Sunday, October 13, 2013

Let Love Be Our Name

A Meditation on the Vine and Branches:
John 15:1-17


Right here, in this vineyard.  So many branches, so many shoots, so many blossoms off this one generous vine.  See what Jesus can do with a metaphor, with words chosen just so.  With a metaphor, just a metaphor, Jesus imagines the church as something more than fixed monument: as something more fragile and frail and even organic, as something worth cultivating and tending, trimming and pruning.  With a metaphor, with a poet’s love of language, Jesus speaks to the human heart and our hunger for community and grace.  So many branches, so many shoots, so many blossoms off this one generous vine.  He imagines all this and insists on our willingness to see things we’ve not yet seen.  To make connections we’ve not yet made.

Pay attention, he says.  To the dark soil and the strong roots.  Pay attention.  To the cycle of winter rains and summer sun.  Watch carefully for the branches that need pruning and the fruit that needs harvesting.  The church is a vine and branches and fruit and seasons.  See what God sees.  Trust that God provides.  For you’re not in this alone, Jesus says.  “I’ve said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”  This vineyard of ours is a community, and our joy is our communion in Jesus himself.

And there are so many branches off this one generous vine.  Some clinging—as branches sometimes do—to the old reliable trellis, playing it safe in the vineyard, keeping it real.  And others wandering off, seeking new light, bearing sweet, strange fruit.  So many branches in this vineyard, so many shoots in this garden, so many vocations in our one beloved community.  Jesus imagines us in just this way; he imagines the church as fragile and frail, as evolving and emerging.  And he invites our attention to this, our awareness of it, and, yes, our gratitude.  For all of this.  For our vulnerability and our creativity.  For the holy connections among us and the tender care they require.  “I am the vine,” he says, even playfully, “and you are the branches.”  I am the vine, and you are the branches.  See things you’ve not yet seen.  Make connections you’ve not yet made.  You’re not in this alone.  Not in this vineyard.

Right now I’m thinking of our passing of the peace here in worship.  I’m thinking of those few minutes, every Sunday, those few minutes when you and I wander this particular vineyard, on this particular hillside, moving up and down these strange and fertile rows, sharing the deep and suddenly human peace of Christ.  Now I don’t know what you experience during our sharing of this peace; but what I experience—almost every week—is wonder and reverence and profound gratitude.

I marvel as Maribel Gallardo slips through a crowd to embrace Nick Piediscalzi: the way they shine in one another’s arms, sharing the strangely human peace of Christ.  I watch committed choristers navigating the scrum to greet amped-up jazz musicians: exchanging every Sunday the strangely human peace of Christ.  And then, suddenly, I’m tackled from behind by my own eleven-year-old daughter, who squeezes me hard (with the peace of Christ) before seeking out her godmothers Dinah Phillips and Gail Groves in the choir.  So many branches off this one generous vine, so many paths to communion and community.  But it’s clear to me—most of the time, at least—it’s clear to me that our many branches draw life from one generous vine, from one daring God, from one ingenious and Holy Spirit.  This passing of the peace: it’s not just a happy-to-see-you, how-the-heck-are-you moment for me.  It’s the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.  It’s the reconciling spirit doing what the reconciling spirit always does.  It’s the vine and the branches every time.  Hardly indestructible.  Always vulnerable and even fragile.  But the vine and the branches every time.

And, like all good metaphors, this one resists even the limitations of language and faith.  It turns out that God’s vineyard stretches well beyond our personal boundaries, and well beyond the bonds of this community, the walls of this place.  I’m thinking of the stories Ken Thomas and Elizabeth Schilling are telling us of their trip to Mexico—new insight into the lives of the poor and frightened in Cuernavaca, new compassion for the immigrant’s journey here in America.  The vine jumps the fence, and we do too.  And I’m thinking of the prayers Beverly Brook and Kathy Fahl are sharing with us every week—prayers for teenagers in our county’s Juvenile Hall, teenagers Beverly and Kathy and their team are coming to know and love and serve week after week.  The vine jumps the fence, and we do too.  See how Jesus’ metaphor resists the limitations of language and faith.  So many branches, so many shoots, so many blossoms off this one generous vine.  Like an inspired poet, Jesus insists that we see things we’ve not yet seen.  Make connections we’ve not yet made.  And all of these things, all of these shoots, all of these lives—joined in the same holy and life-giving vine.  One vine, many branches.

I don’t know about you—but it’s one of the metaphors that makes it possible for me to be a Christian.  And to hang in there as a Christian every day.


There are seasons—in the life of any vineyard—when the vines are tested: when summer’s heat is hotter than expected or winter winds are fiercer than usual.  It’s then, Jesus says, exactly then, that we have to turn to the core commandment, the one direction that truly matters. And for all the elasticity of his metaphor this morning, the commandment is simple and unambiguous.  “You are my friends,” Jesus says to the church, to us this morning, “if you do what I command you...[And] this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  You are my friends, the vine says to the branches, if you love one another as I have loved you.

At last Sunday’s forum—looking ahead to our name-change vote in November—Speed Leas asked us to pause early on, and to consider our ways of listening and speaking and deliberating.  Speed offered us three suggestions, and they’ve stuck with me in the seven days since.  First, he said, let us listen with attention.  Let us listen with attention to what others have to say.  Second, he said, let us speak with intention.  Let us choose words that thoughtfully represent our ideas and our commitments.  And it was his third suggestion that seemed to me most timely, even most prophetic of all.  In all that we say and do, Speed said, let us care for the well-being, for the vitality of the church.

