Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sermon: "Fruit of the Vine"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
May 3, 2015 – Fifth Sunday of Easter
1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

“Fruit of the Vine”

In the year 1219, in the midst of the Fifth Crusade, a lone figure crossed a war torn battlefield outside the city of Damietta in Egypt.  The man walked across enemy lines, and brazenly entered the camp of al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt.
This interloper wore only a simple brown robe and a pair of sandals, in stark contrast to the heavily armored and heavily armed men that surrounded him. 
The interloper was St. Francis of Assisi.

Francis had up to that point been unsuccessful in his attempts to convince his own people to lay down their arms and seek a peaceful solution with the Muslim forces who had retaken the city of Jerusalem.
This church sanctioned war had raged for almost 200 years, with four preceding Crusades resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths and a back and forth exchange of the occupation of the Holy City.  
Finding no one who would listen to him on the Christian side, Francis defiantly crossed over to the Muslim camp on the banks of the Nile and he requested an audience with the sultan of Egypt.

In the Christian camp, al-Kamil had a reputation for being a ruthless tyrant who vowed to kill any Christian in his midst, but Francis ignored these second-hand tales and sought to reach out to the Muslim leader himself.
Al-Kamil was impressed with Francis's bravery and with his message of peace.
He took note of how Francis' Christian message was unlike the barbaric, warring image of Christianity that he held in his mind.
Francis was equally impressed with the civil and courteous reception he received from the Muslim leader and he too came away with a greater understanding of Islam and the commonalities that Muslims shared with Christians.

In the end, the historic meeting between Francis of Assisi and al-Kamil did not end the battle taking place in Egypt and it did not end the Crusades.
The Muslim army eventually defeated the Christian army in 1221 and took the city of Damietta, securing Egypt for Islam.
But Christian historians theorize that it may have been Sultun al-Kamil's encounter with Francis that kept him from ordering the deaths of the captured Christian crusaders. Instead he directed them to be driven out of the city and he allowed them to retreat with their lives.

Human history is full of these compelling and inspiring stories of individuals who showed extraordinary courage, conviction, and compassion, in their desire to understand and build bridges with those who were different from themselves.

We find these individuals in the stories of the hundreds of Germans, Poles, and French who hid Jews in their homes during World War II, or risked their jobs and their lives, helping them to escape to safer soil.

We find them in the stories of the many Americans who operated the underground railroad in the 1800’s, risking their lives to help over 100,000 enslaved African Americans make their way from the south to freedom in the north.

We find them today, in the stories of Christians and Muslims in war torn countries who link arms and surround each other’s houses of worship to protect them from destruction.

The image of human beings linking arms to protect other human beings is an appropriate one when we think about Jesus’ metaphor of the grapevine.
We are stronger when we’re intertwined – when we are connected to one another - and we thrive when we allow God to nurture those connections.

When Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches” his disciples may have been wondering how they would survive without him. 
You didn’t have to be a vineyard keeper to know that when a vine is ripped from the ground, it’s branches will whither and die.  
But Jesus was quick to remind his disciples that the vine will not die.
As long as they stayed true to him and lived out his teachings, his connection to them would remain unbroken.  But, he added, if the disciples wanted to thrive, and not just survive, they must acknowledge their need for the vineyard keeper as well.

As we said, a vine will grow without anyone to tend to it but it will not bear much usable fruit. The further the branches grow from the central vine the more feeble and less viable their fruit. The best grapes always grow closest to the vine, where the nutrients are the most concentrated. Which is why the keeper of the vineyard will prune the branches and prevent them from rambling.

This is a lovely metaphor but human beings are much more than branches.
Some of us may never bear viable fruit but that doesn’t make us any less valuable to God.
It makes sense that the closer we are to God the better the fruit we will bear – when we have God in our lives we feel compelled to be more caring, more compassionate, more loving people, and the fruits of our actions are much sweeter as a result. 
But when we carry the metaphor further and talk of God as the vineyard keeper not just pruning, but removing entire branches, allowing them to whither and be thrown away and burned…. 
This is where our humanness supersedes any likeness we share with grapevines.

Too often this text has been interpreted to mean that some people are expendable.
Those who are not making worthy contributions to society, those who are leaching nutrients from the vine but not producing viable fruit, those who are growing out of control and choking off the lifeline for others - these are the branches – the people - who deserve to be removed from the vine. 
They should be cast off, because in God’s eyes they are destined to whither and burn.

