to live brave.”
Jesus says, “I, I am the real Root of the Matter.” We do not just live, we live best connected to Jesus and doing the things that Jesus cares most about. We do not just get by, we root our lives in the Root of the Matter. Then we find life.
Then I want to jump to verse 4 – and this word “ABIDE” that is also prevalent in our first lesson. ABIDE is a nice word, and we are going to sing a nice hymn shortly with this word in the title.
But when was the last time you used that word? It may be a pretty word but its import and depth may be easily missed. Dale Bruner, again, offers a better translation of the Greek word: “make your home with me.” Jesus invites us to LIVE fully with him. That is the simplest meaning of this passage: “I am the true vine – the Root of the Matter – make your home with me.”
Think of that honor and privilege. Jesus asks us, begs us, urges us, expects us to make a home with him, and quite unbelievably, he says “as I am making my home with you.” Jesus is not just a passive inviter, awaiting OUR move before he takes us in (some Christians give that impression – that we have to do the work to get to Jesus.) No. Jesus has already made his move and therefore would like us to make ours: “I am the Root of the Matter, making my home in you; make your home in me.” Jesus has so much turned his life and his love toward us – in calling us, in covering us in the waters of baptism, in all things – and would we be so kind, so wise, to make our home in him, abide in him. (See D. Bruner, The Gospel of John, a commentary, p. 878-881)
Some of you know that my nephew and his husband own and operate a very fantastic bakery in Charlottesville – a place that has become a destination and a hotspot in that town for excellent French baked goods, and also a great place for breakfast and lunch. These two guys decided to move from NYC where they were chefs, back home to Charlottesville, to raise their family. So they opened “MarieBette” – named for their two adopted daughters.
Ginger and I go there as often as we can. We go to see family but also because of the fantastic goods from their bakery. And almost always when we go, we go into their kitchen to see our nephew Patrick. The kitchen is full of busy bakers making various breads and other treats. The kitchen is also stocked with big kneading machines. Kneading is a key piece of making good bread. Kneading is blending items so thoroughly that there is no longer any distinction among the ingredients. These kneading machines are so crucial to a great bakery. And Jesus’ emphasis about making a home, abiding, is closely akin to kneading. We are to knead our lives into Jesus’ life, make a home in him as he has made a home in us. Abide in him and he abides in us. It is about our love, and thoroughness, and losing ourselves in his love. That is far different from saying, “I grew up in that church,” or “I am a member of this community.” It is far more than attending or singing or doing. What Jesus hopes for from us – because he already makes a home in us – is that our lives make a home in Him, having life kneaded into God’s life, kneaded into Jesus. That is what this passage urges from us.
Now how does that happen? How can we get there – making our home in Jesus – having lives kneaded fully into God’s love?
As it turns out, Jesus has been showing us these - abiding/making a home with/kneading - ways all through the gospel story.
In the first chapter of John, with Jesus’ first encounter with some disciples, as they sensed something so alluring about this man, they asked Jesus, “Rabbi, where are you making your home?” (same word!) Jesus said to them, “Come and see.” And the verse continues: “they made their home with him that day. It was about 4:00 in the afternoon.”
Disciples make their home with Jesus by being open to who he is, by being inquisitive about what he brings. That is what happened to Andrew and others. They had a desire to be with Jesus, to learn from him – “where are you staying/making your home?” – and they went and made their home there, stayed with him, were open to listening and learning.
As it turns out, they kept open, kept staying with him, listening and learning, growing and becoming – kneading God’s love into their lives.
We do this same thing, friends, as we come to church, bring our families to church, open our hearts to preaching, to learning, to growing about God. We do this as we engage in sincere fellowship and Bible study, conversations about God, confessions about how we have seen God at work in our lives. It is about faith, fellowship, community. And it leads to kneading our lives in God’s life.
As the gospel story continues, Jesus confronts a Samaritan woman at the well, and she is so transfixed by all that Jesus says and does that she goes and tells others about Jesus. It says in chapter 4 (40), many Samaritans came to Jesus because of all the woman told them, and they asked him to “make a home/abide” with them. Jesus stayed there two days. See, interest in Jesus, inquisitiveness about who he is and what he brings, openness to his words and wisdom – this changes your life!!
Then in chapter 6, we see others making a home in Jesus, abiding, realizing he is the Root of the Matter, when they gather at the communion table. Whenever we gather here – we show our faith and devotion, we open our hearts to his heart.
Then in chapter 8 and chapter 10 and here in 15, Jesus tells us disciples that if they continue – keep making their home in him – kneading their lives to his life – focusing on his way – they will really be his disciples. It is not just what you say, but what you do. I will live in you and you will live in me, and your daily life will be for the healing of the world. Welcome strangers. Reach out to outcasts. Extend hospitality to those who need it most. Work for help and healing wherever you find yourself. “Those who abide in me and I in them will bear much fruit.” And most of all, as this passage says, “love one another.”
In other words, out of the deep resources of God’s love, we love one another. Jesus is the vine; we are the branches – we reach out on behalf of Jesus in and for the world. We connect; we care; we build community; we strive to love – love one another and spread that love outward on these streets in Richmond, and throughout the world.
So how does this relate to LONELINESS?
Loneliness always has to do with the absence of someone at some basic level. Loneliness has to do with a yearning for deeper connections, deeper relationship.
Those words from the theologian Augustine are buried deep in my memory (you may know these words too): “Thou has made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”
No matter our achievements, . . . no matter our wealth or power, . . . . no matter our success in the world’s eyes, . . . .
Jesus says, “I, I am the Root of the Matter. . . . I have made my home in you, . . . make your home with me.” Then we will have life, and life in abundance.
This is what God has always intended life to be about – be open to God’s love and presence, be connected to God’s people in fellowship, build community as God’s people, gather around the Lord’s table, invite others, welcome everyone. These things save our life! They are God’s great gifts to us – faith, fellowship, community, compassion, a place to belong, a place to go forth and serve. These are the ways that God makes a home in us and we make a home in God. And then Jesus says, love one another as I have loved you. Spread love. Those who love abide in God and God abides in them.
All of this is God’s answer to LONELINESS – God has come among us. We are not alone or on our own. God makes his home in our midst – as we open our hearts, as we seek to grow in faith and love, as we come together, as we gather around the table, as we build community, as we love one another and spread love in the world, as we do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. Those who love abide in God and God abides in them.
May it be so. Amen.
Prayer of Commitment: Your love transforms all things, O God. We seek to be transformed and we seek to be transformers, sharing your love in the world following Jesus. Amen
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on April 29, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.