(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 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.
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
This has not been an easy week to be a citizen of the world. An earthquake in Nepal. Race riots in Baltimore. The United States and its adversaries on the brink of war, always, it seems, on the brink of war. Complicated questions about love and marriage and what it means to be a society that respects all people, affords rights to all people.
Come to think of it, while it’s been a complicated, difficult week, it’s not just this week. Things are changing, around this place, of course, but everywhere, really, sometimes for the better, depending on your point of view, sometimes for the worse.
And in the midst of this great change, thank God for the church. Thank God we can continue to come here, meet in this room, as we have done every single Sunday for the sixty years since this sanctuary was built, three thousand, one hundred and thirty Sundays including today. When we feel so overwhelmed by the state of the world that we can barely move, church connects us, stills us, holds us accountable to one another and to God, and roots us in a common community, a common understanding of life and faith.
And so I am thinking God this week for the traditions of the church. They root us. They connect us, year after year, so that when we worship with our friends across the street on Good Friday, or when we share a covered dish dinner after Homecoming, or when we sing Silent Night on Christmas Eve, we can quit worrying just for a moment about all that has become unfamiliar in the world and rest in the familiar, in these well-worn pews, in this holy place.
Thank God for the traditions of the church. A church needs traditions, needs rootedness, even as it looks forward. Why, just this week, here at the church, we discovered that due to some of the updating and renovating we’ve been doing around here, the frames holding the pictures of all the former pastors of this church, our sort of Wall of Fame, had been put in a cabinet and nearly forgotten about. Well, do I think that the pastors are the most important part of the church? Of course not. But there’s history there, there’s rootedness. And so we’re talking about how to honor that history: where to hang those pictures so that people see them regularly, not so that we can get stuck on how things were, but so that we can remember—even those of us new to this place can remember that we do not come to faith alone, nor are we the first ones to do so. We are connected, we are rooted, we have a particular history.
But what happens when the traditions of the church become the most important thing? I have seen churches unwilling to bend on anything, unwilling to recognize that love of tradition is not the same thing as love of Jesus. In other words, what happens when the way we’ve always done it gets in the way of the mission of God?
That’s not to say that just because something doesn’t work anymore means it’s bad. Oh, that’s not the case at all. There are plenty of things we don’t do that we once did that are deeply good! Listen, I am a person who collects vinyl records. I am not a throw-it-all-away-and-start-over kind of guy. Do I want to go back to the days when all music is on records, where I’d have to lug crates of music around just to have half as many songs as I have on my phone? No! But that doesn’t mean vinyl is bad. Not at all.
Just because something doesn’t work anymore doesn’t mean it’s bad. But neither does it mean that we ought to keep everything as it always was forever and ever just because it once was good. I may collect vinyl, because of the superior sound, but I do not bother with 8-tracks! The faith I had as a child was good, but I have outgrown it. I hope you have outgrown the things you believed when you were five, six, seven years old, or at least, I hope you have a more nuanced view of the world.
Don’t take my word for it. Take Jesus’s. In the Gospel passage Mary Gene read this morning, the word of the day is pruning, cutting away that which was once viable growth so that the faster-growing parts can thrive. This is what it means to be part of God’s family, of the Body of Christ, for, we learn in scripture, that Christ is the vine and we are the branches, and God prunes the branches so that they will bear more fruit.
This sounds all right, I suppose, but pruning is not exactly fun stuff. In the yard of the house where we used to live, we had a number of beautiful crepe myrtle trees, and every year, to keep them from getting so large as to be unmanageable, we had to go out in the yard with a long chainsaw thing on a pole and commit what we called crepe murder. It is a good thing that plants can’t scream! And yet it was for the best, so that they kept their shape, kept putting out leaves, kept from growing so large they split in two.
Pruning was important, and I think we can agree on that, at least as long as it’s plants we’re talking about pruning and not us. It’s not so easy when it is me that needs pruning, that needs to cut some things away so that new growth can happen. Put another way, everybody’s fine with change as long as they are left alone. And yet the mission of God is bigger than me, bigger than us, bigger than the way we do church and the things we like. And I can’t get out of my head the idea that if the mission of God really is the most important thing, then it is more important than our methods of conveying it. If the mission of God really is the most important thing, are there things about my faith, or about our shared faith, that we need to prune?
