Underwater Basketweaving

listen to mp3 file of “Underwater Basketweaving”

John 15:9-17

(Easter 6B)

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

Dear Friends,

This sermon is a story about fruit, and what can happen when someone loves people enough to take care of them, and to water them with the Spirit.

Friday morning, when I had a few hours when I should have been writing this sermon, I wound up learning the soprano line of a piece called “Awake my Heart.” I got news earlier that morning that Peter Browne, my childhood choir director and piano teacher, was in a hospital in NYC, and might well be dying. Mr. Browne is 69. He found out he had bladder cancer 3 weeks ago.

When I was a kid, my Dad was the pastor of a church in the tiny town of Chenango, NY. As good pastor’s kids, my two sisters and my brother and I went to church there every Sunday. But one or two weeks a month, we’d go to the 8:00am service at our own church, and then scramble out to the car with my Mom, and hurry to Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church in Binghamton, the “big” city next to us, to sing in the Treble choir there.

Mr. Browne was one of those adults who talked to children as if they were adults, in a good way. On Wednesdays, before choir practice, he rolled up his sleeves and ate oreos at the same table as us. He knew what our hobbies were. We knew what his hobbies were (building canoes!). He expected great things from us, both musically and as people. He told us stories about church and about being a Christian. He took the choir on tours and on an annual choir camping weekend, and you could tell: he enjoyed these kids. He was our friend.

Now that I’m a parent, I understand that one of the best reasons for putting your kids into any sort of activity is the adults they encounter there. In fact, the quality of a kid’s basketball league or an art class is really not so much about the content or skill-learning, or, let’s be honest, college resume-padding, but about the adults who mentor them. As a Christian, it’s an added bonus for me when one of these adults in my kids’ lives is also a person who, openly or subtly, in word and in deed, teaches my kid what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Between choir practice and piano lessons, my siblings and I spent about 4 hours a week with Mr. Browne.   Sure, he was a great teacher. But don’t you think my parents must have known it was worth it because of the person he was, just as well?

There were a whole mess of kids in this choir with us, obviously (many also Mr. Browne’s piano students). And early on Friday morning, one of our fellow now-grown-up singers, Conrad, started contacting any of us he could find on social media with an idea. We needed to sing again for Mr. Browne. One of the grown up kids who still lives in Binghamton raced over to church and scrounged through the music room to find the right piece of music. He emailed us all a copy.

Angel, who, as a the seasoned high schooler was sort of the mama of the choir when I was a middle schooler, stood in her NYC apartment before she left for work, and recorded a video of herself conducting and singing the soprano line. She sent that to all of us. Jess, in Boston, put on her headphones, and while she was listening to Angel, she recorded the alto line. Conrad did the tenor and bass lines from his office in Washington, DC. Tim started collecting the videos (he’s a film maker) and compiling all the voices while he was sitting in an airport waiting to get on a flight. As he worked, videos came from my sister in Florida; and Lindsey in Texas; and Johanna in Berlin; and then Maya in Hawaii; and then from Athena in Singapore; and Phil in Italy. Who would have thought, when we were all lined up in our sweet little choir robes, that we would be making intercontinental music some day?

Athena looked at the list of who had sent in a video and wrote, “Wow just looked at the updated list of singers. That is the reach of a true teacher. May I contribute to so many in my life and through my music.”

On Saturday night, Angel brought the video to Mr. Browne, and his wife, and his daughter. The video of his choir singing to him was one of the last things he heard as he died.

Isn’t that, finally, what we all hope for? That what we water will grow, and things we never could have imagined will happen?

In John’s Gospel, Jesus sums up the purpose of remaining connected, interwoven, with God: to bear fruit, fruit that will last. This is what will happen when you are interwoven with the vine, when through you is flowing the good sap, the love that flows through and then out of the Trinity. We are invited by Jesus into the very sustenance of the Godself, the love that flows within and through the Trinity,

between the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit;

the Creator, the Redeemer, the Giver of Life.

This love is some powerful stuff. We are not talking about love in some sweet, sentimental way (and as a side note, can we just agree here, on Mother’s Day, that this day can be one example of the ways we simplify and sweeten the idea of love: Mother’s Day is a complex day emotionally for many people. Really for all of us. Because almost every human being has some hurt associated with the idea of mothering. None of us had a perfect mother. Not all of us have had the chance to parent in the way we wanted, and some of us don’t feel called to parent. And, even at its best, the way God intended mothers to be, the love of a mother is an intense and complicated thing…) We sugar coat so much about love, and maybe we do that because love is something that is truly raw and wild.

I once heard someone explain God’s love this way: imagine the sound of a mother’s heartbeat to a newborn infant. Multiply that by infinity, and that is how God loves us. That is no Hallmark card sentiment. That is the visceral, incarnate, blood and flesh sound of love. Biologically speaking, that heartbeat is the very sound that kept that infant alive in the womb, and the sound of comfort and safety outside.

This love of God that flows through us, it has all ferocity of mother-love (as Jesus says here, it is friendship to the point of dying for someone else).

Jesus brings up death here: according to John’s Gospel, he says all of this while sitting at a table, sharing a meal with the disciples. Eating together: the most daily of tasks. And he brings up death. With 20/20 hindsight, we know that this meal is the Last Supper, the meal to prefigure every meal we share at this table.

Earlier this week, when this sermon was headed in a different direction, I chose the title “underwater basketweaving” because I thought there were was something about the way these texts spoke of the waters of baptism, and the ways we are woven together with God and each other. I figured I could make something of that. The phrase is a joke about unnecessary college courses, the ones a student takes and his or her parents say, “well, what is THAT going to be good for?”

The surprise is that occasionally, the course that seems most frivolous to a student becomes incredibly useful. (You discover, through underwater basketweaving, a way to, I don’t know, build a better submarine …)

And maybe that’s how it is with God’s love flowing through us. Let’s be honest. We are not all going to lay down our very lives for the people around us.

The intensity and strength of God’s love, you see, is also expressed in the everyday business of living, and sometimes even in the things that might seem unimportant in the long run.

the sound a heartbeat

teaching a child how to breathe when she sings

breaking bread

sharing an oreo

telling a story

How do you produce fruit, fruit that will last? You remain connected to the vine, interwoven with the people of God, and soaked in the waters of baptism.

And in and out of daily living, those small things are filled with the love of God. we love people as friends, as mentors, and family members, as co-workers, and we, in everyday life, are the presence of God to them, the heartbeat of God’s love for them.

And it is finally that love, fierce and never-ending, that grows until the world knows this one, the one who loved us enough to lay down his life for his friends.

Friends, this is the Good News.

Thanks be to God.