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Sermons

Abiding in the Lord

August 07, 2011

Bible Reading

For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite. For I will not continually accuse, nor will I always be angry; for then the spirits would grow faint before me, even the souls that I have made.

(Isaiah 57:15-16)


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. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

(John 15:1-8)

Sermon

Earlier this month, our friend Cliff stopped down at our house in Whitman to check up on the plants he had transplanted from his yard to ours. Much like a parent, he wanted to make sure that his flowers were off to a good start in their new home. One of the things he came to do in particular was to prune and stake the berry bushes. The art of berry cultivation escaped my attention growing up, so I was eager to learn the lessons of berry husbandry. He pruned the bushes and then tied each shoot to a stake. I inquired as to why. “So that the plant can put more of its energy into producing fruit,” he said. Basically, when you prune, you stop the growth from becoming bigger than it needs to be. It no longer needs to concern itself with growing longer. When the fruit starts to grow, the shoot will become heavier. To keep itself supported and to get the sun it wants, it will put its energy into becoming stronger or thicker. If you re-channel the plant’s energy away from growing and strengthening, all the plant needs to do is focus on flowering and growing berries.

I cannot help but think about this idea as a metaphor for our own growth. Imagine what our lives would be like if we could stop worrying about whether we are big enough and strong enough. Imagine what it would be like if we could just focus on our flowers and our fruit. It would be an ideal life, wouldn’t it? Everything in the world would be about making beauty and being truly useful to all of humanity. In fact, we might even consider such a reality to be heaven on earth.

But alas, this world is about preparation for the spiritual reality that awaits us. In this world, we have things we desire, which are the things we strive for. We have an inbuilt drive to reach and reach and reach out, farther and farther. In general parlance, growing is considered a good thing. It is generally understood by humans to mean maturing. In a sense, to grow means to be advanced, but this is not always the case with fruit-bearing things. Without pruning, a raspberry bush, for example, can grow too big—so big, in fact, that it cannot support its own fruit. In addition, we are told that in heaven people grow to the prime of their lives. This prime is the time where you had your most vitality and use. One might say that you are pruned to your perfect fruit-bearing length.

Likewise, this world is full of things that can knock us down. We have to spend energy on protection and security. In heaven, people have been lifted into the place where they truly desire to be and are able to pursue their greatest joys. Those in the lower spiritual regions are so busy trying to best all the others around them that they have no time or desire to seek the beauty, innocence, and purity of heaven for themselves. The Lord has ordered existence in such a way that we have been given a safe and supportive environment to blossom into the people we were meant to be. But from our perspective, this is often not the case. In any given day we meet people who resemble angels, but we can also meet those who resemble demons.

In this world, we must embrace the biblical promise that the Lord is here to help us if we are going to flower and bring our sweet fruits to bear in this world. While the Lord makes us uniquely perfect when we awake fully into the spiritual world, he does not leave us abandoned here while we struggle in this world. We have been given the gift of scripture and the church to help us understand the true nature of our lives here.

Before I get to the reality of pruning and staking, I must first say that the Lord is the vine! Whether we acknowledge it or not, all things exist because of God. Divine energies radiate through all things, good and bad. This does not mean that the Lord’s essence is embraced and fully used by all things for the betterment of the kingdom. After all, the life we receive from God could be spent trying to reach a goal embedded in the desires of this world. If a branch grows into the dirt, it will not bear fruit and will most likely meet an untimely end.

It is a given, then, that the Lord is the very essence of life, and yet he is also the gardener who is pruning and staking. How can that be? We experience the Lord as both love and wisdom. While the energy we receive from the Lord arrives in us first and foremost as love, it is our acceptance of that love that compels us to seek the truth and the form of that love. It is up to us to welcome that love so that the Lord can assist us in becoming better people. If it were not so, what would be the point of this existence?

We are given the Word, which we study. One might say that, as we grow toward a better understanding of who we are in this world, we are finding our perfect fruiting length. When we are short, we might get a bud or two and a little fruit. This is the early state of our understanding of what it means to be truly useful in this world, which often comes when we are children and learn what it means to help another. That joy, that reward of being neighborly, ideally compels us to lengthen our shoot and grow more buds. Eventually, when we reach maturity, we understand our roles in this world. We have skills and talents that we offer to the world so that it might better reflect the Lord’s kingdom.

At the same time, we also have the church. The church might be viewed as a stake helping us and supporting us as we grow in our spiritual development. It is a community that we are bound to that helps regulate our growth. It binds us to a direction of understanding so that we do not grow willy-nilly but in concert with others. In the case of a vineyard, the stake is more akin to a fence that allows the vines to grow off the ground and stretch out into rows for more efficient harvesting. A community of believers does the same thing. They help direct our thoughts from going in every direction, especially when it comes to understanding the teachings contained in scripture.

Now, as we have learned from our Bible passage today, when we get it right, we grow and blossom further, but when we do not, we are cut off. Every person has a blossom somewhere in their life. Every person can be pruned back to that first blossom that the Lord offers us as a compass for our life’s direction. But we also know from the evils and selfishness we see in the world that there are many barren and sick branches extending beyond some of those early buds. It is out of the Lord’s love that we do not receive true pleasure and joy from those activities. The more we try to grow without producing fruit, the more we are cut back.

We all have fruits that we bear in this world—spiritual children, whether they be our art or our writing, our hobbies or careers. Each of us should think about how we can nurture the fruits we are growing and bearing in this world, for they will shape us in the spiritual world as well. How do we make them their ripest?

While we are not fully in the spiritual world yet, this is the true business of our creation—to focus on our gifts and make them the sweetest and plumpest fruits of their kind. We do this with the Lord’s love as the vine that gives us energy and life. We do this by focusing that love into our talents, which in this world are staked by our communities and pruned by our love of scripture.

Prayer

Lord, you have brought us near to an innumerable company of angels, and to the spirits of the just made perfect. Grant us, during our earthly pilgrimage, to live in their fellowship, and in our heavenly country to become partakers of joy.
- William Bright (1824-1901)


O God of peace and infinite power, who silently enables the fruits of the earth to grow, and silently directs the planets in their courses: grant that we may learn, from you, to walk in quiet confidence on our pilgrim way; to the glory of your name.
- Daily Prayer, 1941

Lord of time, and God of all creation, forgive me for squandering time that should have been spent in your service, that should have been used in furthering your kingdom, that should have been given to loving those you have given me to love. In your mercy, gather up my misspent days, cover them with your love, and absorb them and me, finally, into your one, holy, and endless day which is life eternal, lived with and through you.
- Frank Topping, 2002

Rev. Kevin K. Baxter