Sunday, May 10, 2015

Then you will produce much fruit (John 15:1-8)

I am divine and you are de branch ok that is not exactly what Jesus says here and yet it is.  We are not only being commanded by Christ to live in Love of one another we are told we are embedded in Christ’s love for us and thus we are a branch of Christ’s divinity and through us his divine love is shared with the world.
Today’s reading is part of a very long uninterrupted speech given by Christ after he washed the feet of the disciples and Peter’s betrayal is foretold. Interestingly most scholars believe that chapter 15-17 were added later.  No one is saying that it wasn’t part of the original speech it may be part of the oral tradition that one writer heard that another didn’t or it may be a poetic expansion of the Johnine traditions interpretation of Christ’s words.
In Hampton Court England there is a grape vine also known as:

  The Great Vine, Vitis vinifera ‘Shiva Grossa’ (synonym- Black Hamburg), is over 240 years old.

Lancelot 'Capability' Brown directed its planting in 1769 from a cutting taken at Valentines Mansion, in Essex. In 1887 it was already 1.2 metres (4’) around the base. It is now 4 metres (12’) around the base and the longest rod is 36.5 metres (120’).

The Vine is grown on the extension method where one plant fills a glasshouse. In Victorian times it gardeners thought that a larger crop was produced this way. The average crop of black dessert grapes is about 272 kilograms (600lbs), however in the autumn of 2001 it was 383 kilograms (845 lbs) - the best crop ever. The grapes are ripe after August Bank Holiday and are sold during the first three weeks of September.

Queen Victoria had the grapes sent to the Royal Household at Windsor or to Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight. King Edward VII (1901-1910) decided that the grapes were no longer required by the Royal Household and could be sold to visitors.

Later they were sold in small wicker baskets at St. Dunstans, the home for soldiers blinded in the First World War. In the Second World War German P-O-W’s were given the task of thinning out the bunches of grapes.
Cultivation of the Great Vine
In February the buds begin to break. A fertiliser is applied to the soil inside the glasshouse and the vine border outside. Once the new shoots are 2.5 – 5cm or so long, it is then time for disbudding to reduce the number of new shoots. The remaining shoots grow until they are 30-45 cm (12”- 18”) long. They then have their growing point pinched out and are tied in with raffia.

The Vine is protected against mildew by vaporizing sulphur. Immediately after flowering the number of bunches are reduced and the remaining bunches are thinned. During the growing season the Vine is given liquid and foliar feeds. Later in the summer some leaf thinning is carried out to allow sunlight to fall upon the ripening fruit. In November and December when the plant is fully dormant, the fruiting spurs are pruned back to one or two buds.

Jesus, in his day, probably had some knowledge of this process, wine was a cherished commodity and how to grow and care for grapes was common knowledge. However;
Wine production on Israeli lands began thousands of years ago, perhaps even prior to the Biblical era. However, the wines that were made during this time often tasted so bad that bottles shipped to Egypt were garnished with anything that would add flavor. Stopping just short of adding RediWhip, people tossed in everything from honey to berries, from pepper to salt. The bottles sent to Rome, though not lacking flavor, were so thick and so sweet that anyone who didn't have a sweet tooth, or a spoon, wasn't able to consume them.

As a matter of fact when the Muslm conquests of 636 put a halt to Israel wine making no one really complained.
So enough about the facts, let’s get back to the metaphor.  Christ is the vine and we are the branches.  We must be pruned, tied, thinned out in order to produce good fruit.  What does all that mean, and what does this mean for us?
There is no one who sits here and literally cares for us as a gardener would a grape vine.  God doesn’t literally break in and shape our thoughts or way of being. We must make ourselves present to the spirit and allow it to lead us. Thomas Moore says; “Care of the soul requires ongoing attention to every aspect of life.  Essentially it is a cultivation of ordinary things in such a way that soul is nurtured and fostered.”  One must find love and care for oneself in the everyday.  God is in the everyday.  We live in the everyday.
In other words as Christ says in today’s reading if we remain in Christ then Christ shall remain in us. Yes there are distractions throughout the day and things we get caught up in and we are not literally, physically thinking about Christ or even seeking Christ in every moment. Yet if we have touchstones to go to throughout the day then that awareness of Christ with us becomes easier. One sees the Muslim culture where the call to prayer is sounded and all stop to face the east and say their prayers.  This seems foreign to us yet Christianity has a similar practice known as the liturgy of the hours.  The Liturgy of the hours consists of;

Matins (during the night, at midnight with some); also called Vigils or Nocturns or, in monastic usage, the Night Office
Lauds or Dawn Prayer (at Dawn, or 3 a.m.)
Prime or Early Morning Prayer (First Hour = approximately 6 a.m.)
Terce or Mid-Morning Prayer (Third Hour = approximately 9 a.m.)
Sext or Midday Prayer (Sixth Hour = approximately 12 noon)
None or Mid-Afternoon Prayer (Ninth Hour = approximately 3 p.m.)
Vespers or Evening Prayer ("at the lighting of the lamps", generally at 6 p.m.)
Compline or Night Prayer (before retiring, generally at 9 p.m.)
This arrangement of the Liturgy of the Hours is attributed to Saint Benedict. However, it is found in Saint John Cassian's Institutes and Conferences,[12] which describe the monastic practices of the Desert Fathers of Egypt.

