Sermon from Clergy Conference

by | May 8, 2017

The Rev. Dr. Ruthanna Hooke, associate dean of chapel and the associate professor of homiletics at Virginia Theological Seminary, gave the following sermon at the diocesan clergy conference on May 8.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

John 15: 1-17

Those who pay close attention to this liturgy as it goes along may notice that there are a certain number of references to the Good Shepherd, the passage many of you preached on yesterday, and which is coming up again next week, and is actually also the appointed reading for today. In preparation for this sermon, I did something that by certain lights you are not really supposed to do, and that is to change the appointed reading for the day. I did this, on one level, because our topic for this clergy conference is joy in worship, and I wanted a Scripture passage that talked about joy, as this passage does.—joy, that wonderful, heart-breaking, all-encompassing word—Joy. And also, as I prayed and thought about what makes joy possible, and actual, whether in worship or anywhere else, this passage seemed to me to say something crucial about that that I thought would be helpful for us all to hear, as a starting point for our time together—and really, as an ending point, too.

“I am the vine; you are the branches.” As you know, the Gospel of John is full of “I am” sayings, by which Jesus explicitly connects himself with God, who refused to give God’s name to Moses but simply said, “I am who I am.” In John’s Gospel there’s a sequence of “I am” statements in which Jesus compares himself to something known in their everyday world: “I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the gate of the sheep, I am the way, the truth and the life.” This statement in today’s text is the last one of these, and the most intimate: I am the vine; you are the branches. In the other images, the relationship is one of feeding, like the bread, or guiding, like the shepherd. But here the connection is closer; it is one of physical, organic connection. It is such a close connection between us and Jesus that we don’t need to do anything to make it happen or to receive it; we simply have to allow ourselves to know and to abide in the connection that is always already there.

Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that it matters whether we do this or not. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” When we abide in the vine we live in abundant life; when we live in the illusion of separateness, everything we do is futile. I really can’t think of any words that are more important for us clergy to hear. We have given our lives to the service of Christ, but far too often we fall into the illusion that we can make do without him, that we can bear fruit when disconnected from the vine. I have always found it appalling that, while in responding to our baptismal vows, we say, “I will, with God’s help,” when responding to the vows made at our ordination, we just say, “ I will.” No need for God’s help anymore, now that I am ordained. I’ve got this, God.

No. Apart from Christ, we can do nothing. That’s true of us clergy more than anyone else, and we forget this at our peril. We forget this at the loss of our joy.

We lose joy when we disconnect from the vine not only because we lose our life-giving relationship with God, but also because we lose our relationship with each other. For this image of the vine and the branches captures the reality that in our connection to Christ, we are also intrinsically connected to each other, as each branch is connected to all of the other branches through its connection to the central vine. And when you picture vines and branches, they all intertwine and intertangle with each other, and that is our true condition, inextricably bound up with each other, all living in and through one another, because of our connection to Christ. It was this absolute truth that Thomas Merton perceived one day, and he described it like this:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being human, a member of a race in which God Godself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

When Jesus calls us to bear much fruit, he is really only calling us to fully abide in the truth of this revelation of our interconnectedness in him. In other words, he is calling us to love. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Here he is at the end of his life, and he gives this one final commandment. All of the other commandments fall away, and we are left with this one: to love one another as Christ loves us. In the end, this is the fruit that will last. Nothing else abides, except for love. And the pruning that Jesus tells us must happen in order for us to bear this fruit is the cutting away of whatever gets in the way of our being able to love fully—whether it is our ego, or our fears, or our tendency to judge each other and ourselves, or our hardness of heart. All of this must be burned away so that we can bear the one fruit of love, the only fruit that endures. My mother is in the last days of her life, and this process is becoming very clear. Everything is being pruned away from her—all her capacities, her activities, even her faults and failings—all that is left, burning through ever more purely, is love—the love of so many for her, and her love for us. A love that will last, beyond the grave.

There is terrible grief in this, to be sure. But there is also, in a strange way, joy. For a wise teacher once said, “Joy is simply whatever is going on, minus our opinion of it. Joy is simply who we are.” Joy is who we are. Joy is our pure encounter with reality, with life as it is, in all its pain and all its glory. Joy is the bedrock truth of our existence, however much we can separate ourselves from this. And why is this? Because joy justisthe awareness that we are intrinsically, unbreakably connected to God and to each other, and nothing can separate us from that love. This is what Merton saw on the street corner in Louisville, which filled him with such joy that he laughed aloud, for Joy is nothing more, and certainly nothing less, than the pure encounter withwhat is, and what is, in the end, is love.

What else is liturgy but a structured place to allow this sense of interconnection to be known, this love to flow, this joy to well up within us—so that we can feel it more readily on the street corner, or in the protest march, or even at a deathbed? What else is liturgy but a place where we find ourselves ever more deeply in the truth that made Julian of Norwich, whose feast day is today, exclaim in joy those beloved words: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” What else is liturgy but a place where we find our souls and voices joining in the song the Quakers sang to express an overflowing joy that they felt even in prison: “What though the tempest loudly roar, I hear the truth, it liveth, what though the darkness round me close, songs in the night it giveth. No storm can shake my inmost calm, since to that rock I’m clinging. Since Love is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”