A Sermon on John 15:1-8 for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year B; preached May 3, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
“Abide in me as I abide in you.”
As many of you know, I was away last weekend as a part of some vacation time. For much of that vacation, my partner and I were out in Chicago, where each of us lived while we attended Chicago Theological Seminary. Because part of the reason we were there was for some work responsibilities on Adam’s part—he still does some part-time work for the seminary remotely—they arranged to put us up for most of the trip.
Admittedly, I was a little surprised when I first heard the address of the place we were to stay: 4563 South Michigan, or, in other words, the corner of 46th Street and Michigan Avenue. Now, if you don’t know Chicago very much, you might be thinking, “oh, Michigan Avenue… that’s like the Magnificent Mile—right?—and the Art Institute, Grant Park, the ‘bean’, and all that.” And you’d be correct… except that’s Michigan Ave some 4 to 5 miles north of 46th Street.
The corner of 46th and Michigan is in the heart of a South Side neighborhood called Bronzeville, so named because of the bronze-toned skin of the African Americans who settled in the area in time of the first ‘Great Migration,’ that period when almost two million migrated from the rural south to northern cities, like Chicago, over the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. At one point in time, Bronzeville was known as the ‘black metropolis,’ with a vibrant cultural scene much like in New York in the Harlem Renaissance.
But that was a much different era. You see, in the early 1960s, the neighborhood became the site of Robert Taylor Homes, the single largest public housing project in the city of Chicago. Although not as well-known outside Chicago as the infamous Cabrini-Green projects—and that’s probably simply because Cabrini-Green was located much closer to more-affluent, predominately white neighborhoods downtown and on the north side—Robert Taylor Homes was more than twice the size of Cabrini-Green, and had just-as-notorious a reputation, if not more so. Some 28 high-rises spanned a 2-mile by 2-block strip overlooking the Dan Ryan expressway, and housed at its height over 27,000 people—more than twice its originally planned capacity.
As the economic issues of the 60s, 70s, and 80s took their toll, disproportionally so on poor and working-class African American communities in major urban centers… and then drugs took advantage of the situation… and then both gang wars and the so-called ‘war on drugs’ further victimized these communities… the warehousing of black lives in Robert Taylor Homes became an epicenter of what wasn’t working in our society around both economics and race, and moreover an overwhelming symbol of what wasn’t working with our society’s attempts to deal with it. And in the meantime, all of surrounding Bronzeville, that once vibrant place, had joined the ranks of the city’s most-blighted neighborhoods.
That was the Bronzeville I remembered from when I first moved to Chicago some 13 years ago, in 2002. Robert Taylor Homes was in the process of being demolished by then, but that wouldn’t finish up until 2007. The urban blight was still very real—the vacant lots, the burned out and boarded up buildings, the lack of commercial development—and whether rightly or wrongly, the neighborhood didn’t feel like a ‘safe’ place to be.
Anyway, to get back to my story, this address of where we were to stay, 46th & Michigan, was there in the heart of Bronzeville, literally two blocks from where those housing projects once sat. So, I was some combination of a bit puzzled, a bit intrigued, and—if I’m completely honest—at least a slight bit concerned. I did know that, now that the projects were gone, the area had been facing rapid re-development and some gentrification. Overall I guess I simply didn’t know what to expect…
What I definitely didn’t expect, though, was to arrive at the ‘Welcome Inn Manor,’ as the place is called, and find a stunning 1880s Victorian mansion, carefully restored. Built by a German furniture maker in an era when this section of Chicago was a mansion district for the city’s elites, it is a spacious and grand home, adorned with carved woodwork like you wouldn’t believe. And in the hands of Mell & Angie, a couple who’ve owned it since 2002 and overseen it’s comprehensive restoration, it now houses an elegant bed-and-breakfast, with decor that serves as a tribute to Bronzeville’s glory days and to vibrant African American culture and community past and present. And yes, the neighborhood is still in transition, and the impact of the housing projects era can still be seen.
So, why am I telling you all this? Well, I want us to attend this morning to the question of where it is we “abide”… where do we ‘dwell’, where do we ‘stay’, where do we connect ourselves in and root ourselves and make ourselves remain.
“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” Abide isn’t a word we use a whole lot anymore. It’s no accident that it sounds similar to ‘abode’, as in “welcome to my humble abode.” Our ‘abode’—our house, our home—is a place where we ‘abide’, where we dwell and stay and call ‘home’.
But there is something particular, I think, about ‘abide’, about ‘abiding’ somewhere: it’s deeper and longer and more rooted and connected. The temporary apartment you might rent when you move to a new city and are searching the housing market, that’s not really a place you ‘abide’. The place you visit for a few days, or even a few weeks, on vacation is not somewhere you have ‘abided’. When you abide somewhere, you really dwell there, stay there, get rooted and connected—it becomes a part of you and you of it.
