April 29, 2018
Fifth Sunday of Eastertide
Recently I was driving around town when I noticed that I had a voicemail from my landlord. But instead of wait til I got home to calmly listen to the voicemail, I suddenly pulled over on the side of the road. My heart was pounding, my palms began to sweat and my mind began racing, because I was certain that I was somehow in trouble. Perhaps my landlord had finally caught on that we have a cat that we never told him about. Or maybe he had finally gotten fed up with all the deliveries for House for All Sinners and Saints that I admittedly sometimes let pile up in the lobby. And when I got the courage to push play on the voicemail, it just made things worse because all he said was, “Hey Reagan, can you call me asap? I need to talk to you about something in your apartment.” Whatever shred of hope I had that he might not actually be mad at me, left me at that point because for me one of the most terrifying sentences in the English language is, “I need to talk to you.” Whenever anyone says they need to talk to me, it doesn’t matter if that person is my best friend or someone I’ve never had any kind of trouble with, I just blanketly assume that I’m in trouble.
This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I’ve been thinking about that part of me that lives defensively. That part of me that works so hard to protect the Reagan that I want people to see. And I’ve been thinking about how fragile this defensive part of me is, when all it takes is a simple voicemail or email or request to talk for it to feel like it’s all going to come crashing down. And I think this part of me is so fragile because it knows deep down that the Reagan it tries to protect isn’t really Reagan after all. That the image of me I try and project into the world does not really exist outside my imagination, because it is my False Self. And my true self, the part of me that is created and held and protected by God, that true self has nothing to do with the part of me that lives defensively, anxiously and afraid.
And it’s our True Self that our Gospel for today speaks of. Our True Self is the part of all of us that will always remain interwoven in the DNA of Christ. It’s the Divine root of our being that remains firmly planted, even when everything else gets pruned away. Our true self is the part of us that God is always carefully protecting, by pruning and clearing away the dead wood of our false selves so that the Divine lifeblood can flow freely into the parts of us that will never pass away.
But I’ve not always heard the allegory of the Vine and Branches in this way. I used to see it through the lens of my defensive self. Just like when I got that voicemail from my landlord, the message I got from the Vine and Branches was that I was probably in big trouble. Because the part I focused on was where Jesus says, “Unless someone remain in me he is like the branch that has been cast outside and has withered, and they gather them up and cast them in the fire, and they are burned.” Is Jesus talking about me? What kind of branch am I? Am I one of the short ones, the super skinny spindly branches, or am I that one that’s just barely hanging on and will get snapped off the next time the wind blows? But what I missed in hearing the Gospel this way is the part about Jesus being the very vine itself. Because it doesn’t say that Jesus is the trunk of the vine, or the center stalk of the vine and that we are the individually and separately the branches. No, it says that Jesus is the whole thing, the whole vine- branches, roots, trunk and shoots. Which means that Jesus is mixed up with all of us and that we are all part of one big Divine organism, the body of Christ. And THAT means that this organism we are a part of isn’t divided up into different parts where there is more of Jesus in this part and less of Jesus in that part. The whole thing is united by Christ who flows through all of it.
Ok. So, Jesus is in all of it, but that defensive part of me still worries if I am in trouble. It still wants to know if I am one of the branches that gets thrown into the fire. But this is also the part of me that insists upon there even being a ME to begin with that is totally separate from and different from everyone else. This is the part of me that isn’t really cool with the idea that my existence is part of your existence, and that your struggle is therefore also my struggle. Because my defensive self isn’t really concerned with anyone else. All it cares about are whether I have enough to eat, whether my bank account is in the black and whether or not my job is secure. And yet, what I hear throughout the Gospel is that we are all one in the Body of Christ, and because we are all one, there can be no Reagan that is totally separate from Meghan or Peter or Lou. And so, if there is no Reagan separate from Lou, then there can be no branch in the vine that is totally Reagan and that can therefore be lobbed off eliminating Reagan forever. Which got me to wondering if each one of us are somehow present in all the branches, just like Jesus is present in the whole vine. And what if those twigs and withered up branches that get thrown into the fire, what if those are just our false selves, our defensiveness, self-centeredness and pride. And that over time our false selves are what get pruned and burned away until all that is left is the Divine image of Christ, which frees us and the whole world to be our true selves.
That is a message I can get behind because I know it is a message I need to hear and it appears to be one that the world needs to hear. Because every time that I read or hear a man respond to women’s testimonies of sexual assault with “not all men” or every time a white person responds to the oppression of people of color by saying “not all white people” we are responding out of our defensive selves, out of the parts of us that are most concerned with preserving an image of ourselves. And it’s the part of us that wants to maintain the lie that we are separate. But the message of the Gospel is that we are not separate, and therefore, every time we have the privilege of hearing the experience of another person, we are hearing another piece of our own story. And it is an opportunity to see our true self more clearly, which is the Body of Christ, where all of our lives intersect and are interwoven.
And to get close to our true self is to surrender our false self, the part of us that never really existed in the first place. Thomas Merton, one of the fathers of modern contemplative practice, wrote: “Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the [person] that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about them.” I love this idea that our false selves are actually the parts of us that are unknown to God. And thus, as God, the great gardener, continues to prune Her beloved vine, she’s just removing the stuff that never meant anything to her in the first place… So that our True selves will bear fruit and we will see that God has come close to us, not to throw us into the fire, but to free us to truly live. And in so doing, slowly but surely we might back away from our defensive living and fall into the mercy of our one shared life.
Because we gain nothing by expending energy on the fears and anxieties and defenses, all things that are passing away. God has created us for much more than this.
Oh, by the way, when I eventually called my landlord, all he wanted was to know where the cable box was located in my apartment.
Thanks be to God.