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  • Writer's pictureFather Nicholas Lang

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Abiding: Embracing and Including the Lonely as Branches of God’s Vine—Sermon Preached by Jennifer Hudson, April 28, 2024


“All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”


While I’m tempted to begin this sermon with some musings on the Beatles’ 1966 song Eleanor Rigby, there’s not many to provide. Eleanor’s story is dismal: she was so lonely that no one came to her funeral, except the priest who is, in his own way, isolated too. “No one was saved,” we’re told. There’s no redemption in this story.


But there’s another Eleanor I’d like to mention, an Eleanor whose story starts out with the loneliness and isolation of Eleanor Rigby, but then takes a different turn. That would be Eleanor Oliphant, the narrator and protagonist of Gail Honeyman’s 2017 novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, which my book club just finished reading. This Eleanor works as a finance clerk, is intellectually brilliant, states exactly what she is thinking, and leads a routinized and solitary lifestyle. She has no friends or social contacts. Each weekend she consumes two bottles of vodka. Eleanor repeatedly describes herself as "absolutely fine,” yet behind the surface dwells a past trauma.


Eleanor’s life begins to change when she develops an infatuation with a local singer she’s never met, which propels her to take an interest in her appearance and get a makeover. She meets a kind IT co-worker named Raymond, with whom she develops a friendship after they both help a man whom they see collapse on the street. As Eleanor and Raymond get to know each other better, Eleanor not only starts to learn how to connect with others, but clues about her past trauma begin to emerge. Her sensual attention to everything from a shampoo at the salon to a hug shared with Raymond demonstrates just how strong her hunger for touch and relationship really is. By the novel’s end, acts of kindness help feed Eleanor and bring her into a deeper sense of communion with others.


I wonder how many lonely Eleanors walk through the doors of our churches each Sunday hungering for that same sense of connection with others and with God? According to Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist and professor of psychology at Yale, surveys reveal 60 percent of people in the U.S. report feeling lonely on a regular basis.[1] 60 percent!


What do we do about this epidemic? Well, we can start with God.   


That God, who is all love, desires for all of us to belong—no matter who we are or what our personal stories and identities are—is apparent in all three readings this morning.

We see it first in Acts with the Ethiopian eunuch and his desire to be baptized (Acts 8: 26-40). Eunuchs were stigmatized as they destabilized the binary of masculine and feminine and, thus, would have been excluded from the Temple by Deuteronomic restrictions. Yet here with Philip the eunuch is baptized and radically welcomed into the family of God.


Part of being the family of God is abiding in the love of God, living from it, loving all and not just some. For instance, the first epistle from John urges, “let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” And in case we might have missed the point, John later reiterates, “those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” and then “those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4: 7-21). I think the phrase no exceptions is implied here.


Jesus, in his famous discourse about the vine and the branches says that “just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me…those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15: 1-8).


English nerd that I am, I can’t help but look at the etymology of the word “abide.” While its original meaning has been to wait, to endure, and to remain, its generally accepted definition has to do with acting in accordance with a rule. Then we have the author of the first epistle of John’s definition: those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them and those who love God must love others because God is love. And we have Jesus’s definition: those who abide in God and in whom God abides bear much fruit.


What kind of fruit, I wonder? I’m sure Jesus isn’t talking about grapes! Perhaps it’s the fruit of the Holy Spirit, virtues such as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23). These are all qualities that, whether we’re aware of it or not, allow us to connect more deeply with each other and with God---when enacted. 


We don’t hear it this morning, but further along in this Gospel passage Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15: 10-12). I wonder if the point Jesus is making here is that abiding in him (the vine) who abides in God the Creator (the grower) and abiding in God’s love isn’t just passively dwelling or resting or remaining or waiting; it’s also about actively living that love out with others, acting in accordance with the command to love one another as ourselves—and I think this includes loving the broken parts of ourselves. It’s about letting that love flow like a river in a watershed, because, as Jesus explains, apart from God we can do nothing. We achieve true union with God by being God in the world through actions that reveal God’s love such as welcoming strangers and feeding their hunger for belonging, for community, for love.


I remember an orthodox icon I once saw of Jesus as the True Vine. Jesus appears on the top of a grapevine, the lower part of his body blending into and becoming the vine’s roots. Each of the twelve disciples are encircled by branches that bear leaves and grapes. What struck me most about this beautifully gilded and rendered image was the interconnectedness of all depicted in it. It’s that kind of interconnection that I think many of us tend to forget in 21st century “selfie” culture.


But, my friends, we weren’t created to live in isolation. We were created to live together, to be a part of something far greater than our individual selves. We might not realize just how meaningful our welcoming and embracing of the Eleanors of the world might be, but be assured it means all the world to those Eleanors and brings them new life.

As the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers outlined in a Radical Welcome 2.0 workshop I once attended:


As you practice radical welcome, you join Jesus in stretching your arms and embracing

The Other. You share the gifts of your tradition and culture, even as you allow your heart and your congregation’s life – its ministries, its identity, its worship, its relationships, its leadership – to be transformed by The Other’s presence, gifts and power among you.[2] 

 

All the lonely people, The Others, the Eleanors—they are branches that can bear much fruit and have gifts to give us as much as we do them if we embrace them.


To that end, perhaps another word for abide is embrace. It’s an outward sign of love. And isn’t that what God does for us and asks of us?  So, let’s embrace the Eleanors whenever they show up. More branches mean more fruit—and you can never have too much of a good thing.


[1] “Why Americans Are Lonelier and Its Effects on Our Health.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 8 Jan. 2023, www.pbs.org/newshour/show/why-americans-are-lonelier-and-its-effects-on-our-health. Retrieved 27 April 2024.

[2] ECCT Radical Welcome 2.0 handout, 4/4/2022

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