Pruning Enlightenment (John 15:1-8, 5th Sunday of Easter)

My yard calls me outside every weekend with its tangle of lush, wild growth. It’s spring, just as it’s spring in the joy of the fifty-day Festival of Easter. Does that mean it’s time to spring into action? Not yet. It’s time to BE – to be embedded in the great miracle and mystery of the oneness we share in the living vine of Christ and to allow God to do the necessary tending of the body we are together. The I AM is expressed in the well-pruned we are of the one body.

Contrary to how ‘enlightenment’ is  often seen in modern American culture – an achievement signaling arrival at the pinnacle – this  new dawning of light simply signals another season of growth. Awakening to our essential unity and gifting for the work of God in the world does not mean we are ready to enact it. The old ways of seeing and being still lie close at hand, something like the phantom limbs in the body  memory of an amputee.  It takes times for the new reality to penetrate our life together. Without that time, we run the risk of pouring the new energy and perception into old forms that serve the small self.

Rather than being purified into enlightenment, our enlightenment needs purification. In the same way a living grapevine needs pruning over and over again throughout its productive life, so does our common life. That’s the wisdom of the great, repeating cycle of Quadratos. The annual practice of praying Lent as our communal story opens into Easter, awakening and reawakening us to the essential unity we already are. In the words of Thomas Merton, “We are already one.  But we imagine that we are not.  And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we already are.” (The Asian Journal).

The practices of the journey plant us in the soil of ongoing life in which we touch and retouch that deep truth. To bear fruit out of this truth, we need a master gardener who knows well the art of pruning. Growth is to be disciplined (the same root as the word disciple) rather than being left to its own natural state. Not all shoots are equal; the question is which ones will bear the most fruit and the fruit of highest quality in a particular environment. Why? The new life given is not merely for our own building up but is fuel for eventual service in a hungry world. First, our enlightenment needs pruning.

Rather like steps 6 and 7 step of the 12 step process, the work of pruning is God’s work, not ours. It is the nature of our personal and communal life that we are unable to assess what has ultimate value. The annoying shoot we would lop off may be what is most needed for the eventual health and productivity of the Body in a changing world. Following honest self examination and confession of how it is with us (something like the work of the annual Lenten retreat), the 6th step says simply “Were entirely ready to have God remove our defects of character.” This is followed by step 7, “Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.” Our part is to allow ourselves to be acted upon by BEING ready and then asking God for the necessary pruning.

Our primary work in this season of Easter joy is to abide, a word that appears eight times in four verses. Throughout the Festival season, we are to dwell in the Gift we have received, trusting the pruning of the Spirit to reveal what in us is gift and what needs to be let go or refined. Trust is key; there is no need for hyper-vigilance. The pruning is not a radical rooting out as much as attentiveness to creative purpose: “You have already been cleansed [pruned] by the word [Logos] that I have spoken to you.” The Logos is a living word that creates afresh with us for good beyond what we can now see. What we can ‘do’ in the meantime is to abide in our essential and newly reclaimed unity. Definitions of the word abide (μένω or menō in Greek) all resonate with the need to remain, to tarry, to continue to be. Most especially in this season we are to remain as one, not to become another or different oneness.” (Strong’s G3306)

What a charge! In this season, brothers and sisters in the One Body, let us stay, tarry, remain, BE who we already are, trusting the loving hand of the Gardener to shape us together toward a greater fruitfulness than we can now imagine.

How will we know his voice? John 10:11-18

With the image of the Good Shepherd, Jesus asserts his connection with his disciples which nothing can sever. Unlike the hired hand who has no investment in or true concern for those in her care, Jesus makes the ultimate sacrifice for his friends. He gives up his life so that they may live. He willingly handed himself over so that we could finally know God’s unconditional love.

As we rest in John’s garden during the Easter season, we are being asked to receive this love, to bask in the Son’s glorious fullness. For it is only as we know this love  that we may become unconditional love for others.

In the garden we cultivate the solitude that will let us recognize the “still, small voice” when we hear it.

