March 4, 2012
“A Joyful Branch”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
When I was growing up in the Pleasant Hills Community Presbyterian Church, communion was celebrated only a few times a year; four or six, something like that. I can remember the pristine white table cloth and the smaller white linens covering the elements on the table. Everything ironed, must have been starched as well. It actually looked a bit creepy, death like, the Table all shrouded. The ministers would preside at the Table; black robe, clergy collar, Geneva tabs. When the elders would work the room to distribute the elements, it wasn’t the floor that would squeak. Not like here, it was a much newer building. It was their shoes, that I could hear squeaking; those wing tips. After the congregation had been served, the celebrants would serve the elders up there at the front; first the bread, then the cup. One of the ministers would always break the silence by saying loud enough for all to hear: “Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” And then just a few moments later, “Jesus said, ‘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.”
With the tray of bread, “the bread of life”. With the tray of grape juice, “I am the vine.” Bread. Loaf. Cubes. Take. Eat. Vine. Grapes. Juice. Cups. Drink. Nothing subtle when it comes to the connection, the words, the meal; a connection to be made even for the casual observer. Jesus the bread of life. Jesus the Vine. The Celebration of the Lord’s Supper. But as the preachers of Youth Sunday last week shared with us their reflections on Jesus as the bread of life, and as another “I am” text from John’s gospel rattles around in our ears this morning, it would seem rather obvious that liturgical sound bites aren’t enough. Though blessed to have the memory verses, and nurtured by that simplest connection of word and action, a certain complexity and challenging reality to the Christian life demands more, really. During Lent, a certain complexity and challenging reality to the Christian life ought to bubble up demanding more from all this. More than bread, cube, vine, juice. Here at Table, here in Word, there is so much more.
Just in terms of words alone, here in the 15th chapter of the Gospel of John, the teaching of Jesus, his last discourse to his disciples; so much more. Bearing fruit. Pruning. Cleansing. Abiding. Withering. Doing. Gathering. Throwing. Glorifying. Becoming. Keeping. Completing. Calling. Commanding. Hearing. Choosing. Appointing. Going. Giving. Loving. All here in Word. All here at table.
When we gather at this Table, all those words ought to just roll over you. The promises of God, just sort of drench you, you soak it in. Like when you walk down to the ocean and go in up to your ankles, big breaths of salty air, the sound of the waves, makes you feel like you’re the only one in the universe. Or when you head out on that first stunningly bright, sun shining morning of spring, and just can’t help but stop and close your eyes, and raise your head to the warmth come down. Or when amid all the craziness of life, you find yourself fumbling for some music on your iPod, your computer, a CD, in your car…some music for your soul, and those first notes of Brahms, “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place”, those first notes start to play and you can’t help but take this huge breath and let out an audible sigh, maybe even a smile. That’s how the promise of Jesus should wash over you at the Table; so much more than bread, cube, vine, juice. Much more.
The “something more” here is not just the opposite of a “sound bite.” Not more explanation, not more words, not explaining away every image. Something more is not listening to a 45 minute sermon on pruning, or sitting out there as a preacher squeezes absolutely all the joy out of thinking about Jesus as the vine, or picking out any of these words, “abiding, bearing, completing”, any of these words and drilling way down. It’s not just explicating and quoting Jesus that is the something more. For goodness sakes, in the animated movie “The Jungle Book” it was Bagheera who tried to comfort the boy Mowgli at the apparent death of Baloo by quoting Jesus “no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. The something more is not just a moving speech that a Disney character can do.
Cleansed by the Word I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. My joy in you. Your joy complete. Love one another. Bear much fruit. Become my disciple. My Father is glorified by this. Word and Table.
I was at a fundraiser just the other night; a wine and cheese tasting. I had a tiny glass of red in my hand as I approached the cheese table. As I reached for a piece of the cheese and plopped it in my mouth, the cheese guy just about hit the roof. Apparently it was the wrong pairing. He told me, in no uncertain terms, to go cleanse my palette and start over. When it comes to Lent and the soaking promises of God, maybe it’s a bit like cleansing your palette.
Or maybe like hitting the reset button, or rediscovering that core conviction of faith. Like an exhausted teacher seeing the light bulb going on look in a child’s eye and remembering why he teaches, a medical professor who works in the clinic once a week to see patients so she won’t forget her passion, a father who sneaks into his child’s room long after midnight, the end of a very long hard day at work, just to stare at his sleeping child and push the reset button on life.
It’s Lent. Come and reset, reclaim, rediscover. Come and cleanse your palette. Here cleansed by the Word. Here at the Table drenched in the promises of God. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciple…..that you love one another.
Bearing. Becoming. Loving. Wherever you are, however distant you feel, amid all the complexity and challenging reality that is your life, come and let the aroma and the sound of the promises of God make you feel once again like you are the only in the universe of God’s love. Just stop and close your eyes and raise your head to the warmth of grace come all the way down in the self emptying love of Christ. Amid all of the craziness of life, take a breath and let out a sigh, maybe even have a smile and listen again to the first notes of the promise of Jesus. I am the Vine, you are the branches. Bearing. Becoming. Loving.
It’s not just Lent, is it? When a certain complexity and challenging reality in life, in the world, all around us, when it rises up and demands more of all this, all this Christian faith. News reports of the bombarding violence and full out civil war in Syria; a humanitarian disaster on display for all the world. In Ohio, a school shooting that turns the whole nation’s stomach to a knot. In Jersey City a young teen shot by another with a gun that was in the house. Tornadoes across the heartland cause this unbelievable devastation that just leaves you heartsick when you watch those video clips. Life and death, the world, our humanity, it’s all demanding more from all this.
Yet, the conversation about Christian faith that rises to pretty much an obsessive level is about a football player. And the rhetoric of politics reduces any reference to the church to talk of contraception, church, and state. And so-called national Christian leaders are taking to the airwaves to discuss the relative merit of the Christian faith of our politicians. Entire communities blown away. Young people killing with guns like it’s a video game. Entire regions of the world on the edge of war. And that’s how we’re going to talk about the gospel promise of God in the public square? I don’t know about you, but the world I see flashing before my eyes is demanding a whole lot more from the Christian faith and the promises of God, and I find myself needing to cleanse my palette. Yes, of course a cleansing from those voices that give me angina on a regular basis. But, a cleansing, a resetting, a Lenten recentering, a Eucharistic washing in a much more profound sense. That, in truth, the promises of God speak to the world and our lives in it.
Abide in me as I abide in you. I am the vine, you are the branches. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love. Love one another as I have loved you. You did not chose me but I chose you. I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. My Father is glorified by that this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. Bearing. Becoming. Loving. The soaking promises of God.
It’s the season of Lent and the world, well, the world is the world. Some of us are called upon to try to make sense of it all; God and the world, I mean. Some among us, even here, are called to write about, give voice to it, teach about it; the promises of God and the world. All of us, every single one of us, is called to give glory to God by bearing the fruit of God’s love, and thus, becoming Christ’s disciple, and loving one another.
Glorifying God with a life of love; especially now, when the complexities and realities all around us are demanding so much more from all this, from us.
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