Love Allows Us to Let Go
Acts 8:26-40; John 15:1-8
Baam, Ba-Bump Baam, Bup-Ba-Bup-Ah, Baam, Ba-Bump Baam. Oooh, oooh, I bet you’re wondering how I knew, ‘bout your plans to make me blue. Oh, Oh I heard through the grapevine. Not much longer would you be mine. Baby, I heard through the grapevine, and I’m just about to lose my mind.
I admit it. I cannot get through the scriptures on grapes without thinking of Marvin Gaye’s recording of this Motown classic. So now I have shared the ear worm that has been my companion all week long. I scarcely remember anyone else doing it. I was surprised that his version was not the first, and even more surprised to learn he did not write it.
I bring it up because the song not only talks about grapevines, on a Sunday when we recall John’s illustration of the vine and the branch, but the song speaks to the truth about being faithful to our promises, and the way we are always connected to the community. The power of God’s love to sustain and bring fruit to maturity through the vine, is an image of our life within the faith community. God’s love passes through us and among us.
One of the things I try to discern when I meet with a couple preparing for marriage is; does this relationship seem like it is based on a real world understanding of each person’s humanity and respect for each person’s dreams and life goals? A lack of reality, or lack of respect for one or the other’s dreams and goals are indicators the relationship lacks good roots.
It is not uncommon to find ourselves thrown together in life with another soul whose presence and tenderness are a great comfort. As we negotiate our way into a meaningful relationship, it can be such a relief from the pain of recent past experiences, that we do not ask the hard questions about, “Where are you going? and, Do I even want to go there with you? and, What do I need to give up to do that?”
I am not saying that we should not value those whose love has caught us from falling, and restored our sense of self and sense of self-worth. Thank God for love. Still, not every human relationship is destined to last forever. That is a genuine truth in this “real” world. This reframing of relationships is one of the ways that we acknowledge the full humanity of both partners in a relationship. We really ought not offer to commit to a lifelong relationship, if we have not determined to stay faithful.
Phillip got into the carriage with the Ethiopian eunuch, and through his witness, took a man already interested in faith, into the faith of Jesus the Christ. The church that was established in Ethiopia has some of the deepest roots of our Christianity, though it looks and feels more African than European. My dear friends, Bob and JoAnn Avers, served with those Christians for years as missionaries and shared with Martha and I an awareness of that faith and culture.
Identified as a eunuch, we know that the Ethiopian would be limited by his deformity to less than full membership in the courts of the Jerusalem Temple. No amount of prayer or study could ever change that. In the good news of Jesus, he was welcomed into full communion in the faith of Jesus Christ. A deacon, dedicated by the original apostles, was whisked miraculously to provide this invitation, and baptism.
Throughout recent years, this story has become a hallmark of the welcome offered to people of color, and especially those whose sexuality varies from the presumed norm. When we proclaim, “All are welcome,” this text is one that underscores the availability of the faith to those who are outside of the constraints of looking like everybody else.
But Phillip does not stay in the carriage and go on to Ethiopia to make a new life and new church with the eunuch. That fact does not in any way diminish the value of the time they spent together. Love then, needs to respect both the here and now, and what the actual trajectory of our lives, based on the gifts and dreams that are a part of our personhood, and that we were made by God to express.
Phillip is offered in the book of Acts, as an example of bearing fruit, just as the gospel of John commands us to bear fruit. Jesus says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” Whether destined for the bottle of Welches that supplies our communion table, or the bottle of wine intended to make a romantic dinner more memorable, we know that the intention of the vine is to produce grapes.
Phillip is viewed as a success; even though he did not increase church attendance, let alone improve the size of the offering in the collection plate. This success was identified with sharing the good news of the gospel in a way that touched a soul, and provided the seed for further spiritual growth.
This is one of those hard and painful lessons in ministry. When we become too invested in doing what we have always done, and doing it the same way as we have always done it, our ministry becomes a temptation to serve our memory and our own institution, and not serve the gospel. I was thinking of this as I read the announcement of the closing of the UCC church in Stark, north and west of Chillicothe.
Many rural churches are closing. This is due in part to the sharp reduction in the number of people employed on the “family farm” and living in the country. It also demonstrates the preference for more up to date programming, missions, and facilities, than isolated small churches can provide. At its closing in 2018, the Stark church is still served by a one-seat outhouse. Change is hard, and we know that. Resisting all change denies the invitation of the Holy Spirit.
Churches that no longer bear fruit are removed and discarded. Those folks who were hanging on to the end, will continue to be faithful witnesses, but perhaps in a more productive community. Their gifts may be better appreciated and utilized in a setting where they can specialize, and not need to be clerk, treasurer, deacon and sexton all at once. We lose a piece of our hearts when the church doors close for the last time as the home of a faith community. Remember though, God’s promises are not tied to real estate.
Considering promises and real estate made the news just this past week. In a public speech, Benjamin Netanyahu the Prime Minister of Israel, proclaimed that God has been faithful to the promises made to the land of Israel. Biblical scholars lifted an eyebrow and shook their heads. This is another case of political misuse of theology.
God’s promises are made very real within the context of community. Beginning next week I will impose on you, The Pastor Chuck Them Song, that makes the claim. “It is all about the relationship.” I firmly believe that within the relationship I have with this community, God has blessed and increased my faith and spiritual life.
Grapes do not grow and ripen in isolation. Sweet white or concord, cabernet or pinot noir, grapes grow in bunches. They hang together on the grapevine.The share the nutrients of the grapevine. They only know what the grapevine knows.
There are some couples, whose love for each other was a saving grace, but lacks the fundamentals to make a strong and long lasting marriage. That does not make the relationship bad. That does not diminish the memory of the power the relationship had in the moment to save damaged souls from hopelessness. But it does not need to turn into a battleground in an attempt to force it to be something it could never be.
The love of God is so good, that it gives us the power to love each other, even though we are imperfect. The love of God is good enough to share. And like Phillip and the Ethiopian, or the congregation and the Interim Minister, we change and grow, and then we move on to deliver more of God’s love in that future where we are headed.
We all know people who are very kind and generous, and who do not attend church. It is good to invite them, but I tell you it is better to encourage the value of what they do. When we embark on mission projects that touch on their interests, we should remember to invite them to participate.
There are other folks who live in a kind of self-imposed isolation. We should reach out to those folks, inviting them into fellowship. The love of God is so much easier to name and honor in communal situations where faith can be proclaimed, and not hidden in the subtext.
In all of your walking about this week, I invite you to think about being a branch on a grape vine. I invite you to think about how you share the word of God that sustains your efforts to be kind and generous, with those you work with, with your friends and neighbors.
Be attentive to the church calendar. Invite people with children to Vacation Bible School. Invite people who care about music to share in the wonderful opportunities to attend and participate. Bring a friend to Bible Study on Tuesday, or Prayer and Study on Thursday. Brag a little on the welcome of our CORE Wednesday nights, though we have only 3 left for the season.
And finally, during your prayer time this week, invite God to lift your own faith up a notch. Permit yourself to consider what it might mean for you, to grow in faith and action. Ask God what you might do, that will bring you closer. The key to success in a faith community, is to change lives. And change, like all acts of charity, begins at home.
Baam, Ba-Bump Baam, Bup-Ba-Bup-Ah, Baam, Ba-Bump Baam. Oh, Oh I heard through the grapevine. Not much longer would you be mine. Baby, I heard through the grapevine, and I’m just about to lose my mind. Honey, honey Yeah. (I heard through the grapevine not much longer would you be my baby, yeah, yeah yeah.)