Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Planting, Pruning

Let’s hear it for the trees! In just the past few days they’ve begun exploding in bud—maybe I hadn’t been paying attention, but on Friday it looked as if someone had flipped a switch and suddenly we’re seeing green, as if the trees were saying, “Hey, it’s Arbor Day! Let’s do it!”

We know there is a flip side to all this proleaferation. Many of us have brought rakes to church today to deal with the down side, as we tackle what may be a first: an all-generations Sunday-morning spring cleanup of last year’s leaves, not to mention a winter’s load of beer cans.

I want to thank all of you who will be part of this work project. You’re helping us deal with a serious budget deficit by reducing our dependence on paid help. Speaking of paying, there’s another way to help St. John’s keep its fiscal head above water: with the arrival of quarterly statements from the Treasurer, it’s time for parish households to make sure they’re caught up with their estimated giving. Perhaps, in this season of resurrection it’s time to exceed what you and I estimated we would give this year—and perhaps the arrival of a federal rebate check in the coming days will provide that opportunity.

But enough about that kind of greenery. Not only was Tuesday Earth Day and Friday Arbor Day, but today is Rogation Sunday, from the Latin rogare, to ask. The three days before Ascension Day (so it moves about in conjunction with Easter, since Ascension Day is the 40th day after Easter), these are called rogation days and from as long ago as the 5th century they’ve been days when Christians have marched in procession out to the local fields and gardens to ask for a rich harvest, ask God to keep the fungus off the tomatoes, keep the gypsy moth under control, whatever the local farmers and gardeners saw blocking the way to a bountiful season, that they asked God to work on. In England this parading out and about is called “beating the bounds of the parish.” And in England, as in America, as in every other place on this fragile earth, God has answered such prayer in a slyly respectful manner, along these lines: “Sure, I understand what you’re asking. Now you understand that I am with you always, so get to work as if it all depends on you (even if we know that it all depends on me).”

So in John’s Gospel, a portion not assigned for today but one I thought fits well the greenness of this Sunday, Jesus tells us that he is the true vine—I imagine “true” means true life, potent life, abundant life, eternal life flows through this vine to its branches, and that would be us. “My Father,” Jesus says, “is the vinegrower. He removes the deadwood. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been pruned back by the message I have spoken.”

Come again on that last verse? Our version said, “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” But “cleansed”, it says in the footnotes in my Bible, has the same Greek root as “pruned”.

So the very thing I cringe at doing, deciding to lob off a live branch at a certain point so the bush will be better shaped, the tree healthier, the vine more fruitful (I don’t know what I’m doing when I attempt this, do you?)—that cutting and relinquishing that I have to learn to do by trial and error, Jesus does gracefully and organically by aiming his Word right to the heart of my need to cling and keep, and snip he cuts through my anxious wanting and snip he slices my resistance to change by the appeal and the sharp edge of his Word.

For example, “Consider the lilies of the field. Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as well as they are. They neither toil nor spin, yet your heavenly Mother clothes them perfectly, does she not? So tell me again why you’re worried about your transitional spring wardrobe, hmm?”

Or, “Don’t talk to me about the faith you don’t have. Have as little as a mustard seed, but plant it, use it, and watch it grow. Get out of your own way, for heaven’s sake.”

And by other such horticultural stories he makes his point. The truest work we have to do is to abide in him. To live life on his terms. “Abide 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.”

What is that abiding? Our baptismal covenant that we renewed last Sunday tells us how to abide: Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayer. Persevere in making faithful choices, and, when you fail, open yourself to God’s mercy. Proclaim the message that cuts to the quick. Seek and serve Christ in all persons. Reach for justice and respect the dignity of all life. All these abidings are the real work, the truest work, we have as human beings. These are the abidings God asks of us.

Let’s return to the trees. When pioneers traveled west and settled the Nebraska Territory in the 1850s, many of them from the farmed-out northeast, they missed their trees. Trees were needed as windbreaks to keep the soil in place, needed for fuel and building materials, needed for shade from the sun.

So they planted trees, and it was there in Nebraska that a tree-planting holiday evolved, Arbor Day. More than one million trees were planted on the first Arbor Day, 1872.

In our own day, Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai has led the women and children and men of Kenya in the planting of trees to offset the encroaching desert. Her Green Belt Movement has spread to other African nations, 40 million trees planted under its influence.

Quaker author Elton Trueblood said that “People have made at least a start at understanding the meaning of life when they plant shade trees under with they know full well they will never sit.”

With that in mind, and with all our trees urging us on to do the abiding work we have to do, we take a step today to strengthen our abode, our parish community, and that is to establish St. John’s Arbor Fellowship, a growing circle of people who have used—or will use—their wills, or other means of planned giving, to bless St. John’s and the world that we serve by this form of future stewardship.

You will see their names listed on the upper half of an insert in your leaflet. You’re bound to hear names of people you know as I read them now…

Perhaps you too are in this Fellowship, and we don’t know it yet. We hope this list will grow, like the great oak that is the logo for this Fellowship.

What grows among us also is an abiding gratitude for this creative stewardship the members demonstrate, investing in the future that will be beyond their reach except by their generosity. They understand the respectful ways of God, that for God’s abiding values to work on planet earth, it’s for us to put those values to work now, for the sake of the future.