April 29, 2018

Preached by Rev. George Yando on April 29, 2018.

Acts 8: 26-40
Psalm 22
1 John 4: 7-21
John 15 1-8

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Dependence And Connectedness

[Jesus said]: “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. . . . 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.”  (John 15: 1-2, 5 NRSV)

I do not think that there is any better image of the Christian life and of what it is supposed be like than this.  I would invite you to reflect with me on this image today and on the promise that is made with it, the promise spoken by our Lord, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”

I find this image of what it means to be a Christian tremendously reassuring.  There is so much grace in these words for people of every sort: people who are tired out from all their efforts to live faithful lives and to serve God through the church, people who are discouraged by the fact that they do not feel they are good enough to please God, people who feel that they have just not done enough for God.

The image of Jesus as the vine and ourselves as branches reminds us that salvation and wholeness, and indeed all good things that we experience and produce, come not because of what we do, but because of what we are and where we are.  In the Old Testament, under the old covenant God established with God’s chosen people, Israel, God’s promise was that obedience to God’s law would lead to abundant prosperity and blessings upon the land.  The image of the vine and the branches reframes this necessary obedience to God from being something that we strive to do by our own power and might and effort, and becomes something that God produces in us when we are attached to Him as a branch is attached to a vine.

Any gardener will tell you that the story I shared with the children this morning about the cut worms among my cucumber vines is a common story, but an instructive one nevertheless. It reminds us that we die spiritually and are incapable of producing fruit, when we are not attached to the vine, or when we are not connected to the roots which nourish us. It also reminds us that when we areattached, the fruit that we produce – and in fact the very prosperity of the land itself –  comes to us as a gift of God.

In Jesus’ parable, the gardener – his divine Parent in heaven –  does the work and the vine that God plants – namely Jesus himself – carries the sap and all its nutrients to us, the branches.  And in turn, we, who are the branches, we, who are in the right place, that is, attached to the vine, we are enabled to prosper and to produce for the world the fruit that it needs.

All of us want to do good things in life, to produce good fruit in a way that pleases God, but many of us, in our efforts to do good things often end up tired, exhausted, burned out.  This particularly happens to many people in the so-called caring professions – doctors, nurses, social workers, EMTs and the like.  They do a great deal of good, but many end up tired, frustrated, angry or despaired. Their ability to help others decreases, and some end up giving up entirely on their professions.

Yet there are others, others who do every bit as much – if not more – yet remain full of hope and of life, full of care and love for their neighbours and their world, those who seemingly never fall prey to this plague, and just go on, continuing to touch and heal others around them by what they do.  I believe that often, many of these remarkable people are they way they are because they areconnected to the one true source of hope, the one true source of life,  the one true source of strength that enables them to care and love their neighbours and their world.

The cup of water given to those who thirst, the word of assurance to those who are in doubt, the comforting hug to those who are in pain, the gift of love to those who don’t know they are loved – or that they are loveable –these deed of kindness to the ones in need, all these are things that God wants us to do; they are part of what Jesus calls the fruit of being in him.  They are the evidence and the badge of the Christian life, the proof that we are indeed who we say we are.

Keep in mind, however, that that badge is not what saves us; it’s not the thing that brings us into a relationship with God. Rather it is only the sign that we are  saved, the evidence that declares how we are already in a close relationship with God. Let me remind you of what fruit is. Fruit is the excess, the overflow of the life that a plant has taken into itself.  The more life that a plant takes into itself the more life it produces. When there is an abundance of sunshine to fuel photosynthesis, and when there is adequate water and nutrients in the soil to be passed up the stem or trunk or vine and into the branches, those branches thrive and grow and produce.  The plant and its branches don’t have to force themselves to grow, they don’t have to make a resolution to bring forth sweeter and more succulent fruit, nor do they need to remind themselves to be more abundant in their production.  They simply need to be in the right place, the place that the gardener has prepared for it, the place where the conditions for growth and fruit bearing are to be found.

For us, the right place to be is in the vine, the one true Vine, the Vine that has been planted by God, the Vine which has been tended by God , the Vine we call Christ Jesus our Lord.  Friends, each one of us here today, who profess that Jesus is our Lord and who believe in our hearts that he rose from the dead, are part of the vine of Christ.  Weareable to produce tremendous quantities of fruit, and that conditions areperfect for our growth and growing efforts –  because God personally tends each and all of us and ensures that those necessary optimum conditions are perfect.  All we need do to be fruitful is remain a part of the vine, and perform the simple tasks that every branch performs as a means of maintaining a fruitful life in the vine.

Basically there are only two tasks that we need to do, just as there are only two tasks that a branch on a vine does.  First, the branch, through its twigs and leaves, receives energy from the sun to fuel its growth.  The leaves, by the miraculous process of photosynthesis, convert light into plant energy, energy which helps to drive the system that produces fruit as its end result.

Secondly, through its connections to the stem of the plant, the branch receives moisture and nutrients from the soil; it receives the life-giving sap that makes its grow.  I realize that this description lacks a little in botanical terms, but in theological terms it reminds us of all that we need to do to be available, ready, and willing to please to God.

Let’s unpack those two tasks a little further. First, the branch receives energy from the sun through its leaves.  So we too receive energy when we open ourselves to God and accept the light offered to us in God’s Word,  both the written word of scripture, and the living word of Jesus Christ.

