Kate Cudlipp: Branches of Love

Sermon by Kate Cudlipp
April 27, 1997

Branches of Love

This is a sermon about communities and vines, our Christian heritage and our Seekers’ present, our love for one another and our place in the world. If you are asking how I can relate all these things in time for us to be out of here for the next service, you are asking the same thing I asked myself when it became clear that all of these things were the content of the Word this morning.

Let’s dive right in. The gospel lesson for today comes from the Gospel of John. The evidence is that this gospel was written at the end of the first century AD for a specific Christian community that was going through a painful separation from its roots in Jewish society. This so-called Johannine community believed that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God, and as a result of this belief, was expelled from — or possibly chose to leave — the synagogue and society that had been its birthright. The Gospel of John and the two Epistles of John were written to address the plight of that community, to encourage them in their faith, and to define a new extended family or society for its members to be part of. The members of the new community saw themselves as the true heirs of the faith of their ancestors.

Christian history is full of stories of groups separating from their parent communities because of differences of beliefs or ways of understanding the Word of God. Some have been wrenching separations — even bloody, as were the conflicts during the Reformation. Other separations have been more a matter of agreeing to disagree. In every case, however, there is the pain of loss and the need for the offspring community to define its essence.

Seekers has been about this defining since Sonya and Fred called it into being in 1976, but it has become more explicit and critical since the vote in 1994 to break up the Church of the Saviour. That vote required us to stand or fall on our own identity and call.

We can surmise from reading the gospel and epistles of John that the Johannine community struggled mightily to clarify its beliefs and experienced conflict in trying to come to consensus. We gather that much of the community’s energy went into its internal work; we see very little evidence of mission or outward focus, other than to condemn those outside their circle.

One of the things we as Seekers affirm from our tradition in the Church of the Saviour is that there are three essential elements that make up a life rooted in Christ: the inner journey, the outer journey, and the community. No one or two of the elements will suffice for a life that seeks to reflect more and more nearly the kingdom of God.

Our challenge, I believe, is to continue to grapple with what defines us as Seekers while not letting that effort consume our energies, as may have been the case with that first century Johannine community. If we get consumed with defining ourselves, we lose our connection both with the rest of the world — the outer journey — and with that of God within each of us — the inner journey.

Having said all this, I would like to focus this morning on our life together, for this is a critical time in our history. To do that I would like to turn both to the gospel lesson and the epistle for today.

The gospel gives us the image of a grapevine as a symbol for community. The grapevine and vineyard were rich symbols for the Jewish community. Practically, vines provided sustenance in the form of food — grapes, raisins, and a kind of honey — as well as wine and income. The vine was so central to Israel’s life that it was a decorative motif in the Temple and was used by Hebrew prophets and psalmists as a symbol for the nation of Israel. For the prophets the vine’s fruitfulness — or lack thereof — was a symbol for the faithfulness — or lack thereof — of the people of Israel to God.

The vine became a central image for the Johannine community but with a twist: it no longer represented the people of Israel; Jesus was the vine. No longer could human beings come into an intimate relation with God by being part of the community of Israel; now the way to that intimacy was by believing in Jesus as the Son of God. In the passage for this morning God as the vinegrower is a familiar image from Hebrew scriptures, but the fleshing out of the relationship between Jesus and God, and Jesus and his disciples, provides a new picture of community, especially when read with today’s epistle and with other parts of the Gospel of John.

Over and over in these eight verses we hear the phrase "live in" or "abide in" in some translations. The intertwining of God, Jesus, and Jesus’ disciples permeates the passage. For me the image conveys not only that the welfare of the disciples — the branches of the vine — depends on God’s care and Jesus’ action in the world, but also that the well being of the vinegrower and the vine depends upon the health of the branches. God’s well being in the world is affected by the human response to God and to each other.

Let’s look at the grapevine on the altar for a minute. Because it’s really only a part of a vine, you will have to use your imagination as well as your eyes. We have a stem and one winding branch. Picture more branches winding and attaching themselves to each other and to the stem. Pretty soon, it is just about impossible to see where one ends and another begins. This is certainly an image of interdependence: the branches depend on each other and on the vine and the vine, on the branches. What sort of community does this suggest?

