What's Tony Thinking

My April 28 Sermon: The Vine and the Branches


Here’s my last sermon, given yesterday, at the Community Church of San Miguel de Allende. To get the video on the church’s you tube channel click here. Below you’ll find the written version.

The Vine and the Branches
John 15: 1 -8
April 28, 2024

One of my favorite verses in Scripture comes from the 121st Psalm. You know the 121st Psalm. It’s the one that begins, “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence does my help come?” The verse I especially love is verse 8, “The Lord will watch over your going out and coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”

The going outs and the coming ins. Life’s transitions. The psalmist names what we all know or discover, the transitions can be hard, fraught even. Today we come to one, our last Sunday with you. Of course, you guys are pros at these transitions, saying goodbye to one of us MIR’s every two months and welcoming a new one the following Sunday. You do it well. Hats off to you. But it can’t always be easy.

The only partings that don’t hurt a bit are those where we haven’t invested ourselves, when we haven’t let ourselves love. That’s not you. Nor is it us, Linda and I. We have invested in one another in this brief time. We have loved one another.

And so Linda and I now say, “Thank you.” You hold a special place in our hearts, as I know is true for so many of us, MIR’s. It has been a privilege to be with you, to be a part of this community of faith. And, of course, being in San Miguel is a special gift. Thank you so much.

Let us pray, “Dear God, we praise and thank you for this time together. In all our going out and our coming in, we ask that you watch over us and keep us. Now, we ask that you speak to us, so that we may find in your Word, strength for today and hope for tomorrow. Amen.

“I am the vine, you are the branches,” says Jesus.

We have been moving through the seven-week season of Eastertide. As you welcome your next MIR, Roy Howard, who is a friend of mine, you will have two more weeks of Eastertide, then Pentecost. Pentecost, the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit and the sending of the church into the world, a preview of which we get in today’s reading from the Book of Acts.

I’ve found our Eastertide together especially rich and meaningful, and hope you have too. In the first weeks our Scriptures were all about the risen Lord appearing to his disciples, assuring them he had been raised from the dead and now alive eternally, death behind him. Remember? He showed them the wounds in his hands and feet. He ate with them. He opened the Scriptures —God’s word — for them. He broke the bread. Their eyes were opened.

Then a shift, from such appearances of our Risen Lord to the challenge of his departure, of his return to the Father and the separation of Jesus and his followers. You see, that departure is a mixed bag. On one hand, there is a note of triumph. His earthly work now complete, the Son returns to the Father. But there’s another side of the coin: he is leaving, leaving them. Now, what will become of them?

Such is the question addressed in these final weeks of Eastertide. Will they simply be left on their own? Left to figure it out for themselves, to find their own way? No. He has said to them, “I am the way,” “I go to prepare a place for you,” and “I will not leave you desolate, I will come to you.”

These words, often read at funerals, our own times of parting, come from a section unique to the Gospel of John. “The Farewell Discourse.” All of chapters 14 – 17 in the Gospel of John make up this Farewell Discourse. I encourage you read it in its entirety, chapters 14 – 17. It can be a source of great comfort.

In these Farewell words to his disciples it is all about relationship. “I am in God, and you are in me.” Connections. We are connected, says Jesus. “I am in the Father, the Father in me. Abide in me.” You are not alone. “Abide in me,” says Jesus, “as I abide in you.” In a time and world when so many feel — and sadly are — disconnected, this is a good word, a great promise. You are not alone. We are not alone.

And given that it’s all about relationship, about connections, it comes as no surprise to hear Jesus speak of the vine and branches. “I am the vine, you are the branches. If a person remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing. If you remain in me, ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you.”

No, that great promise — ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you — doesn’t mean, a la Janis Joplin, “Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?” When we ask, we ask in the name and spirit of Jesus, which isn’t a Mercedes-Benz. Maybe a Subaru?

I want to take us back, for a moment, to my very first sermon with you during these months. I told you a story from a very difficult time in my life and in my ministry. I was, we were, young. We had made a big move to a new church, leaving a lot behind, a beloved first church, a community of which we have become a part.

