Bearing Fruit

True Vine by Anthrovik Flickr CC 2004

Lesson: John 15:1-8

Last Tuesday I shared with the elders on session my excitement as a budding gardener. The building supervisor of my small complex is a retired minister who has gardened her entire life. There’s a side yard between our parking lot and the San Rafael creek where she’s created a vast garden of bulbs, veggies, flowering plants. It’s gorgeous. A little over a month ago, I felt the desire to play in the dirt. So, I asked if there were a space where I could pull weeds? I love pulling weeds with my hands in the dirt and real progress to be seen. She laughed and then showed me a space on the far side of the building to work. And I did. Then I was asked if I’d like to take over tending the five rose bushes that are in large containers on that side of the building? It meant having a bit of space-mostly shade but I could add plants as I saw fit. Sure! I’ve been learning something new each week about pruning and fungus and I have been enjoying the different perfumes from the flowers.

Last weekend my gardening square footage increased dramatically as I was asked if I would water and tend the plants and flowers on the other side of the fence – the ones directly along the sidewalk. They needed watering and since I was already moving the hose, would I mind? In exchange I would have full reign to change up the plants if I wanted. Great! Now I have actual property to tend. I’m moving up.

Yesterday I tended the rose bushes and remembered the extra watering. I pulled on the hose and dropped it over the short fence. Then I walked around and began watering. As I watered I realized I didn’t really know which plants were in my zone, so to be on the safe side, I kept watering and walking up fence line toward the side of the building until the hose could not reach. I coiled the hose up and went to collect my cuttings. That’s when I noticed that the rose bush nearest the building – which had been standing about three feet tall was laying at a 90-degree angle.

My first impulse was to be angry with the “mean person” who mangled my little rose bush. Then as I stood there in shock, it started to dawn on me that I’d put the hose over the fence right here…right next to this rose….and when I started walking toward the building, and pulling the hose to reach more plants…I had not looked to see what path the hose traveled. And that’s when the little voice in my head said, RUN! There was no other explanation except that I, with good intentions, had accidentally flattened this rose bush with the hose. I touched the stem lightly and it popped off into my hand. In my disbelief, I actually considered sticking it back in the soil as if it would take root again.

This is all leading me to say that I think Jesus knew what he was doing when he assigned roles to his gardening metaphor. No loose ends or swapping parts! No, Jesus said he is the vine. God is the vine grower. We are the branches. The plant is much safer with me as the branch rather than the caretaker of the vines. In only five weeks I managed to take out 20 percent of the plants entrusted to me!

I am the vine…
Every time I read this phrase I hear the voice of the pastor from my family’s church in Texas. Davis says the same words every month when he is behind the communion table. Every month he serves the elders and he repeats part of today’s verse. As I recall it, Davis says this: Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Cut off from me you can do nothing.”

Now, that’s not perfect translation of the Bible, but that is the way I remember him saying it. It was this second line that always took me out of the moment to think existential thoughts about what it is that I would have to do to be cutoff. I cannot tell you if there was a third line, perhaps one that says abide and stay in relationship with me. Needless to say the angst and fear it caused me each month as I contemplated what Jesus and what Davis meant was great – I trust these two guys and why were they being mean? Although I’d be willing to bet that is not what our dear minister meant. And I am also quite sure he continued the metaphor, but the words of comfort didn’t stick in my memory. This part of the metaphor have been used to scare youth and instill fear, so it’s worth taking a look a bit more closely at this metaphor.

Jesus’ metaphor of vine and branches is one from farming and his audience would have been familiar with the lingo. I know some of us garden for pure beauty, but I am pretty sure a farmer raising grapes expects th­e vines to produce a crop of fruit. I’d wager that the majority of fields of grapes growing to the north and east of us are intended for a purpose beyond beautiful snapshots by tourists, but are actually to be harvested. Their first priority is making money off of the fruits of their vines.

I think this is yet another passage where Jesus is being descriptive. We have probably all seen vines that grow without tending – the ones that are a heap of interwoven shoots that are just messy. But, a loving vine grower clips and trims and ties back the branches so that they have the best possible chance of growing fruit. This means that some branches will be pruned or cut off. A branch will not survive on its own accord. It dries up and it can be disposed of – either in a trash heap that’s burned or perhaps to modernize it, we might suggest that the pruned branches should be put in your green compost bin. Wouldn’t that change up the feel of this passage? God will compost the pruned branches. Ah, that God, She’s so eco-friendly – she is a fantastic gardener!

