Easter 5B Sermon (2012)

5th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 15:1-8;
Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21

THE URGENCY OF BEING CONNECTED

[Jesus said,] Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (John 15:6)

I’m beginning with the “fire and brimstone” this morning. And that might be shocking since I wouldn’t exactly be considered a “fire and brimstone” preacher. And I promise to not leave us with fire and brimstone. But this verse from Jesus about being thrown into the fire is an important part of the text, so I don’t want to ignore it either. It adds a sense of urgency to what Jesus is saying. It’s an urgency that is crucial to our being passionate about our faith, an urgency I think we’ve lost.

Let me begin, then, with what Jesus is not saying. He is not talking about hell as we have come to think about it, namely, as a fiery place where people are consigned by God to eternal punishment after they die. That is most emphatically our idea of hell and not Jesus’s. Rather, what Jesus had in mind was what actually happened within a generation of his speaking this warning. Too many of his own dearly beloved people, God’s people, were unconnected to Jesus the Vine, so they were willing to follow someone else instead, who led them straight into the fire. Beginning in 66 AD they followed Jewish leader Simon ben Giora into a military revolt against the Romans and within four years the Romans had utterly destroyed them. The Jewish historian Josephus describes what the Arab army under Roman command did in the area around Nazareth: “The whole district became a scene of fire and blood and nothing was safe against the ravages of the Arabs” (Jewish War 2.70). Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan sums us the Roman destruction this way:

Grain, produce, and livestock would have been taken, and farms, houses, and trees destroyed. Those unable to hide successfully would have been killed if male, raped if female, and enslaved if young. … When those legions marched against Israel, they marched with fire and sword. We will teach you a lesson, they said, and, if we have to return, it will not be for a couple of generations. (1)

This is the fire that Jesus is talking about, the tragic fire his beloved people helped bring upon themselves by turning to violence instead of being connected to the source of Life and Love in Jesus Christ the Vine. It is the kind of fire seen far too often throughout human history. When people are unconnected to God’s love, we simmer in our own resentment until we become combustible people, or “crispy,” to use another popular word for when we easily lash out in anger and violence. When we don’t abide in God’s love, human beings become combustible in the sense that we readily follow leaders bent on violence into human conflagrations.

A most infamous example is Germany of the 1930’s. Beaten down by the rest of Europe following WWI, the Germans were stewing in resentment. They had saints like Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer beckoning them to the gracious discipleship of following Jesus Christ, but they didn’t listen. Unconnected from God’s love in Jesus the Vine, they were combustible people willing to follow a madman into the greatest conflagration in human history.

Nazi Germany is easy for us to see. Tougher to see is what we did to the Native peoples of this land as the same kind of Holocaust. Our ancestors, when they were going through the genocide of native peoples, didn’t see it that way at all. Like you and me, they saw themselves as basically good people. Eager to have the land that they were convinced they deserved, they nevertheless carried out a holocaust against Indian nations like the Lakotas — who are still confined today to the burning reality of a consuming poverty on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation. It is a haunting statement from Lakota leader Running Hawk at the top of your take home page:

This is the kind of fire Jesus is talking about. It is the hell on earth that we make for ourselves and for others when we aren’t connected with God’s love through Jesus the Lamb. We now look back today on the violence our ancestors perpetrated against the native peoples of this land and we see with repentance and remorse. We also have a sense of how our religion was a big part of what we did, using what we called paganism as an excuse to do God’s work of sending them to hell.

But here’s the really tough question we might ask oursleves: Can we see what hells we might be encouraging or allowing today? What peoples are living in a consuming poverty that is connected with our prosperity? How do we discern such things with an urgency befitting Jesus’s warning?

I promised not to leave us with the fire and brimstone. It’s not out of fear that we to turn to the positive theme of connecting with Jesus the Vine. There’s an urgent importance to knowing the dire consequences of not being connected. But it’s not about a motivation born out of fear. It’s about a motivation born out of love. Our Second Reading makes this absolutely clear. Perfect love drives away all fear. Fear is about punishment, it says. And we are about love, not fear. So it is time to finally put aside that old doctrine of hell as a punishment and instead set ourselves to relieving the hells people are living through right now — precisely because we love, not fear. We love this earth that God made, and all creatures that God made. We value life. And so we want to stay connected with the Source of Life and Love so that we properly do our job of caring for it, of not letting anyone be thrown into the fire.

