Abiding in the Vine

Symbolic enactment of Ubuntu by African school children. Photo taken at Nazareth House Apostolate in Sierra Leone

John 15:1-8; 1 John 4:7-21

This past week, I was glad to wrap up another semester in my teaching job at Utica College.  I have to say that one of my favorite things about this academic year has been my daily walk from the parking lot to my office.

When I first arrive on campus in the morning, I like to sit in my car for a few minutes.  With two young kids, it’s hard to find a quiet moment to myself at home.  During these few minutes in my car, I like to close my eyes and pay attention to the natural rhythm of my breathing.  This is an exercise that I learned from a doctor named Jon Kabat-Zinn.  You would be amazed at the effect that it has on my day.  I feel so much more relaxed, focused, and “tuned in” to the present moment.

When I get out of my car, I am so much more aware of my immediate surroundings.  I feel the wind blowing my hair back as the soles of my feet hit the ground rolling and propel me forward, I smell the dirt emerging from beneath the snow, I hear the sound of birds chirping and cars going by, and I see blue sky meeting red brick and green grass that stretches as far back as the eye can see.

I’ve become particularly good friends with the two deciduous trees who flank the front entrance to White Hall, where my office is located.  I don’t know my botany well enough to name their species, but I’ve enjoyed watching them change with the seasons.  The brilliance of autumn gave way to the stark bareness of winter.  The buds of spring have now given way to new green leaves that seemed to burst forth overnight.  I suppose they have been right there for at least as long as I have been teaching at the college, but I never really noticed them before this year.  I guess you could say that, because of this new meditation practice, I’m literally “coming to my senses” in ways that I hadn’t before now.

I’m tempted to label this effect as a “spiritual experience,” except that it lacks so many of the characteristics that are often associated with mysticism.  There are no visions of angels or voices from heaven.  There is no intuitive sense of a supernatural presence within or around me.  I am simply aware of the present moment and caught up in what I like to call the “is-ness” of everything.  If I am experiencing God at all through this meditation exercise, it is as the “Ground of all Being” and the great “I Am Who I Am” that Moses encountered in the burning bush at the beginning of the book of Exodus.  If God is present at all, it is in the overall wholeness of “the big picture” and the natural lines of connection that weave us into “the interdependent web of existence.”

I said, “if God is present,” but of course I do believe that God is eternally present in all places and at all times, whether we perceive God’s presence or not.  Our moment-to-moment existence, as creatures, is forever dependent upon that which is greater than us.  For example, we do not “take birth,” our mothers give birth to us.  To illustrate further: imagine the finely-tuned delicate balance of creation that allows for life to exist on this planet.  If Earth were just a little bit closer to the sun, the oceans would boil and we would burn up.  If she were just a little bit farther away, we would freeze.  If Earth’s rotation on her axis were just a little more tilted, the seasonal conditions would be so extreme that the Arctic Circle would reach all the way to the tropics and vice-versa.  If the moon floated only a few miles closer to the Earth tidal forces would decimate our coastlines.  I could keep going, but I think you get the point.  We do not create or sustain ourselves.  Life cannot be taken for granted.  Existence is a gift that is given freely to all.

All of this has been in the back of my mind this week as I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ words from John’s gospel: “I am the vine, you are the branches.”  He goes on to talk about “abiding” in the vine and “bearing fruit.”  This is a powerful image.  It speaks beautifully of the grace of being, which connects us to each other and to the greater whole.  Christians from the first century to the 21st century have come to believe that the great Source of Life and the Ground of all Being was revealed to the world through Jesus, not just in his words and accomplishments, but in his very person.  Other religions have noble sages and prophets who delivered the will of God or the meaning of life to people, but it was always the message and not the messenger that was most important.  Christianity is unique in our belief that the messenger is the message.  Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

Each of us is begotten and sustained by our connection to this vine, the Source of Life.  This truth is so easily forgotten by people who live in the modern age.  We are trained to be rugged individualists.  In spite of our rational disdain for all things superstitious, we retain our belief in the ridiculous myth of the “self-made man (or woman).”  I think you can ask anyone in a hospital maternity ward and they’ll tell you that there’s no such thing.  We are all branches off the same vine.  Our lives intertwine and intersect with one another.  Our separate identity as branches presents us with the illusion of independence, but we can only keep that idea up so long as we persist in living what the Greek philosopher Socrates called “the unexamined life.”  The minute we start asking questions about who and what we are, it becomes self-evident that we are all connected to and dependent on each other and the whole.  Scientists have identified this inherent connection in their study of ecosystems.  Individual species are mutually supportive of each other in symbiotic networks that form the engine, if you will, of evolution.  Plants feed animals, who feed other animals, who die and return to the earth, where their bodies become fertilizer for plants.  The food chain, it seems, is not so much a line as a circle.  One of my favorite illustrations of this point comes from the process of breathing itself.  We animals inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide as waste.  Plants, as many of you already know, inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen.  What a wonderful coincidence!  What beautiful symmetry!  We are sustaining one another through the very air that we breathe.

