Branches Bearing Fruit

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
May 6, 2012 I John 4:7-21/John 15:1-8

If I were a betting man, I might have placed a small wager yesterday on the #7 horse running in the Kentucky Derby. He went off at 50-1 odds and finished eighth in a field of 20, not bad. If you didn’t pull for him yesterday, as I did, perhaps you would be this morning. His name is “Rousing Sermon.” Or perhaps by now you are cheering for the horse that came in fourteenth, named, believe it or not, “Done Talking.”


At any rate, I want to make a case this morning, and I want to begin by sharing a moment from our domestic life. Presumably, when our house was built some 60 years ago, the city of Rochester planted two trees in what I’ve always called the “devil strip,” the portion of lawn between the sidewalk and the street. (Maybe it’s an Ohio term!) The trees grew and grew, throwing off shade, pumping oxygen back into the atmosphere, shedding huge amounts of leaves in the fall, providing a nuisance when trying to navigate the lawnmower around them, but all in all, doing what trees do – offering silent and majestic testimony to the beauty of God’s creation.

At times, when big winds blew or ice came, we would discover a larger branch in the front lawn, and I would leave it there for weeks and months until it was mowing season again. Other than that, not much, except, again, for extraordinary and graceful beauty.

Until this winter, when we found a note taped to our front door indicating that the city had detected too much death and decay in one tree and would be cutting it down, and soon. I went out and looked at it. There was some decay, yes, but unschooled in matters arboreal, I let it go.

Until one morning, when, on sabbatical, I was inside reading an appropriately theological tome. Our street is busy, so noise from trucks and work crews and every other kind of machine is common, but this sounded very near, in-front-of-our-house near. I looked out. A crew of three was in front, and an hour or so later the tree was no more. It was amazing to watch – the talented men climbing up and down with the cherry picker, tying ropes, guiding the big chainsaw effortlessly, so that they would not get whacked nor would a branch land on a car passing by.

Sixty years – and then gone. What I most remember was that at every big cut, when a branch had been tied off and a worker had positioned the saw just right and made the right cut and all was done, another worker would guide the now lifeless limb to the ground. When it hit, not only did it land with a thud, and a loud one, it shook our very house, some 50 or 60 feet away. Though now just a stump, it would not go quietly after all those years, all that shade, all those leaves, and all that house-shaking drama.

Because I am not sure if anything could have even been done to save the tree, by previous owners, by us, by the city, or why this one and not its nearby twin, I am not sure if this is just an illustration of a moment, or a cautionary tale, or an invitation, or an opportunity. But I do know it’s a memory now, and a powerful image.

I want this morning to make a case for what we are doing, being church, being community, and its great need in our city and world, and that, even when we come up short or miss the mark, which we as a human institution often do, what we offer matters, to those of us inside this community and those of us beyond, even way beyond.

In the little letter at the end of the New Testament called I John, the writer calls us to love one another, because love is from God. We are told that as we love one another, God will love us. As simple and as profound as that.

Earlier, during his ministry, Jesus is talking to his followers, using language and imagery that prompted my memory of the tree in our devil strip. Jesus interweaves this imagery with the principle of love. “I am the vine,” he says, “you are the branches. Those who abide in me bear much fruit…apart from me you can do nothing.” We cannot grow and thrive unless we are connected to the source, the vine. We cannot bear fruit without being connected to Jesus. And by extension, we cannot bear fruit without being connected to one another. And love is the force and the gift that binds it all together, and love is the fruit that we bear, the shade that we cast, the love that we exhale back into a hurting and starving world.

That’s why I want to make a case for what we are doing, being church, being community, and its great need.

In one of the most important books I’ve read, The Company of Strangers, Parker Palmer tells the story of the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. On a rare trip out of his monastic cloister, Merton went to downtown Louisville for a doctor’s appointment. He remembers: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness (and) self-isolation.”

We are not alien to one another. Branches -- created by a loving God not to live in isolation, but to be connected, even with people fully different than we are, people we will never meet, even on the other side of the world.