Jesus uses the word, abide, numerous times in this passage. Abiding is a word we do not use very much. It can also be translated as remain – remain in relationship with me, remain connected. This seems to be Jesus’ point – stay connected with me – hold on, stay close, and do not let go! As one commentator put it, “If we remain… on the vine, we are tended in safety, trellised to fullness, kept from disasters of our own making.”[i] (Including protection from hoses!) Vines, like churches and families, and individual lives, are meant to grow and stretch and learn. The promise of “abiding” in Jesus is not for its own sake, nor an end in itself. Jesus imagines and promises a dynamic and changing community. Vines are pruned and cleansed. Branches that wither and die are removed. This points to a constantly fluctuating community that is called to be living, creating, reforming.[ii] “A part of this, Jesus tells us, is also submitting to the pruner’s shears, allowing ourselves to be humiliated [humbled] and reworked so that new growth can come.”[iii]

I want to share a story I heard from a pastor in Arizona Let’s call her Mary. I met Mary at a training in February. Mary introduced herself and confided that she was having a difficult time trying to lead her congregation into their future. She said she saw so many gifts and so many fruits, but her congregants were wrapped up in a vision of intergenerational ministry – they desperately wanted young people and families. Who can blame them? I thought. Mary continued to tell a story of how the church wanted to put on a vacation Bible study program over the summer as a way of attracting families. But, they didn’t have any families. No children at all. So, someone had the idea that they would go to the neighboring community and borrow some. And they did!

They found a few families who were interested; they picked them up and transported them to their church building where they put on an old-fashioned church school program. All week they made crafts, sang silly songs, and did all the fun activities you might expect. Each day they transported the families to and from the church back to their homes in the neighboring community. The congregation was devastated when none of these families was interested in coming to church on Sundays. Mary said her congregation was absolutely distraught by their inability to attract young people. Mary revealed that she was disheartened because she felt they were wasting their gifts in pursuit of a goal that simply was not practical. It turned out that their church was in the middle of a large, flourishing retirement community. Rather than being open to the ministry in front of them, they were withering on the vine – caught in a negative spiral based on assumptions of what a healthy church looked like from previous communities and generations. Despite their best intentions, her community was not able to abide with and love their own community for what it was – to appreciate and love themselves for who they are.

Abiding with Christ, also known as faith, is something that hopefully does not stay stagnant. Rather, faith is a dynamic relationship with the living God and from time to time we could benefit from God’s pruning.[iv] From time to time it’s important for us to take stock of where we feel God leading and pruning in our life together. As a community, we have shared needs and callings – abiding together we can learn, grow, and not stagnate. I believe that God plants callings and visions in our hearts. After church we will discuss where we feel this vine is growing and we may discern in coming weeks and months ways we may need to prune our projects, assumptions, and practices as a community. I hope you will attend today and again at the second of these meetings on May 31st. I want to remind you again that God is the vine grower. We have enough to do as branches! Let us continue to grow together… knowing God’s masterful hands guide us, and trusting Christ to lead our way. Amen.


© The Rev. Diana C. Bell, 2015”True Vine” by An

Image “True Vine” by Anthrovik, Flickr CC, 2004

[i] Volck, Brian, “Pruning Time.” Ekklesia Project: Lectionary Reflections. May 07, 2009.

[ii] Boyce, James, “John 15:1-8 Commentary.” Working Preacher: Preaching This Week (RCL), May 06, 2012.

[iii] Sutterfield, Ragan, “ Believe it or Not.” Ekklesia Project: Lectionary Reflections. May 03, 2012.

[iv] Idea came from: Brian Stoffregen, Exegetical Notes on John 15:1-8 at CrossMarks.

Abundant Life


Lessons: Psalm 23, John 10:10b-18

In our Gospel passage this morning, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Abundant life. What an astonishing statement! Astonishing first of all because Jesus is saying that this – this right here – this is his mission and ministry. What is Jesus all about? You want to know the answer, in a nutshell? Here it is, in John 10:10. “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

And astonishing as well because he doesn’t mention sin or forgiveness or the blotting out of our failures or reconciling us with a judgmental God. He says he came to give life. In contrast to all that would rob us of life – the wolves, or the thieves and bandits he mentions in earlier verses – Jesus comes to give, not just life, but life in abundance. Not just survival, but flourishing; not just getting by, but thriving; not just existence, but joy,[1] and freedom; freedom from whatever would keep us from living abundantly.

Read more →

But We Had Hoped …


Lesson: Luke 24:13-35

Easter was two whole weeks ago, so it’s a little jarring that this very familiar story takes place on Easter, later that afternoon. Cleopas and his friend were headed to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles away from Jerusalem. The two disciples might have looked like just another couple of pilgrims returning to their homes after Passover, but their conversation is far from typical. They’re discussing everything that’s happened in the past three days: Jesus’ last supper, his arrest, crucifixion, the tomb found empty, and that fishy report from the women that an angel had told them Jesus was alive.

