Abide--in the Active Voice

(John 15:1-5)

On June 22, 1941 the Second Armistice was signed by France and Germany, which resulted in a division of France into an Occupied Zone in the North overseen by the Nazis, which included Paris and most of the larger urban centers in France, and the Unoccupied Zone in the South, which was supposedly overseen by Marshall Pétain’s government, headquartered in Vichy, France.

In the little village of Le Chambon, which was under control of the Vichy government in southeastern France, the local Protestant pastor stood up on that same day to preach. André Trocmé, a pacifist, framed the conflict with the Nazis and their French collaborators as a real life instance of the struggle described in Revelation, between the Beast and the ancient followers of Jesus. For Trocmé, like the the author of Revelation describes, he preached that the contemporary followers of Jesus should resist the demonic forces at work in the rise of Nazism.

Trocmé went on to draw on the image of the Cities of Refuge in the Hebrew scriptures to ground his thinking about a communal form of resistance to the violence committed against the vulnerable stranger (Numbers 35:9-34; Joshua 20:1-6). These cities of refuge in the Hebrew Bible were intended to provide shelter to those who’d committed manslaughter from retaliation from an “avenger of blood.” In such a case, the person could present herself or himself to one of the six cities of refuge, and the person would have to be taken in and protected from her or his accusers. The operating assumption was that innocent but vulnerable people deserved the protection of the community from those who meant to do them harm.

In the case of Le Chambon, Trocmé saw the villages of the Plateau (Le Chambon and the surrounding villages) as a twentieth-century version of these cities of refuge. The Plateau, he argued, populated by people who took their faith commitments seriously, should stand once again to provide sanctuary for vulnerable refugees, Jews and young French men who were being deported to Germany to work as slave laborers in German factories. Though these refugees weren’t necessarily being pursued for manslaughter, they were innocent and susceptible to the violence of the ruling authorities.

Catherine Cambessédès, a woman present at the sermon later recalled:

>In the church you could have heard a pin drop. I was only fifteen, yet I clearly remember my mood going from lost and frightened to safe and calm. Can you imagine what a sermon like that meant to us at a time of fear and despair? To be told, in church, that if the military situation had changed, our source of inspiration had not; it was still to follow in the steps of Jesus and the New Testament. We were not lost. We still had a direction. The day remains one of the most illuminating of my life” (A Good Place to Hide, Kindle ed.).

The villages of the Plateau went on to hide thousands of refugees from the violence and death of the Nazis.

But not only did the Chambonnais hide Jews and young Frenchmen, the villagers also housed and fed the refugees, procured forged papers and ration cards for them, and developed a form of “underground railroad” to deliver refugees to neutral Switzerland. Le Chambon set up a school to educate the refugees and a number of children’s homes to care for the children who were brought there without parents. There was a system of document forgers, as well as scouts whose job it was to find dwellings among the farms for new refugees.

You have to remember that any kind of aid by the villagers was subject to punishment, either by hard labor in concentration camps or by execution. To put it simply, the villagers risked everything by their commitment to helping strangers who came to them in need. Their actions over the course of the war appear to outsiders as heroic. But to the Chambonnais, the work they did was unremarkable—just something anyone would do.

The question that has preoccupied moral philosophers since that time deals precisely with this issue of heroism. In moral philosophy the technical term raised by the Chambonnais is supererogation—which, in much less fancy terms means something like moral action that goes “above and beyond the call of duty.” It’s one thing to note individual acts of heroism, where a person goes to extraordinary lengths to do good—even at risk of their lives and livelihoods. But the question that interests ethicists is: How do you get a whole community to go “above and beyond” what could rightfully be expected of “normal” people acting ethically.

It’s one thing, for instance, to watch that a stranger’s child not walk into busy traffic; this seems like a fairly low moral bar of expectation. It’s an entirely different thing, however, to be expected to put yourself at risk by running into traffic yourself to save a child about to be hit by a garbage truck.

