“Abiding, and Branching Out”
John 15:1-8
1 John 4:7-16
29 April, 2018

Rev’d. Tanya N. Stormo Rasmussen

Now that springtime is trying desperately to stay, some of us have been out in the garden, planting bright annuals, tending to the tulips and daffodils, and pruning back weeds and growth that aren’t what we’re looking for in our particular little patch of vegetation.  And even if we’re not necessarily gardeners, I think most of us are itching to spend more time outside by now.  So it seems appropriate that our gospel text today should welcome us to an outdoor, agricultural scene.

Jesus was a master at making connections between the everyday and the divine; the sacraments we honor and celebrate in the church are comprised of the most common elements of human experience: water, bread and wine (or grapes).  But Jesus has made them extraordinary for us by re-casting their meaning as spiritual symbols, opportunities to encounter the divine when, as a community, we participate in sharing these elements in meaningful ways.  I have no idea whether he ever anticipated the number of conversations that would be had about the taste of the bread—whether to go with wafers or leavened bread, gluten-free or wheat-based—or whether the wine ought to be Port or chianti, and if it was okay occasionally to use white wine?  (Or, as the Methodists insist, maybe Jesus really does prefer Welch’s Grape Juice above everything else.)  And then there’s the question of what sort of vessel the baptismal water ought to be held in: a font, or a pool?  And if a font, should it be poured from a pitcher during the ceremony, or already in the bowl?  These things matter greatly to some of us, don’t they?  Maybe more than Jesus would have suspected—at least, maybe more than he would have had time and inclination to get bothered about.

Just as Jesus saw the universality of water, bread and wine, he recognized the power and common ground of gardening imagery (the pun was only partly intended!).  Most of us have seen a grapevine at one time or another—some of us here may even have them in our gardens.  If you look closely, you can see the serpentine branches intricately weaving themselves around one another in elaborate patterns and tight curls that make it difficult to tell where one branch starts or another one ends.

We experience that sometimes in life, too.  Life in the church, life in community, is mixed: there are times when the close-knit, tightly woven nature of togetherness is a source of great comfort, reassurance and support.  At other times, life in Christ—as members of one body—can feel too close for comfort.  Messy.  Entangling.  Enmeshed.  And from still another perspective, life in Christian community can appear to be an insider/outsider experience. . . there are those who long to be among the tightly-woven crowd but are straggling along the edges or further down the vine and feeling rather alone, forlorn.

Sometimes we look at people in our community and wonder where one ends and the other begins, bent and twisted out of shape as we can get by our sense that others are in our way—or maybe in our efforts to not get in someone else’s way.  Occasionally, it can feel like one branch or another seems to dominate the space.  In subtle or not-so-subtle ways, it becomes apparent that there are individuals who always seem to assert their own position more forcefully or persuasively than everyone else, and the branches or individuals around that one give way.  This has the result of that particular branch becoming even stronger, often more stubborn or difficult when it comes to pruning time.

Especially in vines that are flourishing, there’s an intricate tangle of branches and tendrils.  But those branches and tendrils, discreet but enmeshed as they may be, are all connected to the vine itself.  And the vine shares with its branches the nutrients that sustain it—the vine is the life force of the whole plant.  In last week’s lectionary gospel lesson, Jesus used the image of a shepherd’s care for his sheep to describe his relationship with his followers.  Today’s image is even more intimate: the vine is one with the branches; the branches have no hope of surviving without the vine.  As Christians, we have no hope individually or collectively of growing and flourishing without a clear connection to God in Christ Jesus, and the spiritual life that he continues to nourish within us.

“By this we know that we abide in him and he in us,” our epistle lesson reminds us, “because he has given us of his Spirit.  . . . God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”[1]  It’s a very basic message—one that takes us right to the foundation of our faith and purpose in life: it’s all about love.  Living in love, and reaching out in love.  It’s about abiding in God, who is love.  It’s about staying closely connected to the True Vine, attentive to and aware of our life-source.  And it’s about branching out, empowered by the love within us—by God’s own Spirit within us—to share that love with a world that so often feels overcome with suspicion and hatred and discrimination and fear… all of the things that resist or reject love.

Friends, I’ve heard about your welcoming spirit here, your outreach into the community of Brookline as you extend hospitality and Christian love in a variety of creative ways, from community meals (e.g., your upcoming Breakfast Buffet on May 5th to benefit Marguerite’s Place in Nashua), to social events (a member of the Hollis Congregational Church enthused about how warmly he was welcomed at a winter holiday event you held here in Brookline), and special services outside the walls of this church.  I’ve also witnessed it firsthand, when my family visited this church on a summer Sunday a couple years ago, and at the installation service for Rev. Merrill in 2015.  You are blessed to have, in your Pastor and Teacher, a leader whose spirit naturally exudes the love of God with warmth and welcome—but you know as well as I do, she’s not the only one here with those spiritual gifts.  I hope you’re noticing, affirming, and nurturing these gifts in one another!  And I also hope you’re actively working on the tender work of pruning where necessary: courageously tackling the tough realities when certain dynamics, or habits of relationship, or ways of doing ministry together are not bearing good fruit and need to be pared back, let go, radically changed in ways that invites the True Vine to put forth new shoots, even if it’s hard to imagine how or where those might emerge.

I’m excited about the prospect of your new C.E. Director, Lindsey, working with Pat Harris, our Minister of Faith Formation, and Kim Burton and Kim Verrecchia, our Sunday School Superintendents in Hollis, to design and offer an exciting Vacation Bible School program together this summer.  To me, this joint venture is a sign of the Spirit of God on the move among and through our two communities.  I am so pleased that Pastor Catherine suggested a pulpit swap—another gesture in response to a Spirit on the move, working to draw our communities into a closer sense of mutual relationship and ministry.  As fruit-bearing branches of the True Vine, there is surely a lesson here about collectively, and co-operatively, producing a fine communion wine, spiritually speaking.  Obviously, any single branch doesn’t produce much fruit.  But as myriad branches extending from the True Vine, together we participate in turning out abundant fruit—more than we could possibly yield on our own, as we are inspired and challenged by one another, strengthened both by the source of our life and spiritual nutrition, as well as by the branches all around us.

These are things that I’ve observed.  But I’d like to hear what you are excited about, where you see evidence of this community abiding in God’s love, and branching out with that love.  How are you abiding in God’s love in practice?  And what are some of the ways that you’ve been pruning this patch in Christ’s vineyard?

{Invite a time of sharing.}

You are clearly blessed here at the Brookline Community Church.  I want to celebrate with you over the ways in which you are abiding in God’s love, and the ways in which you’re branching out into the world with it.  And I want to challenge you continue to bear fruit—to move forward, to extend outward into the world around us, to be productive branches, to bear fruit by bearing witness and changing the world in the same kinds of ways that Jesus, the True Vine from which we are extensions or branches, did.

May God grant you—and all of us—wisdom and insight, honesty and openness as we all endeavor to be faithful to our holy, humble, exalted call.  And to God, made known in Jesus Christ, be all the glory.  A

[1] 1 John 4:13, 16b

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