Sunday, May 31, 2015

Create, Embody, Transform


We stand at a threshold in the unfolding story of Scripture and the ongoing revelation of God. The Season of Pentecost has come.  Jesus has ascended.  The Holy Spirit has descended.  As Jesus’ living ministry ends, the people of God are ordained, as the Body of Christ, to live out the Gospel, in their own lives and as a community of faith.  The Gospel of Jesus opens the way for the Gospel of the church.  As the Son returns to unity with the Father, the Spirit fills creation.  This indwelling Spirit is the way in which we will be present with us now.  We are invited to understand all of these things in the image, the metaphor of Holy Trinity:  God revealed as Father // Son // Spirit.  

But there is even greater power for the people of God in embracing the active forces of these “persons” of Trinity:  participating in the ongoing-ness of creation, in embodying the goodness of God and co-operating with God in the transformation of the world!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Welcome the Stranger

Pastors are in McAllen, Texas at the Southwest Texas Synod Assembly.
  • 2015 SWTX Synod Assembly May 3, 2015 John 15:1-8

Grace to you and peace from God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
As we move further into the season of Spring, more and more people are planting flowers and gardens. Accompanied by the abundant wildflowers on the roadsides and in the fields, it seems as if our Lord is truly enjoying gardening this year. But as flowers go into landscaped beds and vegetables get set in gardens, it is amazing to also see the many vineyards that are appearing in the Texas Hill Country over the last few years. There are more than two dozen wineries and tasting rooms located in Fredericksburg and Gillespie County, not to mention dozens more located within an hour-or-two drive from there. Wine production in Texas dates back to the original settlers who used the native mustang grape to produce wine, and many wineries since have been producing a variety of quality wines from improved grapes that have won both state and national honors.
However, we know that growing grapes and making wine goes far back into antiquity. In Scriptural times, growing grapes was a very important industry that was vital to Israel’s economy and everyday life. Everyone knew about growing grapes, and so Jesus uses this as a picture to describe their relationship to him, as Messiah, and to God, the Heavenly Father. That’s the context of our Gospel Lesson today, and may we have ears to hear what Jesus is telling us.
Let us pray. Almighty and Ever-loving God, your Son, Jesus, is the vine to which we are connected, from whom we receive our strength and produce good fruit. We thank you, Lord, for the privilege of being branches whose fruit blesses all in your Kingdom. This we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
In this short Gospel Lesson of eight verses there is a particular word that appears eight times. That word from Greek is often translated as “abide.” Literally, the word means not leaving the realm or sphere in which we find ourselves.Today we’re going to look at this word and how this vineyard reflects the work of the Church.
The picture Jesus paints in the Gospel is a simple one. Jesus speaks of himself as the main vine of the vineyard, and we are the branches that grow on that vine. God, the Father, is the gardener. I want to tweak that image just a little this morning, because I want to talk about how church leaders both clergy and laity - are like God’s gardeners, and how congregations are like vineyards.

The first thing we notice in the text is that there are different kinds of branches in the vineyard, just like there are different kinds of members in a congregation.
First, there is the “non-producing branch.” In the first part of verse 2 Jesus says, The vine-grower removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.
When a gardener is going through the vineyard and sees certain branches that aren’t bearing fruit, he removes them. Jesus is painting a picture of people here. There are those who at one time were connected to Christ and the Church, but then something happens. They stop producing the fruits of faith in their lives.
I’m sure we can all think of such examples, sad stories of people who were once connected, once active and alive in congregations, but who drifted away. When that happens, those are sad days. If anything, it makes leaders in the congregation work harder and pray harder, because we would love to see every branch, every person, stay connected and flourish. Happily, many do, but even that is not easy.
For example, just because you are connected and one of Jesus’ disciples, it doesn’t mean you will have an easy life. That gets reflected in the second kind of branch in the Gospel, the “pruned branch.” In the second part of verse 2 Jesus says, Every branch that bears fruit, the vine-grower prunes to make it bear more fruit.
Remember all those grapevines growing in the Texas Hill Country? Every fall those who tend the vineyards have to prune the branches on the grapevine. It is a slow and tedious task. You cut off the dead branches since they can be a place where bugs and diseases grow. That makes sense. But then, you also cut a lot of living branches off the vine.
If you were to ask the local county agent how much to prune, he would say, Up to 80%.” So, the vines get trimmed way back, and by the time the gardener is done, there doesn’t seem to be much left of the grapevine. All this cutting seems so drastic, so extreme, so unnecessary, but the reason it is done is so that the branches reach their full potential. Even though the remaining vine looks almost bare, months later it produces an abundance of brand new branches and a very large crop, but only because of all the pruning.
This is what happens to us so often in life, and one of a church leader’s most important callings is to help bring understanding and faith in those times. We’ve all experienced them, those times when we feel pruned, as if our life gets cut and things removed that seem so drastic, so extreme, so unnecessary. It is at those times that we ask that deepest of questions, “Lord, why is this happening to me?

