Sermon preached for the Installation of Reverend Keith Benze at Versailles Presbyterian Church.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 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. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
I believe it is standard at this juncture to say how honored I am to be invited to preach this service of installation; and that is entirely true. I am deeply honored. I am also going to take this opportunity to embarrass Keith, and perhaps myself as well, for a moment: it is fairly unusual for someone like me to get the pulpit on a day like this. Installation sermons are often reserved for the most experienced of pastors and professors, those with lots and lots of years of experience and wisdom to bestow. Y’all, I’ve been ordained less than four months. People my age don’t get invited to preach many installations.
As many of you know, Keith preached my own installation at my church in northern Kentucky just two weeks ago. I didn’t think twice about asking him: he is one of my mentors, after all. I served as the intern at his church in North Carolina. I introduce him to people as my mentor, and every time I say it, he is quick to correct me—we are “colleagues,” he says. For many people, that would be a matter of semantics. For Keith, it’s the truth, because he makes it true.
But for all that, I never expected he would ask me to preach his installation. Keith’s life is full of wonderful, more experienced mentors, teachers, and preachers. Any one of them would have done a beautiful job today. But the fact that he asked me—not because I am impressive, but because we are friends—speaks volumes about him, about who and what he values.
Keith has many gifts, as I hope you are learning, but the one that continually amazes me is his gift for being a friend. If he’s ever met a stranger, I wasn’t around to see it. But Keith’s gift for friendship doesn’t just make him fun to hang around with (although he is). From my vantage point, it’s the root of his ability to be a minister. Keith isn’t just compassionate in the abstract; he doesn’t make decisions out of thin air; his sermons don’t ignore what’s going on in the real world. Keith gets to know people; he listens to them; he learns from them; and he loves them. Real people, real love.
This made my choice of scripture this afternoon a no-brainer. For a guy who spent three years hanging out with the same crew of twelve guys, Jesus says relatively little about friendship. But what he says here at the end of John, on the night before his crucifixion—it’s a doozy. It’s like he was saving it up for this last night, when words mattered most.
“This is my commandment,” Jesus said, “that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”
Jesus calls his disciples friends, as long as they love each other as Jesus has loved them. Jesus calls us to serve as friends, with real love for each other, not abstract love, not words-only love, but love in action. We are each of us called to serve, but not as servants, without passion for the work, but as friends. And not just each other’s friends, but friends of Jesus. God’s friends. We are God’s friends—not just God’s creations, God’s subjects, God’s servants, but God’s friends. The ones God trusts with God’s work on earth. It’s mind-boggling, in a way.
You all have called Keith to be a leader in this church. I pray that God will bless his leadership here. But you are also getting another friend in your crew, another friend at your table, another friend to share his talents, passions, energies, as you all serve God’s children in Versailles together.
You all are friends of God, and friends in God. That’s the good news. But perhaps it is also, a little bit, the bad news as well—because as we all know, friendships can be tricky. Friends don’t always get along. Even the disciples seem to spend as much time squabbling amongst themselves as they do casting out demons and healing the sick. Loving friendships don’t just magically happen, even for someone as gifted at it as Keith. Friendship takes work. It takes time. It takes effort, compassion, love, respect. It takes a willingness to entertain different viewpoints, sometimes for the sake of compromise, and sometimes for the sake of knowing that love still can stretch across differences. I have gushed about you to Keith, and I expect Keith has gushed about you all to me, but while I’m young, I’m not that naïve: there will be days when you are all sick of each other. There will be days when your friendship is tested. There will be days when the differences seem too great and the love too strained.
On those days, I want you to remember this: return to your roots.
Right before Jesus talks about his disciples becoming his friends, he calls them something a little bit stranger: branches on a vine.
I am the vine, you are the branches, he says. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
I am the vine, you are the branches.
If we are not rooted in Christ, we wither. If our friendships with each other do not echo our friendship with Christ, they wither. If our love of our neighbor is not rooted in Christ’s love for all, it’s prone to drying up. This is no great indictment of the human race; we are simply limited in our resources. Our energy, our compassion, our love is limited. And yet we are tapped into Christ’s, drawing our love from his infinite supply, like the branches of a tree drawing water up through the trunk from the ground.
You are branches of Christ’s vine. And you’ve got some branching out in your future.
If I had to describe Keith in a single word, that word would be open—Keith is open-hearted, open-minded, open to new opportunities and new adventures, open to the spirit of God working in his life. I don’t know where he might lead you all in the years to come. I don’t know where you might lead him. But I know that you all have an exciting opportunity to branch out in your ministries, to branch out even further in your community, to try new things and dream new dreams. Not all of it will work, and that’s okay. Remember that your roots are in Christ. Remember when something goes wrong to go back to Christ, to abide in Christ’s love, to gather strength and courage and energy until it is time to branch out in a new direction.
My sermon so far has been fairly serious. Our call to be Christ’s loving friends in the world is serious business. But, as Keith taught me, that does not mean that it has to be dour. Keith brings an incredible joy to ministry. And so it caught my eye when, in the middle of all his talk about vines and branches and servants and friends, Jesus tosses out this line:
“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
Our rootedness in Christ, our friendship with Christ—it is meant to bring us joy! When we turn to Christ in prayer, it should be with the relief of calling a trusted friend after a long day. When we pack bags of food to go for those who are hungry, we can do so with laughter and delight that we are able to do God’s work. And when we come to this table, God’s dinner table, it should be with the joy of gathering with friends, to celebrate how much better life is when it is lived in the light of love.
Friends—my friends in Christ, even though I do not know you well—I pray that this church may feel itself deeply rooted in Christ’s love; that you may be bold and strong as you branch out into new ministries; and that everything you do may be tinged with a joy so complete that you cannot help but know God’s presence among you.
I can’t wait to hear the reports.