Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Easter, Sunday, May 02 2021, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8
This something some of you will know, but it’s important to point out that, if you look at a vine plant that’s been established for a few years, you’re not actually going to be able to find one clear central vine, or just one place where the plant is rooted. We are often taught to imagine Jesus’ metaphor of the vine as something like a tree, with Jesus as a rooted central trunk, and all of us as branches coming from that trunk. And there’s a lot you can do with tree imagery—we have a lovely hymn at the offertory which works with it. But a vine is not like that. There is no trunk. You can’t even separate one distinct branch from another. It’s a tightly interlocked structure that stretches out in all directions; it puts down roots wherever it’s in contact with the ground and establishes new centres from there; it wraps around itself into an intricate, tough, interdependent and nearly indestructible matrix. There are older, harder, dryer branches, and new green pliable ones, but they’re all tangled up together, and there is no single point of origin which can be identified, separated from the whole of the thing.
And I think this is connects very closely to what the Gospel writer, and the writer of the Epistle, want to say about human life. We are this twisted and bonded matrix, all of us together. We are impossibly and intimately involved in a network of relationship, all twisted together with those who love us and those who hate us, and we never exist alone, never breath for a moment apart from that tangle of humanity. We are born connected by a cord of flesh to another person, and for the first few moments of our lives we share a single bloodstream; and it is never, really, different from that. We are always tied. The intimacy of God, what the writer of the epistle calls “abiding in” God, exists for us only in the way we share our lives with other people.
The longer I live and the more I read it, the more important this epistle becomes for me. It is profoundly, powerfully true. It may be easy enough to love an idea of God. But what we have now, what we are given as our way to love and to live within the truth of God, are the hard intractable facts of the world, and most of all the intractable facts of other people. We love God only in loving these realities into which we are thrown, these human realities who are our brothers and sisters, needy, distinct, difficult, particular. The sometimes terrible truth of our lives is that we are all part of one another—that we all, as the pandemic has made so vividly clear, share our very breath with everyone around us, and what we think of as a personal matter only can cost the lives of others at a distance. And we are all part of God; the hurt borne by anyone, borne within God’s body.
It may be a sudden and strange encounter, like the Galilean fisherman Philip suddenly face to face with the never-named Ethiopian eunuch, someone probably more wealthy and educated than Philip, and yet a slave, a body controlled and redefined by others, given an unchosen and marginal gender and social position, unclean, a foreign Gentile who reads the Jewish scriptures, longing for a community within which to interpret the words—then a sudden, life-changing action, abruptly over. Or it may be the gradual intertwining of years and decades. We are so deeply within God that we cannot see God; we can only see those lives around us, rooting us, tangling us in.
And this is where we get to another aspect of the meaning of the vine. The vine metaphor is very common throughout the Hebrew scriptures, and it’s almost always associated with the idea of judgement, with the unfruitful branches being cut away. But it seems like, somewhere in the telling or the editing of this passage, somebody—Jesus, John, an editor, who knows — paused for a minute and said, “But hang on. That’s not how you actually grow grapes.” When you’re a grape-grower, when you actually have the living twisted whole of that vine in your care, you spend a great deal of energy, at certain times of the year, not only cutting off branches that don’t bear fruit, but cutting back very hard at perfectly good and viable branches. Because that is what you need to do in order for a vine to thrive; you need to prune hard. Sometimes you prune almost right down to the ground, and you are cutting away lots of living vines while you do it, perfectly good vines really. And grape growers will tell you that the vines weep when they’re cut; that’s how they talk about it—the vines weeping as the pruning goes on.
The vine which Jesus sets before us is not a simple dualistic image of the bad people, or the people who aren’t performing to standard, or whatever, being cut off and thrown into some kind of punishing fire or cosmic garbage dump. It’s about a process that happens to us, within all of us, in our lives together, a pruning that must be happen over and over, a process which is the simple reality of living, of being subject to pain and fear and love, of being a breakable body in a broken world, surrounded by other breakable bodies. The facts of this world cut us and prune us, day after day, and we too must weep sometimes at the loss.
We must weep sometimes like the vines weep, because lives in this world fall short of what we wish they could be. Because the hospitals are collapsing under the flood of desperately ill essential workers, black and brown people upon whose life-threatening and underpaid labour the comforts of the privileged depend. Because those we love are so awfully frail, subject to limits and age and illness, and eventually we are all cut down in death. Because it is hard to live in this time, because there is much that we must give up for a time or never have at all, too many things we wish for and will not see. The world can feel sometimes like nothing but one long training in loss and renunciation.
But the complicated life of the vine grows from that pruning. One individual branch that is cut may sprout new growth and new fruit, or it may not. But the vine, the entangled organism, the matrix of our shared lives, somehow this grows back new. There is life in the vine that surges past the cutting. They are tough plants, vines. They seem to need a lot of special handling, but they can be so tough that you can cut them and even burn them right back to the ground, back to the point where the dirt is all you can see, and somehow they turn up again, out of some little bit of root buried somewhere, invisible.
So here in bad time we try to live like this—to live in the knowledge of our interdependence and our limit. To care, as we can, for the neighbour we can see, for that neighbour’s own human particularity and strangeness. To admit that we know very little—that we know nothing, really—that we have no answers in the end, but that we have been given, as I have said here before, the uniquely impossible challenge of being both part of the work of resistance, and the place where violence must stop, even if we have compelling reasons to be angry, even to hate. The challenge of being the ones who must acknowledge both our own intimate grief, and the grief of the world, and still keep building possibility in the ruins. To stand in the place of death and say that death will not prevail, not because we will fight it down but because there is hope in a tree, hope in a vine, because love is stubborn beyond reason. “For if I am confounded by you,” says Judith Butler, “then you are already of me, and I am nowhere without you.”
It is the vine of all our tangled and cut and weeping lives, our helpless involvement with one another and our foolish amazing hopes. It is the vine, finally, of the God who is cut down with each of us, and who we believe brings us with us in an Easter rising, tied to us by love as tough as flesh, as tough as vine.