Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on May 2, 2021

Posted by on Sun, May 2, 2021 in Easter, Sermons

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

May 2, 2021

Lord Christ, make us strong and willing branches of your living vine, and may our fruitfulness in you nourish those in need of it. Amen. 

“Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” We just heard this from the first letter of John. It’s really all the sermon anyone needs today, and if you want to stop there, that’s just fine. The problem is, love is just as hard to define as God! Could anyone create an answer that satisfies every listener this morning? In our gospel and then in the first letter of John’s today there is a defining characteristic of both, and one I know to be true. True with a capital T, and not just true for me or for a handful of similarly-minded individuals. Holy Truth. Jesus says it, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” To abide is to live within, to dwell ongoing in. Us in him, he in us.

The branch and the vine is not like a Lego sculpture where we can take it apart and rebuild it differently each time, because a vine and branch or part of a living organism. What ultimately makes the branch fruitful is what flows up through the vine—into the branch. They need each other, for if the life which flows up through the vine has no branch to receive it, the vine must either make a new branch or become wounded, fruitless, stunted. God the vine-grower, the vine of Christ, and ourselves; branches made for fruit-bearing. They need each other or there is no fruit. None creates it without sharing life between them.

Although simple on first take, if we’re honest this gospel is one of the more challenging ones for many of us. We are so accustomed to ‘doing our own thing’, knowing ourselves as individuals first, and part of a larger body second. We want to own our own houses, cars, and computers, choose our phone plan and food delivery. I’ve had engaged couples wrestle more over separate or joint bank accounts than they do over where they’ll live. We’ve come to equate making our preferences into choices with having freedom, as if that’s why makes us unique individuals. Last night I read, “With more than 170,000 ways to customize beverages at Starbucks, customers can create a favorite drink that fits their lifestyle.” Now, I like my nonfat double cappuccino with almond flavor a whole lot, but it’s not a lifestyle. If you’re as old as I am, you remember when coffee was either decaf or regular. You could add milk or sugar. 

The freedom to live as individuals of privilege who make decisions based mainly on personal preference might feel good at times, but it does not make us fruitful or free or alive. To set our hopes on what Jesus called us to as modern day disciples, and to make choices for the betterment of our community life is freeing for more than just oneself, it is fruitful and enlivening. And to some, tantamount to an attack on one’s freedom. A year of mask-wearing and mask-refusing comes to mind, especially since to wear one has to do with keeping others safe as well as yourself. Choosing not to do so is rarely about other people’s wellbeing, and some may take it as a challenge to their selfhood. Jesus is talking about the freedom to choose to live in him and to love each other. It ties us to him and to those around us, and also lets us ‘freely’ expand our love beyond ourselves and our own, to include all of God’s people. It frees us from obedience to peer pressure, to choose our values instead of only ourselves.

Jesus speaks of pruning the branches which are not fruitful, and doing so reminds us that his is a metaphor of a living, growing way of life. He doesn’t say to vote for him or become a member of the club and be done with it. He said, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” AbideContinue living in me, he implores, and he promises to live in us always. As Christians we are not an organization of individual members, we are a living organism known as the Body of Christ. As for pruning, I’m not sure if he means unfruitful people are pruned away or those parts of us which are unfruitful. To cut off part to make the vine more fruitful tells us what end the vine-grower seeks, but the cost of such pruning is to cast aside branches and see them withered, burned, perhaps returned to the soil. We need to differentiate between pruning and feeling sad or separated, of feeling cut off. The latter is well known to us; we who long for Communion bread blessed and broken from a common loaf, received shoulder to shoulder together, we who yearn to embrace instead of hold back, who feel the pull of simply connecting with each other and new people at a church dinner or clean up day. Even with all of this hurt from separating practices which protect and respect each other, we are still branches in the vine. We continue to love and care for stranger and neighbor, and be a living organism—the whole interdependent Body of Christ, rather than an organization of self-dependent individuals competing for prizes.

We are not anti-individual because we choose to follow Jesus’ example of love. These things are not exclusive. Rather following Jesus’ Way, loving and caring for others, is a primary part of who we are, and we do so each in our unique and creative way. There is freedom of loving expression in the wide variety of fun masks people wear, and I am thankful people care enough to wear them. I see it in emails, calls, and notes exchanged when we cannot see each other, in endlessly unique home altars which fit together to form one table for us all.

The pruning is not primarily about judgement, it’s about growing and fruitfulness. Those remaining on the vine grow stronger and can support more fruit. Some hear the pruning metaphor as being about those who themselves are not interested in being bearers of the fruit of God’s love, others hear it as those aspects of ourselves which need pruning so that we can be stronger and more giving, I don’t know which Jesus meant. I do know if the branch isn’t using the vine’s nourishment well, then this teaching of Jesus is a healthy reminder. Less one of judgement and more of crucial guidance. 

If the church is more concerned about identifying and pruning the ‘bad’ fruitless branches, it is usurping God the vinegrower’s work. Such a church is more about judging sinners and condemning others than about loving us and entering God’s transforming grace. This Body of Christ includes all of us sinners, and any saints who come along, for Christ heals our brokenness placing his hand in yours and yours and mine, using it to touch us with mercy — no social distance required for him! 

Last week the sheep were following the Good Shepherd. Like the sheep we can trust we are known, valued, cared for, and safe in his sheepfold. Today is about growth and interdependence; the branches are integral to the vine on one end and the fruit at the other, being nourished and passing it on as fruitfulness. It can be hard work though, fruitfulness can stretch and bow down the branch — and oddly that’s our hope! We seek out what actions or practices will invest in God’s kingdom and spread God’s love through each of us. Blessedly God leaves that to us, having given us guidance through the scriptures and through the needs of those around us. Each of us has our special ways to serve, given us by God. That’s the truth that always comes to mind when I hear the old phrase about someone being ‘a self-made man.’ (Strange we seldom hear referenced a self-made woman, at least not in a good way.) We are instead created and beloved children of God, and what we do with what we are given is important. In 1 John we read, “if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” What more could we ask or seek out? Perhaps simply the grace to share it with others. 

This is the grace of God freely given. Alleluia!

© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.