This isn’t just chit-chat. They’re carefully dissecting the weekend’s events from every angle. Searching for answers. How could their hopes and dreams have turned to ashes? Then, as the sun dips into the Mediterranean and the shadows began to stretch from the hills toward the sea, a solitary figure joins them.

“What are you talking about?” asks the stranger. And Cleopas tells him the story that they had already gone over and over again and that they would be repeating for the rest of their lives. “His name was Jesus and he came from Nazareth. That’s where we met him – in Galilee. He came to our synagogue one Sabbath and he read from one of the scrolls, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me … God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ But he didn’t just read the words; he lived out their meaning. Wherever he went the blind saw, the lame walked, lepers were cleansed. And then he set out for Jerusalem, and there he was arrested, turned over to the Romans, and they had him killed. But we had hoped he was the one. At last, we thought, the Roman tyranny will be overthrown and God will restore the throne of David. We had hoped … we had hoped …” Read more →

The News from San Anselmo 2015


Lesson: John 20:19-34

Note: On the Sunday after Easter, we celebrate Holy Humor Sunday by presenting worship in radio show format, “A San Anselmo Home Companion” (our thanks to Garrison Keillor). The sermon or proclamation of the Word is this work of fiction, “The News from San Anselmo.”

It’s been a quiet week in our hometown of San Anselmo, nestled against the edge of the Marin hills. April is when high school seniors make their final decisions about college. It’s hard to leave Marin to go to college somewhere else. It is just a fact that there aren’t many places as beautiful as Marin; but that’s the least of it. When our kids leave Northern California, they not only face the prospect of inferior Mexican food; they are guaranteed a certain amount of ridicule. It is pretty funny after all that our kids can tell a Ferrari from a Lamborghini from two blocks away. But they can also expect eye-rolling, if not disdain, when they ask where the recycling bins are, choose the vegetarian entrée, suggest going out for sushi, explain they know several married gay couples and complain when it’s colder than 50 and warmer than 75. It’s tough on an eighteen-year-old to learn that the rest of the world thinks his home state is odd when it’s so wonderfully normal to us. As a result, our kids are likely to downplay the truth that Marin, in some ways, is California on steroids.

It’s not that people in Marin don’t respect tradition – OK, well maybe it is. There’s a theory that the people who move west are the people trying to get out from under the thumb of mindless tradition, and maybe that’s partly true. This means we on the West Coast already fought and even avoided some of the battles they’re still fighting in other parts of the country. Take the “worship wars,” for example. There’s a significant part of the Christian church in America battling over whether to use contemporary music in worship – and by contemporary, they mean composed around 1993 – instead of traditional music – and by traditional, they mean “sung by my grandparents’ generation.” The traditional camp claims “contemporary” music is shallow, what some call “7-11” songs: the same seven words sung eleven times in a row. The contemporary camp counters that traditional music is boring and has archaic lyrics. No one, the argument goes, would listen to “A Mighty Fortress” on his car stereo. But no one would listen to “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” either. So the war rages on. There are unconfirmed stories about booby traps on organ benches; drum sets that mysteriously disappear; hymnal pages stuck together with chewing gum; a projector found taken apart, piece by piece, with an ominous note, “You’ll be next.” There were rumors that the entire alto section of the choir at a Methodist church was arrested on suspicion of arson when a couple of screens went up in smoke. But it turned out to be just an electrical short. Anyway, that was the altos’ story. Read more →

Who Will Roll Away the Stone for Us?


Lessons: Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Mark 16:1-8

Loads of research shows that human beings seem to be wired to hear and focus on bad news rather than good news.[1] Maybe that’s why the women heading to the tomb early Sunday morning expect to find a dead body. Three times in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus promised that he was not only going to die, but on the third day, he’d be raised from the dead. The women don’t seem to remember or believe this. They plan to anoint Jesus’ body as a way of showing their last respects, and they’re preoccupied with a practical problem. A huge stone had been rolled in front of the tomb entrance, and they’ll never be able to move it.

“Who will roll away the stone for us?” they ask. No sooner do they speak these words than they look up and realize the stone is out of the way and the tomb is open! They’re so shocked that the good news the angel delivers barely registers: “He has been raised; he is not here.” He has been raised. The angel uses the passive voice: Jesus has been raised. He tells us Jesus didn’t raise himself, but doesn’t spell out who did it.

