As part of a thought experiment to visualize my sermon writing process I kept track of where my mind was headed throughout each step of my last sermon. Below is every word I found in different resources as well as my own thinking – which I put in italics – that slowly but surely led to the completion of this sermon.
Commentary 1: Together “believing” and “abiding” point both to the reality of “life in Christ” and to the characterization of that life not in some hope of a future reunion in heaven, but to the promise of that abundant life in the here and now.
Commentary 2: The promise of “abiding” in Jesus is not for its own sake, nor an end in itself. Jesus imagines and promises a dynamic and changing life for the disciple community. Vines are pruned and cleansed. Branches that wither and die are removed. This points to a constantly changing community that is called to be up and doing. This is a relationship of purpose and power.
Commentary 3: There is a giftedness about this verse. We received something we did not create, go searching for, or earn on our own. It resembles the glorious feeling of being asked to be someone’s spouse, best friend, beloved; the chosen-above-all-others. If we ask, “Whose name is on this gift?,” the answer is, “mine!”
But there is also responsibility attached to this election of the works of fruit bearing. Not only are we to do it, but we are to bear “fruit that will last.”
Commentary 4: Positively, bearing fruit means making wise choices and decisions for the work of and on behalf of God. It means acting thoughtfully over a life time; discerning what thoughts, words, and actions best serve the intentions of a loving God in this world, most clearly seen in the figure of the Risen Christ.
Initial story idea: Predicting the future. Jesus’ message to us is that his promise of new life isn’t only reserved for some future day, but present with us right now. So, find a story about how we’re obsessed with predicting the future: Weather, stock market, elections. Or, another route would be how we’re often focused on the future – saving for retirement, stock piling assets for some future day.
I know 27 isn’t that old, but it’s amazing how quickly in our society we expect people to grow up. We’ll land our timeframe of high school for kids who are currently in it – perhaps they’re working a part-time job to make a few bucks to spend on their own, could be working hard in school to get into a good college – most likely they don’t think about their life more than a few years down the road for now. I know I didn’t.
When you’re 18, 24 seems old. When you’re 16, 19 seems old, and so on. But once you graduate high school you’re either moving onto college or you’re off to begin your career – however winding that road may be. But at some point after high school your field of vision expands from just a few years ahead of you to decades ahead of you.
Are you saving enough money for retirement? Do you even have a 401k? Are you even able to save for retirement? Perhaps you’re saving up money for a house. Perhaps you’re looking forward to having a family one day, or owning a house, or dreaming of all the possibilities the future will bring.
I’m beginning to lose focus. My story is derailing into something else, I need to reel it back to the text.
Suddenly the worries and fears and possibilities and hopes of the world are falling upon you.
I’m going to try another story to start this sermon. I’ll try a plant metaphor to match Jesus’.
About 4 months ago we celebrated Easter. And we had plenty of decorations and flowers up front here, but a familiar symbol of that season is the Easter lily. We had many of them decorating our sanctuary and as always they produced that wonderful, potent smell.
Well, I took a couple of them home with me, but since it was freezing cold throughout April they just sat in my basement bathroom. Now, I’ve always thought that the smell of Easter lilies was potent enough when they’re sitting in an open space, but their smell was pretty aggressive when they were locked up in a small space.
Needless to say I wasn’t sure if they’d survive sitting in the dark for a month, or if my lack of knowledge around planting them would eventually kill them, but sometime in early May I finally dug a hole in the ground and planted them.
I’d water them now and again and basically just crossed my fingers in hopes that they were getting enough sun, water, and the right soil in order to grow. After a month nothing had happened. They didn’t look any different. 2 months in the leaves were turning brown and the flowers were long gone.
But then one day I noticed something – each plant had a few new shoots coming out of the ground. To be honest I was in shock. And over the past couple months these shoots have turned into full-blown plants and a few weeks ago they began to bud. As of right now it seems like they could bloom at any moment.
Time to transition from story to text.
Unlike Jesus and God in today’s reading, I had no clue what I was doing – basically through sheer dumb luck I got these plants to grow. But Jesus tells us for God new life has nothing to do with luck. Jesus tells us that love isn’t random. Jesus tells us that healing isn’t a far off event.
At this point I need to reference the text again. It might seem strange that for the moment the text isn’t my biggest reference point – but so far I simply took Jesus’ idea of the vine and thought, “Hey, plant metaphor.”
It’s also at this point that I’m reminded that traditionally this text is broken into two pieces – verses 1-8 and then 9-17. Combining them results in a lot of sermon material. Also, the beginning of this text seems judgmental and damning – but “remain” is a hard translation. Abide is the word that is used continuously here, and throughout all of John. So, we could use a reframing of what “remaining” means.
Connection. Abiding. Love. New life. Growth.
Jesus tells us that God is the greatest gardener time and space have ever known. God’s prowess for creating and sustaining life is second to none. And most importantly we have an unbreakable connection to God through Jesus. Much of what Jesus is describing to his disciples here is a relationship. Jesus is describing the intimate relationship that he has with God – the Trinity is often an unexplainable thought process, so hearing terms like “Father” and “Son” help us describe what this relationship looks like.
