The text of my sermon preached on Sunday, July 21, 2019 at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
You can watch a YouTube video of my sermon here.
Where do you abide?
Not who are you or where did you go to school
or with whom did you study
or under whose authority do you do and say these things,
but rather, they ask, ‘Rabbi, where do you abide?”
These are the first words we hear from these future disciples of Jesus, but in the opening chapter of John’s gospel they’re just two ordinary folks, intrigued by this Jesus fellow, their interests piqued enough to leave behind the fiery John the Baptist, and tag along with Jesus and watch the show.
It is a question which weaves its way through the gospel of John: where does Jesus abide?
Jesus answers their question not with a location, but rather with an invitation,
“Come and see,” he says.
With those 3 little words their lives are upended. Their paths of discipleship begin.
The question lingers in the air: Where do you abide?
Yet throughout the gospel Jesus never addresses their question directly. Only after they accept the invitation; after they say yes to follow him; only then, will they discover where Jesus abides.
So they do. The gospel tells us they followed and stayed with him that day. The text could be translated they ‘abode with him that day,’ for the Greek word translated as “stayed with” is the same as the one for abide. Abide, stay, remain, dwell.
As the gospel unfolds, Jesus never makes it plain where he abides. He has no address.
Followers must come and see.
To find where Jesus abides, the church needs to put on our most comfortable walking shoes.
Lace up your Nikes, slip on your Birks,
grab your Tims—you pick your favorite pair—
and let’s hit the road. It’s in the walking with Jesus through the gospel we uncover what it means to abide in him, to remain with him.
Where do these two walk with Jesus?
Right into the middle of a party in Cana, amidst laughter, dancing, singing and, I imagine, whooping it up a bit, as all the best wedding parties are prone to do. Jesus is abiding where the people are—turning water into wine—where real life is happening, where people are thriving, where joy heads up the conga line,
and the celebration bass beat blasts through the subwoofers.
Wherever Jesus is, life is at its fullest;
abiding with him we drink from the best life has to offer—rich wine unlike any we have sipped before.
Don’t look now, church, but when we abide in Jesus, we just might need to put on our dancing shoes.
Are we ready?
Before the fledgling disciples perfect their dances moves, Jesus is back on the road, and the two grab their packs, and run to catch up.
Where is Jesus abiding now? That’s the question always hiding just below surface of the gospel story.
The disciples discover him perched upon the side of a well in the unfamiliar territory of the Samaritans.
He’s led them into alien territory, transgressing long established boundaries. There Jesus engages in an extended, intense theological debate with a woman. They revisit old religious disputes, and the woman fiercely stands her ground, while Jesus stays committed to the conversation.
To her, to this unnamed woman, Jesus offers living water, unlike any water she’s had before. Soon she’s on her feet, racing into town, telling everyone she meets, “Come and see this man.” The invitation is irresistible, and they too, like those disciples before them, they come and see, following her back to Jesus.
The presence of Jesus fascinates the villagers so much they beg him to stay, to abide with them, he accepts, and lingers there two more days.
Can you imagine the conversations? The woundedness of a people counted not by years, but by generations. The mending of brokenness takes time. We cannot repair the breaches in our world overnight. Here in Samaria Jesus remains, abiding with those who have been labeled as other, less than, dangerous. Reconciliation–those hard, often painful, conversations—can only happen when Jesus intentionally leaves the familiar protection of his kinfolk and ventures into neighborhoods not his own.
In 1989 the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, erected a monument inscribed with the names of forty men, women, and children murdered between 1954 and 1968, whose brutal murders marked pivotal moments in the Civil Rights Movement, either nationally or locally within their communities.
The poet Jake Adam York was confronted with the names of these civil rights martyrs, haunted by their stories, some known, some lost to history. He responded as only a poet can, beginning what he would describe later as a life’s work to write a poem for each of these martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement.
He started with that initial marker in Montgomery and its list of 40 names, later taking up the challenge to keep writing as the list grew to include an additional 74 names of those known as The Forgotten, those who died between 1952 and 1968 under circumstances that suggest they too, were victims of racially motivated violence.
In 2012 just weeks before his own untimely death and before his third volume entitled Abide which included more elegies was released, York commented, “It’ll take a whole life to do that.” It may seem a dangerous and perhaps a foolhardy project, a tall white Southern man attempting to elegize Civil Rights martyrs. Yet York said, “I’m as white as a bag of flour…but we don’t want to perpetuate the violence, I want to perforate it.”
