St. Paul’s Congregational Church, UCC
May 2, 2021, Easter 5B
John 15: 1 – 8
We’re continuing to celebrate this season of Eastertide, a time of hope, of renewal, of promise, and of challenge – it’s been a lovely spring – I’m loving the deep green of rapidly growing grass, even though that brings its own challenges, the brilliance of the flowering trees, the daffodils, the tulips, the carpets of phlox, new growth on the rose bushes – and I spotted the first leaves of what will be dozens of self-seeding morning glory plants in my garden this week.
The images John gives us today are among those that have touched me deeply over the years and I know many of you love your gardens too – so when Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the true vine… abide in me as I abide in you” it means something special to you too.
We’re called into a new and wonderful way of living – a way that welcomes the other, a way that can’t be done alone but in community – we’re called to bear fruit and become disciples because we love – true, this isn’t always easy – but that’s what our call is. We’re still hurting from this pandemic, we’re beginning to think about reopening the church building for worship, we’re beginning to see restrictions on gathering with family and friends lifting thanks to the availability of the miracle of vaccination, but of course, the news around us can leave us spiritually and emotionally drained.
The image of the vine is one of connection, of covenant: we are called to an understanding of what being a healthy vine looks like, how we get there, how we cultivate our own connections rooted in the fertile soil of God’s love. And maybe it’s a different kind of love – embodied love, a love that liberates, a love that clears our eyes to see the injustices of this world and empowers us to act in ways that seek the well-being of all people.
Jesus talks about disciples as those who bear fruit abiding in him: but what does a healthy vine look like? How do we get there? Sometimes the way there can seem awfully harsh.
Cheryl Lindsay is a local church pastor in Ohio and tells this story “Years ago, I had a rosebush that was somewhat trapped by another non-flowering bush and a light pole. The branches for both bushes intertwined, making it difficult to care for either one directly or uniquely. Over time, the rosebush began to diminish while the other plant seemed to flourish at its expense. Eventually, that rose bush became so pitiful that only three roses bloomed in the course of the summer season.
I decided it was time to give up on the rosebush. It wasn’t dead, but it appeared to be dying, and it no longer made sense to me to keep it. I started cutting off its branches. Because of the other bush and the pole, I couldn’t get to the roots to pull it up. I simply clipped its branches as much as I could. As I started to really get into it, I even found myself clipping off some of the branches of the other bush that I didn’t realize were also failing because of rosebush. I clipped until I couldn’t reach any more branches. Once I got started, it was both as hard as I expected but it became easier as I began to see the possibility for the remaining bush to be healthier without the rosebush holding it down and draining its potential.
That rosebush I cut down looked horrible for the rest of that summer. Even in the winter, every time I looked at it, I cringed and resolved that I would find a way to extract it from the other vines that held it in place, even if that meant having to remove the other bush that surrounded it. But…come spring…something happened.
It bloomed. What I thought had destroyed it actually gave it new life. One day all those naked branches were filled to capacity with lush and vibrant roses in colors I had not seen on it before. In addition, the bush that lived alongside it also grew because it wasn’t drained by an unhealthy companion.
Have you had that experience in your garden? I sure have – with my forsythia bush, with a beautiful butterfly bush – I’d read the garden books and how hard it was to make those drastic cuts! But the books were right – and the rewards were so visible the next spring.
Maybe this has implications for us as church too - what do we fail to prune because we’re afraid it will die? What could live more abundantly if we’d get past the fear that it might die? There are so many aspects of our lives and the church that could benefit from a real pruning. Oh yes, pruning is abrupt and brutal – but in the moment it makes room for an abundant harvest. What needs to be cut back so that it can be renewed and flourish?
Friends, maybe the church isn’t dead or dying; maybe the body is just overdue for a good pruning to enable it to flourish. What do we need to prune? What do we need to let go of?
Pruning takes place when we adjust our language to account for the glorious diversity and expansiveness of God’s creation. When we clip off old forms and ways of being that exclude and isolate in favor of opening access and inclusion, that’s when we prepare for a greater tomorrow than today. Well tended gardens get weeded constantly as those elements that hinder flourishing of the garden are removed, and dead leaves and branches are removed from a still living plant to give it the opportunity to thrive.
Cameron Trimble shares another story of letting go in a different way perhaps and the thriving, the connection that was enhanced, the joy that came:
“The musical “Come From Away” is a uniquely beautiful story of kindness, sacrifice and community. It’s based on the true story of American Airlines Captain Beverly Bass – incidentally just the 3rd woman hired as a pilot at American and the first to make captain at the age of 34 - and her experience of flying a plane full of 158 passengers from Paris, France, to Dallas, Texas, on September 11, 2001. It’s worth noting that Captain Bass is famous in her own right for being the third woman hired as a pilot at American Airlines, and the first to make captain—at age thirty-four.
“On that day, she had a normal take off and was flying over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean bound for Dallas, Texas, when she heard over the air-to-air radio that a plane had hit the World Trade Towers. She assumed that it was a small plane, which was bad enough, but it wouldn’t be a problem for her flight. Then another pilot announced that a second plane hit the Towers, and it was an American 737. At that point, she and her copilot began planning a diversion.
“In a matter of minutes, the New York airspace was closed, followed by all U.S. airspace, forcing over 4000 international flights in the air at that moment to find new places to land. Air traffic control told Captain Bass to expect to land in Gander, Canada.
“The Gander Airport was built for service during World War II and, afterward, rarely saw major traffic. Within a span of less than 12 hours on September 11, 2001, thirty-eight international aircraft and almost 7000 people landed in Gander, nearly doubling the size of its population.
“When it became clear that the “plane people” were going to
be stranded for a few days, the community sprang into action. They housed people in their own homes, cooked every meal, turned the local hockey rink into a freezer for food storage, set up additional phone towers so that people could call home, and cared for the 19 animals stranded on the planes for those days. The people of Gander showed extraordinary hospitality on one of the hardest days in our shared history.
Cameron continues, “Recently I was talking with the pastor who was in Gander during that experience. She told me about how the community leaders issued a call for citizens to bring any blankets they could spare to the overflow shelters to keep people warm. All most people had in their homes were handmade quilts, precious heirlooms they had inherited over generations or created for future ones. Without hesitation, the citizens of Gander brought those quilts to keep the "plane people" warm.
“Five days later, on September 16, the FAA opened the U.S. airspace and Captain Bass received word that they were cleared to continue to Dallas. As the passengers packed up and prepared to rebound the planes, the people of Gander who had donated the quilts told the “plane people” to keep them, to take them with them as a remembrance of their meeting and sign of their care. Late in the evening on September 16, the 158 passengers of Flight 49 finally made it to Dallas.
“Here is what I love most about this story: Today, throughout the world, quilts beautifully stitched and lovingly gifted are all over the world still keeping people warm. They remind us all that in the end, we are held together, stitch by stitch, through sacred and sacrificial love.”
Jesus said, “I am the vine. You are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
Friends, what kind of fruit are we bearing – lots of opportunities these days, aren’t there – for both us as individuals and as church. As we move ahead into a new world, a new tomorrow, let’s remember: we are in this together. So may it be. Amen.