Branches, Vines, Religious Freedom and Huguenots

A sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter. Based on 1 John 4:7-21 and John 15:1-8.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

On June 23, 1940, the day after France surrendered to Nazi Germany, a humble protestant minister in the small village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in the South-Central mountain region stood before his congregation of French Huguenots. Pastor André Trocmé stood before them and said, “The responsibility of Christians is to resist the violence that will be brought to bear on their consciences through the weapons of the spirit. We shall resist when our adversaries will demand of us obedience contrary to the orders of the Gospel.  We shall do so without fear, but also without pride and without hatred.”[1] Given the circumstances of the previous day, the seeds sown by the minister’s words took hold in the hearts of his congregation. They had endured a history of religious persecution–being protestants in Catholic France had caused them to undergo oppression—and so when the first Jews began arriving into their sleepy village and knocked on their doors, they did the most unassuming thing: they let them in.

It isn’t clear if what continued to happen—some 5000 Jews finding refuge and hiding among the 5000 Christians over the next four years—was due to that sermon or their own experiences of discrimination, but compassion permeated that simple village. One of those who found an open door, Oskar Rosowsky said, “Not only were we accepted despite our differences, which is just about all a Jew asks for and can ask for from the community in which he lives, but here, there was a feeling of affection.”[2] Not one of those French Protestants sought to convert their Jewish refugees, they just simply opened their homes, hearts and lives to them for as long as they needed a place to stay. Their story is told in the amazing documentary “Weapons of the Spirit,” researched and directed by a Jewish man born there in 1944, and it is simply amazing.

In his first Epistle, John writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” We heard Jesus say in John’s Gospel these words, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

What does it look like to be connected to Jesus? If he is the vine and we are the branches, if we as his followers are offshoots from his life and ministry emboding his nature, what does that look like in our day and age?

In late March, Indiana governor Mike Pence signed that state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law. There are a number of states with similar laws, and the intent is to ensure that people would not be discriminated against due to their beliefs when it came to other laws passed by the local or federal government. It created, as you know, a firestorm. I honestly didn’t understand the law much as it seemed to reinforce rights included in our Constitution, but it seemed important to some there (and in other places too). What can be deduced from the coverage is that it came down to cakes and who to make them for and who to not make them for. It was seen by many—whether rightly or wrongly—as a means to discriminate.

In a blog post written in response, Jessica Kantrowitz a Boston area Christian, suggests a different course for disicples. She explained how in Jesus’ time a Roman soldier had the backing of the law to require anyone to stop everything they were doing and carry the soldier’s supplies for up to one mile. Jessica writes, “In the Sermon on the Mount, with his followers gathered around him, Jesus referenced that law and told his followers what they should do in that case: ‘If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.’ (Matthew 5:41) Go with them two miles. That was not the advice that most of the people in the crowd that day had been hoping for. That was not the conclusion that they would have come to on their own, following this man that they hoped would lead them to victory over the Romans. That was certainly not respecting their religious beliefs — go with them two! What if their neighbors saw! What if seeing them carrying the Roman’s equipment caused other Jews to think the Roman oppression was okay? What if there was other work that needed to be done — good work, charity work even, but they spent all that time carrying equipment for the evil oppressor?”[3] Jesus’ advice was to show love and compassion even to a perceived enemy. Carry those heavy belongings not one mile, but two.

And that is Jessica’s advice for Christians as well. Don’t bake just one cake for those you disagree with, bake two. Bake the best cakes you can and shower them with love.

Just a few weeks ago, another story appeared about Religious Freedom, but this time in San Antonio, Texas. This is how it was reported: “As she’d done every Tuesday for years, [Joan] Cheever was giving out free meals from her food truck in a public park … when police rolled up and started writing a ticket. Right away, she told the officers they were burdening her free exercise of religion …. And Cheever pointed to the federal and state Religious Freedom Restoration.” According to Cheever, “One of the police officers said, ‘Ma’am if you want to pray, go to church…. And I said, ‘This is how I pray, when I cook this food and deliver it to the people who are less fortunate.'” The issue was a lack of permits to be a mobile food vendor. They didn’t want her to share food with the homeless.

“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

What does it look like to love as God loves? How do we fully abide in Jesus to show forth the fruit he bore in his life?

Yesterday I went with a group of parishioners of all ages to a local nursing home. We worked with some residents there to plant some flowers in little pots that kids from our Sunday School painted last week. We then shared those bright pots with others, giving smiles and well wishes along the way. We didn’t ask anyone about their religious or political beliefs. We didn’t inquire into their histories or who they had been married to or anything else. We just shared small pots of flowers on a glorious Spring day.

When I’m asked about my vision or where I see St. Mark’s headed, I say that I want us to be disciples of Jesus. I want us to be a church that looks out and longs to share God’s love with our world. I want us to be so connected to Jesus that embodying deep and profound compassion becomes truly unremarkable; it’s just something that we do. It’s who we are, like the people of Le Chambon opening their doors without regarding the danger to their own lives.

And I want us to respond with compassion to all. When we see more news from places of racial unrest in our own country, I hope we long to respect every human being regardless of the color of their skin or their financial status or the uniform they where, and seek to encourage change where it is desperately needed. If we abide in Christ and he abides in us, that love will flow out from us to the world. May we seek Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors without thought to who they are or what they look like or where they live. May we embody Christ’s compassion working alongside all those who are downtrodden for whatever reason. And may we be known as the place that loves deeply, that works hard to show that compassion to others and will give our all to follow Christ in our day.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

[1] http://www.chambon.org/weapons_en.htm

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://tenthousandplaces.org/2015/04/01/bake-for-them-two/