Kerry R Mansir
April 29, 2018
Easter 5 – Christ Church
I’m not sure if you saw the news this week, but apparently, the Bible made GQ’s list of 20 classic books that you don’t actually need to read. I learned of this through my grandmother’s Facebook post, and being the good southern Baptist woman that she is, she was alarmed and irate at this news.
But you know, I didn’t find the GQ article insulting to my faith as much as I found it to be a challenge. If we are honest with ourselves, if we take an honest look at the pews of this church and most every other mainline Christian church in the country…we know that there are fewer people deciding that whatever we are selling here on Sunday morning is worth buying. The church and the foundation of wisdom we claim to find in the biblical text has kind of a credibility issue.
And the church can blame its attendance problems on our modern culture. On the increasing busyness of people’s lives today.
But how much of our decline is simply an inability to articulate why this book, the Bible, is still important thousands of years after it was written?
Here are a few of the things Jesse Ball, the writer of the GQ article, finds fault with in the Bible. He claims, “It is repetitive, self-contradictory, judgmental, foolish, and even at times, ill-intentioned.”
And you know, he’s not completely wrong about those things. It is repetitive in places. The same stories are often told multiple times with contradicting details. There’s more than a fair share of judgment found in these pages. And certainly, there are parts of the Bible that have been interpreted in ways that led to ill intentions toward particular groups.
But what Mr. Ball is missing in his assessment of the Bible is that despite the repetitiveness, the contradictions, and the judgment that may show up in it, there’s wisdom here that transcends the many, many years since these words were first written down. Any ill intentions associated with this book are human errors, not God’s.
And it’s our work as people of this book to make meaning of it. To read it in the context of the world around us. How do the stories we find in these sacred texts speak to what we experience in our lives every day? If we don’t find any connection there, then Mr. Ball is right…why bother reading it all?
We don’t have the luxury anymore of living in a Christian culture that assumes there’s meaning and value in what we do here on Sunday morning or what we read in the Bible. But at the same time, if we look around us, if we take a good look at the world we live in, we know deep down, that the world is in need of some good news. We need something to help us make meaning and give value to our lives, especially in the context of a world that is so polarized and divisive and in pain. And what we heard from the Bible this morning does matter to our lives today.
When I hear the sacred scripture selected for this fifth Sunday in Easter, I don’t have any trouble connecting it to our world today. The reading from Acts, First John, and the Gospel of John, all speak to the need for relationship and connectedness among us. And this is a message our culture is hungry to hear right now.
I don’t think anyone would disagree that there is a deep divisiveness pervading our country. There’s a growing sense of “us versus them,” and we are losing the ability or even the desire to communicate with those we think have different political beliefs and cultural values than we do.
And research has shown that even as we self-select what we will be a part of so that we don’t have to interact those with whom we disagree…sorting is what sociologists are calling this…even as we sort ourselves by similar viewpoints, overall, we aren’t happier. In fact, we are more cut off than ever. We are losing faith in our shared humanity, and it’s leaving us with alarming feelings of being disconnected.
There’s a researcher, Brene Brown, that has been studying this spiritual crisis of disconnectedness. She claims that there is something missing in our current culture…in our way of interacting with one another. We have lost the ability to see that even in our differences, we are deeply connected. Our sense of belonging is fractured in so many places. And it seems that we are nearing the breaking point.
This is a spiritual crisis and a spiritual crisis needs a spiritual answer.
And even though her field of work isn’t faith based, Brene Brown understands the importance of a spiritual answer because she defines spirituality as “recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion.”
When I read those words this week, that we are all connected to each other by a power greater than us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion… I penciled in the margin of my book: vine and branches.
Because at that moment, it hit me. This is what Jesus was trying to tell the disciples when he said, “I am the vine. You are the branches.” These words are part of his farewell discourse. He’s teaching them how to carry on after he’s gone. He’s telling them how to stay connected. And he needs them to know that they can continue to garner strength from him and that his love will continue to abide with them. But there’s more than one branch on a vine. And while we need the nourishment, the love, of Jesus, the vine…we must abide with one another, too. The branches are intimately connected to each other. Together, the vine and branches bear fruit, and we don’t get to choose which branch grows next to us.
Jesus’ use of the word “abiding” is powerful. Abiding has such depth of meaning: to sojourn, to stay with, to bear patiently, to wait, to sustain. And abiding is critical to true relationship. The vine and branches are a community. They are this community here and the community of all of those we meet outside these walls. And when we are abiding in Jesus and in that community, relationship is necessary. Intimacy, mutuality and belonging are all required.
But how do we shape communities of mutuality and belonging when we feel so divided from one another? When sometimes our divisions turn into hostility and even violence?
I believe rather than moving away from one another, we have to move closer. We are branches on the vine, and branches don’t get to sort themselves. They have to love and abide with whomever happens to be next to them.
One of my favorite lines from Brene Brown is this: “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.”
And isn’t that the truth? How many of us know people whose Facebook posts make us want to scream, we’re sure they don’t vote like us, and they seem to disagree with us on all of the important issues? And yet…our in-person experiences with them, the relationships that we have cultivated with them, have far more power than all of those things that bother us.
I know lots of people like that. Perhaps my favorite is my older brother. Over the years, Travis and I have debated just about every possible political issue. Healthcare, taxes, gay marriage, gun laws, immigration. You get the point. And when I debate issues that are important to me, I can get a little sensitive. Even a little tearful. Let’s just say that the joke in our family is: how long into this argument before Kerry starts crying. Even my kids roll their eyes at me now when I am arguing with their uncle. There goes Mom again…crying over politics.
But as emotional as I get in our political arguments, I know that rather than pull back from that relationship, what I really need to do is to move in. The love I have for my brother is far deeper than any political disagreement we have. And when we try, and we almost always do, we can usually find common ground in a debate.
Even the people we disagree with the most are part of our vine. And if we lose them, we lose a part of ourselves. We have to stop thinking that we know people based on their facebook feed or their political bumper stickers. Instead of feeling contempt from afar, our Gospel asks us to move in…get to know them…look for common ground. To abide.
The first letter of John gives us some advice for how we go about doing this work of abiding, and it has everything to do with love. John reminds us that the only real way to be in relationship is to love. Even when it’s hard. Even when we disagree. In Jesus, we find a love willing to err on the side of grace; a love willing to be vulnerable. And we are called to share that same love with others.
The spiritual answer to our crisis of disconnectedness…to our forgetting that we belong to each other in deep and abiding ways…is to remind ourselves again and again that we are inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us. As Christians, we call that power the love of Jesus. And our connection to Jesus and to one another must always be grounded in love and compassion. That’s our Gospel story. That’s the relationship between God and God’s people that we see throughout our biblical text. And despite what GQ says, I believe that’s a story worth reading. A story that might even save us.
Brene Brown, “Braving the Wilderness”