John 15: 1-8 – Rev. Erin Beardemphl
Over the course of lockdown, I have, like many others, taken up new interests. Not baking, though the sourdough trend looked delicious. I was already into art, so that wasn’t new. I wasn’t bent on getting organized, mores the pity. But I did turn to my garden. I started out with enthusiasm, not realizing that the bugs of 2020 were also more enthusiastic than usual, and began to climb a learning a curve that was steeper than anticipated. The result has been, so far, a number of successful plants growing happily and healthily, a number of bug eaten stumps, some succulents that seem to really like my yard, and some gnats that are less welcome, but present all the same. I’ve learned a lot, and taken a lot of fodder for sermons.
This scripture lesson is ripe for a gardening sermon, isn’t it? No pun intended. Here we are presented with a vineyard metaphor. Metaphors have a way of breaking down sooner or later, but let’s see how it does. God is the keeper of the vine, the gardener, Jesus is the vine itself, and those who are listening to this lesson are the branches of the vine, who will hopefully bear fruit in time. The gardener prunes the branches to keep them healthy and to prompt them to bear more fruit, and the vine does its part by nourishing the branches, should they want or need it. Those branches which bear no fruit get lopped off entirely, instead of pruned. So far, the metaphor is holding.
But how does the branch bear fruit? By abiding in the vine, of course! I’m new to gardening, but even I know that your average branch doesn’t have a whole lot of choice in where it grows from. The plant it comes from is it’s home, unless of course the gardener is very skilled and clever and knows how to successfully graft one branch onto another plant. So much for the metaphor.
Still, I take the point. In this lesson, we have Jesus telling the listener that if they want to grow and bear fruit (what the fruit represents is unclear, but we know it is a good thing and that we should strive for it), they need to abide in him. Take their sustenance from him. Trust him to care for them and to give them what they need. If they can do all of this, they will be healthy and strong and loved. What’s more, they can support others in being healthy and strong and loved. (Dipping back into the metaphor, if one part of the plant is doing poorly, chances are it will affect the rest of it.) Should the listeners abide somewhere else, rather than this Jesus vine, another result should be expected.
Churches of every variety in our country have long favored this gospel lesson as a preaching text. Catholic or Protestant, progressive or conservative, mainline or evangelical, everybody loves this text! It offers a straightforward message, complete with a reassurance that coming to hear said sermon, abiding in the church, was a good idea. It even offers opportunities to suggest the best ways to abide in Jesus, so a touch of morality can be included. No need to go deeper or look too closely.
I have wondered, though, as I’ve studied some history and observed the movements of our country in real time, what it actually means…to abide in the Jesus vine. Unlike the branches in a vineyard, we can settle where we like, and do our best to live into whatever reality we’ve decided is the right one. I have, as I’ve participated in communities both progressive and less so, seen this very scripture used as a way to bolster ministries of charitable works, to encourage spiritual health, and to evangelize all and sundry. I’ve heard this passage used as proof of the sins of others, as a bit of “tough love” to beat those who do not live or believe a certain way with until they conform. And I’ve seen some cling so hard to this passage as a proof for their own righteousness, that it has been source of authority granted to those calling themselves “Christian” to judge all and sundry. SO much so that many followers of Christ that I know now refuse to identify as Christian, some even hiding from friends the fact that they got to church, even a progressive one. Where have we settled? Where do we abide? And what does that mean?
In our culture we are taught that success looks like the gathering of wealth, the use of power, and the ability to maintain a reputation valued by the majority. Some call it the “fruits of our labors.” Many who call themselves Christians also call it the fruits of their faith, the idea being that if you abide in Jesus in the way that they say you should, you too can have all the things. They are relying on the verse 7, which states “If you abide in me, and my word abides in you, ask what you will, and it shall be done for you.” (Taken out of context, you can see how that works.) The fact that one can believe all of the same things and still struggle to get by is lost on many. Still, their perceived reality looks enticing, doesn’t it? And they seem so assured. And loud. Their voices echo not only in their halls of worship, but in the halls of government. They make themselves heard, in the name of the Vine.
