The true vine

File:NRCSCA06105 - California (1119)(NRCS Photo Gallery).tifWatching for the Morning of April 29, 2018

Year B

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”

There is a life at work in this Jesus, like the life that pushes into bloom every spring where deciduous trees bud and a carpet of wildflowers races the forest canopy to bloom. There is a life at work in this Jesus, like the drive within a child to learn and grow and master its world. There is a life at work in this Jesus that pushes and pulls all creation to its destiny in God: a push towards the light, a drive towards life, a reaching for truth, a quest for justice, a call into compassion, a persistent, haunting sense that we are meant for more than we are, that we are meant for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity…” all the fruits of the Spirit – that we are meant to love one another.

There is a life at work in this Jesus. It drives Philip towards the Ethiopian Eunuch. It reveals the strangely obscure yet obvious truth that all creation – even a eunuch – is welcome in Christ. It drives the psalmist to speak not only of the horrors of suffering (“a company of evildoers encircles me… They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots”) but of the work of God to gather all nations. It drives the author of First John to say again and again that God is love and lift up the privilege and command to live in and from that love.

There is a life at work in Jesus. A life that belongs to the age to come. A life that is eternal. A life that is divine. A life that reverberates through all things, for in him all things were made. A life that is an inextinguishable light in our darkness. A life made flesh and come among us. A life that cannot be held by death. A life breathed ever anew into us. A life working in us. A life that would bear abundant fruit in us.

He is the vine. We are the branches.

The Prayer for April 29, 2018

As the vine gives life to the branches, O God,
be our source of life.
Root us in your Word.
Sustain us in your Spirit.
Cleanse from us all that is dead and dying
that we may bear abundantly the fruit of your Spirit.

The Texts for April 29, 2018

First Reading: Acts 8:26-40
“As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’” – Philip is led by the Spirit to the Ethiopian eunuch struggling to understand the passage Like a sheep he was led to slaughter.” When Philip has told him about Jesus, the eunuch asks the potent question whether the condition that keeps him out of the temple keeps him away from Christ.

Psalmody: Psalm 22:25-31
“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” – We are again reading/singing from that critical psalm that bespeaks the crucifixion. In this Sunday’s verses is the message that God shall gather all into his reign.

Second Reading: 1 John 4:7-21
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
– the author of First John continues to weave together the themes of God’s love for us and the command and necessity to love one another.

Gospel: John 15:1-8
“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” – Jesus uses the image of the grape vine to speak about the life of the believing community. It draws life from Jesus and his teaching and, abiding in him, bears abundant fruit.

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This reflection was previously posted on April 28, 2015 for the Fifth Sunday after Easter in 2015

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NRCSCA06105_-_California_(1119)(NRCS_Photo_Gallery).tif Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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We will remember

Saturday

Psalm 22:25-31

File:Jesus at Sumela.jpg27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.

There is a turn in this psalm, as in so many psalms of lament, when the poet moves from his despair and grief and bitter plea to exultation and joy. We are reading, Sunday, from that joy.

But those with history in the church or in scripture will recognize that this is Psalm 22. This is the psalm where the poet’s cry has spoken of being surrounded by enemies who taunt and torture him. Here we hear those fateful words “They have pierced my hands and feet” and “for my clothing they cast lots.” This is the psalm Jesus prays from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

When the followers of Jesus searched the scriptures to understand what had happened to the one they confessed as the Christ, words like this must have exploded off the page with new meaning, pointing far beyond the poet’s original sorrow to the world’s ultimate sorrow.

But the psalm does not end with the suffering and gloating enemies. God did not “despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”

And in that turn from lament to praise those first believers found witness also to the resurrection. And more than the resurrection, to the ascension, to Christ “at the right hand of the Father.”

27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.

It is not a cry of triumph, like all the fans of a team pointing their forefingers into the air after a victory to declare they are number one. It is rather a profound confession that in the story of the crucified and risen one we will remember. We will remember who we are. We will remember the God who made us. We will remember the love that vibrates in and through and around all creation. We will remember how we have turned away from the source of life. We will remember the horrors we have done. We will see in the pierced hands of Jesus the pierced hands of all our sisters and brothers who are crucified by violence and neglect. We will remember it all: our true identity, our terrible path, and the way home.

27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.

We will remember and return and kneel before him who is the font of grace and life. We will worship: we will remember and sing praise, we will remember and give thanks, we will remember and adore.

And what awaits all creation is what we do on Sunday mornings when we gather to break the bread and sing the songs of joy.

 

Image: Christ Pantocrator.  Ceiling of one of the chambers of the Sumela monastery.  Photo: By Vladimer Shioshvili (Flickr: jesus) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The unholy made holy

Friday

Acts 8:26-40

File:Menologion of Basil 006.jpg36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

It’s not an abstract question for the Ethiopian; it’s a highly personal one. He has just come from Jerusalem where the fact that he is a eunuch bars him from the temple. He is fundamentally flawed and not acceptable in God’s presence.

