Stayed on Jesus

John 15:1–8, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on May 02, 2021

“Mom” my daughter asked, “how do you spell crumb?” “C-r-u-m-b,” I responded. Later I picked up the note she was working on. It was signed “crumb, Alice.” “What does this mean, honey, ‘crumb, Alice?’” “Not crumb! From! From, Alice!” She shouted. I tried to explain that I had made a mistake, that I had misheard. Foot stamping, howling, tears and mean words ensued. It was such a big reaction to what was, in my grown-up mind, such a little thing.

All I could do in that moment was try to help her calm down and move on to something else. The next day, though, I saw the note again, cast off on the counter. Alice laughed along with me when I re-told the story from my perspective. “And I heard you say ‘crumb’ instead of ‘from!’ Isn’t that silly? I need to get my ears checked, huh? Crumb! Hah, hah, hah! What a funny mistake I made!” We kept re-telling and embellishing the tale and it just got more and more entertaining. Since then it’s become a family joke to sign our notes with “crumb” instead of “from.”

That’s a little window into what I’m working on as a parent. These days, good humor is my secret weapon. I am always on the lookout for openings to lighten the mood—theirs and mine. I laugh at myself. I tease them, gently. I say absurd things to get them to crack a smile. I look for the good in what they are doing, rather than something to criticize. I remind myself to enjoy being with them, to take delight in them. With this strategy, I’m trying to communicate some serious stuff: mistakes don’t have to be a source of shame; they can help us learn. No one needs to try to be perfect. We can have fun and stay connected even when life gets challenging. No bad choice on their part will cause their parents not to love them.

I’m also sending reminders to myself. I have an inclination to approach parenting with a need to be in control. It’s better to laugh, and let go, so that I can play the role of supporter and coach. I can get lost in emotions like disappointment, frustration, and regret that lead me down a rabbit hole of negativity. Humor frees me from those patterns of thinking and feeling. It gives me a sense of perspective; it offers me hope.

Jesus says, “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.” The discipline of good humor is one practical way I respond to Jesus’ invitation to be connected to the source of life. Abiding with Jesus means not trying to go it alone. It means being nourished, steadied and centered by the flow of God’s love and grace. Belonging to this divine support network gives me the strength to smile, to be patient and to be present even on days when that is the last thing I feel like doing. As more and more I choose delight over criticism, and coaching over control, I can sense growth in my relationships and see this practice of good humor bearing fruit.

“Abiding” is a theme in the Gospel of John. This term, meno, in Greek, occurs nine times in today’s reading! And it shows up forty times in the Gospel as a whole. Osvaldo Vena defines abiding as “loyalty or deep attachment.”[1] Meda Stamper describes abiding as “mutual indwelling” in God’s love and as a sense of being “deeply at home.”[2] Abiding is a way of talking about relationship—the vine connects the branches directly to the source of life and to each other. The vine and the branches form one being, one interdependent community. In this community, there is no hierarchy, only loyalty, mutual in-dwelling, and belonging.

As I’m sure you’ve noted, John’s lovely image of connection also has an exclusive feeling, a harsh side.“God removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. ”Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” John’s community was, at this time, a small minority within the Jewish faith. They experienced persecution and struggled to establish their unique identity. Our context, worldview and social position is different and I think our use of this metaphor can be different as well. Jesus is one manifestation of the vine; we need not condemn those attached to other vines. Pruning does not have to be punishment; it could be encouragement, and guidance that helps us stay focused on connecting, growing and bearing fruit.

The important point is that connection to the divine and to each other is what gives life, and that Jesus shows us how to receive such life. This life is not simply existing. It is purposeful and whole. It heals the forces of death within and around us. It continually offers the hope of fresh possibilities. Kathleen Norris’ poem “Imperatives” is rooted in the commands of Jesus himself. This poem is like a condensed version of the Gospels. It offers a clear picture of what it looks like, in the words of the old spiritual, to be “stayed on Jesus.” The life of Christ is contemplative, meaning its rooted in noticing and appreciating beauty and allowing ourselves to be nourished by wonder. “Look at the birds/Consider the lilies/Drink ye all of it.” The life of Christ is active and engaged—ask, seek, knock. This life is free from the burdens of judgement and the tyranny of fear. This life moves us, lifts us, supports us—“arise, stand up, stretch out your hand.” In this life, love is the measure by which we decide what matters.

In a meeting (the Personnel Committee, no less!) I learned about the recent rubber duck race on Minnehaha Creek. Bill told the story of being there that day. Vicki remembered picking up a stray duck on a walk. Hikaru shared the link to the news report. It got me thinking. . . . Why was this event so compelling to us? What makes a rubber duck race such a magical and healing idea? It’s fun. It’s whimsical. It’s silly. I think the lightheartedness has a serious side, too. We are steeped in a climate of bitterness, mistrust, and division. We dehumanize those with whom we disagree. Inequity polarizes our points of view and life experiences. Confrontations quickly escalate into violence. We long to approach one another in a different way. We desire connection and community. We crave a common sense of purpose. We yearn for everyone to be heard, to belong, to have what they need.

What if we practiced the discipline of good humor on a wider scale? What if, stayed on Jesus, our life-giving vine, we looked for the good in each other, rather than something to criticize? What if we laughed at our mistakes and learned from them? What if we let go of the illusion of control? What if we could choose to smile, to be patient and present, even when that’s the last thing we feel like doing, even when conversations get confrontational, even when growth requires loss or change, even when bearing fruit is hard work? What if there was nothing at all that could interrupt our connection to God’s resurrecting love? Amen.