But here’s the thing, if the Chambonnais understood themselves to be heroes or saints—that is, as going above and beyond the call of duty to save others—how do you get the whole community to act heroically? The fact that, given the length of time and the tremendous pressure on the villagers, not one person folded is important. Patrick Henry confirms that "in this ecumenical village, no villager ever denounced a single refugee or a person concealing refugees" (We Know Only Men, 27). If even one disillusioned villager had given up the struggle, even for a moment, the whole project would have unraveled. Creating and sustaining a community of heroes verges on the impossible—since in any group of people, at least some could never picture themselves as heroic, and would therefore balk at the suggestion that that’s what they’ve been called to be.

“Why should I put myself and my family at risk? I’m no hero.”

On the other hand, if you want to create a community that appears heroic to outsiders but not to insiders, what you have to produce is not a bunch of individual heroes, but a community that understands itself to have a "normal" moral standard of behavior that can be expected of all its members. In other words, you need to foster a community that views its moral responsibilities—even moral action that looks to outsiders like the work of heroes and saints—as, you know, “just something we do.”

With the upheavals in our current social, religious, and political life, where resisting the powers and principalities feels like such a pressing issue, the question to the church is: How do we create communities of resistance capable of doing, what looks to everyone else like, heroic, supererogatory acts, but to those who follow Jesus are simply “what anyone would do?”

In our passage from John, Jesus has just washed the disciples feet on Holy Thursday. He tells them that Judas is about to drop dime on him, and that Peter will act like he’s never met this Jesus troublemaker. All of which builds up to what Jesus knows is coming. He can read the political tea leaves, and he knows he’s stuck his whole arm in a political hornets’ nest, and is about to face the wrath of the Roman authorities and their toadies, the temple authorities. So, he breaks the news to the disciples that he’s about to check out, to go somewhere they can’t follow. Of course, the disciples hear this news shocking lack of enthusiasm: “What do you mean you’re going away? Can we come too?”

Jesus says, “Nope, you can’t. But I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to send an Advocate, the Holy Spirit—and it’ll be pretty much just like having me there. So don’t worry. I’ll always be with you.”

The whole speech follows a reasonably predictable farewell script. But then chapter fifteen opens up with what appears to be a whiplash-inducing digression. Jesus goes from saying a tearful goodbye to launching into an agricultural metaphor that seems unrelated to the group hug that he and the disciples have been sharing. No fancy transition, no smooth homiletical segue. Just Jesus slamming the brakes on the rhetorical bus and saying, “I am the true vine, and God is the vine-grower. And you are the branches, the offshoots of the vine. Your job as branches is to abide in me—which will allow you to bear fruit.”

The obvious question is: What does the whole vine and branches disquisition have to do with anything? How is this at all relevant to Jesus getting whacked by the Roman government in just a few very uncomfortable hours?

In verse three we start to get a clue. Jesus makes explicit that you are the branches he’s talking about. Now, the picture of this passage that formed in my mind when I was a kid was of a vine with a bunch of individual branches sticking out, sort of like on a tree. Me here. You there. Uncle Arthur over there. If we were connected at all, it was only through our being stuck together on the same vine.

But, you see, Jesus isn’t addressing a collection of individual branches. He uses the second person plural, the southern you:“Y’all.”

What’s more, that’s not how vines work—a neat bunch of twigs stuck in uniform rows. The branches on a vine grow at all kinds of weird angles, weaving together, so that it’s almost impossible to tell where one begins and another one ends. It looks more like one massive tangle of offshoots that form a single complex organism than like a vine with a bunch of sticks stuck on it, each laboring away in its individual space, doing its own thing. The branches need not only the sustenance of the vine; they need each other, support each other, give shade to each other.

Jesus knows that if the disciples are going not only to survive but to produce fruit in a politically inhospitable environment that will soon see his execution at the hands of the state, they’re going to have to stick together. They’re going to have to realize that there are no individual heroes, doing their own thing over there while everybody else is over here. Jesus calls that kind of solitary activity dead wood, and it bears no fruit.

“Fine,” you may be saying to yourself. “But what is this communal fruit we’re all supposed to be bearing together?”