Two men were walking along a crowded sidewalk in a downtown business area. Suddenly one exclaimed, “listen to the lovely sound of that cricket.” But the other could not hear. He asked his companion how he could detect the sound of a cricket amidst the din of people and traffic. The first man, who was a zoologist, had trained himself to listen to the voices of nature. But he didn’t explain. He simply took a coin out of his pocket and dropped it to the sidewalk, whereupon a dozen people began to look about them. “We hear,” he said,” what we listen for.” As we listen for and hear God’s voice, we will find ourselves being shaped in ways that we would not necessarily have chosen for ourselves. We will find ourselves becoming who God intends for us to be and thus becoming more fully ourselves.

Who are we listening for in the silence of John’s garden?

Now the Festival – Celebrate Our Gifts

It’s that time of year, Springime and the Festival that follows weeks of retreat and our 72 Hours of rejoicing. Yet for many this is also a time to get away and relax. Sun and warmth are returning. The garden blooms (Northern Hemisphere). And the long intense reflections of the retreat (lent) are behind. To add to our daydreaming, the gospel texts in this Festival Season (Eastertide) are largely poetic and mystical. This week’s text from Luke is a lone exception. So using the Quadratos lens – how are we to understand our spiritual life in this Festival Season and through this Sunday’s text?

Let’s remember that through Quadratos we are noting a pattern of grace undergirds our lives. If our weeks of retreat and the 72 Hours of rejoicing have been true – then what naturally follows is a moment where we name and affirm our gifts and giftedness. This week’s text asks us to look at ourselves as Jesus. And to use what Jesus does as a way to see and understand our gifts – individually and collectively.

In the retreat (Lent) we reflected on that within and amongst us that is broken, hurt and separated. Now in the Festival season, we look at what in us is gift and gift offered to others. To see these more clearly – we need to reflect on how Jesus ministers – and how we are like ministers in our daily life. To see the Festival texts as a mirror to how we act as Jesus is a large change for us. And in part this new focus is what I mean by looking at the text as it informs the season rather than the text’s meaning in the scripture. As I continue to raise up for clergy. Through Quadratos, we preach the text as the meaning it has in this Season and its spiritual practice. This is far different than preaching the message of the text as it appears in the scripture.

With a Quadratos focus – let us consider the passage for this coming Sunday. How might we see our giftedness in what Jesus does, says and how he acts? The core piece here is that Jesus stands amidst confusion and fear – perhaps even disbelief and anxiety and offers “shalom.” Recall that we are understanding shalom as a greeting that says: We welcome your wrestling and if held in respect – see wrestling as the fertile soil of wider harmony with each other and with the One Breath of All – our God.

Another piece of this text – the resurrected Jesus is “ordinary.” He has hands and feet and is hungry. This is an important lesson for we who perhaps touched some form of exaltation at Easter. Our work now is to see that “exalted joy” as a grace that lives in the lowly ordinary and humdrum work of life.

When we read Luke’s text of Jesus showing his hands and feet – we need to remember that this text is composed at least ten years before the text of John. We too easily confuse Jesus showing hands and feet to mean the physical scars left from his cruxifixion. In context of this passage – there is nothing here to say that. What we see here is Jesus affirming ordinary bodily life including hunger. Those with him probably knew his hands and his feet. They were body parts well observed. So the focus here is on the usual and the bodily – not necessarily the “marks” which are only pointed out in John.

Now some two weeks from our great rituals of rejoicing – has our Alleluia turned stale from our return to everyday ordinary life. This text asks us to look beneath the veneer of the ordinary to see the glorious. It also asks us to reflect on how we are Jesus. Where are the places of fear and confusion and anxiety – that we are called to calmly step into and speak “shalom”? The peace that we are to bring is not a peace of another time or day – but rather that we can be well in the very midst of our wrestlings.

As we chant in The 72 Hours of Easter – over and over – “Jesus is Risen. Death is No More.” Yes, in the midst of contentious days in spiritual traditions, in Christianity, in great political strife and confusion – we sing, “Shalom” to every wrestling. It is not the wrestling that removes us from the Harmony of our God – but it is our anxiety and confusion over the wrestling. How may you be Jesus this week in the midst of startle, fright, terror and doubt? In the way you bring Shalom to such – this is your gift. Celebrate it – celebrate us!

