“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener (v 1)” says Jesus to his gathered disciples in his farewell address to them, in the 15th chapter of John. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit (v 5); No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me”. (v 4)
How would it impact us if we understood our lives – as individuals and even more than that, as a Church – as organically, completely connected to Christ? In today’s worship service we’ll have three briefer reflections taking the place of a single sermon, each one exploring this question from a different angle.
Welcome, all, to this time of Worship.
Message 1: INTEGRITY
We, as Church and as individuals, are called to be “people of integrity”, practicing what we preach, and to recognize our integrity in an entirely different way: the integrating reality of Christ-the-true-vine.
A quote variously attributed to Caleb Miller or Eston Williams says “at the end of the day, I’d rather be excluded for who I include, than included for who I exclude.” This is what it is to understand ourselves as branches emanating from the vine that is Jesus. We go back to the gospels, and we hear Jesus telling parables that surprise us as to who we are to regard as neighbour, or that overturn our ideas of wealth and poverty. We see where Jesus goes, the company he keeps, his commitment to justice. We feel the touch of Jesus in our infirmity, even ailments that embarrass us or cause us to be secretive, and we feel the presence of the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus as we are moved to acts of love, compassion and solidarity. Remembering all of those ways of being from the life of Jesus, the true vine, and as branches attached to that vine we open ourselves to recognize love and embrace love and be uplifted by love and have our words and actions shaped by affirming, boundless, ridiculously gracious love.
There is some irony to all this. In one way, living out all those things we learned from Jesus is an awful lot of work. Paying attention to the needs of our neighbours, including the needs of nature and wildlife, requires attentiveness and persistence and action. Living by the inclusive values of Jesus requires some good old fashioned “gumption.” Yet even as we are aware of all we need to do in order for there to be some positive results in Jesus’ name – to “bear fruit” as John 15 would say – we also acknowledge that the key to all this, is to open ourselves to Christ our source, the vine to which we are attached. Perhaps the hardest work, is to let go, and allow Christ’s love to flow into us and through us.
I recognize and celebrate my agency to make decisions about about my life, and part of our call to be a non-racist and Affirming Church is to do everythig possible to ensure that all people, regardless of their ethnicity or religion or education or sexual identity, have that same degree of agency. It is a significant part of our Christian calling, to see and remove the barriers – physical or attitudinal or legislative – that keep others from full participation. We do these very “individual” things, because we understand ourselves as part of one entity, integrally connected branches emanating from one vine. And while the language of this is very Christian, Richard Rohr reminds us that our unity, our one-ness, goes beyond a profession of Christian faith: God has infused love into all of creation, all living beings. We recognize our one-ness with all; ours is not a call to exclusive rights and privileges extended only to folks who embrace Christ in one particular way.
As we ponder this one-ness, this integrity that connects us to Christ’s love, I invite you to join in a sung version of The Lord’s Prayer…
Message 2: ACCOUNTABILITY
For many, this is the time of year to get things ready for planting, readying ourselves to take advantage of all 56 days of our brief growing season. Today’s image of a vine and branches and bearing fruit, however, has quite a bit longer timeline in mind.
A wee bit of research by my friend, professor Google, tells me that a grapevine can have a fruit-bearing life of 50 to 100 years or even more, with some of California’s oldest vineyards containing grapevines dating back to the 1880s. So when John 15 presents us with a grapevine, it’s not something whose life cycle begins and ends in one growing season. It’s an enduring vine which connects us to our history, and our accountability.
Wouldn’t it be grand to be able to simplify life and say “The past is past. I’m only responsible for things that happen, starting today” – ? That, of course, is not how things work. No matter how gracious and forgiving we understand God to be, where we stand today, includes appropriate accountability for what happened before. As we travel along the vine that is Christ Jesus, reaching backward from this moment to the moment that God the gardener first planted the vine, we will encounter a lot of amazing, brave, prophetic people and movements… and we will also revisit some truly tragic, unconscionable things that have been done by the Church and by ruling powers in the name of Jesus Christ. I celebrate what it means to be “in the vine” because it keeps things real; that includes the ongoing accountability of the Christian Church for the more difficult seasons along the way – and for the consequences that express themselves even today. I do not hold Christ responsible for these things, but Christ, the source of reconciliation and grace, expects me and us to address these injustices.
