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Second Sunday in Lent | Rev. Vicki Kemper

portions of Psalm 8, as adapted by Nan C. Merrill
Micah 6:6-8, adapted from The Message
John 15:4-15, from The Message

As sure as summer turns to fall and the traffic around town backs up with out-of-state license plates and minivans stuffed to the gills, as sure as the acorns start to drop and the grocery aisles clog with young women contemplating nine different brands of yogurt, as sure as privileged teenagers fly the coop while parents cry over empty nests, come late August or early September a group of incoming Amherst College students moves into the church Dining Room.

Like pretend hostages, the students have been blindfolded and driven the very, very, very long way from their campus two blocks away to our parking lot, and if they didn’t sneak a peak they might think their new dorm room is miles and miles away. For three days they warily check each other out and immerse themselves in the customs and quirks of their new town, and for two nights they collapse into sleeping bags laid out on our unforgiving linoleum floor.

Which is to say: They are about as ungrounded, untethered, uncertain, and homesick as some of the luckiest kids in the country could be.

So on their third night in our Dining Room, we treat them to a potluck supper to die for. We watch them pile their plates high with Hadley sweet corn, roasted chicken, vegan side dishes and gluten-free comfort food, and we delight when they go back for seconds and thirds, marveling once again at this annual miracle of loaves-and-fishes abundance. We make sure that each table is a mix of college students and church members, and we do our best to make welcoming, open-ended conversation.

And then we get down to business—the business of creating a safe space for them to be themselves, the business of connecting with one another, not as young college students and middle-aged church members, but as human beings learning and remembering how it feels to be new and alone and excited but maybe a little scared. After some strategic questioning and gentle prodding from me, almost every one of the students stands up to share something of their hopes and fears and dreams for the future.

Some of them come from countries halfway around the world. Others may have grown up just a few hundred miles from here but they’ve never before been away from home. A few are the first in their family to go to college, and as much as they want to make their parents’ proud, they feel the pressure of their expectations. Tears are shed; Kleenex are shared. A strapping football player breaks down as he talks about how much he misses his dad. Tentatively, a couple of students reveal their sexual orientation. More than a few admit to being skeptical, even hostile, about being hosted by a church group; they thought we might judge them or try to convert them.

But we just listen. We offer hugs. We laugh and cry with them. And when they open their hearts, no matter what they’ve said, we clap.

Then before we go our separate ways, I try to make sure they know that this connection and support doesn’t have to be a one-time thing. I’ve already told them about the church, but now I tell them they’re always welcome in the building. I invite them to come talk to me, even if only to have a little play therapy with my dog, Scout. I tell them we’ll be praying for them and their dreams.

And then I say a strange thing: Instead of telling them all the reasons they should want to be part of us, I say, “We are here for you. We belong to you. We belong to each other.”

And, maybe it’s just my imagination, but at that there seems to be an almost visible softening, a new level of openness and trust that they will explore not with us, but with each other once we’re gone.

Every year their supervisors tell me that it is this evening and our welcoming interaction with the new students that finally forges the bonds they have been trying for three days to create. They thank us, but every year I end up feeling that it is we who should be thanking them—not for the infusion of their youthful idealism, as wonderful as that is, but for helping us to reconnect with our own hearts.

Because what the students ache to hear, what they need to know, is the same thing we alllong to feel: that we belong, that we are not alone, that we matter to someone else, that we are loved and accepted for who we are, and that we do fit in, maybe not in every situation or social setting, but that we are connected, and that even if we’re not sure exactly who we are or what we want to become, we have a particular place and an important role in the grand scheme of things.

It is the message of the psalmist’s song: That we have been made in the image of God. That God our creator rejoices in us, delights in us; that God provides for us and showers us with love. That we are God’s partners!—guardians of the planet, caretakers of all creatures. That we, like the land, the sea, and the air we breathe all come from and belong to God, and to one another. How great is God!

That’s a lifetime’s education right there, a lesson far more valuable than a degree from an elite institution. And yet we are bombarded incessantly by forces that would teach us otherwise.

Our political system divides us, telling us to fear and control each other—to build walls, to put up gates, to arm ourselves, to uphold policies and institutions that continue to favor the privileged and oppress the poor. Our economic system tells us that we’re on our own and so is everyone else, that this life is a race, that our value is based on how much we make and how much we have. Corporations and governments tell us that the earth is ours to use up, and that we should be willing to go to war to ensure our access to vital resources. Our families and peers can leave us feeling judged and excluded and alone. And yes, even the church has distorted God’s great web of connection and community, and violated God’s law of love—teaching us that we’re not worthy, telling us that we can’t belong unless we believe and behave.

It’s no wonder that we wander away from the Love that created us and sustains us. It’s no wonder that we see our fellow humans to competitors for limited resources. It’s no wonder we abuse the earth. It’s no wonder we reduce the majestic, loving God who crowned us with glory and honor to an angry judge who must be placated with sacrifice and ritual, doctrine and dogma and self-serving worship.

Don’t you see? says the prophet. Don’t you get it? Don’t you realize that you belong to God and to each other? All God wants is for you partner with her in loving the world and each other. All God wants is for you to take care of each other. All God wants is justice for the poor, healing for the sick, and care for the weak—for us to know that we belong to each other. All God wants is for you to know you are loved, that there is enough, that you belong, and that there is nothing you have to do to prove yourself or earn your hope. All God wants is to help us find the way home.

This is where Jesus comes in. This is where grounding comes in.

“I am the vine and you are the branches,” he says. Root yourself in my love. Make your home in me just as I do in you. We belong to each other. We need each other. By yourself you can’t do a thing. Disconnected from me you’ll be running on empty. But when you’re joined with me and I with you, when our connection his intimate and organic and real, you will be at home in God’s love. You will become all you are meant to be. Put your roots down deep into my love. Stick with me. Remember where you belong. Remember that you belong.

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As sure as winter turns to spring, the red-winged blackbirds make their way back to the marshes and the yellow returns to the willow tree, our way back home is clear. As sure as the sunrise, God’s tender mercies are new every morning. As sure as the healthiest vines produce the finest wines, so we are at our best when we are grounded in God’s love. As sure as new college students will hunger for home even more than a home-cooked meal, we long to put down roots in love that will last. As sure as a great feast of love and remembering has been prepared, everyone belongs at the table. And sure as there is love enough to go around and room at the table for all, we belong in the heart of God.

So let us be be rooted and grounded in love. Let us be rooted and grounded in our mutual belonging and be-loving. Let us follow Jesus all the way.