Collaborating In Love: Bearing Fruit – Br. James Koester

James Koester SSJEIt’s been a long winter. We still have snow on the ground at Emery House but it seems that spring has come, at last. Things are late however. Two years ago the snowdrops bloomed on March 8 and the squill ten days later. As yet snowdrops are just up, and bloomed for the first time today. The garlic and onions I planted last fall are beginning to poke their heads out of the ground and the chickens are getting incredibly restless. Whereas a couple of weeks ago they would not even emerge from the coop, now they can’t wait to get out in the morning.

Since moving back to Emery House I have learned a lot: about chickens and ducks and geese; about garlic and onions and leeks; about tractors and mowers and bees (and that some mowers and bees don’t mix!). But I probably only know just enough to be dangerous, and not enough yet, to be a good farmer. I am certain there is a great deal more to learn, and I am sure I will learn some of it this year.One thing that I have learned is that farming can be pretty ruthless. You have to be prepared to do a great deal of pruning if you hope to get any sort of crop. This is as true for carrots and radishes as it is for chickens and bees. Pruning and culling the overgrown or weak is as much part of farming as planting and sowing. And you have to be prepared for losses, no matter how good a farm manager you are. I lost five of my six beehives this winter due to winter starvation. They might have survived had I left more food in them last October. But who knows, maybe not. As one guest put it, there’s a lot of death in farming. But each year I learn a little more; some of it I expect, and some of it surprises me.

One thing that has surprised me is how this work makes Scripture come alive. Now while it is a mistake to impose twenty-first century North American farming techniques on first century Middle East practices I can see better what Jesus is getting at when he speaks using agricultural images. He is not simply addressing the crowd in a language they can comprehend. He is also saying something deeply spiritual. This language of vine and vinedresser, pruning and bearing, burning and abiding is deeply practical and profoundly spiritual. The more ruthless the farmer is in pruning, or thinning, the more abundant the harvest. You have to overplant your carrots or lettuce, because the seeds are just so darn tiny. But if you then don’t thin them ruthlessly the plants will be overcrowded, the produce tiny and rot will set in because not enough air can circulate around them, and then there will be problems with slugs and grubs that feed on the rotting growth. If you don’t cut out the dead raspberry canes, clear out the dried asparagus ferns that you let go to seed last summer, or ruthlessly cut back the grape vines and either burn them, or drag them deep into the woods you are inviting a host of problems as various diseases find their way among the healthy by attacking old.

In a way, texts like this are perfect for Lent for we were invited on Ash Wednesday to:
the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. (1)

In a sense we were invited to do the very work that Jesus speaks of in tonight’s gospel so that we might more fully abide in his love and bear much fruit. So let’s imagine for a moment that we have done that, as I know many of you are doing through the Love Life Lenten video series. We have pruned and thinned and cut and burnt the deadwood in our lives. We have been shaped and molded by this experience more and more into the image and likeness of Christ and by it we have come more fully to experience the love of God. And that is Jesus’ invitation to us tonight: to remove everything in our lives that hinders our ability to experience God’s abiding love, just as the farmer removes everything that hinders a plants growth.

Bill McKibben in his recent book Oil and Honey (2) tells us that “education needs to lead to action”. By this, what I think he is trying to say is that if we have truly learned something, then it must shape our life and behaviour. In many ways this is very much what Father Benson was saying in his Epiphany meditation when he reminds us that “none can come to Christ at Bethlehem and go away as they came … Our coming to Christ changes everything.” (3) Each and every encounter with God’s changes us and just as the vine’s encounter with the farmer’s pruning knife leads to an abundant harvest, so our encounter with God’s love changes us, and if it is authentic, leads to action as we collaborate with God in “offering our love in intercessory prayer and action, to be used by God for healing and transformation” (4) of the world.

So what might that offering of love in intercessory prayer and action look like? What might it mean to collaborate in love with God? How might we take seriously McKibben’s words that education must yield action? How might we go home another way, having been changed by our encounter with Christ who is love?

Now here I am going to go out on a limb. As a Canadian, as an outsider, I have always been hesitant to address various issues particular to this country. But actually, I might be the perfect person. So how might collaborating in love with God lead to the healing and transformation of this nation and our world?

But just as you might say to me, James, how would collaborating with God’s love change Canada’s relationship with aboriginal communities, I might say to you, how would collaborating with God’s love change America’s relationship with guns? How many more school children must die before enough is enough? It is not enough simply to know that guns are killing our children. It is not enough simply to pray for an end to gun violence. Our knowing must produce action. Our love must produce change. Our pruning must produce abundance.