It is also at those times that we need someone to remind us of Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” The Lord God wants us to reach our full potential as God’s people. The Lord wants us to produce as many fruits of faith as possible. So, while the pain of pruning happens in our lives, Scripture and Christian brothers and sisters remind us to trust that God is in control and can bring good, even from the worst of times.
What we pray will happen is that all God’s people become that third kind of branch, a fruitful branch.Jesus says in verse 8, My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” The fruitful Christian is one whose life is filled with examples of love and care for others. The fruitful Christian seeks to live out the two great commandments, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)
“Bearing fruit” means following God doing what God calls us to do - even when the rest of the world is doing something different. It includes the way we treat other people those at home, at work, and one’s friends. In particular, it means welcoming the stranger, those new to our country and new to our neighborhood. It means asking, “How can I serve them? How can I show the love of God to this person?
All of us would like to be fruitful branches, but how does this happen? How can we become even more fruitful in our lives? The answer is in the fourth kind of branch, the “connected branch.” Jesus says in verse 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.” It’s another way of saying, “Stay connected.”
The story is told of a native from a remote mountain village who had the opportunity to visit a large, modern city for the first time. He could not bring much home with him and he had little money, but he was amazed at the electric lights which he saw everywhere. So, he bought a sack full of wires, bulbs, sockets, and switches. Arriving home he hung the lights in front of his home and on his and his neighbor’s trees. Everyone watched him with curiosity and asked him what he was doing, but he just smiled and said, "Just wait until dark--you’ll see." When night came, he flipped the switches, but nothing happened. No one had told him about electricity. He did not know the light bulbs were useless unless connected to the source of their power.
 So, how do we maintain a connection with that power, with Christ? Thankfully, it doesn’t rely on us. Jesus keeps that connection with us through the Holy Spirit. Whether we are feeling lost or pruned or actively producing fruit, the Holy Spirit is near, encouraging and prodding us. Sometimes, it happens through the words of Scripture. Sometimes, it happens in prayer. Sometimes, it happens through a fellow Christian’s words and deeds.
And when the Spirit is near, our lives produce the good fruit of faith. We can see it whenever we study God’s Word, whenever we gather as God’s people in worship, whenever we share the Sacraments, whenever we care for the sick and the poor and the imprisoned, whenever we love our neighbor as ourselves, and whenever we welcome the stranger. These are reflective of Christ abiding in us and our abiding in Christ, and that abiding is with us no matter how far we go.
For example, it is interesting to note that in Hampton Court, London, there is a grapevine that is reported to be the oldest living vine, over 230 years old. This grapevine has one root which is 12 feet in diameter, and some of the branches are over 120 feet long. Despite its age, the vine still produces 500 to 700 bunches (weighing from 485 - 705 pounds) of grapes each year. Although some of the branches are 120 feet from the main root, they still bear the sweet and delicious fruit because each branch is connected directly to the stem and draws nourishment from it.
That’s the perfect example of what Jesus is saying in the Gospel. When Jesus abides in us, and we in him, good fruit is produced. That good fruit finds its expression in the kind of love that Jesus has for us. It is a love that led to the cross, a love that never leaves us. It is a love that always surrounds us, always encourages us, and always strengthens us. It is a love which gets lived out between God’s people in a congregation, gets modeled by church members, and gets passed on from generation to generation.
May the Lord abide with us as we serve, for as Jesus says in the Gospel today,
“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciple.” (vs.8)

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Who is the Stranger
From the Southwest Texas Synod Assembly