May 6, 2012Acts 8:26-40
1 John 4:7-21
I want to focus this morning on the Gospel lesson. The other two lessons are important, and I may refer to them, but I want to spend most of our time on Jesus image of the Vine and the Branches.
Now if you want some homework, I’ll give you a project from the first lesson in Acts. Here we see the beginning of the Egyptian church. So if you need an excuse to Google, look up the Coptic Church and read the Wikipedia article.
To set the Gospel lesson in context, Jesus is talking after or during the last supper. John includes a huge volume of material here that isn’t in the other gospels. And in this particular section Jesus is painting a word picture of a vine, it’s branches, and a gardener.
Now, as I talk, I want to you look at the bowl of grapes sitting up on the altar, a reminder of the fruit that Jesus is talking about. Secondly, I have another bowl of grapes here that I am going to pass around. Take a few and eat them. They are really good. So take a grape or two and pass the bowl and make sure everybody gets some. But when you pick them, notice how the grapes are all connected to a central stalk, to the vine.
The vine is Jesus, the gardener is God the Father, and the branches are the disciples, and it seems probable that it refers to later disciples like us as well. Jesus also claims to be the “true” vine. Perhaps he’s implying that other people or things claim to be the source of divine life, but will prove to be false.
God the gardener, prunes the good branches so they do even better. Interesting, the branches that don’t bear fruit are not cut off by the gardener. Here we see the image, the metaphor begins to move away from the vine. It looks like some branches simply choose to try on their own.
But Jesus has a stern warning. Branches are not vines. They are incapable of staying alive, (at least spiritually), without being connected, “abiding” in the vine.
Abide means to hang out with, to live with, to spend time with. Jesus is saying our spiritual life depends upon a regular ongoing connection to him.
I remember when I was a small child in New Mexico. I’d pick flowers, put them in water, and wonder why they died. Eventually I made the connection that when you cut something away from the root, it may stay green and pretty for a few days, but it will eventually wither.
So how do we connect, abide, stick close, hang out with Jesus?
There are a few things I’ve learned about my relationship with Christ. I’m sharing them this morning, and if some of them are helpful to you, feel free to use any of them.
The first one for me is to be aware of when I am not staying connected. This is a bit dangerous, as it involves feeling. Sometimes I don’t feel very connected to God, but when I look objectively, I realize that I am connected, but I feel disconnected. My feeling may or may not be an accurate assessment of my real condition.
But there is a sort of inventory I use when I think I might be disconnected.
First - I ask myself if there is anything disconnecting me?
Second – I make sure that I have real support for my relationship with Jesus.
Third – If I do find some disconnects, I don’t try to fix them all at once, I just start with one simple thing that puts me back on a trajectory to re-connect.
Fourth – I plan every year to take some intentional retreat time. I know myself well enough to know that I need some down time, where I can be refreshes emotionally and spiritually.
So back to number 1.
When I ask where my disconnects are, I’ve discovered five areas where I get myself in trouble. (I’m sure there are more than 5 but these are the most common in my life.)
These are fear, guilt, busyness, apathy, and idolatry.
Fear – Sometimes I don’t want to get too close to God because I have a pretty good idea that God is going to ask me to do something I’m afraid to do, or seems difficult to do.
Guilt – Then there are the times when I’m avoiding God because I’ve done something I shouldn’t or I didn’t do something I should have. When I’m feeling guilty, I don’t want to be in the same room with God. Of course God is everywhere, so it’s this silly sort of routine. It’s like being at a party where you know someone is there you want to avoid so you try to maneuver around and not make eye contact.
Busyness – This is one of my best ways to disconnect from God. I’m a pastor. I excel at busyness. There is always more to do. And I can tell myself that I’m too busy to spend time with God, but that is really OK because I’m doing all this wonderful work for God, and the Church, and the Community. But really it can become another way of not taking the time to be with God.
Apathy – I really like the old word Acedia from the 7 deadly sins. We sometimes call it sloth. But it’s more than just laziness. This is when I willfully choose unbelief. I tell myself there is no God, or God can’t really understand what I’m going through, or God really doesn’t even care about the situations or problems I see or am facing. As a persistent pessimist, this is one of my real danger disconnects from God.
Idolatry – This one is another place I get into trouble. And I do it in several ways. First, I put myself in God’s shoes. I love to fix problems. And I am sometimes good at it. But sometimes I put myself in God’s place trying to fix problems in other people’s lives or myself. And sometimes I put a project or a church event, or something I really want to buy in first place, and slowly but surely I disconnect from God.
So, what happens when I find one or more of these in my life?
First, I’ve learned over the years to build in support networks. I stay in touch with other local clergy who I can share honestly with. I also have been blessed to be part of a number of support groups that help keep me grounded. Bible study and church worship are two other places where I get the support I need. I need Sunday mornings, and I need Holy Communion, the Eucharist, as much as anything else. Having regular support gives me some incentive to re-connect.
Next, I have learned not to try to do everything all at once. I have a friend who loves to ask, “How do you eat an elephant?” And his answer is always the same. “One bite at a time.” For me that means to simply do the small things that help me reconnect. Call a friend, read a favorite bible passage, use a prayer that means something to me. Do something simple and regular. One of my regular things has been to say grace at every meal. Another has been to put a bible passage on a piece of paper and keep it in my wallet so I see it every time I get money out. Those simple daily things help keep me grounded. If I do see some serious issues in my life, I go to confession. That helps me remain focused and grounded
Finally I’ve learned that I need some intentional re-connect times. This means that every year I plan and find the time and the money to do some kind of God centered retreat. It may be really fun and low-key like Family Camp. Or it may be a more structured event like a silent retreat. I know that I need a more extended time each year to really re-connect with God.
Of course the last piece of this sermon is “So What? What does it matter?” My answer is simple. The fruit we bear becomes the life of the world. Some Orthodox Jews have a legend of the “Lamed Vav Tzadikim”, the 36 righteous. The belief is that it is because of these holy people that God does not destroy the earth. I don’t know about the legend, but I do know that when we connect with Christ and bear fruit we can change the world.
Years ago when we lived in Eagle Pass, I got a phone call. It was a young woman. She gave her name and her last name.
The last name was familiar. She talked about a possible mission trip, and told me the name of the church. It was a church in Northern Virginia that I was familiar with. And her voice was familiar.
Finally she laughed and told me her maiden name. Then she told me she was married to the youth ministry at this particular church.
I was floored. When I met this young lady she was seriously addicted to heavy drugs, and hanging out in the district of Columbia with some very dangerous gang drug dealers.
I had helped her parents basically abduct her into treatment. But she was always pretty unhappy with me, having seen me as an enemy conspirator.
Now, she talked about her sobriety, and told me some more of the story. The long and the short of it was the kids came and were a blessing to the kids at Buen Pastor in Piedras Negras.
Later I thought about how other peoples lives of connection to Christ had impacted me, and how years later my life had touched her life, and how her life had touched a youth groups life, who touched the lives a group of kids in very poor barrios in Piedras Negras Mexico.
Our connection with God matters because you may be the person whose fruit will touch your child, your spouse, your parent, your co-worker, your student, your boss, your neighbor. Your relationship with God has the power to transform the world, one person at a time.