Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Sermon: A Garden or a Museum?

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter- May 14, 2006

John 15:1-17

The Rev. Andrew T. Gerns, Rector, Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, PA

May only God’s word be spoken.

May only God’s word be heard and believed.


There was once a visitor to the Vatican who marveled at the beauty of the architecture and was equally in awe of the many activities going on there. The visitor asked Pope John XXIII how many people worked at the Vatican. The Pope replied, “Oh, about half.”

In our day and age, we are used to thinking in terms of “productivity.” What is efficient and effective? Modern job performance reviews attempt to motivate an employee to be a well-rounded person. Enlightened firms want people who care for themselves, body, mind and soul. But what keeps bread on the table is, at the end of the day is how productive a person really is. Is the company getting as much work for as few dollars as possible?

But what is a productive Christian? How does a Christian know that she or he is being effective?

That is at the heart of today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus says, “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.” If God is going to get rid of unproductive vines and prune fruitful ones, how do we know we are being fruitful?

There are many Christians who tell us that being fruitful is the same thing as multiplying. Taking their cue from the King James Version rendition of the first creation story in Genesis, the idea of being “fruitful and multiplying” just rolls of our tongue.

But look carefully at the passage: being fruitful is a sign that each branch abides in the vine. What determines whether the vinegrower throws away a branch is if it is dead—detached from the vine—or dormant.

Of course, a branch can do nothing without being attached to the vine! It’s dead!

There are also branches that live, that are connected to vine, and may even produce wonderful leaves in their season, but they bear no fruit. These branches are dormant. They will either be pruned to come back to fruitfulness and maybe even cut away.

What determines the usefulness of the branch is its relationship to the vine. What shows off the health of the vine is the fruit it produces.

John’s Gospel is giving us an image of the church as a grapevine in the vineyard. It is an image of relationship. What makes for a healthy vine, and a healthy church, is the relationship of each of the branches to the true or main vine, God in Christ.

So how does a Christian know if they are being ‘productive’ or being ‘effective?’ By looking at the quality of our relationship to God in Christ we begin to discover that the things we want our faith to accomplish comes not by sheer force of will, but grows out of our relationship to God in Christ.

We don’t just decide to pray more: we are taught, helped and encouraged to pray more in community.

We don’t just raise money for church: we find time and time again that fundraising, mere attention to the bottom line, does not grow a church’s giving—but cultivating the spiritual gift of generosity calls us to respond to what God is calling us to do and be.

We don’t just care for the sick as a clinical need—but to both reflect and deepen our life as Christian community.

We find that when we do works of mercy and justice, that we begin to discover the face of Christ in those we serve, and so we are changed and deepened in our life in Christ.

We discover the fruitful and profound worship does not happen just by following the rubrics, but grows out of the way we as a people, a community—a vine, if you will—is nurtured and grows in relationship to Jesus Christ.

In the Gospel, when Jesus talks about ‘fruitfulness’ he is not just talking about being productive, he is also talking about being connected to God through Christ and to Christ through each other.

Just as a branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine, neither can disciples of Jesus bear fruit unless they are connected to Jesus. Being connected to Jesus means that we will sometimes experience being cut back or pruned so that we may grow better.

The Church is living thing—we grow, we changes, we produce fruit and we must be nurtured. We branches are connected to Jesus by virtue of our baptisms, and we are fed through our sacramental life. We branches are watched over and tended to by the vinegrower.

The challenge posed to the Church of the Gospel of John, is the same challenge posed to us and to every church since: do we want to do more than just live in the vine? Do we want to produce good fruit?

All of our common life--our worship, our outreach, even our committees and social activities—turn on this question: does our life together deepen our relationship to Jesus Christ and so change the world we live in and the people God gives to us?

John XXIII said this about the Church when he opened the Second Vatican Council about 45 years ago: “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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