Monday, February 1, 2010

The Fifth Sunday of Easter 2009 Sermon

The Fifth Sunday of Easter
John 15:1 -- 8

Weed and Feed

I think some people are natural born gardeners. Our Lord grew up in a society that was familiar with agriculture. The images that he used to explain the ways of his Father in Heaven are familiar to his audience. Growing up, my closest experience to agriculture was living in, "the Garden State." Most people when they pass through New Jersey are surprised to see that expression on the license plate of vehicles registered in New Jersey. Most folks traveling through New Jersey experience the megalopolis, the corridor between New York City and Washington, DC. My closest experience to an agricultural society growing up in New Jersey was mowing the lawn. But I have to admit I still believe New Jersey has the best tomatoes in the United States.

More recently I have found myself blessed with an opportunity to get a bit closer to the land and to understand its ways. Four years after the death of my first wife I married a farm girl. She grew up in central Washington State and worked on her family's wheat farm. She loves her gardens and creates little areas around our house and yard that are designed to bring pleasure to all. She has a gift and yet it's obvious that the gift is supported by long hours of work, weeding and pruning and taking care of the plants and flowers, protecting them from the elements and from the deer that delight especially in the tulips.

Not long ago Jill, my wife, asked me to see if I could get the string trimmer working again. After checking a few things and reloading the string in the string trimmer, giving it some fresh fuel I was able to get it started. Jill has higher standards than I do when it comes to the beauty of the yard but it gives me pleasure to bring her pleasure and so I found myself taking the string trimmer and whacking away at the edges of the property, at the edges of her gardens, and around trees where the grass tends to grow a bit higher because the mower can't get quite as close as the trimmer. Sometime after giving all those areas a good buzz cut my dear wife asked me if I had been aware that one of the plants around the tree which has the bird feeder attached to it was not a weed. No, I had no idea that one of the plants I had just trimmed was a gift from a friend. It was green and it was growing tall and it looked like a weed to me. She then proceeded to tell me that the plant was growing better than it ever had. She hadn't noticed my original unintentional pruning job. But because of cutting back the plant it now had grown fuller, and thicker than it ever had been before. She then took me over to the plant and showed me how well it was growing while also educating me in a way that I wouldn't get overzealous with the string trimmer in the future.

It seems to me that Jesus is suggesting that the Word of God is like a giant string trimmer for the people of God. Our Lord scatters the word with grace, in his teaching and in his example. The Word of God comes into us and as it takes hold it is designed to remove areas in our life which keep us from God while making room for God to dwell within us. The Word of God not only provides us with an opportunity for growth it provides us with the possibility of greater health. Just like that plant, the good plant underneath the tree with the bird feeder, was blessed by an unintentional pruning, so too and even more the good intention of our Lord in casting his word upon us can prune us, cutting away growth that is unnecessary growth that may even stunt the fullness of our being, pruning that serves to provide space and room for God's better growth and life to shine forth and become apparent in and through us.

As we reflect upon our congregation there may be aspects in our life as a community that needs pruning as well. No doubt at times the church needs weeding and pruning. At times we develop bad theologies, like thinking we must be all things to all people. When we do this, when we think this way we often become almost nothing to anyone. When congregations seek to be all things to all people they are usually operating out of their own ideas rather than making room for the Word of God to dwell within them. When congregations seek to be all things to all people, they can become so scattered and unfocused that almost nothing of worth can grow within them. When congregations are pruned by the Word of God, when congregations listen and discover the guidance of the Holy Spirit unique to its identity, congregations become fruitful and noticed and make a difference not only among the membership but in the larger community in which they are situated.

There was a time in my life when I found that I needed to be pruned of some bad thinking. Early on in the Ministry I somehow developed a theology of availability. It seemed to me that it was part of the role of the Minister to be available to all people at all times. I figured God was available at all times and as his minister it was my job to reflect God as best I could and I took on the theology of availability. At the time I was serving in a rather demanding congregation, their demands were not unreasonable and their needs were real, the problem was that they were more than I could handle. People were dying and the grief surrounding the deaths was great. There were members of the congregation who had severe health challenges; one of the members who was a bridge leader in the congregation had serious heart problems. After corrective surgery gone awry he went into a coma in which he stayed for five months before his untimely death. His challenge alone was difficult for the whole congregation and I was seeking to take care of everyone in a way that I found myself working 14 hour days with no days off and this pattern lasted for over three months. Having developed a theology of availability, which seemed to be appreciated by the congregation, I found myself close to having a nervous breakdown. I could feel myself coming unglued. At that time I had not yet named the core problem. Not having had a day off for months I informed vestry of the congregation that I would be leaving town for six days, that I needed to go away and try to recharge my batteries and get a handle on my life.

