There was a rumor of spring this week. I’ll admit I’m a little reluctant to believe it’s
really here–I haven’t put away my boots and heavy gloves. My parka is still hanging on the hook near the back door.
But there have been days–like today and yesterday–where you can almost hear the flower beds and gardens calling out to be raked and turned over, when the pruning shears practically leap into your hands to get to work. So the piles of rakings and the dead branches mount up, and our eyes search for green shoots and new blossoms.
“I am the True Vine,” Jesus said, “and my Father is the Gardener, the Vine Grower. God removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit God prunes to make it bear more fruit.” This is a springtime image, though for Jesus, it was the springtime of his crucifixion. Mere “pruning” was hardly what lay ahead for him–it seemed more like cutting down, destroying. But we do know that with his death–his “pruning”–new life did indeed spring forth, from a place we never expected to see it, and his once-terrified and hidden disciples became the fruit revealed on that vine, able to go out and bloom in a way no one would have expected of that rag tag group of followers.
“You have already been cleansed–or to keep the gardening image–you have already been pruned by the word I have spoken to you,” Jesus told his disciples. “The same Greek root refers to pruning and cleansing,” a note in my Bible tells me. So we prune our trees and shrubs, we clean our houses, some people undertake a “spring cleanse,” drinking only liquids to “cleanse” their bodies of accumulated toxins. My friend Maria Sirois is teaching a course at Kripalu this spring called “Clearing the Clutter: Making Space for Positive Change. “Clutter is more than what crowds your physical environment,” the course description says. “It can be found in stress-based thoughts, confusing feelings, and unclear visions that weigh us down. What you choose to remove from your life is as important–if not more important–than what you choose to bring into it.”
Surely making space for positive change is what our Next Level process is about. Part of that process will involve getting clear on our vision, sorting out our feelings and thoughts about what our future as a church community will look like. What do we need to let go of? Because we cannot simply ask our new pastor to continue doing everything I’m currently doing plus all the other things we want him or her to do to reach those we are not reaching. “What you choose to remove from your life is as important–if not more important–than what you choose to bring into it.”
But in addition to the pruning and cleansing, the removing and the cutting away–what we might think of as the “negative” aspect of this image of the vine–there is the life and the nourishment and the thriving that is involved. “Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus said. “Make your home in me” is another way of putting it. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” he said. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
Bruce Epperly calls this “spiritual horticulture” [Adventurous Lectionary, 5/3/15] – practices like intentionally staying open to divine energy, cutting out what is non-essential or harmful, seeing the intimate connection with other branches; “clearing the clutter and making space for positive change,” as Maria puts it. So, in addition to clarifying our vision, discerning what needs to be let go of so we can take on new initiatives and a new way of being, we must also intentionally stay open to divine energy. Another way of putting that is, we’ve got to pray about this process. What is it that God intends for us as we move into the future? You may or may not be involved in the meetings and plans and financial calculations, but at the very least I beg you to pray about this. Listen for the leadings of God’s Spirit. Bring that wisdom to our life together.
This organic image of the vine and branches is one of complete interchange and flow of energy. We are nourished by God’s love and power and in turn we bear divine fruit. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you,” Jesus said, “ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” That may be a little misleading for those of us used to instant gratification, with little patience for slower, organic unfolding. Mark Davis offers this translation instead– “Whatever you may resolve, require and it will come into being for you.” [Left Behind and Loving It, 4/28/15] This is more than a wish or a hope. This is a thoughtful, considered resolution of what is required. If we are abiding in–making our home in–God and from there resolve something, it will come into being for us, Jesus promises. “Both God and we are agents,” David observes, “in a joyous circularity.”
Communion is another word for this relationship. “This is my body, this is my blood. Take and eat. Take and drink.” In some mysterious, mystical, yet very real way, in the sacrament of communion we take Jesus into our bodies and we become his body, one with all the others who are part of that body, as well as, I believe, the whole world, for whom his body was broken and given. “You can’t be a Christian by yourself,” Sara Miles concluded from taking communion, first in a church and then in food pantries all over the city of San Francisco.
In her book, Take This Bread, she describes her first communion–
One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans–except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything.
Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food–indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized that what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people. And so I did. I took communion, I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going, compelled to find new ways to share what I’d experienced. [p. xi]
Miles, both a professional chef and a war correspondent, shared that astonishing hunger and her desire to feed people by setting up a weekly food pantry around the altar of the Episcopal church she became part of, and when that began to outgrow their space and volunteers, she helped to set up several more pantries and meals out of churches in San Francisco. For her, it was simply an extension of the sacrament of communion.
The hunger was, at root, the same. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote, “It’s really the hungry who can smell fresh bread a mile away. For those who know their need, God is immediate–not an idea, not a theory, but life, food, air for the stifled spirit and the beaten, despised, exploited body.” [cited by Miles, op cit., p. 75] Do you know any hungry people? Any stifled spirits or beaten, despised, exploited bodies? Are you one of them? This is the food we have to offer here, and there are so many we’re not reaching–not with our doctrines or theology or our “beliefs,” but with the experience of being part of a sacred body and being fed the very bread of life. How can we not move ahead in faith–to go out into our community and bring this food to the hungry, this drink to the thirsty?
“I am the vine and you are the branches,” Jesus said. “Make your home in me.” How does Jesus “abide” in bread and wine? How is he “really present” in this meal? Countless ecclesiastical arguments and even wars have been fought over this, but I invite you to observe your own experience, as we serve one another in this meal, as we move forward to the bread and cup, or as we pass them along the pew.
Do not shrink from the person beside you, the shoulder ahead of you in procession…[the priest at Sara Miles’ church said in a sermon]…Feel Christ’s body there; feel the shoulders of humanity…God has made these people into Christ’s body for you to caress, to anoint, to comfort, to give and receive and share affections. These people and the human race outside our church doors.” [Miles, op cit., p. 113]
“We are leaves of one branch,” wrote a French man back in the 19th c. [Jean Baptiste Lacordaire], [we are] drops of one sea, the flowers of one garden.” We are members of one body, one loaf, one cup, we are reminded in this meal. Let us keep the feast!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark