Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 3, 2015
In the name of God, who made and knows us; the Savior, who redeems and befriends us; and the Spirit who enlightens and sustains us. Amen.
A prophet once came to a city to convert its inhabitants. At first, people listened to his sermons, but gradually drifted away until no one was left to hear him. One day a visitor to the city asked him, “Why do you continue to preach if no one comes to hear you?” The prophet said, “At first, I was preaching to change these people. Now I shout to prevent them from changing me.”
There seems to be a resurgence of religious leaders in America who take the Bible literally and believe that we all should do likewise. So I’m amused when we get to a passage like today when Jesus says something like “I am the true vine.” Is he telling us that he twined himself around trees or grows on poles? Was he taught to spread over stone walls? Jesus also said that he is the bread of life. Was his essence sourdough or rye? Absurd as this seems, the point is that the Scriptures, and especially John’s Gospel, are very metaphorical—not literal—and we get a prime example in today’s post Easter Gospel.
John’s image of the “true vine” suggests the uniqueness of Jesus, the one in whom we find abundant life and expresses the importance of intimacy between believers and the Risen Christ. It also suggests the corporate nature of our faith community. There are no “individual” branches nor is there “going it alone” in Christian community. We interweave and intertwine and encircle each other, all living together and drawing from the same source of grace in Christ.
This week I had a lot of vines removed from the side of my house. It reminded me of this passage and suggested something else about vines: they cling. They hug and cleave and latch onto whatever they can. On the right surface it may be attractive; on the wrong surface like the wood siding of a house they can be destructive.
I followed my train of thought to ask the question to what do we as branches of the vine cling? What do we grip? I thought this a particularly salient question in a week where we followed the escalating loss of life – now almost 7,000 people— after the earthquakes in Nepal and the violence, both violent actions directed at a single individual and later out-of-control crowds rioting and looting and paralyzing the city. Last night there was a double shooting in Bridgeport. To what can we the “vine branches” cling in the face of such profound loss, abject chaos, grave injustice, and what seems to be huge discord and divide in our land?
There’s been a lot to process in the past week. Actually, there has been a lot to process in the last year. So thinking again about that prophet who came to a certain city I’m wondering what the rest of the world is hearing in the readings to which we listened today. Or have they tuned out as well?
I hear a story of radical hospitality in the reading from Acts. The Ethiopian was clearly the outsider here, what the Greeks would call “ξεινος” (ksaynos)–a stranger or alien. Here was diversity for sure: a Eunoch who was not a Jew and whose ethnicity indicates he would have looked very different from Philip with his very dark skin. Philip engages in conversation with him, shares the Good News of God’s love and acceptance, and, when the man asks to be baptized, Philip did it. Here we see the Spirit acting in the courtier and in Philip. They listened. The Ethiopian asked, “What prevents me from being baptized?” Today the stranger might stand in our midst and ask “What prevents me from coming to God’s Table this morning.” The answer: “Not a thing; absolutely nothing.”
John’s letter about the nature of God as a consummate lover and our call to love one another further raises the question of what people hear when they read this text. I believe it proclaims our uniqueness—being created in the image of God and what that implies for us. Certainly, it points us to a life in which we will respect the dignity of every human being, seek and serve Christ in all persons, a world where we are all equals in the eyes of God and where power and oppression are alien forces. And it seems so contrary to that kind of love that anyone would be denigrated or marginalized or abased because she or he was in any way different.
Our lives as branches and our stories as vine followers of Jesus tell us that we are all connected to each other and to God in Christ. We don’t have to sit back and listen to distortions about God’s Word or abide the abuses done in the name of religion by biblical literalists. What we can cling on to is the authentic good news of God’s love and we can raise our voices like that prophet to shout out about the radical hospitality as we see it manifested in the reading from Acts. We can unashamedly claim our place in the wider church as a community that affirms and rejoices in diversity because it was God’s idea first and we can as a faith community unabashedly and without apology open our table—God’s Table—to all who come hungry and thirsty for the feast God freely offers there. And we can stand in solidarity with those who become targets of hate and rebuke those who use religion to mask the face of God and humiliate and abuse others. We can cling to this community and use our financial resources to support its work to stands up for the truth of the Gospel; for, God knows, the institutions and their leaders that spew harmful rhetoric by misrepresenting God’s Word are well supported by their patrons.
“I am the vine,” Jesus tells us today. And we are the branches—the life bearing, life giving instruments of God’s love in the world who can make a difference. Sometimes we need to think bigger—to get outside the box to do God’s work. Sometimes, like that prophet, we can’t sit still and be silent. Sometimes we not only need to hear what God is saying. We actually have to do something about it.