Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Fifth Sunday of Eastertide
May 2, 2021
1 John 4.7-16
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes[a] so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
We have had such an early and gentle spring this year, people who garden have got their hopes up. That little bit of snow last week notwithstanding, there is some temptation to do the hardening off and planting out of seedlings soon, even though it is only the very beginning of May. We are all longing for the signs and promises of new life that the season brings after a long locked-down winter, but the Farmers’ Almanac says gardeners should be careful! (Even so, I am taking a chance on the herbs.)
In many translations of our Gospel passage, we hear Jesus saying that God is a gardener. The one who plants the vine in the first place, putting it in just the right place to flourish. The gardener provides water and staking and fertilizer, is the one who prunes away branches that have died or are too crowded. The gardener’s main concern is that the vine branches should be helped to produce plentifully. It’s a powerful image, though a bit daunting if you happen to be wondering whether you are a fruitful branch. Perhaps it’s more helpful to think of branches as parts of yourself, of which some will just gently be trimmed or removed, while others are given space and light to thrive. The gardener wants the whole plant to do well.
The real point of it is that what makes the branches fruitful is the organic connection with the main plant. And the substance of that connection is love. The passage from the letter of John that Chuck read today brings this home – the writer stresses the central importance of love, and constant flow between God’s love and human life. God’s love is the sap that takes the nutrients from soil to leaf-tips and new buds. Goes so far as to say that everyone who does love, knows God, and that you just can’t know anything about God if you don’t love. For God is love, as he says. And we probably agree with that.
But there are times when loving and being loved are just as difficult as knowing God.
This Sunday has been designated as Mental Health Sunday by the larger church. The stated objective is ‘to decrease stigma and shame, and instead offer grace and support.’ This focus is especially apt after our long year of covid, which has intensified mental health challenges for so many people, and also helped us recognize that mental health needs to be an explicit goal for everyone. It is time to think of mental health in the way we think of physical health, as something that we teach and promote among the well and the relatively well – in addition to offering compassion and seeking adequate treatment for those who are ill. You can’t take it for granted.
So much of mental health turns on the question of love. The need for it, the lack of it, the ways it can be distorted, the ways it can heal. Human beings need to be connected to one another in ways that allow the nutrients to flow and the care to be received and the new growth to flourish. Whether we feel more like a sturdy tree in a sheltering forest, or a sprawling vine on a well-tended rootstock, or a lone sprout in a chilly spring, each person needs the attention of a devoted gardener. In every season of our lives, there will be a need for more sunlight or more shade, more water or less, a little extra compost, or some weeding. You can do a certain amount of this yourself in measures of self-care – through rest, and good nutrition, and exercise. The right mix of stimulation and quiet. And we offer this kind of care to one another through families and friendships. You could say that the primary function of the church is to be a gardener, tending the souls of the gathered community in prayer and mutual encouragement.
What Jesus reminds his followers is that the ultimate source of all soul gardening is God’s love. That that love will keep them – keep us – connected both to him and to each other. Even when you are at your least lovable, or least loving, no matter how slow the spring, you are always surrounded by the love that is God. And that love will regenerate you.
Let yourself be gardened. And give God thanks.