Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes
John “I am the vine, you are the branches”
26 February 2015
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church
I am the vine, says Jesus, and Abba is the vine-grower. We are the branches if we stay connected. Christians usually leap quickly to the latter parts of this passage, but the essence comes at the beginning. God the vine-grower is the source of all life and creativity. Jesus is the way we tap into, or root ourselves in, that creative source. We become fruitful through connection to that source and the generativity that results. Jesus defines that as being disciples, followers and students, as well as teachers of others.
A grape vine is fruitful in a variety of ways, not only in producing grapes. The tendrils that bind the vine to a tree or the vine-grower’s posts and wires are essential to holding the vine up in the air and sunlight, without which it will rarely produce great harvests of good grapes. The leaves themselves produce food for the entire plant – and its surrounding ecosystem. So do the unseen and often forgotten roots, and healthy rootstock is key to the vine’s survival. The bark on a vine gradually thickens as it ages, protecting the inner transport mechanisms that move nutrients from one part of the plant to another. And, even though it may cut across your favorite way of understanding the pruning verses, the over-exuberant growth that is pruned away is key to the fruitfulness of the whole, both by prodding the plant to focus its energy on grape-production and by yielding its own life for the sake of greater fruitfulness. Even the life that is yielded in pruning goes to produce more – in the ashes of a burn pile or in slower recycling into soil nutrients. No part of this vine-system is unimportant to the life of the whole. And, indeed, it is more intimately and exquisitely connected than we can see or know.
All of creation works that way, whether we’re reading Genesis or the scientific cosmological and evolutionary story. In the first creation account God is the source of what is, at least once we move beyond “a formless void and darkness over the face of the deep.” Light is separated from darkness, the waters above are separated from the waters below, the waters are separated from dry land – and by the third day fruitful plants are appearing. The emergence of light is blessed as good, but it doesn’t say that means the darkness is cursed – there is something deeply important about their ongoing relationship. Those plants can’t be fruitful without a diurnal rhythm – a time for photosynthesis and a time for rest. Nor can the system be fruitful until there is separation of earth from sea. The ocean doesn’t harbor fruiting plants, other than a handful of species – like sea grasses and mangroves – descended from land plants that have adapted to shallow near-shore environments. Seed and fruit-producing plants began to evolve on land around 400 million years ago, long after bacteria in the sea had begun to fill the atmosphere with oxygen. Once that literal terrestrial flourishing began, and fields and forests began to emerge, it was accompanied by an explosion of animal forms, both insects and vertebrates.
Light and darkness, terra firma and the depths of the sea, bacteria and higher plants, plankton and vertebrates – all are irreplaceable and essential parts of the whole. All forms of fruitfulness depend on interconnection.
Episcopalians are learning to think about our relationship with God and neighbor through a framework of connection called the Five Anglican Marks of Mission. It’s digital shorthand for considering the varied ways in which the divine character of love is made concrete in the world around us. The marks themselves are interconnected through the One who gives us evidence of the love of God in human flesh, through the One who calls us friend. God sends us out to heal the brokenness of the world, the body of God’s creation. Those digits are connected to the hand of friendship Jesus extends, which we are meant to use in meeting and embracing the world. That needs all sorts of different gifts, working together to build up that body in love, as Paul notes: “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
I Proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God
The connections between vine, branches, and vineyard-maker undergird our theological understanding of what it means to be human, and to be in fruitful relationship with all that is. That is fundamentally what the good news we proclaim is about: there is a divine source of all that is, all of it is shot through with the glory of God, and we are held within that web of relationship for our own ultimate well-being and the well-being of all the rest. Christians use more particular language for that, and Paul’s words are among the most familiar: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The more ancient psalmist sets this fundamental reality in the context of the wider creation. God interpenetrates all that is, and we cannot avoid or escape the life-giving urge and life-expanding embrace:
“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
Although he wrote about that interconnectedness nearly a century and a half ago, Gerard Manley Hopkins sounds prescient when he speaks of oil, toil, and what we’d call consumption:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Creation has anciently been called the “sacrament” of God, an outward and visible sign of God’s creative reality, in which are held all parts of the created order. The interrelated, social, connected reality of creation is an outward image of what we speak of as the inward, Trinitarian nature of God. The three persons of the Godhead are variously understood as companions (Rublev’s icon), a dance party (perichoresis), and as originator, sanctifier, and sustainer of creation. The goodness and blessedness of God’s creation is sign, meaning, and evidence of divine participation in all that is.
II Teach, baptize, nurture new believers
Jesus uses the vine and branch and source image to speak of disciples who “abide” in connection with that divine social reality. We often dismiss that word “social” as something vaguely unholy, perhaps not substantial enough for serious consideration. Yet social has its roots in linguistic contexts of companionship, alliance, living together, even the union of marriage. Its deeper origins are in the same root from which we get sequence and sequential, with a sense of following. To follow Jesus is to give evidence of the inner life of God as a society of connectedness.
