The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan
Last week I warned you that I have some of what I called pulpit jokes up my sleeve. So here’s my favorite. You’re bound to have heard it but I dusted this one off and I share it with purpose this morning.
There once was a man shipwrecked for several years alone on a deserted island. When he was finally rescued the men who came ashore to take him to the safety of their ship found him living in a small hut under the trees just above the beach and he was well. They all rejoiced that he had been found. But they couldn’t help but notice there were actually three huts along the beach and they just had to ask him why. He proudly replied, “Oh, this is my home. That one is my church!” “How sweet,” said the rescuer, “But what about that third hut?” “Oh, that’s where I used to go to church!”
The readings this morning are full of images of home and dwelling. This favorite Psalm 84 is reminiscent of the phrase, “How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord,” and the sentiment of the birds of the air having enough shelter (see Matt 6:25-34 and Luke 12;22-32). St. Paul speaks in metaphors of armor as a way of talking about a sort of dwelling in the Lord as a protection in the face of spiritual warfare. And Jesus says, “Abide in me.”
What does it mean for us to abide in Jesus? I ask you to consider for the next few moments what that means exactly. What does it mean to abide in Jesus?
I think many Christians have taken this to mean something that was not intended, not entirely. We want to abide in Jesus in the way that a child abides in her mother’s arms, or a young man wants to abide in a hammock. This one word brings to mind the places in our lives where we feel safe and comforted, where we know we can go to in times of trouble, a comfort that will last our entire lives. But abiding in Jesus means much more for he also called us to follow him.
So I ask you to ponder with me this morning how to follow Christ in both of these ways: to abide and to go.
Now, you may have noticed if you’ve been listening to me preach this summer, that this is a favorite theme of mine. Talking about “home” and what that means is fascinating to me. I talked about this theme both in my first sermon as your rector on Easter Sunday and then again at Pentecost. I think there is a great deal of psychological meaning attached to the word “home” and it’s synonyms: dwelling, shelter, abode.
If you look up the word abide in the dictionary, there is this wonderful definition. It is a verb, and action word, that means “to have ones abode; to dwell; or to reside.” It also means, and this is the number one meaning, “to remain; continue; or stay.” But I am most drawn, in the context of preaching on this one word in this particular Gospel lesson, I am most drawn to the third definition: “to continue in a particular condition, attitude or relationship.”
Now, that is what I think Jesus was talking about when he invited us to abide in him. He meant for us “to continue in a particular condition, attitude or relationship.”
Yesterday, I took a long country drive through the Catawba Valley on my way back from Clifton Forge where I went to play some bluegrass. I had never been in that part of our lovely region and I really enjoyed it. Along the way I passed a tidy farm with fenced fields that were mowed neatly and noticed a sign on the gate. It said, “I believe in God and guns. If you trespass you will meet both!”
Well, O.K., I may question his theology but I won’t question his right to privacy and property (or for gun ownership, for that matter). Trespassing is against the law for a reason. My fantasy though was to stop and tack a second sign next to it that would read, “Good fences make good neighbors.” My favorite Robert Frost quote.
Frost used this line (twice) in a poem he titled “Mending Wall.” * It is based on the premise of the way that neighboring farmers would meet in the Spring, at “mending time” to walk the line and mend the walls that divided their fields - together. By doing the work together they would keep each other’s livestock in the right place but they also would share the work of maintaining the wall. This sort of wall is about (law and) order, and property and healthy boundaries. It is also about relationship.
To partake of Jesus as manna involves a certain reliance on God. One way John expresses this throughout the fourth Gospel is through this word, abide. The idea of abiding appears throughout John’s Gospel (e.g. 15:5-6). The Greek word (meno) is often translated remain: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood remain in me and I in them.” Feeding on Jesus as manna means remaining or abiding with Jesus. It is through this proximity that Jesus brings life to those who eat (v. 57).
But abiding with Jesus is difficult. Staying with Jesus and learning from him is a long process. For many, a quick fix would be more attractive. The crowd was initially attracted to Jesus when they saw him as a Moses figure -- one who could work miracles and provide political victories. As they continue with him, they learn that Jesus is not offering an easy victory but the long road of discipleship. He calls us not to become soldiers, but to enter into a relationship with him. A life-long relationship with the Prince of Peace.
What Paul was talking about in his use of the metaphor of dressing like soldiers was more about protection from Satan than about waring with each other. It is a way of abiding, like within a fort, not like getting geared up for battle.
