Date: May 3, 2015
Title: “A New Part of the Vine”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: John 15:1-8
When I was a child, I was convinced that one day, I would be famous. I imagined myself playing the piano at Carnegie Hall, or winning a gold medal in the Olympic swimming pool. If not either of those things, then surely (I thought) I would one day be sworn in as the Chief Justice on the Supreme Court!
I knew I would be famous one day. I also knew that the day I turned 21 I would magically be all grown up – that I would then be totally mature, self-confident, and wise. I thought at 21 I would be able to make all sorts of plans and see them through, that I would be completely secure and able to make my own way in the world as an independent person, totally sufficient all on my own.
It’s funny, isn’t it – how life doesn’t always conform to our expectations? It turns out that there is no magic to that 21st birthday. Most of us find that when the “big day” finally arrives, we are no more mature, confident, or wise than we were way back when we were 20! We find out that we are not totally sufficient all on our own. And what is true for life, is even more true for faith, especially when it comes to that expectation of independence and self-sufficiency.
The Gospel of John makes it very plain this morning. Jesus says:
Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches.
Jesus in the vine; we are the branches. With this short passage, the writer of John’s Gospel debunks all of our mythology about being on our own, and reminds us of our need for God and for one another. Here Jesus is telling us that the abundant life he has to offer is not possible for anyone to achieve all on their own. This kind of abundant, fruitful living requires connection and belonging and trust.
Today we are celebrating a rite of passage, an important step in the lives of Grace, Jalen, Rebekah and Lewis. Today, these four young people have been confirmed in their faith. Today they have made a decision to say “yes” to the grace of God already given to them. They have chosen to say “yes” to a relationship God has already initiated with them, and they have acknowledged their need for connection, their desire for belonging, and their intention to try to live a life of trust.
And while this is an important moment – while it is a big step on their journey – it is by no means the final destination for their faith. Today Jalen and Rebekah and Lewis and Grace, and all the rest of us are like branches, and Jesus is the vine. We are the branches; Jesus is the vine. None of us can stand alone if we expect to produce good fruit – that is, if we want to grow up into the fullness of who we are, and hope to experience the abundant life God promises. So let me offer these next words to our Confirmands (it is their big day, after all), and the rest of you can listen in if you choose.
Rebekah, Lewis, Grace, Jalen…there are some who will tell you that you’re now an adult in the eyes of the church. There’s also an underlying expectation that you’re “done” now that you have been confirmed. There is a kernel of truth in both of these statements, but it is only a kernel. You are now full-fledged members of the Body of Christ, and of this congregation. You have all the same rights – and also responsibilities – of all the other members of this church. What God started in your Baptism is now continued in your Confirmation, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is available to you and to each of us every day of each of our lives.
Your formal Confirmation classes are finished, but that does not mean your learning is done. Just as I did not become magically grown up on my 21st birthday, you will not achieve the full measure of the stature of Christ on this one Sunday. Confirmation is an important step, but it is not your final destination in this journey we call faith.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who tried to stop the Nazi’s during World War II. He was imprisoned for his efforts, and even was executed by the Nazi’s shortly before the Allied Forces liberated the camps. Listen to what Bonhoeffer told a group of young people he confirmed just before his arrest. He told them:
You do not have your faith once and for all. The faith you confess today with all your heart needs to be regained tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. Indeed, every day anew, because faith is a decision.
Faith is a decision which sometimes comes easily and at other times is fraught with struggle. I am reminded of a story about a man named Greg Wittkamper, someone who knew what it was to decide to be connected to Christ. Greg grew up on Koinonia Farm in Georgia in the early days of the Civil Rights movement. Now Koinonia Farm was a radical place, where blacks and whites lived and worked together as equals, which was not something looked upon with favor by many of their neighbors. Right from the beginning, Wittkamper and the other youth who lived on the farm were treated as outcasts by the rest of their schoolmates.
In Greg’s senior year – 1964 – Americus High School was de-segregated by court order. On the first day of school that year, Greg arrived in the same car with four African-American students, hoping to support and encourage them. Things quickly became ugly and vicious for Greg as well as his Black classmates. There was no end to the taunting and teasing and downright bullying that went on that whole year. So when Greg graduated in the Spring he left Americus for good.
Years later, in 2006, his class held a reunion. Greg received an invitation to the reunion, along with a several letters from some of his classmates, who asked for his forgiveness. One classmate wrote this:
Greg, you have shared the sufferings of Christ as few have. I have not personally witnessed that kind of courage before or since… what an example of godliness with humility you have been to me.
Today, Greg is a little embarrassed by all the attention he has received after all these years. He says, “Besides showing up, I don’t feel I did that much.” Friends, the thing that Greg may not realize is this – sometimes, showing up is what it takes to abide in Christ. And sometimes, abiding in Christ – really living in him – is the only way to bear the kind of fruit which leads to reconciliation and justice, forgiveness and healing and hope. Fifty years later, and we still are fighting many of the same racially charged battles in this nation. Fifty years later, and we still need to be among those who “show up”, who decide to live in Jesus and to share God’s love and work for God’s justice.
Faith is a decision which sometimes comes easily and at other times is fraught with struggle. So I hope you will be generous with yourself when you feel close to God and equally gentle when you feel far away. Remember that God is big enough to handle the greatest distance and the most intimate connection. If you need to shake your fist at God from time to time, you can also throw yourself into God’s arms.
Remember also that you are not alone in your faith. This whole community is here for you today, and for the many days to come. We are your partners, branches together with you, connected to the same vine. And there is much work for us to do together as we help change the world into a place of justice and peace for all of creation.
As hard as you work, however, don’t forget that we are also called to play, rejoicing in God’s presence, and reveling in the beauty of life. It is a good thing to be joyful and light hearted. Don’t take y9ourself so seriously that you miss out on wonder or let go of awe.
And finally, never underestimate yourself. Connected to God’s love, filled with God’s Spirit, freed by God’s grace, there is no limit to who you may become. As Marianne Williamson once wrote:
We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all of us meant to shine. We are all born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
And one day, we will all be grown up. Maybe we’ll even be famous as well! In God’s eyes, I suspect, we already are. Thanks be to God! Amen.