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the sermon for

the fifth sunday of easter

10 May, 2009

John 15:1-8

Faith isn't something static.  It's something dynamic,
that becomes richer and more intense with time!

Those of you who were here last weekend - or, I guess, since it was a Sunday, it was last week beginning - will remember that I began the sermon with a confession.  The metaphor for the day was the shepherd.  "I am," said Jesus, "the good shepherd."  So, I began by letting you know that I knew nothing - or next to nothing - about sheep!  But, of course, that didn't stop me from preaching anyway.

Well, this morning, the metaphor has changed and we turn from the pasture to the vineyard.  Jesus is, now, the true vine.  We are the branches.  And god - the Father - is the vinegrower.  So, I wanted to begin in the same way.  By letting you know, this morning, that I have had some experience with this one!  Not agriculturally. . .  with the grafting. . .  and the pruning. . .  and all the rest. . .  But I've had experience with the fruit of the vine!  With eating grapes!  Raisins!  And, especially, with drinking wine!  After all, there's the advice Paul gives to Timothy:  No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach. . . ."

Last Sunday afternoon, when I first read through today's passage from John, for some reason, the image that came to mind was Zinfandel. . .  Specifically, old vine Zin.

"I am the true vine," it said, "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."

I read those words and the first thing that came to mind, like I said, was old vine wine!  I thought about it Monday. . .  and Tuesday. . .  And on Wednesday morning, I drove up to "The Wine Rack"  in the shopping center up at Garfield and the Loop.  And I learned a bit more that I knew about wine.

First of all, all the color. . .  all the flavor. . .  of a wine comes from the skin.  So, the goal of growing grapes for wine isn't to come up with the biggest, juiciest fruit where the skin is the thinnest.  It's to come up with the smallest, most concentrated ones.  Evidently, everything is done to put stress on the vines.  Poor soil.  Arid climate.  Radical pruning.  It's all done to stunt the growth of the grape. . .  to limit production. . .  The smaller the grape, the more skin.  The more skin, the higher the concentration of things that make for a good wine.

And, older vines do all this on their own!  Because of their age, they produce smaller harvests of smaller grapes. . .  the perfect fruit for full wines!  And some of the oldest vines in the United States are the ones in Northern California that produce Zinfandel grapes.  Like the label reads:  "Immigrants imported cuttings to California more than a century ago.  The fruit produces distinctive wines of extraordinary flavor and intensity."  Old Vine Zinfandel!

Driving back here to the office, it all began to fall into place.  I started thinking about us. . .  I started thinking about all the congregations like us. . .  gray. . .  wrinkled. . .  bent. . .  And the image of those old vines came to mind!  If it's true Christ is the vine. . .  If it's true that we are the branches. . .  If god, indeed, is the vinegrower. . .  Then, our ministry. . .  the "fruit" of our labor. . .  is old vine zin!  Distinctive!  Extraordinary!  Intense!

Just think how often we apologize for not being a younger congregation.  We don't have a big youth group like the younger churches.  We don't have a lot of activities like they do.  We don't have the rock-and-roll combo for worship.  We don't project the service against the wall.  We don't have the movers and the shakers that we once did.  We don't even have the new, flashy building in the right part of town.  We're simply an older congregation in an older part of the city.

Yet, we never realize what it means. . .  we never recognize how special we really, truly are. . .  Gnarly. . .  Twisted. . .  Rugged. . .  Weathered. . .  The very things that have kept us here are the very things that give our mission. . .  our ministry. . .  its distinctiveness!  It's uniqueness!  Individuality!  Just like this old vine Zin!

Just think of the challenges the vines that produced this wine have faces over the years.  Hail.  Drought.  Rain.  Freezing temperatures.  Insects.  Blight.  And that's not even mentioning earthquakes or prohibition or subdivisions!  The vines that produced the grapes that made this wine were survivors!  Yet all that is what makes it so rich!  So full!  And the words that describe this wine, my friends. . .  The words that describe this wine can be used to describe the ministry,  the faith, of this congregation!  Extraordinary!  Intense!

Our culture is so "youth" oriented.  Time and again we hear that they are our future.  We spend billions of dollars trying to stay young.  And if not able to stay young, we spend billions more, at the very least, to look it!  And our churches are the same way!  But the truth is that it takes time. . .  It takes time, not just for wine to mature.  But for faith to mature, as well.  It takes time for the vines to age to be able to produce fruit worth the wait.

"I am the vine, you are the branches."  Our faith, our life is the old vine Zinfandel.  Full.  Rich.  Intense.

It's take us time. . .  a lifetime. . .  to get to where we now are.  A lifetime of threats.  A lifetime of dangers.  A lifetime of challenges.  But, like those California vines, we have survived.  And that survival has given us our own unique bouquet. . .  That survival has given us our own special taste. . .  texture. . .  our own individual color and clarity. . .  Our harvest may not be as large as other congregations.  Our fruit may not be as large or as juicy.  But that's not what it takes to make a really good wine. . .  or a really good life. . .  It may be the grape that makes the wine.  But it is the vine that makes the grape!

"I am the vine, you are the branches."  And our life. . .  our faith. . .  is the wine!

My friends, you don't have to become something. . .  someone. . .  you aren't!  You don't have to try to be someone. . .  something. . .  you'll never become!  All you have to do is be who. . .  what. . .  you already are!  When you look around you. . .  when you look, even, in the mirror. . .  and see the gray. . .  the wrinkles. . .  celebrate your distinctiveness!  Your flavor and intensity!  It's not simply about how long the wine's been in the bottle.  It's also about how long the vine's been in the earth.

"I am the vine, you are the branches."  Now go. . .  go and bear the fruit that only you are able. . .

