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. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 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. 5 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. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 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.)