5th Sunday of Easter
S. Easter 5.21 “the beginning of spring” John 15:1-8
What should we be worried about? If it’s true, as someone once told me, that: “Worrying is how you show God that you care”—what should our main worries be? And, whew! So much to worry about, especially these days. The old saw “when you have your health, you have everything” has hardly ever seemed more apropos. And we’ve been given plenty to worry about on that front, lately; and there’s probably more to come…
Or, we could be like Rembrandt van Rijn in Joseph Heller’s amusing historical novel “Picture This”. A model posing for Rembrandt’s famous “Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer” asks the artist: “Why do the people in your pictures always look so sad?” Rembrandt sighs: “They worry.” “What do they worry about?” “Money…” (Rembrandt was famously tightfisted— his better students used to paint gold coins on the floor, and watch the master scrambling to scoop them, laughing as he clawed frantically at the floor).
Even my hero, Hermann Sasse, worried over it. At a recent pastor’s conference, our Synod President was describing the nightmare dystopia of Weimar East Berlin, 1929 [Netflix potential!] which took our hero, as he wrote: “down hospital wards where the curses of the unsuccessful suicides mingled with the hellish noise of those who had destroyed their voices by taking poisonous acids. So, I had to face all the problems of a parish pastor, including the financial problems with which the church is confronted since the days of the apostles in Jerusalem.” The paring of suicide wards with church budget meetings made us laugh out loud—inappropriately, perhaps. Money’s a worry!
Like—family! Another perennial favorite. “I childproofed the house. But they keep getting in.” Ah, yes. When they mock my increasingly greying hair, I tell my two: “Who do you think it comes from? And no, it’s not your grandfather; it’s coming from downstream in the gene pool…” Friends, or the fearful absence of friends. That’s another one. “The greatest miracle in the bible is that Jesus had 12 close friends after age 30.” Work is another good one, something I’m not sure working remotely has made better? Curious to know your thoughts on that, those of you who must do it.
Of course, I’d hardly be doing my job if I didn’t point out eternal salvation is one to keep you up at night. At first glance, this Gospel, usually thought cheerful, struck me as surprisingly law-laden and gloomy (much as the vicar so delightfully managed last week to find the gloom in Good Shepherd Sunday(!?), pointing out how it’s really about death—and thanks for that, stellar work!). Maybe he’s rubbing off on me more than I am on him? Hmmm?
But, seriously, look at it—our Gospel today. “If anyone does not abide in me, he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned?!” The word of the Lord! Thanks be to God! Oh, that’ll have ‘em rolling in the aisles with laughter and joy. “Jesus is coming and is he ever ticked!” seemed like the best title for a straightforwardly exegetical law/gospel sermon. I’m going to out-gloom the vicar! Though, to his credit, he did suggest there were better angles on this text than that, and encouraged a search for fresh approaches.
So it was, sitting in Wednesday Evening Prayer, and singing our hymn of the day for today, that the other, better, and I think truer take came to me. All the worries of the different stages on life’s way flood over us in this hymn, succinctly, but powerfully: the “summer heat of youthful years, uncertain faith, rebellious tears” succeeded by “the autumn cool when youth is cold, when limbs their heavy harvest hold” (and that one hit me hard—when did my arms and legs get so heavy?!)—followed yet more chillingly by this: “as winter comes, as winters must, we breathe our last, return to dust” (a favorite hymn of the vicar’s, no doubt?) and I was like, wow, yeah that’s something to reflect upon: the uncertain faith, heavy limbs, the winter chill of death—it’s all, indeed, pretty worrisome!
But Susan Cherwien [cheer-feen] counters that flood of fear with another Flood: even in the summer heat of youthful years, uncertain faith, rebellious tears, we are “sustained by Christ’s infusing rain” and the “boughs will shout for joy again.” Our cold, autumn limbs are “warmed by Christ’s gifts of beauty, wisdom, love”. And even as “we breathe our last, return to dust,” we’re “still held in Christ, our souls take wing and trust the promise of the spring.”
Because in our baptism (for most, as infants) before all the worries and the difficulties ever were envisioned or begun, we were washed with a different Flood, a “blessed spring, where Word and sign embrace us into Christ the Vine; here Christ enjoins each one to be a branch of this life-giving tree.”
And this is what our Gospel text today is all about. Jesus says: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.” And while, yes, “every branch that does not bear fruit is taken away (!) it’s taken away to be healed, cleansed; to make it fruit-bearing. And Jesus promises, “you are already clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.” We always already abide in him! He says this in the Garden of Gethsemane(!) right before we all forsook him and fled!
We run from Christ all the time. We worry over everything small and great (even though Jesus says there is no need for worry, in his Sermon on the Mount). If we carefully examine every stage on Life’s Way, there’s maybe more to grieve than gladden our hearts—well, if you ask the vicar. 🙂
And yet… Jesus has this. He’s taken all that sin and sorrow and muck away and crucified it on the cross. He’s flooded it by our Baptism, so that we have truly died to all that with him and have been grafted into him, united to him by Holy Communion in such a way that we can run, but he won’t hide from us. He’ll let us drift and flounder and wander. But as we are sinking, like Peter, when wind and wave grow fierce and fearsome, Christ’s strong hands grab us, pull us, dripping wet, into the boat. With a wry grin he goes: “Why did you doubt?” And as we look stricken, he laughs—loud and lovely, and shouts: “Be still!” and the wind and the wave obey him. (!!!)
Why do we doubt? Well, because the wind and waves are really big and scary, sometimes! Because wealth, health, and family are so elusive, so laden with worry and woe. Because, on our own, it’s true, we can do nothing. So many good reasons for doubt!
But one good reason for joy: we have been united to Christ the Vine as living branches of His tree. We ate the fruit of the forbidden tree in Eden and it was too much for us—knowledge too wonderful for us (at that time) and it killed us. So Jesus drags our heavy flesh to another tree—one bare, dead, on Golgotha; and by dying there, makes Eden’s garden bloom again with the sweet smell of spring—of life eternal, in his Name.
He lets us wander pretty far from him and home, just to see where our true life and joy is really found. But he’s made us clean, always already, by Water and the Word…
So what should you worry about? Nothing! Not a single, blessed thing! Because Jesus has this, has you. His Word + Sacrament—it’s the beginning of spring: [595 v. 5; c’mon, let’s sing it again] “Christ, holy Vine, Christ, living Tree, be praised for this blest mystery: that Word and water thus revive and join us to Your Tree of Life.” In the Holy Name of Jesus. Amen.