And so, York set about making pilgrimages to lynching sites and long forgotten murder scenes. He once remarked that his wife would joke, “You always take me to the nicest places.” (Jake Adam York, UHV/ABR Reading Series, Nov. 29, 2012)
York understood we as a country cannot walk away from our history, but we must return to those past places of violence and woundedness, we must abide in uncomfortable places, if we ever hope to move forward together.
Listen to the beginning of his poem Inscription for Air written for John Earl Reese, who at the age 16 was shot during a celebration of the building of a new school for African-American students. John Earl Reese was gunned down while dancing in a café in Mayflower, Texas, on October 22, 1955:
Not for the wound, not for the bullet,
power’s pale cowardice, but
for you, for the three full syllables
of your name we hold whole
as a newborn by the feet, and so
for the cry, the first note, the key
of every word to follow, the timbre,
the tone, the voice that could sing
Nat King Cole’s “If I May,” and slow-
dance the flipside…
(Jake Adam York, Abide, © 2014, Crab Orchard Review & Southern Illinois University Press)
It is in the remembering, painful and uncomfortable, we come face to face not only with the violence in our stories, but in the beauty that resists—persists—against the horrors aimed at erasing them.
The disciples find Jesus abiding with Samaritans, folks marked by a troubled history with his own people. He has transgressed a boundary, crossed over to the side of the other. And there he abides—listening;
finding common ground within their separate traditions; smashing social norms along the way;
trespassing on forbidden territory.
That’s where Jesus abides.
And when we abide in him, we find ourselves alongside Jesus refusing to be separated by walls made by human hands, denying divisions stoked by peddlers of fear and instead sitting down, settling in,
for the long hard work of reconciliation.
Don’t look now, church, but we—those of us with privilege—we just might need to dig out our most comfortable worn-out slippers—and stay for a while. Pull up a chair and listen. Refuse that impulse to move too fast toward our insufficient apologies, and instead listen deeply to the voices of the marginalized.
We must linger over the parts of our collective past we would rather forget. If we abide in Jesus, there will be times when we don’t move on too quickly to put the pen to paper, but rather we stay for the hard conversations, which can only happen when we choose to commit to a lifelong process of listening. Are we ready?
And when the time is right, those comfy slippers get packed away, and the walking shoes are back on. For out of the corner of our eye we will spy Jesus slipping out the door, heading back out on the road again.
Where is Jesus abiding now?
This time he makes his way to Jerusalem, on the streets of the holy city, the home of the Temple,
a place steeped with the rich identity and culture of his people, Jesus walks. He strolls past the traditional healing waters of the Bethzatha pool, lined with the suffering who wait day after day for healing.
There the sick stay hoping against hope when the waters stir, they will be first to dive in and be healed.
But because he is the source of living water, Jesus speaks, and with words alone (no need to add water) Jesus cures a sick man on the Sabbath outside the Sheep gate. With unabashed joy, the man newly healed grabs up his mat and walks away….the text says he walks—I suspect it might have been closer to a strut—maybe even skipping along the street.
The powers that be are up in arms. They respond not with joy for the restoration of the man’s health, but with fear for their own situation. How will this unregulated healing, upset the political balance of power and the social rules which are constructed to keep them in control?
Where’s Jesus? He’s with folks who others have been passed by, whose plight becomes part of the landscape, whose suffering is no longer seen.
- When our sisters and brothers and siblings call out for a Moral Revival in our nation,
- when people flood their statehouses across the country,
- when we rise up to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty and the war economy,
- when we are willing to be arrested for standing for justice,
- when we become known as Repairers of the Breach,
- when we stand together for those seeking refuge and asylum…raising our Lights for Liberty,
- when crass power is confronted by truth,
…then you and I are witnesses to what it means to abide in Jesus.
Now is the time, church, for us to lace up our marching boots for the hard work of justice.
Are we ready?
If we are to be faithful in our own day, we must keep asking of Jesus, “Rabbi, where do you abide?”
As those disciples learn, we find Jesus where there is need. Watch out. Turn around and he’s feeding the crowds sitting down in a mountain glen with five barley loaves and two fish—the lunch of the working poor.
It’s a giant picnic on the grass, green grass beneath their feet, grass which needs water to live and grow. It’s a scene which calls to mind the great visions of the prophets—dreams of God’s provision upon the mountain of the Lord. Remember the prophet Isaiah spoke of the promised future on the mountain of the Lord, when all peoples would share in a feast—of rich food and well-aged wines.