There is something to be said for the notion of holiness, that what we bring before God should be whole. Lame animals show no honor or respect for the Lord of all. Moldy grain, rancid oil – we ought not imagine making such gifts at the altar. God deserves our best. There is even something to be said for the notion that sinners ought to stand far off and not parade to the front, that we should come with humility, that we should approach God with care. But it is a far different thing for me to hold myself back than for others to make that judgment. It is for me to recognize God’s holiness, not for others to defend it. I should know my unworthiness rather than have someone point it out to me.

But Christ was crucified. He was made unholy. Outside the walls of the holy city, his death was hastened lest he pollute the holy days, while those who arranged his death went up to the altar with hands they regarded as clean. Pilate had to go out to the high priests as they conspired to murder Jesus, lest they pollute themselves by entering a gentile’s house.

The holy one – the truly holy one – was made unholy that we, the truly unholy, might be made holy in him. And now, what religious people excluded in order to defend God’s honor, God gathers in order to show his glory: the lame man at the temple, the Samaritans, the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius the centurion, gentiles in Antioch.  The stories of Acts follow the seeds Jesus sowed: the Syrophoenician woman, Matthew the tax collector, the woman with the flow of blood, sinners and tax collectors.

“What is to prevent me from being baptized?” asks the Ethiopian eunuch. Marred in the flesh by men, rendered unholy by the mighty, he is now made holy in Christ by the Almighty. As are we.

It is not our job to defend God’s honor. God will take care of himself. It is for us to be mindful of God’s honor and enter into his presence with humbleness – and joy.

 

Image: Menologion of Basil II, Menologion of Basileiou – 11th century illuminated byzantine manuscript with 430 miniatures, now in Vatican library.  Photo by Мастер Георгий (http://www.pravenc.ru/text/149805.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The martyr’s path

Thursday

1 John 4:7-21

File:Preparing to enter Ebola treatment unit (5).jpg16God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

I remember the dinner table argument with my stepfather after I came home from a high school youth retreat filled with joy and zeal. I talked about the “trust walk” where we divided into twos. One person was blindfolded and trusted the other to lead him or her through the wooded paths of our retreat center. It was a metaphor for trusting God, and a practical application of loving one another. But something in that story set my stepfather off, and pretty soon we were arguing whether I would let a member of the Black Panthers lead me blindfolded through the streets of Oakland. He was certain I was foolish, and the militant African-American foot soldier would lead me out into the middle of traffic.

I know better, now, that there is evil in the world. I also know that evil does not come easily. I stand by my argument that I would not have been harmed in Oakland; I am not sure if that would apply just now in the battlefields of ISIL

“God is love” can seem pretty simple-minded in the hard-nosed world. And my stepfather was right to think me naïve. But God is love. And loving as we are loved requires great strength of character. It is a far more difficult, costly, and sometimes dangerous, path than I imagined as a teen.

“God is Love.” God is steadfast fidelity to the world, to humanity, to each of us. God is a determined allegiance, a zealous choice to see each of us as members of his household despite the ways we use, abuse and defame him and one another. “Every imagination of the human heart was only evil continually,” is God’s observation at the time of Noah, yet God rescues Noah and his family – not because they were so righteous, but because God was faithful and would not abandon the world he had made. Humanity is no different when they descend from the ark. The disaster does not change them; but God is changed. God hangs his Kalashnikov in the heavens – pointing no longer at humanity but, if anywhere, at himself. God will take the bullet.

God is Love. Determined to create a world without slavery, he rescues Israel and Egypt. At great cost. Human willfulness does not die easily. Children were dying under slavery. In the end, God had to let all Egypt see the death they were dealing.

God is Love. Determined to create a just and merciful world. And the price has been terribly high. Not just the fall of the northern kingdom, nor the brutal siege and sacking of Jerusalem. Ultimately it comes to a cross outside Jerusalem where God lays his own life on the line. And still we persist. Still children perish. Still God confronts us with our terrible works: death camps, razed cities, nuclear weapons, impoverished communities, refugees, a child with a broken neck dragged into a police van. God makes us see all the crucified.

God is Love. We are slow to learn. There is a terrible price. But there are some who understand.

The martyr’s path is holy. Not the martyr’s path chosen by radical Islam – that is the great and wide path of violence. But the narrow path that risks all to feed the hungry, to teach the children, to tend the sick. The martyr’s path is holy, the path that sets aside the self for the sake of another. The path that treats a stranger as brother and sister. The path that gives what cannot be returned: tender love to the dying, faithful care to the troubled, friendship to the lonely.

This martyr’s path is holy. We tend to denigrate it. And the concept is often misused. But there is something sacred about those who sacrifice self for another, something that goes to the very heart of God. For God is love.

 

Photo:  Dr. Joel Montgomery, Team Lead for CDC’s Ebola Response Team in Liberia, adjusts a colleague’s PPE before entering the Ebola treatment unit (ETU), ELWA 3, operated by Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders.  By CDC Global (Preparing to enter Ebola treatment unit) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A vine out of Egypt

Tomb_of_Nakht_(12).vines - Version 2

Tomb of Nakht, 15th Century BC

Wednesday

John 15:1-8

“I am the true vine.”

