I am the Vine and You are the Branches

Phyllis Anderson—May 13, 2009
PLTS Chapel
Closing of the 2008–09 School Year

John 15:1–8

On your way to lunch today I encourage you to take a detour up to my front door. Immediately to the right you see two camellia bushes. One has shiny green leaves and buds will soon form for next spring. One will never bloom again.

Sometime last winter, when the soil became saturated with water, the taller bush lost its hold on the ground. I saw it tilt away from the wall and slowly bend toward the ground. In the process some vital vessels were severed, so that the sap from the roots could not rise. Even though Gerry and Mike gently pulled it back and braced it with a strong stick and a yellow cord, the connection between the leaves and the nurturing earth were severed beyond repair. Gradually its shiny leaves grew limp and then dull. Now they are brown and dry. There is nothing left for this small tree but to be cut down and thrown into the fire and burned. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.

We are coming to the end of another school year, another year of grace, as Dean Aune likes to call it. It is time to give thanks for grace received, for lessons learned, for worlds expanded, for friendships made, for struggles shared and endured. This has been a time for growing—as a tree grows when the rain and the sun are right.

In the next week or so this community will be scattered—never to be re-formed in precisely the same way again. So this is a time of tender partings and important promises to stay in touch. This is a time of abundant blessings and heart-felt Godspeeds. I hope you will soak them all up. I hope you will hold each other close. I hope you have a sense of being connected like branches on a tree—a tree that spreads as far as you need to go.

As we celebrate another year of grace, we also mark a transition between receiving and giving. The end of the year is a time of harvest, a time of reckoning. This is the time to produce the fruits of a semester’s labors in those final papers and exams. This is the time to take stock of your time here—whether it is one year or four—and ask whether you are ready to do the work that comes next.

How will you do on CPE? Do you have what it takes? Are ready to bear fruit?

How about internship? Will you be good enough? Will you produce the kind of fruit that makes people stand up and take notice? Will you get the positive recommendation that follows those fruits?

And those of you who are completing your degree and going on to do the ministries to which you are called: will you be a shiny green plant that produces amazing bright pink camellias? Or will you come up barren and dry and useless?

Our Gospel challenges us: By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. It’s a tall order and only adds to the pressure of this crazy time.

Or at least that is how we read these passages when we are feeling a little anxious anyway. I’ve got to produce! What if I can’t? What if I turn out to be a disappointment to everyone—like the dead camellia bush outside my dining room window?

I’m driven not so much by anxiety as I am by ambition. I am psychologically wired in a way that fuels productivity. I get a rush out of seeing those shiny fruits lined up in a row: three years in the black; a board meeting when everything comes together (including RIC); spectacular graduating class; shiny floors in the refectory. I am always in danger of having my whole life caught up in how much fruit I can produce—and in the recognition I get for it. That’s not so good either. That is not the kind of discipleship that glorifies God.

No—The gospel for today is something different entirely. This cycle of grace into which we are invited is not forced. It is not frantic. It is not anxious. It does not disappoint. It is not ambitious. There is not some quota of fruit to be produced. Finally it is not about the fruit. It’s about the connection. It’s about the vine. It is about God.

Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” It is like the silly little camellia bush by my house that cannot help itself from growing flowers so abundant that they fall in piles on the ground. The flowers will keep on coming, year after year, as long as the branches stay connected to the root, to the source of its life and its power.

So how is it with you? How has it been for you this year, this most recent year of grace? Has this been a year when you could simply rest in that fundamental connection with God? Did that ever happen? Or did you let yourself be overwhelmed by everything else? In the midst of all the business and pressure and questions, I hope you also experienced the reciprocity that today’s gospel invites: abide in me as I abide in you.

That invitation goes with you into the new places of challenge, into the dark places of fear. Don’t focus on the fruits. Don’t focus on the failures. Put your energy into the relationship. Stay connected. Abide. Remain in Christ and trust that he remains deep in you—whether you always feel it or not.

Simply abide. It’s not like something you have to do. It’s not some kind of program. It’s more like showing up. It’s more like slowing down from time to time to tap into that deep undercurrent of abiding love that is a gift, a given, running through all the seasons of your life. Abide in him and the rest will take care of itself. You will flower and bear much fruit—effortlessly, inevitably, abundantly.

On your way to lunch today, stop to look at the two camellia bushes by my front door and ponder the words that are God’s gift to us today: Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.