We know, of course, who is behind this. This morning’s psalm shouts with joy, “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes!”[2] God did it! Resurrection is what God does. The women at the tomb don’t get it at first. They see the angel; they hear the news; but they don’t immediately accept or understand or believe. And so Mark ends his gospel with this confusion. The original Greek is, “The women went out from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; they said nothing to anyone, they were afraid for…” That’s how it reads in Greek. The English translation solves this by moving the preposition, but it doesn’t solve the problem of the gospel. Matthew, Luke and John tell us how Jesus appeared after the resurrection: showing his wounds, breaking bread with the disciples, even sharing a fish breakfast on the beach. But not Mark. The early church was so uncomfortable with Mark’s non-ending that later writers tacked on three separate, carefully packaged, churchy-sounding endings. Two of them appear in our pew Bibles; all of them take away the ambiguity by adding post-resurrection appearances of the risen Christ. The oldest manuscripts of Mark’s gospel don’t include them, so most scholars conclude that the original account in Mark ends right here, with the women running scared. Read more →

Daily Resurrections: Waving Palms


Lesson: Mark 11:1-11 (MSG translation)

I wonder with whom you identify most in our story?

Are you the crowd? How do you imagine the crowd? Are you in the crowd that ran out from the city and surrounding fields, bringing branches and coats to line the road? Are you proud to be part of the tradition of welcoming a ruler to your city? Are you jubilant: excited and hopeful to catch a glimpse of the savior you’ve heard so much about?

Or, are you among the disciples who cannot believe the reception you’re having – for the first time you watch Jesus being treated like royalty which he’s never been ok with, but here you are, amazed, that he’s not telling everyone to hush and chill out like he normally does…maybe this trip isn’t going to be as scary as you thought it’d be.

Are you travelling on the road, perhaps on a pilgrimage, perhaps not, and after a long tiring journey you are almost to your destination, when out of nowhere people start freaking out and carrying-on about “save us” and “son of David!” You have no idea what they are talking about, but you wish they’d stop throwing trash on the road. Move along, folks.

Or, perhaps you identify with the donkey. Minding your own business until some strangers give you something to do. You plod along, head down, doing your thing –moving forward, taking one step after another – step after faithful step. You’ve got this – it’s what you’re born to do. [Surely someone will feed you when this is all done!]

Or, perhaps you identify with Jesus himself? You feel you have a mission, but no one believes you-not really, and you’re pretty sure some bad things are coming…soon, but every time you try to talk about it, your friends argue with you – some help they’ve turned out to be. You love them anyway, of course, but hey check out this crowd…maybe they get it…but, then again…

Read more →

Daily Resurrection: Seeing Jesus


Lesson: John 12:20-36

Decades of research show that we often see what we expect to see and just as often ignore what falls outside our expectations. Perhaps the most famous study on this topic involves a video of two teams passing basketballs back and forth. Participants in the study are asked to watch the video and keep track of the number of times the players wearing white uniforms pass the ball. There’re maybe half a dozen players and multiple basketballs so there’s a lot of movement and you have to pay close attention to get an accurate count. In the middle of the game, something happens that’s not part of the basketball game. A person in a gorilla suit strolls right through the middle of the game. He doesn’t sneak across, or appear only in a corner, or anything like that. He just walks straight across the screen, among the players. Researchers found that most participants are so focused on keeping track of the players passing the balls that they don’t see the gorilla.[1]

We see what we expect to see. By the twelfth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus has become something of a celebrity, and so some Greeks approach his disciples and ask to see him. Maybe they’d heard about Lazarus, brought back from the dead.[2] Maybe they saw the commotion created by the donkey-riding king.[3] We don’t know much about these Greeks. They’re described as being among those who were in Jerusalem to worship at the Passover festival. Some scholars think they are Greek-speaking Jews but more believe they are Gentiles.[4] They approach Philip, who, being Galilean and having a Greek name, presumably is more accustomed to Gentiles; and they say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

In one way, these Greeks remind me of many people in our country today and particularly here in Marin County; the people known as Spiritual But Not Religious. It’s a broad category but generally it means folks who are open to a sense of mystery, curious about the divine, wonder about God and the spiritual life, but they haven’t found those inclinations and needs met by traditional religious institutions. Like the Greeks in today’s passage, they’re outside the institution. They don’t ask Philip about a new members’ class or ask to join a committee; they don’t want to know what doctrine or creed Jesus confesses. They just want to see him. They want a personal encounter with him.[5] Read more →

Daily Resurrection: Before and After


Lesson: Ephesians 2:1-10

This morning’s passage in Ephesians is basically a hymn, a jubilant celebration describing the before-and-after of the life in Christ. We’ve all seen before-and-after photos of people after they’ve lost weight or had a makeover, or houses transformed by the Property Brothers on HGTV. Those of course are surface-y changes, not the kind of interior, human changes the writer is describing here in Ephesians. But those photos and the thrill with which the participants greet the improvements are really what’s at work here. It is a new day! A new life! But if you hadn’t seen the “before” photo, you wouldn’t understand how amazing the transformation is, right? So the writer begins by describing the “before” situation. In Eugene Peterson’s The Message, the passage begins, “It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live.”

