Sermon for 5/31/15 John 3:1-17 (Holy Trinity)

I have mentioned before that part of my seminary education was a summer as a chaplain at Heartland Hospital in St. Joseph, Missouri. It was probably one of the most formative summers of my life. One of the first things we did (within the first week) was choose the floor we wanted to spend the most amount of time serving. Now, when we were the chaplain on call, we had to cover the entire hospital. But, other days, we were encouraged to focus on one or two floors. So I prayed about it and chose my two floors: oncology and mental health. I chose oncology because the death of my grandfather to cancer was still fresh in my life and I thought it might be a good way to honor him and help those like him. I chose mental health because I like a challenge. I ended up spending the majority of my time serving those in the mental health unit.

We didn’t necessarily talk about God a lot, but they knew I was the chaplain. Instead, we spent time playing hands of cards, coloring, walking the floor kept behind the locked doors. And about half way through the summer, after a particularly challenging encounter with a resident, I had a brief epiphany: there wasn’t a lot of difference between me as the chaplain in the chair and the resident in the bed. We could have easily switched places. And that scared the living daylights out of me.

I have been very open and honest about my struggles with my own mental health. It took me a long time to be okay with being so open, honestly. I wanted the fact that I have depression and anxiety to remain my little secret. No one could know about my weakness. For a while I even got my anti-depressants via mail for fear of anyone finding out. I didn’t want to be labeled. I didn’t want to be pitied. I didn’t want to be singled out. I didn’t want the world to know about my brokenness. And, most importantly, I didn’t want to be shamed.

But here I am. Broken and beautiful. There are days that are better than others. I have a prescription of Zoloft that I will probably be on for the rest of my life. I have a counselor that I see at least monthly. I have a strong support system and I am no longer afraid to say “I’m not having a great day.” Because here’s the thing: I am NOT my depression. I am NOT my anxiety. My name is Jealaine. I am a baptized child of God. I am loved. I am healed. I am saved. And on those days that aren’t good days, and I mean the really really bad days when I don’t even want to drag myself out of bed, I stumble into the bathroom and stand over the sink. I turn on the water and let it run, losing myself in the sound of the splashing. And then I wash my face. And I look at myself in the mirror, trace the sign of the cross on my forehead, and give myself an affirmation. Sometimes it’s something as simple as “Jesus loves you” or “by grace you have been saved.”

And why? Because “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (3:17). I think John 3:16 is beautiful and it is probably one of the most memorized verses in the Bible. But the verse that follows is so crucial that I believe it should be memorized as well. Just listen to the first part of the verse: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world….” Just think about that. Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world. Jesus did not come into this world to judge us.

I think one of the biggest issues we have with religion is that too many people don’t know the God we preach and teach. There are too many people who think the God that loves us is instead this omnipotent over-Lord puppet like figure. Too many people think that God sits on high in some kind of throne pointing and condemning. And you know what? Maybe those people are right. But every bit of faith I have, every bit of forgiveness I have received, every bit of grace that has been bestowed on me that I did not deserve tells me differently. To believe in something you can’t see is hard, I get it. But once you start living your life as if it matters, as if Christ really does care for you and love you, as if you really ARE forgiven, you may start to wonder how or why anyone believes any other way.

We’re always looking for a catch though, aren’t we? If you were to go home and open your Bibles to this verse, there will be no asterisk. The Bible doesn’t say “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world except for you” and if your Bible says this, get rid of it, let me know, and I’ll get you another one. The only people who will condemn us in this world is the fellow sinners around us and that person in the mirror. And if you’re anything like me, the person in the mirror convicts and condemns me the most. The depression can get so strong sometimes that it’s as if I have pure evil in my head.

I have a tape that replays over and over that says things like “you’re not good enough” or “you’ll never be enough.” When she’s feeling really snarky, my depression will say things like “of course you can’t do that…you’ll never be able to do that” or “what did you expect? You’ve always been a loser.” And my depression does a fine job of condemning me and that is where I have to lean on Christ. That’s why I remind myself of my baptism. That’s why I remind her (my depression) that she will never, ever, ultimately win. Sometimes I talk back to her.