Luke 24:36b-48 (NRSV translation)
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish,and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you–that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

“Why are you standing there looking up into the sky?” [Acts 1:11]

[This week’s readings are posted below.]

One disadvantage to focusing on a short reading each week is that we can lose sight of the larger story as it unfolds.  I am indebted this week to one of my mentors, Dr. Aaron Milavec, for pointing out that in this scene in the locked room, Jesus seemingly overlooks his having been abandoned by the Twelve.  They, of course are too ashamed to bring it up.  “But,” Milavec continues, “nothing has changed.  Jesus recalls his mission and their mission. [Jn.20:21]  The one and the other both override failure.  He believes in them!  And that is enough….”

Yet as we read the story as it continues in Acts, the disciples response to Jesus’ ascension is to “stand there looking up at the skies.” [Acts 1:11]  Sixteenth-century painter Hans Suess von Kulmbach (The Ascension of Christ)  provides a fitting—and you may find humorous—visual metaphor for the hazard posed also by Thomas’ persistent doubting [Jn.20:27]  Thomas has missed the meeting.  He is still stuck in his unbelief.  Jesus challenges him, “Stop persisting in your doubting. Believe!”  (One might be tempted to add, “Believe! –There’s work to be done!”)

“As our Abba God has sent me, so I am sending you” is a clear call to action—particularly with the disciples having been given the Holy Spirit to go forth with and within them.  Belief is only a first step, not the ultimate arrival point.

Action without belief can be pointless, directionless.  But belief without action is deadly, particularly for the church today.  Note, however, that this is not a polarity. Belief is braided together with action. Both are essential to the task at hand.  “…So I am sending you” means taking up the work of Jesus himself.  And it is not just an individual calling.  Now the community is to stand in the place of Jesus, continuing his work.  (John 17 speaks eloquently of how we, like Jesus, are now no longer of the world, but sent into it, to serve the same continuing purpose.)

Our first reading today [Acts 4:32-37] tells of the new church sharing all resources in common, being of one mind and one heart.  Some believers, for example, sell their property and give the proceeds to the whole body, so that the basic needs of all the believers are met. This is truly belief put into action!


John 20:19-31

19 On the evening of the first day of the week [the same day when Mary Magdalene had brought news of Jesus’ resurrection to the other deciples] the disciples were together with the doors locked for fear of the Temple authorities.  Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”   20 He then showed them his hands and side, the marks of crucifixion. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw him.

21 Jesus said again, “Peace be with you! As our Abba God has sent me,  so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus–‘the twin’), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples kept telling him, “We have seen Jesus!”

But he said to them, “Unless I put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand in his side wound, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the locked room again, and Thomas was with them. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, examine my hands. Put your hand into my side.    Don’t persist in your unbelief!  Believe.”

28Thomas responded to him, “My Savior and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “You have become a believer because you have seen me; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples  which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written to help you believe[or continue to believe] that Jesus is the Messiah, the Only Begotten, so that by believing you may have life in his name.

Acts 4:32-37

32 All the believers were of one mind and one heart. None of them claimed that any of their possessions was their own; instead they shared everything they had. 33  The apostles continued to testify with great power to the resurrection of the Jesus Christ, and God’s grace was powerfully at work in them all. 34 No one among them was needy.  From time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the proceeds, 35 and put the money at the apostles’ feet.  It was then distributed to anyone who had need.  36 There was a certain Levite from Cyprus named Joseph–the apostles had given him the name Barnabas, meaning ‘encourager.’  37 He sold a farm that he owned and made a donation, presenting the money to the apostles.

When Grace Lurches (Mark 11:1-11 & John 12:12-16)

Praying Mark’s approach to the impending passion with a small group last week yielded an eye-opening “A hah!” There are four very different flavors to the texts read over the different years on Palm Sunday, each with its own tone and tasks. When Lent is prayed as the annual retreat of the beloved community, the stories of this Sunday carry us through the gate where we face – again – our own death in our own Jerusalem. This particular one is the death that awaits us through the experience of pathless suffering epitomized by Mark.

