Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sermon, Easter 5B, John 15:1-8

Last week Mrs. Ref and I were up at Camp Marshall for the annual clergy conference. The keynote speaker for this retreat was the Rev. Dr. David Gortner, a former professor of mine at Seabury. He now teaches at VTS as the professor of evangelism. One of the things he put forward was the idea of evangelism as a spiritual practice; and this is something I want us to begin practicing ourselves - evangelism as spirituality.

But evangelism is not the topic of today's sermon. The topic today is grapes, bodies and unity.

One of the reasons I enjoy clergy conference is that I get to reconnect with most of the clergy in the diocese. I see friends and colleagues whom I only get to see rarely at best. I get to hear stories about how their parishes are doing. I hear stories about various programs and ministries that get me thinking about things we can do here. We get to see the bishop in a less formal atmosphere and, sometimes, hear what he's really thinking. We come together to share stories, to learn and to have fun.

And this time together with friends and colleagues reminds me that I am not alone in this business. Sometimes, not always and certainly not often, being a priest can be a lonely job. My co-workers, so to speak, are scattered around the diocese and we don't always have the opportunity to spend time with each other. But being together at clergy conference gives us that opportunity. It reminds us all we are not alone. It reminds us that we are all bound together through our career, our vows and our faith. And because the way the lectionary cycle ran this year, clergy conference came at a perfect time this year.

In today's gospel, Jesus talks about vines, branches and fruit. I don't know about you, but the first thing I think of when I hear something along the lines of "the fruit of the vine," is grapes. I spent summers as a teen in eastern Washington in an area that was prime fruit growing region. I worked the cherry harvest driving tractor in the fields, and on my way to work, or traveling anywhere through the region, I would pass a multitude of vineyards. In late summer you could see the grapes on the vine, waiting to be picked. And in stores and in roadside stands, you could buy bunches of grapes. So this passage always makes me think of grapes.

Grapes are an interesting fruit. Cherries, apples, peaches and pears, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries.... they all grow individually and are picked singularly. But grapes - grapes grow in bunches. The vine is planted and develops branches and those branches grow bunches of grapes. When they are harvested, you don't pick them one grape at a time, but you pick them so that many grapes are attached to a branch. And while I was sitting in the main hall at Camp, listening to the various stories of the different parishes in the diocese, it occurred to me that we are grapes. Not just the clergy, but every one of us. We are all grapes growing on the branch attached to the vine.

A grape is an individual fruit. We usually eat them one or two at a time. But a grape that gets separated from the bunch will wither and die much faster than a grape that is left on the branch. We are grapes. Our faith is personal, but it is not private. We are individuals who belong to a larger bunch, the family of this congregation. And this congregation is a branch of the Church which, in turn, belongs to the larger vine of Christ.

At our TEC200 class last week, we talked about this very thing. The topic for the night had to do with the relevance of the Episcopal Church. What it sort of turned into, however, was the relevance of the Church. We had a good discussion on why a person should even bother coming to church. Why not do what a lot of our friends and neighbors do and spend Sunday up in the mountains or at the lake privately communing with God? The answer, of course, is because we are grapes. I might even say that we are the seeds within the grape.

One way to look at this is to see ourselves as individual grapes that create the bunch, the congregation, attached to the branch of the congregation, this parish; which, in turn, is attached to the larger vine of the Church and Christ. Another way to look at it is that each parish in the diocese is a grape, and the people of the congregation are its seeds. Each parish is attached to the branch of the Church; and the branch of the Church, in turn, is attached to the vine of Christ.

And this, my friends, is the beauty of the Anglicans, Catholics and Orthodox: no parish is an individual entity; we are all connected to the larger branch, to the vine, and that allows us to grow in wonderful ways. Sure, we could go off by ourselves somewhere and commune with God on our own terms, but what that eventually does is to insulate us, removing us from the larger body which challenges us, supports us, and causes us to grow. If we see ourselves as simply individuals, we are missing the point of unity within the body of Christ.

We abide in Jesus through the unity of the Church as the body of Christ, and he abides in us allowing us to bear much fruit. Using that imagery of the grapes, we remember that by choosing to separate ourselves from the bunch, from the branch and from the vine can do nothing on our own because we have chosen to live apart from the community. Living in community is vital to our faith. We are grapes that live in bunches. Jesus built a community of twelve around him. And God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone."

However, living in community can also be problematic. It didn't take long for Cain to kill Abel. It sometimes doesn't take much for members of a parish to want to separate from the other members, as evidenced in the greater Anglican Communion right now. People ask, "Why can't I just go off by myself and worship God?" And people say, "Why would I want to be in church with a bunch of people who fight and argue and where I might get hurt?"

Church, at times, isn't always perfect. But if you look closely at today's passage, you will note that it's not always pain free. Every branch that doesn't bear fruit is removed, and every branch that bears fruit is pruned. Sometimes when we remove a dead branch from a plant, the good part gets hurt. When we prune the good branches, they get cut. This trimming and pruning can cause pain. Every branch gets cut in some fashion. Church isn't always The Happiest Place On Earth; sometimes we get cut. But if we keep in mind that we are part of the vine of Jesus, and if we try to do everything for the benefit of the growth of the plant, the Church, then maybe we will allow ourselves to remain on the branch and on the vine without going off on our own where we separate our love from others.

Being in communion isn't always fun. It can be hard work. Sometimes it can be painful. But it can also remind us that we are not alone. It reminds us that we are all bound together in our faith. In this community we come together to have fun, to share stories, to learn, to pray and to grow. We are the individual grapes bunched together in the parish receiving life from the vine of Jesus.

Yes, living in community is hard work. Yes, being pruned can be painful. But being alive in a bunch is better than the alternative of dying apart.


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