President Jennings preached this sermon on January 23 at the Rooted in Jesus Conference in Atlanta:
Now, I want to acknowledge right up front that I don’t do yard work. In fact, my favorite seat in my house is at my kitchen table, where I can look out over the backyard and often see my husband, Albert, doing yard work. So I cannot share with you very much hands-on experience of vines.
But from observation, I do know that vine growing can go badly wrong. Our hosts here in Atlanta can tell us all about that, since it was here in the South in the 19th century that people embraced the Japanese vine called kudzu, which became known as “the vine that ate the South.” I read in the Atlanta Journal Constitution that the nickname is no longer apt—that an alliance of “scientists, foresters, farmers and goats” have slowed the spread of kudzu and reclaimed land it once devoured for other plants. But now, because the climate is changing, kudzu is spreading beyond the South. It still costs about $500 million a year to contain.
When kudzu was introduced, however, it was hailed as “a miracle vine … to help humankind.” In the 1930s and 40s, when erosion from cotton farming was a serious threat, the federal government distributed approximately 84 million kudzu seedlings to farmers. By 1946, roughly 3 million acres of it covered the South. Not long after that, farmers and government officials realized that the miracle plant intended to transform the land was in danger of destroying it.
Kudzu is a helpful interpretative tool for today’s passage from John, because it’s easy to think about vines and imagine carefully cultivated and orderly rows of grapevines, for as far as the eye can see. Never mind that grapevines can be tricky to grow, especially if they are to bear fruit—which is the whole point of today’s gospel. More on that shortly. Grapevines are pretty to look at, and they can lead us to imagine that the kingdom of God is full of uniform vines growing in straight rows under ideal conditions.
But that doesn’t sound like church to me.
Church is more of a free-range vine, with branches doing what branches will do: scraping against one another, getting all tangled up, shedding leaves everywhere, poking each other, sticking to things, growing in unpredictable directions. It’s not pretty.
But it is beautiful.
Most of our branches, truth be told, lack glamour. Each one is different from the next, each one is flawed in some way. But together, our network of branches, which are nothing special to look at, bear fruit.
We bear fruit that the world hungers for: the peace and hope and love of the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells us our mess of branches is capable of doing all that. And we’re capable of doing it because we are all connected to that one vine and we were all created by the one vinegrower.
But here’s the thing: Jesus does not expect his disciples to be fruit. He does not expect of us the near-perfect uniformity and sweetness of a prize bunch of grapes or warm summer’s tomatoes, lined up like soldiers. Jesus expects us to be branches. We are called to do our jobs, to be conduits for nourishment as best as we can. That means that sometimes we support one another, sometimes we get in one another’s way, sometimes we have to move into an uncomfortable space to allow for another’s growth. And as we grow, we all look a little different. The fruit of the branch that busted out of its trellis may be sweeter than the fruit that grew exactly as planned for and expected.
There is one God. And there are countless ways of being a faithful disciple.
But it is oh so tempting to reject messy, complicated diversity in favor of planting kudzu—the miracle vine that will save the church by wiping out everything else in its path. It is easy, especially in times that feel like a crisis, to think that if our vineyards were more orderly, if discipleship were more uniform, if we all prayed and believed and did liturgy in just the same way, we would bear more fruit, be stronger, more vital, more numerous, more faithful. More Christian.
In the Episcopal Church, we love to have our “church fights.” Some might argue it is a central piece of our Anglican identity, since our very origins are rooted, you might say, in the English Civil War and the intrigue of 16th century European politics. We are particularly skilled, I’m sorry to say, at having doctrinal and liturgical fights as a way to distract ourselves when the world is on fire. All the proof you need of that is to be found on Twitter. But the urge long predates social media.
In fact, Phillips Brooks, whom we remember today, lived during an age when Episcopalians were going after one another in factions on the side of so-called “orthodoxy” vs. the side of so-called broad church liberal Protestantism, with which he is associated. They were doing this, frankly, to avoid addressing the issue of slavery.
Let me say that I am firmly on Team Brooks. In fact, Phillips Brooks, or at least a book of his sermons that someone gave me early in my time at seminary, is a big reason that I became an Episcopalian after my rather orderly Presbyterian childhood. Phillips Brooks was not particularly keen on the church fight of his time. In fact, in his “History of the Episcopal Church,” Deputy Robert Pritchard tells us that in the fall of 1856, Brooks and other Northern students threatened to drop out of VTS unless the school guaranteed protection for students who spoke against slavery.
Brooks was among the best-known and accomplished preachers of his day, and he was one of the lead organizers of the Church Congress movement, which in the late 19th and early 20th century, organized a series of meetings for church leaders from many denominations—black and white, male and, after 1911, female—to consider the church’s approach to the issues of the day. Deputy Prichard reports that Brooks and other Congress leaders believed that these meetings could “instill in their church a broad tolerance for diversity of thought.”
In Brooks’ age and in our age and all the other ages, we Episcopalians have trouble remembering that we are branches. The way we answer God’s call will look different. We will practice our discipleship in many ways, and some of those ways will undoubtedly make some of us uncomfortable or angry. We’ll probably be tempted to argue over where to put the altar and what vestments to wear to church, and we’ll call each other heretics and police each other’s liturgies and sermons and websites and social media accounts. We will long for conformity and uniformity, and we will try to plant kudzu, the miracle vine that will save the church by wiping out everything else. But through all of this, we will remain firmly connected to the one vine and we will “branch out.” And we will bear fruit.
We’re stuck to one another, friends. And we’re stuck with one another. We live in the same hope and we are called to keep God’s commandments and abide in God’s love. We are bound to love one another as Jesus has loved us.
To God, who is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, be glory in the church. Amen.