Homily, 5th Sunday of Easter

April 28 and 29th, 2018

John 15:1-8

“Without me you can do nothing…”

I clearly remember the first time I ran away from home.  I believe I was eight or nine years of age at the time.  I was hurt, angry and annoyed by something; not sure what it was.  What I do remember is this need to feel missed, as I now look back.

I remember putting on my coat, grabbing my ‘piggy bank’, which was basically this metal box that looked like a safe.  I completely forgot that the key that opened it was kept at my parent’s bank so no money saved could be taken.  That REALLY annoyed me!

I headed out the front door when no one was looking and made my way down the street.  I didn’t go far on that late afternoon and decided to hide behind Mrs. Davis’ large bushes at the end of the block.  I crouched there, waiting to be missed; in that menagerie of a garden with its roots old and deep; my self feeling rootless at the time as, again, I look back.

It began to grow dark and I was more hungry than lonely.  So, I slowly made my way back home to return to the soil of family.  I entered by the back door and into the kitchen where my mom was preparing dinner.  I said, “I ran away from home, you know.”  She turned, smiled and said, “Welcome back!”   Looking back into those eyes by way of memory it was if she were saying, “Without me you can do nothing.”  How true!  I knew I couldn’t make it alone, cut off from family.  The hunger for such belonging runs deeper than any annoyance or hurt.

To be self-possessed and come into the gift of one’s life—when that umbilical cord is finally cut for good—is essential for human growth.  Yet, we sometimes take this streak of independence to its extreme; to the detriment of community and the greater good.

Rather, interdependence is what leads to true and lasting growth when it comes to human maturation; all organic life, really.  I recall reading an article on trees:  how a stand of Douglas Fir will intertwine their roots one with another to strengthen the stand when faced with strong winds.

There is in many of us, however, a fierce independence determined to go it alone.  Globally, we see this happening with its rippling effect; what with Brexit, border closures and penalizing tariffs to name just a few of the symptoms.  There is this pulling away, much of it rooted in fear; an isolationist posture that only cuts us off one from another.  It goes against the very nature of the gospel as well as that compassion rooted within all  great religions.  It goes against life itself which thrives by way of connection. As Jesus has it in today’s gospel:  all of us branches on a vine.  Cut off from the vine we wither.  It is a powerful metaphor for this belonging and interdependence.

Watching news coverage on the meeting of the two Korean leaders the other day, I was stunned to see them holding hands as they made their way to cross the border.  Of course, skepticism was expressed by some commentators.  Perhaps it’s all a ploy on the part of the North.  Time will tell.

Nevertheless, I found it to be a potent symbol of what is needed in this world, more bent on war than dialogue and the reaching beyond differences; however serious those might be. 

As a world, nation, Church and as individuals we could learn a thing or two from that gesture:  to walk hand in hand; less cut off one from another. To begin with our own families would make a good beginning.  The challenge is daunting and why there is need for Providence and grace to assist us with such cultivation.  “Without me you can do nothing” Jesus reminds us.

Did not the sin of racism cut us off one from another, all of which caused a ‘withering’ of the human spirit that continues to infect us?  Racism denies the teaching Jesus offers today:  that all of us are branches on the one, true vine.  So, I was quite moved by the coverage on the National Memorial for Peace and Justice when it opened this past week in Montgomery, AL; what’s being called the “Lynching Memorial”,  There you will find  stark, raised panels inscribed with names; those black citizens who were lynched and brutally murdered by whites in this nation. For too long, we’ve cut ourselves off from this chapter in our history by way of denial; and the withering injustice of racism continues.  So, this Memorial speaks a truth we need to face; all of us culpable, really.  All of us branches on the one vine.      

In his book, “Falling Upward” Richard Rohr addresses the “two halves of life”.  In that first half of life we need what he calls “ego structuring” to give us a sense of self.  I recall Merton saying that we must have a self before we can give it away.  Some, however, never arrive at this sense, never know who they really are and, sadly, die in unawareness. 

Rohr quotes the poet Robert Frost who said, “Good fences make good neighbors.”  Yet, we’re here not simply to build fences and then be done with it.  We must learn to cross beyond whatever barriers we face; to actually meet our neighbor.  Rohr explains this essential growth in these words:

So we need boundaries, identity, safety, and some degree of order and consistency to get started personally and culturally…By that I mean, we all need some successes, response and positive feedback early in life, or we will spend the rest of our lives demanding it…You have to first have an ego structure to then let go of it and move beyond it.  (pp. 4-5)

I believe this lesson can be gleaned from today’s gospel and Jesus’ teaching when he says:  “I am the vine, you are the branches.

Spiritually, we are, all of us, branches upon this one mysterious vine.  My life cannot solely be rooted within the soil of my own wants and needs.  Life is more than what we are to eat, or what we are to wear.   Each of us must grow up, where I learn that life is not about me.  It must be much more than successes and achievements, good as those can be.   Spiritually, we must cross beyond all that to meet our neighbor; or life withers.

In monastic life, I learned a thing or two about pruning; not grape but wisteria vines.  There is a particular way of pruning them that increases its blooms.  It can be time-consuming and tedious.  Following an afternoon of pruning, I’d notice the cut tendrils in a pile withering there.  Jesus’ words would come to mind: “Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither…”

As I’ve grown older and just a bit more delivered from the narrow ground of self with its ego drive to succeed, achieve and be noticed, I’ve come to see how the Christian path involves more ‘unlearning’ than learning.     Life is not “all upward and onward”.  No.  And it’s why I have issues with Steven Pinker’s latest book, “Enlightenment Now”)

Rather, the Christian way of life involves a strong downward ‘pull’, beyond self and towards a deeper sense.   Like a vine planted in soil, we’re part of a greater mystery.  Like so many branches on the vine we cannot live in any meaningful, life-giving manner apart from God or one another.  The interdependence I pointed out at the beginning is what offers true growth; so much a part of God’s own nature as it is.  It’s the way life becomes fruitful, meaningful and alive; the way it was meant to be in the beginning.

Father Tim Clark, Pastor                                                                                                                         

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