May 9, 2021
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
When I was a freshman in High School, the church I grew up in invited me to be a part of a confirmation class. On Sundays after worship, we’d gather in our youth room, with Pastor Thom. He loved to learn and teach, and throughout the year, we explored what we believed about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. I felt at home, realizing that this might be what I wanted to do with my life, exploring how our lives could be shaped by faith. The problem though was that I wasn’t always sure what I believed. I had lots of questions, and Confirmation gave me more of them. When I would just start to figure out what I thought about God, when I felt connected to the Holy, to other people, when I felt a sense of purpose, like I could be a part of something that Jesus was up to in the world, something would shift. We’d learn a new way of approaching scripture, or about another religious tradition, and I’d have to start from scratch, writing my statement of faith. My faith felt full of starts and stops. For a brief moment, everything would make sense, and then…it would be like starting from scratch. I thought something was wrong with me. I’ve shared before that I grew up in a small rural town that was full of kids who were Evangelicals and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and being around them, I heard that your faith was supposed to grow, be built up. They talked about how Maybe you fell away from the truth, but you came back, realizing the error of your ways, but it didn’t restart. But for me, I felt like every time I learned more, there were new questions to explore, new possibilities. For many of us, I imagine that our faith has changed a few times. As a young man, it was disorienting to feel the shifting of my beliefs. I knew folks who seemed so sure, spoke with such conviction. But just when I would think I had a firm foundation, the world would change, or I’d experience a new challenge in my life, I’d learn in history classes in school about movements for justice, and I’d have to reassess what I believed, and what Jesus’ love called me to partner with. As a teenager I wanted some kind of certainty, some foundation I could build on. Instead, I found that anything I tried to put into words about my faith felt like it was on shifting sand. That’s why our text from this morning is such a gift. The Gospel of John is full of sayings of Jesus about who he is, what the family of God is like, stories that offer surprising ways to think about and love God and our neighbors. As a teenager I was surprised to discover that Jesus’ friends, right when they would start to think they had figured Jesus out, would get confused, or have a question, be surprised by what Jesus did. This wasn’t the kind of faith I saw being preached by the folks I grew up around. But it did seem like the kind of journey I was having with Pastor Tom and my friends from church. I felt like I had a home base, to explore and be challenged from, folks who loved me, and were used to being surprised by what they discovered about God. In today’s sayings we heard, there’s a reminder that we’re connected to the Holy, not through what we do, or what we believe, but because Jesus loves us. And as we grow from that love, we might experience some restarts. A little pruning, so that new growth can happen for a while. Some of our beliefs, practices, and work for love, for a while might create wholeness, relationships and mutual love of God and neighbor, what scripture refers to as fruit of the commonwealth of God. These breakthroughs, these times of connection and growth, Jesus reminds us and his friends that there’s likely going to be some pruning, some things we lose afterwards, so we can grow again. What remains is that Jesus loves us, that we are connected. We’re a branch off a vine. To grow fruit, there’s pruning involved. Beloved, Sometimes our calling changes. Sometimes what gives us life shifts. The ways we find ourselves connected to the holy, will sometimes dry up. And you’re not what you produce; Jesus’s vine isn’t about you producing for the sweatshop of God. Instead, it’s the connection to God that is the focus. It’s not that making change happen in the world isn’t important; far from it. But often the kind of love manifest in the world we get to be a part of, is going to occur where we feel the most raw, the most vulnerable and knew and young, whatever age we are. Eventually it became time for me in my confirmation class to write a statement of faith. I had lots of questions still. But I knew where I would start. The year before confirmation, when I was in the eighth grade, my mother had a heart attack. We were at a potluck on Easter, with folks from church, and suddenly my Mom told my father and I we needed to go to the hospital. My parents were rushed back into the ER, and I was told to sit in the waiting room. I was only there a few moments, alone and afraid, when I saw my friend Alex from church and her parents walk in. They came to sit with me and wait to hear what was going on. I couldn’t tell you what they said, but in that moment, when I was afraid and alone, they were with me, and that made all the difference in the world. Over the next week pastor Tom came, folks brought food to us, we saw God’s love in the people around us. My mother had surgery and recovered, but I had felt my world shaken. My mother was the constant in my life. My relationship with my Dad was difficult, but with her, I felt loved and accepted for who I was, and saw how to risk loving others. But when she became ill, I saw other people motivated by love, not born of being a parent or family, but from a source beyond. I wanted to be a part of that in other people’s lives, because when we needed it most, people showed up. My statement of faith talked about what that meant to me, how I saw Jesus in others. It wasn’t my whole faith, but it was a starting point that, for years, reminded me, connected me to the Holy when I couldn’t make sense of much else. Friends, there are going to be parts of our faith journeys that will make us question what we believe about our lives, the Holy, and our place in the ongoing story of Jesus. What brings us strength and comfort, will inevitably change over time. It can be freeing, to throw off the expectations we had, or were placed on us in the past. It can also feel disorienting, to feel cut off from the source of love and hope we used to know. But there’s something comforting to me, that most of the time, Jesus’ disciples are super confused by what he does and says, how he speaks about God. We’re likely to find growth and opportunities to partner with what God is up to in the world, right where we are the most confused. That just seems to be how we grow. It seems like this past year, there’s been a lot of pruning back in our lives. There’s been grief and loss, lots of changes to how we gather and worship and engage in ministry. But there’s also so much new growth I see in so many of you. Maybe right where you feel the most new, is right where love is calling forth a beautiful flowering bud, that can feed you and our hungry world. Or maybe you’ve been carrying around too much responsibility, trying to be connected to too much, stretching yourself thin, and this is a chance to prune back, so the next chapter of your life can start to bud. Maybe there are relationships that are starting, or ones you’ve realized it’s time to let go of, a calling to step up to love and care for others, or a need to hand over the weight to others. Just know this; we are the branches. It’s not all up to you. Jesus is the vine, and we need that connection. It’ll change, it might be just the beginning of a bud of a relationship after so much has been pruned back, but it’s not all up to you. Sometimes we’re called to let others feed us, while we’re regrowing after a pruning, as we learn anew what it means to be loved. I am feeling very grounded these days. There’s a lot of challenges ahead I know, but I’ve found that I have a chance to reconnect to that confusing, life giving vine, the foundation of our being, our holy Sibling Jesus. The last thing I need to do is try to do more. But after so much grief and isolation, now is a time for being reminded of God’s love for us, and our love for one another. I’m not sure what that’ll mean for me yet, maybe some time spent in prayer, or starting to see a spiritual director to nurture my connection to God. But there’s a little space, to be fed by the mystery. I know this though; I feel so much love from all of you, and from my family. So much that I look forward to what will branch out, for this next season. May it be so.