A Sappy Kind of Love
A Meditation on John 15: 1 – 8 and 1 John 4: 7 – 21
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church April 29, 2018
Loving God, you seek to enfold us with the love that you revealed in Jesus. May we open ourselves to the life-giving sap of your love as a branch feeds from the vine in which it grows. We ask this in his name, confident that you will hear us. Amen.
I don’t know anything about growing grapes. My only experience with grapevines is swinging on them in the woods. It never works out like in the movies. I remember crashing into trees and falling to the ground. Still, a southern childhood is incomplete without attempting to swing on grapevines, or drink from the honeysuckle blossom.
It is honeysuckle season. I can’t walk through my neighborhood without taking in the vine’s sweet smell. I love how honeysuckle takes its job very seriously, beautifying alleys, the edges of parking lots, all the places where no one has time to plant or tend. I was walking with friends the other day when we passed a profusion of blooms. One friend asked if we had ever drunk the sweet sap out of the honeysuckle blossoms when we were kids. It took me a minute to remember how to do it. Where to pinch, how to slide the stamen out gently enough that you don’t lose the one precious drop of sweetness waiting at the other end. But it’s like riding a bike, you can’t really forget how to do it. So worth the effort for that one sweet drop on the tongue.
I came across a post entitled, “A Lesson in Honeysuckle” on UNC Chapel Hill’s Southern Things blog. The author, Scott Geier, writes: Honeysuckle evokes memories of childhood because it is the quintessential childhood object: it wanders, it causes trouble, it goes places it’s not supposed to go, it is frivolous, it is fleeting, it offers a series of small adventures. Eating honeysuckle nectar is the horticultural equivalent of catching lightning bugs.
And I think honeysuckle evokes childhood because of where it usually grows. It grows in childhood spaces. Not in the “designated” childhood spots – the school yards and fenced-off playgrounds – but in the forgotten, neglected areas that kids love to explore: the woods, the train trestle, the nook underneath the broken fence behind the neighbor’s house. We grow up and those places fade back into the background. The broken fence may still be there, but the pirate’s hideout is gone, because you no longer have the eyes to see it.
I’m guessing there isn’t any honeysuckle in the holy land or Jesus would surely have used it in a story. Honeysuckle wanders, causes trouble, goes places it’s not supposed to – just like Jesus. Yes, Jesus needs to come down south and experience some honeysuckle…or wisteria. Wisteria fascinated me as a child because it seems to be playing a joke on us – Look, grapes! Only they aren’t grapes. They are tricky blossoms that gather in grape-like clusters. For whatever reason my mother’s wisteria wouldn’t grow at our Memphis home. My mother could grow anything and everything, so it drove her crazy that the wisteria wouldn’t grow. I now understand why. I foolishly planted one in my backyard – in her memory. If I don’t show up one day it will be because I got behind on hacking it back and it has trapped me in my patio. Please come with machetes and free me! I still love it, but I know now to hack it to the ground. Hack it back and watch it explode again.
You don’t hack grape vines to the ground. If you want fruit, you must prune them carefully at just the right time and in just the exact place. Grapevines require care and love and continual tending. They aren’t so carefree like honeysuckle or wisteria. But vines, all vines, are magical in the speed with which they grow, in their desire to climb, to wrap, to seek out tiny spaces in which they might find an opening. Vines are God’s love embodied, and grapevines, especially so. Think of the ways they tangle and weave around themselves, making it almost impossible to discern one cane from another. The entwining of the branches reminds us of our interconnectedness as Christ’s body. What happens to one branch, affects us all.
I think I might prefer to be wisteria or honeysuckle, to grow wherever I want, however I want. To not worry about being pruned. To just be playful and mischievous. But wisteria and honeysuckle, though they bless us with their fragrance, do not produce fruit that sustain us. So we are part of Jesus’ grapevine, and God, the vineyard keeper, will prune the canes, trim the branches so that more fruit will be possible.
Pruning sounds really scary, so keep this in mind: God’s pruning is not done by raining suffering down upon us. God does not prune us by throwing illnesses and hardships our way. Tragedies and struggles are not God’s way of shaping us. Not that we can’t be shaped through these experiences, but please don’t interpret them as sent by God to teach us a lesson. For most of us it is a default reaction: “What did I do to deserve cancer?” “Is God punishing me by taking my job? By allowing me to have a car wreck? By allowing my loved one to die?” God never sends pain. God meets us in the pain, and feels it, too.