That instruction—Speed’s instruction—seems something like Jesus’ directive in this morning’s lesson.  It’s a word of encouragement to a community on the edge: a reminder to us to pay attention, to tend to the vine, to watch for its health, its vitality and its future.  There’s really nothing unusual about the edge we’re on.  Since the very beginning—since Jesus washed his friends’ feet in the upper room, since he went out to Gethsemane then to pray—his church has lived dangerously and leaned bravely into an unknown future.  We’re always on some kind of an edge.  It’s where the church of Jesus Christ lives.

And on that edge, we turn again and again to this teaching, to Jesus’ core commandment, to the profoundly simple and simply humbling direction in John 15: “Love one another as I have loved you,” he says.  “No one has greater love,” he says, “than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  “This is my commandment,” he says, “that you love one another as I have loved you.”  When the ground is shifting beneath us, when the winds of change are unwelcome and unfriendly, when the edge seems scarier than before—Jesus keeps it simple.  Listen with attention.  Speak with intention.  And care for the well-being of the church.  “Love one another,” says the vine to the branches, “as I have loved you.”

I’ve done a good bit of thinking myself since last Sunday’s forum.  A good bit of thinking about my role in this fall’s process, and about my passion for PEACE UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST, and about Speed’s instructions last week.  Have I been listening, carefully, attentively, to those whose ideas and views differ from my own?  Have I been speaking with intention, in ways that reflect my respect for all of you and for the great history of this congregation?  This morning, I want you to know that I have tried, that I am trying.  But I recognize, I really do recognize that passion sometimes overrides mindfulness, that excitement sometimes muddies attentiveness.  If I have not listened well—to you, to your deeply held conviction—I apologize for that.  I really do.  And I promise this morning to do better, to listen more carefully and more patiently in the weeks ahead.

I’m reminded again of the lovely line by the English poet William Blake.  “In the universe,” Blake wrote, centuries ago, “there are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and in between, there are doors.”  Things that are known.  Things that are unknown.  And in between, doors.  Does it strike you—as it surely strikes me—that we’re passing through some kind of door, together, this month.  Whatever happens in our congregational meeting.  However we vote on the proposed name change.  We’re going through that door together—from a world that we know into a world that we don’t.  We’re stepping across a threshold that is wholly unprecedented and more than a little scary, and it will change us either way.  We’ll wake up—on Monday, November 4th—to a new set of possibilities and disappointments, no matter how we vote on Sunday the third.  We will not be the church we once were.  Whether we wake up as “Peace United Church of Christ” or “First Congregational Church”: we will not be the church we once were.  We’ll have new work to do, new visions to entertain, new conversations to begin in earnest.

So how we pass through that door matters—immensely.  How we cross that threshold matters—profoundly.  How we speak and how we listen and how we care for the well-being of the church: these things will chart a course for our future, for the ministry and mission of our progressive community.  Speak with intention.  Listen with attention.  And let us care for the well-being of our church.  These are my commitments.  And I know they’re yours as well.  By whatever name we’re known.


Quite by accident, I stumbled upon Wendell Berry and Bill Moyers last Sunday evening, in conversation together, on Moyer’s PBS show.  I’ve linked the video to my blog, if you’re interested.  The two of them on a church chancel somewhere in Kentucky, talking about farming and good soil, talking about poetry and what words mean, talking about hope and where it comes from.  It’s one of the best hours of TV I remember seeing, in a long, long time.
Wendell Berry: Poet and Prophet from on Vimeo.
A good bit of their conversation revolves around the dangers we face in human community:  How will young people find community in a world where communities are eaten alive by huge corporations and government allies?  How will our rivers and farmland survive the carelessness of 21st century lifestyles?  How will the rest of us resist despair and build lives on something more lasting, something more resilient and true?  Wendell Berry tells Bill Moyers that he’s hopeful: that he sees real people in real places do real things to make a difference.  One neighborhood at a time.  One small town at a time.  One watershed at a time.

And then Bill Moyers pulls out one of Berry’s own books, and he asks Wendell Berry to read one of Berry’s best-loved poems: “The Peace of Wild Things.”  There are tears in the old man’s eyes.  Watching it again, reading it even now, I can almost feel him returning to a holy place, a beloved community, a pond he truly loves.


You’ll want to go home this afternoon, believe me, and you’ll want to watch Wendell Berry reading his own poem.  I get choked up now just thinking about it.  His eyes, his voice, his hope.

You know, there’s an integrity in the poet’s reading—and a hopefulness in it—that’s born of his love and only his love.  How this old man loves his farm and the neighbors who live on all sides.  How he loves the soil there and the particular trees there and the holy cycles of planting and harvesting that bring food and life to his family and friends.  Integrity is born of such love.  How he loves his wife and his children and his grandchildren all of whom live, by the way, right there with him on that same land.  How he loves the still waters of his native Kentucky, and the wood drake on the pond nearby, and the great heron feeding there.  This is the love that goes the extra mile.  This is the love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  This is the love that nurtures the vine and the branches, the plains and the hillsides, the blessed and glorious vineyard of God.

And it is in loving like this, Jesus says, only in loving like this, that we come into the peace of wild things and the grace of God.    When despair in the world grows in us.  When anxiety for our children’s future angers us.  When worry for the future of our church overwhelms us.  It is in loving like this, Jesus says, that we minister to world’s most pressing needs.  It is in loving like this that we honor the vineyard and cherish the gift and pass it along to our kids.

So my friends, let’s be clear and let’s be true.  Integrity begins in love.  Peace matures in love.  So however we vote, whatever we decide in November, let this love be our song.  Let this love be our faith.  Let this love be our name.