Ralph Connor Memorial United Church

The Little White Church on Main Street, Canmore, Alberta

Sermon: April 25, 2021 – 1 John 3: 16-24

Today I’d like to talk about what it means to ABIDE in God’s love.  But a bit of internet Dictionary work tells me I’d better define that term.

To me, ABIDE is a very warm word, directly related to the word ABODE.  To ABIDE, to me, is to be very much “at home” – to be in a place, or engaged in a relationship, where falsehood, or societal expectations can fall away, and I can safely be myself.  That, however, is not the way it is seen by the internet these days, which immediately relates the word ABIDE to ABIDING BY something, i.e. tolerating something but not liking it, or following orders.  So just to be clear, when I talk about ABIDING I am talking about a state of being that is safe, authentic, honest, supportive, an expression of Christ’s own love.

Watch at https://youtu.be/l_XpYO7Z74c  Download PDF at Sermon_25April2021

The 1st Epistle of John talks about ABIDING IN God’s love.  To me, this invokes such a fullness, a sense not just of being safe, but being safe because you are in an environment where total honesty is allowed, where your personhood is supported, where challenges and new ideas can be engaged, wrestled with, and shaped, without fear of judgment or expulsion.  Whether we are spiritually inclined or not, I think that a common theme on this human journey is this yearning for a place where we truly belong. We seek a place, physical or virtual, where it is safe to be our authentic selves, to come as we are – a place where “everybody knows your name” in the words of the old Cheers TV show, or a place where “all of you are welcome” AND “all of you is welcome,” in the words of the Centre for Action and Contemplation. Now, this may also be a place where everyone sees things from more or less the same angle, where one political or theological perspective will be held by all, but I suggest that a fully-formed abode or dwelling-place for our hearts and souls has to go beyond unanimity. I can pretty much guarantee that the writer of 1st John did not picture a homogenous group of believers when writing about abiding in God’s love, but rather, a group held together by their understanding of their common belovedness in Christ.  Each one was called to understand that they were beloved, and so was that very different person sitting beside them.

As human beings, we each have our own journey, our own triumphs, our own wounds.  Each of us has our own gifts and aptitudes and abilities and preferences.  And we bring our differentness into the loving embrace of the Divine.  In that dwelling-place, we can do the work we need to do, especially the emotional work, to embody belovedness in the world and for the world and for our own deepest being.

I cannot think of any time in my life, when having relationships where it is safe to be your authentic self has been more needed than it is now.  With all that has happened in the past 13 months, starting with COVID but then other things unfolding – like the transition of power south of the border, and the crucial push toward racial justice in many nations of the world, and the ongoing danger signs given us by planet earth. Just this week, you could just about hear the whoosh of a common exhale when the trial verdicts were read in Minneapolis, but we know that there is so much change needed before anything resembling true justice will emerge.

In this time shaped by the pandemic, when virtually nothing is as it was, I don’t think it is over-reaching to suggest that everyone, to a degree, is carrying feelings of unsettledness, anger, grief, confusion… a whole bunch of emotions that may not have a healthy place to process. Perhaps we are finding safe places to some degree through Zoom, or through safely-distanced walks, or through phone calls or emails or written notes exchanged with friends, or maybe you have found one of those hard-to-find corners in social media world that feels safe and healthy without just winding up the divisiveness… but one way or another we are coming to be aware of our need for a true abiding place, a place where we can be with one another and in the holy presence of God.

A week ago, a dear soul-friend of mine, Rev David Robertson of High River United Church, did an online session for Chinook Winds Region entitled “Praying our Tears – Living our Joy,” which dovetails well with this need, right now, to find a safe place to acknowledge everything that we have experienced in these months.  David and his spouse, the Rev Susan Lukey, acknowledge the importance of having “compassion for ourselves and resting in the care of others.”  Rather than approaching “self-care” in a way that sees it as one more task we feel obliged to do and may feel guilty or even shameful about if we don’t do it, David invited us to be compassionate with ourselves and to really “lean into the care of others.”  Or as 1st John 3 puts it, to abide: to release ourselves into the care of a loving God, the energy of the living Christ as expressed through the care and loving-kindness of others.