But we have to ask ourselves, does this interpretation make sense if we believe in a loving and merciful God?
Does it fit in with the rest of Jesus’ teachings? 
The teachings that tell us to love our neighbor and our enemies as ourselves,
to forgive those who persecute us - to forgive 70 times 70,
to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, and welcome the stranger,
to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit the imprisoned,
to make our world a more loving and more just place to live for all.

Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches, but none of us is expendable.
If we move away from God our faith may whither and die, and as a result we may do hurtful things to others and to ourselves, but God does not stop loving us, or forgiving us when we seek it.

The author of 1 John reminds us that God has commanded us to love one another, for God is love, and if we manifest hate in our heart for our brother or sister, we cannot love God, because we cannot hate what God has created or hate what God loves, and truly love God ourselves.

We can’t deny we are stronger when we’re connected to each other, and the fruit we bear when we’re connected is so much sweeter and nourishing to all.

So why then do we devote so much time and expend so much energy seeking to disconnect ourselves from each other?

We disconnect ourselves whenever we seek to label, judge, or dismiss one another.    Conversely, we build connections – we build relationships - whenever we seek to understand, support, and empathize with one another.

Many of us have been feeling uneasy about the strained relationships and disconnections that were brought to light when racial tensions erupted in violence in Baltimore this week.
Just as we may have felt uneasy when tensions flared in Ferguson, MO, before that, and in Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Birmingham, Selma, and countless other cities in the years before that.
Each situation in each of these cities is unique but each involves a complex convergence of poverty, crime, high unemployment, systemic racism, and a perceived overuse of police presence and force within a community.

The fact that Baltimore exploded is not a surprise to those who live there.
It may be a surprise to those of us who live here…
where most of us are not confronted on a daily basis with the soul crushing effects of abject poverty and violence,
where jobs can be found and where most people we know own their own homes and cars, and maybe even a vacation home on the side,
where a high percentage of our neighbors have college degrees,
where joining a gang or selling drugs is not seen as the only viable option to get ahead in the world and it’s not the first thing our kids are confronted with when they walk out of the house every day. 

And sadly, what happened in Baltimore may be surprising to us because the color of our skin allows us to move pretty freely in the world.
If we’re white, it’s likely that we’ve never been followed by a security guard in a store, or pulled over for being a suspicious person while driving in our own neighborhood, or assumed to be up to no good and told to move along when we we’re standing in a public place waiting to pick up our child.

The stories that many Americans share about the racism they face on a daily basis are heartbreaking, as are the stories about the economic disparities and systemic roadblocks that make it virtually impossible for someone born into poverty today to break free from it.

If we’re not listening to these stories,
if we dismiss these stories as somehow invalid or irrelevant or untrue because we find them hard to believe or because we think those telling the stories are being thin-skinned, reactionary, or are asking for special treatment,    
then we are not seeking to understand,
we’re not seeking to be empathetic,
we’re not seeking to respond with compassion,
we’re not seeking connection, but rather disconnection.
Because even the most compassionate among us have to admit it’s easier to judge and dismiss then to do the hard, hard work it often takes to understand and connect.

The people of Baltimore may not have been surprised by what happened in their city, but what may surprise us is that most of the images coming out of the city this week show a people who are deeply connected to one another.  
The images of entire families, including children, showing up with brooms and trash bags to clean up the streets after the riots.
The images of ten thousand peaceful protestors led by members of the clergy of all denominations.
The images of rival gang members preventing local businesses from being looted and linking arms as an expression of their common pain.
The image of one African American man standing between the protestors and the police begging them to back away from one another because more violence wasn’t going to solve anything.

When St. Francis of Assisi walked into the enemy camp of al-Kamil, he came as a Christian seeking peace, but he also admittedly came with preconceived ideas of what kind of people he was about to face and what kind of man the Sultan of Egypt was reputed to be. 
But Francis ignored the sense of uneasiness he felt and he went anyway.
This man wearing nothing but a robe and sandals walked into the middle of a battle during the Crusades, because building connections that are inspired by the love of God was so dear to him.

Can we do any less by seeking to understand those who tell a different story than we do?

The fruit we bear in our lives reveals our connection to God.
If we’re bearing fruit of distrust or judgment we should know that we’ve moved far from the vine.
Conversely, if we’re bearing fruit that is rooted in compassion and love, we should know that we’re following in the footsteps of Christ.

As one of Jesus’ followers said so long ago,
“If we love one another, God lives in us.”   

Thanks be to God and Amen.

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