And if you need an example of what this means, practically, look no further than the story we read this morning from the Book of Acts, which is the story of the creation of the church in the days after Jesus. The apostle Philip is on a journey in the wilderness, and he comes across a chariot, in which sat an Ethiopian Eunuch, a man who had been cruelly castrated against his will and forced into slavery. Philip walks up to him and hears him reading scripture, of all things! He’s reading the Bible.
Philip is impressed and so he gets into the chariot and they ride off together in the chariot for a while, talking about the Bible and what it means to be a person of faith, and they come to some water, a lake or a stream running alongside the road, and the Ethiopian eunuch points at the water and says, “Look! There is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
“What is to prevent me from being baptized?” he asks. And the answer is that it depends on who you’re talking to. If you’re talking to the kind of person who, in the course of cleaning out the church basement, says, oh, you can’t throw that away, what if a situation comes up where we need a broken television, or whatever, if you you’re talking to that person, there’s a lot to keep the Ethiopian eunuch from being baptized. For one thing, there’s Deuteronomy chapter twenty-three, verse two, which says, and forgive me, this is a quote, “no one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord,” and I mean, I don’t think that could be any clearer. I wish it weren’t so clear, it would make it less awkward to read it from the pulpit of the church! But if you’re somebody that says, no, we can’t dispense with that, it’s one of our traditions, the answer is that there is a lot to keep the Ethiopian eunuch from being baptized.
And yet, even though there’s this clear verse, even though it is part of the Bible and it is in yours and it is in mine, Philip says, “Stop! Stop the chariot!” And they get out of the chariot, the two of them, they go down into the water, and he baptizes him.
Because Philip was willing to let grace lead the way, the man goes down into the water as an Ethiopian eunuch and comes back up as God’s beloved child, part of the family of God.
Friends, when we allow God to prune our hearts and our lives so that we may attend to the mission of God, amazing things happen. It’s not that we’re casting judgment on things, on traditions, on parts of God’s church that don’t work anymore. It’s that we’re honoring the past, giving thanks that these things helped us to attend to the mission of God, but acknowledging that there are parts of church, parts of our own personal histories that are no longer viable parts of the vine. If we choose to focus on the nonviable parts, we lose out on the new growth, which is of course, the only thing that keeps the vine growing, all the way from the tips of the leaves to the roots in the ground.
Let me bring this down to earth. I shared an article with the Church council this week by an author who says that if you want a church to grow, there are literally only three options. Only three.
The first is to have enough babies that it increases your total worship attendance. And while I appreciate those of you who have been helping in this effort, obviously, it’s not enough.
The second option is to take people from other churches. Now, I want to acknowledge, that if you are looking for an authentic church home, you could do worse than North Decatur UMC. I think everybody ought to be part of this church. But even while we keep the doors open to whoever wants to make this their church home, I have to say, only relying on people who were already members of other churches doesn’t seem to me to feel right. Does it to you? Do you think that what God wants us to do, what God really wants us to do is to only reach out to people who are already in other churches, only those who have already experienced the grace that comes through a life lived with Jesus? No, of course not. We welcome those folks, particularly those who need the North Decatur message of grace and unconditional love, those who will help us reach out in love, but it is not enough in and of itself.
And so the third option is this: reach out to people who are part of no church, who need to hear, to experience that great love, that great hope for the first time. People who don’t know Christ, who have not experienced the kind of radical forgiveness, the radical love that we have experienced.
That’s it. There are three options. And I just have to wonder: are there things that stand in the way of our reaching out to these folks? Are there things that are diverting our attention from attending to the mission of God, which is to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor? Because if there are things that once bore fruit but now distract us, I think you know what needs to happen.
I’m just saying. I hear the story of the beloved child of God who was once known only as the Ethiopian eunuch, I see hopelessness in the streets of Baltimore, I see millions of people displaced by natural disaster, people who have lost everything, I see people who crave legal recognition and protection for their families, and it’s not hard to figure out where God would have us focus our efforts. And I get the sneaking suspicion that anything that gets in the way, whether it has been fruitful in the past or not—anything that gets in the way has got to go.
“What is to prevent me from being baptized?” he asked. And in the kingdom of God, the answer is, the answer must be, “Nothing.” Nothing.