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Driving Out Fear

Acts 8:26-40; Psalms 22:25-31; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8 May 2, 2021 – 5th Sunday in Easter

Jesus assures us this morning that he is the true vine. All who follow him are the branches. If we remain connected to him and open to him, we will always bear good fruit and the gardener, his Father, God, will never prune us away and burn us as so much slash.

The difficult part, though, is to keep connected to Jesus, to remain open to him…even when things are going good…or bad…or too fast…or too slow. In other words, the world tries to distract us…to lure us away from the gifts God has given to human beings…so that they can be snatched away from us forever.

It is the way the world is…a scramble to survive…to prosper… to be safe…to be sure our family and our loved ones are safe…

that makes us the way we sometimes are…on guard…ready to react before we reflect…dangerous…to enemies and friends alike.

In fact, because we spend more time with our friends than with our enemies, our friends are more likely to see our wounded side than our enemies are.

So we don’t just make life more interesting for our enemies as we go through this world. We do the same thing for our friends…and our loved ones.

And there is one friend who is always there when we lose our way and make our mistakes. Ourselves. So we don’t just make life better for our enemies when we gather ourselves together before we respond with reason and kindness.

So we make things better for our friends…and for ourselves…if we can stay in touch with Jesus, the true vine, and be pruned by the author of truth and love itself…where we need it…and when we need it.

In a moment of anger, we can do irreversible harm. In a moment of caring response, we can heal friends, enemies, ourselves…and generations to follow.

I’ve told you this story before, shortly after it happened, but it expresses what I am trying to say as well as I can. Besides, some of you weren’t here that day and others have forgotten.

It was Christmas morning and I was going to rent a car at the airport and drive to Red Lodge to be with family. Steve Kamerick gave me a ride up and we arrived a few minutes before 8:00, the time they were supposed to open.

We waited no one showed. I called the number for the rental place and heard the phone ring on the other side of the door behind the counter. No one answered it.

We waited a little longer, and about ten minutes past 8:00 the agent walked in and saw us standing there, waiting. She took in a little breath, waiting for the criticism.

It broke my heart. She had a family, too, and she had probably had to leave them to come to work. That must have been hard.

Now she thinks she is going to get chewed out by her first customer of the day.

I remembered something a friend once told me. When you go out to get something on Christmas, always thank the person for working that day.

So I said, “Thank you for working today.” It surprised the agent and she opened up her computer and said, “We’ve had a cancellation. Would you like a free upgrade to an all-wheel vehicle?”

Now I was surprised. But my friend Mike had done what Phillip does in our reading this morning. He opened for me, in a very simple way, the meaning of the scriptures.

With his help, I was able to do what Jesus told us to do: to stay connected…and open…to him, as a branch would be connected and open to the true vine.

The branches nourish the vine and the vine sustains the branches. And the anonymous lady who was working at Budget rent-a-car provided the fruit…a better way to get where I was going anyway.

Even your worst enemy will respect you if you can show a bit of goodness in your soul. And why not do what we have to do with joy and not anger?

Why do we have to be filled with resentment…when we already have so much? Is it because we have so much that we don’t think we need each other anymore?

Everyone is doing the best they can with the load they are carrying… just like the rest of us. Why add pain to that when we could be getting along so much better?

And the ones we hurt or help the most…with our response to fear or frustration…are those we love the most…and ourselves.

Why do we talk about who is at fault instead of how we can solve our common problems? Because it makes it possible to decide things without having to think them through.

If you see someone as one of ‘them’ instead of one of ‘us’, you can just disbelieve anything they say and be on your happy way…but you might be missing the chance of a lifetime to make a friend and live in peace.

This isn’t always possible, I admit. I was talking to someone, trying to figure out opposing counsel in a case was so personally mean in the way they expressed themselves.

The senior counsel gave me a gift of wisdom when he told me not to take it personally. “He just likes to fight. Some people just like to fight, and he’s one of them.” But it is always worth a try to be a friend…even to angry people.