The uprising in Baltimore this past week offers a striking example of a place and a people and a struggle in which much of our society has not abided. One of the criticisms that got voiced as Baltimore smoldered went something along the lines of “don’t ‘they’ know they’d get listened to better if they’d just be peaceful about it?” But you see, the truth is that the community in Baltimore already had been doing that, and nobody would listen. You see, most of us didn’t know that because we have been unwilling or unable to really ‘abide’ with such a community and its concerns. In Baltimore, peaceful protests and demonstrations had been going on for a week with nary a moment of attention. Moreover, in Baltimore and in communities like it all over our country, people have been trying to call out the injustices of police brutality and mass incarceration of non-violent offenders and broad systems of economic and racial disparities for years. Some of us hear about the recent incidents like those of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Freddie Gray, and so, so many others, and wonder why all of a sudden there seems to be a rash outbreak of these situations. But that’s merely because we as a society have not abided with the communities of color in this country, or otherwise we would know that the rate of these incidents is nothing new; it’s just that we’re now more readily hearing about them.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not condoning violence, looting, destruction, so-called ‘rioting’, and all that. But when we haven’t abided with these communities, haven’t borne witness to the injustices, stood alongside them in the struggles—and, in fact, have largely ignored it all—we have little rightful place to criticize. How can we be justified in criticizing the violence of protesting when we have turned a blind eye to the violence too many young black and brown men have suffered at the hands of police? How can we say a word about property destruction when we have not sufficiently cared about life destruction, in both the literal sense of people killed and in the figurative sense of souls scarred and livelihoods limited…?
When Jesus talks with his disciples about “abiding” in him and him abiding in them, it is in the shadow of the cross. It is at the center-point of his farewell time with his disciples, his talk and actions with them at the supper on the night he was arrested. He bids his disciples to ‘abide’ with him—to remain and dwell and stay with and in him—even though he already knows that the next steps are going to lead him to arrest and trial and crucifixion and death.
Abide with me even in the midst of that struggle, Jesus says. Remain with me even as the cross looms and the shadows of death darken. Abide with me even when that path leads right to the heart of the crisis of this world.
And the truth of that cross, the truth of the cross of Christ, is that Jesus made good on his promise that he would abide with us, as well. As one pastor and scholar puts it, “If the cross means anything, I think it means that God chose not to sit back in heaven, removed from the pain and paucity of our mortal, free, and difficult life in this world, but rather came in Christ to be joined to it—the ups and downs, the hopes and disappointments, the frailties and faults of our life in this world—so that we would know of God’s unending commitment to us.”
Ironically enough, though, the church has chosen for a long, long time to hear these words of Jesus on the night of his arrest here now in the midst of the season of Easter… here now in these great fifty days after the cross… centered on and celebrating the good news of his resurrection.
For, you see, my friends, Easter confirms this promise. Easter is the sign that the abiding does bear fruit. Easter stands as the symbol that God abided with us—in our pain, in our brokenness, even in our death—and still, the fruit can be born, still life came of it, still new life could be born. Easter is a confirmation of Jesus’s promise. And that Jesus’ promise, that he abides with us, gives us the confidence, the power, the strength, and the hope we need in order to abide with him… in order to stay with him as his path goes into the shadows of darkness and death, into the places of pain and brokenness, into the “least of these, my brothers and sisters,” into the places where the blood cries out from the ground and the lives cry out to be heard. Jesus goes there, and in the power of his resurrection, we have the hope and confidence and strength we need to abide with him and go with him as he goes there.
And here too… This day, as we gather around this table… Here at this table we come to share the feast of Christ’s abiding. This table that started when in the shadow of the cross he offered himself with the promise of his presence: “Do this, and this will be my body, given for you.” This table that also started in the day of resurrection, in the fact that he still abides with us after the cross, after the grave—and the fact, the seal, the sign that that promise is fulfilled in the breaking of bread. In the breaking of bread that still takes place this day, the breaking that still abides, that reveals Christ’s presence to us even in the midst of our broken lives, even in the midst of sickness, cancer, of injustice, of hunger. The breaking that still stands here as a sign of life, sitting in our “neighborhood,” that is still in transition, our “neighborhood” that is still littered with the artifacts of death and brokenness, but a “neighborhood” that is, by the power of God, being reborn—the “neighborhood” that dwells in you, in me, in us, in us all together, in this world, the neighborhood that is God’s kingdom being born. And here at this table we share bread and see the very sign of life, the bread of heaven, the very presence of Christ, sitting on our street.
Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto God, now and forever. Amen.
 David Lose, “Easter 5 B: On Being Pruned”, …in the Meantime (davidlose.net), 27 April 2015, accessed 2 May 2015 at http://www.davidlose.net/2015/04/easter-5-b-on-being-pruned/.