Easter 5A: Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 2:24-30; I John 4:7-21; John 10:11-18
St. John’s Episcopal Church
Sunday, April 29, 2018
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
In my youth ministry days at St. Paul’s in Selma, we hosted a Pumpkin Patch every year. It was our annual youth fundraiser and because it was such an involved process, it required the involvement of the whole parish. The pumpkins were shipped at the beginning of October from an Indian Reservation out west. Upon their arrival, the whole parish gathered to unload the big eighteen-wheeler. We formed an assembly line of people, crates, and cardboard. Teens and young adults would lift the pumpkins down from the truck and they would be pushed down our makeshift assembly line to be placed in the clos by our “decorators”.
By the end of the day, not only was the clos alive with people and pumpkins; it had been transformed into an autumn oasis of pumpkins and hay bales, scarecrows and gourds. Parishioners took turns manning the patch throughout the month of October. Not only did they sell pumpkins, but they also had to care for them—turning them every day and ridding the patch of any that might be rotting. On the last day of October, we would all gather together for an All Hallows Eve service followed by a parish wide party in the patch.
As fun and frantic as the patch was throughout the month of October, it was the first day of November that became my favorite day. In order to participate in the Pumpkin Patch fundraiser, we signed a contract with the organization agreeing not to give away our pumpkins even after Halloween. The leftover pumpkins needed to be disposed of, but giving them away was not an option. We weren’t totally sure what to do with the truckload of leftovers we had, until one of our parishioners came up with a solution. Ed has land out in Minter, AL and grows a few crops and raises cattle. He thought it would be quite a treat for the cows if we took the pumpkins out to the country and broke them open in their pasture. So on All Saints Day, we loaded Ed’s truck and he and I headed out to Minter. When we got to the pasture, I jumped in the bed of the truck and began throwing pumpkins over the side hard enough for them to break on the ground while he slowly drove around the pasture. The cows were pretty used to Ed bringing them treats in his pick up truck, so it wasn’t long before they had surrounded us to enjoy their special treat. If a pumpkin hadn’t busted when I tossed it down, they would stomp on it to break it up and make it easier to eat. Those cows feasted that day and Ed and I had a great time watching those gentle beasts delight in their pumpkin treats.
The next September, Ed called and asked if I had time to go out to Minter with him. Though I’ve been going to Minter my whole life, this seemed a bit of an unusual request. I agreed wondering what was up and we rode out to Greene acres. Ed wouldn’t tell me the reason for the trip, but it became apparent as we pulled into the pasture that we had littered with broken pumpkin the year before. Throughout the pasture, a wild tangled web of green vines, yellow flowers, and green and orange pumpkins in various sizes and stages of ripeness had appeared. Nature had taken its course to plant and fertilize all those pumpkin seeds the cows had eaten and now Ed had his very own pumpkin patch. He had noticed the growth about mid-summer and moved the cows into a different pasture so they wouldn’t trample the delicate leaves and vines. It was a sight to behold. All those pumpkins and the wild tangles of vines in the middle of that pasture gave me a new sense of what it means to behold the Kingdom of God.
Jesus says “those who abide in me and I them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” He goes on to tell us that this is the way God is glorified, “the Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” We might wonder what it means to abide in God, but I think it is pretty simple—we go to church, we get baptized, we take communion, and we are intentional about these things—we act like Christians. The natural and creative order that is the Kingdom of God then draws us deeper into abiding in God and the process of creation can not help but produce fruits worthy of the kingdom.
Ed’s pumpkin patch and the church aren’t all that different. They are fertile ground in which the vine and the branches—God and God’s people—can grow and be nourished by sun and rain, worship and service, so that they might flourish and bear the fruit that glorifies God—be it pumpkins or people. We aren’t the agricultural people—deeply invested in the soil—which we once were. And I think in some ways that is to our detriment. Our understanding of what it means to bear fruit has become twisted and broken. We read this passage and get caught up in the pruning and cleansing language of judgment and pay less attention to the language of fruitfulness and how care and creation contributes to the glorification of God. God is not glorified when we are condemning one another, but when we are nurturing and nourishing one another as disciples to bear much fruit. God is glorified when we are willing to enter into that annual cycle of pumpkins and vines and cows and creation otherwise known as relationships, baptisms, communion, and the church.
God calls us to partner with him to do his work of reconciliation in this world so that we might be brought together in unity with God and with one another. We see that action in our reading in Acts when Phillip baptizes the eunuch. That baptism is not about avoiding judgment or even about condemnation in terms of washing away his sins; instead it invites him into this new thing in order that he might be a part of it. We will bear witness to this again in a few minutes/later this morning when we baptize James Edward Barganier. As a community, we will give our word to James and to God that we will do all in our power to bring him up in a life in Christ. That is no light promise. In making that promise, we bear witness to him and he to us of the fruit of the branches rooted in the vine. In grafting James into the vine this morning, we celebrate Jesus’s abiding in him and he in Jesus, as James becomes part of us.
We’ve been doing that for a long time—joining one with another to form this great cloud of witnesses that James has now become the newest member of. And we will continue to grow and flourish again and again because God is in charge of this thing that we are all a part of. Ed’s pumpkin patch out in the middle of Minter, AL didn’t just grow once, every year it came back to bear witness to the creative energy of God. We, too, bear witness to that creative energy. We might get pruned a little or find it difficult to grow at times, but God is the vinegrower and we need only trust in his unfailing care.
Jesus declares himself to be the vine and us to be the branches. In so doing he defines the frailties, challenges, and joys of our relationship with him. The branches of the vine can easily be separated from the vine, trodden on, and broken. But they can also run across the ground, far and wide, for their very nature is growth. As Jesus followers, we are called to grow, to be the living church, to invite others in, and to bear fruit out in the world that glorifies God in this new thing he is doing.