Lucas Cranach the Younger, The Vineyard of the Lord (detail showing Lutheran reformers)
On Sunday, April 29th, we considered a passage from the Gospel of John in which Jesus states that he is the true vine. This is from a longer section that scholars call the Farewell Discourse. In this message, I thank the saints at Rehoboth Church for giving something back to me. I guess you could say it's my own farewell discourse.
Good morning. One of the most predictable parts of my weekly routine is my Sunday evening. Most Sundays, I go to my friend Tim’s house, and we sit on his back deck and smoke cigars. Tim has a TV on his deck, he also has heaters out there, so we can sit on the deck and smoke cigars in almost any kind of weather, as we watch TV or listen to music or whatever.
Tim is one of my very best friends. We’ve known each other for almost seventeen years; he was a regular customer at the tobacco shop where I got a part-time job in 2001. Tim is a devout Catholic and he has supported me and followed my faith journey from my time in the corporate world, through seminary, and into ministry. He’s been cheering me on the whole time.
So, it was kinda hard to tell him that I was offered a position in New Jersey. Tim knew that I wanted an installed position. He also knew that I was a finalist for a position in Pittsburgh Presbytery—a church that was so close, I wouldn’t even have to find a new apartment. If I got that call, our Sunday routine could continue, uninterrupted, for many years to come.
But it didn’t.
When I told Tim that I was going to accept the offer from the church in New Jersey, his response surprised me a little.
“Congratulations!” he said. And he said it with a really big smile. “I’m so happy for you, bud!” He calls everyone “bud.” Then came the part that I expected: “But I’m really sorry that you’re leaving.” He knew this was a really important step for me and that it was a really great outcome, but he also knew that we would both lose something in the process. Tim said, “this is bittersweet.”
That’s also how I feel about my relationship with all of you folks. I am so very glad that you have found a candidate for this pulpit. I am so very glad to see how you folks have grown and changed in the short time I’ve served as your pastor. And I’m so grateful that you gave me the opportunity to serve here. More on that, later. But it makes me more than a little sad to know that I only have a few more Sundays in this pulpit.
Our Gospel lesson this morning is also about saying goodbye. It’s part of a section of the Gospel of John that scholars call the Farewell Discourse; it starts at the Last Supper and it continues for a couple chapters, until Jesus is arrested. In this portion of the Gospel, Jesus explains the journey that he and the disciples have been on, the meaning of Jesus’ relationship with God the Father and the disciples, and what the disciples will do after the human Jesus has left the world. Simply put, Jesus is trying to prepare the disciples for life and ministry, without Jesus.
Jesus explains his ongoing relationship with the disciples by using the image of the vine. This is a powerful image; wine was an essential product in the ancient world. Most of us are used to tap water that’s clean and abundant, and if you don’t trust the water that’s coming out of your faucet, you could buy a filter or you could buy bottled water. I would guess that most of us in here today could afford filters or bottled water.
But that wasn’t the case in the ancient world. There were no filters or faucets. Bottled water wasn’t an option. Streams and wells were easily contaminated. Rivers ran dry. Rivers also carried sewage. Water wasn’t always safe to drink.
Wine was safe to drink. It could be stored for long periods of time. It could be diluted with water and the alcohol in the wine would kill any germs that were in the water. The ancient world depended on wine, which means that the ancient world depended on vineyards and those who tended the vines.
The image of the vineyard and the vine grower is powerful because it’s an image everyone in the ancient world could appreciate; it’s an image of mutual dependence:
The vine needs the vine grower as much as the vine grower needs the vine. The vine needs the vine grower for its optimal growth and production, even its abundance. It will produce more fruit, fruit in abundance, if cared for.
In the previous chapter, Jesus tells the disciples: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these” (John 14:12). Jesus is telling the disciples that they will continue to bear fruit—that is, they will continue to do the work that Jesus has been doing, even to the point of doing greater works than Jesus—so long as they abide in Jesus, even after the human Jesus has died. That is the fruit of being in relationship.
As I’ve said many times, the disciples are where we enter the story; they’re stand-ins for us. If Jesus gives the disciples an instruction, it’s pretty safe to say that we’re supposed to follow that instruction, too. But like the disciples, we’re not always quick to live into Jesus’ instructions.
I think it’s very easy to zoom in on verse 6 and blow it out of proportion. When we hear Jesus say, “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), it’s very easy to turn this into a passage about condemnation and damnation; it’s very easy to read this as a reference to the fires of Hell. I think that’s a big mistake.
