Everything Changes: From Barren to Bountiful

Everything Changes: From Barren to Bountiful May 6, 2012

Everything Changes: From Barren to Bountiful

John 15:1-11

Christ is risen!

Christ is risen, indeed!

In the light of the resurrection we’re considering today and in these days following Easter, how life has changed.  What about the message of Jesus becomes clear and compelling, finally, now that we know the tomb is empty? 

As we discussed last week, our lectionary takes us back, back to before the resurrection, back to the ministry and teaching of Jesus.  As you know, there was incidence after incidence in which Jesus tried to preach, heal, teach, all to demonstrate this new way of seeing the world and living in it, but all the people around him—even his disciples—didn’t quite get it.  And we often don’t get it, do we? 

How do we live the Gospel in this world in which we can’t often see our way clearly, when the voices of the world pull at us and confuse us, when we get stuck and turned around, not sure where our faith in Jesus Christ would have us move next? 

Thank goodness that everything changes in the light of the resurrection, that we understand with new clarity that if God can bring life out of death, and if God can overcome desolation and hopelessness, then surely we can summon the courage to live the Gospel with conviction and purpose.

Today’s parable, the parable of the vine and the branches, is one that you surely learned if you ever attended Sunday School.  It comes from part of the Gospel of John that we think of as Jesus’ final words to his disciples. 

If we follow the timeline in John’s Gospel, this collection of teachings, of last words, happened on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday and the crucifixion.  The parable was part of Jesus’ last shot at instilling his teachings in the minds and hearts of his disciples. 

What was the essence of what he wanted them to remember?  What were his last and most important words? 

Thinking about that this week, I learned that what you say at the end of your life, apparently, is often telling with regard to what you valued during this lifetime.  The final words of famous people are the source of much interest.  Here are some:

How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?

~~ P. T. Barnum, entrepreneur, d. 1891

Friends applaud, the comedy is finished.

~~ Ludwig van Beethoven, composer, d. March 26, 1827

Now comes the mystery.

~~ Henry Ward Beecher, evangelist, d. March 8, 1887

I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll start working on mine now….

In his parting discourse, his last words, found in John chapters 15-17, Jesus tells a vintner’s tale.  The parable of the vine and the branches is part of several “last words” from Jesus—statements from Jesus trying to clarify who he was and who THEY were—who WE are—in relationship to God.

In this part of the passage, Jesus talks about himself as the vine, with God as the vine grower.  We are the branches in this metaphor, he says.  We can’t grow into the possibility of all we are created to be if we’re not connected to the vine—and not just connected, abiding, trading nutrients, giving sustenance.  There are many things that can grow on a vine, of course, but those branches that are not bearing fruit, in Jesus’ metaphor, are cut off and thrown into the fire.  Those that abide in me, Jesus said—who stay connected to the vine—will bear much fruit.

Vine, branches, fruit, abiding, cut off and thrown into the fire?  What is Jesus talking about here??!?  It all sounds so final and so violent…if you don’t do what I say, then you get cut off, burned up forever. 

Believe me, there are many folks in my profession who have made good use of this passage as a tool to scare their version of Jesus into folks.  But I am not so sure that scaring people was what Jesus had in mind here.

I recently attended a class taught by a master gardener.  In this class I learned about carefully placing your garden beds to receive the best sunlight.  I took copious notes about soil quality and mixing in compost.  Water was a big topic of discussion—how much and how often to water your beds.  Choice of plant was another important area he addressed.  It was fascinating, I have to say, but in the end his presentation had very little to do with my yard.

See, my yard is, with all grace and kindness, a big, huge mess.  I have recently moved into a house whose yard has not received the kind of tender care that Katie Harvey orPat Neighbargermight apply toward their yards.  Before we got there, it had seen years and years of neglect; beds long covered under excess growth, and vines all over, well, everything.  When I looked at my yard in the light of the master gardener’s class, I just had to sigh with despair.  Water, sunlight, choice of plants?  I don’t think so.  For now the biggest task is clean up.

