by Rev. Joan Kessler
I am the vine, you are the branches. I suppose I have been waiting for some 15 months now for this passage from John’s gospel to show up in our time together. Here I am living and working in the midst of Canada’s finest orchards and vineyards and market gardens… I have no expert advice to give you on the art of pruning… probably many of you would be better suited to deliver today’s reflection. I have enjoyed talking to Yvonne this spring about her work in the orchard doing just these things, pruning branches, thinning blossoms… all very labor intensive to help encourage growth and crop production. Over the course of my home-owning lifetime, I have never had a tree or a shrub that required pruning. I do recall however a manse in a previous pastoral charge that had a stand of raspberry bushes… pruning raspberry canes is prickly work but the effort is so worth it to see the dead branches removed so that new growth and fruit can come forth… because this is what the plant is designed to do and how it is to grow.
Jesus shares his best horticultural advice and practices with his closest friends, to remind them of what they mean to him, the spiritual journey they have shared and their love for one another. This is one of the I Am statements that are part of his farewell discourse… Jesus, we could say, comes off pretty heavy-handed in his word choice. We likely are hearing his words as do this or else! And this is a difficult image to embrace….being cut away, thrown into piles and set aflame… but I encourage us to look past John’s writing and word choice to what is at the heart of the passage and that is Love and Connection to one another and to the source of life, however you name and describe it in this moment… Reality, Nature, The First Cause, The Other, The Ground of Being, the Force of Evolution, the Life Spirit or Things as They Really Are. Each of us has an image of the supreme mystery that feeds us, and we are always in relationship with.
The other week when I was on study leave, taking a course on transitional ministry, our facilitator, an Episcopal priest, shared the Rule of St. Benedict as grounding words for his life. It is a collection of precepts written in 516 by Benedict of Nursia as a guide to monastic living. Some 15 centuries later, his words are still resonating with a wide birth of Christian experience, from the religious to the spiritual seeker. This week, reflecting on the vine and branches imagery, I was drawn to Benedict’s Rule of Right Relationship. Benedict encourages a turning of our thoughts and feelings towards becoming vehicles of loving kindness. It is through right relationship with one another that we form our image of the divine, our relationship to Jesus….to love God with all our hearts, with all our minds, with all our strength and to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. For Benedict, if we follow the spirit of these charges we will not need any others. He encourages us …
To relieve the unhappy,
To visit the sick,
To clothe the destitute
To shelter the oppressed,
Not to take ourselves too seriously,
Not to want more than we need,
Not to love possessions,
Not to carry resentment,
To support the troubled,
To encourage good humor,
To forgive our enemies,
To show mercy to the weak,
Not to want praise
Not to be proud,
Not be slothful
Not to offer unwanted advice,
To pray frequently,
To speak the truth to ourselves and others,
And to prefer nothing to the habit of affinity.
These are the tools, according to St. Benedict… the workshop in which these tools are employed is the community of relationships.
This list for living in right relationship is pruning, it’s tending, it looks like fruit-bearing. And for the past fourteen months, we have been figuring out how to stay connected with the presence of COVID…it has not always been easy nor a perfect science, but we have adapted to being out of the building and creating community in new ways.
I was interested to read Diana Butler Bass’ weekly email entitled Religion After the Pandemic. As a theologian, the question she is frequently being asked is what will happen with churches after the pandemic, to which she replies, I don’t know. I don’t know. What a relief! When it seems like we are preoccupied with the lasting effects of COVID and how we will go forward, it’s okay to say we don’t know… If there is one thing I have learned from the COVID experience it is that the Church is far more nimble, flexible and adaptable then perhaps we were willing to give it credit for. Because if we truly are in the business of bearing fruit, we are going to be just fine. This knowledge is enough for me right now. There is much conversation going on about the future of Church and how COVID has inevitably changed it… I think some things about our life together have certainly changed. Our worship services for example are experienced quite differently because we are on Zoom and the order of service has had to make adjustments. We could say we had to do some pruning to make this new format work and be fruitful. What will the service look and feel like when we are back together in the sanctuary… I don’t know. We will wait to answer that question. We can wait to consider these things because we don’t know what the future holds. But we do know we have this body called Community, in which we invest ourselves, our time, our talents, our passions… we bring the best of ourselves to this work. We lift up the value of community and our interconnectedness to one another, the example of Jesus and the divine mystery that undergirds all that we do and say, believe and question. We acknowledge, we celebrate the varied opinions and divergent thinking and beliefs that come to form this community…we don’t all have to agree... and we remember those who are not with us on screen today…those who are awaiting an in-person, face to face reunion with us in this space… those to whom we are still connected to and depend upon and they depend upon us. But if I am reminded of anything from Jesus’ message about the importance of staying connected it is that we cannot take it for granted nor can we reduce it to some statement of sentimentality. Connection is about intentionality as Benedict reminds us, acts of loving kindness nurture our mutual dependence.
I was also grateful for the poem The Way It Is by William Stafford that showed up more than once for me this past week. He reminds me that we are connected one to another like a thread… it’s always there regardless of life’s circumstances… it doesn’t matter where you go or what you believe or how you wear your mask or opinion about COVID and getting the vaccine, the connection is there… while you hold it you can’t get lost. Tragedy may befall us, life circumstances change, we get older, all of us, moment by moment, but we don’t let go of the thread. I am the Vine, you are the Branches…I’ll abide in you and you abide in me. Jesus says this as an invitation... let us stay connected to the Source of Life and Love and to one another. May Love grow here… may it be so. Amen.