I John 4: 7-21, John 15: 1-8
Good morning on this “St. Marathon” weekend. What I guess we would call a day of local observance on the calendar of the Church Year. On Marathon Sunday I’m always reminded of the wonderful collect appointed as Proper 26 at the beginning of November, “Almighty and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service: Grant, we beseech thee, that we may run without stumbling to obtain thy heavenly promises.” And perhaps it would be fitting also to read as the Epistle reading for the day, St. Paul in First Corinthians 9, “Don’t you know that all the runners in the stadium run, but only one gets the prize? So run to win!” That would be a great Bible verse for a t-shirt: “Run to win!”
This year the St. Marathon weekend is also just right to hear the deeper themes from these readings actually appointed for us today, the Fifth Sunday of Easter of Year B in the lectionary, as we would reflect on what it means to go the whole distance in our Christian life and discipleship. The difference between a 100-meter sprint, let’s say, and 26.2 miles. Two different categories of experience altogether. And on Marathon Sunday in particular, to reflect on what it means to be in this relationship with Christ for the long run.
And I would mention just as a side illustration, as I hear that phrase “for the long run,” that 30 years ago now as I was preparing to go off to seminary a priest I liked and respected very much who was at that time a member of our Northern California Bishop’s Advisory Committee on Ministry, Barry Miller, then rector of Trinity Church, Nevada City, California, gave me a book by the Presbyterian Eugene Peterson that was a series of reflections on Christian life and ministry in conversation with what are called the “Psalms of Ascent,” a series of Psalms that seem to mark out different stages of a pilgrimage that Jews from more distant towns and villages would make up to Jerusalem for holy festivals. The book was called “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” And while I haven’t looked back at that book for many years, that title is something, so evocative, that I think about frequently. “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.”
It’s sort of counter-intuitive, at least in our culture. Anything long. Anything having to do with discipline. Obedience. We value speed. Efficiency of effort. Ever smaller and faster computer processors. Video on demand. Two minutes in the microwave. And certainly those things are often good things. Remembering when I might need to get in the car and drive to the library to check an obscure reference. What might have taken half a morning now can take half a minute. But of course there is the downside. Turns out there isn’t a microwave technology when it comes to marriage, or to raising kids. Not that plenty of people don’t try to make it so. Themes of instant gratification that I think lie under the strange conditions of economic distress we’ve lived in for the last few years. Thin loyalties. Transient affections. Awash in a sea of debt, as individuals and families and as nations. Marriages that seem unable to hang on through the first stormy afternoon. Eleven year olds going on nineteen. A pharmaceutical industry that sells an instant fix for every malady, with the side effects left in the small print at the bottom of the page. A kind of pervasive attention deficit disorder.
My dad went to work in a downtown Los Angeles office building in 1949, a freshly-minted post-war college grad. And when he retired 45 years later the joke was that while he had worked at a dozen or so different desks over all those years, he’d kept the same parking space. Seems like another world.
Jesus says in John 15, “Abide in me, as I abide in you . . . . Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” The imperative, Meneite. The Greek, “remain.” “Stay put.” And the same verb in First John 4 this morning: “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.” God stays put in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they stay put in God.”
Here in the Fifth Week of Easter, our study of the nature of Christian life may become longitudinal. There is the flash of Easter morning, the encounter on the road. He shows us his hands and his side. The richness of his living presence. Something like the bright vision of the Transfiguration mountaintop.
Yet even if we were there, we can become deadwood, if we don’t remain with him, if we don’t stay put in him. We in him. He in us. All together in this organic unity of the love of the Father. Living vine, living branches. Remaining with him. Abiding.
Some folks put a lot of emphasis on the moment of conversion, telling over and over again the story of that decision and experience of new faith, loyalty, trust, commitment, understanding in Christ. But if that experience and decision is essential, is it sufficient? As every dead branch was once a fresh shoot. What is that sustains, nurtures? So, Jesus in St. John this morning. Calling us to this long obedience in the same direction. For the duration. To go the distance, hanging in there with him for the long run.
In the first chapter of his Rule St. Benedict talks about the kind of monks who are always on the move from monastery to monastery. He has a word for them. Gyrovagues. Like spinning tops. Glad to be there at first, energy and enthusiasm, but then soon frustrated or dissatisfied, bored, offended by some slight-- and always packing bags and moving on. Never settled. The grass always greener a little ways down the road. Without stability. That’s the critical word for Benedict. Stability. Never putting down roots. Never making commitments. And when the going gets tough, they get going.
Perhaps we’ve known folks like that at school or work, neighbors, friends, church. Perhaps we’ve been spinning tops ourselves from time to time. And without the gift of and commitment to stability, there is never a sufficient foundation for mature Christian life. The vine withers and dies. Because love takes time, and effort. And patience. Patience. The story is that in the monasteries of the Middle Ages, and perhaps it is still the case, when a postulant moved from the guest house into the monastic residence and was clothed for his first vows, he was shown his place at the table in the refectory, his cell in the dormitory, his stall in the choir, and the space set aside for his grave in the cemetery. “You’re about to begin a great adventure, the most exciting journey a human being can ever experience. And it’s all going to happen right here.”
Most of us won’t live within the enclosure of a religious community, of course. But we are reminded in our readings for this Sunday that for us to be truly living branches wherever we are, we are called to our stability in Christ and with one another. Not a hobby, a passing interest and entertainment, not a stop on a buffet table, a brief visit on a package tour, a snack on the run. But that as we abide in him, as we remain in him, as we stay put with him and with one another as we are called together by him for the whole way, then he will abide in us, just as he abides in the Father, and the Father in him. And there will be much fruit.