It is a simple feast which Jesus hosts on the mountainside. But it is marked with plenty—a sign of God’s dream for so much more. The crowds sitting cross-legged on the green grass, sharing from their own resources, so that all have enough—that is a symbol of God’s shalom, of what Dr. Randy Woodley, a Keetoowah Cherokee, calls the Harmony Way. (Randy Woodley, Shalom and the Community of Creation, © 2012, Eerdmans)
It is a distant vision. Truth is we no longer sit in the grass together and eat, for we have effectively removed ourselves from the landscapes we inhabit, living above place and not in it.
Here in the great state of Iowa, with its rich soil and historic role in feeding the world in the 20th century, we all are paying a price for neglecting the Harmony Way. With the combined forces of soil erosion and fertilizer runoff, Iowa now contributes about 40% of the excess nutrients that flow into the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, an oxygen-starved area where no marine life can survive. It covered 2,720 square miles last year. Larger than the state of Delaware. (Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register, June 22, 2018; Kate Payne, Iowa Public Radio, Aug. 7, 2018)
Algae bloom, depleting the waters of oxygen, turning the zone toxic. Fish vanish. This year with the heavy rains, scientists fear the dead zone could approach the size of New Jersey. (Washington Post, Sarah Kaplan, June 10, 2019)
Lest you think I’m picking on our hosts, my home state of Illinois where I grew up and went to college has for over 60 years neglected its only designated national scenic river. Coal ash pits dug out in the 1950s are poisoning the Middle Fork of the Vermilion with heavy metals.
Last year the energy company responsible for the coal ash pits proposed their solution–Not to dig up that toxic muck and clean up the land, but rather to build a wall of rocks a 1/3 of a mile long to fortify the riverbank, leaving the ash pits themselves behind, ash pits whose total volume is over 3 million cubic yards.
For those of us who need visuals, the total volume could fill New York City’s Empire State Building 2.4 times, or over 1,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. (Michael Hawthorne, Chicago Tribune, Sept. 2018)
But sometimes we can celebrate small victories. Through the sustained efforts of environmentalists and concerned citizens such as the Eco-Justice Collaborative the National Park Service was flooded with letters and phone calls urging greater protection for the river. Last month because of folks standing up and making noise, the company withdrew the proposal. (ecojusticecollaborative.org, July 10, 2019)
The work for water protection and restoration of the land isn’t over, by any means. The company will submit a new plan later this year, yet it resists calls for the total removal of the coal ash so that the Middle Fork flood plain can be restored. The vital work to protect and repair the land and watersheds can make a difference.
Abiding with Jesus, sitting on the grass, we learn to live in the Harmony Way of God. We no longer can ignore the land beneath our feet or the water which sustains all life.
I live on land which is part of the traditional territory of the Puyallup people, Coastal Salish lands. I’ve called the Northwest home for twenty-five years, and we too are disconnected from the community of creation. Over 100 wild salmon and steelhead stocks in the Northwest are at risk of extinction.
You may remember last summer the world was captivated by images of a grieving orca whale mother Tahlequah, who swam, carrying the body of her dead newborn calf with her for 17 days.
It was heart-wrenching. The plight of the orca is dire. The iconic creatures in the Salish Sea are threatened in large part to reduced salmon stocks. Runoff, overfishing, destruction of habitat, plastic pollution—our short-sighted approach to creation care—all contribute to the decline of salmon and the orca population. We have effectively poisoned ourselves and our world. (Rick Holmes, Leavenworth Times, Sept. 2018)
This week as we Disciples gather here along the banks of the Des Moines River, the Coastal Salish peoples from Alaska, Canada, and throughout Northwest will bring together 120 canoes and over 15,000 people to honor and celebrate the healing medicine of water. The canoes will land on beaches polluted by upstream contamination and runoff, threatened by development, ignored by most of us. In the face of such harm, indigenous voices are rising up to be powerful water protectors. (Paddle to Lummi)
Church, we have forgotten our place within the community of creation. Not just in Iowa or Illinois or Washington State, Disciples congregations across the United States and Canada, we all live in endangered watersheds, where once verdant grasslands or lush forests or spectacular desert landscapes are now suffering.
Ask where Jesus abides, you’ll find him out in the midst of a creation now in mourning, grieving her losses, weeping over destruction.