Growing fruitful followers of Jesus is both about educating people in the relational nature of reality, and countering the heretical view that “me and Jesus” is all that matters. To love God and love our neighbors as ourselves is not an individualistic endeavor; it is a profoundly social one, rooted in eating and spending time together, discovering the creativity of God in relationships with neighbors and the wider world. To put it another way, the abiding friends of Jesus know their interdependence – on one another and the source of life. Abiders understand their task as moving outward (love of neighbor and God), rather than solely inward. Mission means sent. There is an ever-present strand in Christianity that tends to see the primary spiritual task as love of God in ways that build up the self and deny the presence of God in others and the world. That strand often results in sectarian and extremist responses, rather than ones that recognize and affirm the interconnectedness of all that God has made. At the extreme, it amounts to lopping off the branch you’re sitting on.
Missional formation shapes members of the vine who know they have received unique gifts, and know their dependence on the unique gifts of others. Loving God and neighbor looks like the response of fellow passengers when a person shouted at a Muslim woman in a headscarf, “this is America!” The woman’s reflection is telling, “The unity I felt on the airplane was just overwhelming. So many people were consoling me. People were very gentle and nice to me and my husband. This is America. That’s the American response.” I beg to differ, for it’s not an American response. It is a moral response, the result of good spiritual and ethical formation. It demonstrates love of neighbor, and it is a result of people who understand their interconnections with one another and with the source of life. Those anonymous passengers who were compassionate in the face of another’s vitriol were being fruitful. The result is more abundant life – which in a very real way makes the source of that life more evident.
III. Respond to human need with loving service
The outward move to love neighbors in the world is one that continues to challenge this Church. For a long time, and in many places, we have acted as though all our neighbors were already in the pews with us. Episcopalians have often learned to love those neighbors more completely, sometimes so well that they and we have thought the work was done. Yet Jesus continues to call his disciples – his vine-friends – outward and onward into Galilee, and to discover him there.
Galilee is not the safety of congregation or family home. It is literally “the district” or “the neighborhood.” It implies getting out of your comfort zone to meet the neighbors God has created for the world’s well-being as well as our own. We’re sent to be neighbors, loving ones, and to stay connected to the vine and source. What does it look like but listening deeply to the cries of people wandering in the wilderness? We have to hear and experience the need before we can respond in loving ways. When people throng to Jesus, that’s why he asks what they want, and what they’re seeking. We have to ask to hear the story of another, and wait until it emerges. It’s not a passive stance, but an act of creative expectation, what Nelle Morton famously called “hearing people into speech.” Listening to the lament is an act of solidarity that inaugurates a loving response.
Loving responses are acts that reconnect or strengthen weakened connections. Jesus’ itinerant ministry was mostly focused around feeding, healing, and teaching the people who came looking for him. They were hungry, hurting, and hopeless – and he responded in ways that met their need. Many communities of faith feed the hungry, teach children and adults. A growing number are engaged in active ministries of healing – 12-step groups, sacramental liturgies of healing, parish nursing and opening health clinics. Yet there are varieties of brokenness and pain in need of healing.
An emerging response in Western Massachusetts is focused on the needs of parents with addiction issues. The priest who’s leading this new development spends much of her time “having conversations.” Effective and appropriate loving response will emerge from that listening. Episcopal Relief and Development is grounded in this kind of community-centered approach, and begins its work in new places by helping the community to tell its own story – to notice and express both its need and the resources already present. Sometimes this is called Asset-Based Community Development. It’s ancient – and one reason why Jesus has been called a community organizer. How were 5000 people fed? How did the feast at Cana continue when the wine ran out? The gifts and resources already present were identified and blessed – and great abundance resulted.
Congregations are increasingly working together with partners from other faith traditions (and none) to respond to the needs in their neighborhoods in loving ways. Even recognizing that those other partners have gifts is an important step in discovering abundance. When the ties that bind us are affirmed, life abounds. Whether those other parts of the body are Muslim, Mormon, or Methodist, the need to feed the hungry and heal the sick and hear the lament can be more effectively answered together. Ferguson and Staten Island are reminding us of that reality, as is Pasco, Washington.
IV Transform unjust structures, challenge violence, pursue peace and reconciliation
Our connections to the vine may become most evident when the branches are ailing. The rising economic inequalities, both in the U.S. and globally, bring with them increased conflict, poorer health, reduced life possibilities and shortened lifespans. Childhood poverty now stands at 30% in this country (#6 globally) and the effects will reverberate for generations. We are attached to a vine who insisted that abundant life was the reason for the vine and the garden’s existence. Some seem to ask, ‘What do these budding branchlets have to do with us?’ The health of entire societies is tied up in how we care for the weakest and poorest among us.
