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Sermon Archives

Life Connected to the Vine

Rev. Wendy Vander Hart
Sun, Apr 29

 Text: John 15: 1- 8

Grace and peace be to you from Jesus Christ the head of the church. I bring you greetings, blessings and all manner of good wishes from the 70 churches of the Metropolitan Boston Association of MA Conference, UCC. 

I want to thank my clergy colleagues on staff, who have been working extra diligently while Dan is on sabbatical, and church leaders for the invitation to be here, preach, welcome new grafts onto the Christian vine through the sacrament of baptism, and to help us all celebrate the ministry of Rev. Dr. Jim Antal. It is a blessing to be in this space to worship God and lift up our covenant connections as the body of Christ. Bless you pastors as you continue to lead this congregation to be grounded in God, growing in community and acting in love. Bless you Church in the ministries you continue to fulfill and for the ways in which you live the love and justice of Jesus in Cambridge and beyond.
I celebrate who you are in the present and I am praying for our future. Before we move to the scripture text, would you help me celebrate who you are in the present by thanking someone next to you for being part of this ministry? Reach out to someone and say “thanks for being part of this ministry!”

So, one would think that being married to sole proprietor of Joanne Paul Landscape Design and working beside her for fifteen years tending our tiny lot in Arlington that the fine art of pruning would be absorbed by osmosis. But I am here to tell you it is not the case. Six years ago I made a fatal cut in our beautiful Nellie Moser clematis that had intricately woven itself around our wooden fence. Maybe you have had this experience too of trying to stay focused on the warp and weft of a vine, knowing it needs, taming to maintain vigorous growth. This clematis was mature and was weighing down the six feet of fence length that it had wound around and it needed to be cut back. In the afternoon sun following hours of bending and mowing and trimming and snipping, I lost my focus on this particular branch of the plant and with one errant snip of the pruner I cut off its life support- its connection to the vine. The full six feet of clematis slowly withered and browned after that fateful cut and eventually we had to dig out the whole vine and start over. There is only life when you are connected to the vine.

You don’t have to know too much about agriculture to know that a branch cannot live apart from the vine or the trunk of the tree. When Jesus says ‘I am the Vine, you are the branches’ he is describing that our life—spiritual life—flows out of that vine. To be in Christ is to draw one’s lifeblood, one’s identity, one’s purpose in life from that relationship. Outside that relationship there is no life—at least if we’re speaking spiritually. Just as the sap runs from the vine to branches, so the Spirit runs from Jesus to us.
This passage is all about abiding, remaining, with Jesus. Branches don't last long apart from the larger tree or vine or plant to which they're attached. It always amazes me, actually, how long cut flowers hold their bloom, but whether it's a day or week, eventually they wither. So Jesus is urging his disciples to remain in him and with him. He knows he is about to go, to leave them behind, first in the event of the cross but even after the resurrection through his ascension. And he wants them to be prepared, to remain in fellowship with each other and to abide in his teaching and example. (1)

Back to my Nellie Moser clematis. Not only do branches derive life from the vine, but also support from its fellow branches. The intertwining of the branches from the vine served to allow the plant to spread and grow and expose more and more leaves to the sun to produce even more growth. Staying connected to the vine is essential for life, but it is also buoyed by fellow branches.

A giant sequoia tree can measure hundreds of feet in height and 10 or more feet in girth and thousands of years in age, yet sequoias have very shallow root systems. The way they withstand the winds and stress of so many years is they intertwine their roots with others, thus drawing their strength from each other.

Jesus said, I am the vine, you are the branches. You know someone. You know a branch. You know someone deeply connected to the vine that is Jesus. You know someone who has introduced you to faith, strengthened your faith, challenged your faith, shaped your faith, pruned your faith, grew your faith. Can you see that person in your mind’s eye? Can you hear their voice? You know someone. Can you speak their name out loud right now?

Jim Antal.

If the branches represent disciples who have stayed close to the vine and have reached out with the love of Jesus into the world, then let me tell you a little bit about the branch that is Jim Antal.

You might think his influence is limited to the church’s vocation in a climate change world – and there would be good reason to think that because he does talk about it a lot – and you can hear about his book Climate Church, Climate World at lunch after worship to hear it in his own words- but wait there’s more! Life connected to the vine looks like Jim Antal preaching that love of neighbor extends to the next generation when it comes to the condition of the planet we leave for our grandchildren. It looks like Jim encouraging the church universal to embrace its vocation in stewardship of God’s creation. It looks like Jim being arrested to block construction of new gas pipelines in a saturated natural gas market. It looks like Jim standing with youth filing a lawsuit, “Our Children’s Trust” that asserts government actions have caused climate change and therefore violated the youngest generation’s rights to life and liberty.

Life connected to the vine looks like Jim Antal. Jim has been an ardent pacifist using non-violent strategies to work for peace and justice in the world. This included standing against nuclear proliferation and militarization. Through acts of civil disobedience, community activism and building networks of faith leaders Jim has intertwined with the branches of reconciliation at the heart of Jesus’ life and witness.

Life connected to the vine that is Jesus looks like Jim Antal. Jim casts a horizonal vision. Floating most of the time at 30,000 feet, he takes whatever body he is with beyond the ground level of the day to day and dreams what, with the imagination of God, yet can be. As an example, on the surface, talk of the CT-MA-RI conferences of the United Church of Christ coming closer together may seem to simply be a transactional event. But with Jim’s leadership and the determination of adapting to new conditions, this new entity will not be just a merger of existing structures. Instead, it has the potential to create a Trans-denominational Progressive Christian Movement.

Life connected to the vine that is Jesus looks like Jim Antal. You might think that one who is a social justice giant and dreamer of impossible possible things would be limited in the interpersonal realm. But Jim manages to listen deeply and meet people right where they are. I say this as one who has benefited from deep conversations of vocation and calling where he asked questions like: If the last third of your life is for completing your life – what do you need to do to complete your life? Or, it sounds like you are torn between influencing people or shaping an institution. Which do you think God needs you most to do?

Life connected to the vine looks like Jim Antal. What makes Jim great is not just Jim himself – though that is pretty good in and of itself. Rather, it is the deep connection he has planted, nurtured, pruned and harvested from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

We honor Jim today and look forward to the ways in which his ministry unfolds in retirement. And we also take to heart that a deep connection with Jesus can have lasting impact. Connect yourself to the vine and you too just might change the world along the lines of the words of Martin Luther King Jr. when he said, “Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

What might hewing your life closer to the vine look like? If the invitation to abide in the vine is all about remaining, staying, tarrying somewhere, taking up residence, making one’s self at home – what practices can you cultivate?

Abiding in Jesus means accepting that we are dependent on Jesus and on each other. It means graciously receiving the support Jesus offers us, most often through the caring of our shared fellowship. It means consenting to being pruned: to letting go of the things that hinder our growth in love, things like fear and jealousy, grudges and resentment, shame and guilt, and all the other, as Nadia Bolz Weber calls them – “vine-y, branch-y tangly things that mess us up.” Abiding in Christ is not always comfortable or easy. But abiding in Christ is always about belonging. Abiding in Christ is always an affirmation of our capacity to make a positive difference in the world around us, if we tap the power of the vine.
So my friends, choose the connection – choose the deep relationship – trust how awesome things can be lived- through what you have witnessed in other connected lives like Jim and the person you named out loud earlier. May it be said of you and me – a life connected to the vine that is Jesus looks like…

1) David Lose, Dear Working Preacher blog, April 29, 2012

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