Sunday, May 03, 2015

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

Happy Easter!

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

In this Easter season when we celebrate the risen Christ, we have heard our last post-resurrection gospel.  And why was it that in this season of the resurrection we no longer hear post-resurrection stories?  Because, as far as the lectionary is concerned, we are being prepared for Jesus' final departure; or, as Starr said, “It's time for us to get to work.”

Last week we heard Jesus talking to those around him about being the good shepherd and what that looked like.  For those who don't remember, the good shepherd cares for the sheep, knows them by name, will sacrifice himself for them, and calls to him sheep that we don't identify as belonging to us.

Last week we learned what it looked like to be a good shepherd.  This week we learn what it means to be part of the body of Christ through the imagery of vines and branches.

On the one hand, we can make sense of this.  We can easily envision a tree or vine with the various branches shooting off.  The healthy branches are receiving nourishment from the tree or vine and produce fruit.  Other branches that produce no fruit do not receive that nourishment and die.  Those dead branches are pruned off to keep the plant healthy, while the living branches will also be pruned back in order to produce more fruit.  It's pretty basic stuff.

The imagery is easy.  If we graft ourselves onto the vine of Christ we will be nourished and produce fruit.  As healthy branches, we will also be pruned back to some extent so that we will be able to produce more fruit.  Anyone who has plants, or has seen this done, knows that even healthy branches are cut back in order to produce the desired results.  God will prune us back so that we can produce more fruit and give God the desired results.  Overall this is a good thing.

But on the other hand, has anyone asked the branches if they approve of the pruning?  Has anyone asked the branches if they want parts of themselves lopped off?

The seminary I attended held an annual event called Prospective Student Days, as do most schools and universities.  Prospective students would come, check out the housing options, sit in on classes, visit the public schools if they had kids, and have time to meet with students in honest conversations.  As a prospective student, one of the things I liked about the students I met was that they were brutally honest about the school and faculty, both pros and cons.

When I was a senior I had a very brief conversation with a prospect student as I was passing through the main corridor.  I don't remember all of it, but I remember the core of that conversation.

“What is seminary really like?” he asked.  How do you sum up three years of seminary in 50 words or less?

“Imagine you are a rose bush,” I said.  “Seminary is like having all of your branches and flowers, which are your current thoughts, ideas and beliefs, hacked off, leaving you looking and feeling like a stump, and then growing back bigger, more robust and more changed than you could ever imagine.”

I imagine that's what Jesus is telling his disciples here.  Discipleship will tear you down, lop off parts of you, and cause you to grow bigger than you ever thought possible.  Discipleship will change you in ways you can't imagine, if you are willing to be pruned.

If we are active apostles caring for the sheep, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and producing fruit, then we must be prepared to have parts of ourselves lopped off.  We must be prepared and willing to be pruned.  That is not always easy.

It is not easy to believe we are doing good work only to see those efforts be lopped off.  It is not easy to have our beliefs and values challenged.  But if we are doing good work, if we are producing good fruit because of that work and because of those values and beliefs, then God will prune us.  God will lop off some of our branches in order to make us grow bigger and more robust than we could ever imagine.

Liturgically speaking, we are living in the 40 days of Jesus' post-resurrection life among the disciples. But rather than hearing post-resurrection stories throughout those 40 days, we are hearing pre-Passion stories in order to give us a better understanding of what active apostleship looks like.

From last week we learned that active apostleship involves caring, sacrifice, knowledge of others, and an understanding that the inclusiveness of God is much bigger than we could ever imagine.  This week we learn that active apostleship comes with a cost.  That cost may not be martyrdom, it may not be persecution of any kind, but it will always involve change.  Active apostleship will always involve a pruning of our values and beliefs; and that can sometimes be just as traumatic for people.

If we are active apostles, God will prune us.  God will change us.  And when that happens, we have two ways to experience that pruning.  The first is that we can focus on what we've lost.  We can look at all the beautiful things we had accomplish and be angry at God for pruning them away.  We can look at how we are being pruned and changed, decide we want no part of this process, and retreat into something that doesn't challenge us or change us, and where we can remain comfortably stunted.

The second way to experience our pruning is to understand that God both wants and expects more from us.  What we may have produced at one time was good, but God knows that we can produce greater things for the kingdom if we are given the chance.  And that chance comes in the change produced by our pruning.  We live in a changing world; what worked before may not work today or tomorrow.  For us to continue to be active and effective, we must change.  What that change looks like only God knows.  But when we are experiencing that change, when we are experiencing that pruning, it can be painful.  We just need to be willing to believe God is doing a good thing.

As we prepare for Jesus' final departure, and as we work for the coming kingdom of God as active apostles, remember that God will change us.  Remember that God will prune us.  Remember that God will lop off parts that we thought were important, only to have us grow more robust than we ever thought possible.

As active apostles, God will help us grow.  Just remember that growth requires change and God will leave no living branch untouched.



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