When we abide with Jesus we will find him with his sleeves rolled up, striving to restore God’s dream of shalom, and working miracles with our meager offerings to give new life to broken ecosystems,
to restore God’s Harmony Way.
If we aim to abide in Jesus, Church, we will need to pull on our working boots
and be willing to get some mud on our shoes.
Are we ready?
In the gospel of John one can choose to abide in Jesus or abandon him.
When the way gets hard,
when the teachings confound us,
when the opposition threatens to defeat us,
when we wonder if we’ve taken a wrong turn,
we may waver,
we may stop to count the costs to us—
the choice to remain is ours.
In the storm, we ask again, where does Jesus abide?
Too often the church is busy rowing for dear life, hunkering down to preserve ourselves and our boat, all the while Jesus is walking out on the waves with us,
abiding with us, through the storms.
When we no longer know which way to go, Jesus comes alongside us, setting our vision to new horizons.
Don’t look now, church, but we just might need to unpack our waders and be prepared for the stormy weather. Are we ready?
If we stay alongside those first disciples abiding in Christ and Christ abiding with us, we will find ourselves in places we never have imagined.
Those two disciples, our guides on this quest to find where Jesus abides, are still there with him on that last night. The dark night when Jesus kneels at the feet of his friends, the walking shoes are kicked off and placed beside the door.
Jesus takes upon himself the role of servant,
pours water into a basin,
holds their tired and dirty feet in his hands,
washes them off in cold clear water,
and wipes them dry with the towel around his waist.
Only after Jesus had said and done all these things, when the rabbi they’ve followed kneels and becomes the servant, when the moment of his execution by the state looms near, only then does Jesus return to that first question posed to him so long ago by our two disciples, “Where do you abide?”
In the weight of that moment, with the darkness of the world closing in, Jesus circles back to the beginning, enjoining his disciples, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”
Did their memories flash back to their first encounter? Was there a slideshow in their minds of all the places they’d been with Jesus,
all the roads they traveled together,
all the places they’d stayed,
all the people they’d met along the way?
They may have started their discipleship journey with a simple question, “where do you abide?” but the answer to that question will take them a lifetime to flesh out. They may have thought they were asking about a place, but abiding in Jesus is so much more than any one place.
Abiding involves presence, yes. And presence takes time. But it is never static.
Abiding in Christ leads us into moments of joyous celebration and times of gut-wrenching lament;
abiding in Christ pulls us into acts of reconciliation.
It reveals God’s abundance breaking through our fears of scarcity.
Abiding in Christ roots us in the rich ground of our traditions, but reminds us we can never stay there, we must come and see where Christ is now.
At a reading for his book Abide, Jake Adam York spoke of the many inspirations for his poetry, one of which was a record by Thelonious Monk. In 1957 Monk released three albums. Record executives had made it clear they wanted a new Monk track. (York, Nov. 29, 2012)
And so, with perhaps a bit of unspoken protest, or the very least a little tongue in cheek, the first tune on side one of his album Monk’s Music is a never-recorded Monk song…not Thelonious Monk’s song though.
No, it’s a tune by W. H. Monk, the 19th century English organist and choirmaster who wrote the tune Eventide in 1861. We know it as the familiar hymn, Abide with Me…fast falls the eventide.
On the first track we only hear the horn section as it plays Abide with Me. There are none of Monk’s distinctive piano riffs—it’s straight out of the hymnal—no flourishes, no improvisation, all the harmonies familiar and predictable. After a few moments of silence, Monk’s keyboard magic begins with the second track of the album, Well, You Needn’t.
Gone is the traditional chording of Eventide. Now we hear the insistent semitone progressions of Monk’s disruptive, dissonant style. Two minutes in we hear Monk call out, “Coltrane, Coltrane,”
and there’s a quick drum flourish before the one and only amazing John Coltrane
breaks in with his signature sound for the first tenor solo. And away they go.
With these two tracks Monk takes us first to church with the solemn Abide with Me and then he turns around with an inviting nod to call us out into the world, not in a staid predictable way,
but with a playful riff on a road not yet taken,
a chapter of our lives as of this moment unwritten.
It is a glorious sound to behold.
When we ask, “Jesus, where do you abide?” the church had better be ready for the answer—
the answer which is always an invitation.
Come and see, my friends.
When we abide in Christ, an adventure awaits.
Catch the melody if you can,
dance whenever you get the chance,
always, always, join hands and march on.
Slip on your walking shoes, Church.
Come and see.