Sermon at New Song Episcopal Church in Iowa on May 2, 2021:
I think all of us tend to view the Gospels through our own lens, one that’s formed by our experiences, personality and beliefs. In my case, I see Jesus primarily as a storyteller. That’s not surprising, I guess, since I’m a writer. This literary lens is my go-to in trying to figure out what the words of the Gospels mean.
In doing so, I remember the old saying, “All stories are true, and some of them really happened.” For me that means that there is a deep truth that runs through all good stories, which usually makes it irrelevant to ask, “But did that really happen?” Maybe Jesus’ miracles happened exactly as they’re described, or maybe they didn’t. Proving or disproving them just isn’t that interesting to me.
In reading the gospels, it’s clear that Jesus was a master storyteller. Each of the gospels shows a different facet of his skill. In the gospel of John, Jesus is more mystical, more theological, and more symbolic in his stories than in the other gospels.
And while it’s clear that Jesus was a master storyteller, the author of the gospel of the John should also get credit for his skill as a writer. To me his gospel has the feel of someone who is recounting events from a long time ago. The author has thought about them, ruminated on them, and tried to pick apart their meaning for many years. He may have forgotten some of the details, but he’s trying to get at the essence of the story. (And let me pause here to say that I realize that the writer of the gospel of John may be recording memories told to him, not ones he experienced himself.)
All of this makes me think of my own experiences as a writer. When I write something soon after I experience it, the details are fresh and vivid and it’s easy to put together a description of what I experienced. But I think some of my best writing comes from reflecting on something that happened longer ago. The less important things drop away and I’m able to reflect on the essence of what’s important.
So what was most important to the writer of the gospel of John in this passage we heard today? He clearly remembers that Jesus often used agricultural metaphors in his teaching. Jesus told many stories about sheep and vineyards and seeds sown on different types of ground. And in this parable, he compares himself to a vine that is tended by God.
Jesus’ audience can relate to his metaphor because they realize you have to prune vines or they don’t produce well. It’s a lesson all good farmers know—sometimes you have to destroy in order to make things thrive. You cull the sick and old animals from the herd, you dig out the weeds from the wheat field, and here in Iowa, you burn the prairie.
So one way in which Jesus is a good storyteller is that he knows his audience. And he also knows that they’re going to remember lessons embedded in stories better than abstract ideas.
There’s another part of being a good storyteller that Jesus does beautifully. He remembers that we often don’t remember the details of what someone tells us, but we remember how they made us feel.
Think of a principal chastising a student for bullying, for example. One principal focuses only on the wrongdoing. “You are bad for doing this and you must stop it,” she says. Another principal focuses on trying to heal what is broken inside of the student. She says, “I care about you so much that I want you to stop doing this, because you’re hurting yourself as much as anyone else.” The first message is about shame and punishment, the second message seeks a change of heart. Both have the same goal, to make the student stop bullying, but how they make the student feel is very different.
Think about this in relation to Jesus. He made his followers feel that they were valuable to him, even if they were tax collectors or lepers. He valued them so much that he didn’t want them to stay mired in sin. He wasn’t a judge from on high, demanding they shape up or else, but a farmer who looks at a vine and sees that part of it is dead and needs to be pruned.
Which brings me to what I think is the most interesting part of the gospel passage. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” This echoes, of course, passages in the other gospels, in which Jesus tells his disciples to seek and they shall find, knock and the door will open, etc.
Now it’s easy to take this in a literal way. It reminds me, in fact, of a story from when our sons were young. If we were outside as night fell, especially when we were camping, we’d tell them to wish upon a star. “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.”
One night as I was starting the familiar ritual our younger son Carl interrupted me. “That doesn’t work, you know,” he said with all the indignation of a five-year-old who knows he’s being tricked. “I’ve been wishing we lived in a castle for months and it still hasn’t happened.”
I can’t recall exactly how I answered Carl, who even at five was formidable at arguing. But I hope I said something about how wishing on a star isn’t going to make our house become a castle, but it’s still worth making a wish. I hope I told him that when we look upwards, we make a connection to something outside of ourselves, and when we make our deepest wish known to the universe, it sets in motion events that can make remarkable things happen. That’s what fairy tales are about, those stories that aren’t true at one level, but are deeply true in another.
And so the most important part of wishing on a star is that it gets us outside of our ordinary plane of existence and helps us connect with the transcendent. You can understand that at one level when you’re five, and hopefully at a deeper level when you’re twenty-five, or forty-five, or eighty-five.
I think something similar is true in Jesus’ words about asking for whatever you wish and it shall be done for you. Even his most dedicated followers would have realized he wasn’t speaking literally. If they wished for a loaf of bread to appear in their hand, it wouldn’t appear magically.
But his deeper point, I think, is that we first need to look into our hearts to see what we truly, deeply need, and then we need to look upward. The answer may not be what we thought. It may take a long time to come to fruition. But looking deeply within, to see what we truly want, is a vital first step in the process.
Let me end with a story of my own. A number of years ago I visited the ruins of the Basilica of St. John at Ephesus in Turkey, which is on a rural hilltop surrounded by low-lying hills. Our guide told us that according to an early church tradition, the apostle John came to Ephesus to take over leadership of the churches in Asia Minor and it was here that he wrote the Gospel of John. He told us that John often came to this hill to write, and that before his death he asked his followers to bury him here because this place meant so much to him. The basilica was later built on this same spot.
Even though that once-magnificent basilica now lies in ruins, it’s still a lovely place to sit. On the afternoon I visited it was peaceful and quiet, and the birds were singing and the surrounding hills glowed in the late-afternoon sunlight. As a writer, I felt an immediate connection to the place. Of course this is where John chose to write, I thought. I would love to write here too.
And to this day, when I read the gospel of John, I often think of that spot. I see a man sitting on a hill, looking off into the distance with a far-away look in his eyes. He’s thinking, what should I write next? How should I phrase this? And who am I to presume to be worthy of this task?
Then he looks up at the sky, and perhaps it’s evening and the first star is coming out, and he consoles himself with what Jesus promised his followers. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”