In particular, I personally, and we as a Denomination, have much to answer for in our relationship with the first peoples of these lands. The calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission make this clear, if it wasn’t clear before. As a third-generation United Church Minister, with a personal heritage of Church service dating back to 1916, there is no way for me to point to the legacy of the Residential Schools and not take some degree of personal responsibility. And as a congregation whose nearest United Church neighbour to the east is at Morley, we cannot claim this is someone else’s problem. And so, we engage in a process of reconciliation, and we open ourselves to a shared pathway into a more just and loving future. I commend to you the efforts being made to make sure that any curriculum taught in Alberta schools does not minimize or deflect the story of the Residential Schools. I invite you to prayerfully engage in Red Dress/REDress day on and around May the 5th, when the lives of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, girls, and two-spirit people are commemorated, at Ralph Connor (starting on May 3), at St Andrew’s United Church in Cochrane on May 5, and in an online gathering. You will find links to all these, on the home page of our website, ralphconnor.ca
In the spirit of reconciliation, lament, and commitment to a new day: a video inviting us to REDress Day, May 5th…
see also https://ralphconnor.ca/redress-day-may-5/ and https://www.facebook.com/MMIWG2SCochrane/
Message 3: ENCIRCLED BY LOVE
Gail O’ Day, the author of a wonderful commentary on the Gospel of John, offers this: “the image of community that emerges from John 15:1-17 is one of interrelationship, mutuality, and indwelling. To get the full sense of this interrelationship, it is helpful to visualize what the branches of a vine actually look like. In a vine, branches are almost completely indistinguishable from one another; it is impossible to determine where one branch stops, and another branch starts. All run together as they grow out of the central vine. What this vine image suggests about community, then, is that there are no free-standing individuals in the community, but branches who encircle one another completely. The fruitfulness of each individual branch depends on its relationship to the vine, nothing else…To live according to this model, then, the church would be a community in which members are known for the acts of love that they do in common with all other members. It would not be a community built around individual accomplishments, choices, or rights, but around [shared] accountability to the abiding presence of Jesus and [common] enactment of the love of God and Jesus”.
As I envision these branches completely encircling one another, I am both wrapped in a feeling of protective love, like snuggling up in a prayer shawl on a tough day, and more than a bit claustrophobic, wanting to shake free of that level of closeness and get out for some fresh air.
But what I want to focus on here, is the best sense of close connection: that sense that wherever you are, whatever your circumstances, whatever negativity you are dealing with in your self-talk or your social media chatter, you are a beloved child of God, held in the love of a community that understands itself as fed and nurtured by the brave, life-affirming love of Jesus. This is not intended by John or by Jesus, as a calling to be one of those old-fashioned, life-limiting tight-knit groups that asserts community norms on those who stray; we are to be a branch of Christ’s own love, continuing the flow of empowering, nurturing goodness that begins in Christ the vine.
This coming week is designated as Mental Health Week, a time for what David Robertson called us to in last week’s sermon: compassion for oneself, and leaning into the care of community. It may also be a time for a gentle check-in if you are concerned about someone who has disappeared a bit from notice. And as much as we don’t want to be intrusive, I can tell you first-hand from my lost year 22 years ago, how important it is in those hard times to be reminded (a) that you are not invisible and (b) that your situation is not so unique that you are beyond care or assistance or if needed, therapeutic intervention.
To be connected to the vine that is Jesus Christ, is to be totally connected to love. It is to hold in our prayers and actions, God’s own highest intentions for the life of another, Christ’s active hope that your journey of life will be supported and guided by love. That is a hope for you and for me, for us together in our local congregations, for the United Church of Canada and for all Churches who claim the name of Jesus Christ. We are to be branches that enable love to flow freely and graciously in all lives and situation where love needs to be known.
In that spirit, friends, we share a prayer produced for Mental Health Week by the United Church of Canada, and the United Church of Christ…
O’Day, Gail. John. “Gospel of John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume IX. Nashville: Abingdon, 1995. Accessed via Stoffregen, Brian https://mailchi.mp/d0846d52a5c2/gospel-notes-john-151-8?e=ac0c055952
Robertson, David. “Praying our Tears – Living our Joy.” A Zoom presentation to Chinook Winds Region of the United Church of Canada, 14 April 2021.
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ. NYC: Convergent, 2019.
“The United Church of Canada’s Response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action”. Nov. 2019. https://united-church.ca/sites/default/files/ucc-response-trc-calls.pdf
United Church of Canada and United Church of Christ. “Radical Belonging: A Mental Health Sunday Resource for all.” https://united-church.ca/sites/default/files/2021-04/radical-belonging.pdf
© 2021 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church