We get a clue about what that fruit is by taking a look at perhaps the most famous vine/vineyard image in Jesus’ religious thought world—the one that would have most likely been on the mind of any good Jew in the first century present when Jesus started talking about vines and vineyards—Isaiah 5, which is the Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard. In it, Isaiah says that Israel is a vineyard into which God the vine-dresser has invested a great deal of time and labor—only to have it fail to produce any fruit. And understandably, God is ticked.

But it’s not that the vinyard doesn’t produce any fruit. It produces wild fruit.

What is this wild fruit?

Isaiah says:

>For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planting; God expected mishpatjudgment (which is to say equitable decisions by those in positions of power), but saw mishpach—bloodshed (which Walter Brueggemann argues is the “outpouring of lifeblood through exploitative social practice; that is, the kinds of economic transactions that abuse injure, and slowly bleed the poor to death . . . killing through economic policy against the vulnerable and resourceless.”). God expected tzedaqa—justice, but heard tzeaqa—outcry (which Brueggemann suggests is the “social protests of those who are victimized by rapacious social policy.” Isaiah, Vol. 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, 48.)

Isaiah goes on to explain that reason God is so furious is that there are wealthy landowners in Israel who are foreclosing on the debts of the poor by taking their houses and their lands, adding “house to house” and “field to field, until there is room for no one but” the wealthy landowners who “are left to live alone in the midst of the land.”

In other words, the problem with God’s unfruitful vineyard centers on the exploitation of the powerless by the powerful.

So, if the wild fruit is inequitable government that produces the outpouring of the lifeblood of the poor and the injustice that produces the social protests of the oppressed and marginalized . . . then the good fruit must be the opposite: the justice of equitable social arrangements that look out for the needs of the vulnerable against the predations of the powerful.

Bearing fruit means pursuing a world in which justice and peace are no longer available only to those who can afford it, or to those who have the power to make the rules by which everyone else must live while they benefit.

So, when Jesus—a prophet like Isaiah—talks about bearing good fruit in the vineyard, he isn’t suggesting some personal moral achievement, some heroic spiritual feat. He’s talking about the communal labor involved in resisting the powers of exploitation and oppression arrayed against the most vulnerable. He’s talking about making whole the broken and working toward justice for all those for whom justice has been systematically denied.

That’s the work the church must do, according to John, if it is to bear fruit pleasing to God. But we have to do it together. And we do it by abiding in Jesus, in remaining within his vision of the reign of God—where all have access to what they need to live and flourish.

Abiding, which on the surface feels so passive, is just the opposite. If we abide in Jesus, if we live out the vision of the world he sees, we can’t help but take on the work of dismantling the systems that result in the shedding of the lifeblood of the poor and the outcry of the oppressed. We have no choice but to stand against the powers that foreclose on the futures of the defenseless, by adding to the stockpiles of their own avarice.

Abiding, at least as Jesus imagines it, is the greatest act of communal resistance there is.

We abide in Jesus, we produce fruit when we welcome the foreigner and the refugee, when we become cities of sanctuary and refuge for those fleeing the violence of the powers and principalities.

Abiding means holding accountable a justice system that appears designed to disproportionately abuse and incarcerate people of color.

It means refusing to remain silent while LGBTQ people suffer discrimination and bullying because of whom they love or what bathroom they feel most comfortable using.

Abiding means rejecting the temptation to settle for a healthcare system available to only the well off, or a government that denies the elderly and people of color the right to vote, or politicians who view profit as a greater good than clean air and water.

It means loving those we’ve been told it’s okay to ignore so much that it makes the people in charge nervous.

And we here today, just like our forbears in the faith at Le Chambon, to be told, in church, that if the political situation has changed, our source of inspiration has not; it is still to follow in the steps of Jesus and the New Testament. We’re not lost. We still have a direction.

We are the holy community trying to follow in the steps of Jesus together—a great interlocking system of branches. We’re exactly what God had in mind for a time such as this.

We follow Jesus, pursuing the world he intends, because apart from him we can do nothing . . . and right now the world needs us to do something.

More than anything, it needs us to abide.