Fruitfulness: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on May 2nd, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are 1 John 4:7-21 and John 15:1-8.

Jesus said to his disciples, ”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

When I was about 10 or so, I was given a role in a community theater musical version of Rumpelstiltskin. I loved doing theater in school as a kid, and I was so excited that I got to be on stage with adults and live musicians—I felt like I had hit the big time!

And I remember on the first day that the director told me that I was going to be the page boy, one of the king’s servants, and I thought, yup, this is my big shot—next stop Broadway, surely—and there was this big opening number where all the villagers were presenting gifts to the king—one person presented a ham, and another one brought some lemons, and another one brought a big basket of limes, and then the director said, “Phillip, this is where you come in,” and I thought, wow, do I get to sing a solo here, or give a dramatic monologue? And then the director said, “you don’t actually have any lines in this play; we just need you to pick up the basket of limes and carry them off the stage. Then you’re done.”

Yup, that’s it. That was literally the entirety of my part in Rumpelstiltskin. So, I carried that basket of limes offstage. Needless to say, no Tony award was forthcoming. 

But honestly, I still loved it. And probably because it was the only scene I was in, I have never forgotten that particular musical number, where the characters were presenting the lemons and the lime–the fruits of their labors–hoping to one up each other, to impress the king, to win his favor and maybe to earn some bragging rights among their neighbors. 

Maybe we can all relate to that impulse a little bit. Because on some level, in whatever context we might find ourselves, I think we all hope that we’re going to make a good impression. We hope that our fruitfulness, whatever that means for us—maybe our work or our pastimes or other manifestations of our personal fulfillment—is really going to WOW whoever it is that we think is assessing us. Our family. Our neighbors. Our friends at church. The people on Facebook. Maybe even God. 

That sense of needing to be impressively fruitful can shape how we think about our faith, our relationship with Jesus, and it can affect how we interpret certain passages.

So, for example, in today’s Gospel reading we hear Jesus talking about being the vine and his Father being the vinegrower, and we are the branches who are expected to bear fruit, to bear MUCH fruit, in fact, so that we can glorify God…or else we’ll be burned up and thrown away into the fire. And if we’re accustomed to always thinking that somehow we need to be impressive to be of value, that sounds a little intimidating. like an ultimatum—be fruitful or else!

And so then in our anxiety we might start to act like those villagers in the play, eager to prove our worth:

God, look at these fruits, I mean, these are really impressive fruits, amazing fruits, I am so darn FRUITFUL, Lord, you just wouldn’t believe it. And no offense, no judgment, but mine are a little nicer than his fruits over there. I mean, look at these LIMES. Just look at ‘em. The Holy Spirit was really doing something amazing right here. So…I win, right? I’m the best one, right? 

Now of course, we naturally want to celebrate the fruitful ways in which God is at work in the world—the blessings we receive, the ways in which we share abundant life with others. 

But I want us to think carefully about whether our personal anxiety about being fruitful enough—which we might interpret at times as being saintly enough, as busy enough, as able enough, as successful enough—obscures what Jesus is really getting at here in this parable of the vine and branches. Because, I would offer, this is not so much a parable about God’s assessment or judgment of individual achievement as it is a parable about connection, about the divinely-perfected integration of heaven and earth.

“God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us,” the first letter of John says, and we need to take that quite seriously as we receive this image of the vine and branch. In Jesus, in the Incarnate mystery of the risen and eternal God, which we enter by our baptism, there is an inseparability between our life and God’s life.  Just as the vine transfers nutrients and water and life force into the branch, so God lives in us. God’s life, God’s love—God’s very essence—is sustaining everything that we do, big or small, shaping our hearts, giving breath to our words, bending the limbs of our body as we move in the world. 

“I am the true vine…abide in me as I abide in you…apart from me you can do nothing.” This is not a threat—it is an assurance. Christ is saying there is nothing you can do that is not already part of me, because we are one in love. I have given my life to you. We are connected. You are never alone. In me, no one is ever alone.