The health of the vine is also at risk when surrounded by active conflict. The work of peace-making is essential to restored vigor and fruitfulness. That work of peacemaking requires ongoing engagement with all parties, yet the sad reality is that human response is often to cut off contact with anyone deemed an enemy. There is little possibility of healing when connection is lost. But when people on both sides are willing to be vulnerable to the painful stories and realities of those on the other side, miracles begin to happen, even when civil and military officials can’t manage to make peace. We’re seeing hopeful signs of that right now in Israel-Palestine, as settler rabbis and former Palestinian freedom fighters sit down together and begin to understand the fear and woundedness on both sides.
Violence is anything that works to limit or take away life – the very word means something like “against life.” Violence can be verbal, physical, or systemic. It is often directed at people who are seen to differ from some group norm – and the prevalence of gender-based violence says a great deal about the need to broaden social norms to include all human beings, not only males. The Anglican Communion is engaging this work with great clarity and focus, particularly in regions where GBV is used an implement of war or terror.
Systemic violence can be gender-based, as the overwhelmingly female percentages of human trafficking victims demonstrates. It can also be based in race or economic status. The rates of mass incarceration in this country speak to that reality – black and brown young men have appallingly high probabilities of being arrested and incarcerated, and as this nation is beginning to understand, a much higher likelihood of being assaulted or killed in interactions with police. The link with poverty is less well known, but the cycle of penal enslavement based on inability to pay fines is a growing reality for the poor. Can’t pay a traffic fine? Well, if you’re stopped again, in many jurisdictions you will likely go to jail and stay there until you can, all the while being charged for your keep. Municipal fines for your child’s truancy can land you there as well. This, in a nation that believes that debtors’ prisons went out with the Revolution.
The health of the entire vineyard depends on just and fruitful connections for all the branches of the vine. There will be no long-term generativity or sustainability for any part of the vine absent intentional solidarity with the poor and oppressed and a search for more abundant life for all.
V Safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth
Finally, unless we care for the garden in which the vine is planted with something approaching the tender hope of the One who planted it, we are only digging our own grave. We are long past the time when human depredation of the garden could be limited to a narrow field. Our ability to transform the environment is perhaps the most significant aspect of what it means to be made in the image of the Creator. Yet we too often continue to choose paths that lead into empty wastelands, denying our connections with those who dwell in teeming cities as well as all the creatures who share this garden with us.
The exhaust from power production is casting a pall over the earth – and it is a funeral pall. As it fouls the air we breathe and contains the heat of sunlight, we are not so slowly melting icecaps, acidifying and expanding the oceans, threatening coastal populations with flooding, limiting the areas where food can be grown, changing the climate and making weather events more extreme – and it is accelerating the loss of species across the globe.
The diversity of species in an ecosystem is central to an ecologist’s definition of its health – those with few species are generally in crisis or its aftermath. Diversity contributes to the resilience of a system, and when it’s reduced, relatively small disruptions can bring radical changes. Think of what happens after a forest fire. A severe one kills most of the trees and brush which provided the skeletal structure of the forest. With little to hold back the runoff, rains wash soil and ash into drainage ways, smothering fish and insects. Increased sunlight on barren ground yields bumper crops of one or two weed species. It takes decades and centuries for a similarly resilient system to return, and it will likely not be the same system that existed before the fire. The loss of interconnectedness brings chaos. Eventually God creates anew, but what was before is often lost.
I’ve categorized this reality as power production. It’s not only the output from power plants and car engines that is causing climate change and species extinction. In a theological sense, this as a Garden of Eden problem. It is the human desire to control or use every part of the garden for our own. Our hunger for power is partly about electricity, but it’s also wrapped up in the hunger for more and more meat and animal products. Livestock production is the second major producer of greenhouse gases. There is growing awareness of the inhumane ways in which many livestock are managed, but the very problem is a sign of human hunger for power over all parts of creation. The growing populations and prosperity of developing nations mean that this challenge is likely to be before us for generations.
The greatest challenge is to recognize our interconnectedness – with other parts of creation and with our human neighbors – and recognize and restrain our power hungers. It’s past time to repent, turn around, and go in a holier direction, back into well-bound relationship with the vine and the source of all that is. That is the direction of sustained fruitfulness and the generativity that abundant life implies. Go and follow Jesus, into the neighborhood, unto ages of ages (ut seculae seculorum).
 John 15:1-10
 Gen 1:1-2:4a
 Devonian period, ca 420-360 million years ago
 Ephesians 4:15-16
 Romans 8:38-39
 Psalm 139:7-12
 Heed, pay attention to
 Anthony of Egypt, Philokalia: “Creation declares in a loud voice its maker and master.”
 First noted by Gregory of Nazianzus
 secular comes from a different root, meaning a generation, age, or span of time
 e(x)-duco, as “bringing out” or “leading forth”
 Matthew 28:10, “Don’t be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
 The Journey is Home, Boston: Beacon, 1985. p 127
 Even though the Constitution forbids imprisonment for debt, de jure debtors’ prisons existed in the US well into the 19th century, and de facto incarceration for debt exists in multiple jurisdictions today