May 6, 2012
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
“Connected To the Vine”
May 6, 2012
The Rev. Leslie E. Chadwick
1 John 4:7-21
Without my Maker’s loving hands, I am but dust and ash. Without connection to the vine, I am a withered branch. Without your Ruach, wind, and breath, O Lord, I cannot dance.
Last Wednesday, a painting called “The Scream” sold in New York City for $119.9 million dollars. The Norweigan painter Edvard Munch created this work in 1895 as a “modern symbol of human anxiety.” In it, a man stands on a bridge, holds his head and screams “under a streaked, blood-red sky.” He is completely disconnected from two men at the other end of the bridge. They peer over the river like tourists with their backs to this man, oblivious to his breakdown. The painting is not particularly beautiful, but it is popular. You can buy balloon blow-up figures of the “scream;” you can see parodies of it, with the faces of Homer Simpson and recent presidents. You can buy a Halloween costume of it. This painting resonates with people. It’s easy to identify with the “disconnect” of standing anxious and alone in an indifferent world.
For many of us, being cut off from the world around us doesn’t happen in such bold, brilliant colors. In fact, we might identify more with the two men in the background who blend in with their surroundings. They are equally cut off. For me, being cut off from others isn’t always a conscious choice. It’s more often a default position you revert to for self-preservation. You get overwhelmed, you get tunnel vision, taking care only of what is in front of you. Pretty soon, you begin to look at life as a series of tasks to be performed. It all happens gradually, but pretty soon, you end up cut off from God, from people around you, and from the beauty of God’s creation. Your surroundings become so familiar that you don’t really see them at all.
Jesus knows that when we get like that, we are hard to reach. As Christians, we are called to stay connected, alert, awake to each other’s needs. We are to recognize each other not only as fellow creatures on this earth, but as family. How can we do that when there are so many demands on our time, when there are so many who need what we have, and when we are all too aware of our limits? Thinking that everything we do is up to us, we burn ourselves out. Thinking that there is too much to do, we give up. Today’s gospel addresses this dilemma and invites us to reconnect with God and each other.
Over and over in the gospel of John, Jesus connects with people by naming their need. Hungry? I am the Bread of Life. Alone in the dark? I am the Light of the World. Feeling left out? I am the Door. Lost and directionless? I am the Good Shepherd. Afraid of death? I am the Resurrection and the Life. Each of these statements begins with the words “Ego eimi” “I am.” The name for God is “I am who I am.” Only the source of all, the giver of life has the power to give us what we need. Jesus is one with the Father, the creator. In today’s gospel, Jesus says on the night before he dies, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” On this critical night, Jesus tells his disciples plainly, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” For people about to be physically separated from Jesus, these words might ratchet up anxiety. But Jesus urges them, “Abide in me.” “Come make your home in me.” “Dwell with and in and through me.” Being a Christian, being a disciple, is not about being perfect. It is not about being holier than thou. It is not about how awesome you are on your own. It’s about being at home in and with Jesus; intimately connected to God and each other as family. Jesus is the vine; we are the branches. In ordaining a priest for ministry, the bishop reminds us of this good news that holds true for all of us as Christians. “No matter how hard this job gets, you never have to do it yourself. You’re not expected to do it on your own. In fact you can’t.” “In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace.”
If you’re like me, you might not know how good this news is until you try to live without it. In my first year of seminary, I tried to prove that I was worthy of ordination. I tried to excel in my classes, be “pastoral” to everyone around me, to be exemplary. I went home for the summer and shadowed my priest at my home church in Valdosta. I was exhausted by the end of the week, but would not stop. I was scheduled to preach my first sermon that Sunday. I wanted badly to impress the people who had raised me up, to make them proud. I barely slept the night before. I stepped into the pulpit and began to read. The faces in the pews suddenly looked strange and unfamiliar. Halfway through the second paragraph, I felt as if I were trying to grab hold of words that were getting further and further away from me. Then I fainted dead away right there in the pulpit. A few minutes later, I woke up surrounded by several people I’d known since I was a little girl. The first face that came into focus belonged to an octogenarian named Boots Tudor. He smiled at me and assured me, “Honey, it was so good! We loved it!” He plunked me into a wheelchair and rolled me out to meet the ambulance.
This experience helped shape me not only as a priest, but also as a Christian. Literally, being lifted up off the floor by the people of God helped me understand the point of why we gather on Sunday mornings. When we gather to worship and reconnect with God, week after week, year after year, we begin to recognize each other as family. We take turns lifting each other up and helping each other stay connected to Jesus, the true source of our energy, love, and life. The power of God that day did not reside in the sermon; it wasn’t something on paper we were talking about. It was made alive and present in the love of that Christian community. Connected to that love, I got up with my bruised ego and bruised head and gave the sermon at the later service.
St. Timothy’s, a community much like my home parish, is a place where we are intentional about staying connected to the people around us through Christ. Right now, 64 members of our parish, including Fr. Brad, are at our diocesan conference center, Shrine Mont, for a parish retreat. They are reconnecting with God, with each other, and with God’s creation. This morning, our neighbors at Epiphany Episcopal Church around the corner are worshipping in their home sanctuary for the first time in five years. In early 2007, that congregation split and many leaders affiliated with an Anglican church, these Episcopalians were displaced to worship in a school. They bring their hurt, disappointment, and anxieties to lay out in community for healing. They acknowledge that Jesus does not command us to prune or cleanse each other—he is the vine, we are the branches. Even when we fight, we are all Christ’s family. Next week, we will welcome home our former seminarian from Haiti, Wisnel, and his colleague Pere Michelin. They are often overwhelmed by the work before them in the face of inadequate resources. Yet our willingness to stay connected to them in their work and support their children, schools, and parishes, reminds them that they are connected to the vine—they are not alone. They remind us that we are branches of the same vine—all we have is a gift from God. We are able to do nothing apart from Christ.
This week, I invite you to trade in the image of the Scream for the image of the vine. The Scream may be worth $120 million dollars, but the life and love that Jesus offers is beyond price, beyond cost. It never runs out. If we draw on it, it will not fail to nourish and strengthen us for our work in his Name. When we stay connected to the vine together, there’s no limit to what God can do through us. No matter what pressures, stresses, disappointments, and difficulties you bring with you today, you are not alone. Look around the pews and see the brothers and sisters who love you! See in their faces the God who loves you. This world is a broken place, but the more we draw on God’s love to keep us connected in relationship, the more we realize we are all family, that God’s power is alive and well among us. In the end, we when faint in death, we will awaken and see familiar faces smiling at us in love, welcoming us home in Christ.