When I was growing up my father planted two peach trees on what we good folk of Akron call “the devil strip.” It is that narrow swath of land between the street and the sidewalk. Well, a year or two passed and without any prompting, those two trees began to produce peaches. A lot of peaches. Manifold, delicious peaches. More peaches than our family could eat. Every morning in the summer I awoke to the sound of a garbage truck stopping in front of our house. The men on it discovered our peaches during their weekly pick-up and now drove by every day to help themselves to breakfast. As I recall, the summer of peaches lasted only two years. The third summer the trees bore nothing and within a year or two died and had to be cut down. We didn’t know about pruning or nutrients or identifying blight. We just let them grow on their own and that is how they thrived and that is how they died – on their own.
This morning we hear Jesus present yet another metaphor to describe our relationship with him. Last week we heard him say, “I am the Good Shepherd.” This week he says, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” As with last week’s image, which we understand even though we have never met a shepherd, so too this week’s image speaks clearly and powerfully even though most of us have never worked in a vineyard.
I suspect the act of pruning is grounded both in judgment and in nurturing. If a branch is broken or not bearing fruit, it must come off. Or, if it is growing in a way which over time will be harmful to the whole, it must be pruned. This is the judgment. But cutting back can also be a healthy, revitalizing activity, giving the plant its best possibility to thrive and produce. Jesus says he does both. He calls us to account when and where we are in the wrong. He nurtures and nourishes us so we may flourish.
When reading a passage of the bible, I always pay attention to verbs set in the imperative, that instruct us to do something. Today’s gospel reading has two imperatives: abide and ask. “Abide in me as I abide in you.” “If you abide in me… ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Abide and ask.
The verb John uses translated as abide carries the sense of remaining. Jesus talks about the Father abiding with the Son (14:23) and the Holy Spirit abiding with them (14:17). When Jesus tells his followers “In my Father’s house there are many mansions”, the word used for mansions comes from the root word abide. A literal translation might be, “In my Father’s house there are many places to abide.” To abide with Jesus is to be in a place or a state where one is deeply at home. We can only go out into the world and be fruitful if we have a place where we can abide and be “at home.”
Home does not necessarily mean the physical space where you live, although no doubt this is a part of it. Your abiding place includes a place of solitude where prayer and reflection are possible. It includes a place to worship and people to worship with. It includes family and close friends. It is also a soothing place or a time – perhaps sitting on your deck drinking coffee while watching the sunrise.
Whatever elements make up your abiding place, take even one away and you will soon begin to feel out of sorts. You have been working on the road and haven’t had time to be with your family. You have been sick and can’t get to church. You have had to hit the ground running each morning and can’t relax and drink your coffee. Whatever it is, take it away and you will begin to feel it. Your fruitfulness will diminish (even if you are producing at a voluminous level).
Ask is the second imperative. I have an odd reaction whenever I hear Jesus say, “Ask and it will be given to you.” I am confident if I ask Jesus to make my lotto ticket a winner I am soon going to be holding a worthless piece of paper in my hands. I can ask God to take away a friend’s life-threatening illness, but it doesn’t always happen. I don’t think Jesus is a genie in a lamp which, if rubbed, will be bound to grant three wishes. So what does Jesus mean when he directs us to ask?
The Greek word used here carries with it the sense of resolve or require. It is not something flippant, extravagant, or trivial, but rather something necessary. And taken in the context of the command to abide, it seems to say, “Whatever you need to abide in me, ask, and I will give it to you.” So here is a question you may not be able to answer right away, but may want to ponder: What do you need to be able to abide in Jesus?
I always thought if I was shipwrecked on a deserted island, either alone or with a group of people, or if I was imprisoned, or if I was a hostage, the one thing I would want to carry me through would be a Book of Common Prayer. The ability to keep my daily, weekly, and yearly life grounded in prayer would be a matter of life or death, of hope or despair, of purpose or despondency, of abiding or being truly lost.
The Maharshi noted “that which comes and goes, rises and sets, is born and dies is the ego. That which always abides, never changes, and is devoid of qualities is the Self.” What do you need to sustain the Self, not your passing fancies, but the essence of who you are? Ask for this and you will receive it.
I love this time of year. Even with the pollen, there is something magical about watching trees and plants begin to bud. Through a system of roots, trunks and limbs, they gather water and nutrients and deliver them to the branches. The branches, exposed to the sun and its warmth, break open with new life. Every day I look out my office window and notice more fullness of green not there the day before. The tree and plants are doing what each of us hopes will be true in our lives. They are coming alive. They are bearing fruit. They are flourishing. And they do so not because they set their mind to it, but because they are abiding in a good place.
I think back to those two fruit trees in front of my childhood house. As I said, they lived and thrived on their own, but quickly ran their course and were gone. “I am the vine and you are the branches.” We are more like those peach trees than the mighty oak that endures year after year, through the worst of what the weather may throw at it. We need care, correction, nurture if we are going to survive and bear fruit. In short, we need a place to abide.