We should not miss the audacity of this claim.

For many years I have heard the “I am” statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel as rich and wonderful words of comfort and assurance: “I am the bread of life; I am the water of life; I am the way, the truth and the life.” But the more I ponder how these words sounded in first century Judea, I hear their audacity.

Israel is God’s vine. Psalm 80 says it clearly:

8 You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
9 You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
12 Why then have you broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
13 The boar from the forest ravages it,
and all that move in the field feed on it.
14 Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
15 the stock that your right hand planted.

The psalmist cries out that God’s vineyard has been trampled by the empires of the world and begs for God to come to its vindication,

Stir up your might,
and come to save us!
3 Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

The poet asks the painful question

How long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears…

And the poet’s prayer is not without bitterness.

14 Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
15 the stock that your right hand planted.
16 They have burned it with fire,
they have cut it down;
may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.

What is missing from this prayer for God to come to the defense of Israel and Jerusalem is the message we hear in the prophets:

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
2He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

The truth is, this starts as a salacious song. The prophet stands in the public square and begins to air the dirty laundry of his beloved friend whose ‘vineyard’ (wife) he has loved and cared for – but she has betrayed him. The song gives vent to his friend’s vengeance upon this wife who returned his love and fidelity with “wild (bitter) grapes.” Then, as the crowd in the marketplace is drawn into this tale of love, betrayal and revenge, suddenly the prophet is looking them all in the eye and declaring:

“The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the House of Israel….

This nation has betrayed its heritage as God’s vineyard. It has not born the fruit of justice and mercy that God expected from a people delivered from bondage and planted in an abundant land. With a clever play from similar sounding words that is lost in translation, the prophet declares:

He expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!

Israel is God’s vineyard. And now Jesus is standing in the public square declaring that he is the true vine. Not the nation. Not the people. Not the glorious and world famous temple. Not the priesthood. Not the leadership of the land. Jesus is the true vine.

Audacious.

Jesus is the true vine. Jesus is the true source of life. Not wealth. Not power. Not beauty. Not fame. Not family. Not intellect. Jesus. Jesus is the faithful son, the true Israel.

And we can be grafted into him.

We are branches, branches that can be rooted into the vine. We can bear good and abundant fruit. We can be, in him, faithful Israel.

The true vine

Watching for the Morning of May 3, 2015

Year B

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

File:NRCSCA06105 - California (1119)(NRCS Photo Gallery).tif“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”

There is a life at work in this Jesus, like the life that pushes into bloom every spring where deciduous trees bud and a carpet of wildflowers races the forest canopy to bloom. There is a life at work in this Jesus, like the drive within a child to learn and grow and master its world. There is a life at work in this Jesus that pushes and pulls all creation to its destiny in God: a push towards the light, a drive towards life, a reaching for truth, a quest for justice, a call into compassion, a persistent, haunting sense that we are meant for more than we are, that we are meant for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity…” all the fruits of the Spirit – that we are meant to love one another.

There is a life at work in this Jesus. It drives Philip towards the Ethiopian Eunuch. It reveals the strangely obscure yet obvious truth that all creation – even a eunuch – is welcome in Christ. It drives the psalmist to speak not only of the horrors of suffering (“a company of evildoers encircles me… They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots”) but to the work of God to gather all nations. It drives the author of First John to say again and again that God is love and lift up the privilege and command to live in and from that love.

There is a life at work in Jesus. A life that belongs to the age to come. A life that is eternal. A life that is divine. A life that reverberates through all things, for in him all things were made. A life that is an inextinguishable light in our darkness. A life made flesh and come among us. A life that cannot be held by death. A life breathed ever anew into us. A life working in us. A life that would bear abundant fruit in us.

He is the vine. We are the branches.

The Prayer for May 3, 2015

As the vine gives life to the branches, O God,
be our source of life.
Root us in your Word.
Sustain us in your Spirit.
Cleanse from us all that is dead and dying
that we may bear abundantly
the fruit of your Spirit;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for May 3, 2015

First Reading: Acts 8:26-40
“As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” – Philip is led by the Spirit to the Ethiopian eunuch struggling to understand the passage Like a sheep he was led to slaughter.” When Philip has told him about Jesus, the eunuch asks the potent question whether the condition that keeps him out of the temple keeps him away from Christ. The answer is “No.”

Psalmody: Psalm 22:25-31
“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” – We are again reading/singing from that critical psalm that bespeaks the crucifixion. In this Sunday’s verses is the message that God shall gather all into his reign.

Second Reading: 1 John 4:7-21
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
– the author of First John continues to weave together the themes of God’s love for us and the command and necessity to love one another.

Gospel: John 15:1-8
“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” – Jesus uses the image of the grape vine to speak about the life of the believing community. It draws life from Jesus and his teaching and, abiding in him, bears abundant fruit.

Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service., via Wikimedia Commons