The new church to which we went, had been through some very tough stuff, deeply hurtful conflicts and a precipitous loss of members. My predecessor had, I learned only later, taken her own life. A fact that sadly, and unfortunately, had been kept a secret. So not dealt with. Lots of stuff beneath the surface.

I came with a naive belief that they were ready and eager to begin a new chapter. The Search Committee had promised as much. You learn, after a while, in this line of work, to take what Pastoral Search Committees tell you with a big grain of salt. But I didn’t know that yet. I took them at their word.

Anyhow, as I shared in that first sermon with you back on March 3, after a year at the new church I hit a wall, a depression. I was suddenly lost in a very dark wood. Eventually, what helped me most was a silent retreat at a place called “The Spiritual Life Center.” There the practice was to meditate and pray passages of scripture, one assigned passage a day, and to listen.

The first day it was that wonderful passage from Isaiah 43, “When you pass through the deep waters, they shall not overwhelm you, for I will be with you. When you walk though the fire, you will not be burned, for I am the Lord your God. Fear not, for I have redeemed you, you are mine.”

My spiritual director, as I mentioned, had told me, when I came upon a name, to insert my own. So I prayed, “Fear not, Tony, for I have redeemed you; I have called you, Anthony, by name, you are mine.”

Did you notice? God is the subject of the verbs. “I have redeemed you. I have called you.” Sitting with those words from Isaiah, praying them, came as a great relief. They spoke to my heart. I remember feeling as if I could breathe again.

The next day, the second day of my retreat, the words I was given to pray and meditate upon were our Scripture today; John 15, “I am the vine, you are branches.”

To be honest, I’d never much cared for this passage. Somehow, it sounded to me like a Hallmark card, frilly, sweet, sentimental, probably feminine. The vine and the branches, tra-la, tra-la. That only goes to show I hadn’t been paying attention.

So, day two, I am praying this passage slowly, repeating it, when I hear a voice. The voice, not at all Hallmark-like or sweet, said rather sharply, sternly, “I am the vine, you are a branch — what part of this don’t you get?”

I said, “Jesus, is that you? Wait, what happened to ‘gentle and humble in heart’? What about, ‘fairest Lord Jesus,’ ‘Jesus, meek and mild’?”

Forget that. It was, “I am the vine, you are a branch — what part of this don’t you get?”

Those Jesuits . . . they’ve been at this retreat business a long time. They know what they were doing. Day 1, all comfort, solace. Day 2, challenge. “I am God and you are not.” Wake up, fool!

Because, truth to tell, I had been trying to lead this wounded, grieving and divided congregation on the basis of my own strength alone. And now my strength had run out. Now I was hardly able to get out of bed.

So Jesus had to remind me of how this all works. “My Father is the vinedresser, the one who plants and tends the vine. I am the vine, the true vine. You are a branch. Translation, “you are not the star of the show.” But this promise, “Every branch that abides in me bears much fruit.”

It came to me, clearly, that I was trying to force the fruit. I was eager, impatient, for the fruit of a new chapter in the life of the congregation. New people, new enthusiasm, new ventures. But I was pretty much trying to do it all on my own. Which is crazy. A branch — if you can picture this — demanding fruit, frustrated that fruit wasn’t happening in the ways it wanted, on the timetable it had for the harvest. Have you ever seen a branch on a grape vine? It ain’t much. It’s a stick, hollow inside.

If the sharp words of Jesus came as a challenge, and they did, there was also comfort and wisdom in them. It wasn’t all up to me. It wasn’t all on me.

Moreover, job one for me wasn’t to bear fruit. That wasn’t up to me, not really. Job one was to stay connected to the vine, to Jesus. As noted, the vine’s branches don’t do all that much, except just stay connected to the vine. It’s not this white-knuckling, teeth-gritted approach to spirituality. It’s resting in the vine. Resting in the Lord. Trusting him.

