Friday, May 1, 2015

Leafy or Fruitful - What Sort of Branch Do You Want To Be? (Easter 5. May 3 2015)

Homily.  Yr B Easter 5.  May 3 2015.  St. Albans
Readings:  Acts 8.26-40; Ps 22.25-31; 1 Jn 4.7-21; John 15.1-8

Leafy or Fruitful?

“I am the vine, you are the branches.”   That’s what Jesus says.  What sort of branch do you want to be?

In today’s gospel, Jesus uses the image of the grape vine, an image with deep roots in the history of the people of Israel and in the land itself, an image that the prophets often used to illustrate what it means to be the people of God.

Last year Guylaine and I went on a trip to California, and one of the highlights of that trip was our visit to the wine-growing region of Paso Robles.  There, stretched out as far as the eye could see, were row upon row of grapevines, and we stopped and sampled wines in several of the vineyards.  And at the last place we stopped, late in the day, it wasn’t busy, and the only people there were the two of us, the host, and a local, who happened to be one of the vinegrowers from a neighbouring vineyard.  We got to talking, and I asked him about the drought in California, and the effect it had on the vines.

“You must have to do a lot of irrigation in your vineyard during a drought like this.”

“Well,” he replied, “we’re worried about the drought for sure, it will be bad for the vines if it goes on much longer, but we don’t want to be doing too much irrigation.  It’s not good for grape production if the vine gets too much water.  The vines actually produce more grapes when they’re stressed a bit, so we’re careful not to water them too much.  If they get too much water they produce a lot of leaves, but not to much fruit.”

That kind of goes along with what Jesus is saying about the vine, that in order for the branches to bear more fruit, they need to be pruned by the vinegrower.  Snipped back.  Pulled out of their comfort zone.

Because if you just let the vine grow, and give it all the water it wants, eventually it will look something like this.  

Lots of branches, lots of leaves.  Healthy, albeit in an unruly sort of way.  But not much in the way of grapes.

However if you prune the branches, if you limit the water, stressing the plant a little, pulling it out of its comfort zone, this is what you get: 

A vine laden with beautiful grapes, much like the ones we saw in Paso Robles in the middle of the drought.  If you look carefully you can actually see the snip marks where the branches have been pruned.

Now here’s a bit of a paradox.  Even though the image of the vine with grapes probably looks most appealing to us, from the perspective of the plant, producing all that fruit doesn’t actually do the vine itself any good.  The fruit is for others.  But the vine itself, left to its own devices and left to nature, the vine would produce mostly leaves, not fruit.  Because it is the leaves that feed the vine, producing the sugars it needs to grow and survive.

So let me ask you again, what sort of branch do you want to be?  Clearly nobody wants to be dead wood, so let’s leave that option off the table.  Do you want to be leafy or fruitful?  

The leafy branch is happy, prosperous and secure.  It has enough leaves to produce all the sap it needs for itself, in fact it has more than enough, which provides it with a little extra security in the event of a downturn in the weather.

The fruitful branch is a bit stressed.  It receives enough water, but not all it can drink.  It’s been pruned regularly, little snips here and there.  It’s been pulled out of its comfort zone, stressed.  And it produces a tonne of grapes, which are harvested and used to feed others, to make wine for you and me.

Which branch do you want to be?  Happy or purposeful?  Secure or serving others?

The leafy branch reminds me a little bit of the American Constitution which guarantees everyone the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The fruitful branch reminds me of an itinerant preacher who lived 2000 years ago and said to his disciples, “Just as I have loved you, you must love one another.”

The truth is, most of the time, most of us opt for the pursuit of happiness.  The more leaves the better.  Make sure we get what we need, and then try to get a bit more as security.

But Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches.”  And if you want to be connected to Jesus’ vine, then growing leaves is no longer your first priority.  You have a new purpose in life, and that purpose is to bear fruit.

What does bearing fruit look like?  The vine is a relational image.  “I am the vine and you are the branches.”  “Abide in me as I abide in you.”  A fruitful life is a life lived in relationship with Jesus, a life that starts to take on the characteristics of the way Jesus lived.  What are some of those characteristics?  You know them.  Forgiveness.  Compassion.  Reaching out to those who are marginalized.  Proclaiming the good news.  Healing.  Serving others.  Sacrificial love.  Loving your enemies.  You know, the hard stuff.  All of that stuff that takes us a out of our comfort zones, that prevents us from having too narrow a focus on our own needs and desires, that reminds us that we are called to live in right relationship with both God and neighbour.

Now that doesn’t mean we neglect ourselves.  No, it’s important to stay connected to the vine, to be nourished by the source of our being.  But we do that for a purpose, for a purpose that goes way beyond ourselves.

We get another example of what it means to bear fruit in our first reading from Acts today, the crazy story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  It is a cautionary tale, an image of the sort of craziness that might happen in your life if you’re really serious about connecting with Jesus’ vine.  Philip is plugged in, and somehow through that God-connection he senses a call to go to the middle of nowhere, a wilderness road in the desert, miles from all the action in Jerusalem.  Strange, but Philip heeds the call and heads out to the wilderness.  When he gets there, he encounters a stranger. Someone he should never have met.  The Ethiopian is rich and powerful, riding in a chariot.  Philip is a poor Greek Jew who owns nothing but the clothes on his back, wandering on a wilderness road.  As a Jew, Philip shouldn’t even approach the Ethiopian eunuch, for according to the law, eunuchs were to be treated as outcasts. While he was in Jerusalem, this Ethiopian, for all his wealth and power, wouldn’t have even been allowed inside the Temple to worship because of his sexual identity.  He would have had to stay outside, on the periphery.

But when Philip senses the call to go over to the chariot, he doesn’t just go, he runs.  Once there, he breaks all sorts of social and cultural barriers by engaging with the Ethiopian, listening to his questions, proclaiming to him the good news and baptizing him right there and then.  Today, 2000 years later, there are 55 million Christians in Ethiopia, making it one of the ten countries in the world with the largest Christian population.  That’s a lot of grapes. 

There are leafy branches, and there are fruitful branches.  Philip was one of those fruitful branches, connected to the vine and cared for by the vinegrower, even if that meant being pruned out of his comfort zone.

What sort of branch do you want to be?


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