Here’s some of what we noticed followed by possible reflections for a community on the 6th Sunday of its annual retreat:

In Mark’s version the Christ is no longer straddling the two animals of Matthew’s first movement (a donkey and a foal, perhaps representing the splitting impossibility of riding both the old vehicle and the new at the same time). The invitation presented by Matthew is for the community to turn from the old vehicles that have allowed goodness to blossom and to undertake a journey on an untried vehicle with an unknown destination. The one thing known is that the road leads to Jerusalem; the ‘gate’ to the new life is through death. In a felt way, the long struggle of Mark is the process of letting go into the death of what was.

To the outer eye this part of the journey is strikingly ungraceful, something like we see in Mark when Jesus the Christ enters Jerusalem riding “a colt that has never been ridden.” One member of our group who spent her summers working at a horse camp makes the point that an untried colt is a wild animal — jumpy, anxious, unpredictable, and given to bucking. Put someone on it and people around it shouting and waving things and you have a circus. This ride was anything but stately. The point is that the ‘new way’ emerging from the death of the old has no tried and true elegance or easy grace of the sort that comes when we’ve done a thing countless times and know how to do it well. In this movement grace lurches.

What’s important is that the journey be undertaken, regardless. Mark’s story has a detail missing in any other Palm Sunday text: “They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street.” Remember, Mark’s Roman community is the one living in fear of the knock on the door that will announce tearing choices to be made. If you are discovered to be Christian, you and your family will be taken to Nero’s circus and killed by wild animals as entertainment. Or you can betray the faith and the community that gives you life by naming another family who will go to their death. Either way is sure death; the first death is physical and the second is a living death that is both spiritual and social. Mark 8:35 was real for this community: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

It would be tempting to hide in terror behind locked doors trying to stave off the moment of reckoning. But this untried colt of Palm Sunday is near a door, outside in the street. Hiding in fear is no salvation. Come out into the public street and face your terror and your death because this is the way to life. Ride this untried Way, as graceless as it may appear, in trust that it is the Way to Life. Christ leads the way.

Another detail unique to Mark is what happens upon Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem. Nothing much! “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” Rather than building to the expected crescendo, the action peters out.

It’s resonant with the slowed down pace of the second path which I often liken to swimming in taffy. It can seem like there’s a lot of jerky uncoordinated movement, something like riding an unbroken colt, followed by a general sense of  vagueness. Why are we here? What now? Unlike Matthew and Luke when action is closer at hand, it takes awhile to build to a cleansing of the temple.

The wonderful counterpoint read on this Sunday is in John’s account which comes on the heels of the raising of Lazarus. There is not a lot of story line; just the response of the people to the one whose reputation precedes him. The Christ of the Cosmos, the living Breath from the time before time simply responds to what is welling up in the people. He finds himself a young donkey to ride and sits on it, heading into his personal death unafraid. He’s unruffled and in charge. It’s a grounding, hopeful reminder of whose great Pattern it is we walk, something the disciples didn’t see and remember until much later. The Good News is that the Living Breath of the Holy is breathing the whole pattern in the times we’re aware and the times we’re stumbling along. It’s not all up to us.

Possible reflection questions for a community in Mark:

  1. How do we as community hold our own times of lurching along without knowing where we’re going or how to get there?  (Are we trying to force a level of orderliness that isn’t right for the time, i.e. a strategic planning process for the future when the task is to ride an untried colt ungracefully into our own death together?)
  2. What is our collective response to the ‘nothing much’ moments when there’s uncoordinated movement followed by a general sense of vagueness and maybe even let down?  Does it signal to us  that there’s something wrong (that needs to be fixed) or can we hold the possibility that such times may be part of a necessary season?  How do we consciously work with and through the seasons of not-knowing and vagueness along the second path?
  3. What does “facing our own death together” look like? Do we hide behind closed doors trying to stave off notice? Are we able to come out into the “public” street with one another, becoming visible with who we are, what we know and what we don’t know?
  4. How are we trying to “save our life” and what is the cost?  How are we riding into losing our life and what does that look like?