St. Augustine of Hippo


Episcopal Church

 


“Jesus Is the Vine: We Are the Branches”


by

The Rev. Dr. Nathanael Saint-Pierre

(John 15:1-8)


May 2, 2021


I have studied, but I need your strength.

I have prepared but I need your power.

I am willing and I want to, but only you can make me able.

Silently now, I wait for you, ready my Lord your will to see.

Open my eyes and illumine me, Spirit divine!


“I am back!” Don’t you love it when I start my sermon after two weeks of vacation with my now famous: “I am back!”? You should know by now that this soundbite is not really mine. Father Harvey, our former rector, when he came here to preach at Hector’s Celebration of Life used it at the very start of his sermon. It bothered me. When a former rector leaves a parish, I thought that s/he needs to choose to support the new minister, not nurture false hope of a probable return. He received a standing ovation after these words. He was welcomed as a king revisiting his kingdom. He left me bruised and having to face his popularity and the love people still express when it comes to him. When the ex visits, there’s always discomfort.

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… 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… My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” 

What is God telling me in this text? What is God telling St. A’s in this text? What is God teaching the world using this text today?

Today, the Gospel of John has Jesus using a familiar Israelite symbol, the vine, to illustrate what kind of connection should exist between God and humankind, God being the vine and humankind the branches. It must also be the same kind of relationship between Jesus and the Church, being the gathering of the saints.

To be the transformative, life-giving, and liberating force in the world, the church needs Jesus. The church must be rooted in Jesus. Without Jesus we cannot be productive. Without Jesus the Good Shepherd, whomever we follow is the wrong shepherd. The church in its structure may call some “Reverend”, “Very Reverend” or “Right Reverend”, if we should follow any of them, we may end up in the ditch (that would make them the “wrong Reverend”).  

Why was I bothered by the “I am back!” from Fr. Harvey? Because I felt inadequate. Because when a new rector arrives, s/he needs support to wear her/his own shoes. The last thing a new minister needs is to live in the shadow of the previous minister. That’s why the Diocese of New York has clear guidelines for leave-taking. Some parishes have become the rector’s fan club. After 25 years, when s/he is gone, people expect the new girl/guy to sing the same songs, preach the same length, and be as pretty/handsome. Between those who accidentally call the new priest by the name of the former rector and those who clearly don’t want to move on and let go of the past, there is the quite challenging reality for one to meet people’s expectations when constantly compared with one’s predecessor. As church members, we often do not see Jesus as the vine and ourselves as the branches. We see our pastors between the vine and the branches, like a knot (maybe that’s why some people called me Fr. Knot instead of Nat). No one is needed between the vine and the branches. The priest might be our guide. The priest might pray with us and even for us. But the priest does not have a direct line with God that we don’t. S/He needs prayers as much as a lay person. Many times, members of a parish have shared with me: “I was married by Fr So and So” I was baptized by Fr. So and so.” “When Fr. So and So was here, we used to …” Yes, indeed after a certain number of years, the priest becomes a member of our family. He is present in happy and less happy times. But we are Christians, which means disciples of Christ. We are not Natists nor Harveyans. Had I had the chance to meet with Fr. Harvey before my arrival, and discuss with him how he envisioned ministry in this church, maybe my insecurities and some people’s concerns to protect his legacy would have been alleviated. Because I am now convinced that we all want St Augustine’s to succeed. I did not receive the “I am back!” in the very beginning of the sermon and the standing ovation that followed as a gesture of support. In order to bear fruit, both priests and parishioners need to be connected to Christ and not let ego become a distraction.

This text is telling me that God is at work in the midst of us and that it is important to let God’s love take the focus. God calls us when we are inadequate or inappropriate. God called Jacob when he was inadequate. God called Moses after he killed someone. God does not need us to be perfect, because when one is perfect one does not need a savior. Salvation has nothing to do with one’s condition. It does not matter where one comes from, if one is tall, slim, ugly, or handsome (by the world's definition) with straight hair or big nose, African-American or Caribbean, when the love of God which is manifested in Christ is in us, we open our heart to become the transformative channel of the Holy Spirit. We don’t pay attention to someone’s background, color, sexual preference and or orientation. We seek Christ in one, the Christ crucified and resurrected. We are loved unconditionally so that we may love unconditionally. Our neighbor becomes whoever God sends into our midst and we are willing to let God manifest God’s inclusive love.

This text is teaching St. A’s that, to be the body of Christ that the church is, all body parts are important and must play their role. The little finger is as important as the eyes, an imperfect tongue not able to provide a perfect English accent is as vital for Christ as a fluent one, even a protheses is important (someone that apparently does not fit in or is estranged to the body). For too long we’ve been programed to see our differences as reason to live apart. Christ is the vine and as branches we must stay together if we are to stay alive.

My professor of Homiletics and Dean of the Association of Chicago Theological Seminaries (ACTS), in her commentary of John 15:1-8, wrote: “Bearing fruit means engaging for ourselves as individuals and as the church in those activities and tasks that recognize and invest in the goodness of God’s love by spreading that love to the neighbor whom we are called to love. The specifics of bearing fruit are left to the community as a whole and to each individual who receives the nurture that both Christ and the community provide. Each and all must come to the realization that we are not self-made.” 1 While we were distracted not taking the opportunity offered to us to work together, our church was suffering because divided. One side overtly nostalgic of a glorious past, another side apprehensive of the future. We were not able to be as productive as God intended because instead of abiding in Christ for Christ to abide in us, we were obsessed/possessed by, thinking about or deciding which minister was worthy of our loyalty, our respect, and our support.

This text is warning the world that unity is a strength. That to live together in Christ is to see one another as part of the same tree. The same blood has been shed for us and the same salvation offered to us. Do not expect to be saved and be on a pedestal. Actually, it is quite the opposite. Being saved is being humble. It is to seek Christ in everyone and everything. It is to be Christ for the lost and those who do not know Christ. When the foreigner is in our midst, or the one who is different, or the marginalized, or the oppressed, we must be Christ by meeting him where he stands in his loneliness. 

We’ve seen how Paul had to navigate with the Colossians to face the divide that was growing among people who were claiming their baptism or their loyalty was of a higher quality because of who performed the baptism or brought them to Christ. We saw how despite his multiple citizenships, he favored his heavenly citizenship and did not use the social privileges he could enjoy on earth. Paul did not consider himself an entitled. He was following Jesus. To follow Jesus is not to use our privilege to be on top of another. It is to push people up to the top even when their top is higher than ours.

What we need to celebrate today is that Jesus is the only one who died for our sins. Priests will come and go. Like branches, they will wither and die. But Jesus is eternal, the eternal vine without which we cannot be productive. We are also not productive when we let our ego becoming a distraction. After our leaving, the church must go on. Our legacy is not to prove we were the best minister to ever be in a parish. Our legacy is to know Christ and made him known.

“Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). I pray that we stay connected to Christ so much so that we produce the good works that can transform the world. In solidarity with one another, may we be one as God and Jesus are one. May we agree on things so that they’ll be given to us and collectively, we can be restored to our fullness, in Jesus’ name. Amen.


1 Gennifer Benjamin Brooks, Commentary on John 15:1-8, Working Preacher.