The Vine, the Branches, and the Fish on the Line: Sermon for April 29, 2018

Yesterday was one of my favorite non-church-related high holidays. Yesterday was opening day for trout season here in New Hampshire, which meant that I was out fly fishing most of the day. 

Fair warning; when it’s trout season, I do a lot of my sermon writing in my head while out by the water, which is why you get a lot of fishing metaphors this time of year. But bear with me; some of them make good sense.

Like yesterday, I tied on a fly, and then cast my line out in the water. Nothing, not even a nibble. So, I kept casting and reeling the line in, casting and reeling, over and over. And flies are very small, and my eyes are getting older, so I just sort of go on faith that the fly is landing where it needs to land, and everything is fine on the other end of the line.

But after a while I decided that fly wasn’t working. I reeled it all the way in only to discover something that shouldn’t have been a shock at all. Can you guess it? The fly, of course, was long gone. It looked like the knot hadn’t been properly tied, which meant that for a good chunk of time there I was just standing by the water, with no way to make a connection.

That story made me think about the big story we are looking at today. Jesus is teaching the disciples and he calls himself “the true vine”. He tells them that he is the vine and they, we, are like the branches that grow from it. 

And the purpose of the branches is to bear fruit. Jesus tells them that a branch alone can’t do that work. You have to be connected back to the vine in order to produce something. Put in a more local context, in order for a branch of an apple tree to grow an apple, it has to still be connected to the tree. You can’t cut something off from its source of life and expect it to be productive. Without its life source, it will wither and die.

And so, Jesus says, “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.”

Without God, our creator and redeemed and sustainer, we are a lot like a branch that has fallen off the tree. We are called to bear good fruit in this world. Our good fruit is whatever we do to bring joy and grace and peace into the world. But if we are no longer connected to the tree, that which gives us life, if we are not being filled up by God’s love and grace, we cannot hope to survive, let alone to grow something new.

But when we are connected back to the source, then we have the chance to get better, to get stronger, to be healthy enough to survive. And, not just to survive for our own sake, but to create new life. To grow something that can help to transform this world.

And so the question for all of us is this: are we on the vine? Or are we off the vine?

In other words, are we connected to the source, connected to God, or are we broken off, hurting and alone?

When we are on the vine, that’s where growth happens. When we are connected to God, and actively working to maintain that connection, our life is transformed. We find ourselves more able to be the kind of people we want to be. When we receive love and grace and forgiveness from God, we become more able to give love and grace and forgiveness to others. When God creates newness is us, we become able to create newness in the world. When God gives us peace, we become people of peace.

But the opposite is true too. Because when we are off the vine, when we neglect our spiritual lives and don’t tend to the connection, we stop being able to see the gifts that God is trying to give us. Like a dying branch we become brittle, easy to snap, quick to burn up. 

To bring it back to trout season, when we are on the vine it’s a little like we are the fly that is tied to the fishing line. We are not adrift on the waters by ourselves, powerless to do much good. Instead, we are tied to something that can pull us back in, and we are able to reach out and hook others, to make the connections with others, that give us life. (Okay, that’s where the fish might not like that metaphor, but you get the point.)

But if we’ve slipped off? Then we are just alone. We don’t connect with God, and we don’t connect with others. We just sink.

So, to ask again, are you on the vine? Or are you off the vine? Are you tied to the line? Or have you untied yourself? 

Truth be told, I think that we all have experiences of being both on and off the vine. There have been times when I’ve really worked on my spiritual life. I’ve been diligent about praying, meditating, reading, thinking, and connecting with God every single day. And in those times, I’ve felt solidly on the vine. I’ve been like a branch of an apple tree in the fall, growing good fruit all the time.

But there have been other times, too. There have been times when I’ve felt so distant from God that I’ve felt like I haven’t had much life in me even for myself, let alone for others. Sometimes that’s been because of outside factors, but sometimes I’ve found myself in those times, and I’ve looked around, and I’ve realized that I’ve been the one to put up barriers between God and me. I’ve stopped putting my spiritual growth on the top of my priorities. I’ve started to think there were more important things to do. I’ve gotten too comfortable with doing the bare minimum to connect to God.

I found myself starting to drift that way a while back. I pray every night before bed, and I realized that my prayers each night had become almost identical. I had slipped into a pattern that allowed me to reel off a bunch of words in the five minutes before I feel asleep, say “amen”, and then close my eyes. But I was praying out of obligation, not out of a desire for real connection.

And so, I started to change that. I stopped just saying the same words every night. I started to pray more deliberately about the day, giving thanks for the good things I had seen in it, asking for God’s help with the hard things, acknowledging my own part in the tough things. I began praying more deliberately for the people I loved who were in times of transition. I began praying for God’s guidance in a more sincere way.

And, a funny thing happened. I started to feel myself being renewed. I slowly went from that dying branch to one that perked back up, and started to bear the blossoms that would soon become fruit once again. 

And here’s where I think that vine and branches metaphor doesn’t really work all the way. Because once a branch falls from a tree, you can’t really put it back. But I know something that does work that way. 

And that’s where we go back to the trout stream. I was like that fishing fly that had come undone, and was drifting off on the water. And in a moment of realization, I was able to call back to the great fisher of all of us that I was ready to be tied back on. 

Unlike those of us who fish for trout, I think God knows when we have fallen off. And I think God waits for us to say we are ready to be tied back on, and reeled back home. God is always ready to put us back on the line, and connect with us once again.

And so, here is your invitation. How are you feeling spiritually these days? Are you bearing good fruit? Or are you feeling as burnt out as firewood? Are you tied to the line and catching good fish? Or are you sinking to the bottom of the river?

God only wants connection for us. God doesn’t want us to be isolated and overwhelmed. And so now is the time. If you’re ready to stop going it alone, God is ready to tie you back on, and bring you back in. 

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