Sermon: Itís the fruits that count - but itís the roots that matter.
Preached on 6th May 2012
by The Reverend Canon Dr Stephen Cherry
‘I am the vine,’ said Jesus. ‘You are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.’
Jesus expects his hearers to know something about plants. But we do not need to know very much. We soon get the idea of cutting out the dead branches so that the live ones can get some sunlight and produces leaves and flowers and fruits. And we like the imagery of the bonfire of dead branches. The worthless dead stuff proving its dryness by crackling in the flames. It seems to make sense – tough sense, but sense nonetheless. You are either fruitful or you burn.
I have never grown vines. But I have grown blackcurrants and gooseberries.
My relationship with these summer fruits got serious when we bought a few plants in the early 1990s. We planted them in some freshly cleared area of the garden and they thrived. A couple of years later we moved house, so I dug them up and took them with us. In the vicarage garden they thrived once more. Eight years later we moved house again. They were bigger now but dug up a couple of the blackcurrant bushes and then planted them in a lovely sunny spot and, once again, they thrived. And so happy did they seem that we did not think it fair to uproot them again and bring them to Durham. They seemed a bit too old for that sort of thing.
About three years ago we bought one blackcurrant bush and one gooseberry bush and planted them in our garden here. I have to say that they have not done at all well. The gooseberry has fared worse than the blackcurrant and so this winter I moved it again and fed it a bit. ‘One last chance’, I said, having almost forgotten the taste of gooseberries.
You might think that the gooseberry bush is lucky not to have been put on the bonfire. In a way it is, but it seemed to me that it warranted a second chance. And in any case it was not dead. It was just struggling a bit – and probably because I had planted it in the wrong place.
Looked at negatively, our gospel reading today is about judgement and disposal. We think of the dead branches being pruned and incinerated. But looked at positively it is about bearing fruit, fruitfulness.
We read this passage in the Easter season and that perhaps is a clue to some of the spiritual meaning we can get from the text; for in Easter death is not what it once was. The dead are no longer the dead.
The Choir have been singing Vaughan Williams’ anthems which use the words of George Herbert’s poem Easter. The second verse draws our attention to the material of which string instruments are made: wood and string.
Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.
The wood of the cross. We are invited to behold it on Good Friday. And we should think of it again in Easter. All wood comes from tress, and by the time it is a cross it is dead. The cross is dead wood and those pinned to crosses are as good as dead. The cross is not a place of living but of slow dying. Not a place of life but death. No wood is even deader than the wood of a cross.
And yet, as Herbert’s poetry shows us, the cross has a lesson for all wood; all wood - both alive and dead. ‘There is more’, says the cross. ‘What seems like death is not death in the sense that we have come to understand death.’
And music, for Herbert, is a sign of resurrection. Musical instruments are made out of unpromising things, wood, gut and horsehair, but fashioned and deployed with skill they speak a new language. It is the language of new life, the language of heaven. It is not for nothing that the angels are instrumentalists. Their only activity is the making of beautiful praise from unpromising raw materials. And such is our task too – but for us earthbound people – we would be saints who know we are sinners – the task God sets before us is not only the making of music and beauty and praise; it is also the making of justice, the speaking of truth and real deep heart work of compassion. And it also the mission work of reaching out in love to the lost and bringing them home to the community of music making, justice seeking, truth speaking, compassionately living people who are the followers of Jesus otherwise known as the church.
All these ingredients of the faithful living are important. It is not enough to say I am an ethical Christian so I won’t bother with the spirituality or I am an aesthetic Christian so I am exempt from the compassion bit. Christianity is a spiritual package deal. The menu is set. There is no à la carte in heaven, or for that matter on the path to heaven.
And so there is no escape for any of us from the question of spiritual fruitfulness or bearing fruit. It is not just an option which some may take up. The questions asked at baptism do not have more than one correct answer. There is never the chance of deciding between fruitful and unfruitful discipleship.
As branches of the true vine we cannot be relaxed if the sap stops flowing, if the leaves and the flowers and the fruits stop appearing. Christianity is a dynamic faith. It is about life – new life and abundant life, generous and life-giving life.. There is no desiccated form of Christianity. Lifeless Christianity is not Christianity at all. The same can be said about joyless Christianity. But also self-important and pompous Christianity. Nor can there be boring Christianity, Oxymorons all.
The parable of the vine invites us to think of the dryness of the branch that is me, its liveliness or its death, its fruitfulness or its desiccation.
However there is trap in this form of thinking. While it matters that we are fruitful we don’t become fruitful simply by worrying about our lack of fruitfulness. Christian fruitfulness is not produced by nervous effort or frantic activity. Rather the cause of fruitfulness if found in that slightly antique word which we heard repeatedly in our reading –the word ‘abide’. ‘Abide in me’, said Jesus, ‘and you will be fruitful’.
This promise needs to be remembered whenever we think of the parable of the vine and its surgical removal of branches. The parable of the summer fruit bushes is perhaps more helpful to us because it tells us that what matters is where we are planted. What matters is where we abide.
And so I want to offer you not a frightening message about judgment so much as encouraging message about spirituality. Christianity is a faith which encourages a humble self-forgetfulness. Our task as would be saints who know ourselves to be sinners is not to concentrate our attention on either our all too real sinfulness or on our incipient saintliness, but on God.
It’s the fruit that count but it’s the roots that matter. Our spirituality, our life in Christ, our prayer life is properly hidden in Christ with God. It is not a performance, and while we fancy that this person is holier than that person you can never really tell form the outside any more than you can from the inside. But all that is beside the point. The point of faith is not spiritual self-knowledge but trust in God and the faith and hope and love that then begin to flow – together with the patience and the longsuffering, the modesty, generosity and kindness, the self-control and the joy and the peace.
Spiritual fruits –of course – and while we might desire them we should never neither strive for them nor beat ourselves up if we feel that we lack them – we all do.
Our spiritual task, our spiritual priority, is to find the ways whereby we can abide in Christ, rest in the Lord, be open to spiritual nourishment. And this not so that we can be or slip effortlessly into nirvana or to get a short-cut to heaven but so that we can life the new life of Easter in all its challenging, thrilling and dynamic dimensions.
The parables of the vine, the blackcurrant bush and the gooseberry bush return us, like all parables to the love of God and the risen life of Christ. They invite us to open ourselves to the Sprit which sees to it that what is dead and gone in us is removed and that what remains is fruitful in ways which are mysterious to us.
It’s the fruits that count - but it’s the roots that matter.