God as the gardener needs Jesus the vine to have life in order to produce abundant fruit and new life. And Jesus the vine needs God the gardener in order to be sustained and live in that abundance. Theirs is a relationship that is a mutual dependence – alone God or Jesus cannot bring about the abundance of life that once together is made possible.
A gardener waters and tends their plants in order to receive the fruits of the plant. And a plant can only begin to work hard at turning sunlight into sugars and taking in nutrients from the soil if there is a gardener to sustain them.
Editing time: 45 minutes. Time for another appointment.
Time to get back to writing. I’m not positive how I feel about what’s been written so far, but we’ll see what happens.
But notice this one thing about the metaphor that Jesus is placing before us: It isn’t happening in some glorious future. God as gardener and Jesus as the vine doesn’t take place once the Kingdom of God has come to be in some future day. No, it’s taking place right now.
I should probably ground this passage in its literary context.
In this reading from John, Jesus is speaking to his disciples just before his arrest and crucifixion. These words from Jesus are words of comfort and peace, not just future vision. Certainly keeping an eye toward the future can bring about hope and peace, but we don’t live in the future. We can hope for better days, we can wish for things to get better in the future, but we live in the here and now.
2,000 years ago it was the same reality. Jesus’ disciples will soon be without him. After spending a few years with Jesus on the ground healing the world around them the disciples will now seemingly lose their teacher. What hope is there now without Jesus around?
Well, the hope is that we have the power to continue on Jesus’ work in this world because we are as closely connected to Jesus as Jesus is to God.
That’s weird to think about. But I guess it shouldn’t be, right?
We, as people of God, are connected to God’s very self through Jesus. This intimate love that Jesus freely gives us is then reciprocated by God – because of Jesus we are now a part of that very relationship. We are the branches – part of the vine that produces fruit for this world. We are part of a vine that gives us abundant, new life.
When those Easter lilies were planted in the ground and given water and sunlight they only had one choice: To grow. They didn’t have the option of debating whether or not they were going to use these resources for other purposes; when given them they couldn’t help but grow – and not only grow, but thrive.
The same holds true for us. Jesus tells us that he has chosen us. Just like the Easter lilies we didn’t chose to be planted in such an abundance of life and love – Jesus did this for us. We didn’t choose to be so intimately connected with Jesus and God – Jesus did this for us.
I’m wondering about sermon length at this point. The ending seems to be coming soon – but I feel like I’m a little short on words right now. 890 words; longer than I thought. Need at least 300 more. And now I’ve lost my train of thought. Back up to those four paragraphs from different commentaries to get a spark. Change, rebirth, new life.
This is why in the midst of darkest night, or deepest valley, or heartbreak, or even death – we can have peace because we have a God who is like a mother holding her newborn child; this is the abiding that Jesus speaks of in this passage. Like a mother who holds her child close to her body – Jesus too holds each of us close.
Water break. And break time. Editing time: 30 minutes.
I just read through this to see how it works. It seems to work.
Time to finish with one of my favorite passages and themes in scripture: Love.
Jesus holds us in a love that is so abundant, a love that is so real, a love that is so unbreakable that nothing we can do will separate us from that love. As Jesus prepares to leave the disciples he leaves them with this parting metaphor of gardener, vine, and branch. But he also leaves the disciples with a command: To love one another as Jesus has loved them.
As we’ve seen, Jesus’ love for God’s people is a love that has no boundaries – it’s a love that lays down one’s life for another. It’s a love that holds us close like a mother holds her child. And it is now a love that we are called to show the world. As branches that are part of the true vine which are tended by the true gardener our task now is to take the love that we have been shown freely and share it freely with the world.
This text is so rich it’s impossible to pinpoint one theme or idea – they’re all great.
On this day of healing we are reminded of Jesus’ love for each and every one of us. We’re reminded of the relationship we share with Jesus. We’re reminded of the nourishment and strength we receive from God. We’re reminded of our calling as disciples of Christ to show that abundant fruit of love for the whole world.
Is this the ending? Close, I think.
Jesus is Lord, yes. Jesus is God, yes. Jesus is teacher, yes. These are true. But Jesus is also friend. Not a feared or threatening judge, but a friend who provides us abundant and grace filled life. A friend who we can call on at any moment. A friend, who loves you so much, that he gave his entire life so that you have the certain promise of new and abundant life right now. Not just in some distant future, but right here and now – through Jesus – we have the power to shine Christ’s light of love in our lives and the life of the whole world.
Done. Editing time: 30 minutes. About 105 minutes in total – fairly painless to be honest. It’ll need to be read through a few times to iron out any kinks in the writing and/or smooth out phrases that are tongue twisters. But I think I’m done. It’s always a journey to get to this point – one filled with mystery and wonder as I see where the Spirit takes me through the text. Also a reminder that some stories end up on the chopping block.