Theologian Walter Wink writes, “Someone who does know more about the painfulness of pruning than I stresses that the pruning is not to be identified with an original act of trauma, abuse or injustice. Elaine V. Emeth says that the pruning metaphor works for her only if she thinks of God as a gardener who grieves while watching a violent storm rip through a prized garden. Afterward, the gardener tenderly prunes the injured plants in order to guarantee survival and to restore beauty and harmony. Pruning is not to be confused with the tragedies that overtake us; it has more to do with clearing away the debris they leave behind. [i]
This way of understanding pruning, allows us to see pruning for the loving act that it is. This is crucial, since pruning is an ongoing process. Pruning is an every year occurrence for a grapevine and a lifelong experience for us. Remember, however, what Jesus says here: You are already trimmed by the word I have said to you.” This is good news! While we know there is much we need pruned out of us – jealousy or anger, distrust or resentment, selfishness or exclusion – whatever it is that makes us want to be our own vine instead of being part of Christ’s – we have already been trimmed. This is the “both and.” We are already pruned or cleansed or trimmed, in that God has claimed us as God’s own, and yet, we are not fully formed in Jesus’ image. That is the life time of pruning which we need.
We must be very, very careful, when we, acting in God’s name, or on God’s behalf believe we are called to do pruning work in the world. Some pruning is obvious: a broken justice system, the schools to prisons pipeline which leaves so many people of color broken and in despair, the economic injustices and inequities which abound, and on and on. We struggle to prune these things from society, and know that is an ongoing effort in which we must enlist and train more gardeners for the difficult work. We struggle to keep up with injustices which flourish like a kudzu vine, threatening to choke us off from our source of life, the sap of God’s love which flows in abundance.
But sometimes we participate in pruning with regret and sometimes we witness pruning which isn’t pruning at all. We witnessed what feels like a very strange hacking – presented as a pruning – this week in Washington, as we learned that Paul Ryan had asked for the resignation of Rev. Patrick Conroy, the 60th Chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives. While Ryan has stated that there was no malfeasance involved, Ryan has left colleagues, the nation, and Rev. Conroy all scratching their heads by his decision. Conroy has speculated that a recent prayer made some uncomfortable and led to his demise. Prior to a vote on tax reform, Conroy prayed: “May all Members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great Nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle. May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”[ii]
I can’t imagine a more difficult place to live out a ministerial calling than on Capitol Hill. We can’t separate our faith from our politics. If our political decisions are not informed by God’s teachings, then we should not claim to be part of God’s vineyard. So how is the Chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives supposed to stay out of politics? Yes, he is there to provide pastoral care to individuals working in a very stressful – and often toxic – environment, individuals who often have to be away from loved ones for long stretches of time. He is also there to be a moral compass. He is there to speak God’s truth.
It is Conroy’s role to pray for the work being done in the House; that he prayed a prayer for economic justice is both appropriate and faithful to his calling as a priest. If it is true that he was fired over prayers such as these, then we should rally around Rev. Conroy and thank him for continuing to live the message that flows through our scriptures. We should thank him for speaking the word of the prophets who cried out on behalf of the poor and suffering. We should thank him for walking in the way of Jesus who makes us so uncomfortable with his promise that the last shall be first.
When Rev. Conroy prayed that prayer, he was acknowledging that we are all branches of one vine. Every branch deserves the same opportunities to thrive and produce good fruit. In his prayer he was acknowledging the reality that there is an ever widening gap between rich and poor, that some branches grow fatter and fatter, while others are allowed to wither, hidden from the sun by those that overpower them.
A significant majority of the House profess to be Christian. They elected a Christian chaplain. If they have allowed this branch to be pruned from their midst for speaking God’s truth, they have damaged their own vineyard. We must pray for them, and that they will listen to the voice of the vineyard grower.
The sap that flows through the vine to which we are engrafted is as sweet as the honeysuckle nectar. It is sweet, sweet love. But it is so much more than the sticky sweetness of honeysuckle; it is a sap that flows with saltiness, with truth, with sacrifice. It produces the fruit of the vine which we share as we say, “the cup of salvation.” No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15: 13) No one. Thanks be to God for the vine of Christ’s life. Thanks be to God for the beautiful way in which we are entangled, one with another, as we learn how to love. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Wink, Walter. Christian Century, April 20, 1994.