JOHN 15:1-17

Your life can flow with the energy of love and joy. That’s the promise and invitation of Jesus: from deep within, the flowing and overflowing energy of love.

Energy is in short supply these days. The only energy people seem to have is the slow burn of their resentments or the grim grinding of their willpower. Mostly we’re weary. We’re tired of Covid-19 and its variants and tired from it, of the disruptions it has caused, of the lives it has taken and continues to take from us, and of the grief it has inflicted on us. Tired, tired of civic division and political polarization. Tired of injustice, cruelty, and harshness. Tired of war and rumors of war. Tired of being tethered to texts, emails, and phone-calls—always “on” and available. Tired of all the scrambling, hurrying, and hustling everyday life requires of us.

You’ve probably heard about the phenomenon of languishing. Psychologist Adam Grant wrote about it in a NYT opinion piece called “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.” He has felt it, along with many of his family friends. [] It isn’t despair, exactly, but a lack of excitement about the future. Day to day, it makes living harder. It’s easier to get lost in playing Words with Friends or doom-scrolling social media or watching endless reruns, or vegging-out or pigging-out or whatever we do to be “out.”

Grant said:

We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless . . . Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. . . [It is] the absence of well-being. . . Part of the danger is that when you’re languishing, you might not notice the dulling of delight or the dwindling of drive. You don’t catch yourself slipping slowly into solitude; you’re indifferent to your indifference.

Some of us, though it’s hard for us to admit it to ourselves, have found that the stagnation and indifference are affecting our faith and our feelings about the church. Vision and inspiration have been fading. The sense of community, of feeling like we’re together to care for one another and to make a difference in the world, has been eroding. All the crises and anxieties of the last few years, some of them personal and some of them cultural, have left us with questions we can’t answer and doubts we don’t know how to handle. And, though we’d be embarrassed to say it out loud, we wonder if the church is worth all the trouble. We’re not sure what happened but church feels like more demands to shoulder and expectations to meet:

Show up for worship. Read the Bible. Pray. Give. Say “yes” when asked to serve. Visit the elderly, the sick, and prisoners. Volunteer to build houses. Feed hungry people. Tutor children. Work for reconciliation; make peace; seek justice.

Who could be against these things?

You’re not. I’m certainly not. I spent more than forty years trying to get people to do all of them and more. They are right and good.

Actually, it would be better to say that these things are right and good when they are the result—the fruit, the overflow of a living, loving, and joyful relationship with Jesus. Otherwise, they are more obligations to fit into an already overcrowded life–more items for an overflowing to-do list. Apart from a friendship with Jesus, this understanding of faithfulness becomes a cycle of trying hard, getting weary, backing-off (which feels like failing), recommitting, getting weary (again) backing off and feeling like a failure (again), and recommitting (again).

That’s not the life God wants for us. It’s not the life Jesus promises us and invites us to experience. Our lives are meant to flow and overflow with the energy of love and joy.

Maya Angelou’s Aunt Tee worked 30 years as a maid and then 30 years as a live-in housekeeper.

Aunt Tee told me that once she was house-keeping for a couple in Bel Air, California, lived with them in a fourteen-room ranch house. There was a day maid who cleaned, and a gardener who daily tended the lush gardens. Aunt Tee oversaw the workers . . . Aunt Tee said she watched [her employers] grow older and leaner. After a few years they stopped entertaining and ate dinner hardly seeing each other at the table. They sat in a dry silence as they ate evening meals of soft scrambled, eggs, melba toast, and weak tea.

On Saturdays Aunt Tee would cook a pot of pig’s feet, a pot of greens, fry chicken, make potato salad, and bake a banana pudding. Then, that evening, her friends—the chauffeur [from down the street], the other house-keeper, and her husband—would come to Aunt Tee’s. There the four would eat and drink, play records and dance. As the evening wore on, they would settle down to a card game.

Naturally, during this revelry jokes were told, fingers snapped, feet were patted, and there was a great deal of laughter. [One Saturday night], . . . Aunt Tee felt a cool breeze on her back and sat upright and turned around. Her employers had cracked her door open and beckoned to her. Aunt Tee went to the door. The couple asked her to come into the hall.

“Theresa, we don’t mean to disturb you . . .” the man whispered, “but you all seem to be having such a good time . . .” The woman added “We hear you and your friends laughing every Saturday night, and we’d just like to watch you. We don’t want to bother you. We’ll be quiet and just watch.”

The man said, “If you’ll just leave your door ajar, your friends don’t need to know. We’ll never make a sound.”

Aunt Tee said she saw no harm in agreeing, and she talked it over with her company. They said it was OK with them, but it was sad that the employers owned the gracious house, the swimming pool, three cars, and numberless palm trees, but had no joy. [Adapted from “Living Well. Living Good,” in Wouldn’t Take Nothing for my Journey Now, 1993].