And this is a radical shift, even from the Old Testament imagery of Israel as the vine and God as the gardener, because now God has integrated God’s own life into the plant itself, so that it will never have to survive by itself.

Christ as the vine, as the one who sustains us directly, replaces the idea of fruitfulness as our offering TO God and replaces it with the idea of fruitfulness as God’s offering to US. 

Abide in me, God says, let me offer myself to you, let me give you the fruits of MY spirit, so that you never need be estranged from me again. This is my love for you—to give you myself! Too long you have tended your own vines and trembled and wept at the insufficiency of your own meager harvest, but I tell you now that my life is your life, my harvest is your harvest. Rest and live in that knowledge. Rest and live in me.

This fulfills what the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed,  “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” and “their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.”

In our life in Christ, this is what is true about the universe: that we are one—one organism, one cycle of life and love. There is no need for anxiety, nor for competition. There is no falling short before the king’s throne. In Christ, you are already part of everything. You are already enough.

I confess, though, that even knowing this is true, there are days, especially after the exhaustion and despair of this past year, that I still worry, because, if anything, I feel a lot more like that withered branch in the parable, the one that is all dried up and gnarled, with seemingly no fruit at all. 

In those times, forget the basket of limes; I don’t even feel like I have a single blossom. My prayers feel dry and my heart is heavy. And I wonder, sometimes, in that feeling of deadness and dryness—am I apart from God? Am I just a useless appendage to be cast away, as the passage says, “gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned”?

Because if we’re honest, there’s no shortage of dead branches in any of our lives and in our world at large—our failures, our squandered opportunities to love and care for one another, the burdens of our grief and the fear that our lives don’t amount to much.

But today, I want you hear those seemingly dire words anew, remembering, again, that God is love and nothing can separate you from the workings of that love. Nothing. You are part of love’s eternal cycle. And God is redeeming even those fruitless branches in our lives, those dead ends in our heart. 

So yes, God is gathering dead branches and putting them into the fire, but God is tenderly gathering them, tenderly gathering up our grief and our brokenness. God is putting them into the flames, yes, but they are the flames of his transformative mercy, reducing that which has died to ashes, not to annihilate, but so that it might go back into the earth to fertilize the growth of new life. To God, nothing is dead forever. And nothing is ever wasted.

This is the truth of which you are a part. This is the Life that imbues your own life. 

That will always be so, whether you are feeling abundant and confident, or whether you aren’t. Whether you are center stage, or whether you’re just standing in the wings with a basket of limes, wondering what the heck you’re doing.

What sweetness, what relief, and what possibilities for joy when we realize that fruitfulness is something given to us, not something proven by us. And when we realize that we are already known. Already acceptable. Already abiding on the vine, in God’s own life, forever. 

10-year old me as the Page Boy in Rumpelstiltskin. Not sure where the limes went.

Preparing for Lent

The season of Lent is almost upon us. The preparations at Mirfield have me learning about some very old customs that are quite new to me. Today, for example, is Collop Monday.  What’s a collop, you might ask? Apparently it’s a word that refers to bits of leftover meat, often bacon, which are traditionally eaten up on this day before the Lenten season of fasting begins on Ash Wednesday.  The grease from the meat (at least, if Wikipedia is to be trusted) is then used to fry up the pancakes that are traditionally eaten tomorrow, Shrove Tuesday. Mmmm, pancakes.

All the students at the College went up the hill to the monastery house this afternoon to eat Collop Monday lunch with the brethren. It was a feast, although sadly no bacon to be found. BUT there was brisket, roast chicken, stuffing, and tons of dessert. Gotta get those calories in before the menu is pared down for Lent!

