Sermon; Sixth Sunday of Easter; 9 May 2021; St. David’s Episcopal Church; DeWitt, NY; Dan Handschy
Easter 6B (RCL); Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
I’m intrigued by John’s use of the idea of fruitfulness. It seems the whole purpose of Jesus’ commandment to us to love one another as he has loved us is fruitfulness. If we follow in his way, fruitfulness will be the result. And that’s especially fascinating because John never really spells out what fruitfulness looks like.
I said last week that the vine is a common image for Israel in the Christian Old Testament. And the fruitfulness of the vine ranges from righteousness and justice, to peace and security and prosperity. In Isaiah 5, when God looks for fruit on his vine, he looks for righteousness and justice. Elsewhere in Isaiah, when the prophet imagines the restoration of things to God’s purposes, he imagines every one sitting under their own fig tree, and under their own vine. No one will plant trees and another enjoy the fruit, or plant vines and be displaced from their vineyard. It’s a lovely image.
At the first conference I led in Mpwapwa, Tanzania, Dr. Anne talked to the pastors about planting fruit trees. Planting trees is a way of mitigating the effects of global warming, and planting fruit trees helps address the food insecurity that climate change brings. But what really struck me about her talk was the African concept of ‘utu.’
Utu is an untranslatable Swahili word. It means something like “I am because you are.” I read a perfect illustration of it. This is not likely a true story, but it gives you the idea. A sociologist wanted to do an experiment, so he got together a class of fifth grade boys, and proposed a foot race. At the end of the race course was a basket of fruit, a lot of fruit. The winner of the race would win the basket of fruit.
He lined the boys up, and set them on their marks. To his surprise when he shouted “Go!” the boys all held hands and ran to the finish line together, and sat down and begin to eat the fruit together. When he asked the boys why they didn’t race, they replied, “Why should one of us have more fruit than he can eat while all the rest of us are sad? This way we are all happy.”
Dr. Anne said that not only would planting fruit trees help mitigate climate change, and improve food security; it would also increase utu. No one family can eat all of the fruit a tree produces when it ripens, since it all ripens at once. If they hoarded it to themselves, much of it would rot. Therefore, they would share their fruit with other families. And if other families planted different trees, their fruit would ripen at a different time and they would share their fruit, thereby increasing utu. It’s kind of like zucchini for us. We can’t possibly eat all the zucchini our vines produce, so we make zucchini bread and give it away to everyone who will take it!
Jesus gives us a commandment to love one another as he has loved us. The result of this commandment is to be fruitfulness, so that the Father will give us whatever we ask for. And we are to lay down our lives for one another, just as Jesus laid down his life for us. The only problem here is I don’t think that is good translation. In the New Testament, John is the only writer to use that phrase. Literally, the phrase would translate, “No great love has anyone than this, to place his soul over his friends.” It’s an idiomatic expression used in Greek military poetry. If a soldier wanted to know if he could trust a comrade, he handed his comrade his sword and stretched out his neck. He was said to be placing his soul in the care of his friend. So, I think we should translate this commandment, “No greater love has anyone than this, to entrust one’s life to one’s friends.”
Entrusting our lives to each other leads to fruitfulness, it increases utu. Sharing the fruit from our tree is trusting our lives to others, trusting that they will share the fruit from their tree with us.
In reality, it is the only way we can survive. We just hide that trust behind money. When I go to Wegman’s or Aldi and buy fruit, or meat, or bread, or anything, I am accepting a whole network of relationships of trust. I trust that my money, or more likely, my plastic card, will cover the communal cost of all the farmers, truckers, bakers, grocery store workers, and thousands of others, who have brought this food to the shelves for me to buy. It’s just that fruit trees in Africa make that network of trust more obvious. I’m in just the same situation when a pandemic interrupts supply chains as African villagers are when drought causes their trees to produce less than enough.
As we make our rogation procession today, unlike our medieval ancestors, we won’t be praying for moderate rains and good harvests, because we don’t depend directly on those things. We buy what we need at the stores just down the street, and don’t ever see the harvest that brings them to us (though we do buy sweet corn and good tomatoes at farm stands nearby). So, instead, we will pray that we can strengthen the bonds that tie us together as a civic community.
We will pray that, as the Church, we can take our place in those relationships of trust. We will pray that we can abide in those relationships, and learn that we do in fact, entrust our lives to one another. That is what love looks like. We’ll have a party, eating and drinking in one another’s company, now that the pandemic restrictions are beginning to relax. And we will give thanks for that opportunity, and pray that we, too, can be fruitful, and add our share to the store of utu that makes the world go round. I don’t think Jesus is commanding us to do anything that we don’t do already. He just wants us to open our eyes to see that we are doing it – entrusting our lives to one another, and then extend that trust to more and more people. That’s what he means by fruitfulness. Let’s enjoy that fruit, all the while giving thanks to God for it, and share it with all.