Rev. Todd Weir
Sunday, July 8, 2018
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John 15:1-5 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Jesus the True Vine
15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed[b] by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 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. 5 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.
I’m departing from the lectionary during the summer to explore the theme “What is Vital in Religion?” The title comes from a book by Henry Emerson Fosdick, published in 1955, where he explored questions about what difference does God make. I have picked the topic due to my concern that religion is being used as a pawn in our ideological warfare, to be used as fuel in our cultural and political battles. Faith is not to reinforce our prejudices, but to transform our souls. So we must not forget to ask questions like, “What does God do in the world? Is God still speaking to the church?”
The word “vitality” has been on my mind, perhaps because I have been in the garden so much. Vitality is the capacity to live and develop. It is energy and vigor. You can see vitality as peas and beans climb upward on anything they can find, squash and melon vines spreading in all directions, tomatoes soaking up sun and rain in to expanding red orbs. As the early church father Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” As plants bear fruit, humans are to bear goodness, each church is called to be little plot of the Garden of Eden, revealing God’s presence with the soil we have been given. Vitality!
Is the Christian religion still a vital force for good in our culture? Church participation is in a decades long statistical slide, with 30 percent of Protestant churches expected to close in the next decade. Diane Butler Bass thinks because of the cruelty and harshness they see in religion. It is radical Islam, with suicide bombers blasting themselves to paradise, and the rest of us to Hell. Or radical Evangelical Christianity, which seems Medieval in its rejection of science and climate change, closing its eyes and faithfully embracing a President despite constant racism, crudeness, and disregard for human decency because he will give them the Supreme Court Justice they want. We even have a Buddhist society in Myanmar purging the Muslim Rohingya (Ro-hin-giya). If we can’t count on Buddhists for kindness, who can we count on?
Too often religion is on the wrong side of history, or late to the party in defending human dignity, or slow to change to preserve power or to avoid giving offense. Evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist E. O. Wilson claims that “for the sake of human progress, the best thing we could possibly do would be to diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths.” That hurts! It feels like an intellectual harpoon, suddenly thrust into my side. Perhaps you want to interrupt with me and say,
“Wait, we don’t deserve that. This doesn’t describe our faith. Besides, we are a progressive church. Our denomination has diligently defended LGBTQ rights, we have a majority of women clergy, we support refugees and immigrants.
All true. But old mainline Protestant churches are smaller and shrinking. We may see ourselves as on the right side of things, but we may also feel like a small garden plot like an oasis surrounded by wilderness. How do we keep are garden fruitful when it exists in the uncertainty of a global climate change? Big trends overwhelm little gardens. Will we be enough in the face of larger troubling trends? Will we have enough greens and tomatoes to feed so many spiritually and morally hungry people, or will we wear out and fall short? How can we stay vital and fruitful? The first great commission to humans in Genesis was “too be fruitful and multiply.” In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them. Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. What is the still speaking God saying to us in this time?
You might be wondering to yourself – Todd, I know you had a good vacation and enjoy your garden. But these are not normal times. It is not just the weather effecting our gardens. Our garden is being trampled. Look at the inhumanity intentionally and callously inflicted on refugees on our border. Are you aware that we have a President who lies 6.5 times per day, who is about to appoint a new Supreme Court justice who may change the court for decades, including ending women’s rights to choose; and GLBTQ rights? The rule of law and democracy is at stake. They are smashing our pumpkins. We have to fight back, or we lose everything. Don’t give us bromides about being fully alive, and sweet little gardening analogies. We can’t just docilely withdraw into spirituality and church stuff. #Resist!
Gardening can also teach us about how to do justice. My community garden plot is situated between several Master Gardeners, and one day, a neighbor was cataloging all that could go wrong with tomatoes, showing us the proper way to crush beetle larvae nested to feed off tomato plant leaves. Jeanne observed, “Gardening is really heartbreaking work, isn’t it? There are so many forces of nature that can wipe out everything.” Our neighbor cackled and said, “Nature is trying to get you to quit. Gardening is a blood-sport. It is a full-contact, us against them battle to the death with nature,” she said with the vigor of one who had fought at D-Day.
Gardeners are tough, but they have principles. This is an all organic community garden. One hot day weeding my garden, I thought I could really use some Roundup weed killer. I remember as a child my mother sprinkling insecticide all over the garden to keep the bugs off. My father was a spray pilot, so I learned a lot about chemicals. We know what chemicals can due to bees and ground water and how it can disrupt and destroy the helpful and healing cycles of nature. The total defeat of weeds for all history is not worth the price. We can’t just pour Round Up on our political opponents and destroy them. Jesus told us the parable in the wheat and the tares. The roots of both plants grow together, the just and unjust are unfortunately interdependent. Justice does not come simply by defeating our enemies. It is essential to seek the good in history and do justice, but how we do it is essential. Gardening is more than weed control. We still have to care for the soil and do all the little things that make for vitality.
I just finished reading “Fatal Discourse” a book about the war of words between Luther, Erasmus and the Pope during the Protestant Reformation. Luther and Erasmus began with the same goal, to challenge the corruption of the Catholic Church using the authority of the Bible over against the authority of the Pope. They were both scholars who spent their lives working the proper translations of scriptures to give the purest form of the text. But as the Reformation raged, Europe split apart, Luther and Erasmus began to excoriate each other, and the Reformers descended into squabbling. Europe would endure two centuries of bloody religious warfare. Some historians argue one reason modern Europe is more secular is because of this history of bitter religious strife and vitriol of religion.
Can we find a way to do justice, love kindness and not forget to walk humbly with our God, a way that takes conflict seriously, (even necessary!) without descending into destructive squabbling? Can we find our better angels, as Lincoln called for even as our nation fought a Civil War to end slavery? I think it is essential to ensure our spiritual and community practices are sound and vigorous. Faith should inform and renew political life. The practices we keep matter. Practices like hospitality that truly welcome everyone, compassion that open our heart to the suffering of others, confession and forgiveness that helps us heal from our mistakes, gratitude that reminds us of the gifts that come to us from creation and the creator. Hope is a spiritual practice that is essential for justice, because hope overcomes fear, which is running the show right now.
I don’t believe God is sitting up in heaven watching our current situation with divine detachment, waiting for the arc of history to bend towards justice. Rather I believe God meets us and works in our lives and in our churches, as we seek to practice hospitality, compassion, confession, gratitude, hope, and reconciliation as we challenge our nation and its leaders to be just. God actively works for the good, in us. I notice that many of you who are active in sanctuary work, and climate change, providing food for the homeless, and anti-racism work are the same people who are coming to centering prayer, the Tuesday prayer vigil that has met for five years, who sing in the choir to lead our worship and who engage in Bible study. This is what nurtures our vitality, as we are open to God’s spirit.
The world is a fearful place, but let us face it in the spirit of St. Francis. One day he was working in his garden and someone said, “Brother Francis, what would you do if you knew the world was going to end tomorrow?” He answered, “I would hoe my garden,” and he went back to work. Friends, let us be about this work. Be vital. Amen.The