Notice too, it’s a very organic image. I was operating with a business-world or a mechanistic mindset. Growth charts. Production goals. Organic is different. Things happen when they happen, when the time is right. It all came as a kind of breakthrough, a revelation really, there on Day 2 of the retreat. “I am the vine, you are the branches — what part of this don’t you get?”

Sometimes we Christians fall into a trap, sometimes we ministers urge people into this trap. We say to ourselves, to our congregations, “We should be, must be, more fruitful!” “We’ve got to bear more fruit, we — you — must, should, do more.”

We can get so fixated on the fruit, says pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, that some Christians and churches sort of tape fruit to their branches, meaning we create the outer appearance of holiness and righteousness by doing things that look religious or moral or enlightened. It becomes a show of our achievements. But that’s not it. Our job is to abide, to trust in the vine, to rest in the promise of Jesus, to have faith.

I won’t try to tell you that I was totally and forever changed after that one retreat, or that I would never again take too much on myself or try to do it by myself and in my own strength alone. That’s really a life-long challenge for me. But this was an important moment, and a turning point.

And in time, that church, and that ministry, did bear fruit. Wonderful fruit. But it wasn’t just my work. It was our work. And it was the work of Jesus in us and through us — sometimes in spite of us.

So the word was, “don’t focus anxiously on the fruit at the end of the branches, focus on resting — abiding — in the root and the vine, in the Gospel, the good news of God and Jesus Christ, of what he has done for us and is doing in us even now — because he doesn’t stop working. He is at work in us, in you, even now, even when it may not visible to us.

A friend writes, “Christ is never simply standing by, watching to see how we perform; he is actually present in the actions we take on behalf of the poor, present in the reconciliation of sinners, present in the recovery from addiction, present in the congregation gathered to praise him and receive his mercies anew at each Eucharist.” (1)

I came to look upon that experience, that season of depression, which was truly awful, as pruning, which is the work of the vinedresser, the work of God. Pruning is another, and a very big aspect of this passage. Jesus says, “Every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes so that it will bear more fruit.” Translation: Everyone gets pruned. Life brings pruning, and it is painful, but not for nothing.

Another friend remembered the orange trees at his home when he was a kid. Every year after the orange crop was harvested, the trees got pruned. Really pruned. Right down to the nub. As a child, he thought they were done, that they would never bear fruit again. And yet, every year there was lush new growth and then an amazing crop of fruit.

Here’s the takeaway: “when God is doing the pruning and we are going through things that are very difficult in life, it’s not the sign that God has abandoned you. Sometimes when you’re going through very difficult things in life, its the sign that God is actually very, very near, that he’s conforming us to the image of his Son, and to the cross.

“Life can be a mess, it can even be tragic, yet in the midst of it all, the cross assures us that none of this is a sign of God’s absence, but rather of his redemptive presence. God is at work pruning away the idols and dead branches of our lives so that we might produce fruit that lasts. And that is a hopeful word when what you feel like is the nub of an orange tree or a sawed off stump.

“Know that Christ is there with you, and that when he prunes he never does so indiscriminately, but its always for something powerful and beautiful in your life.” (2)

We all go through times of pruning, times of loss, of hurt, of rejection. They can be very, very hard. But God has not abandoned us in such times. God, the vinedresser is at work, creating, pruning so that there is more light and air. God sometimes takes away the crazy activity, the busyness, that our lives might be more connected to the true vine, and bear fruit that we had never imagined nor even thought to ask for.

Maybe that’s a good concluding word, both for me and also for you, the Community Church of San Miguel de Allende? Don’t become too anxious. Don’t berate yourselves, saying, “We must, we should, produce more fruit. Show me the fruit!” Such anxiety inducing voices are the voice of temptation, the voice of the tempter.

Stay connected to the true vine, to Jesus. Trust in his work on our behalf, the salvation he has won for you. Rest in his promises. He loves you. You are his. He is at work in you. Even when we don’t see it. Yes, even in the hard times, in the pruning seasons.

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me, as I abide in you. Everyone who abides in me will bear much fruit.” Amen.

  1. Fleming Rutledge
  2. Jacob Smith, at “Same Old Song”
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