St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Preached at St Peter's Church, Manchester on 10th May 2009 [Easter 5]
I’m not a natural gardener, so it was with some prodding that I headed out into our front garden this week. Our garden certainly shows my neglect. Weeding for about 10 minutes I removed a grocery bag full of cat mess from the corner of our garden. I also needed to spray the tulips to stop green aphids from swarming over them. Gardening is not easy, or sentimental; it can be hard work lugging big pots through the kitchen to our garden at the back.
Amidst the alarming news recently of trouble in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, swine flu, and government corruption, it was good to see things growing of their own accord, pushing through the soil for reasons absolutely nothing to do with our efforts (thank goodness).
The gardening language John 15 also speaks to this difficult, sometimes painful work.
Gardening isn’t sentimental work, and this isn’t a sentimental passage. There is pruning in order to encourage growth. God doesn’t waste time with what isn’t growing. The vinegrower doesn’t prune in order to punish, or because someone has misbehaved or looks out of place; the tending is purely for the health and growth of the whole vine, but it is pruning nonetheless. And the fire that you might have noticed is for believers, for those in the vine, not for the weeds growing around the vine. Perhaps this is a Biblical version of the “tough love” we hear about on questionable supernanny programs on TV.
It reminds me of a saying about a lute, a stringed instrument somewhat the guitar. The lute is able to make such a beautiful music because it was hollowed with knives. Perhaps God the gardener clears away cat poo around the vine, as well.
There is a museum in western Massachusetts called MassMoca that has a famous installation of four maple trees hung upside down in giant planters suspended from cables. The trees are growing upside down. They made headlines when the museum opened. But even despite all the technology, all the design, all the effort and money, all the harnessing of immense power and exertion of forces, still I was amused to see the tips of the tree turn and grow upwards toward the sun.
Perhaps we think of church or of the life with Christ, life in the church, like that kind of immensely complicated contraption that bends us this way and that until we look like the kinds of people we think we should look like. Don’t we all want to change? Don’t we all want to grow?
But this kind of violent change is not the kind of God the gardener brings about. Despite all that divides us and our world from God, despite death, divorce, unhappiness, struggles with money or pressure at work, or prejudice, despite our best efforts to tend our own lives ourselves, God will tend and nourish us as we are, as we were created – and prune, and burn — in order that we might bear fruit.
God’s way of tending is not sentimental or touchy-feely, he gathers cat poo along with the dead growth, but it comes naturally to us, as it were. Bearing fruit in our practical actions of love and attention given others is what we were created for; it is not something for which we need to be remade, or something for which we need tremendous technology.
Instead of the upside-down maple trees, I imagine the immense, pitch-dark sheds in Yorkshire where they grow rhubarb by candlelight. And the rhubarb does grow, and grow, and grow.
Here Jesus is not a complicated piece of engineering, sent from above, fixing us by bending us this way and that; here Jesus is beneath us, the soil we grow in, calling us to a renewed humanity. Resurrection, after all, is a sign that God has faith in this world, a world of hostility and rejection; and still has faith in us, his followers, who betrayed God.
God’s raising of Jesus was a sign and seal of faith in humanity, despite our rejection, in the city of rejection. As the vine Jesus seems to be beneath us, and behind us, with us. It strikes our modern minds as bizarre, but the truth underlying the bodily ascension of Jesus is not that Jesus is somehow holy and far above, and unlike us, but that our human flesh, our humanity, is now hidden in the heart of God – accepted by God wholly and eternally, as we are. We become more fully ourselves in the vine, not gradually emptied of personality while being pulled and stretched like bonsai trees into other creations.
Perhaps the best part of the discussion we had as a community last week about moving forward was the recognition that we could sit closer together to show that we are one vine, one body, but also leave room for those who value peace and quiet and space.
As we seek to show and live into our unity in the vine of Christ, we do so not at the expense of our individuality, but because we grow into ourselves, the people God yearns for us to be, as we grow together. And we let ourselves be shaped by God in ways that are at times uncomfortable but ultimately life-giving.
There is a danger in John that we just settle into this cosy love for each other. Sometimes John is called a spiritual gospel, but this really isn’t true given the practical nature of this love, and the very real death of Jesus at the hands of the state later in the Gospel.
To abide in Christ is not an invitation to settle down, but a summons to mission. We are pruned and shaped for life together in this world — a world of injustice, hatred, and violence, but a world also of poetry, grace, and growth in the darkest and most hidden of places, for our flourishing and the flourishing of the vine.