This Easter season is about the new life that begins by abiding in Jesus today. It’s about, I think, the other part of the equation in Running Hawk’s wisdom about religion and spirituality. As the survey in the insert shows, more and more people are awakening to the fact that religion has been too much behind following our leaders into conflagrations instead of proper stewardship. And so increasingly people are looking for what religion is supposed to be about: a more direct and experiential connection with the God of Life, the God who can heal our burns and graft us into lives of bearing the fruit of love. Because of our awareness of how religion has been so much a part of the violence, of the hell-making, we are seeking spirituality more than religion.

There is a second image in our Gospel that may sound threatening, but it shouldn’t. Pruning. I think that the pruning image is separate from that of throwing branches into the fire, and it is meant to be encouraging, not threatening. I heard this week from a former vineyard owner what pruning grape vines is about. Like I shared with the children, the fruit closest to the vine is the juiciest and sweetest, so the vinegrower prunes away the longer branches to keep the fruit growing closer to the vine. One also prunes the excess foliage so that more fruit can grow.

Pruning, then, when applied to our lives is the necessary task of setting priorities. We need to prune away the things in our lives that impede our bearing the fruit of love. I’ve talked today about the flammability of resentment. The cares of the things of this world generally leads to resentment. The so-called ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ leads to envy and the resentment that we don’t have what we think we deserve. It is this kind of everyday resentment, stoked by the billows of our consumerist culture, which can easily lead to the kind of combustibility we see all around us today. Our news shows and politics fan the flames of fear and resentment so that we might be ripe for following a leader into the next conflagration. I think the only reason we haven’t yet followed a leader into the next conflagration (though Iraq and Afghanistan have put us on that path) is that we are so massively divided against each other right now, too. The polarization of our politics is a fire consuming our democracy. Brothers and sisters, our nation desperately needs us to be part of a politics that fans the flames of love, not resentment. (2) The way to avoid that is to prune away those things that breed fear and resentment (including the fear-mongering news shows!), and keep our eyes on the bigger picture of God’s way to bearing the fruit of love in Jesus Christ.

Spiritual Director John Shea writes,

In an image from a Native American story, we are like mice, our noses sniffing the earth, arranging and rearranging stuff on the ground. But then something happens. An event forces us to look up and see more than we had previously considered. This larger vision forces us to evaluate our previous preoccupation. Perhaps there is more to life than rearranging earth stuff. (3)

In John’s Gospel the event that forces us to look up is the elevation of Jesus on the Cross. And once again it takes us to a bigger picture way beyond our wildest imagination. It goes beyond the image of vine and branches. Because in looking to the cross we see our Lord take his place with those thrown into the fire! He takes his place with the lowliest of the lowly, those who the leaders of the human varieties of power tend to leave out. They are the ones thrown onto the brush piles of human history to be burned. But Jesus takes his place with those cast-offs on the cross and in the resurrection gathers them up to be connected to the vine. He lets himself be disconnected from the Source of Life on Good Friday, crying out in the godforsakenness of Psalm 22, and is reconnected on Easter morning to be the Vine for all the branches who abide with him as the Risen Victim.

Our other image this Easter season says the same thing; it comes from the Easter Day psalm, Psalm 118:

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
By the LORD has this been done;
it is marvelous in our eyes.

Just so, Jesus takes those who are thrown onto the fire by the Caesar’s and Hitler’s of history and connects them to the vine of his Father’s Life and love. Those who have gone through human hells, like the Lakota chief, Running Hawk, and the Holocaust victims, are given the offer of a spirituality of connecting to God’s Life and love.

Let’s you and me prune away those cares for earthly things which only fan resentment, in favor of finding those spiritual practices that bring us closer to Christ the Vine. We make room for spiritual practices of opening ourselves to God’s love. We make room for more activities that lead us into caring for one another. And looking up to the cross we especially make room for the least of Jesus’ family, because that’s where he has promised to be close to us. We join together in mission to those that our culture would leave out. Abiding in the vine begins to happen. Can fruit be far behind?

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, May 6, 2012

1. John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer [New York: HarperOne, 2010], pages 165, 164 [my emphasis].

2. For an excellent book on the task of pulling our democracy out of the fire of polarization, see Parker J. Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit [San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011].

3. John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers — Year B: Eating with the Bridegroom [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005], p. 131.

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