We do that by staying in touch with our higher power, Jesus Christ, who was innocent but endured all for the guilty…who even at the last was praying for his tormentors. “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”

So try to make connection with that heart…do all you can to remain open as a branch on that vine…feed it as it feeds you…and it will go better with you and for you.

To the extent that we find that an unworthy goal, we are asking to be pruned. How can we expect to bear sweet, ripe fruit…after all… when we cling to our bitterness?

How can we let go? John tells us in his first letter this morning that the key is for us to love one another, because when we love each other, we are bearing the good fruit that God Gave us the faith and imagination and hope to bear.

Then, we are created and re-created in the image of God. Then we become true branches of the true vine. If we can do this, our lives become better. The lives of our loved ones become better. We get better. Our world is transformed.

So it is love that transforms us from the worldly creatures we used to be into the loving neighbors Jesus taught us to be.

Why should we let one thing that separates us keep us from being friends? Why should we not be friends when we have one important thing in common?

The more we love important things in common…even one important thing…the more we can love each other and show others how to love God and our neighbor, too. We can change a moment, a day, a lifetime, for whoever happens to see us…and we can make the Kingdom a little more visible.

If we can show the world how to do that…with even one unlikely friend …we can make what we have in common more important than anything that separates us…and that could change the world.

Once you get a glimpse of it, this opening of understanding can happen at the funniest times and in the most unlikely places, but it will keep popping up in front of you, saying “look at me!” as long as you live.

Mack McCormick was a State Representative who sat in the back row. He was a union guy from Great Falls, and he very rarely had anything to say on the floor of the House.

When one of his bills was up for debate, Mack would read his introduction in a halting way that made you suspect his wife, Della, had written it for him…and she probably had.

But it worked. Mack would read so haltingly that it was painful to listen to, and then he would sit down and his bill would pass. I never got that knack.

But this one day a bill was up to ban smoking in restaurants. Mack didn’t smoke, but his wife Della did, and she was his queen and nobody was going to tell her she couldn’t have a cigarette after dinner when he took her out to eat.

I could tell right away this wasn’t the same Mack we all knew. He was passionate and pithy in reasoning and he really went after the bill… even though its sponsor was sitting right next to him.

Well, one of the legislators got up to ask him a little question to show the flaw in his argument and make it all better. Mack zinged him and zinged him again on the follow up question.

People started turning around in their seats to see if it really was Mack who was talking. This was a person they had never seen in his three terms in the House.

The leader on the other side got up to help out and ask the same question a different way and Mack zinged him so hard he didn’t bother to ask any more…and neither did anyone else …and the bill was defeated in the vote that followed closely.

The people who voted no had seen the transformative power of love between a man and his wife that had dazzled them. I really think that at some level, the people who voted with Mack that day thought that by voting the way he was they might get to know a mighty kind of selfless love as well and as beautifully as Mack and Della did.

There were a number of high points in my four terms in the House. I don’t think you will even see an account of that debate in any of the daily newspapers back then. I didn’t vote with Mack that day, but that may have been the most wonderful thing I saw the whole time I was up there.

I was busy trying to save the world from itself… All of a sudden, love had saved me again. I was connected as if to a vine… I was open to what the vine needed from me… I was, in a word, alive.

That one moment made all the other moments worth the work…and that moment worth the wait.

Once we see a moment like that, almost 35 years ago now, it will change you forever. A stranger in the back row did something and said something that made me understand, as Viktor Frankl put it “ that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which [we] can aspire. Then I [too] grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of [humankind] is through love and in love.”

In his beautiful letter, John says many wonderful things, but just beyond the passage we read today, he also says that love even casts out fear.

A small kindness can keep us from seeing someone as all bad, but love can make us something we never dreamed of…

Like Philip, we are happy to tell others about it. It has done so much for us and we can only hang on to it if we give it away. The more we give away, the more we have to give, the bigger our lives become, and the sweeter our reward will be one day.

O Lord, what is it that you want to accomplish in the world through us …through me…this day? Amen.