The other fruits of such self assured abiding have made themselves clear in the last year. After all, when one knows that one is right, and is sure that God agrees, one can feel justified in just about any behavior. Racist tweets, misogynist attitudes, contempt for the poor, all of this is fine, right? Are we sure that this is the Jesus vine?
Now, before I get too carried away with my soap box on my high horse, I need to stop and notice that there are other inviting looking vines that are not the Jesus vines. I don’t enjoy being judged, but I sometimes get a kick out being the judge, and these vines will give me plenty of room to do so. It is not only the Christian right who are capable of loudly making their point, after all. The fruit of these vines look and feel like resentment and frustration. Perhaps there is wealth to be found there too, I know some have found it in these places, along with the comfort of knowing that they are right and God agrees. But is this the Jesus vine?
I would argue not. And neither is the first one I described. I suspect that, regardless of the ease with which I could preach the merits of abiding in the Christ, the actual abiding is not easy at all. Jesus calls us to a life of radical love, one where we are meant to accept such love for ourselves(no mean feat), and also to offer it to others. We are called to a life where we yearn for and work toward justice in whatever way we can, but we are asked to identify injustices in a culture that masks such things as “righteous” or “just the way it is.” We are called to sometimes swim against a societal current without knowing exactly where we are headed. What’s more, we are asked to identify when we have created harmful currents ourselves, in order to know what we must do next. It’s not meant to be comfortable, or else why would there be so many words of assurance and comfort in our Holy texts? It doesn’t have to be a constant struggle, everyone needs to rest, but the moment we realize we haven’t felt the urge to question or examine our work more closely, we must hold our own selves accountable.
Re-enter the gardening metaphor. I have learned from various sources that a grape vine that is left to it’s own devices will yield fruit, but unless it struggles a bit, the fruit isn’t much to speak of. New leaves grow where pruning has taken place, and a hard search for water yields more flavor and color. I don’t know if I trust myself to say exactly what the fruits of the vine are that the gospel writer speaks of, but I know that they don’t come without an almighty effort. Abiding isn’t just living in and among, it is working alongside, and claiming one another (even claiming those that frustrate us). It is holding one another and ourselves accountable, and working towards forgiveness and a better, more loving reality. Any vine which does not require these things is surely not where we are exhorted to abide by this lesson.
Where do we abide?
Who do we claim?
What does accountability look like?
These are deep, deep questions, ones we must sit with and ponder prayerfully and thoughtfully. I am so glad to be able to say that, in the midst of such diversity of thought and action among those who aim to follow Jesus’ teachings, I have this community to support and be supported by. The name of Christianity isn’t one that every member of this church aims to fall under, but we do all seem to want to abide together, struggle and strive, toward a loving and just world; what I would describe as a Godly world. The name of Jesus has been misused often enough that many of us shrink from mentioning it, but it is the Jesus Vine, one which will sustain and support us, that we seem to endeavor to abide in. What a relief for those outside of our community who need the love that we seek to share. I’ll never forget the look on the face of one of my mommy friends when she discovered that I am both a GLBTQ ally, and a member of the ordained clergy. She felt she had found support for her loved ones in a place that had previously injured them, and thanked me profusely for just existing. Perhaps this, this relief and wonder that God’s love exists in unexpected places are some of the fruits of the vine. I’m positive I make mistakes, and wander too closely to the other vines, but just remembering her moment of gladness keeps me motivated to keep up the effort.
Let us continue, as a community, to be welcoming and accepting, to ask questions of one another and of God, to seek faith in the one who created us, the one who calls us to abide, and the one who moves us to thoughtful and prayerful action. Let us sit with our deep, deep questions, together, supporting one another when it is hard or even hurts, and celebrating when we glimpse the fruits of the Vine. After the year that we’ve just had, I know that neither pandemic or political upheaval can keep us from being a Spirit filled community; I am sure that the potential awkwardness of emerging slowly from lockdown will also be no match.
May we, this community, and anyone who joins us, continue to abide, bravely and with a sense of faith. May we examine the vines around us, in this vast vineyard we live in, and always be looking to be a part of the One that calls us, not with the promises of our culture, but with the constancy Divine Love. With God’s help, may it be so. Amen.