The following sermon was given by The Very Rev. Denise Ronn
to the 190th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia
at Evening Prayer on February 10, 2011

John 15:1-11 I am the vine, you are the branches.

Electronically speaking, we are a connected people. Our technology has enabled us to connect with each other in ways never imagined in past generations. The internet, email, cell phones, facebook – you name it – have become so much a part of our lives. And yet, we know very well that in spite of all our “connections” we are having trouble staying meaningfully connected to each other.

An elderly friend of mine loves going to the post office almost daily because the postal employees are so friendly. During the holiday season, I saw him come into the post office and he was a little overwhelmed by the long line. I mentioned to him that he did not have to wait in line that if all he needed were stamps he could use the stamp machine over in the corner. He replied by telling me that that was fine, but that the stamp machine would not ask him about his aches and pains.

We are a people who are hungry for almost any kind of personal connection. We were created with a deep need for meaningful relationships. Yet in spite of every thing, we are profoundly disconnected. God created you and I to be interconnected to all of creation. Our real sense of purpose in life is at the heart of our relationships. Vital connections are at the center of what Jesus was talking about in this passage on the vine and the branches. He was instructing us as to what it takes to be totally connected to God and therefore each other in ways that bring life and health.

Of course the primary connection we all need is to God. Our lives are meant to be lived not as separate entities, but joined, attached and connected to God and one another. Jesus uses a word picture to describe this vital connection – the use of a vine and its branches.

It provides us with a concrete understanding of the flow and complexity of this interconnectedness. If the branches stay vitally connected to the vine, they live and bear fruit. If the branches are not connected to the vine, they cannot fulfill their intended purpose and they will eventually die and are then cut off from the source. It is a simple, yet profound lesson.

A Jewish legend tells about a leaf that desired freedom. The leaf saw being connected to the tree branch day after day as confining. Each day the leaf dreamed of flying on the wings of the wind and seeing the world. Twisting and turning finally the leaf succeeded in being disconnected — released. A gust of wind carried the leaf away with an exclamation of delight. Dancing in the wind and freely racing along highways was thrilling. Limitation was gone! Anywhere was a possible destination … but then night came. Lying alone shivering in litter was not a pleasant experience for the leaf. Passing days brought increasing weakness. Eventually curling up and turning very brittle, the leaf died.

Jesus said, “I am the true vine.” This would suggest that there are other vines. Other possibilities, other ways that appear to be the source of life. But do these other sources produce life? Do they bear fruit?

In our world there are so many choices it almost seem endless. Many of these sources claim to be the source of true happiness and fulfillment. – our jobs, our money, our things, our popularity – even in our modern day, our spirituality has become like a buffet. We are invited to pick and choose what we like and what we do not like.

But Jesus says to you & I that if we really want to be plugged into the source of life, a connection that gives life (abundant life) then we must be connected to Him. Now once we are connected to Christ it does not end there, we must stay connected.

Numerous times we hear in this passage to “abide in me”. You do not hear that word much now a days, “abide”. We do not hear people saying “Abide with us today”. No, they say “Stay here”. The word abide has to do with persevering, continuing, lasting, sticking with it. That may be why it is not used much today.

We live in a world of constant change – to remain, to persevere, to stay put – would sound too boring. And yet, Jesus tells us that if we do not we will not produce fruit. We will be barren. We will die.

It is important to note that when the branches are disconnected from the vine, the life-giving source, they will be unfruitful. We are the branches and it is our responsibility to stay connected to the vine.

An interesting point about the barren branches is that they are still attached to the vine, but they are not connected in life-giving ways. Even though they look like they are connected they are actually drawing nourishment for somewhere else. They go through the motions of “church” but they are seeking life from places other than the true vine. Did you hear what Jesus is saying? Just hanging around the church does not necessarily mean that you are connected to the life-giving source. The unproductive branches are those people within the Christian faith who do not bear fruit. And what is the fruit Jesus wants us to bear –LOVE. It is a fruit that can only come from God. You & I cannot generate love on our own. If we try, it becomes very self-serving and is not love. Jesus says “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” You will dwell there. You will exist there.

Now here is the hard part of this message: In order to see God’s love as the fruit of our lives with Christ, it takes pruning. You see love does not come naturally to us and pruning can sometimes be ugly. Have you ever seen freshly pruned trees? Look at the crepe myrtles in our area. During the winter, all of their outer branches are pruned away. The leaves and flowers are cut off and only the main branches remain.

When I first moved to South Georgia, I thought that they were so ugly and that they would die. But then spring came and the tiny new branches grew and the leaves formed and then almost over night the flowers bloomed and there was this beautiful rainbow of vibrant colors to enjoy. Because of the pruning, just like the crepe myrtle tree, you and I are able to produce the fruit of love. The ache for a deep connection exists within the heart of every one of us, but it can only be met by the life giving connection to the One who prunes and shapes us through our struggles and our trials of life until we conform to the image of Christ. This is the connection for which our hearts long for: to love and be loved.

You and I have gathered together in this time and in this place to do some connecting -vital connecting to God and each other. In the Church there are to be no freestanding branches, but branches that encircle one another completely. The fruitfulness of each individual branch depends on it relationship to the vine and nothing else. The Church is to be a community of believers that are known for their acts of love and not built around individual accomplishments, choices, or rights, but around corporate accountability to the abiding presence of Jesus Christ (New Interpreter’s Bible, p. 760).

Since our theme this year for convention is “Tending towards Growth”, let us be reminded that growth is not only about numbers but also about maturity. As you & I grow as individuals and as the body of Christ, maybe some old habits or thoughts or attitudes or even behaviors need to be pruned away. Allowing the power of God’s Spirit to produce even more fruit in our lives and in the life of God’s Church.

“Abide in me as I abide in you.” In the next few days we as a corporate group will be making some important decisions about the life of our Church. May God’s Spirit remind each of us to stay connected to the true vine as we make our decisions. For by staying connected we will ensure that our time together will be fruitful and the world will know (because the world is watching) that we are Christ followers by the love we share. Amen.