Tag Archives: abide in God’s love

Combating Loneliness

A Sermon for 29 April 2018 – 5th Sunday of Easter

A reading from the gospel of John 15:1-8.  Listen for the word of God in these words from Jesus.  And remember:  they are a portion of the words recorded in the gospel of John as being on the lips of Jesus that night before his arrest and crucifixion.  When he gathered with his disciples in an upper room for the Passover meal, Jesus washed all of his disciples’ feet.  Judas left the dinner and after he departed to go betray his Lord, Jesus begins a long message to his followers about all that lie ahead.  It’s clear in the gospel that he is preparing them for his death – and for what will be expected of them after.  To ensure they are ready to carry on God’s mission in the world, Jesus gives them a charge to love one another.  He also comforts them with beautiful images such as this one.  Listen.

“’I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.  Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.  You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.  Abide 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.  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.  Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.  If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!


In the 1950s, pioneer psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann began to write about loneliness.  Born in Germany and escaping from Hitler, she made her home in Maryland where she spent the rest of her life working at Chestnut Lodge Hospital.  Fromm-Reichmann was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud and had studied all of his methods.  But, unlike Freud and other psychoanalysts of her day, Fromm-Reichmann spent the majority of her career working with those others believed to be untreatable.  Those suffering from “severe breaks with reality – schizophrenia, manic-depressive bipolar disorder, and patients with psychotic depression” (www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creative-explorations/201503/dr-frieda-fromm-reichmann-creativity-in-psychotherapy%3famp).  In her musings on loneliness, she tells of a young female patient.  The young woman was catatonic until Fromm-Reichmann asked her how lonely she was.  The woman “raised her hand with her thumb lifted, the other four fingers bent toward her palm,’ Fromm-Reichmann wrote.  The thumb stood alone, ‘isolated from the four hidden fingers.’  Fromm-Reichmann gently responded:  ’That lonely?’  And at that, the woman’s ‘facial expression loosened up as though in great relief and gratitude.  (Then, ever so slightly) her fingers opened’”  (https://newrepublic.com/article/113176/science-loneliness-how-isolation-can-kill-you).

We know today that loneliness kills.  And I’m not just talking about the lone-wolf profile of a mass shooter.  Thanks to Fromm-Reichmann’s “insistence that no patient was too sick to be healed through trust and intimacy,” we now have biological evidence to prove her theory that “loneliness lay at the heart of nearly all mental illness” (Ibid.).  Thanks to her work, the new field of loneliness studies has “delved deeper into the workings of cells and nerves” to confirm that loneliness is as destructive as Fromm-Reichmann professed.  Judith Schulevitz in “The Lethality of Loneliness” writes:  “Just as we once knew that infectious diseases killed, but didn’t know that germs spread them, we’ve known intuitively that loneliness hastens death, but haven’t been able to explain how.  Psychobiologists now can show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack” (Ibid.).  Schulevitz continues:  “long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you.  (In fact), emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking” (Ibid.).  Loneliness exacerbates everything from Alzheimer’s to high blood pressure to cancer as research shows that “tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people” (Ibid.).  We must remember that loneliness isn’t about feeling blue when you miss someone.  Loneliness studies define loneliness as “the want of intimacy” (Ibid.).  The lack of deep connection.

The creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 proclaim the same truth.  Genesis 2 records the Creator as saying:  “it is not good that the adam should be alone” (Gen. 2:18).  Animals are formed from the adamah – the ground from which the adam also was taken.  Birds of the air are brought forth.  And as none of these quite did the trick; at last Creator formed ishshah, transforming the one adam into two:  ish and ishshah.  The words of Genesis 1:26 finally rang true.  Words in which Creator declared:  “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”  As we’re learning anew in our Adult Sunday School study on the Trinity, even God is relationship – a mutual out-flowing of self, one into the other, as the dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit merrily goes round and round and round.  . . .  Upon studying the results of AIDS-infected white blood cells that had been dosed in the stress hormone (that is released from the anxiety of dis-connection) only for the virus to replicate itself three to ten times faster than without the added stress hormone, one researcher wondered “why we would have been built in such a way that loneliness would interfere with our ability to fend off disease.”  He pondered:  “‘Did God want us to die when we got stressed?’’ (“The Lethality of Loneliness,” sited above).  Not quite, Genesis reminds.  God just wanted us not to be alone!  Connection one with another – to it all.  And equally to our Maker is the truth we now know in our very cells.

