Sunday, May 2, 2021 - Sermon


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church                                                                       May 2, 2021


Texts:  Deuteronomy 30: 11-20; John 15: 1-8

         As most gardeners know, there are two ways to prune plants:  before they bloom and after they bloom.  Spring shrubs, such as forsythia, spirea, weigela, and mock orange are usually best pruned after blooming to get the best stalks for flowers for the coming year, and other flowers, such as roses, should be cut back in the early spring to permit new growth for the best blooms. Whether the gardener prunes shrubs, roses, or olive trees and vines, it's important to remember that the two objects of pruning are to let more light into the center part of the plant and to stimulate vigorous growth. There are times, however, that a plant can be pruned back too much, cut back so severely that its vigorous growth is hampered and the vine or tree yields little fruit.  The goal is to get the greatest number of blossoms – yes, blossoms, because without the blossoms, there is no fruit.

         This morning's gospel reading presents an interesting metaphor for us to consider.  The grower, the gardener, cuts off the branches that bear no fruit.  Grapes have to be pruned in a certain way or they will bear little or no fruit. What does this mean for us? It speaks to the extraneous things in our lives, the ones without which we could live, perhaps not as comfortably, but still live – and live well.

         Deciding what's extraneous or unnecessary in our lives is really difficult.  One size doesn't fit all in this kind of case.  I'm sure that each and every one of us has something that we consider essential to our lives that someone else might think is unnecessary.  When most of us hear the words extraneous or unnecessary we usually think of things:  antiques, more books than anyone can read in a lifetime – there is a word for that in Japanese -- tsundoku, to be honest, my sin -- more than four pairs of shoes, or the second house.  Some people think of activities, such as going to a sports event – never a museum or art gallery; others might consider reading or creating art as extraneous. However, there is another level at which we respond to what we at times may consider the extraneous or unnecessary needs of ourselves, namely, the emotional level, the spiritual level.

         If asked whether we consider our spiritual life to be extraneous, most of us would respond, “No, of course not!” After all, here we are, in church, clearly a sign that we do not perceive our spiritual lives as unnecessary. But often, unlike our evangelical cousins, we do not go about trumpeting our faith, however we may define it. 

Being intrusive and possibly obnoxious are not necessarily signs of taking our faith seriously.  I suggest that taking our faith seriously means pruning out the extraneous beliefs that get in the way of experiencing a deep connection with God, that Holy Being who is at the center of our existence.

         Let's see if we can have a concrete example.  Our communion bulletin states that “All who profess Christ as Lord are welcome to the Table of Life.”  How or in what way we profess Christ as Lord could be extraneous, items of detail that need to be pruned from the vine so that it yields more fruit.

Our joint Baptist and Congregational traditions are clear indicators that the details of Christology are not central to our experiencing the presence of God through the elements of bread and wine. Like that wise monarch Elizabeth I, we do not seek a window into the souls of others to make sure that they conform in some esoteric way to a set of beliefs.  We have no Heidelberg or Westminster Confession, no creed that binds us but a statement of faith that is written in such a way as to be inclusive of many approaches to the One we follow and the God we worship through living faithfully.

         So, in order to have faith blossom, it seems we need to prune what is extraneous in our own spiritual life.  This does not mean we are without values or principles for our lives.  What it does mean is that we define our core values and live by them. So now we come back to the primary question:  what's extraneous and what's core.  The corollary is how do we prune the extraneous so we have only the blossoms of the core, which, of course, will yield fruit.

         “By their fruits you shall know them” is one of the oldest adages not just of our faith but of any faith. When faith yields the fruits of love, kindness, charity, and care, then is seems pretty clear that the essence – the core – of the faith is being lived.  Unfortunately, too often in the past, churches and their members have often looked at particular doctrinal statements to include or exclude rather than looking at how people actually live out their faith.

         This morning's reading from Deuteronomy contains part of one of the addresses to the people of Israel attributed to Moses.  Two ways of living are contrasted: life and prosperity as opposed to death and adversity. Now, the redactor had a particular point to push, namely, warning the people not to turn against God and the ways instituted by God for idols.  Those idols are not just figures of clay but also include greed and injustice because to worship God and follow the commandments means to be in right relationship with God and people. The term prosperity does not just refer to material prosperity but to spiritual prosperity as well, the realization that God walks with us as we walk with God.

         “Choose life,” we are told, choose life.  In our search to connect to the core of our faith, Jesus gives us clues through his life. He didn't go around telling us what to believe.  He went around healing the sick, caring for the marginalized, eating with publicans and prostitutes, and calling the powerful to task.  None of those activities were extraneous.  They were central to who he was and to his ministry.

         Purging the extraneous is not easy because it requires that we do not judge others on the basis of their particular beliefs.  Pruning can be painful because it may require that we take some of our more cherished beliefs and put them in perspective to our experience.  Not an easy thing to do, but what counts in the end is the fruit, which will be plentiful.

         Let us pray:  Eternal One who guides our lives, help us to follow the example, you have given us, Jesus of Nazareth, as we try to live faithfully in love with one another. Amen.