A Sermon … May 6th, 2012. Texts: Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8
When we pray, it can be hard to focus. All the concerns of the day come to mind: when am I going to get to the store? I should call so and so. And always, that one thought: is this prayer the best use of my time? I’ve got stuff to get done. What should I do? “Be with God? Or be productive?”
Jesus says, “to be with me, IS to be productive. Abide in me, and you will bear much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Martin Luther – the Reformer – was a seriously stressed out man, what with threats on his life and the collapse of Christendom all around him. And he said that on days when he was especially busy, he wouldn’t “drop prayer time,” he would add an extra hour. I guess it’s about humility – “how important is my work, in the scheme of things?” And it’s about trust – that God’s infinitely more capable of taking care of our business, than we are.
So, maybe instead of going to Trader Joe’s, I’ll use the time to read over a psalm. But can I expect God to run my errand for me? We need milk – will it appear, miraculously, in the fridge? Maybe not. Maybe we go without milk until tomorrow, but my kids’ have a more calm Dad.
Again, bigger picture, here – maybe what I think is important, isn’t what God thinks is important: God’s kingdom come, God’s will done. What we human beings can accomplish is impressive: golden gate bridges, symphonies, nuclear weapons. But what God can accomplish? God can make grapes! God is a horticulturalist, says Jesus – and he’s not the first to say so. Prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel used the same analogy: God “planted” his priestly people, Israel, like a vine in the midst of the nations. I think it’s a lovely image for God:
Vines mean grapes – and grapes mean wine – and whatever our relationship may be to alcohol now – in the ancient world, wine meant “joy” and “good times.”
So, rethink the basic questions: What’s the Bible about? A God who plants a vine – Israel and its Christ – and tends the grapes, sees it grow through hard times, to give the world can have a happy feast. And what’s Easter all about? The bursting of life through the soil. The Resurrection: it’s not just what happened to one man back then. Or even what happens to us, someday. Easter is present-tense. He is now my vine. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age,” to quote a poem way out of context. He is my life – he gives life to others, through me. Who am I? What are we all about? Not what I make of myself. I am what God makes of me. A branch of the vine. I am God’s way of bringing other people joy.
Jesus says “apart from me, you can do nothing.” That hits hard. Nothing? What about all the stuff on my resume? “Graduated at the top of my class.” “Doubled profits at my previous company, in just three years.” All that distinguishes me from the rest of the pile of resumes? That shows what I can accomplish? What if we put on our resume’: “Rooted in Christ,” maybe up at the top. Probably not a good idea. But Jesus says, “apart from me, you can do nothing.” God can use our strengths and our weaknesses and even our normalcy. This Gospel passage really lifts up the value of all people. We need the vine – but how can a vine produce grapes without branches? We are his presence and joy in the world!
Churches know what it means, when Jesus says “can do nothing.” We can’t be the “ethnic enclave” we once were before. We can’t be the “social club” we were to previous generations. So, we wonder, what now? Jesus says “abide in me, and you will bear much fruit.” Your life is as close as I am. So, how do we do that, what does “abide” mean?
Basically, “stay connected,” right? It’s pretty obvious – a branch has to stay connected to the vine if there are to be grapes. We have nothing to give anyone, except what he gives to us. Earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus uses the same word- “abide” – when he says “I am the bread of life. Those who eat of my flesh and drink of my blood abide in me, and I abide in them.” This table is our life – it’s where we become what he needs us to be.
Jesus also says “if you continue with my word,” and that word – continue – is really the same word, abide – “if you abide with my word, you are truly my followers, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” So – when we hear Jesus’ words – his love for us – he is with us, and we are with him. That was the Gospel reading for Reformation Sunday, when we remember why we are Lutherans.
And it fits with Martin Luther’s practice of meditation. Luther would study and translate the Bible with great insight, maybe use the Bible in arguments against opponents. But he also taught people to “meditate on it.” This just means saying the words – out loud – maybe repeating them, not just trying to “figure them out” but waiting for the meaning to “show up,” for the Holy Spirit to speak. And maybe that won’t happen in a clear way today. Think of how long it took for Christians to see clearly in the Bible that slavery is wrong – centuries. It may take awhile for the grapes to show up.
Mostly, I think, that word “abide” just means “stay with, hang out.” Over and over in the story, we hear that Jesus went and “stayed, abided, with the Samaritans for two days.” Or the first followers – when they still weren’t sure about Jesus – how they went and “stayed” in his house for awhile. What happened there? What did they talk about? What did they do? Who knows. What matters, is that they were together.
When you’re a kid and your Dad says “we’re going to visit Uncle Harold,” you ask, “but what is there to do?” Does he have games to play? Videos to watch?” And Dad says “we’re just going to visit.” Which maybe means “hang out on an old red couch and listen to grownup chitchat” or maybe “eat coldcuts and sweet pickles.” But later, looking back, you appreciate the memories of your Uncle’s house, what it looked like and smelled like, that you got to know him, in some way.
Jesus says, here, “abide in my love,” his love for us, ours for one another. Be together with the rest of the vine. The author of 1st John says, “God IS Love. And those who abide in love, abide in God.” Apart from me, you can do nothing.
Whatever it is we end up doing with our life – the best we can be is probably what we are to our uncles. Or think of what grandkids mean to their grandparents – even when they’re “bored,” curled up on the old couch and wondering “what is there to do?” they’re still a delight to those who love them. The most we have to offer to each other and the world is who we are – branches, breaking forth in clusters of sweet grapes. Fine wine. Joy. Good times.”
“Abide in me – as I abide in you.” Even if our minds are somewhere else. We’re bored. Or thinking about the errands we have to take care of. Wondering how we will ever get through the day. He already abides with us, delights in us, hears our concerns.
Remember the 1st chapter of John’s Gospel? “In the beginning was the Word – through him all things were made – and without him, not one thing came into being.” If we are anything, we are his, and his life is ours. Thanks be to God!