If we are people led by the Holy Spirit; if we are people of the resurrection; if we are people who really believe that water washes away sin and a feast is nothing but bread and wine, we must (not should) work so that anyone and everyone who will listen will start to hear us and believe them when we tell them that this Jesus fellow isn’t a savior who condemns. This Jesus guy isn’t a guy who has come to judge. This Jesus guy isn’t here to point fingers and shame. Jesus has come so that we can have life. Jesus came so that we may be saved. And here’s the thing, friends, if we just start with ourselves,that will be enough. If we just start with believing it ourselves, that will be enough.

So, empowered by the Holy Spirit, I invite you to repeat after me. I am not broken (pause) I am beautiful. I am not broken, I am beautiful. I am loved. I have not been forgotten, I have been saved. I was worth dying for. I am enough. I am enough. I am enough.

Sermon for 5/24/14 Pentecost; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

** This sermon was more participatory. The text below doesn’t make a lot of sense without being in church today. Each of the “excuses” we give were written out on paper and taped to each pew. As we talked about each excuse, I ripped them up (which is kind of what the Holy Spirit does) and threw them in the center aisle. Then we walked on them on our way to communion, placing all excuses under foot. It was awesome and powerful. **

It’s Pentecost which means I get the super easy task of talking to you about the Holy Spirit. Talking about the Holy Spirit is just about as easy as trying to describe what the color blue tastes like. And instead of trying to fumble my way around describing the Holy Spirit and what the Holy Spirit does and what it feels like, I want to invite us all on a bit of an adventure. I want to think today about how the Holy Spirit really doesn’t necessarily come to accompany us and make things easier, although it may feel like that at times. Really, the Holy Spirit comes to stir stuff up. At times, the Holy Spirit may just downright make things uncomfortable. But we end up being uncomfortable in a good way, if you can imagine that!

I’ve talked many times about my own shortcomings and my own failings. I have sermon illustrations for years thanks to those two things. Nonetheless, I know when the Holy Spirit takes over, I am just best to surrender and go with it. It’s like a Holy wind and you don’t know where it’s going to blow, but you can trust that it’s going to be amazing! And here’s the thing with the Holy Spirit, it really prefers to travel alongside us. But the Holy Spirit, which is part of the Trinity, will do what it does whether we like it or not. And the majority of the time, we are going to be surprised by the outcome, by God’s timing, and by God’s message sent to us through the Holy Spirit.

In our readings today, the Holy Spirit is spoken of many times. It intercedes when sighs are too deep for words. I love that vision. It also is an advocate. But the truth is that when we really take time to listen and be stirred by the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is actually quite rude. It disrupts, it interrupts, it disturbs, and challenges. Because the Holy Spirit takes a hold of us, doesn’t let go, and puts us in places we didn’t expect. The Holy Spirit is just another facet of God and we know that when God gets a hold of us, things get crazy. The Holy Spirit is the same way. The Holy Spirit has the ability to take all of our preconceived notions, all of our hesitations, all of our excuses and do away with them. So today, I want to talk about how the Holy Spirit stirs within and around us and makes way for God and God’s mission in the world.

As we think about doing new things, new missions, and new projects within the church–any church, not just this one, we have usually an arm load of excuses why it won’t work, why we’ll never get to it, or why we just don’t do it. Some of these are:


  1. time/timing — it’s never the right time. Or it’s the wrong time. We have to wait until harvest is over, or until everything is planted, or until school is out, or until the kids are grown, etc…
  2. money — we don’t have the money. Or we fear we don’t have the money. What if we don’t get the money?? And most of all, we need to save our money for a rainy day.
  3. people power — we just don’t have the people to do it. The people that we do have are already overcommitted and we’re afraid of burn out. Our people are to old/to young/to busy.
  4. WNDITWB– We’ve Never Done It That Way Before
  5. WADITW — We’ve Always Done It This Way
  6. not our mission — This isn’t who we are. It’s not who we’ve ever been. We need to stay focused on the programs we already have.
  7. “isms” — This is one of the worst and most disturbing excuses. We use “isms” to limit our mission. We may not out right use an “ism” to limit mission and the work of the Holy Spirit, but any time we hold back because we might have to interact with those that are different in any way from us, it’s an “ism.”
  8. failure — This is a huge problem. What if we fail? The fear of failure keeps us from doing all kinds of things. The fear of failure is paralyzing to a church and causes us to do nothing but look inward, close and lock the doors, and stop growing.
  9. success — But the opposite of that is success. Some people are afraid to try because they might be successful. What if we try something new and it’s a success? What will our identity be then? We’ve always been the church that ___.” What if we suddenly become the church that ___?”
  10. so and so does it already — We hear this sometimes when talking about mission. We can’t do a meal, Zion already does that. We can do elder care, Immanuel does that. We can’t do whatever because so and so does that. Not once in the Bible does Jesus ever tell us “Go….make disciples of all nations. Actually, just kidding…only 1 church can do that.” If our focus is God and God’s mission, imagine what we could do together versus what we could do apart.
  11. leadership — Some churches don’t engage in mission because they are waiting on a leader. Or their waiting on the leader they have in place (the pastor) to start. We are all called to be leaders and disciples. We ground ourselves in the principle that we belong to the priesthood of all believers. If you want to participate in mission, if you’re feeling called by the Holy Spirit to do something–perhaps you’re the leader we’re waiting for.
  12. busy — We’re busy. We’re all busy. We’ve bought in to the glorification of being busy. If we find ourselves too busy to participate in God’s mission in the world, we may find ourself without a church.
  13. inward thinking — this is just as destructive as “isms.” We think about what goes on inbetween the four walls of a church. We feel we have to take care of our own first–whatever that means. We’ll do outreach as soon as we’ve gotten our own house in order.
  14. priorities — We all have about 2,354 things that take priority in our lives. It goes along with being busy. Sometimes church isn’t one of those priorities. Sometimes God’s mission isn’t one of those priorities. I get it. But if the Holy Spirit is stirring, the time will come when the priorities will become very clear.
  15. fear of/failure of commitment  — I’m starting to notice this more and more. People have severe cases of FOMO (fear of missing out) while at the same time not committing to anything. “Sure, I might come to your party, if I don’t have anything else going on.”
  16. relevance — I think we sometimes think that whatever the “going” thing is at other churches is what we need here. And maybe we do, but maybe we don’t. Maybe the Holy Spirit isn’t calling us to have a band, and drums, and lights. Or maybe she is. But, we can’t let the temptation, the seduction of being relevant get in the way of the Holy Spirit.
  17. overwhelmed — We are all this way, I think. We have priorities, we’re busy, and we’re just overwhelmed. I’ve never met anyone that’s just “whelmed.” We can’t bear to add anything else into our lives. The idea of being overwhelmed happens as well when we see a big problem (like an earthquake or something) and we feel called to help but get overwhelmed in thinking “what difference can I make, I’m just one person?”
  18. will of God — anytime we claim to know or pretend to know the will of God we get into trouble. It’s a slippery slope and I beg you to avoid it if at all possible.
  19. bigger problems — We can’t see the forrest through the trees. Shouldn’t we focus on bigger issues? Don’t we want to make the biggest difference?
  20. scared — There are times when we’re just plain scared. It’s all too easy to pull the covers up over our head and not face the world.
  21. collaboration/lack of — Well, we’d take on this big project, but I just really don’t want to work with so and so. Or, do we really want to be working with such and such a company?
  22. selfishness — This is as destructive as inward looking and the glorification of busy. What will being involved in God’s mission do for me? How can it help me? Remember friends, we can’t earn our way into heaven. We live by grace through faith.
  23. too nice — sometimes God’s mission means doing hard work, difficult work, with difficult people. We sometimes get into our “Iowa nice” way of being and don’t end up helping anyone at all. Now, that’s not to say we shouldn’t be nice. But there’s a difference between being nice and enabling someone.
  24. materials/lack of — We use lack of materials as an excuse not to participate in mission. But, if God is calling us into mission through the Holy Spirit, the materials will…materialize.
  25. what if….. This last one is simple. It covers everything I haven’t touched on. These are all those little voices in your head that make you question the movement of the Holy Spirit. But all of these “what ifs” that make you doubt is just Satan trying to stop the Holy Spirit and trying to stop you from participating in God’s mission in the world. If God is presenting you with a mission for the world, God will answer all of those “what ifs”