Jesus told his companions the same thing as they faced his pending arrest and crucifixion.  O, he didn’t talk about the stress hormone or the transformation of adam into ish and ishshah.  Instead, he put it this way:  “I am the true vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5).  “Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4).  Remember that a branch can’t bear fruit by itself.  “Neither can you,” Jesus said.  “Unless you abide in me” (Ibid.).  We weren’t meant to go it alone.  Not in our physical bodies, nor in our spiritual lives.  . . .  Jesus and his friends were familiar with the image of the vine, the branches, the luscious fruit, and even the vinegrower.  After all, he’s speaking primarily to those from the fertile soil of Galilee where grapes from the vine are one of the top fruits.  In fact, one source claims that the grape vine is “mentioned more than any other plant in the entire bible.”  In biblical times, “the grape vine was very important culturally and economically” (www.bibleplaces.com/grapevines-vineyards.htm).  Grape vines were so central in everyday life that the ancient prophets often spoke of the fruitful vine as obedient Israel – thriving from its verdant connection with the vine.  Meanwhile, the empty vine often was used as the symbol of Israel’s unfaithfulness – cut off from its Source; isolated and withering; left to die alone.

If Jesus would have thought anyone – including himself – could go it alone in this world without deep connection; he never would have stolen away for prayer – times by himself with his Maker and sometimes with his closest friends too.  Connected in creation, Jesus likely went daily to commune in the quiet with God.  The gospels tell of places like the wilderness, mountains, gardens.  There he ensured his connection with the Vinegrower.  Readying himself to face the demands of his daily vocation.  But he never stayed away for long.  We learn too of times together in the synagogue, at the side of the sea, teaching and feeding a throng of 5,000 men plus women and children, even heading off with his friends to Caesarea Philippi at the foot of Mount Hermon – which was known in his day as a picturesque place for refreshing retreats.

As soon as he left his 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus took up the mantel of his mission from God by calling others to come be with him.  Certainly, he wanted to teach them the Way for God’s work to continue after his death and resurrection.  But I believe he also called disciples because he enjoyed the company of fellow human beings.  They knew too what it was like to live in a human body.  Imagine all he could learn with fishermen constantly at his side.  With the devotion of women who followed along too to provide for him out of their means.  And even from a tax collector who late at night might have sat with him around the campfire telling Jesus just what he had seen as he dutifully tried to peel Rome’s requirements from countrymen who weren’t at all thrilled about taxation without representation.  The Vine kept himself closely connected to his branches.  Like a father or mother who really wants their child to grow to be their best, the Vine expected the branches to remain firmly attached.  Freely receiving all they needed from the Vine to grow into who God wanted them to be.  “Abide,” he said.  I with you, you with me.  And if he was Southern, he likely would have said:  “and all ya’ll with each other.”  Alone the branch withers and dies.  But together – verdantly connected – we thrive.

Let those with ears hear . . . not for our sake alone; but for the sake of those around us.  For the branches that are about to ditch the Vine.  The ones who’ve never lived connected.  And the others whose circumstances have isolated them to the peril of their very own lives.  May we abide; so that they can too.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018 (All rights reserved.)


The School of Love

A sermon for 10 May 2015 – Sixth Sunday of Eastertide

John 15:9-17  (NRSV scripture included below.)

A reading from the gospel of John 15:9-17. This is a continuation of Jesus’ words to his disciples while they linger at their last supper together. Listen for God’s word to us.

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 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. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

Standing in Nazareth today, with nods to the Holy Family all around, it’s easy to conclude that family is to be the social structure. The Virgin Mother Mary is everywhere. At Nazareth’s well, where tribute is made as the place God’s messenger first came to announce the plan for her life. Through the streets towers the beautiful basilica, which was built over the presumed site of her childhood home. Inside that church there are artistic creations of the mother and child from all over the world. Gorgeous interpretations of the woman who lovingly gave birth to and raised up the Son of God for the benefit of all the world. . . . Part of the story we often overlook is that of the earthly father Joseph. But in Nazareth, he too gets a beautiful sanctuary. Built over the site presumed to be his family’s house which became his home with Mary and young Jesus after their years of his early childhood in Egypt. The Holy Family’s home includes remains believed to be Joseph’s storefront carpenter shop. That’s the view captured on the front of the bulletin today. The scene of adolescent Jesus working with his hands alongside his father. Mother Mary is looking on so that the threesome is seen together as a complete family. And right smack in the middle of the photo is the angelic child. Halo and all as if to proclaim that he never gave his parents one bit of difficulty. Sure we have that story recorded only in the gospel of Luke. You know: the one where the twelve year-old Jesus is taking full responsibility for his own spiritual growth, as all bar mitzvahed boys were expected to do. Several days after they have begun the journey back home from Passover in Jerusalem, his parents realize Jesus is missing – which just goes to show Mary and Joseph weren’t always the most attentive parents. All the while, Jesus is engaging the rabbis in the Temple. When at last his parents find him, I’m sure Mary was ready to wring his neck over the panic he put them through. But even then we’re led to side with the boy Jesus instead of his frantically worried parents.

