Thursday, May 10, 2012

The sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 6, 2012
The Collect:  Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Lessons:  Acts 8:26-40    Psalm 22:24-30 Page 611, BCP   1 John 4:7-21      John 15:1-8
The usual caveat:  I format my sermons for preaching, and sometimes the written version is a little off for reading.  I also write sermons only as a guide, so I deviate and adlib quite frequently.  But this is what I wrote.

Let’s begin this sermon with a test.   Actually, a survey.  Raise your hand if you have used the word abide in your conversation during the last week.   Anybody?  How about the last month?  The last year?
I would bet that most of us have never used the word abide in regular conversation at any time in our lives.  It’s not only a word that isn’t commonly used, it’s a word with a meaning that’s hard to put our fingers on.
The dictionary says, remain, continue, stay, to have one’s abode or dwelling with.  When it’s used without an object, it can mean to tolerate, endure, or await.
And I would suggest that abide means all of those things for us.   Abide is like a stew word.   Composed of various ingredients that don’t necessarily sound so appealing when taken separately, but which meld together to form something delicious, and nourishing.
And there’s often some flavor you can’t quite put a name to.
What’s the point of our abiding with Jesus? What does it mean for us to remain with or continue with him?
It all comes down to fruit.
I had two professors in seminary who were quite different.  One was very pastoral, and his pastor’s heart meant that whenever the seminary was without a dean, the university made him the acting dean.  The only reason he didn’t become dean was that he was a Lutheran in an Episcopal seminary!  Don Armentrout is a nationally known historian of the Episcopal church, and I know that those he taught learned much more than history from him. 
The second professor is an ethicist, a former Roman Catholic priest, trained in very traditional models of philosophy and ethics.   And if ever there was someone to push your buttons, he’s it.  Not because he likes to push buttons, but because he knows that in examining how your buttons are pushed, you learn a great deal about yourself and your beliefs, the ones you acknowledge and the ones you know nothing about.  A good friend of mine who had him years before I did said that being in Joe Monti’s classes was like being at the receiving end of a fire hose.
Two very different men, both just recently retired, and honestly, two very different kinds of fruit.
Don’s pastoral nature challenged us all obliquely.  Joe’s confrontational ways challenged us head on.  Over the course of 3 years, both took engineers and doctors and lawyers and salesmen and therapists and artists and Army non-coms and Air Force pilots  and helped us become priests and pastors for the church.
Folks like Don and Joe are part of the process of pruning us, I think.
You know the folks in your life who have challenged you.  Challenged your beliefs. Challenged your lifestyle.  Challenged you to define who you are and who you are not.
And finally, challenged you to be more than you are, to become more.  
Unfortunately, when we think of pruning, we think of wholesale whacking off of branches and limbs.  Sometimes it is that, but more often pruning is a very selective kind of process.  Find the point where the dead wood means the live wood and cut there, not too much into the live wood.  Consider the shape of the plant and what it can support, and gently trim off the parts that can no longer be maintained, or that won’t contribute to future growth.
I am reminded of the true nature of pruning each spring when somebody whacks another crepe myrtle.  You see them all around here, the crepe myrtles which have become crepe murders.  Whacked again. Someone has taken off huge branches, actually stems, of 2-3 inches in diameter.   And the forms that result this time of year have knobbly joints where the new growth emerges.  They are functional as crepe myrtles, but certainly not beautiful.  To borrow a phrase, they are not all that they could be. 
And then I recall watching Charlie Easton prune our crepe myrtles here at St. Timothy’s, several years ago.  Not a pair of scissors or loppers in his hands, he approached them individually and using just his fingers, carefully examined each branch, and gently took it back to new growth, growth that could support those sweeping branches of beautiful stems.  Charlie has the hands of someone who works outside and loves it.  He also has the hands of a nurturer, who brings new health and growth to those around him.  His crepe myrtles are beautiful things.
When Jesus speaks of abiding in him, one of the pieces of that is knowing that we will be pruned.  Not that we might be, but that we will be.  But our formation as the followers of Christ is much more subtle than going after the plant with our shears and doing it in one instant.
Instead our formation, our shaping in Christ, is gentle.   It’s not done obliquely, just head on.  But if we allow ourselves, we are gently reshaped in the way we should go.  Scraggly bushes and vines are subtly reformed in the image of Christ.  Not a one-time event, or a sudden event, but rather a life-long process.
John Wesley called it the process of sanctification.   And that’s what abiding really is.  Not at all what the dictionary says.  Allowing ourselves to be reshaped constantly.  To be challenged in the shape we are in and to be re-formed.   And to know that the pruning that will reshape us comes from many sources, not just from the Lord.
To be re-formed, day by day, month-by-month.  Abiding in the true vine.  And the truth of it, I believe, is that that kind of re-formation and re-shaping takes place only in Christ.  In the body of Christ, in the Body we call the church.
Jesus speaks these words about being the vine to his disciples as part of what is known as the Farewell Discourses.  In a little bit of time travel, here in our time, after Easter, we go back to the days before his crucifixion.  To the time when he prepared his disciples to be without his physical presence among them.
This is how you will survive, he says to them.  This is how you will not only survive, but thrive.  You will not be a lone branch on a vine, or a tree. You will not live your life alone or without companionship. You will live your life in me, and in the company of others who believe in me.
And only then will you truly live your life.   Only then will you live life to bear fruit. Fruit that will forever and truly change the world.  Abide in me.

it's time

We're working on a new website at St. Timothy's and one of the things that has to happen is there to be a link to my sermons.  I've hesitated to publish them or send them out because 1) I format them in a way that works for my preaching style, but doesn't work well for reading and therefore requires reformatting and 2) the whole process of publishing them seems somehow, well, like putting myself forward.  I have no issue at all with folks taking them on Sundays, and indeed, invite folks to do so.  And I'm not ashamed or embarrassed about what I write or say.  

It's just that I was raised in a household where we were expected to not call attention to ourselves.  And this whole idea of publishing for the whole world to see (although I know that maybe, what 3 people will see this?) takes me back to that place.  

I guess I have to get it over, don't I?  And that's what we all have to do.  Get over how we were raised, and get over ourselves.  After all, it's to the glory of God.  That is what we do.