And just as you could say to me, James, how would collaborating with God’s love address the issues of that toxic stew that is the Athabasca Tar Sands and how might it change Canada’s relationship with the environment and the natural resource based economic sector, I might say to you how would collaborating with God’s love affect America’s race relations and address the fact that an overwhelming majority of this nation’s prison inmates are poor, black uneducated men and boys? It is not enough simply to know that race and poverty play a role in who is convicted of what crimes. It is not enough simply to pray for prison reform and the end of capital punishment. Our knowing must produce action. Our love must produce change. Our pruning must produce abundance.

And just as you might say to me, James, how would collaborating with God’s love address the issues of Canada’s inability to deliver on its promise of quality healthcare for all, I might say to you how would collaborating with God’s love affect America’s hesitancy to deliver quality healthcare to all. It is not enough simply to complain about healthcare or even simply to throw more dollars at the problem. Our knowing must produce action. Our love must produce change. Our pruning must produce abundance.

It’s pretty overwhelming isn’t it? How on earth do we collaborate with God’s love? Where on earth should we even begin when it comes to guns, or race or justice or any other issue that faces this nation? After all, I am only one person. But being overwhelmed is not an excuse. Helen Keller once said: I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do. (5)

So what is the one thing you will do for God today? How will you demonstrate to yourself, never mind anyone else, that’s God’s love has transformed you and propelled you into action? How will you bear witness that love, offered in humility can reach across barriers of race and culture? It might be as simple at turning off a light or taking cloth bags to the grocery store. It might be as radical as planting a bed of lettuce in your back yard. It might be as prophetic as participating in a gun reform demonstration.

We have a task, and that task is nothing less than building the city of God. The bricks for that city are made with love. The mortar is our passion. The plumb line is lives molded and shaped in the image and likeness of Christ. Let’s get to work, and really build that city of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. It’s a daunting task but God has promised that those who abide in him will bear much fruit. So let’s get to work and start building.

  1.  BCP; 1979, page 265
  2.  Bill McKibben; Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, Time Books, 2013, as quoted in Bee Culture, September 2013, page 14
  3.  R.M. Benson; Spiritual Readings: Christmas; 1880, page260
  4.  SSJE; Rule of Life: The Mystery of Intercession, page 49
  5.  Helen Keller (1880 – 1968); source unknown. Some attribute this quotation to the poet, author and Unitarian clergyman Edward Everett Hale.

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  1. Paula on April 14, 2014 at 03:27

    Yours is the voice of the prophet, Br. James, propelling those of us who care but feel overwhelmed by the toxic soup of dilemmas. Thank you for re-energizing our call to justice and hope.

  2. Pam on April 5, 2014 at 11:22

    Thank you, Br. James. As most of our biblical analogies are quite literally grounded, it’s a challenge for us who are no longer an agrarian society to hear the nuances when reading through our urban lenses. Today when I read your reference to pruning the vines and culling out the weak, I gained a new awareness regarding the need to clear and burn the old dead wood. In my lifetime, that part has been used as a reference to punishment… “ya better watch out or else you’ll end up in the fires.“ Today… I don’t think so. Today it reads as another portion of God’s abundant and loving protection… removing the source of rot and disease as prevention and nurturing care. “Nurturing protection” and a source of love vs. fear.
    As for speaking out, I take great comfort in knowing the impact that comes from simply using our voice… one person at a time. This video clip states it well. Pam

  3. Tammy Lee on April 4, 2014 at 09:04

    Powerful images particularly as I work in my own garden and know now the power of pruning….it never crossed my mind what that might mean in my own life despite having worked this passage for years. Thank you…..

  4. Margo on April 3, 2014 at 08:12

    Br. James, What a great beginning of a sermon. It would be utterly fantastic – a truly burning fire of love if you had included the economic taxation system that has allowed ‘barn building’ of the country’s resources to such an extent that we now have unprecedented ‘income inequalities’ that continue to grow and promote many of the other things you mention.
    And after more than 10 years in a country where you intend to spend the rest of your life – ‘outsider’ status?
    You have a responsibility with every one else to address ‘entitled privilege’ you live with that cause suffering for others. Your eyes may see things that the ‘natives’ take for granted and Americans have never extended this respect to the rest of the world. Confrontation not Hesitation is love in these circumstances.
    I am so sorry about the bees. Hopefully they will rebuild.
    Thank you for this. May there be much more. Margo

  5. Ruth West on April 3, 2014 at 00:21

    I used to belong to an organization which used the quote from Helen Keller as our motto. However, I did not know until your sermon that it came from Helen Keller. This is a good sermon. I was raised on a farm; so much of this harks back to those days of my childhood when planting, fertilizing, pruning, hoeing and gathering in the produce was so much a part of my family’s life. Thanks!

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