It’s a beautiful thing about Nazareth with its prolific statutes and portraits that remind us of the Holy Family. But like all professionally done family photos, typically the very best of the clan is captured. So that it’s easy to begin to believe that everything always is as idyllic as the photo shouts. As we take it all in, we’re left concluding that families always are beautiful, happy, and overflowing with love. It’s just that: we’re all a part of at least one. So unless we’re totally delusional, we know better. . . . The other night I was reading a plea to Presbyterian pastors to ensure worship services on Mothers’ and the pending Fathers’ day are sensitive to the wide spectrum of experiences of families. And to the reality that today can be a sad one for some who grieve the loss of their mother, or of their child. The reactions to the plea I read got down-right ugly. Some people thought today should be widely inclusive of all women who have nurtured life in this world and some wanted today to be reserved solely for women who have endured the 9 months of pregnancy and 18 years of upbringing. A few gave leeway for parents who come to the job through marriage or adoption. No one mentioned that parenting really doesn’t stop after 18 years – especially not today when so many young adult children still can be found at home for whatever reason. Wouldn’t it be great, moms and dads, if the moment they turned 18 you were done? No more worry. No more pain endured for them. No more money sent off to cover whatever! . . . Whether or not you want Mothers’ and Fathers’ day to be restricted to one way of mothering and fathering in this world, the reality is families are not always easy. They’re never perfect – which should ring out as good news in all of our ears so we can stop wishing our families were something other than they are and start accepting one another for who we are. The gifts we do gain from one another – whether we had a wonderfully loving momma from whom we can learn by example, or not so much so that we’ve had to learn by contrast. Whether our fathers were engaged and available to us, or nowhere to be found. . . . Families are not perfect. I dare to say that not even the Holy Family was perfect, even if Jesus was – because other than him, we human beings are not able to be perfect. We are not loving at all times. Patience can grow thin and kindness may seem like a foreign concept in some households. Sometimes it may seem like we got the wrong child – or wrong brother or sister – like the nurses really did switch someone out at birth! Maybe you’re convinced the stork meant to leave you on the doorstep next door because things seemed so much greener in the family on the other side of the fence. Hopefully as we’ve each aged, we have made peace with our parents or actively are working on it – whatever form they took. And where needed, have found a way to overcome obstacles we might have had to face because of our family’s limitations. So that a day like the secular holiday noted today can be one in which we have nothing but gratitude for the mother and father who made our life possible – whether they were the best parents a kid ever could have asked for, or not. Thanks to them – or maybe in spite of them – we are here and are who we are today. Growing a little bit more each day in our love of God, self, and others.

We can breathe a sigh of relief that families are not the primary social structure where we are to learn of love. We all may wish it would be and it’s not a bad aim to make yours so today. But Jesus makes it clear in his words to his disciples. He didn’t say go back home to your mother and father, siblings and children and spouse to learn to love through them. Rather he said: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12, 17). I’m guessing as they sat there in a circle around that table that he made them look around into each other’s eyes to really see each other. “Love one another,” he tells a ban of folks who haven’t known each other all that long. A few of them might have been blood brothers, but he’s making them family in a whole new way. Through his life, death, and resurrection; he gave birth to the church to ensure there always remains a people on earth where love reigns. Where we do experience the self-giving gift of another’s will being put before our own. Where we can wrestle with the difficulties of finding a way to love –when the circumstances are complex and in the situations where we may be feeling very hurt by another. . . . We, as the church, are the school of love. The people who, day in and day out, encourage one another. Who build each other up. Who help one another to believe in ourselves as much as we hope our own parents believe in us because God sees each one of us as precious enough to dwell within us through the Holy Spirit. We are loved so deeply as the church, Christ’s own body still on earth. We didn’t choose to be a part of it all; rather, as Jesus’ said: “I chose you!” (John 15:16). He’s even given us the special assignment of bearing the lasting fruit of his kind of love by loving each other. Being a sign to everyone – a kind of witness to compassion, and out-of-our-own-way care, and sacrifice even so that all can flourish. . . . If you were fortunate enough to have gotten the lessons at home too, then thanks be to God! And never stop striving to be about such love with one another – with your parents, children, spouse, or friends that make up your family. But know that the command lies here: among one another. That we teach each other how to live the love of God. That we bear with one another, practice forgiveness together, and be for each other because that is the way of the Great Teacher.

Brothers and sisters in the family of God, let us fulfill Christ’s command. Let us love one another as he has loved us. Just in case any miss the lessons at home. As the family of God right here together, let us be Christ’s school of love.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)