Fruit Crisp – Sun April 29, 2018
I love apple crisp. It’s one of the few desserts I make occasionally, in part because left-overs work well for breakfast… fruit, oatmeal, ice cream… a great way to start the day! I regularly have sad old apples in my fridge ready to go whenever the mood strikes. But one day a while back, I had a few sad old peaches languishing in my fridge. I wondered if it was just time to toss them when inspiration struck. Peaches would probably work in “apple” crisp. There weren’t enough for a whole recipe, but I could add some apples. I wondered about the blueberries joining in the fun. I hadn’t branched out before but I decided to give it a try. And several sad old fruit came together to make a most delicious crisp… the most delicious I’d ever made. I learned… where one kind of fruit might be good, several different fruit can combine to be even better!
We hear about fruit in our Gospel passage today. It comes from the middle of Jesus’ long farewell speech in the Gospel of John when he speaks about “abiding”… “abide in me as I abide in you”… “abide in my love.” Jesus approaches this theme using an extended, guiding metaphor beginning with the saying: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower.” To understand the profound importance of this saying, we need to go back to when God first spoke the Divine name.
When Moses asked the name of the God of Israel, who was calling him to service from a burning bush, God responded: “I am who I am”… or “I will be who I will be”… whether it’s meant to be translated as past, present or future is rather unclear. And so it seems a bit like a non-answer and yet the name stuck. “I am…” Yahweh… is who you are speaking with. It is a confusing, almost nonsensical name… unpronounceable in Hebrew, and so instead the Hebrew and now Jewish people say “Lord,” while Christians have Anglicized the Hebrew name as “Yahweh.” It is a conjugation of the verb “to be” and so this name of God has something to do with the very fact of existence. All we really know is that God has something to do with being itself. I am who I am.
One of the unique features of the Gospel of John is a series of sayings known as the “I AM sayings.” There are pure or absolute instances of “I AM” when Jesus responds with it almost as a play on words. Like when the disciples are afraid in a boat on stormy seas and Jesus walks on the water towards them, Jesus says: “I AM; do not be afraid.” In other words… God is here, do not be afraid. And in John’s passion narrative, when the chief priests and others identify “Jesus of Nazareth” as the one they are looking for, Jesus replies: “I AM”… and they step back and fall to the ground. They are looking to arrest Jesus of Nazareth, but instead they find “I AM”, the God of Israel.
The I AM sayings that are most familiar are those that are descriptive and metaphorical in a way that is a little less slippery than the absolute I AM: I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the good shepherd. I am the gate for the sheep. I am the resurrection and the life. I am the way, the truth and the life. And from the passage we just heard: I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. I am the vine, you are the branches.
With this guiding metaphor of a vine, Jesus’ self-identification is grounded in the context of his relationship with God as the vine grower, and with the community of followers as the branches. It’s not so different from how we identify ourselves by our relationships: I am the daughter of Paul and Beverley. I am the sister of Teresa. I am a priest and pastor in a community. I am friend and mentor. I am a student and a teacher. I am in relationship with all kinds of people who have formed and shaped me, who make me who I am. I can’t be at all without all to whom I am connected. Jesus also identifies himself as fundamentally in relationship… I am a vine, dependent on a vine grower for care, and on the sun and rain and soil for nutrients. I am also dependent on branches, so that I can bear fruit.
By identifying himself through relationship, Jesus also reveals something about us and our part in the inter-relationship of God, Jesus and the community of faith. As branches we must stay attached to the vine or we will wither away and die. We depend on the vine for nourishment and on the vine grower for care. We are also not alone as single, solitary branches, but rather we are tangled together with many branches, interlocking perhaps to the point where it can be hard to tell where one branch ends and another begins. There are no free-standing branches, no individual autonomy, no status or rank among the branches. This metaphor of vine and branches is a communal metaphor where ideas of personality, uniqueness, even self-expression are all subjugated to a corporate accountability to the abiding presence of Jesus and a common embodiment of love.
Identifying ourselves primarily as part of a community is a challenge to our Western sensibilities of individual rights, choice, and the celebration of individual gifts. The modern description of identity: “I think, therefore I am” is not, however, the only way. Years ago I came across a different description of identity: “I am because we are, we are therefore I am.” Coined by Kenyon scholar John Mbiti, it is a phrase that expresses the foundation of who we are as grounded in the communal. Each of us individually is a collection of our varying relationships and that outside all our relationships, we are no longer. Branches can’t live by themselves… we need the love of others and we need to love others. I am because we are; we are, therefore, I am.
The point of the metaphor, the goal – the desired outcome – of this inter-relationship of vine grower, vine and branches, is the fruit. And it takes all three elements for fruit to grow and flourish. The vine grower will not produce any fruit without a vine and branches. Branches would have nowhere to grow without the vine and neither the vine nor the branches would survive without the care and love of the vine grower. All three elements in the relationship are key for growing fruit. In other words, we are in this together… together with God through Jesus, and together with each other, for a purpose greater than any one of us… fruit. Jesus said: “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
Our participation in worship week by week is one of the most important ways we become disciples and it is one of the key ways we first bear fruit. “Liturgy” comes from the Greek “leitourgia,” which literally means: “the work of the people.” At times in our history, the strongly communal aspect of the liturgy got lost in an over-emphasis on ordained ministry. The worship became the work of the priest, with the people as primarily passive observers. One of the gifts of the liturgical renewal in the mid- to late-20th century was a recovery of the ministry, the vocation, the “work,” of “the people” in all aspects of Christian life, beginning with the liturgy. This renewal was expressed in a letter I was given this week, dated January 20, 1999, from The Very Rev. Ted Clarke on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of St. Andrew’s. He wrote in part: “The other thing that you taught me, and which I have never forgotten, is that the ministry of the parish was not just mine, but it was a shared ministry. That was a new concept for me and one that I had to come to terms with since I was accustomed to the theological practice that the ministry belonged solely to the clergy. You were so good at taking your ministry seriously…”
Among the first of our fruits is the role we play, our “work,” as part of the liturgy. It begins with the critical, behind-the-scenes ministry of the altar guild. This is the group of committed people who set-up the altar, clean and care for the sacred objects and linens we use in our worship, and make our physical space beautiful, particularly with flowers at the altar. This week altar guild members described the peaceful and quiet satisfaction they experience in their sacred work. The altar guild is one of the ministries that is currently in need of new people to take their turn in this part of our communal “work.” Other liturgical tasks include serving at the altar, reading bible passages, administering communion, leading prayers, leading music, greeting and offering hospitality in the form of coffee, tea and snacks. Each task involves different gifts, offers different challenges, and is suited to different personalities and seasons of our life. But we all have a role to play. We are all called to bear different fruits, for like my crisp… one kind of fruit is great, but many different fruits melding together is even better. What fruit are you called to bear?
A few verses beyond where we finished reading, Jesus identifies the primary fruit, the high purpose, to which we are called: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Joy… that is the first fruit of our call to be disciples. The point of relating to one another, and to God through Jesus… the fruit of our relationships, is joy. Working together by taking a turn on the altar guild, or as a reader, or administrant, or any of the other opportunities for service in Christ’s body, the church, is not a burden but a joy.
May we know the joy of service to God among our fellow worshippers and deepen our relationships as vine and branches and vine-grower. And may the fruit that we bear join together in one delicious dish, with which we can feed the world.