A Sermon for Communion Sunday, August 5, 2012, John 15:1-5, 9-17, Ephesians 3:16-19
One of my fondest memories of growing up at Shades Valley Presbyterian Church in Birmingham was observing the ritual that the senior pastor and the associate pastor practiced during Holy Communion on the first Sunday of each month. After the Words of Institution were spoken and the plates of bread pieces and tiny juice cups were served to the folks sitting in the pews, the elders would return to their seats (located on both sides of the chancel) to receive the elements. Dr. Tom Duncan would then serve the elders on one side and the Rev. Terry Newland would serve the elders on the other. And as they held out the plates to each Session member, they would engage in sacred dialogue with one another and the congregation, reciting from memory excerpts from this morning’s scripture reading:
(Dr. Duncan) I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 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.’
(Terry) I 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.” 9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’
Whenever my pastors shared those magnificent verses while serving the bread and the cup in worship on the first Sunday of every month, I felt goosebumps! To hear that message proclaimed during Communion was akin to hearing a beautiful soliloquy from the great musical Les Miserables or a breath-taking monologue from the award-winning film The King’s Speech. It was a profound ritual and moment that has had a profound impact on my faith. Over the last 25 years, there has hardly been a Communion experience where I didn’t remember Dr. Duncan and Terry’s sacred tradition and recall those words of Jesus.
According to John’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking with his friends around the supper table in Jerusalem, a few hours before he is to be arrested, mocked and beaten by the Roman authorities. Knowing that the disciples will face persecution in the days ahead, Jesus reassures them that God will never forsake them in times of trouble. Jesus imparts a hope-filled message that reminds them (and ultimately us) about how to be in relationship with God and humanity amid the turmoil of daily life. Jesus tells them to…
Abide in God’s love
Live in God’s love
Immerse yourselves entirely in God’s love
Share all of God’s love with others
But what is love? What is this love of God that Jesus and the scriptures say we are meant to embody? In his song “Hold Us Together,” (which played in the background of the High School Youth Mission Trip and Middle School Youth Conference video during this morning’s offertory) Matt Maher tells us what this love is by first describing what it’s not:
It don’t have a job, don’t pay your bills
Won’t buy you a home in Beverly Hills
Won’t fix your life in five easy steps
Ain’t the law of the land or the government?
But it’s all you need
And love will hold us together
Make us a shelter to weather the storm
And I’ll be my brother’s keeper
So the whole world would know that we’re not alone
It’s waiting for you knocking at your door
In the moment of truth when your heart hits the floor
And you’re on your knees
The Rev. Beth Lindsay Templteton, the author of Loving Our Neighbor, emphasizes that God’s love or biblical love is “not based on feeling, on the sentiments of Valentine cards, or the flutter of the heart when in the presence of someone.” She writes:
Biblical love is commitment to another, no matter how good or bad, no matter how endearing or obnoxious. Biblical love is action, not feeling, a way of choosing rather than a way of reacting. When we love God, we love because we choose to love, not because we are feeling close or warm or fuzzy. …Love is a need of life itself. Love is that sense of connectedness when the “is-ness” of one person recognizes the “is-ness” of another person.
In a world and time in which human beings around the globe are the more connected (technologically) than we’ve ever been, people have an incredibly difficult time of abiding in that sense of connectedness that is God’s unconditional love. We only have to look at recent news events to know this is true.
Less than a week into the 2012 London Olympics, two athletes were barred from the games for racially charged messages or tweets they posted on their Twitter accounts for the world to see. The first athlete to be expelled was Voula Papachristou, a 23-year-old triple jumper from Greece, who wrote in mid-July: “So many Africans in Greece at least West Nile mosquitoes will eat homemade food.” The second athlete bounced from competition was Switzerland’s Michael Morganella, a 23-year-old soccer player who, following his team’s loss to South Korea, tweeted “I want to beat up all South Koreans! Bunch of mentally handicapped retards!” He also wrote that South Koreans were mongoloids and hoped they would all burn.
In addition to athletes, spectators have also spewed vitriol during the Olympics. After British diver Tom Daley placed fourth in the synchronized diving competition, a spectator at the Olympics told the athlete via Twitter that he “let his dad down” –a dad who died last year of cancer. And on Thursday, while earning gold medals and becoming the first African-American woman to win the individual all-around competition in gymnastics, 16-year-old superstar Gabby Douglas received criticism from people in the black community about HER HAIR! One message said: “I don’t care, 16 or 26 , black or white, Gabby Douglas’ hair is ratch.” Another quipped: “Gabby Douglas gotta do something with this hair! These clips and this brown gel residue ain’t it!”
Unfortunately these toxic comments are not isolated incidents. Nor are they exclusive to the Olympics and the heated fervor of sports. Judgmental, demeaning and hateful rhetoric makes headlines on a daily basis whether it’s the venomous words of an athlete, celebrity, politician, business owner, religious leader or everyday citizen. Figuring out new ways to verbally hurt another human being is the new favorite pastime, especially in this country. Americans can no longer have a civilized and respectful conversation of differing viewpoints anymore. And it plays out across the social media landscape as we have seen all too much in recent weeks.
