Sermon April 28 Vine and Branches John 15:1-8           Rev. Betsy Hogan

Do you like a good roundabout? I confess that I still deadname our original and most glorious roundabout, namely The Rotary – capital T, capital R, and daunting enemy of rural South Shore dwellers coming into the city for the hospital –

But apparently it is now, strictly speaking, a roundabout. Just yield to any driver already inside the circle, exit when you need to, and everyone gets home safe.

And presumably because it was and is so extremely glorious in its own special way, now we have them everywhere. Popping up hither and yon, keeping us all on our metaphorical toes and occasionally brake pedals, as we all take ourselves into one central circle but then branch ourselves off in umpteen different directions. According to need or whim or sometimes expedience, if we’re in the wrong lane.

I do like a good roundabout, at least after I get used to it. 

I like them when I drive because I’d rather be moving than sitting at a stoplight – and I also like them when they pop into my head as a really great metaphor that I can use in a sermon.

Because it struck me this week, as I contemplated the passage from John’s gospel that Gayle read for us just now, that this is one of those passages of the Bible that you can sort of drive it into the roundabout – and then there are like five different ways out. 

Five different choices. Five different directions to five different sermons.

And each one’s a great choice. Depends, of course, on where you need to go and where you want to end up, but each one’s nicely marked in a very obvious way that might even be familiar. 

So right into that roundabout circle we drive. Jesus says “I am the vine and you are the branches” and which way out will we take, and could it BE any more meta when each separate sermon choice is in fact an actual “branch” off that roundabout circle.

There are so many possibilities.

It’s the last of what are often called Jesus’ “I am” teachings, collected together in the gospel of John. Very very different from what appears in the three other gospels, because instead of being teachings about what discipleship is like -- about how to be and behave and live in a way of love and generosity and caring – they’re more teachings about what Jesus is like.

In a kind of expansive unfolding of identity as essence into identity as action. 

So “I am the light of the world”, Jesus says in John chapter eight. And what’s communicated is that he’s our hope, he’s our guidance, he’s our safe harbour.

Or “I am the Good Shepherd”, he says in John chapter ten. And what’s communicated is that he cares for us, he takes responsibility for us, he protects us. Those nouns have turned into active verbs.

And those verbs hover and those nouns still stand when in THIS passage, in John chapter fifteen, his teaching to the disciples begins again with the words “I am” – “I am the true vine” – but then he continues. “And you are the branches”.

Because “I am the true vine”, what it communicates is that he’s the support and he’s the firm foundation – there are those nouns again -- and what it communicates is that he supports us and he grounds us – again with the active verbs –

But “you are the branches” -- and now the “I am’s” about us. The support supports US. The foundation grounds US. The fuel fuels US. Now the “I am” statement that began about Jesus is all about us and who and how WE are.

And so we can exit smoothly out of that roundabout and into a very useful and possibly familiar sermon about what we’re being called to get up to, as branches of this Jesus vine. We’re grounded in his goodness and unconditional love. Encouraged and strengthened by his Spirit. Compelled not only by his example but also by the knowledge that we matter. That our contributions to goodness and love in the world make a difference, are so needed, are so crucial.

And so ya, Jesus says. I am the vine and you are the branches. Stretch out and be my branches of justice and peace and care in the world. God being your helper, and there’s one possible sermon, and amen.

Or we can drive a little further around the circle. And exit off in a different direction that’s maybe a little quieter where we can have a good think. 

Because if the point of the branch of the vine is to produce good fruit, are we producing that good fruit? I’m generally disinclined, when driving around such sermon roundabouts, to take off in a direction that just ends up in making all of us feel lousy and not quite enough. So there it is, it’s another possible sermon, but we’re not going down there. Because it seems to me, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty fruitless.

But that doesn’t make asking ourselves the question equally so. In a way that’s not fearsome and frightening, but just inviting reflection. Are we bearing good fruit? Because it’s only too entirely possible that the life-giving good-fruit-bearing energy that we’re receiving might be feeling depleted, or not quite enough, or we’d like to be bearing good fruit but the energy’s getting used up in too many directions. And if there IS a certain confessional humility in kind of recognizing that and acknowledging it, I think there’s also quite a lot of grace. 

Because, am I bearing good fruit? I suspect I could do better. And though I’ll defy to the end of time the kind of punitive reading of this passage in which out come God’s pruning shears in a kind of capitalist utilitarian fantasy of rejecting the “unproductive” –

I do think that Jesus’ mention of us branches needing a bit of pruning isn’t terrible. Mostly because the way he construes it is as something God notices. And wants to look after. Like a good gardener. Like a good farmer. Who actually cares, when we’re feeling depleted or not quite enough or used up in too many directions. Who wants to help us with a bit of pruning.

So I am the vine and you are the branches, Jesus says to us, and you can bear good fruit, God being your helper, and there’s another sermon, and amen.

And HOO, just a short little ways further around the circle, and wow – sometimes what needs pruning out of our living REALLY needs pruning out of our living so that we can REALLY bear the good fruit that we were made by God and strengthened by the spirit to bear – so prune prune prune, God being our helper, great big pile thrown into the fire and burned and thoroughly gone and thanks be to God, and there’s another sermon, and amen.

Almost all the way around the circle now. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, stretched out as God’s branches of justice and peace and care in the world, bearing that good fruit – and we abide in God and God abides in us. Wee’re not alone.

We’re all connected, one to the other. Grounded in the Spirit of love – we’re a whole world of justice-doers and peace-makers and care-givers and goodness-bearers, all connected one to the other.

What we do, we don’t do alone. What we value, we don’t value alone. What we hope for, we don’t hope for alone. Jesus said, I am the vine and you are the branches – and that could be another possible sermon direction to take out of our roundabout circle, just simply that we’re connected in a whole global community of people who believe in and hope for and bear the good fruit of peace and justice and well-being for all.

But there’s something I want to add to it, before we drive out.

And that’s that the beauty of being in community is that the work gets shared. American writer Brené Brown puts it like this: “We don’t have to do it alone. We were never meant to.” And from way back nearly two thousand years, the Jewish Talmud reminds us too: “Do not be daunted by the enormousness of the world’s grief. You are not obligated to complete the task of its healing. You just don’t get to abandon it.”

In community, the work is shared. I am the vine, Jesus says, and you are the branches. In every flowering shrub and tree and vine that’s surrounding us right now in springtime Nova Scotia, there are branches way up at the top and getting all the sunlight and just bursting forth with energy and blooming. And there are other branches that are just… holding them up there. Keeping them grounded. Occasionally putting out a new shoot. And it ALL matters.

Bearing good fruit, the work is shared. I am the vine and you are the branches, Jesus says. We’re all connected one to the other, a whole global community of people who believe in and hope for and are bearing the good fruit of peace and justice and well-being for all. Not just you in your small corner and I in mine, but together. God being our helper. Amen.