It is not just a quaint notion, nor is it to be manifested exclusively in the church. We need to participate in, and perhaps lead, a much broader conversation, about how our culture and world and city all live in such a dis-connected way. We are fractured and factionalized. We lack political cooperation. Technology divides us and isolates us as much as it connects us. “We are one,” U2 sings, “but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other.” We are one, and we DO get to carry each other – but even if we believe that, we don’t act like it. We seem to live every branch for itself, which leads to no fruit, no growth, no shade, death.

This fall, as we approach a presidential election, we will spend some time looking at these broader cultural and political issues. But this morning is a morning for the church, where we are reminded that we are a connected community FOR that world out there, and for one another, that our flourishing branches give shade for all who hurt, beyond our hopefully very porous walls and inside them.

On the day of September 11, 2001, I was appointed to a denominational task force. We met for five years and worked very, very hard, lots of meetings, lots of travel. We were named the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church, after one of the ordination questions that our new deacons and elders will answer this morning. Our issues were the difficult and familiar ones: how can we keep the church together in the midst of huge conflict.

We proposed a new approach to ordination, that would allow those who were open to be open, and those who weren’t, not. A compromise to allow for conscience and local latitude, and that would maintain unity. It passed the General Assembly something like 55-45, hardly a rousing majority, and the fight continued. We pressed hard for unity, for the branches holding together to the Presbyterian vine, not just because it's a good organizational model, but because of this vision.

And yet how difficult that has proven to be. Would it be easier to walk away, go our separate ways? Some are doing that right now, to a new denomination that was formed in January, or another denomination, which some in our presbytery are contemplating. It would certainly be easier for all of us, except that Jesus tells us that he is the vine and we are the branches and that love holds us together.

It’s a challenging vision even when church politics aren’t at play.

The sociologist Robert Putnam famously wrote several years ago that we are a culture that values “bowling alone.” And it does. But if it’s a challenge, it is also a huge opportunity.

The ethicist Larry Rasmussen asks “…how do we order life together in a world with a nasty tendency to fall apart?” Shaping communities, Rasmussen, writes, takes on urgency. It takes imagination and commitment and involvement. (See “Shaping Communities,” in Practicing Our Faith, edited by Dorothy C. Bass, pages 119-132) The kind of community we are called to be is urgently needed within and beyond.

For the past several months, our inReach Task Force has held focus groups, visited groups and committees, done online surveys. Thanks for your help in this. What you are telling us is what the culture is telling those who ask, that in the face of isolation and individualism, we are hungry for community, starving for connection, for relationship. We know we are connected, branch to branch to branch, and we are seeking ways to cultivate and nurture our growth.

Parker Palmer writes how difficult building connection is. “Attempts at community (may) fail,” he writes. Yet “we must not abandon the quest.” “The church,” Palmer writes, “can become a community which frees us from the fears that breed private seclusion and leads us instead toward …creative possibilities…If this is to happen, it will depend not so much on the …sophistication of church programs as on the quality of the congregation’s spiritual life…as we…discern the presence of God – within us, between us, among us, beyond us – (to) develop human relations full of hope and healing…” (Pages 121-134)

Rowan Williams speaks of the church as a community “that displays God’s freedom in loving and forgiving, and is at peace with creation as well as Creator.” This vision, he admits, is “visible only in pretty patchy ways when we look at the actual history of Christian community.” And it is. But we believe these things about the church, he says, and embrace the vision, not because of evidence, but because of what we believe about Jesus. (See Tokens of Trust, pp. 105-134)

We live out those beliefs this morning. We celebrate Communion gathered around the table, all of us connected, not just Jesus and me, but Jesus and us: in this place, in the church across time and space, all of us, vine and branches. And we ordain and install church leaders. It is marked powerfully by laying on of hands, as we do what people have done for 2000 years, as people have done in this congregation for nearly a tenth of that time. The vows taken are not just for this community, but for the whole church, vine and branches. This is what we believe.

Hard work. Never happening automatically. Sometimes more real in the vision than in the reality. But always powerful and always profound. And never more needed than now. That’s why the now missing tree is an invitation and an opportunity, and not a cautionary tale.

Clearly God is doing something in the life of the church. The Spirit is calling us to focus on who we are as a body, as a community, connected. Some pruning may be needed, as we jettison old ways and attitudes to make room for new ones. But God is not done with THE church and God is certainly not done with this church. We are branches connected to the vine, and connected to each other – in love. We are not ready to be firewood just yet. Amen.



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