One of my spiritual heroes is Pope John XXIII, and one my favorite stories about him involves a group of visitors to the Vatican who were being escorted by ‘The Good Pope’ on a tour of the “back office,” where, in addition to the wonderful artwork and beautiful architecture, the real work of the Curia takes place.
Marveling at the busyness of the place, one of the visitors asked the Pope how many people worked at the Vatican. To which he replied, “Oh, about half.”
In our day and age, we are used to thinking in terms of “productivity.” What is efficient and effective? ‘They’ (whoever ‘they’ are!) say that Americans are among the most productive people in the world.
We know what this means, right? We’ve all experienced it. Productivity usually means employing as few people as possible to do as much work in as little time as possible, where people are commodities and units of production, which can feel quite dehumanizing.
Ironically, one of the lessons of the pandemic appears to be that lots of people get more done working from home than in the traditional cubical farm. But we’ve also been reminded that we also depend on the toil of many low-wage workers who toil in farms, warehouses, stores, and health-care facilities, often at great risk with little reward.
Never was the collect found in our Prayer Book’s night-time prayers known as Compline more apt:
O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other's toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I am new to this faith community—and I am so glad to be among you! Based on my experience in other places like this, I would venture to say that before the pandemic fully half, conservatively a third, of the people who would be in church or watching us on-line worshipping with us —those who want to be with us-- were not here because of job or life demands. They could be scheduled to work on Sunday or have brought work home. And it may be that they are so out-straight during the week, Sunday is the only time they have to shop, wash clothes, tend to their households, and be with their families.
God knew what God was about when a Sabbath was built into God’s time—and it was not so that we could do the laundry or go to Publix or Winn-Dixie! While this might be a change in routine, it is not sabbath rest.
St. Benedict understood this when he created his rule for monastic communities. The very busy life of a Benedictine monastic was routinely and deliberately interrupted several times a day (and night!) so that they could come together, pray, and, yes, recharge.
Without a time to rest, recharge, to tend to one’s basic needs and to tend to our inner lives, we are drawn away from the wholeness and fullness of life that God intends for us. Besides, without sufficient rest and sleep, we tend to go a little cuckoo.
There are many images of discipleship in the New Testament. Sometimes we are called “the body of Christ.” Other places we are known as “the Household of God.” Last week we were likened to a flock of sheep tended and cared for by an attentive, loving shepherd. Today we hear Jesus talk about us as being part of a vine.
In this image of the Church, we are described as being “fruitful,” which is first-century, lingo for “productive.” But not in the way you might think!
Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” If God is going to get rid of unproductive vines and prune fruitful ones, how do we know we are being fruitful? How does a Christian know that she or he is being effective?
Some Christians tell us that being fruitful is the same thing as multiplying our numbers. They look at today’s lesson from Acts and say “See? Philip was making a new convert!”
But look again. Philip initiated a new disciple, a new follower of Jesus. In their encounter, Philip met a spiritual hungry person who was also the very picture of an outsider—an Ethiopian (that means African…black), who was also a eunuch (involuntarily sexually mutilated and at the same time permanently barred from temple Judaism), and an official of a foreign court—and Phillip taught him, prepared him, and then baptized him.
The “fruit” here is not found on a ledger but in the changed life of a person who discovered God’s love and wanted to learn and do the work of Jesus. And here, just as the Gospel teaches, being fruitful is a sign that each branch abides—lives—in the vine.
What’s important here is the relationship we have to the vine. If the branch is detached from the vine, it not only is not producing fruit, it’s dead!
There are also branches that live connected to vine, and they may even produce wonderful leaves in their season, but they bear no fruit. These branches will either be pruned to come back to fruitfulness and maybe even cut away. This might be a warning to we Episcopalian and mainline Christians, who have been doing what we’ve been doing for decades on end, and have lovely leaves but maybe meager fruit.
What shows off the health of the vine is the fruit it produces in its branches.
John’s Gospel was the last of the Gospel’s to be completed, and this final edit probably happened in the early to mid-second century… about 75 years of so after Jesus’ ministry. This Gospel is filled with images that are meant to help us meet Jesus as if for the first time. It is also filled with instructions and images that tell us how to be the church. Today, we have an image of the church as a grapevine in a vineyard. It is an image of relationship.
I believe that St. John the Evangelist—for whom this congregation is named! —wanted his hearers to live as a healthy branches, deeply connected to Jesus the true vine, healthy, dynamic, and growing. Jesus is saying that a fruitful church is a community in relationship.
This image of the Church invites us to be interdependent, nourished and connected to Christ together, to care for each other for God’s purpose. So how do we know if we are being ‘productive’ or ‘effective’ in the way Jesus meant? Here a few clues:
Holy time: It’s not how busy we are that determines our worth; the quality of the fruit we bear depends on the quality of our relationship to God in Christ.
A rhythm or pattern of prayer: We are a praying people: we are taught, helped, and encouraged to pray more in community.
Generosity is a spiritual gift empowering us to use everything we have—our time, talent, and treasure—for God’s purpose.
Our care for the sick, the outcast, and the lonely. Our life as Christian community is deepened as we actively share in the essential dignity of every person God has created and gives us,
When we do works of mercy and justice, we discover the face of Christ in those we serve.
Fruitful and profound worship grows out of the way, we, as a people, and as a community—a vine, if you will—are nurtured in relationship to Jesus Christ.
But we can’t do any of this without Rest. Why do we find it so difficult to rest? Why does it take us so long to disengage? Have you ever noticed that we are only really relaxed towards the end of vacation?
Saint Benedict of Nursia, in his famous monastic rule, tells the monastics that as soon as they hear the bell for prayer, they are to "close shop" right away! Why? It takes time and effort to move from the world of labora to the world of ora. Even in the monastery, leaving the field or workshop and going to the oratory took time, and so sitting in silence was necessary to center and prepare themselves before the abbot knocks on the choir stall to call them to stand together to pray.
And that is why I was taught by my parents, as many “cradle Episcopalians” were, to kneel in silent prayer as soon as one enters the Church. I am grateful that this act of getting re-connected to God was routinized by my parents because I, like many of us, find it a challenge to stop and rest!
Today’s Gospel reminds us that the Church is a living thing and that we baptized folk are "grafted onto the vine." We were not organically connected before, but in baptism were grafted and the connected into to the life-giving sap so that through our common, eucharistic life, now we are part and parcel of the vine-- the church, the life of Christ!
Being grafted into the vine is a nurturing, generative act. A friend of mine told me about how, growing up in Appalachia, his great-grandfather grafted onto one apple tree the shoots from four different apple trees to become the most amazing apple tree he ever saw! He said that it was like going to a fresh market on that one tree!
Think about St.John’s and the rest of the Church in light of what Jesus is saying here about inclusion. Here we are, this part of the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement and what do we see? A rich assortment of vines and fruit. All colors, all genders. all languages and cultures. We branches are connected to Jesus by virtue of our baptisms, and we are fed through our eucharistic life, and together we witness to the risen Christ. We branches are watched over and tended to by God the vintner. In God’s vineyard, we are at once co-vintners with God and we are the vines producing fruit for God’s work and the benefit of humankind.
This is challenging work. It will call us all to new depths of open caring and genuine commitment. The poor we meet, the people we care for, and the students we support will change us, make no mistake! It will at times feel as if we are being pruned and tended. But that’s okay! It’s what vineyards are for.
When John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council almost 60 years ago, his words recalled Jesus’ Gospel words when he said, “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life."
Here is a video of the Liturgy for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2, 2021 at St. John's Episcopal Church, Clearwater. (YouTube)
Here is a video of the Sermon only. (Vimeo)