Lent is taken quite seriously here, and many of my classmates have been pondering what sort of discipline they are going to adopt starting Wednesday. If you have been part of any liturgical church tradition, you are probably familiar with the question, “what are you giving up for Lent?”  The idea is that in the relinquishing of a particular habit, or in the adoption of a new spiritual discipline, we are creating space in our hearts to listen to God as we approach the commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection in Holy Week. It’s 40 days of soul-searching, and I could sure use it.

At Mass this morning the homily talked about how in our soul-searching we tend to bargain with God, usually petitioning for favors or for the cessation of misfortune. I do this all the time, frankly, even though I don’t necessarily think God relates to us in that way. I’ve been doing a lot of imploring to the heavens lately as I adjust to life over here and battle some inner and outer demons. Maybe you can relate.

Truth be told, I get really annoyed by people who sneer at anyone who prays with a desperate heart. “Well, he only prays when he wants something!” Come now, we all want something–don’t kid yourself that you are holier just because you pray at other times, too. The fact that we are compelled to cry out to God in any circumstance is a sign of grace to me; it just so happens that our need and our fear is usually the hollow space in which God can enter us, if we let God do so. (See Luke 18:9-14)

The challenge, at least in my case, is to remain open–to allow God to dwell in the space that’s usually cluttered up with the distractions and novelties that pervade my life. And so Lent is a little bit like spring cleaning for the heart; it’s an intentional effort to clear out some room and prepare a seat for the Holy One to come and abide with me as we wait together for new life to emerge.

I’m pretty sure what my Lenten discipline is going to be, but I’m going to pray on it a bit more between now and Wednesday before committing. If you’ve already settled on something for yourself, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

God bless you, friends. If you’re reading this, I am grateful for your companionship on this journey. I’ll write in a couple of days to describe the Ash Wednesday liturgy, which I’ve heard is beautiful.

xo

Fire or Fire

This morning I woke up far earlier than I needed to after a night of troubled sleep. In one of those “God, give me a message” moments, I grabbed a book of poetry from my desk and opened it by chance to this:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre–
To be redeemed from fire by fire

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

These words, part of “Little Gidding” by T.S. Eliot, inhabited the dark room with me like a corporeal presence. I have been struggling mightily with things I’ve lost and left behind and the fear of other things I might yet lose. The gratitude that I feel for this three-year seminary journey has often been tinged with sadness, and there have been moments when it all seems bleak and futile. The “flame of incandescent terror” is exactly what answering the call to priesthood has sometimes been for me: a burning away of old comforts and the scorching of my blithe naiveté about what priestly formation would entail, all carried down on the wings of a fearsome Love that feels more like grief. I think that anyone who seeks to follow God, no matter their path or vocation, has at some point felt the sting of what Bonhoeffer calls the cost of discipleship. Who we were must be relinquished for who God asks us to become. The fire of the Spirit is not for the faint of heart, and it demands everything we have to give.

It seems impossible sometimes. But what is the alternative? If Eliot is right, and we must choose to either be burned on the liberating pyre of faith or on the suffocating pyre of our own hardened hearts, then the choices are not in fact equal. Any fear I might feel about following Christ is still preferable to a life of deadening self-interest, and so I continue to turn my face toward the flames of God–however tentatively–and they continue to sting my eyes with their heat.

But how does one make a life of this? How do I let myself be kindled by God’s Love rather than fall back on the same old habits and neuroses that have gotten me by in life thus far? How to die to my old self and yet recognize that I remain a person who wants to be carefree, to laugh, to not trudge along in dreary self-importance? How can I be fully myself–complicated, vulnerable, earthy, needy–in a world (and even a church culture) that sometimes corrals people into a stultifying role that values piety and assurance more than raw presence?

These are some of the questions I’ve brought to Mirfield. I don’t know that they can be answered. But if “Love is the unfamiliar name,” I want to learn how to speak it with greater confidence. I want to adopt it as my own. Even if it burns, as it does, as I know it will.

God, give me the courage to be consumed by you.