On a narrative level, the twelve are shown in this passage from John as the ones who abide with Jesus. The 12, minus Judas, are the ones who stay. There is a quick references to Judas, the one who would betray him. But the rest, they stay. They stick with Jesus even though his teaching is difficult. Here, the ones who stay recognize Jesus’ words as life giving and do not turn away. In doing so, they represent what it means to trust that God will provide. They stick closely to Jesus, who is the Bread of Heaven, and they listen to his words. As Peter put it: “Lord, to whom would we go? You (are the One who has) the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
But what about those who turned away? Some of his followers left at this point in the story. They couldn’t buy in to this stuff about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. They couldn’t envision what abiding in Jesus might mean. They gave up. They turned their backs. They moved their membership to the next hut.
Over the past decade or so, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking with colleagues and praying about the fact that the Church at large is shrinking. We all worry about those dwindling numbers with angst. It seems to me that each time someone leaves the church the church should weep and wail and gnash our teeth. But we don’t. Instead, we understand. Folks who have left the church feel betrayed and violated by the church. Just read the news lately about the huge crisis the Catholic Church is facing, again. Bad things have happened in the Church throughout our history. Many Christians feel they have been hurt by the church. This has happened because of the ways of Satan. Maybe that armor Paul speaks of is useful.
As I struggled with these problems this week, of losing members and facing the bad reputation we Christians must live with, I found myself sighing and moaning about it and asking this question: Who will stay? Who will teach others what it takes to stay? Who will “hold down the fort?” and “tend the fires?”
I know the answer. It is me. It is you. “Here am I, send me.” Here am I help me to stay and lead others to stay. As often is the case, God’s will is hard. This teaching is hard. And sometimes staying is hard.
How then can we learn and teach staying?
A quick search on book seller sites will reveal a fascinating amalgam of titles about staying. When I did a search for books on staying I got these topics: Staying thinner, staying stronger, staying sober and staying more stylish topped the list but also included were books on staying in relationship and staying in neighborhoods and books on how to survive the apocalypse.
It seems the world around us is caught up in staying alive instead of choosing to abide in Jesus. Abiding in Jesus is not survival, nor is it an ointment for attractiveness. Abiding in Jesus is becoming alive through the feast that is the Eucharistic meal. We live because he lives. We can go forth and care for others because he first loved us. Abiding is not survival it is life itself.
I asked Mason to lead us in the singing of this lovely hymn, Abide in Me for our gradual hymn this morning. But I realize now I wanted to sing this favorite hymn for the wrong reasons.
Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847), who was a Priest in the Church of England, wrote the text of this hymn in the late summer of 1847 just before he became too ill to work. He died a few months later. Because of ill health Lyte made winter visits to the French Riviera from the last three years of his life. The words for this hymn were inspired by the story in Luke in which travelers to Emmaus ask Jesus to "stay with us, for it is nearly evening" (Luke 24:29). But I was wrong about this hymn. It doesn’t fit at all this passage from John. This hymn is about Jesus abiding with someone on their death bed. “Abide with Me” is not a hymn for the evening of a day; instead the images of evening in the words of the hymn are a metaphor for the close of life, a transition from life's "little day" (st. 2) to "Heaven's morning" (st. 5), which Lyte himself was quickly approaching. This hymn is a prayer for God's abiding care when friends fail (st. 1), when everything seems to change and decay (st. 2), when the devil attacks (st. 3), when death approaches (st. 4), and when we pass from this life to heaven's glory.
All this makes it seem the perfect hymn to match the point I am making about abiding. But here’s the difference: When we pray for the Lord to abide with us we miss the point Jesus was making in this passage from John.
When we pray, we often ask for guidance and miracles and ease of suffering. And that’s fine. It is especially O.K. to pray for God’s presence at the time of death. But that is not what Jesus meant when he invited us to abide in him. We are invited to abide in Jesus throughout our lives and throughout eternity. It is not the other way around. It is not a magical spell that will fix us. Abiding in Jesus is a choice, an intentional way of life that is not easy but it is the only way. It is eternal life. “To whom else would we go?”
I want to leave you with a prayer by St. Columba. In this prayer the saint lists ways he sought to abide in Jesus, ways of his intention to abide rather than demand Jesus to abide in him. My hope for us is that we might learn to pray this way instead of praying for stuff and walls and the demise of our enemies. Let’s work on praying in gratitude that we can and do abide in Jesus.
Be a bright flame before me, O God
a guiding star above me.
Be a smooth path below me,
a kindly shepherd behind me
today, tonight, and for ever.
Alone with none but you, my God
I journey on my way;
what need I fear when you are near,
O Lord of night and day?
More secure am I within your hand
than if a multitude did round me stand.
* Mending Wall by Robert Frost (1874 - 1963)
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.'
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.'