Jesus doesn’t want us simply to watch and listen to other people’s love and joy. He wants these things for us; he gives them to us. Hear again part of what Jesus said to his friends on the night before his death:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. Abide in me as I abide in you. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

Hearing these words, Jesus’ disciples would have thought of the Temple which stood not far from the upper room where they had gathered with him to celebrate Passover. Over the entranceway was a great Golden Vine, with strong curving branches—some arching upward, others sweeping downward—and large clusters of grapes. That vast vine, its majestic branches, and its luscious fruit represented the relationship between God and God’s people. Jesus used it to describe his friendship with his followers.

Here’s an obvious but important thing about a grapevine and its branches: it’s impossible to identify a point about which you could definitively say: “Here’s where the vine ends and the branches begin.” The vine is the branch; the branch is the vine. The life we taste in the grapes rises and runs from the roots into the whole plant.

In the same way, there is a vital connection between Jesus and us. We can’t distinguish him from us or us from him. We’re inseparably joined, co-mingled, and connected. We thrive and flourish because we are tapped-in to the life of Jesus. We are not cut flowers, briefly beautiful but then dried and ugly; we are vines abiding in the branch. The energy of his life flows into us and makes us as vibrantly alive as he is. The spirit of Jesus streams into every part of who we are and make us fully, wondrously alive. Love and joy flow in us.

I heard about a young boy who was, years ago, a great fan of both Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers. The boy watched both of their television shows, and one day it was announced that Mister Rogers would be paying a visit to the Captain Kangaroo show. The boy was beside himself with excitement. Both of his heroes, together on the same show! Every morning the boy would ask, “Is it today that Mister Rogers will be on Captain Kangaroo?” Finally, the day arrived, and the whole family gathered around the television. There they were, Mister Rogers and Captain Kangaroo together. The boy watched for a minute, but then, surprisingly, got up and wandered from the room. Puzzled, his father followed him and asked, “What is it, son? Is anything wrong?” “It’s too good,” the boy replied. “It’s just too good.”

Sometimes I feel that way about these promises of Jesus: It’s just too good. His presence in us, with us, and for us. His life making our lives new. His energy renewing us. His love embracing us. His joy bringing us contentment, pleasure, and laughter. It’s just too good, isn’t it? I’m with Frederick Buechner on this: it’s too good—too good not to be true.

Our role in this relationship with Jesus—our part of the friendship with him—is, simply and crucially, to stay connected. “Abide in me. Abide in my love. My joy will be in you, so that your joy will be complete.” In practical terms, that means paying steady, intentional, even, disciplined attention to him—listening to his words, learning from his example, living in his ways.

When I played high school football, my coach was constantly harping on me about my diet. He would say, “Sayles, you are what you eat. If you eat big crumbly cookies, you’ll be a big crumbly cookie. Remember, Sayles, you are what you eat.”

I think it’s most true to say: You are what and who you love. You are who loves you.” And, in everyday and practical ways, love is about connection and attention. Whatever it takes, get Jesus in the center of your sight, the heart of your affections, and the core of your motivations. Keep him there. Abide in him and with him.

Out of that attentiveness, that abiding, we gain greater clarity about who Jesus invites us to be and what Jesus asks us to do.

We learn to discern the difference between externally imposed expectations and the internally voiced word of Jesus. We find the courage to say “no” to roles that aren’t ours to play, jobs that aren’t ours to do, and responsibilities which aren’t ours to carry.

More importantly, we discover the goodness and gladness of saying authentic and heartfelt “yeses”: Yes to worship, not as a duty but as a delight—an invitation to be lost, not in worry, languishing, and distraction, but in wonder, love, and praise. Yes to the Bible, not as a rulebook, but as a love story between God and the world, a love story which includes us. Yes to prayer, not as an obligation but as an opportunity to pour our hearts out to God, to sit in healing silence, and to hear the gentle, forgiving, and guiding voice of God. Yes to seeking justice, showing mercy, and making peace, not as mere mandates, but as the astonishing privilege of joining with Jesus in making the world what God dreams it will be. Yes to love—love from God and for God, love from and for others, love from and for the world. And, yes to joy.

Sometime back, there was a New Yorker cartoon which showed a person standing in front of two doors and trying to decide which to choose. One door was marked Heaven; the other: Books about Heaven (in Stephen Pressfield, Do the Work. Domino Project, 2011).

A life of faith is not mainly or mostly Ideas about Love. It’s Love. It’s not Thoughts about Joy. It’s Joy. It’s not Reflections on Life. It’s Life. It’s not Beliefs About Jesus. It’s Jesus.

Remember who you are: you are a branch so connected to the vine that you are the vine. Jesus is in you, and with you; and you are in and with Jesus. His life is your life. Jesus is your spiritual DNA; you are becoming and will become him. The love of Jesus is in your bloodstream. The joy of Jesus is the air you breathe.


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