My parents’ house, the place where I grew up, lies in the suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota on a shallow hill overlooking a beautiful marsh. If you walk to the right of the house from the backyard, you find yourself climbing old, faded grey wooden stairs built into the hillside. These stairs are flanked by a deck on the left and by wooden retaining walls that double as garden plots on the right. At the very top of the retaining wall stands an apple tree that we planted when I was young. Its branches now stretch up and out into our neighbor’s yard and even to the deck. In the late Summer, when you walk up the stairs, it’s hard to avoid the low-hanging branches heavy with fruit and it’s hard to avoid the many apples that have fallen all over the place. And in the Fall we get to make them into pies and sauces and whatever else you can think of.
I particularly love making apple pies for my family’s annual tradition we call Apple Day. For about 35 years my family and my Godparents’ family have been celebrating Apple Day. Each Fall our families pick a day when we go apple picking, play football, and have a feast of apple-filled dishes. It’s like our own apple themed Thanksgiving. There are few places I would rather be than around the dinner table with all of us together. These are the people who have upheld their baptismal promises by fostering my faith and supporting me in love. In many ways my life and my faith are the fruit of their love.
Sometimes I wish that I had a lighting storm faith experience like Martin Luther. As the story goes, Luther was walking home in a terrifying storm and he made a bargain with God. If God brought him home safe, he would become a monk for God. I wish I had that one moment that changed my life forever, one moment that gave me some sort of “genuine” faith. But no. My faith journey, and I imagine most of yours, has been a little different. It’s been more of a gradual change, like the slow maturing of fruit on a tree.
In last week’s Gospel reading we heard Jesus tell his followers that he is the true vine and they are the branches who bear fruit. He says, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus is the source of love and good things in our lives. Because of Jesus we can produce these fruits.
Today’s Gospel reading is a continuation of this passage from John. I hope most of you when you heard this reading just a minute ago thought, “What in the world is this guy talking about??” Jesus in John’s Gospel can be especially hard to understand. He likes to speak in complex riddles. This passage in particular has some snares we can fall into if we aren’t careful. We might hear Jesus say, “I will love you only if you do my commandments.” But this is not quite what he says. He says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abidein my love. If you keep my commandments, you willabide in my love.” Do you hear the difference? It’s subtle. Jesus already loves us. Jesus already laid down his life for us. Our task is to live in that love. If you abide in that love you make it your abode, you make it into a home. It is this love that bears fruit.
We might also be tempted to be proud of the good fruit we produce, as if we could have done these things on our own. But Jesus reminds us, “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit.” We did not choose Jesus, Jesus chose us. We could not bear fruit without him. The word translated as appointed in this passage means something more like placed, established, or laid down. In a sense, Jesus planted us. In the same way, I did not choose my nurturing family. My family’s apple tree did not choose which hill to be planted on. Our confirmation students learned last week that we Lutherans practice infant baptism for particular reasons. As Pr. Christa explained, this practice is a way of living out our faith that Jesus chooses us, not the other way around.
But what exactly does it mean to bear fruit? What exactly does it mean to abide in God’s love? What does it mean to live out our baptism? Jesus gives us a hint. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I hope this commandment makes you uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable. One of the things I love about Jesus’s teaching is his amazing ability to stretch us far beyond our normal limits. I heard Pr. Markay over at Chatham United Methodist Church preach about this commandment and I appreciated his sermon.[i]He reminded me that getting to this kind of love can be the task of a lifetime, yet we may find at some point that we are in fact called to give up our life in love for others.
Oddly enough, Jesus talks about this difficult commandment as a type of grace; he gives us this commandment so that joy may be in us and that our joy may be complete. Yet I have found in my own life that it is grace which compels me into all kinds of uncomfortable places. Through discomfort and change grace has taken me into joy. It is grace that has brought me 1000 miles from home to this strange land called New Jersey to attend seminary. It is grace that has allowed me to grow as a minister these past 8 months. I had so many opportunities to get out of my comfort zone to experience the joys of ministry.
Grace actually brought me out of my comfort zone just recently. Two weeks ago at Drew, student organizations held a forum about racism because a public sign was defaced with racist graffiti. Discussion quickly turned to the topic of discomfort. In that room I became aware of my own discomfort as a white person in talking about race. Perhaps you know this same feeling. Perhaps you are feeling it right now. I think my discomfort comes from knowing that I have lot of privilege and a lot responsibility to combat racism in this country. I don’t know much but I do know that I grew up in an affluent white suburb, that my parents never had to talk to me about interacting with police, and that I have never even met anyone who has been arrested for sitting in a coffee shop.
Having a sense of responsibility to fight racism means changing how I live. And change can be uncomfortable. It means laying down our life in big and small ways. We do not always know what the fruit of this kind of love will look like. Love is a risky business after all. When we try to dismantle racism we will not know the outcome. But God promises that this love will bear fruit, fruit that will last.
Now, I could very well avoid this discomfort. But it seems to me that if we are uncomfortable we are likely catching a glimpse of who we really are. We recognize that we are at the same time sinner and saint. We recognize that God is opening up an opportunity to embrace this identity and an opportunity to bear fruit.
Those apples that my family picks every Fall are full of defects and places where insects have burrowed. This used to gross me out. But we could always use these apples despite their defects to make a feast. Despite our defects, God still uses us and still wants us. God looks at us and sees our bruises, bumps, and bugs. And God says: “I can work with that.”
