Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Bishop's Message

RSS By: Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo

The Rev. Dr. Robert Rimbo shares regular thoughts and reflections about our life together.

Together in hope

Dec 05, 2016
Bishop Rimbo preached this sermon at the an interreligous advent prayer service at St. Martin de Porres Roman Catholic Church, Poughkeepsie on Novemeber 28. The text was John 15:1-5. 
 
 

togetherinhopePOKDear Sisters and Brothers in Christ, I am delighted to be with you for this Common Prayer marking the amazing friendship and communion we enjoy as Lutherans and Catholics on the way together. It is a sign of the ever-growing movement toward the full, visible unity of the church for which our Lord prayed in his High Priestly Prayer.

 

I greet you on behalf of my wife, Lois, who is with us this evening. We have already enjoyed dinner with your ecumenical committee and with Monsignor Sullivan and Bishop Byrne, Fr. McWeeney, Fr. D’Albro, Fr. Bancroft, Fr. George and Pastor Deborah DeWinter from First Evangelical Lutheran Church. I am also glad to see friends from St. John’s Lutheran Church and I greet all of you on behalf of the community of 186 congregations, the pastors and deacons I serve as bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod, and on behalf of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton.

 

Some of you have already heard me tell the story of my grandfather’s funeral. He was a devout Roman Catholic who went to Mass every day. I was sixteen when he died and was very jealous of the altar-boys at his funeral. I was already in a pre-seminary track in high school and wanted to put on a cassock and cotta and be up there with them. Thinking of this reminds me of a Lutheran-Catholic Service when I was bishop in Detroit. Adam Cardinal Maida and I were vesting and he said, "You know, Bob, clothes make the man."

I confess to you that I often snuck off to Roman Catholic Mass, escaping the rather drab services of the Missouri Synod school I was attending. But more than the vestments - and seeing the sanctus bells which Monsignor place close to this ambo - if I were to be an altar-boy I would want to ring those bells. But I tell you this story because above all, I wanted to commune at that altar at my grandpa’s funeral and I continue to pray for that.

 

For me, the amazing events in Lund, Sweden, at the end of October and this wonderful gathering for prayer, are great signs of hope as we Roman Catholics and Lutherans move from Conflict to Communion.

 

See: It is all about relationships.

 

In this reading from St. John’s Gospel, Jesus is very clear about who we are and what is expected of us. We are the branches. God is the vine-grower. Jesus is the vine, the means for us to be in relationship with God forever. It’s very clear what our Lord is talking about. We are to live in relationship in order to accomplish God’s purposes for the world.

 

This amazing celebration of Catholic and Lutheran relationship, reflecting the international celebration in Sweden, and our own work together here in New York reminds us that, as Pope Francis has repeatedly taught us, we are to bear fruit. The vinegrower, the vine, and the branches are intended to be in relationship that we might bear fruit.

 

And that relationship is what we celebrate as this new church year begins and our ever-increasing new walking together and serving together is coming to bear fruit.

 

I have more-often-than-not thought of Jesus’ words here as words of judgment. I think as a Lutheran I’ve been trying to convince myself that I’ve always been part of the "in" crowd. As if Jesus had only us Lutherans in mind when he talked about bearing fruit. We are quite accomplished when it comes to judging. We are quick to determine who is "in" and who is "out." And we seem to get better at it all the time.

 

Some branches produce fruit and are pruned, cared for and nurtured. Some branches do not produce fruit and are removed, thrown away and burned. You’re in or you’re out, except in communities like Poughkeepsie where relationships between our churches are strong. We are a people of productivity. It is, for the most part, the standard by how we live and the measure of our success. It is built into our lives everywhere. Productivity is the basis of our economy, the primary measure of success. Those who produce are rewarded and get more. Those who do not produce are thrown out.

 

But the problem with this is: We are not the point. The fact is, the community for which St. John’s Gospel was written was already thrown away, thrown out by the time they could hear this word from God. That’s why, already in chapter three, Jesus made it clear that he did not come to condemn, but to save. The vine needs the vine-grower for its optimal growth and production, even its abundance. It will make abundance possible for sustenance and life. So Jesus is here giving us, not words of condemnation or judgment

but words of comfort and hope for our troubled hearts and worried souls. And we need that.

 

We are people waiting in darkness during this Advent. So this Gospel Reading points to our profound dependence on God and on one another. This Gospel is the most quoted passage of the Bible in Lutheran confessional writings. The bottom line is Jesus teaching us that "apart from him" we can do nothing. Profound reliance because life is nothing without belonging, without relationship. The Holy Father, Pope Francis, has taught us that repeatedly: bearing fruit depends on dependence. It depends on connection. It depends on belonging. As soon as you think you can produce anything from the basis of your own sovereignty, from your own efforts, from your own sense of independence...well, think about it: what kind of fruit will that be?

 

Bearing fruit has everything to do with whom you are with in relationship. I think this is the greatest gift of our steps toward greater Christian unity. The manifestations of our faith are not individual expressions of our theological commitment and conviction. They are deeply lodged in and arise from the communities of our lives. That is why I rejoice at this opportunity to be with you to mark the ecumenical community here in Poughkeepsie. The bearing of the fruit of our faith is based on dependence.

 

I fear there is a fear of bearing fruit. And that fear has many levels that have prevented our working together more. Because once we bear fruit, we lose control. We chance exposure. Others will be able to see on what or on whom we rely; in what and in whom we locate and lodge our strength. Once that is known, it’s awfully hard to take it back. Impossible, actually. And others are then free to pick and choose the fruit they prefer. Like perusing the options at a farmer’s market or in the produce section in the grocery store.

 

Bearing the fruit of the ecumenical movement is risky business. It will reveal who we are and on whom and what we depend. It will expose our lack of self-sufficiency. It will show others that there is no other way to be but to be dependent. Many will think weakness – I know that other Protestant churches are wondering what the Lutherans are all about – selling out to Rome or something like that. And I suspect that there are more than a few people in the Roman Catholic Church who suspect Pope Francis is becoming too friendly

with us Lutherans because, well, because he is friendly with us. Rumor has it that some accuse the Holy Father of Protestant tendencies. Many will think the ties we have established should be broken. Many will think that being cut off from each other is beneficial.

 

But we know different, my friends. Thank God we know different. Ecumenism is risky business, indeed. But there is no better way to live.

 

 
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