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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Easter 5, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
April 29, 2018

Psalm 22; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

‘All the way back to the source’

Earlier this morning we sang a song called “Jesus the Lord said I am …”. It’s a song based on passages from John’s Gospel where Jesus allows the divine presence, the Word or Wisdom of God, to speak through him, to be embodied in him. God be with you

Curiously, the song has just five verses but there are seven “I am” sayings in John. Can you recall all seven? …

Our Gospel for today is the seventh “I am” saying. Scholars who attended this month’s Bible study at the manse learned that seven “I am” sayings correspond in John to seven “signs” of divine power, and that “I am the true vine”, the seventh saying, corresponds to the first sign, Jesus turning the water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana.

“I am the true vine” points, then, to the joyfulness of life together. Love, life, family, celebration. Nutritious food, refreshing drink. Happiness, hopefulness.

“I am the vine” means so much. We might imagine the intrinsic goodness of plants and trees, the basis for animal and human life. Ancient pine trees, many thousands of years old. Ancient olive trees, as old as the gospel itself, still living and growing in the Holy Land. The sensitivity of vines, dependent on soil, water, light; responsive to human care (pruning, feeding), perhaps even to music; beautiful, fruitful.

Not so different from us. Gardener and SSH columnist Chris reminds us that trees are living beings, in their own ways under stress, searching, adapting to the world around them. “A sound tree produces good fruit,” says Jesus (Matthew 7:17), with reference to moral fibre and ethical action.

“I am the vine” may also call to mind the enigmatic image of the Tree of Life, symbol of both Eden and the New Jerusalem, Jewish and Christian Wisdom (Islamic, Buddhist, Celtic, Chinese, Aboriginal, Pagan) – freshness, cosmic balance/symmetry, healing, reconciliation. Leaves, fruit, seeds – source of eternal or abundant life.

The cross of Jesus, instrument of torture, transfigured by the power of divine love.

All of which suggests the Gospel invites us to responsive and responsible fruitfulness. Becoming competent and more confident in love, willing and able to suffer for the sake of others.

Is what I am doing/offering/creating something truly vine-like? How deeply connected to the “fear and pain” of others are our own desires and habits? “I voted Yes [to marriage equality] because of my Christian beliefs,” a certain Elder at South Sydney Uniting Church said recently.

The Gospel is about love, rooted in discipleship, sustained in relationship.

Earlier this month I encountered the amazing gospel music of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who was born in 1915, and whose evangelistic singing and guitar-playing has inspired countless gospel, blues, jazz and rock musicians. In 2017 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Listening to her renditions of traditional spirituals, I am filled with happiness. Loving music means loving it all the way back to the source.

Before Chuck Berry, before Little Richard, before Elvis Presley, before Aretha Franklin, before Jimi Hendrix, before Bob Dylan … In the context of segregated schools and hotels, stores and diners, trains, parks and graveyards, Sister Rosetta was a gospel superstar, the “Godmother of rock and roll”.

Willing to cross the line between sacred and secular by performing her music of “light” in the “darkness” of nightclubs and dance-halls, Sister Rosetta pushed spiritual music into the mainstream. While she offended some conservative churchgoers with her forays into the pop world, she never left gospel music.

Rebellious, feminist (refusing to bow to the harsh demands of husband or religious patriarchy), resilient, generous – it was Sister Rosetta who gave the Jordanaires their first break; she affectionately called the soon-to-be backing band for Elvis “my little white babies”.

In 1948 Sister Rosetta recorded a song with her long-time friend and lover Marie Knight. “Up above my head/ I hear music in the air … I see trouble in the air … And I really do believe/ Yes, I really do believe/ There’s a heaven somewhere …” Amazing! I really want to share this with you. Music, trouble, believe, heaven.

“All this new stuff they call rock’n’roll,” Rosetta said back in 1957, “why, I’ve been playing that for years now … Ninety per cent of rock’n’roll artists came out of the church, their foundation is the church.”

By way of Sister Rosetta, we are again with Jesus in the Spirit of the first sign – the joyfulness of life together. Love, life, family, celebration … Happiness, hopefulness. Amen.