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the sermon for

the fourth sunday of easter

3 May 2009

John 10:11-18

Jesus - the good shepherd - has laid down his life for us. . .
. . .  so that we, too, can lay down our life for those around us!

This morning, I have to begin by making a confession.  What I say will, probably, not come as a shock to most of you.  But, this morning, I have to be upfront and honest.  You see. . .  I have never. . .  I have never seen a flock of sheep out in the field.  Maybe from a distance. . .  at seventy-five miles per hour. . .  on the way to Ruidoso or somewhere around Fredericksburg.  But never, ever up close and personal!  Sure, I've grilled lamb chops a time or two.  And a couple Easters ago, I age mutton.  I've even worn a few wool shirts in my time.  But the closest I've ever come to a flock of sheep is at the county fair.

Now, I'm telling you this because "as a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ", I'm often referred to as a shepherd.  And, this morning, I just wanted you to know the truth before I go any farther.  I've been taught allot about Jesus. . .  about the Father and the Spirit. . .  I've learned a lot about the gospel and about the church. . .  But I know nothing - or, practically nothing - about sheep.  And the frightening thing is that all I do know has come from listening to sermons given by people just like me!

And, yet, here we are again, this morning. . .  on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. . .  also known as Good Shepherd Sunday!  Called that because of the gospel lesson we read.  John.  Chapter ten.  Verses 11 and following.  "I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . ."  "I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . ."

With that said, rather than talking, once again, about something I don't know.  like sheep and shepherds.  I'd like to spend time talking about something - about someone - I do know something about. . .  like Jesus. . .  and the gospel. . .  and the church. . .

It's true.  Since the earliest days of the church. . .  Since the earliest days of Israel, for that matter. . .  the image of the shepherd and the sheep has been an important one for god's people.  Nowadays, it refers, more often than not, to the relationship between a pastor and a congregation. . .  at least, here in the Lutheran part of the church. . .  In fact, the word pastor means shepherd.  It comes from the same roots as the word pasture.  But, first of all, I'd like you to notice something in today's passage.  "There will be," says Jesus. . .  "There is. . .  There will be. . .  ONE flock, ONE shepherd!"  Not 18,500 shepherds (the number of pastors in the E.L.C.A.)!  And not 10,500 flocks (the number of congregations.)  But ONE!  ONE shepherd - Jesus - and ONE flock - the church!

You see, contrary to popular opinion, being a shepherd isn't about me!  About me or people like me!  It's about Jesus.  He is the one who lays down his life for the sheep.

Jesus is the shepherd!  Not the clergy!  They - we - aren't even hired hands.  They're simply part of the flock, just like you!  Sheep of the same fold!  Lambs of the same flock!  Sinners of the same redeeming!  Our 'job'. . .  Our 'vocation'. . .  Our 'calling'. . .  is merely to keep pointing to the one. . .  to the only. . .  "There is ONE flock, ONE shepherd!"  That's the first thing we need to recognize about the passage.

And the second thing we need to realize is this.  You are not sheep!  You are not sheep.  You're people!  There's something awful that happens when we take a metaphor literally.  We are de-humanized.  De-personalized.  And we need to remember, we are not animals!  We don't need to be led around or herded about.  Poked.  Prodded.  We are people.  And as such, we have a purpose.  A mission.  And that is to live our lives as echoes. . .  as reflections. . .  of god's very own life!  That's what it means to be created in the image of god.  A sheep is not created that way.  A sheep doesn't bear the likeness of Christ.  Christ may bear the image of a lamb.  But a lamb can't return the favor.  And if any of us is to resemble Jesus. . .  If any of us is to look like the good shepherd. . .  it's not merely the clergy.  But it's each of us!  It's all of us!  TOGETHER!

Sure.  It's natural. . .  and it's automatic. . .  to hear all this stuff about shepherds and, then, to think of pastors.  But that isn't what the bible is pointing to.  That's not what faith is about.  The true comparison is not between Jesus and ordained ministers.  The true comparison is between Christ and the church!  You want to know what the church is about?  Look at Jesus!  You want to know what Jesus is about?  Look at the church!  Just take a quick look at the first verse in the second reading. . .  "We know love by this, that [Jesus Christ - the good shepherd -] laid down his life for us - and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. . . ."  "and WE. . .  WE. . .  ought to lay down our lives for one another. . . ."

It's not about - first and foremost - ordination.  It's about baptism!  God never meant for all of us publicly to proclaim the gospel. . .  to preach. . .  to teach. . .  to administer the sacraments. . .  But god meant for all of us. . .  god means for each of us. . .  to love JUST AS Jesus has loved!  to love JUST AS Jesus loves!  After all, that's how the world knows we are Christians, isn't it?  That's how the world knows we are god's very own!  We, too, lay down our lives for one another.  Literally?  Figuratively?  It doesn't really matter.  We die for each other JUST AS Christ died for us!  The connection. . .  the link. . .  isn't with the clergy.  With the called and ordained.  It never has been.  It is with the called and the baptized.  It is with you, the church!  It is with you, the people of god!  When we hear the phrase 'good shepherd', we should think of Jesus!  But, then, we should think of all the people around us. . .  just as they should be thinking of us. . .  We are not simply sheep.  But we are sheep who have ourselves become shepherds!

So, it's the Fourth Sunday of Easter.  Good Shepherd Sunday - once again.  We may not know a whole lot about sheep. . .  or about shepherds. . .  But, then, this day really isn't about either!  It's about Jesus. . .  and the gospel. . .  and the church. . .  It's about love!  The love a god has for a people!  And the love that that people has for one another!  This day, my friends, is about a cross.  First and foremost, Jesus' cross!  But, secondly, our cross, as well.  For, you see, we, too, are the good shepherd!

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