As Christians, we have come to understand and interpret our connection to the whole through the person of Jesus.  To us, he is far more than our favorite philosopher and an ancient wise man.  What we celebrate during this Easter season is our experience of Jesus as an eternally living reality.  Christ is alive in our hearts and the world around us.  He may not be visibly present, but he lives nonetheless.  We’ll say more about that when we celebrate Ascension Sunday in a few weeks.  Christ is alive.  He is the vine of which we are all branches.  This is the Christian’s fundamental understanding of the universe.  You might even call it our most basic principle.

In response to this truth that we believe, Jesus instructs his followers in John’s gospel to “abide in” him so that they might “bear fruit.”  What is that all about?  If we’re all branches on the same vine, wouldn’t we just naturally “abide in” (i.e. “stay connected to”) the vine?  On one level: yes.  We can’t cut ourselves off from the source of existence any more than one of us could willingly disconnect ourselves from an arm or leg.  But the vine analogy breaks down when we consider that human beings have a quality that plants do not have, to wit, consciousness.  We are able to think and make decisions in ways that other life forms cannot.  Through the choices we make and the lives we live, we are able to either honor our connection to the whole or not.  We can nurture the common life that is in us all or not.  We can water the seeds of faith, hope, and love in our souls or not.  That much is up to us.  To the extent that we choose well, our lives will tend to flourish.  To the extent that we choose poorly, we will wither and die.  Jesus’ words in today’s gospel reading make it clear that we are meant to flourish.

How can we do this?  How do we, as branches, abide in the life of the vine?  I think there are many ways that this is possible.  Personally, I have found my aforementioned meditation practice to be most helpful in this regard.  It reminds me of the significance and sacredness of the moment in which I find myself.  There is no day but today.  There is no place other than here.  Here and now is where I live.  Simply recognizing and respecting this reality goes a long way in nurturing my connection to the vine.

If you want to try it sometime, I recommend that you set aside a quiet place and time (I find that early in the morning, after my first cup of tea, works best, so that I don’t fall asleep).  Sit upright in a comfortable position with your back straight and your feet flat on the floor.  Close your eyes and try to become conscious of the fact that you are breathing.  Don’t try to breathe more deeply or slowly than usual, just notice this unconscious act that is happening in us all the time, whether we realize it or not.  Stay in this place for a while.  As thoughts pop into your head (and they will), don’t fight them or get angry at them, just simply acknowledge them and then gently direct your attention back to your breathing.  Do this as often as you need to.  It doesn’t matter if thoughts pop up one time or a hundred times.  Simply recognize the thought and redirect your attention.  You’re not trying to accomplish anything in the moment.  There are no “altered states of consciousness” that you are trying to reach.  You’re just trying to be fully aware of the present moment.  If you want to, try this exercise for five minutes a day.  When you feel ready, try increasing it by another five minutes at a time.  Some people stay at five minutes, some go for fifteen or twenty, and some sit like this for as long as an hour at a stretch.  It’s your practice.  Do what works best for you.

Another way that we can “abide in the vine” is through the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist (a.k.a. Communion).  Just as we’re about to do in a few minutes, we gather as a community around one table, breaking bread and drinking wine.  This ritual reminds us that we are part of one another through Christ.  We are what we eat: the body of Christ.  The wine reminds us that the blood of Christ flows in our veins.  They say that “blood is thicker than water.”  This blood is thickest of all.  As we eat and drink in this sacramental ritual, the branches abide in the vine.

Finally, and most importantly, the best way to “abide in the vine” is to nurture our relationships with each other.  This is the true mark of our religion and the true measure of our spiritual health.  Jesus continually told his followers that the “fruit” of this vine is love.  The community that first published John’s gospel also published his epistles, which we also heard from this morning.  They offered additional advice to flesh out what Jesus meant by “abiding in the vine.”

They remind us that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”  If you want to know how spiritual a person is, don’t look at his/her church attendance or theological beliefs.  Look at the way s/he treats other people.  I once heard someone say, “A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person.”  The size of your waiter’s tip says more about the quality of your Christian faith than the Bible you leave on the table.  In fact, your life might be the only Bible that another person ever reads.  What does that Bible say about what you believe?

I was talking to someone just yesterday about politics.  I know that’s a dangerous topic for preachers to broach in church (especially in an election year), so I’ll choose my words carefully.  I’m not going to tell you how you should vote.  Frankly, I don’t care what your ideological stripes are: conservative/liberal, Democrat/Republican, whatever.  That doesn’t matter nearly so much as the way we treat each other.  I care very much about that.  We live in a time of intense polarization in this society where those labels (conservative/liberal) are thrown around and used as insults.  We slander each other with names like “fascist” and “socialist.”  We categorize and demonize those who think differently from us.  We paint them as stupid or evil.  This, rather than the particular views we fear, represents the real threat to our democracy.  We’re so busy attacking each other that we’re unable to make any real difference in advancing the common good.  It’s high time that we learn to “abide in the vine” and nurture the life of the whole plant, so that we might bear the fruits of peace and justice.

There is an African word, Ubuntu, that refers to a particular character quality.  A person who has Ubuntu is conscious of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all people and all life.  We might say that a person with Ubuntu really knows how to “abide in the vine.”  We need more Ubuntu in our common life today.

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