Sermon for 5/17/15 John 17:6-19

Having been around a lot of pastors this past week (and I mean a lot–close to 2000) we do something that kind of comes naturally when we pastor types get together: we talk about you. Yes, my brothers and sisters, we talk about our parishioners. We share stories of joy (I had lots of those) and we share horror stories (I had none of those). The common question that was asked of one another as we stood in lines, waited for speakers to start, and as we were drinking coffee was “tell me about your people.” I also got the common question “where is Clinton?” and I didn’t even want to bother trying to tell them where Elvira was. But I loved the question “tell me about your people.” And sometimes I wondered how do I tell a complete stranger about my people that would adequately express to them my love for all of you? I wanted to say to them “I serve a small rural congregation. The majority of my people are farmers. My front yard is a cornfield and my backyard is a cornfield.” Because I was pretty sure if I said that what people for would hear is “blah blah Iowa. Blah blah corn. Blah blah boring.” That’s not who my people are.

At the same time, we didn’t have the time for me to say “let me tell you about the Petersen family…any of them.” I didn’t have time to say “let me tell you about this amazing little ministry we have in the food pantry.” I didn’t have time to say “let me tell you about our Friday night fires.” So, more often than not, I ended up saying “my people are fabulous and I love them.” But here’s the thing, everyone pretty much said that same thing. Not once did I run into a fellow pastor, no matter the denomination, who told me “I really want to strangle my parishioners, but I continue to serve them.” Because had they done that, I might have done something not very Christian or pastoral. When it comes down to it, no matter if you make us tear our hair out or not, we love you. And I am speaking of all congregation members of all congregations. Part of our call as pastors is to love you. Do you know why? Because God loves you. I know that sounds super cliche, but it’s true.

Jesus comes to us once again this week in the Gospel of John in what is known as his farewell discourse. He is preparing for his death. He is trying to prepare his disciples for his death. He is trying to prepare us for his death. The disciples, and if we’re honest, we are never fully ready for his death because Jesus’ death means coming face to face with what put him there: our own sin. And despite knowing what is coming, despite knowing that his days are numbered and that, perhaps despite knowing that the disciples may not fully understand (much like we never fully understand), he spends his last moments declaring his love for those around him.

And do we hear him? Brothers and sisters, I am asking you a question, do you hear him? When Jesus speaks to you, do you hear him? Do you hear him with every single God-knit fiber of your being or do you just shake your head and say “that’s nice Jesus” as if instead of saying “I love you” Jesus said “pick up some more milk next time you go to the grocery store.” Do you hear God when God says “I love you” or do you go searching, fruitlessly, for whatever will fill the hole in your heart? This is the hole that only God can fill with God’s love but we fill it up with all kinds of other stuff. Not all of it is bad, mind you, but remember that sin is anything that turns us into God and God into us. Sin is anything that comes between us and our relationship with God.

So instead of the love of God, we try and get filled up with love from one another. Which again, this isn’t bad. But remember, we humans are not perfect. Am I right? We humans are not perfect. We can, will, and do fail one another. We may not always set out to do it, but we fail one another. Or maybe instead of the love of God, we fill up that space with work, or the idea that we must be, have to be, are required to be busy. Is it just me or is “being busy” now becoming the ideal status symbol? Whenever I talk with anyone and ask them “how have you been” they usually respond with “busy.” I’m just as guilty of it myself. Or maybe instead of the love of God, we fill that space up with something even more destructive: drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, or just plain ol’ complacency.

When God speaks, do we listen? When God says “I love you” do we listen or are we too busy listening to the voices either around us or in our head that tell us otherwise? When God says “feed my sheep” do we feed all the sheep or just the ones we find worthy? When God says “forgive” do we really forgive, or do we just give lip service and continue holding that grudge? When God says to visit the imprisoned, do we visit those who are literally in prison while forgetting about those who are imprisoned by the demons in their mind? When God says to care for the sick, do we care completely for the sick (even if that means coming in contact with stuff we know is kind of gross and disgusting) or do we only care for the sick if it’s someone we really really love? Because here’s the thing, brothers and sisters, if we don’t listen when God says that other stuff, are we really going to listen when God says “I love you?”

