A Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter – May 3, 2015 by Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” – John 15:1-8
Angus moved his family from Zambia to South Africa when racial tensions became unbearable. He was a farmer originally from Scotland and he and his wife, Jill, who was pregnant with their fourth child, were excited to start over in a new country. When they found a plot of land big enough to put down roots, Angus began the slow process of scratching out a life for him and his family out of nothing. He was a hard worker but he had trouble meeting the challenges of farming in his new environment with anything but anger and frustration.
He hired a local farmhand to help him when he finally realized that he couldn’t manage farming by himself. Unfortunately, Angus barked out commands in a language that his farmhand couldn’t understand which strained their relationship from the beginning. He not only alienated his farmhand but most of the Zulu locals, too. He was known as a hothead and a loner with a chip on his shoulder the size of South Africa. His marriage was strained, too, as his wife, Jill, found it increasingly hard to be around someone so angry and overworked.
Angus was literally a community of one, trying to do it all himself and thinking that with enough hard work, he could do it all himself – until the time came when he couldn’t.
One day when Angus and his farmhand were doing some routine pruning and burning, there was enough breeze in the area that the fires got out of control and threatened to burn his entire crop. Angus was forced to call on his neighbors for help – the same neighbors, whom up to this point, he had had little time or interest in getting to know. They reluctantly came to help out but it was a rainstorm that came out of nowhere that miraculously saved his crops.
Angus’ wife, Jill, saw the hand of God in that rainstorm since it happened in the midst of the country’s dry season. Wanting to give thanks to God for what she believed she witnessed, she asked Angus to join her in church the Sunday after the fire. Angus did, but only after putting up a huge fight. It was the first time Angus and Jill had been in church since their move to South Africa. As the minister there began to preach, Angus had a spiritual awakening that caught him completely off guard and forever changed him.
He soon made it his life’s work to evangelize other hard-working and exhausted men like himself into understanding that work alone would not save them, nor would working alone save them, either. He realized the hard way how much he needed and depended on the people in his small community for his existence.
Angus’ story is told in his autobiography called Faith like Potatoes (by Angus Buchan, Monarch Books, 2006). The title is not as strange as it sounds because of the nature of potatoes. After they are planted, they grow below the ground and out of sight. It isn’t until the farmer digs them up that he’ll know what kind of crop he has. The point is that it’s hard to have faith in something we can’t see.
The seeds of Angus’ faith had been planted when he was still a child living in Scotland; but it took almost losing everything he had before those seeds finally sprouted and he became engaged in his community in such a way as to help transform it into a community of faith.
In the language of the gospel we heard this morning, Angus was grafted onto the true vine when he had his spiritual awakening. Jesus said: “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. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).
The people to whom Jesus was talking were his disciples and this was part of what is known as his farewell discourse. Jesus was trying to help his disciples understand the importance of living together in community especially when he would no longer be with them and it would be easy for them to lose their faith.
He used the imagery of the vine, vineyard and vine grower to make his point. Each branch of the vine was part of something bigger than itself and “needed to recognize its part in the whole and to do its part (which is the production of fruit) “to benefit not just the branch but the whole vine. (Louisville:Westminster John Knox Press, Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 2, p. 472).
And since Jesus’ analogies always have layers of meaning to them, the deeper truth of his analogy might well be that the fruit of the vine is part of Nature which belongs to God. God, then, is the vine grower, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches.
The lesson that we all need to hear and which Angus finally got is that, as branches, we can do little if anything on our own. We need the nourishment of the vine – of Jesus who is at the heart of any Christian community, any church or anywhere that two or three people are gathered together in his name.
I’m not at all sure what the disciples actually took away from this part of Jesus’ farewell discourse. I doubt if they realized that his departure from them would be imminent and maybe weren’t paying as close enough attention as they could have had they known. They may have heard the part about bearing fruit without really knowing what that meant.
What does it mean for us to hear this command to bear fruit? As branches of a vine, what kind of fruit do we produce and how is it measured? Is it measured by our financial wealth or by the possessions we have? Is it measured by our good deeds or the number and quality of our accomplishments or even our children’s accomplishments? Or is it measured by how often we witness to the vine and the vine grower?
I think Angus used to measure his fruit literally, by the condition of his crops and figuratively, by how tired he dropped into bed every night. He was trying so hard to work apart from the vine that he almost didn’t survive. He nearly lost his crops to a fire and his soul to self sufficiency which actually prepared the soil of his soul. His wife, Jill, was witness to what happened, and by suggesting that he go to church, she and the minister’s message provided the nourishment that his soul needed so that the seeds of faith, which were planted so long ago, could grow.
In his book called Being Mortal (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Co., 2014), Atul Gawande writes: “Living completely independently is a common battle cry…but something will happen in our lives that will leave us in need of assistance…Our lives are inherently dependent on others and subject to forces and circumstances well beyond our control. The amount of independence that we have in our lives is not the measure of the worth of our lives and is ultimately a self-defeating goal to live for” (p. 140).
He continues that there’s a difference between liking time alone and being a loner. As introverted as some of us are, being alone is important in replenishing our resources. I know that from experience. But the risk of staying alone and feeding the pride of our independent natures is that we become disconnected branches subject to pruning and eventual burning. We give up the life that God the vine grower meant for us to live – a life of bearing fruit in a community with deep reserves of faith because Jesus, the vine is at the heart of it.
Whether it’s a powerful spiritual awakening that Angus had or a flutter we feel in the depths of our being, Jesus finds a way to come to us and to nourish us and give us life. And that’s when we realize that we are never alone – and most importantly, that we should never want to be.