Attached With Love
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Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)
15 I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
Last week it was sheep, this week it’s gardening, or vineyards, to be precise. If the gospel of John was written in Cambridge we might be hearing about the regulation of traffic patterns or cooperative efforts to form and sustain community through volunteer community service. But, John’s words come to us from another time and place and today we get vines and branches, an image that Jesus’ disciples would have gotten right away. Deeply rooted in their theological imaginations is the parable of the vineyard from the prophet Isaiah, where God plants and cares for the vineyard as a master gardener, a gardener who expects not wild grapes but good grapes.
I may not know anything about sheep, but I get gardening. I’m not a superior gardener like our own Grace Peters, who has adopted gardens all over the state, and who is known to commit random acts of gardening wherever she goes. But I do love to get my hands into the soil, and to watch the magic that happens when a seed sprouts or the peonies reemerge after a long hard winter. In January, when the dead of winter has set in, you are likely to find my husband and me pouring over the newly arrived seed catalogues in a pool of lamplight on those long dark nights. While the snow is making giant snow monsters out of our gas grill and picnic table, we raise our eyes from those seductive catalogues and look out into the blinding snow only to see the Garden of Eden rising up from the soil.
What I failed to understand in my early years of gardening in New Hampshire is how brutally unforgiving the soil is there. You put a shovel in the ground and you dig up rocks. You clear a garden patch of all the rocks, only to have more rocks take their place by the next spring, the frost heaving up rocks every winter like a kid spitting out watermelon seeds. When I complained about all of the rocks to a neighbor, he said “Oh yes, we call those New Hampshire potatoes.” If I were to describe my gardening experiences in New Hampshire in a word it would be “grueling.” I look back at my garden in Massachusetts with a fondness that isn’t rooted in reality. For even in the halcyon days of gardening here in the commonwealth, there were bad moments.
Years ago my heart was badly broken by a pumpkin. I had lucked out and planted a garden in one of the richest patches of soil I’ve ever had the good fortune to till. This was in Massachusetts, my sad soil experiments in New Hampshire still in the distant future. I had never grown a pumpkin before, so I planted the seeds and sure enough one of the pumpkin plants took off and started producing something that actually looked like a pumpkin, it was orange and round and everything. The thing kept getting larger and larger and larger until I was starting to think “State Fair Entry!” Pride cometh before the fall, because then, in a shocking reversal, the pumpkin started to shrink. As quickly as it had expanded it grew smaller and smaller, until it started to collapse from underneath. I was crushed. Upon investigation, I discovered that a squash vine borer had set up residence inside the vine, and that had killed the plant. Who knew that a little bug could do so much damage? A vine is the plant’s umbilical cord; without that connection to the earth’s nourishment the plant will wither on the vine. And my pumpkin was totally withered.
Jesus said: “I am the vine, you are the branches.” As I read this passage over and over again this week, the image of my profoundly collapsed pumpkin kept coming to mind. If the plant’s connection to the vine is compromised in some way, then it’s capacity to flourish is reduced if not diminished completely. There is a direct correlation between the nature of our attachment to the divine and the quality of life we produce. If our lives are to be expressions of God’s abundance then a healthy and life giving connection to God is required.
The vine and the branches image is all about the quality of our attachment to God. Attachment. Psychologist John Bowlby was one of the first researchers who studied how infants attach to their caregivers. As the parent sees, hears, notices, mirrors and responds to the infant’s most basic needs then the child establishes a sense of security in the world, and is able to begin to explore from that secure base. When the child has a secure attachment to the primary adult in their life, they may become distressed when separated from the adult, but underneath they have the confidence that the adult will return. When a child does not have a secure base they may develop difficulties with attachment, becoming ambivalent, avoidant, or reactive to attachment to others at all. Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches causes us to take a closer look at our attachments in life, not only in our early family history and on into adulthood, but he also challenges to look at our attachment to God.
I am the vine, and you are the branches,” Jesus says to his disciples as they gather around the table the night before his death. If ever there was a time to experience separation anxiety, this would be it. Jesus tries to comfort his closest friends that even if they are separated, that their relationship, their attachment to one another and to God, would remain secure. That the vine of holiness that held them together would not break, even under the most extreme stress.
In this passage in John’s gospel, Jesus rambles on about the image of the vine and the branches and keeps stressing the importance of “abiding” in him. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this phrase “abide in me” in The Message reads: “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.” “Move in,” Jesus says, inviting us to make our attachment to him permanent and secure. “Don’t just leave your toothbrush at my house and a change of underwear,” Jesus says, “Bring all of who you are.”
I don’t know how your attachment history reads. I don’t know if you hold people at arm’s length or run away when someone gets close or if you don’t have an issue at all with becoming attached. I don’t know how you would describe your level of closeness or distance to God, if the vine is strong, or if you feel your relational connection with God is withering like my pumpkin on the vine. But I do know that God invites each one of us to move closer, to take up residence in God’s heart, to cultivate the soil of the life of our soul through spiritual practices so that the vine will grow deep roots. So come to the table this morning, to be nourished and close to God, to heal and strengthen the vine that connects you to God. “Abide with me,” Jesus said to his disciples as they gathered around that table. “Abide with me,” he says to us as we eat of this bread and drink of this cup. AMEN.