Remember, Jesus came into the world to save it, not to condemn it. Withering and dying are merely the result when we cut ourselves off from Jesus’ love; that’s what happens when we fail to abide in Jesus. It’s tempting to look at all the people around us who don’t seem to be following Jesus’ instructions, because that makes us feel so righteous. That lets us feel like we’ve done enough, like it’s someone else’s turn to prune the vines.
It’s someone else’s turn to invite a new person to church.
It’s someone else’s turn to give more money.
It’s someone else’s responsibility to make a financial pledge.
It’s someone else who has to change.
Beloved, we all need to change! We all need to prune those parts of our lives that do not bear fruit, so that we may all bear fruit in abundance. Our survival—as a church and as individuals—depends on our willingness to submit to the pruning hook and be changed.
Two months ago, I was in a holding pattern; I didn’t know where my next call would be. I was waiting to hear back from two different congregations, one from Pittsburgh and one from New Jersey. Each PNC had come here to Rehoboth in January and each had said they’d have an answer in a few weeks. By the end of February, I still hadn’t heard anything. That was really tough.
I hate to wait!
Maybe it’s because I’m an only child. Or maybe it’s because I grew up in the era of instant gratification. I don’t know. The bottom line was this: I was very anxious and I was afraid that one or both of the churches would call someone else. It was taking too long.
You have to understand, my interviews with both PNCs went really well and I thought I preached some really good sermons when they came to hear me. I honestly wondered what I would do if both congregations made an offer. Perhaps I was a little too full of myself, but, you know, I’m an only child.
In the midst of all that uncertainty, I asked a simple prayer; I asked God to give me clarity. Now I’m not a believer in a micro-managing God. I don’t know that God’s plan is so specific that it calls for me to go to New Jersey on July 1st, while a new pastor starts here on exactly the same day. If God’s plans were that specific, I’m not sure that any of us would have free will. So, no, I don’t believe that God’s plan for me is that finely detailed, but I do believe in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to clarify and purify, like the refiner’s flame.
I believe in the power of the Spirit to move people, even in directions they don’t want to go.
I believe in the power of the Spirit to uncover or unmask the truth, especially when it’s hiding in plain sight.
A few days after I said that prayer for clarity, I heard that the church in Pittsburgh had made an offer to another candidate. That wasn’t what I’d hoped to hear, but it was clarity. Then a few days later, I got the call from New Jersey; I had an offer. It was more of that clarity that I had asked for. Truth be told, I feel that the congregation in New Jersey is the better fit, but I really wanted to stay here, surrounded by my closest friends and colleagues. Here’s the thing about that prayer for clarity: the clarity keeps coming, whether I want it or not!
My dear friend and colleague, Charissa, says that ultimately, we preach to ourselves. From my first Sunday in this pulpit, I’ve been telling you to change. I’ve been telling you that you can’t live in the past; you have to get outside of these walls and be the church. I have said that if you want to grow as a congregation, you have to get outside of your comfort zone. I didn’t realize that I was preaching to myself the whole time.
Honestly, western Pennsylvania is my comfort zone. My identity is wrapped up in this place—my roots are here. But my true identity, and your true identity, too, is in Christ. As I’ve been processing my experiences here and my call to move, it became clear that if my faith is to grow, I need to be planted; getting outside of western Pennsylvania is what I need to do.
I’m not telling you this to show how wonderful and righteous I am. I’m telling you this because I couldn’t have done it without you! When I came here, I was still feeling the absence of my father. I was still grieving the loss of my extended family. Through my service here at Rehoboth, I feel more connected to the best parts of my own past. Two years ago, I couldn’t have left western Pennsylvania because I felt too disconnected from my own roots. I needed to hang on to the personal and professional relationships that give me life.
Thank you! Thank you for giving that back to me and getting me to the point where I could see that I needed to be replanted. I’m not all the way there yet, but I can see how much of my identity is tied up in this region and I can see that a change in my physical location can refocus my energy on my call to be a disciple and a shepherd.
Everything I’ve said to you still applies. You still need to change. You still need to get out of your comfort zones and be the church. You need to find creative ways to improve your finances. You need to draw closer to one another, grow deeper in your love for one another, and then invite new people into that love.
In a few weeks, you’ll have a new shepherd. All of those challenges will still be there; you will work with him to clarify and refine your vision for this congregation and how you will live into Christ’s call to discipleship. These challenges are great, but I know you can meet them. I know this because I know what you’ve done for me. Pray for clarity and look for the places where you can change, and then live into those changes. If you do this, you can thrive. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world today. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Go forth and be witnesses to the resurrection. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Karoline Lewis. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014), p. 197.