April 29, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert
“I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken.
4 “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me.
5-8 “I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples. The Message
I chose to include our reading today from John’s Gospel from the translation published in The Message which many of you may know is a contemporary translation of the Bible. When we listen to these words, we may hear them in a new way. Jesus was using the metaphor of God as a farmer, of one who needs to prune away the dead branches and cultivate the opportunity for new life to emerge. As these warmer days of spring arrive, many of our neighbors and friends who are gardeners are out there doing the same thing, trimming the dead wood, clearing away the old vines and branches to allow new life to grow. Jesus says here, Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In another translation, we hear the words, Abide in Me as I Abide in You. The hope is that if we follow the way of spirituality, of allowing ourselves to be open to new life and new pathways, we may continue to grow in new and unexpected ways. Let us pray, O Creator of all living things, help us to celebrate this season of spring by reflecting on our own inner lives, trimming away and letting go of what is no longer helpful to us and opening our hearts and our spirits to the new life emerging. Amen.
This passage from John has been interpreted in various ways, but I would like to suggest some thoughts on how we might consider it today. First of all, Jesus is trying to console his followers, offering the idea that even when he is no longer physically with them, that they can continue the close relationship in mind and spirit. The metaphor for the vines and branches is helpful, because they reflect a connection; vines and branches are not identical but they are deeply connected. One is essential to the other in terms of the plant continuing to grow and bear new fruit. For growth of any new plants, there is work to be done in terms of pruning and fertilizing and watering, but time is also needed, time in the sunshine and the rain, time of rest for the plant to really thrive. And so with us. If we seek to grow in our spiritual lives, we need that balance…of letting go of things that no longer serve our growth, pruning the dead branches if you will, and being patient, finding time to let new paths of growth flourish. We are invited to quiet ourselves and attune our senses to the fullness of God’s presence in our days. We are invited to be still, as the Psalmist says, and be present in the moment. Our culture rarely encourages this, but in our hearts, I think we all know that the present is where we do our living and our growing.
Some scripture writers have written about Jesus’ words here, “Abide in Me and I will abide in you or Living in Me and I in you”. They speak of the connection between Christ and the community of believers as what they call “mutual indwelling,” that there is an intimate relationship that will continue to exist even when Christ was no longer physically present, but what could that mean, what would that look like? It would look like Jesus and the values, the new ways of thinking and being that he shared during his ministry with them. At the same time, it would look like us – that is, it would look like us being our true selves, the people God made us to be. In a word, it would look like love: incarnate, tangible, down-to-earth, intertwining, intersecting, growing love. (Salt Lectionary Commentary)
And, if we take seriously this invitation to ‘live in God,’ the hope is that it would inspire a life of inclusion that Jesus often spoke about and modeled in his travels. It did not mean that only the few would be truly invited to follow the spiritual path. Jesus always reached out to many different people from all social classes, men and women, Samaritans and Jews. Therefore, the invitation to ‘dwell in God’ and consider the life of Jesus should prompt us to consider who are excluded in our time and community, who are the disenfranchised, the ones who are seeking connection and community. How can we reach out to them, build bridges with them, and learn from them? (SALT Project, Lectionary Commentary)
This sense of living in Christ, of mutual indwelling would look like a beautiful, blooming, fruitful garden that needs to be tended and cared for. Jesus often spoke of abundant life, of a way of living that allows for new areas of growth, new shoots, new and beautiful creation. Pruning means cutting away for the sake of new and greater growth, more fruit, more abundance, more life. Jesus’ focus here is to cultivate new life, to allow each and every branch to bear fruit. Of course, we all are the branches who are called to new life throughout our lives. We are invited to trim away the dead branches to allow new life to grow.
In the reading from Thich Nhat Hanh, he presents us with a way of thinking about being present to the moment, of taking the time to allow our spiritual lives to flourish by being present to our lives, now, in this moment. This idea of mindfulness, often supported by the practice of meditation, is one that is found in every religious and spiritual tradition. But it is hard and has always been hard; it is challenging and we actually have to practice it. Some of you may already know well the benefits of meditation, of mindfulness practices, of contemplative prayer. People over the centuries have attempted a process of being still, of quieting oneself and one’s mind so that they could better hear the voice of the Spirit in their lives. We may think that our present day is a very noisy time, that we are busier and more disconnected than ever, but when we read history, we can see the common link that exists to people in earlier days. People have long sought ways to be more present to their lives and to listen to the far off voice of the Transcendent, of God, breaking through the chaos and challenges of everyday life.
In the reading from this Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn, he offers a simple mantra or phrase about how one might begin to sit and be still and to try to quiet the senses to listen to the deepest places within. In the past, I have offered meditation groups in my work in ministry to college students and to some of the seniors I previously served. I recall this one woman, Marie, who was in her 90’s, bright and very vibrant in her life. She had a number of health issues she was dealing with, but she came to the weekly guided meditation group and she came to love it. One week she said to me, “this is better than any medicine I have ever taken. I feel so calm and at peace when I am doing this.” It was such a privilege to sit with her and others in the group and experience together the benefits of this practice.
I have enjoyed reading reflections by a woman named Rachel Stafford who publishes a weekly reflection that speaks about living in these times. Her recent writings prompted the title of this Sermon in fact, because she spoke about taking a vacation with her own children along with her aging parents at a time when her life was very busy. She knew how important it would be to be fully present to the moments they would spend together and to not be constantly distracted by all the worries and thoughts we carry with us from day to day, always changing, always there in our hearts and minds, leading us astray. She began to repeat a simple prayer to herself when she found herself being drawn away from the joy of those days together. She would repeat to herself this prayer,
“Be here now,
Thank you for preparing me to love & be loved.
She found during the days of her vacation with her aging parents and her own family that when her mind wandered to past worries or future concerns, she would bring herself back to the present by repeating this simple prayer, Be Here Now.
John Lennon included these lyrics in his song, Beautiful Boy where he wrote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” How often have any of us missed the present by lamenting the past or worrying about the future? Be here now. Be still and know that I am God. Perhaps as we prune away the dead wood in our own lives from the winter season, we too might embrace this mantra for ourselves, Be Here Now.