Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard

May 3, 2015

John 15: 1-8

“We Are the Branches”

Our Scripture lesson this morning comes to us from the Gospel According to John fifteen, verses one thru eight.

1 I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.  2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

God has blessed our hearing and understanding of these ancient and holy words.

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May is often lifted up as the beginning of a new season with the  fullness of spring covering the land.  When I was serving churches in New York it was easy to reflect on the new blush of spring.  I often proclaimed that “here we are in the midst of springtime.  The trees have come alive all around us.  Their bright colored flowers have given way to new leaves and the beginnings of new fruit.  Their branches will soon be the homes of new life of all kinds.  The birds are busy making nests upon the branches, pulling together new leaves and old alike to make a place to lay their eggs.  The earth has given way to the warmth of the sun and has allowed the grass and all living creatures that live beneath the surface, to rise up and greet this new cycle of life.”  Speaking here, in the midst of a Florida springtime, some of my observations are off just a bit, but I believe the ‘point’ of my reflections are still valid.

For us Floridians as the days pass, and the spring rains continue to nourish the new growth, and the longer times of sunlight help to warm the earth and spur on the new birth that spring brings, we, as Floridians, we know that spring leads to a long hot and oftentimes stormy summer.  In the fields the local farmers have begun to prepare the earth for yet another new crop under the Florida sun.  Many varieties of things have been, and countless more will be planted, such things as corn and potatoes for sure.  Some will plant peas and carrots and even cabbage and broccoli will be carefully planted in hopes of a good crop this year.  The citrus farmers will be fussing over their fruit trees.  Oranges, grapefruit and an assortment of fruits are in the not too distant future.

When we talk of farming we cannot, we must not forget the tomatoes, even here in Florida tomatoes are a popular crop; it is just that the time of planting and harvest are slightly shifted from that of those from places such as New England and New York.  Even us rookie farmers, we shall try our hands at a tomato plant or two.  I can’t count the number of times I have tried.  Nor can I forget the training I received as a teenager on this subject.  When I was between the ages of fourteen and fifteen, I worked for a farmer in the Connecticut valley.  He grew lots of different crops and one of those was his huge fields of tomatoes.

I remember how we were instructed to plant young tomato plants.  They varied in height from 9 to 15 inches.  Each plant was carefully placed in the earth with a bit of water and their roots covered over with warm rich soil.  Within a week or two we went back to the same fields and replaced the plants that had not taken root… thus giving another the chance to mature.  As the weeks passed we would revisit the same fields and take from the branches the shoots that were considered ‘suckers’.  They grew between the main branches and tended to divert the nourishment meant for the fruit that was to be nurtured.  We pruned them this way until the stocks of the plants – ‘shot up’ and needed to be tied to stakes that were placed beside the plants, to hold their weight.

This style of pruning and stacking of a tomato plant caused its fruit to grow freely in the air – with little or no spoilage.  Of course they were also exposed to the dry summer heat and the scorching sun so they needed to be irrigated and watered regularly.  At the time of harvest… only the good fruit was brought to market and the spoilage was left to rot and feed the ravens and scavengers of the land.

We are the branches of Christ.  Just like the tomato plant, from us there is much fruit that needs to be nurtured and cared for.  Some of our branches need to be pruned so that new growth can occur, thus producing good fruit.  In celebration of new life, within our membership, while being reminded of our commitment to this our church, we are again prompted to acknowledge that we are Christians.  All this is true, but yet… we must be careful what we proclaim we are, as Christians.  We do not want to declare falsely.  We do not want to boost of what is not quite true.  Let us consider these words of wisdom as we celebrate and proclaim our faith for all to see and hear.

When I say…”I am a Christian”
I’m not shouting, “I am saved”
I’m whispering, “I was lost”
That is why I chose this way.

When I say…”I am a Christian”
I don’t speak of this with pride.
I’m confessing that I stumble
And need someone to be my guide.

When I say…”I am a Christian”
I’m not trying to be strong.
I’m professing that I’m weak
And pray for strength to carry on.

When I say…”I am a Christian”
I’m not bragging of success.
I’m admitting I have failed
And cannot ever pay the debt.

When I say…”I am a Christian”
I’m not claiming to be perfect,
My flaws are all too visible,
But God believes I’m worth it.

When I say…”I am a Christian”
I still feel the sting of pain
I have my share of heartaches
Which is why I speak His name.

When I say…”I am a Christian”
I do not wish to judge.
I have no authority.
I only know I’m loved.
/Author Unknown/

When we share our faith with ‘someone’ who already has this understanding, we do it as reinforcement.  And more importantly, we are invited to share our faith with those who do not have a clear awareness or appreciation of what it means to be a Christian.  As we do so… we do not want to perpetuate the myth that Christians think they are “perfect” or “better than others,” but rather we want to dispel that myth and move on to the truth.

We want to tell the story of how we are but the branches of the “Church of Jesus Christ.”  We want to tell about how some branches need to be pruned for they are not growing as God intended and they are actually taking away from the nourishment that needs to go to the good fruit, the fruit that Christ intended.  Humble fruit, grateful fruit, willing fruit, fruit that has been saved from the scorching heat of the sun; fruit that has been saved from the pestilence that spoil the new crops each year; fruit that has been nurtured with love by the farmer who cares about the sweetness inside rather than simply the shiny exterior.

We want to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.  God sent forth his essence through the man named Jesus born in Bethlehem and raised in the region of Galilee.  He was nurtured by his mother Mary and taught to be a carpenter.  This gentle man, the Son of God in the flesh, called forth his disciples from out of the common rank of people.  He taught them of the ways of his Father in heaven and he empowered them to pass along to others what he had given to them.

Jesus said unto his disciples: “I am the vine, you are the branches.”  Today, we celebrate that each one of us, here gathered, have chosen the journey of faith – within this fellowship.  We give thanks and praise that together we shall continue the journey, as we continue to serve the church we so love.  We celebrate also that our children journey with us.  We look with joy to the new signs of life in our Christian Education Department.  The plans for new events: in the life of our children, our youth, are beginning to come together.  This evening, the start of our re-organized youth program will kick-off with a pizza party in the newly renovated youth room.  We celebrate that there are so many dedicated teachers and helpers, who are willing to do what it takes to pass to our children all that we know of God.  Together, they, we, you and I, we will witness to the many ways the living God, the Risen Christ, has been shown to us and to those who came before us.

Let us give thanks to God as today marks a new beginning in so many ways.  This afternoon the Florida Conference, of the United Church of Christ, will formally install me as your newly ‘called’ pastor.  Together, we shall gather to celebrate this moment and all it means to us as a faith community.  For me it means the end of a premature retirement and the opportunity to work with you and for you in so many ways.  Together, we shall envision the plan God has for us.  Together, we shall seek to implement that plan.  The journey that our God envisions for us is about to open up to us.  Let us embrace it with new life.  Let us come together and be that team of willing farmers and dedicated disciples that shall truly make a difference in this community.  Together, we will grow new branches and bear new fruit, fruit that will last into the future generations that we are striving to bring with us!

As Jesus of Nazareth paid the price for our sinfulness he opened the gates of heaven for all to come in.  Jesus proclaimed to us that he was the vine, Jesus is the foundation, we are the branches, we are to build and grow upon his foundation, to spring forth from his vine.  The foundation of God through Christ is love.  God loves each and everyone.  God’s blessing is upon us all.  God is here for you and for me – today.  God has blessed the events of this day already, just as surely as God blesses our plans for new growth through youthful and spirit filled events.  Days of meditation walking upon our Labyrinth have and shall continue to renew our efforts while refreshing our spirits.  The raising up of the ‘heroes’ of the Bible and the ‘heroes’ with in this ‘our community’ shall thrust our plans for Vacation Bible School into the forefront of our new branches within Christian Education.  Heroes’ life Moses, a boy named David, our local firefighters and law enforcement officers, are just a few we shall bring to the forefront this season.

God’s compassion is clear and forgiveness and salvation is for everyone.  Have faith.  Believe that God cares about you.  Believe that God is with you throughout your journey of life – and beyond that journey.  You have not been pruned from the vine.  You have been nurtured, loved and protected.  Now is the time for your fruit to flourish.  Let others into your life and allow the love and light of God, your fruit, to be harvested for those that still seek the nourishment that it offers.  Remember always – we are the branches of God through Christ.
Amen.

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