A grandfather tells the story of taking his two-year granddaughter out for ice cream. As they were beginning to cross a busy street the grandfather offered the girl his thumb. “You have to hold it tight until we’re inside the ice cream shop, okay” he told her. “This is a busy street.” The girl took one look at the outstretched hand, wrapped her left fist around her right thumb, and said, “No, thank you. I can hold my own.”
No, thank you. I can hold my own. A perfect slogan for our rugged, individualism. No wonder we distrust institutions. So politics becomes voting our self-interest. Economics: what is best for my personal portfolio. Religion: my own spiritual journey.
“I am the vine, you are the branches. Apart from me you can do nothing,” Jesus says. Edgy and tattooed pastor and writer Nadia Bolz-Weber says that Christianity is a lousy religion for the “I can hold my own” or “I can do it myself” set. We are meant to be connected—to be tangled up together. We need the church. When your mom dies, your Yoga teacher isn’t going to bring you a casserole, Nadia adds!
Rabbi and writer Lawrence Kushner says, “If everything is connected to everything else, then everyone is ultimately responsible for everything . . . We find ourselves in a luminous organism of sacred responsibility.”
When I look at a tree I usually see a single entity. Yet a German forester suggests that trees are social beings. In his book, “The Hidden Life of Trees,” he observes that trees help each other when they are sick or in need, pumping nutrients to each other. Forests, then, are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies. Trees communicate with each other and have their own kind of social security, sharing water and nutrients so that each tree can be the best tree it can be.
On a week with images of a vine and branches, we can’t help but think of the long-awaited arrival of spring with emerging shoots, buds, leaves, blossoms, flowers. These fifty days of Easter invite us to arise from our wintry shells and join all nature in waking up. As poet Emily Dickinson writes, “Love is the fellow of the resurrection, scooping up the dust and chanting, live.”
But what does it mean to truly live? We are grafted to the vine, yes, but bound to one another in love. No one can love God whom they do not see and hate their siblings whom they do see, we read in First John. Yet these days we are being reminded of our interconnectedness with all living things—in an ecosystem greater than ourselves. So our seminarian Paisley reminds us, recycling and composting are part of our baptismal vocation to care for the earth. As French president Emmanuel Macron said this past week, in terms of the ways we harm the earth, “there is no planet B.”
In some ways, we’re more connected than ever with other people. Remember when we had to wait for a letter to arrive in the mail or there was something called “long distance?”
Yet studies are showing that constant connectivity has a downside. Social media is causing greater isolation, depression, and loneliness among many teens. Our devices are designed to addict us to them. Soon we are more responsive to our smart phones than we are to other people.
I just finished watching the Netflix series “Thirteen Reasons Why.” Though extremely difficult to watch, a churchy journal urged all pastors to view it. “Thirteen Reasons Why” explores teen suicide, substance abuse, depression, and cyberbullying at a fictional high school. An embarrassing picture posted on Snapchat is the beginning of a chain of events that eventually leads the main character to take her life.
It seems the meaning of community is changing. Can there really be a Facebook “community” that connects two billion users? Communities used to be places where people’s lives were tangled together through work, worship, and play. Now communities are people who like the same things, hate the same things, or believe the same things.
One new book, “Why Liberalism Failed,” makes the point that both political parties promote a liberal polity based on self-interest and private pursuits over a concern for the public good. Republicans trust the market to do that, and Democrats want the government to level the playing field so that individuals may compete more fairly. Either way, the goal seems to be: I can hold my own, thank you.
At our council retreat last weekend, we noted that being rooted in tradition means that we value something beyond ourselves,
something that was before us and will continue after us.
And yet there is always more to learn about the diversity of people and creation. In today’s Acts reading an Ethiopian eunuch desires to be baptized. Not only is he black, he is a sexual minority. Using today’s language, he doesn’t fit gender binaries. Our radical welcome is not only a slogan. It is a welcome to baptism, to become part of a community. If you are not baptized, talk to one of the pastors and we can begin the process of connecting you!
April 29 is the feast day of St. Catherine of Sienna, mystic and doctor of the church. I love her line: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” Yet when considering vine and branches, listen to these words from her: “Each of you has your own vineyard. But everyone is joined to the neighbors’ vineyard without any dividing lines. They are so joined together that you cannot do good or evil for yourself without doing the same for your neighbors.”
We are all interconnected Yet being tangled together is downright hard. Where will draw the nourishment, the energy, the hope to flourish?
I am the vine, you are the branches. We draw our very life from Christ the vine. At this table we are nourished to bear fruit in and for the world.
And this vine is also a tree, the tree of life. For us, the branches of this tree–the cross—reach out to us in welcome. The sap of the tree is healing and new life. It is the dying and rising of the baptismal life. As we let go of our own thumb—our obsession with self— it is no longer, “I can hold my own, thank you.” Rather, we are branches together—joined to Christ, the vine, the tree, the cross.
Debie Thomas, “Abide”
Suzanne Guthrie, “Abide in Me”
Carina Chocano, “Group Think”