And so I’ve begun.  Machetes, roto tillers, weed wackers, shovels, and some hired help later, I now have a yard that is bare as can be, a yard in which we can just now begin to watch for the new grass to grow and dream about what will live in the newly designated flower beds around the edges of the porch.  And, as a result of all the work to clear things out, the back yard is now littered with a huge, huge pile of dead branches.  Branches and vines, weeds, and undergrowth, all of the things growing in the yard that were choking out possibilities and causing me to leave the master gardener class in utter despair.

Jesus’ message about the vine and the branches sounds harsh, and it’s true that many, many preachers have used this parable to scare people into strange standards of compliance.  But Jesus was using a metaphor, remember?  And the life of someone who tends a vineyard as his livelihood is filled with carefully picking and choosing which vines should be nurtured and which vines are choking out new life and good fruit.  Jesus is not talking about people burning in hell; he is talking about the good work of a vine grower, which involves cutting, pruning, and burning waste to make room for good growth. 

It’s like my backyard.  In order to even begin to think about what needs to grow, there is much that needs to come out…to be cut down and pulled out, to be thrown away and burned.  It’s hard work, but it’s only when those tasks are done that we can see clearly the expansive possibilities of what might begin to grow.

As followers of this one who calls himself the vine, I wonder about the many ways in which we are called to prune and discern, to clear out and get back to basics, to abide in him…so that our lives can bear the good fruit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus knew that his disciples would hear many voices calling them away, distracting them from the task of abiding, of focusing on the essence of Gospel living, so our lives don’t become so choked with other things that we forget.

I thought about that this over the last few days, when there has been quite a bit of news coverage about the upcoming vote inNorth Carolinaover Amendment 1 to theNorth Carolinaconstitution. North Carolina’s Amendment 1 says that marriage between a man and a woman is the “only domestic legal union” that should be valid or recognized in the state. 

In other words, on May 8th,North Carolinians will be voting on the issue of marriage equality when they vote on Amendment 1.

In the wake of all the conversation and controversy over Amendment 1, there has been quite a bit of religious talk, commentary by pastors, and use of Christian faith to advocate against this amendment, to use faith in Jesus Christ as an excuse to exclude people, to treat them unfairly, and to sometimes even damn them to burn in hell. 

For example, Sean Harris, pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Fayettville, NC, preached a scathing diatribe last Sunday, which joined the efforts of arch-conservative Christians all over the state to scare people into voting for the amendment, a sermon in which he advocated hurting children you think might be gay, of beating the “gay” out of them.  What this message has to do with equal civil rights, I am not so sure, but…

Marriage equality threatens family structures, they claim.  It goes against the BIBLE, they profess.  It violates the rules, they preach.  Jesus wouldn’t like it.

When we Christians say things like this, I begin to suspect we were not listening very hard to the last words of Jesus.  When Jesus talked about the vine and the branches, he was not advocating the imposition of more rules, the adding of layers of rigorous requirement that pile onto the simple words of the Gospel an unachievable standard that excludes people and obscures God’s hope for the world and, worst of all, dilutes that rigorous mandate Jesus gave us.

Love God, love each other. 

Abide in me, Jesus said.  Stick close and hold tight.  The world will try to complicate your faith, to distract you from the life-altering way of Jesus.  But don’t let yourself be choked out or misled by those who would try to catch your attention. 

Abide. 

And when you do, your life and the life of our community will begin to bear fruit, fruit that will shock the world with its courage and expansiveness, fruit that will begin to appear in places that were so cut off from the rest of the family of faith but who bloom and grow and bear fruit when they are welcomed in to the way of Jesus.

I think what Jesus was trying to say in his final words is that the life of faith is hard.  It can be easily choked out by other things that pull at our attention and energy.  It can even be choked out by the riotous growth of what the world might consider religion.  It happens all of the time.

I think Jesus was trying to say that following the way of Christ is hard work; it takes discipline and prayerful discernment; it is not for the faint of heart. 

I think that Jesus was trying to say that when we stick close…when we abide in Jesus, then we’re going to be constantly clearing out space for new growth, for more possibility, for a life of faith that is ever evolving and always becoming, and in new an unexpected ways, bearing fruit.

In the light of the resurrection, everything changes.  While we thought God’s way was a way of rules and rituals, walls to hold people in and keep people out, really the way of Jesus invites us to cut back, clean out, stick close.  Abide in me, he said…and you will bear much fruit.  Amen.


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