Grace draws us into all sorts of uncomfortable places. Grace brings us onto an adventure that we would not have chosen by ourselves. At the same time, it is grace that gives us the strength to set out on this adventure. When we set off onto the path that is scary or new or unforeseen, we can trust that Christ abides in us. Because Christ abides in us, we can bear fruit even in situations that are uncomfortable. Christ leads us up that hill to where there is fruit and family and fellowship.I pray that the love of Christ continues to live and work in this community to bear the fruit of love for many seasons to come. AMEN.
“Philip asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading? The eunuch replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me? And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.” Acts 8:30-31
Sometimes when I’m eating in a restaurant, I notice a couple sitting on the same side of a table or a booth. It’s usually an older couple. I always imagine them to be long-married because their posture often conveys the comfort and familiarity of people who have known each other for many years. They’re no longer caught up in the giddy infatuation of love’s early days when all you want to do is gaze into the other person’s eyes. Now they’ve settled in beside one another, waiting for whatever life will bring and preparing to meet it together.
There’s something about sitting beside another person. I love to snuggle up next to my nieces when we read a book together, pausing occasionally to discuss why a character made that decision and what we think might happen next. At the times in my life when I’ve been most heartbroken, I didn’t really need anyone to offer words of wisdom. The best thing friends could do was sit beside me, put an arm around my shoulder, and remind me of their presence.
Sitting beside another person makes a statement: We are in this together. We have solidarity. Whatever comes at us, we can face it.
Of course all of the situations I just described involve the intimacy of those who already know and love each other, those who share a history. That’s what makes a particular moment in our First Reading today so shocking. The Ethiopian eunuch invites Philip to climb into his chariot and sit beside him. And Philip does it.
These two people have only just met each other, shoved together by the Holy Spirit.[i] It’s about the only way they could have met, given the different worlds from which they come. Philip is a guy working on behalf of the church. A couple of chapters before this moment, he had been chosen as an apostle and leader of the early church. He had been sent to Samaria to do some preaching so that more people would know about Jesus. Samaria was already pretty far out of his comfort zone, so when an angel sends word that he’s supposed to head out on a wilderness road to Gaza, Philip probably thought twice about what he’d signed on for. Wilderness roads weren’t a desirable place to hang out. Wilderness roads could get you killed.
But Philip goes. He goes down that wilderness road in spite of having no idea where it was leading. Along the way he encounters this court official who works for the Ethiopian queen. The official is also a eunuch, a man who had been castrated. Eunuchs were often given great responsibility in royal circles. For obvious reasons they reduced the risk of sexual impropriety at the highest levels of leadership. In this case the eunuch has been put in charge of all the money, so in spite of his other limitations, he is a person of power and status.
This man has gone all the way to Jerusalem to worship – a long journey that might even be described as a pilgrimage. And the heartbreaking thing is that he probably wasn’t allowed into the Temple when he got there. Eunuchs were forbidden from entering the house of the Lord.[ii] But in spite of what may have been an unfulfilled pilgrimage to Jerusalem, what do we find the eunuch doing? He is sitting in his chariot reading a scroll that includes this passage from the 53rdchapter of Isaiah:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.
That’s what he’s doing when Philip comes along. Reading from the prophet Isaiah and wondering what it means. So he invites Philip to sit beside him and help him out.
I love that simple moment of encounter. I imagine these two men from impossibly different worlds sitting beside each other, heads bent over a scroll, running their fingers along the words and trying to make sense of them together.
It captures something that I described earlier this week when I had the chance to speak at the interfaith Abraham Lunch hosted by Chatham United Methodist Church. Each speaker was asked to name what we appreciated about the other two Abrahamic faith traditions. One of the aspects of Judaism that I discussed is called havruta. It’s from a word that means “fellowship” or “companionship,” and it’s the Jewish practice of having a partner with whom to study sacred text. In havruta partners dig into a text together, debate its meanings, push each other to think more deeply about it, ask each other questions, challenge what seems off-base. The idea is that two people can sharpen each other’s engagement with the text.
The practice of havruta rests upon something I have long believed – that we learn best in community, that others can push us to understand what is beyond our own limited perspective or experience.
In the case of Philip and the eunuch, we don’t have a full report of the conversation. But we know two things. It begins with the eunuch asking who the prophet Isaiah is describing. Who is this person who has been humiliated? Who has been denied justice? Who has suffered silently as he is led to his death?
And then Philip tells the eunuch about Jesus. We don’t know what he says exactly, but we know that it results in the eunuch’s baptism there by the side of the road. And now these two strangers have become siblings in the faith, forever part of the same family.
These two men are so different, but what brings them together is a shared interest in scripture…which becomes a shared identity in Jesus. Here we truly see an embodiment of that verse from Galatians: “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[iii]
Think of a person in your life who is different from you in some way, a person from whom and with whom you might learn something new. How might that happen? In what way might you be able to sit beside that person – if not literally, then symbolically? Could you sit beside that person at a table while you have coffee and talk? Could you sit beside that person at a place important to him or her? Could you sit beside that person digitally or virtually, through FaceTime or Skype or an old-fashioned phone call?
He recalled how much more diverse the police force had become during those three decades. His colleagues had increasingly represented many different races, cultures, religions, and gender identities. He reflected on how much he had learned from his colleagues because of those differences. They had challenged him to understand the world in new ways.
This retired officer came to an important conclusion. He said: “It’s about relationships over categories.” Relationships over categories.
He’s right. It’s in relationships that we learn to see people as more than labels. It’s in relationships that we grow by learning from people who have lived lives completely different from our own. And when our relationships with each other grow out of our relationship with God, then we are able to sit beside each other in solidarity and in love, facing the future together. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