The walls of Facebook, as many of you know, are constantly covered with snarky remarks, degrading comments and arrogant photo displays whose sole purpose is to anger and hurt those with an opposing view on any given topic. Attempts by a few Facebook users to initiate some heartfelt and thoughtful dialogue are often met with anger, pessimism and judgment—a lot of name-calling and easy-go-to labels.
Although the person posting such hurtful things may have not intended any harm and is only standing up on solid moral and economic principles for “their worthy cause,” it becomes immediately clear that their behavior has nothing to do with abiding in God’s love….
Bragging about your meal at a fast food restaurant or declaring how you will fast from eating a certain establishment’s waffle fries
Posting obnoxious pictures of you holding a bag of waffle fries or kissing your significant other, gay or straight, in front of a place of business to prove your cause and view is “the right one.”
Labeling those who support gay marriage as heathens and those who don’t support gay marriage as back-woods hicks
Boasting about how you would have prevented the shooting at the movie theater in Colorado if you had been there with a gun. 
Expressing your disgust with those who would suggest that we all carry more guns, and angrily criticizing responsible gun owners.
Condemning another person’s character and political affiliation because of how they voted on the transportation sales tax or their view on nationalized health care.
I don’t know about all of you, but I am guilty of writing, posting and saying some judgmental and hurtful things on Facebook, Twitter, and in emails. Fear, anger and hate can get the best of me sometimes, and I react in a harsh and judgmental way that is the complete opposite of abiding in God’s love.
Last month at the Montreat Middle School Youth Conference at Presbyterian College, the keynoter Landon Whitsitt explained that abiding in God’s love and allowing God’s love to abide in us is about “sacrificing my need to meet the needs of others.” Abiding in God’s love and making room in our hearts for Christ to dwell within is a sacrificial choice we have to make daily or hourly because there are, says the Rev. Templeton, “plenty of opportunities for us to choose to place our allegiance elsewhere.”
Putting others before us is challenging. Setting aside our own agendas, egos, judgments, fears and prejudices to be connected to someone else and their story is difficult. Choosing to abide in the love of God makes us vulnerable to all kinds of mockery, rejection and pain. A lot of people in the world, including other Christians, will think your naïve or nuts or too idealistic for trying to abide in God’s love in all that you do and say.
But if we affirm our belief in God and our call to serve others as followers of Jesus, we must take seriously the command to abide in God’s love and to love another human being as God loves us and trust it to be the only possible reality for all of creation. Otherwise, we might as well toss all the Bibles in the trash bins and shut down every single church.
The good news, however, is that the act of abiding in God’s love is happening all around us, especially among our young people. By choosing to dwell in God and to allow God reside in them, the youth of this church have been bearers of much fruit in the world…
While on the High School Youth Mission Trip to Tuscaloosa to rebuild homes lost in last year’s deadly tornadoes, the youth worked selflessly throughout the week and with no complaints, regardless of the weather or difficulty of the task. They listened to the stories of those who lost homes and loved ones in the storms, and they saw up close the damage done to the city.
The youth also took care of one another and made sure all were included in jobs on the work site and in free afternoon and evening activities. Despite different personalities, views and disagreements, the youth worked, worshipped, and played together. And at the beginning and end of each day, they sat at table to break bread and enjoy being with one another.
For the Middle School Youth Conference, five girls and one boy signed up for the trip. But the girls, without being asked by the adult leaders, made sure the boy was included in every part of the conference experience. The group even invited three youth, a mix of genders, from other churches to hang out with them. They accepted one another as well as those whom they barely knew. Despite different personalities, views and disagreements, they youth worshiped, hung out, and played games together. And at the beginning and end of each day, they sat table to break bread and and enjoy being with one another.
By choosing to live in God’s love and allowing God to enter their lives, both the High School Youth and the Middle School Youth, respectively, grew close to one another and to God. And that was just in a short period of time.
What could the world look like if we chose to abide in God’s love more often? If we pause more frequently before writing an angry rant on Facebook or sending an email ripping someone to shreds for their views, could we recognize that our words and actions cause harm? Might we then be able to peacefully have a meal with those whom we disagree, those whom we consider our enemies?
What could change for the better if we truly let God in Christ make a permanent residence in our lives? If we seize more opportunities to get to know someone and listen to their story, could we learn to treat the other with more dignity and respect? Might we then see their “is-ness” and the love of God that dwells within them?
When we choose to live in that unconditional and sacrificial love of God, could we discover that we were rooted and grounded in that love by God all along? Might we then continue to grow and branch out with that love for a life time and more?
 “Hold Us Together” by Matt Maher, Alive Again, Essential Records, 2009
 Loving Our Neighbor: A Thoughtful Approach to Helping People in Poverty, Beth Lindsay Templeton, iUniverse, Inc., 2008
 http://content.usatoday.com/communities/gameon/post/2012/07/voula-papachristou-olympic-ban/1#.UB5hishSRVp http://www.usatoday.com/sports/olympics/london/soccer/story/2012-07-30/swiss-athlete-banned-michel-morganella-olympics/56591966/1;