You can see if you are living a monastic life in community with this schedule Christ and God are always in your heart and mind.  For the average me, I mean the average Joe this is a bit umm shall we say tight.

But there are lighter versions around such as the divine hours as interpreted by Phyllis Tickle there are four books for each of the seasons and a special book for Christmas time.  They consist of prayers listed day by day with morning, midday, and vespers, now if you are really disciplined there is an order to be recited right before bed.

The concept for those who practice the hours is that all over the world there are Christians everywhere praying all the time the same psalms and songs and prayers.  There is the universal connection to the other and each other.  The problem still is this is a much disciplined practice and very difficult for those who live normal everyday first world lives.

Another practice that many due is wear something that reminds us that we are part of the body of Christ.  That may be a cross, a pendant, a pocket medal, a scapular or a dozen other things.  People wear these day in and day out they do not interrupt their daily routine yet they are a literal touchstone a quick reminder.  All one has to do is reach down and touch their reminder.

Of course I have chosen to live this life day in and day out so at home, in my office, in my car there are gentle constant reminders of the community I love and participate in.  I have millions of ways to keep me connected to Christ and be aware of Christ in me and around me.  I have cards and posters and a Giant rosary.  I have stones and music and buttons.  Yet the simplest tool I have is my mind.

Stop right there I di d not say I was simple.  Let me say this another way, a practice is an only a practice till it becomes a routine.  If we strive to stay connected to Christ each in our own way whatever way that is it becomes embedded in our hearts and our minds so that it becomes a reality.  It just becomes who we are. It becomes natural to us without thinking.

Now I do not believe this vine and branch metaphor ends there.  This embedded Christianity, this engaged contemplative life, for that is what I have described above. This is the contemplative life in which we seek and search out God constantly, but as opposed to living in a monastery, we continue to function day to day, we are not separate from the world but engaged in it as Christians who are constantly living in Christ.

Yet as we allow our practice to become embedded, just another part of our lives, we will find the spirit making us yearn for even more.  Once we get a feel for, and awareness that we are living in Christ daily, we yearn for more.  We want to be better at it.  We want to share it.  We want to shout it. This is the rest of the metaphor from the sermon.

This is the talk about pruning branches.  As we grow in our Christianity certain aspects of our habits, our ways of being, are pruned away to make room for the more.  We are constantly called to be better.  First we are called as Christians to learn what that means for us and how we can live as Christians, day in and day out.  Then our simple practices become embedded ways of being and we seek out other practices.  Those other practices strengthen us further until being a Christian can no longer be just about my spiritual life but the life and care of others.

The metaphors of pruning, I see, as metaphors of self-improvement.  The more we strive to be better Christians the more we will prune away those practices that are not healthy for us.  We need to prune away blame and jealousy.  We need to prune away our pain and anger.  We need to prune away our fear and distrust.

As those part of ourselves, as we catch ourselves maybe being to down today for something I have no control over. As we see ourselves angry over somebody else’s expression of a belief that we see as antiquated or out of touch.  As we catch ourselves walking past the homeless or mentally ill on the street.  This is the beginning of the pruning.  We catch ourselves and maybe, afterwards, hold ourselves responsible.  The key is to forgive ourselves and then do something about it.

At the beginning of each service we have the words of assurance. Nothing we can do can separate us from the love of God.  But we sure as heck, do all in our might to be sure we ignore it.  We have to forgive ourselves, as well as others, but then we have to do something. We as the body of Christ, as people living in Christ and knowing that Christ is in us we must let the light shine through.

Again this is part of that pruning thing.  As I read in the care of the great vine, not only is the vine pruned but it is fed, watered, and fertilized, then it produces fruit.  What is your fruit?  What have you done to help change yourself and then change this world, so that it more resembles the kindom of heaven than a human wasteland?

You see what comes of this engaged Christianity is we are part of this world and we are working and striving to make it a better place not only by our own behaviors but in how we respond to others and how we reach out.  That is why UCC is involved in so many different mission type work as a denomination and as individual churches.  We have the feeding program and the hats and scarves and the solar empowerment project.

There are opportunities to engage locally and or globally. We are researching the possibility of a project with Habitat for humanity in cooperation with a number of the other United Church of Christ Churches. Individually through global missions you can sponsor a child.  We have UCC National disaster ministries that works here at home for those struck by tornadoes, floods, or hurricanes and more. There is an office of volunteer ministries that within its lists of possibilities are mission trips for groups, disaster volunteering, young adult service communities, summer communities of service, and partners in service, a baby boomers section and so much more.  Please go explore the web pages of the united church of Christ and the global ministries pages.
the united Church of Christ is a partner in Church World Service here you can make sure help gets to places like Nepal.

I could go on and on about opportunities to truly be the Christian community out there in the world but I think the strongest part of today’s Gospel is the first step.  We must remember to do as Christ tells us “if you remain in me then, Christ says, I shall abide in you and you will produce much fruit.” (John 15:5)  Please continue to keep yourselves in Christ and find the Christ in yourselves and the rest will come. Amen.