First, it suggests a community that has a single source for its existence — the stem. Without that there would be no community. Second, it is a community whose members depend on each other. At numerous places the branches send out tendrils seeking outside support; that is not a sign of weakness; it is in their very nature. And giving support is as natural as receiving it. All are part of the same venture: to be fruitful. Third, there’s no hierarchy among members of the community. Like branches, they exist as separate entities but are virtually indistinguishable from each other in their function of contributing to the fruitfulness of the whole. There’s no "head branch."

Now we have to use our imaginations further to address another part of the gospel passage: picture branches that are not bearing fruit. The vinegrower comes along and cuts those off the vine, throws them into a pile and burns them up. She also cuts back branches that are bearing fruit. Those of you who are gardeners know the necessity for these procedures if you are to have bountiful blossoms or fruit.

What does it mean for us as community, for Seekers Church, to be fruitful? If we look at other passages from the Gospel of John, we see that the Johannine community regarded love for each other as a sign of fruitfulness. In today’s epistle, we read that we cannot love God, whom we have not seen, if we are not able to love our brothers and sisters, whom we do see. The scriptures are not explicit about how to manifest our love for one another on a daily basis. Next week’s gospel lesson does tell us that the ultimate expression of that love is to be willing, as Jesus was willing, to lay down one’s life for a friend. This is an explicit description, but at least in this community at this time we are not likely to be called on to go to that length. So what does it mean to love one another as Jesus loved his disciples?

We are not talking about love as a feeling but love in action. I may not feel loving toward someone but I can still act out of love in response to him or her. Someone once told me, "You can tell if it’s true community if the person you least want to associate with is also a member." With that understanding as the context, I would like to name some ways that I believe we can show love for one another and ways in which we may fail to demonstrate it.

I think we show our love when we take seriously what others ask of us, when we are willing to accord priority in our lives to grapple with the hard questions of community.

We fail to show love for one another when we don’t take the time or effort to address issues that we know are confronting the community or individuals. Addressing them may mean only confessing to others and ourselves our present inability to respond. If we do this we could quite possibly free others to act without our input or come to agreement on a time in the near future when we would be ready to participate.

We fail to show love for another by not sharing our disagreement with their views or behavior and, instead, harboring resentment. I must confess that it is easier for me to keep silent or share with a third person my differences with someone than it is to find a way to talk directly to the him or her. But that is not the loving way.

We fail to show love for another by not honoring their differences with our point of view and looking instead for ulterior motives or ways to dismiss their position.

Do we love enough to hear difficult things from another and not turn our backs or walk away? Jane Engle, Sonya, Deborah and I attended a discussion led by Janie Spahr. Janie is an ordained Presbyterian minister who is a lesbian and has been called by a Rochester, NY church to travel throughout the United States and work for reconciliation within the church, particularly around issues of sexual orientation. She spoke of encountering people in church after church who told her of things in their lives that they would not consider sharing with their church communities: rape, incest, abuse, sexual orientation. I wondered, "Are there people in Seekers who fear sharing fully about their lives and who feel cut off because of that?" I hope not. We show our love by being able to listen and stay with one another even when we disagree or see things differently.

When we fail to love, we are cut off from each other and from the Source of our existence. I would guess I am not the only one in this room who has felt like a branch that has been cut off and left to wither in isolation, often as a result of some act or failure on my part, but sometimes because another has not found it possible to walk with me.

The Seekers Church, like the Johannine community and the vine, is not hierarchical in nature. We do not have a human leader telling us what we have to do, how to respond to events, what to initiate. We are not like Montrose Baptist Church that was written up in the Post yesterday, where, according to the report, the pastor said that power in the church does not reside in the deacons or lay committees but in him.

The responsibility for our life together rests with each one of us. This is not just a motto; it is the truth. When one of us withdraws or is cut off, the entire body feels it. When someone new brings their energy into the body, we feel it. When a long-time member is fired up with a new vision, we all experience the excitement. This is who we are, and who we want to be, whatever other changes may be in store. This is the way we experience God, Christ, and the Spirit in our midst. To remain this kind of body takes ongoing commitment by all; that, we can be sure, will not change!

Let us never cease seeking to love one another. Let us take the love we learn to give and receive in community into every aspect of our lives, not turning inward but radiating outward to touch all who cross our paths. Let us see ourselves as branches that bear the fruit of love. It’s hard work, but if we believe the gospel message, it’s the work most worth doing in the world!

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