Monday, May 11, 2009
By the window in our kitchen in Pittsburgh grew an ivy plant in a hanging basket. I had bought the ivy plant a few years earlier just before my wedding when it was a few small branches. It had been part of a concerted effort to bring beauty, to bring life to my dull bachelor apartment since Melinda would soon be moving in once we got married. The ivy had struggled for a few years, never seeming to have the right light—first in a spot on top of the bookcase and then on the back of the toilet—but when we moved to our house we hung it by an east-facing window and it started to thrive. By the time we moved to Richmond, it was a large, sprawling mess of leaves and branches, too large, in fact, for the mantle in our new living room. So on the weekend we were moving in, one of my family members lopped off several of the longer branches and stuck them in a vase of water. Within a few weeks, they had sprouted roots.
When I went to transplant the clippings into a pot of soil a few weeks ago, I discovered that some of the branches had actually been placed upside down into the vase, the clipped part sticking up in the air and the new growth submerged beneath the surface of the water. Roots had sprouted there instead of leaves, nonetheless, or instead of killing the branch altogether, and when I stuck those new roots into the soil, the plant grew just fine! Much to my fair bride’s delight, we now have two ivies, both of them with branches and leaves sticking out randomly in all directions, shoots of new and old growth intertwined together.
Branches, it turns out, naturally seek nourishment and life. It is what they do…English ivy, grapevines, Virginia Creeper, kudzu…take your pick of vine. Though they appear to have life unto themselves—extending outward, sprawling all over the place, shooting upwards, downwards, sideways sometimes deceiving us with their interconnectedness—somewhere, somehow they connect to a source of life. Somewhere each branch is joined to the main vine, and from there the nourishment comes.
In John’s gospel, Jesus explains that’s how it will be with his community of disciples. Reaching for yet another image from Mediterranean agriculture, Jesus describes how organic and yet how interconnected their growth together will be. The various branches of his communion may twist and sprawl all over the place, sometimes deceiving us with their meandering nature, but the source of their life will be none other than the main vine, Jesus. Clip them off, and they won’t be able to make it on their own. As it turns out, these branches wither when they are disconnected from the source.
It is a key point for Jesus to make on this evening before his crucifixion, for Jesus will not always be with them in the way he is now. The community that follows him won’t always be able to travel along with him from village to village, to reach out and tug on his tunic when they need to clarify a point or ask a question. Up until this point and for a little while longer, he has stood and worked and prayed among them in human form, a distinct man who bears a special relationship with God the Father. Both he and the gathering of people who have assembled around him have been easy to pin down and locate among the hills and towns of Judea and Galilee: it walks with him, eats with him, consults him in time of crisis and trouble: “Jesus,” a grieving Martha had once said to him, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Yes, Jesus had been there, in an undeniable sense, and even when his words were difficult to swallow, his words still came from a mouth that could be unmistakably seen and heard. Now, he was speaking of leaving, of going away, and was impressing upon the disciples the necessity to stay yet with him somehow—to remain in him—and not go out on their own, like dozens of individual seeds sprouting up all over the place. They would be a vine; that is, a single plant, and God their vinegrower, and God would tend the vine to make sure it was continuing to produce the fruits of Jesus, those unforgettable acts of sacrifice and love for which he was known. Here and there it would involve and cutting off and removing parts of ministry and growth that were no longer serving producing fruit. And, here and there, even the parts that were fruitful with works of love could expect to be cut back from time to time so that they could be made stronger. But whatever kind of clipping and cleansing the vine underwent, its fruitfulness could come naturally as long as they stayed connected to what Jesus was, as long as they maintained that association with the love Jesus made known on the cross.
The word Jesus chooses to describe this being connected was “abiding,” a funny word that we don’t use very much anymore. To abide, especially its connotation in the Greek here, conveys a sense of remaining with someone, of sticking by them over the long haul, of having patience that growth will come with time. As such, abiding is a bit of a paradox. Although it involves remaining, knowing growth may not happen overnight, it also entails hard work. It takes energy and effort to stay put and abide, to express loyalty and deep attachment. I think of Jesus, hanging rather stationery on the cross, hanging with us in our stubborn, self-imposed isolation from God, hanging with us in our slow-moving moments of sorrow and grief, and yet I also think of the effort and patience he puts forward to abide in those places.
Perhaps one of the most enduring images I have of this abiding, the importance of this deep and yet conscious connectedness to Jesus, the source of life, is not my English Ivy, but a woman by the name of Leslie Yarger, one of the older members of my former congregation. Leslie was approaching 90 when I became her pastor, but she was—and is—anything but homebound. Still blessed with good health and good eyesight and quite the adventurous spirit, Leslie would drive every day to the nursing home to spend time with her daughter and her aged sister. Her sister, Mazie, was past 100 and bedridden, and her daughter, Leslie Ann, was confined to a hospital bed and a feeding tube, rendered immobile by the advanced stages of a debilitating disease.
When I’d walk in for a visit, there would be Leslie, sitting between their beds on a folding chair she had set up, holding Leslie Ann’s hand with her right hand and Mazie’s with her left, content smiles of life across their faces. All day long. She’d, of course, get up once or twice to reposition a pillow or change the television channel, but then Leslie would return to the chair and grab their handsand once again, make that living connection.
Leslie was healthy and active. She could have gone anywhere, but there she abided. There she remained, ‘tween daughter and sister like some sort of mini-vine, as if it were the most natural place in the world for her to be, showing them—showing me, showing us—what hard work it is to abide, what it’s like to be pruned into self-giving faithfulness.
When we get right down to it, it won’t completely matter whether Jesus’ community of disciples is planted on top of the bookcase or on the back of the toilet, whether we’re doing ministry in an affluent suburban neighborhood or in a re-gentrifying inner city, in an old stone gothic cathedral or an abandoned storefront. When we get right down to it, it won’t matter all that much whether we’ve got a 5-year plan or a 5-day plan, because when we get right down to it, because our life is not going to come from where our branches are pointing, but from where they’re rooted.
We do not find our source of life, for example, in some principled claim to make a difference in the world, or the merit of some social or political agenda, jazzy youth and children’s programs, or even the style of worship we prefer. Our life comes from him, and there is no other reason for our meeting and doing ministry together than to feed off him.
On the other hand, it will matter quite a bit to our growth if we, like Mazie and daughter Leslie Ann, are holding the hand of the one who abides with us. It will matter when we are grafting our new and old branches into the word and sacraments of the one vine who opens up his veins week after week, prayer after prayer, to sustain us. It will provide growth when we continually find ourselves held to this love that abides, our clippings shoved into the water—the baptismal water—of that vine. It will provide growth when we measure our ministry alongside the self-sacrificial example Jesus gives.
So that when people see our tangling, sprawling interconnectedness—(Mazie-Leslie-Leslie Ann-Phillip-Jesus)—fruits of love and mercy flowing from our own branches, they will know that Jesus is nevertheless with us, that somewhere, at the center, the vine is there. He is the only vine who keeps living, you see, the only vine who abides and keeps living, even after he himself has been whacked away by our sin and thrown into the grave.
Now, aren’t we a right pretty plant, bought to bring life and beauty to these dull surroundings? He, the vine. We, the branches.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.