The Vine and the Branches

on April 29, 2019

Opening Sermon Theological Continuing Education at Koinonia

I chair the Candidacy Committee for the NWWA Synod, and in our tiny little supposedly godless synod, we have more candidates than most synods, even those in the brass buckle of the Lutheran Bible belt. So I go to a lot of ordinations. A lot.
It never ceases to amaze me that these opening words of the bishop to the candidate still bring terror to my soul: Before Almighty God, to whom you must give account… One of the last ordinations I attended I was sitting by a newly ordained pastor who had been one of my interns. As the bishop started in, I leaned over and whispered in her ear, these words still scare the crap out of me.

And they do. Maybe they’re supposed to. God knows something needs to get our attention in this fast paced, media-driven, egocentric, what-is-Church-and-why-does-it-matter? world in which we live. And in which we are called to do this holy work of ministry.

I have a similar feeling when I read the words of Jesus as John reports them in this afternoon’s Gospel reading: Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

It’s hot here in the furnace. There is so much of me that needs to be gathered, thrown into the fire and burned, that I’m pretty sure I can keep that fire going for a long, long time. I suspect that if you want to be truthful with me, there are some withered branches that you could add to the bonfire as well. Don’t worry, you don’t have to tell me. Remember: Before Almighty God, to whom you must give account…

Well, Happy Easter. Aren’t you so very glad you came?

If you’re not, I hope it helps that I am. I am glad you came. Because before I can give account to God, I hope I have the opportunity to give account to you, my brothers and sisters in the faith, brothers and sisters I got when I was baptized into Christ. I hope I have the opportunity to give account to you, my colleagues in ministry, about this amazing, complicated, fulfilling, draining, exhilarating, exhausting work that we do called ministry. I hope in very large part that that is what this week together can be about. Mutual accountability for the sake of the Gospel.

Sometimes I’m amazed by how awesomely accurate Scripture can be, in the moments when we least expect it. In a tiny little parenthetical phrase tucked deep in the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch, Luke mentions in passing about Phillip’s next ministry task: This is a wilderness road. Please raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced a ministry task from beginning to end that is not a wilderness road. (That’s what I thought.)

Before Almighty God, to whom you must give account… Well here’s a little scrap of Gospel I have to share with you. At least we can start our responses to God, when we begin to give our account with, “Well, God, it was a wilderness road.”
I never knew that ministry would be a wilderness road in which I buried

I never knew that ministry would be a wilderness road in which the budget and my visions for ministry were not even close. Not even close.

I never knew that ministry would take such a toll on my family.

I never knew that ministry would be a wilderness road in which men and women tried to co-opt me into their version of Gospel truth.

I never knew this was going to be so hard.

I just never knew.

It was a wilderness road. It is a wilderness road. And it is covered and clogged with branches that do not bear fruit, many of them our own weary, wilted impotent hopes and dreams. It is a road on which even as we walk faithfully along, we sniff the smoke of the fire that burns with branches gathered, in a fire that first was struck where Peter warmed himself in the courtyard garden and in spite of himself swore, I do not know the man.

It is a wilderness road. But here’s the thing. Here’s the thing: Jesus Christ walks that wilderness road with us. Contrary to the Gospel preached at the seemingly thriving big box church down the street from our ever-diminishing Lutheran ones, Jesus does not walk on streets in heaven paved with gold. Jesus walks on our roads, wilderness roads. Roads lined with shattered dreams and broken branches. Roads teeming with the hungry and the poor. Roads where eunuchs ask, what is to prevent me from being baptized? Roads where 21st Century eunuchs still long for living water – I’m not sure who those women and men are exactly, but I have some guesses. Addicts. The empty, filthy rich. Child molesters. People who made one really big mistake and would do anything to take that one moment back. And also – let’s make no mistake about this: also there are just plain old ordinary people, men and women, boys and girls whose lives are not necessarily over-complicated or complex with us on the wilderness road. The road we travel is sometimes as local as the center aisle paved with tattered carpet where the faithful show up week in and week out and ask, what is to prevent me from being renewed in my baptism this Lord’s Day? But the roads where we meet these people, all of them, every one of them, are wilderness roads. These are wilderness roads we poor, wretched, blessed, sinful pastors walk. And on these wilderness roads there is more than enough fuel for the fire. Lining this road are ample branches to be gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

But that is not the end of the story. It’s only a part of the story. A very small part, as it turns out.

These branches, all these branches, are connected to the Vine. And that Vine is Christ. I am the vine, Jesus says, you are the branches. Sometimes we get confused about that. Jesus is the vine. Jesus is the source of life. Jesus is the one who walked and walks the wilderness road on our behalf. Jesus is the one risen from the dead. It is Jesus who struck the new fire at the Easter Vigil. Jesus. God’s very own. Jesus Christ.

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the Savior of the world. Brothers and sisters in Christ, we love because he first loved us. We love because God first loved us. That’s why we do this amazing, complicated, fulfilling, draining, exhilarating, exhausting work that we do. Because the God who loved us before all creation was ever even begun has called us to do it. And because we have been so clearly, unmistakably, finally shown that love in the cross and resurrection of Jesus our brother, there is nothing left to fear. When we one day stand before that God of ours to whom we must give account, we will be standing in the presence of the pure, unadulterated love, the kind of perfect love that casts out fear. In that day, in that grand and glorious day, all that was left undone, or half-done, or wrongly done, all the suffering, all the sin, all the shame will be turned to dust and ashes in the consuming Easter fire of Christ, and there will be no eyes left to look upon us but the eyes of pure compassion. Utter love. Amazing grace.

This is a wilderness road. And it has on on-ramp once again today, the ramp that leads to this table to which you are all invited. Here Almighty God, to whom you must give account, will greet us one and all. And here, having heard our stories and known our sorrows, he will prune away what needs to be pruned today and get rid of it forever. And here, in the presence of the Risen One and in the presence of one another, he will feed us with heavenly food and pass around the cup of endless blessing.

I don’t know about you, but it’s a road that I want Jesus to walk with me. I bet you do, too. There is nothing to prevent us from diving deep into these baptismal waters once again today. And nothing to prevent us from rising up from the ashes of Christ’s purifying fire to a new birth. Nothing. Nothing at all.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.