Thanks to all who have been following this blog. You can find additional sermons and blogs, as well as information on my recent books at www.markwhittall.com. ReInvention: Stories from an Urban Church was published in 2016 and can be purchased from Wood Lake Publishing. ReImagine: Preaching from Real Life will be released in September 2017.
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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.
Readings: Acts 8.26-40; Ps 22.25-31; 1 Jn 4.7-21; John
“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
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
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
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.