“The Vine to God”
Listen to the sermon here.
One night this week I couldn’t find my glasses. I put them down somewhere and lost them. Then I found one of our four year olds playing with them. I asked her to be careful. She asked me what glasses do. I said “They make things bigger.” I could tell from her follow up questions that she thought that with my glasses everything looked bigger to me than they looked to her. I explained that my glasses just make things “seem to me the same size as they are naturally to you.” Yet without my glasses, I told her, I can’t drive her to ballet, so be careful. That got her to return them. I rely on the glasses. I need them. Apart from them I am lost.
There’s one line in our lesson today which always gets my attention, where Jesus says “I am the vine, you are the branches. . . .the one who abides in me and I in them bears much fruit….but apart from me you can do nothing.” I think, “I can’t do anything without you, Jesus?” Then I think about its link to the end of the passage and Jesus commandment to “abide in God’s love.” I realize that without God’s love I can’t do much. Without God’s love, we aren’t here. We certainly can’t succeed in loving those people who are different from us or who may anger or frustrate us. We can’t reflect the love, joy and grace the world needs. We need the vine. We need the sustenance and spirit which we get from the vine. Only when we abide in the vine can we bear the fruit we were created to produce. Let us pray. Gracious God, open to us the meaning of your word, the reality of your love and the calling for us to abide in the vine of Jesus Christ. Amen.
This image of a vine was filled with meaning for Jesus’ audience. Vines were everywhere in Jesus time. The imagery of vines were on coins showing a chief source of wealth in Israel, wine production. An immense and finely crafted golden vine hung over the entrance to the great temple in Jerusalem. Observant Jews would often bring vines to hang on the temple posts as an offering. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and the Psalmist suggest that God’s vine was Israel. God cared for that vine, trimmed it, and cut off branches that did not bear fruit. So in John 15, Jesus states, “I am the real vine.” He is making this statement to disciples as he gives final instructions midway through what is referred to as his “farewell discourse.” Jesus contrasts himself with unreal or incomplete vines. Much like Israel was an incomplete vine which needed God to care and trim and cut it, we too are not complete on our own. We are not the source of our own strength. We are not self- sufficient disciples either. Over life’s journey, activity, technology and vitality eventually give way to reality and humility. So we must not confuse our role. Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. With him our lives can bear real fruit.
In our backyard we have several tall poplar trees. Poplars generally have shallow roots. So when it’s windy we get nervous. There have been a few times when we have had bad storms when the wind has blown a few of the poplars branches down. I go outside in the morning after a storm and I see some of the branches straight down piercing the ground. I give thanks that the house has been spared. I know that at some point we are at risk. I know some of you have withstood trees coming down. In April we had a large branch come down one evening. Our daughter helped me saw it the next day. Back and forth. Until it would fit in a trash can. Yet for the big branches, the really high ones up, we have to have tree companies to deal with it. Thank goodness they can help prune these trees. For if the dead branches aren’t cut back, they not only crowd out the healthy ones, but they can do damage to others.
Jesus reminds us that God is the vine grower. Who helps us prioritize, see what to cut back on and prune our self-focus when we are consumed by things that do not bear fruit. Jesus is the source of forgiveness and friendship, spirit and salvation, reconciliation with others and relationship with God. Yet we are important too. We are the branches. Jesus’ hands in the world.
Jesus said, “Those who abide in me bear much fruit….that your joy may be complete.” Where do we find our joy? In the fruit we bear. In the children we nurture, the relationships we nourish, the love we share with those who need it. Once we see Jesus as the real connected vine, we start to draw our energy from him. Then we extend the fruit of grace.