I am sure you have all noticed how plants track the sun, how they focus on it, how they lean towards its light and turn towards where ever it is.  Owners of houseplants know this very well.  If they do not want a plant with a permanent lean to it, they must periodically turn the pot it is in so that it begins to lean in the opposite direction, and hopefully, if they catch it at the right time in its leaning, it encourages the plant to remain in a nice upright position.  They also know that if you take a plant and you lock in a cupboard for even a day or two, its leaves pale and droop and it begins to die.  In the same way we need to be exposed to the word of God, we need daily contact with the light it sheds, we need to hold God’s wisdom and God’s teachings in our minds and in our hearts so that we might draw from them the strength and energy we need.  When we do that –  when we position ourselves to receive God’s word, when we absorb that divine wisdom the way a plant absorbs sunlight, then something miraculous occurs in us: God’s word gives us what we need for life for ourselves and the capacity and resources to be life-giving to others.

The writer of Psalm 1 declares, “Blessed are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on that law they meditate day and night. The are like trees planted by steams of water, which yield their fruit in season, and their leaves do not wither.” (Psalm 1:1-3 NRSV) What we’ve been talking about is dependency.  We live in a world that values independence, a world that applauds success that comes seemingly as a result of one’s own personal efforts and hard work, a world that sees dependence as a sign of inadequacy and weakness.  The reality is, we need God; we need God, and we needGod’s word for our lives. As we depend more and more upon it, its potency and power to influence and change, to energize and revitalize our life grows and grows.  We need the word of God to dwell in us richly, nourishing our souls and our spirits in order that we can produce fruit.  Without it, we wither and become lifeless. And if we ourselves are lifeless, than we cannot be life-giving.

Secondly, the branch is connected to the stem or trunk, receiving from it the nutrients and moisture that it needs.  The branch is – for want of a better word – in communion with the vine and through that communion it is able to produce fruit. The same truth applies to us.  All the light in the world, all the reading of God’s word and meditation upon the gospel of Jesus, will not avail us much unless we are connected to God.  That connection, my friends, is established by God; and it is maintained by us through the way of faith and prayer, the way of trust and worship, the way of willingness to receive from God by making ourselves available to God as part of Christ’s living body, the church.

We’re talking about dependency, and we’re also talking about connectedness.  Simply realize our reliance upon God won’t bring us life; it is only as we remain connected that our need is met.  These things both keep us in the vine and feed us, that we might produce fruit.

There is a story told of a minister serving a big downtown church in a large city.  The church’s parking lot was rather small and during the week many people tried to park there to avoid having to pay the large fees at the downtown commercial and municipal lots.  His spot was clearly marked by a sign “Reserved for the Minister.”

This particular day, as he drove into the lot to park his car, another a car pulled into his spot just ahead of him and a woman got out.  He rolled down his window and politely asked her to move her car.  She said to him,  “Who are you?  I can park here if I want, I am a member here and the minister said we could use it when he’s not around.”  And with that she walked off.

Reflecting on the incident later, the minister noted that the woman was someone he had not met, and to the best of his memory had not been in church during the several years that he served there.  The minister came to the conclusion that perhaps there needed to be a new classification of membership in addition to that of Communicant members and adherents, namely, “Parking Privileges Only.”

When Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and you are branches,” He also said, “no branch can bear fruit by itself, it must remain in the vine.”   We remain in the vine and produce fruit when we desire a relationship with God that goes beyond being content with having parking privileges only.  We remain part of the vine when we are willing to obey the commandments that Jesus has given us, when we are willing to love each other and to love God, when we are willing to forgive each other and trust God to forgive us, when we are willing to be seen with the rest of the branches in the vine.

We remain a part of the vine and produce fruit when we commune with God; when we are willing to pray to God and to listen for God’s answers; when we are willing to worship God even if it cuts into a lovely Sunday morning that might otherwise be spent at brunch with friends, or at the lake or the golf course.  We remain a part of the vine and produce fruit when we are willing to trust in God even when we think that God’s not doing enough, or enough of the “right things” to suit us.

Communion with God and God’s church is the connection to the vine that feeds us, and communion with God involves our heart and our will: the heart that loves all things that God has made, and the will gives God praise for them; the heart that aches for all the sin of the world, and the will that tells the good news of Christ’s love; the heart that believes that God alone makes the difference and the will that asks God to make a difference to oneself. Indeed, being connected to the vine is a matter of the heart and the will: the heart that trusts God, and the will that leads one to act as if every single one of God’s promises can be counted on.

When we have the heart and the will –  God does the rest through us.  I want to end where I began, by saying that there is a lot of grace in the words of Jesus, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”

As you leave the service today – and in the coming days as the weather warms, I would invite you to take a good look around you at the trees and plants that are beginning their cycle of growth once again. God is a good gardener, indeed, a great gardener, and what God plants and tends is tremendously fertile, tremendously productive.  God has planted the Vine called Christ in our midst, and when we are willing, God grafts us into that vine, and provides us with everything needful for growth.  All we have to do to remain a part of the vine and to produce fruit that is pleasing to God and good for us and our world, is to open ourselves up to the light of God’s Word and to commune with God through God’s own Risen Son.  To those who seek to be with God, God gives all that is needed and only what is good, only what helps us to be what we have been created to be, namely, a blessing to the world.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.