David underlined that we humans are, by design, emotional beings, and when our emotional way forward is blocked, it will seriously impact our wellness.  In this past year, there has been so much grief: and here we are talking about actual deaths we have tried to grieve in some adequate manner in these past months, but also other things we grieve, like missing out on properly celebrating a life transition, or losing a job or shutting down a small business you really enjoyed, or having to walk away from a career due to the demands of having children learning at home.  Another great friend, Rev Dr Richard LeSueur here in Canmore, has written a fine article about the next wave of the pandemic, a wave of grief, and one way or another this will need to be processed.

As our grief may have been blocked, so may the tears that help our emotional processing of things to flow.  At this time of year, in particular, we recently experienced the Good Friday-to-Easter transition of moving through death to resurrection, which illustrates and embodies this movement downward into our sadness before moving upward and outward into a new day. Two of the slides that David Robertson used in his presentation has really stayed with me, and I give credit to the Neufeld Institute in BC, just as David did.  One of them shows the natural progression in which “we mourn, we grieve, we lament, we allow safe expression of our tears”, and there is “motion to our emotion.” By contrast, is this other diagram, which shows that all-too familiar pattern of trying to “fight and struggle and try to go against the flow” when we are drawn “into that valley of tears” where we can honestly work through our frustration and futility and ambivalence and anger.

There is a cost to be paid when we block our emotions, when we deny or refuse to make room for our tears, when we get stuck in frustration or futility or ambivalence or anger; and if I am reading 1st John correctly, we are called, as Christ’s people, to another way.   To be in Christ is to be immersed in and infilled with love.  It’s the same love that Jesus experienced when he healed with power and compassion.  The same love expressed in the parables and teachings of Jesus, of a new way that respects and empowers those who have been oppressed.  The same love experienced in Jesus’ tears when his friend Lazarus died.  The same love expressed at the cross and the empty tomb.  And, it is the same love that God has woven into the very fabric of the natural world we live in.  As we do the emotional work that sadness and tears and grieving help us to do, we enter into that most natural cycle of seedtime and blossom, death and rebirth.

Together, we are called to ABIDE with one another in pure, complete, love; love that invites us to work through our emotional landscape and promises to be there without judgment as we all figure this out.  Everywhere, on all sides of our present situation I am hearing the fatigue of a long, languishing year, and that fatigue is coming out in snap judgments, immediate anger, intolerance and intransigence, or for some of us it shows up in the exact opposite ways: indecision, withdrawal, baffled silence, defeatism.  Even though we are not yet able to be in one another’s physical presence as we would wish to be, I want so much for us to “be love” to one another – to hold one another in safety and care – to be part of another’s consciousness,  a supporter of their fullest, healthiest life.  We are called to be in a place and to BE a place, as David Robertson would say, that “gives us the capacity to heal, and to encounter joy.”

I give thanks for all that David shared with us, of which I’ve just scratched the surface, and I do hope I’ve not misrepresented any of it.   I give thanks for those early Christian communities, and the way their ancient example still calls us in our friendships and our families and as a community of faith, to be open to one another and to God in such a way that God’s holy and abiding love has a home here, within us and between us and beyond us.   And I pray that we will hear and follow the calling in all this, to seek and create and provide safe, authentic dwelling places for our own emotional processing and for one another, as we seek health and wholeness in these unusual days.  Thanks be to God, Amen.

ADDENDUM

As I was writing this week’s sermon, I kept being drawn back to a long-ago Children’s Story: Margery Williams’ story of the Velveteen Rabbit.   Without going into deep explanation and ruining the story, I’ll just say this: while I disagree with the Skin Horse on one point – inasmuch as I believe that we are born beloved – there is no place more real, than finding a place in life where we abide in God’s love, and share that love, and experience a love that is very much like the one described here. 

“The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.  Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

“The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again.  It lasts for always.”

References cited:

LeSueur, Richard. https://www.anglicanjournal.com/preparing-to-meet-the-final-wave-grief/

Neufeld Institute: https://neufeldinstitute.org/

Robertson, David. “Praying our Tears – Living our Joy.”  A Zoom presentation to Chinook Winds Region of the United Church of Canada, 14 April 2021.

Williams, Margery. The Velveteen Rabbit.  NYC: George H Doran, 1922.   Now in Public Domain; full text and pictures accessed at http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/williams/rabbit/rabbit.html

© 2021 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church