Author Philip Yancey writes in his book, Vanishing Grace, about Francis Collins, the director of NIH up the road here. Collins is a brilliant man and also a committed Christian. Yancey writes about Collins interactions with author Christopher Hitchens, who is extremely critical of Christianity and Christians. He wrote a book called God is Not Great for example, arguing in pretty harsh terms that anyone who believes in God was just wrong. A few years ago Hitchens came down from throat cancer. He started getting mail from people all over the country saying his cancer was retribution for his criticism of Christianity. Not from Collins though. Collins and Hitchens have had many lively debates, not often agreeing. As soon as Collins heard that Hitchens had developed cancer he called Hichens to ask if he could be a part of his treatment. Collins knows as much about cancer resources as anyone on the planet. So Collins spent time on the phone connecting with, consoling and helping Hitchens. Hitchens went to his grave without faith. However, he did receive the presence of a follower of Jesus who made sure he knew love. As he approached his end, Hitchens chronicled his experience in a column in Vanity Fair magazine where he referred to Collins as one of the greatest living Americans and the most selfless person he had known. Collins abided in the vine. He became one of the branches.
At a time of great stress in Baltimore, where legitimate frustration deserves a serious, but peaceful response, the world needs us to be fruitful and by abiding in the vine, reflect a deep sense of living outside ourselves. Last year we here were part of an interfaith group which helped raise $50,000 to help build a series of houses in Montgomery County for Habitat for Humanity. I know a group of young adults who went to build houses with Habitat abroad. Their experience was similar to that of those who helped build the houses in our county. When they finished their work—hard work, digging and carrying blocks and mixing concrete—and dedicated the houses in a simple ceremony and turned them over to the families who had been working with them, it was a powerful experience; one person described it as “the most spiritual experience in my life.” This week we read in the Post about aid workers from Virginia over in Nepal clearing and cleaning homes which had been destroyed and what a powerful experience that was for them. Members of our own congregation setting up non profits to help aid and rebuild there. We know that more spiritual experiences for housing will be needed in Nepal. Joy found in bearing fruit for the sake of the world.
We were made to bear fruit. Good fruit. Like any grapes on a vine, the ones closest to the vine are the healthiest, for they get the most nutrients. The world moves fast. Especially this time of year when we are getting ready for school exams and summer activities. When work has a push. We cannot bear good fruit when we are moving too fast and not staying connected to the vine. When we cut ourselves off from the nutrients and end up withering spiritually. As Noelle discussed with the children this morning, this is why worship and music matters. It’s why spending a little time each day praying and reading the Bible matters. It’s why community fellowship like women’s retreat, or family connectional meetings or small groups are important. It’s why experiencing God through sacraments like communion is important.
When we become comfortable being the branches we become more comfortable trusting the vine. That leads to gratitude. We become grateful that we have a building here that is still standing. That there is peace in our home or school or community. That we are employed or have hope for a job when so many are looking. That we have a church and can worship freely here. That we have relationships to invest in. That God loves us with a saving, Easter love. That we have important work to do in the world as branches of the vine.
One day last month I was passing the phone in the outer office at church. Often we have an office volunteer helping with phones, but I was walking by so I answered it. I was glad I did. The woman calling was a young single mother in her early 20’s with 3 kids 4 and under. She was calling for help as she was about to be evicted from the place she was staying. Now we get a lot of calls at the church from people needing help. Particularly the last Friday of each month when rent and utility bills are due. We cannot help each one who calls. It breaks my heart to say no but our resources are finite, and sometimes some forms of aid can make a problem worse so we have to spend time really discerning where we can make a difference, but when we find there are ways to help we do. As I try to do when people call, I talked with the women at length to understand how we can help change and help a situation and found that there were ways we could make a difference. So we worked to help her. I talked with the head of the place she was staying. I talked with the crisis center on Picard in Rockville and the NCCF Bethesda shelter here. We found a way for her and her three kids to have a place to stay rather than being out on the street.
I have kept in touch with the young women and she has now found housing with a family member out of town. She will be enrolling in school in the fall. The gratitude in her voice from our helping bridge the gap between where she was and where she is headed was very gratifying. It made us proud to be branches.
One of the most meaningful messages of the Easter season is that God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son. We cannot love God without loving the world God’s son came to save.
Those who abide in Christ receive the power of the spirit to do more than we could on our own. In Christ we find the strength and Easter joy to stand strong in the winds of uncertainty or injustice or condemnation or fear. In connection with God we are able to see that on our own we are often lost, but with the vine all things are possible. In communion with Christ we are freed to be Christ’s branches, and to bear fruit for the sake of the world. May it be so. Amen.