by the Rev. Shelby Ochs Owen
What a joy to be back with you here at Trinity! This pulpit swap is such a great reminder of our relationship with each other through our common faith in Christ. Thank you for having me.
This time of year in the Valley is such a lush season. We see so many plants and trees and flowers in full bloom. The grass is greener than it will be at any other time of year. Streams and rivers are full of running water. The ground is full of promising growth. How lovely that the Gospel passage from John works so nicely into our gardening experience. John’s gospel passage for today is all about the Vine. Most of us who have ever done any gardening can relate to the idea of a vine growing and needing pruning and bearing fruit. Here Jesus likens himself to the vine. He says, “I am the true vine.” Here John’s intention is to reveal Jesus as the Son of God. To show that strong and deep connection between Father and Son and how that connection continues on through Jesus’ followers.
Jesus goes on to say, “Abide in me as I abide in you. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” The vine imagery is used throughout the Old Testament. The vine grower is a metaphor for God and the vine is God’s people, Israel. Bearing fruit was indicative of Israel’s faithfulness to God; in other words, keeping God’s commandment was to do love. For Jesus’ followers this was a reminder that Jesus was the source of the community’s identity and fruitfulness. The Greek word, here translated abide, can also mean to remain in. The central theme of this chapter is relationship with Jesus and with one another. To remain in or abide with Jesus, the Vine, is for his disciples to recognize the relationship of all of us, our connection to God and our connection to one another as creatures of God.
John Muir, the great naturalist, author, and conservationist had a profound understanding of our connectedness to both God and to creation. He wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. One fancies a heart like our own must be beating in every crystal and cell.” This is why we pray when we hear of thousands of people dying in Nepal’s recent earthquake. This is why we are affected by good and bad news in our own little neighborhoods. This is why we laugh in delight when friends tell us they have fallen in love and are getting married. This is why we cry when we see violence erupting on Baltimore’s streets. A heart like our own beating in every crystal and cell. We are not as independent, not as immune, not as unaffected by the world around us as we might pretend or even choose to be at times. Denial is a powerful thing, even necessary at times, but the deep reality is that what affects one part of God’s creation affects all of God’s creation.
Some of you probably know the name of Toya Graham by now. This is a single mother, an African American woman, who lives in Baltimore, who was watching in horror earlier in the week as violence was erupting around her, between her community and the police. She could see things being thrown at the police and then her horror doubled when she recognized the face of her 16 year old son as one of the people throwing rocks at the police. Even with the face mask and hoodie, she knew it was her son and she took off after him, and she really walloped him, trying to pull off his mask, screaming some pretty violent language herself, to get him to stop and chased him home. Later when she was asked about it, she said, “Is he the perfect child? No, he’s not! But he’s mine.” She felt she had to make him understand the seriousness of what he was doing. Some have hailed Toya Graham as mother of the year; others think she should have been arrested for child abuse. I won’t try to pronounce that kind of judgment on her today. What I will commend is her desire to do the right thing; her desire to show love for her son and for her community did shine through. As I watched the mother screaming and hitting this child, trying to chase him home, trying to get him to do right, I saw myself as that mother, A heart like my own beating in every crystal and cell, screaming at that child who was taller than she, I saw that tall, skinny boy as my son. A heart like my own beating in every crystal and cell.
There is a lot of unrest in this country over race. Over injustices and perceived injustices. And we are right to be concerned, and it is appropriate to weep because how we treat one another is ultimately how we care for God and indeed how we care for ourselves. The Vine imagery reminds us of the reality that only in our connectedness through love will we grow, only in our connectedness through love will we bear fruit, only in connectedness through love will we truly live and our communities thrive.
We are all connected to one another much more than we can see or even bear at times. And when that connectedness does indeed seem overbearing or overwhelming, we can remember to abide in the Vine, remain in or plug into the love of the God, who can bear all our sorrows for us. When that well of sorrow becomes too full, we have the great gift of the Vine, the one who can bear that sorrow for us even to the point where we find joy again.
Jesus showed that he was strongly and deeply connected to his Father. And he taught us that we as his disciples are deeply connected to him. Our job is to bear the fruit of our connection to God by showing love to all of God’s creation. We mirror to the world what we have experienced ourselves in God. God’s own heart beats in our every crystal and cell. Can we not recognize it in the rest of God’s creation?