In this text today, not only do we hear that God loves us, but that we belong to God. Did you miss it? In verse 10 we hear something you’d probably only expect to read on a Hallmark card (but Hallmark stole it from the Bible). It says “All mine are yours, and yours are mine…” Jesus says “hey God, all of your people are my people. And all of my people are your people.” See, when I talk about “my people” I love you because at the root of it, you’re not my people. You’re God’s people. And just in case you hearing that you belong to God isn’t enough for you, try this on for size: verse 12 “not one of them was lost….” Not one of you is lost. Not one of you will be forgotten by God. Not one of you will be left to your own devices. Not one of you will be out of the realm of God’s love. Do you hear me?

Maybe if you don’t hear me, you will hear God. Maybe if you can’t hear God, you can taste God. Because when you hear the words “the body of Christ, given for you” what I want you to hear is “I love you.” And when you hear the words “the blood of Christ, shed for you”
what I want you to hear is “I love you.” And when you hear the words “you’re forgiven” I want you to hear “I love you.” And when you hear “the peace of Christ be with you always” I want you to hear the words “I love you.” And with every pounding of the nails, I want you to hear “I love you.” And with every whiplash, I want you to hear the words “I love you.” And with his last dying breath and the final curtain tear, hear the words “I love you.”

Repeat those words in your head, brothers and sisters, until any evil words die and the hole in your heart is finally filled with what it is intended to be filled with: God’s love.

Sermon for 5/10/15 John 15:9-17

When you take the readings as they are given to us, which is to say, out of context, it’s difficult to get the whole picture of what is truly going on. Jesus is still talking with his disciples, much like our reading last week. But he is actually in the middle of what is known as his “farewell discourse.” He is trying to prepare his disciples for his eventual departure from this earth. He is trying, as hard as he can, to prepare them for what will be a gruesome death and a victorious resurrection. And it has to make the disciples feel good that what Jesus is telling them is simple, “I love you.” Those are glorious words that anyone would long to hear. Ellen is learning some sign language thanks to daycare and for the first time the other night she was sitting on my lap, facing me and signed I (pointing to her eye) love (arms crossed across her chest) and you (while pointing at me). I cried.

At that point in time, she could have asked me for whatever she wanted and I probably would have given it to her. You all know that I love music but I have never heard anything so amazing to my ears as her little words enthusiastically telling me “I love you.” I hope that is what it feels like to hear the same thing from Jesus. I have said it before to all of you, but I feel like I need to tell you again, I love you. From the moment I received the paperwork for this church I knew I loved you but I had no idea how deeply I love you. Seriously, I love you all an obnoxious amount. It’s ridiculous!

Jesus says “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” I would like to think that everything Jesus said was said with intention and with great thought. In some ways, I am grateful that Jesus calls this a commandment. In other ways, it is really frustrating that Jesus calls this a commandment. Why couldn’t Jesus have said “this is my suggestion” or “this is my request”? But no. Instead Jesus says “this is my commandment.” Much like his other commandments it is something we should take seriously. And if we’re serious and honest about it, loving people is one of the most rewarding things we can do but it’s also one of the most challenging things we can do.

Here’s the other thing. Jesus didn’t put conditions on this commandment. He didn’t say “love one another…except for this person or that person.” He just said “love one another.”  Loving one another is easy when it is someone that you actually do love, like your spouse or a parent. Loving one another gets awkward when you talk about casual relationships like your dentist or hairdresser. Loving one another gets down right difficult when you talk about relationships filled with betrayal, despising, or hate. I am going to be honest with you, brothers and sisters, and I don’t expect  you to feel the same way I do, but if you do, that’s okay. Just know that you’re not alone in your thinking. I think it’s easy, really really easy, to love someone who looks like me, thinks like me, talks like me, acts like me, votes like me, reads like me, eats like me, and on and on and on. When I have trouble is when I try to love someone, or moreover, when I am commanded to love someone, who doesn’t fit into my nice little box of “people I think I should love.”