I feel compelled to apologize to the L.A. Children’s Chorus folks that the one day they show up is the one Sunday in 52 that I mention sin. Believe it or not, sin is actually a perfectly good word; the difference between a poor moral decision and sin being that if we sin, then the values in question are not merely human values but God’s values.[1] But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Who gets to decide what God’s values are? Part of the reason we’re so suspicious of the word is that sin turns out to be whatever a particular group disapproves of.[2] In the pre-Civil War South, a slave’s rebellion against a master was a sin.[3] This focus on individual sin has been used to manipulate people, and at the same time, it misses the reality that collective actions, social systems cause the greatest human suffering in our world. We’ve just finished a four-week study on race and white privilege here at First Presbyterian Church and those of us who participated became freshly aware of the way privilege and racism are built into the system. We learned, for example, how banks redlined neighborhoods, refusing to lend money to anyone whose skin color or ethnic origin might lower property values. We learned how the G.I. Bill excluded aid for people in certain occupations that just happened to be filled mostly by people of color. Read more →

Daily Resurrection: Losing to Find


Lesson: Mark 8:31-38

“What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?”[1]

Marcus Borg tells the story of a three-year-old girl who was the firstborn and only child in her family. Her mother, however, was pregnant, and the little girl was very excited about having a new baby brother or sister. Finally the day arrived when her parents came home from the hospital with a baby boy. A few hours after the baby arrived home, the little girl asked if she could be alone with her new brother in his room, with the door closed. Understandably, her parents were a little uneasy about this, but they wanted to encourage their daughter’s interest in her new sibling. Besides, they had an intercom in the nursery. So they watched her go into the nursery, shut the door behind her, and then raced to their listening post. They heard their daughter’s footsteps moving across the baby’s room, imagined her standing over the crib, and then they heard her saying to her three-day-old brother, “Tell me about God – I’ve almost forgotten.”[2]

This story suggests that we come from God and that when we’re very young, we remember this. We remember that we belong to God; that all of us belong to God. But what happens? Well, we grow up. And in the process of growing up, of learning the ways of this world, we forget the One from whom we came and in whom we live. So that by the time we’re ten or twelve or even younger, we’re measuring ourselves against our culture’s standards, “the 3 A’s of appearance, achievement and affluence.”[3] Few of us believe we’re enough – thin enough, rich enough, smart enough, pretty enough, good enough, successful enough – because the messages we get from parents, school, work, even church but most especially the media tell us again and again we’re not. Read more →

Daily Resurrection: Time’s Up!


Lesson: Mark 1:9-15

We’ve all seen cartoons of an angry, bearded man holding the sign “Repent!” If the sign is large enough, it’ll show the entire verse using King James language: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” The message seems to be that you’d better get ready for the judgment of an angry God who will punish you for your sins. The presumed solution is to join the church, believe the right set of religious ideas,[1] or pour your liquor cabinet contents down the drain.  This fits with what most people think about the season of Lent – that it’s a time for penitence: for remembering that we’re miserable sinners in the eyes of our harshly judging God. For centuries, Lent focused primarily on self-deprivation and generally feeling unworthy, feeling bad about ourselves. And for centuries, it kept people focused on their fear of what was going to happen to them after they died. Focusing on the afterlife meant few people rocked the boat in the name of Jesus, which, by the way, was convenient for those in power.

But this doesn’t fit with the God we meet in Jesus, whose very first message in the gospels, usually translated “repent,” is the Greek word metanoia, which literally means to change your mind or your heart. Change, because the kingdom of God is at hand. Other translations say, “Ultimate reality is at hand!”[2] or “God’s benevolent society is already among us.”[3] The thing is, changing in order to live in this ultimate reality or in God’s benevolent society wouldn’t be convenient for those in power at all, because living as though God is the ruler of our hearts and lives means living as though the leaders of this world are not. Jesus’ first words have to be read in relation to what was going on at Jesus’ time: the kingdom of Caesar and the empire of Rome. Read more →