I got on an airplane and flew down to Florida. My parents at that time owned a home on an island which was walking distance from a beach. Each day I spent several hours on the beach in quiet contemplation, walking and praying until I discovered that my theology of availability was a prideful attempt to play God. What I also discovered was that I was available to everyone except God, those closest to me namely my family, and myself. The theology of availability had caused me to break the great Commandment, I did not love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength and I did not love myself. The pruning that I needed at that time was to first confess my wrong thinking and then to adjust my life in a way that I could allow God to be God and to simply serve as his minister, one day at a time seeking his guidance for each day. At that time I created a discipline for myself; I got out my appointment book and scheduled for the next year a daily appointment with the Lord. Each day I blocked off the hour between four and five in the afternoon as a time to work on the relationship between God and myself. When members of the congregation would ask me if I could see them during that hour I would look at my appointment book and tell them that I was sorry that I already had an appointment scheduled for that time. The congregation survived my new discipline, my family enjoyed seeing me again, I became a healthier person, the Lord and I strengthened our relationship and I discovered that by putting God first the needs that I needed to attend to as a minister of the Lord became more grace filled. I'd be thinking of folks that I needed to see and while making a visit to the hospital, the elevator doors would open and there standing in front of me would be the very folks that I knew I needed to call upon. I discovered as I gave my life and will to God, as I gave him each day, each day became richer, fuller and more abundant. I think that's what God's pruning does, as we open ourselves to being pruned by God we discover that as painful as the pruning may be at the moment of pruning, our lives do become richer, fuller and more abundant.

We are invited to abide in God and we are reminded that our Lord abides in us. We may want to ask ourselves the question in what or in whom do we abide? Our congregations may abide in a spirit of trying to be all things to all people. I found myself abiding in false thinking that I needed to be present to all people as God was present to all people. Some congregations think that if they can be like another congregation all their problems will be solved. These congregations may be full of good intentions but perhaps they're missing the point of the Lord's call to them. Our Lord calls individuals and congregations to abide in him and to discover his abiding presence in us. The temptation to individuals is to abide in the culture rather than the Lord. The culture misleads us into believing that we will be satisfied if we get a bigger house, a more fuel-efficient car, a better job, more money, or countless other things that promise satisfaction but rarely if ever produce fruit.

We are promised much fruit in our lives as we abide in Jesus and receive his abiding presence already in us, given to us in baptism, refreshed in us by the presence of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul describes what our Lord's fruit looks like in his letter to the Galatians. He points out that the fruit of a life lived in the Lord is a life that's characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, generosity and by other characteristics that reflect the presence of our Lord. St. Paul also points out in the same letter what happens when a life does not abide in the Lord. He points out the behaviors that occur when a life abides in the wrong things. Those lives reflect the sins of jealousy and anger, quarrels and factions, drunkenness and envy and things like that. Our Lord makes it very clear that a life that is not centered and grounded in the abiding presence of God Almighty is an empty life, a fruitless life an unsatisfying life.

If we are to look at ourselves as a field or a garden in which our Lord comes to dwell, and if we are to look at the fields and gardens that are a part of our experience it's very easy to discover that there are good plants and there are weeds in our fields, in our gardens and in our lives. Both the good plants and the weeds need to be dealt with. Our Lord desires to kill the weeds, just as he desires to remove the sins from our life. And our Lord desires to prune the good plants within our gardens, not because he wants to hurt us or cut us back or slow us down, but simply because he wants to make more room, more space for his good fruit to be produced within us, in our communities and in our lives. We are told that as we abide in our Lord we can ask for whatever we wish and it will be done for us. It seems to me the key statement in that phrase is abiding in the Lord. It seems to me as we abide in the Lord we will only ask for the right things. Abiding in the Lord doesn't give us license to ask for things that are selfish or hurtful or outside of God's will. As we abide in our Lord and our Lord's word abides in us, as we spend time each day in our congregation and in our lives seeking our Lord's direction and purpose we will discover God's glory and we will discover God's blessing in the fruitfulness of our lives as we are given the privilege of serving those around us with his love, his joy, his patience, his faithfulness. As we abide in the Lord and our Lord abides in us we will discover the deep pleasure of discipleship, for our Lord's disciples are not only his servants but we are his friends and companions. Let us find pleasure in presenting our lives to our Lord and to those whom the Lord has given us to serve, and let us pray that our Lord will come and do the work of gardening that he needs to do within us and within our communities that he may be glorified, that the world may be served and that we may be blessed as he abides in us and we in him. To the glory of God. Amen

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