We talked about this a bit in confirmation and it was amusing. You all should watch 7th and 8th graders squirm when we start to talk about love. I wove our conversation about love in with our conversation about the Lord’s Prayer. We hear “love one another as I have loved you” and later we will pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Both have implications of an expectation, really. Jesus says to us (paraphrasing) “You know how I love you? Yeah. Do that to one another.” And at the same time, we ask God to forgive us while at the same time we forgive those around us.

We are not in this alone, brothers and sisters, we are created to be in relationship. We are created to be in community. The difficult part is that sometimes those relationships and communities don’t look like anything we expected. It’s easy for me to love you, believe it or not. But how can I love someone from my past who has done nothing but hurt me or the ones I love? Let me put it on a larger scale for you. Jesus is commanding us to love the president—even if you didn’t vote for him. Jesus is commanding us to love John Boehner—even if you don’t agree with him. Jesus is commanding us to love Freddie Gray (the African American male killed in Baltimore) while at the same time forgiving and loving the officers arrested for his death. Jesus is commanding us to love the single, unwed, pregnant teenager, and the abuser who put her in that situation. Jesus is commanding us to love the gay young man and his parents who kicked him out of the house. Are you starting to understand the complexity of God’s love?

Here is the difficult and awesome thing about God’s love: it never looks like we expect it to and honestly, that’s a good thing. Because when the rubber hits the road, brothers and sisters, we don’t deserve love any more than anyone else. Yet we receive God’s love. We receive that love from the moment we hear “you’re forgiven” all the way through the alleluias because death doesn’t have the final word. We receive that love from the moment of our first breath until our last; from the splash of baptismal waters to the closing of our caskets. And beyond, really. God’s love is super offensive because God’s love is extended to people that society says aren’t worthy of love. God’s love is super offensive because it’s extended to people we say aren’t worthy of love. Most of all, it’s offensive because it’s extended to us.

And yes, it is difficult to have this kind of love for one another and especially for those we don’t think should get our love. The language used here isn’t “go love one another” it really is translated such that it could say you are capable of loving one another because you are grounded in the life giving Christ. So when we think of a commandment, especially this one to love one another, it isn’t commanding. It’s a promise. The promise is from Christ that because we are grounded in him, our only response will be love. Jesus said we should love one another, and this includes our enemies. The way I look at it is this: what do I have to lose? I could spend the rest of my life loving the hell out of my enemies or refuse to do so and make my life a living hell. I’m not willing to take the risk.

It’s not easy work, friends. Thanks be to God we have one another, Christ, and enough food for the journey in the form of bread and wine.

Sermon for 5/3/15 John 15:1-8

I think there is a time in our lives that we come to where and when we learn what is most important to us. It doesn’t have to be any specific occasion but just a brief moment when we have that “ah-ha” happen and we realize the “junk” that got in the way of everything else. I don’t want to make this about me, but lately, I’ve had to realize and prioritize the most important things in my life thanks to having a dwindling pool of energy. The energy that I do have gets put towards Ellen, Chris, and all of you. So, things like laundry, house cleaning, grocery shopping, and hobbies all get put on the back burner, hopefully only temporarily. Now, these things do get done just not with the fervor I may have done them before. I’ve been forced to reorient my life to those things that are most life giving.

Maybe you have had instances of this. The addition of a child or children to your family could do this; death of a loved one; a life changing diagnosis; a new job (or lack of job); or just a time when you’ve had (what my father calls) a “come to Jesus” discussion. I am guessing we’ve all had these moments that cause us to step back, reevaluate our lives, reorder our lives, and start living fuller more life-filled lives. Do you know what I mean by life filled? For me, it means that you/we are living our lives in such a way that we actually feel loved, we are giving love and we are doing more than just going through the motions. You might have seen something like this in the movies where the main character says something filled with an epiphany like saying such as “I had always been alive but now I was actually living.” Does this make sense?

“Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4). Abide is one of those words that is almost archaic; we certainly don’t use it as much as we probably used to. I doubt if someone asked you “where do you live” you’d answer with “well…I abide in a house” or whatever. So, I took my trusty thesaurus and found some other words for abide that might give us a better picture of what God is asking of us. Persevere, remain, survive, dwell, lodge, reside are all synonyms of “abide.” I love the idea of survival. “Survive in me.” Just in case we didn’t know that Jesus is the only way to abundant life and life eternal, that kind of sums it up right there. The opposite of survival is death. And while we all will die eventually, perhaps it can be said of metaphorical deaths too. Because here’s the thing, without a connection to a life source, we don’t have a life. We don’t have an okay life, an abundant life, an awesome life; no, we don’t have life. Period.

But, I think we go searching for life anyway. We attempt to engage in activities or with people that we think will give us life. And you know what? They do, temporarily. My most intimate relationship in my life of course is with Chris. And he gives me life; he makes me laugh, he takes care of me when I’m sick, he’s a great dad, and he’s very caring. I hope I do the same for him. But the fact is we’re both human. We are both sinners. We have, we do, and we will continue to disappoint one another on occasion. As much as I love Chris and as much as he loves me neither one of us can give the other abundant life. We can come pretty close, but the only one who can give us eternal life and an abundant life is Jesus. And so the “vine” of our marriage is centered in Jesus. And is it perfect? Nope. But we keep trying.

Think about the places or the things you look to that you think will give you life. I want to make it clear that not all of these things are bad. My relationship to Chris isn’t bad; the fact that I may lean on him to give me abundant life isn’t life giving. We look to our titles to give us life, right? Think about the “titles” you have. These are examples like mom, dad, sister, brother, grandparent, spouse, and friend. Or we have the “titles” from our jobs. These are things like pastor (duh), farmer, teacher, accountant, nurse, pharmacist, coach, and on and on. These titles may provide you with a living but the only “title” that will provide you with life is “Child of God.”

Jesus said “I am the true vine, and my father [God] is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.” We should not hear this as a threat. But as a life giving promise. This is not an “or else” verse; as in “start following God or else…” But really what this is is a promise that all of the “junk” or “noise” in our life will be trimmed away or pruned away so that the things in our life that really are life giving may flourish. And we are nothing without Christ. Again, this isn’t said to scare you but to give you hope. Without Christ we cease to be. Now, if for some reason you walked out of here today deciding to swear off Christ for the rest of your life, it’s not like you would *poof* disappear into thin air. Without Christ, yes we live, we have breath, but we don’t have abundant life.

Again, Jesus said “I am the true vine.” The true vine. It is tempting, and quite easy for us to go looking to other places and other people to give us true life. But we’re just grasping at vines that will eventually give out. There is nothing, absolutely nothing in our lives that can give us what Christ gives us. Institutions and people will fail us. I can guarantee you at least that much out of life. You will be disappointed in an institution (including the church) or a person (including the person with whom you have the most intimate relationship) at least once in your life. As long as we abide, dwell, survive, in Christ, we will never be let down by him.

Yes there will be times when we may shake our heads in confusion wondering what God is up to. This is usually because our plans and God’s plans aren’t the same. But if we trust in God and in the saving action of Jesus Christ we will have life and have it abundantly. If you’re feeling the need to re-orient yourself, or if you’re feeling the need to remind yourself that you are a branch on a vine (and not the other way around) then the table is the perfect place for you. Here we are fed on the body and blood of Jesus Christ, our life giving source; our vine. And maybe as you take that bread and drink the wine you can pray that God would do some pruning in you.

May we be pruned of hatred, racism, and classism; may we be pruned of being judgemental, of blindness to hunger and thirst, and may we be pruned of the ability to ignore those in need around us. May we be pruned of vocabulary like “them, those people, the other, and that person.” May we be pruned of our lack of empathy and have a fire of justice start to burn inside us. May we be pruned of our refusal to listen and learn from situations like Ferguson and Baltimore and instead may our branch grow with understanding and accompaniment. Most of all, may we be pruned of our false ideas that it’s all about us and instead always point to the one who is the ultimate giver of life.