Sunday, May 06, 2012
The thing that gets me wondering in John’s Gospel today is the question of pruning: “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” And I am not too sure about this pruning,
But the night before last I gave a talk to the young men and women at the Debutante Ball hosted by St Stephens’ in Rutherglen and I told them they should learn to make good mistakes. I even quoted T S Eliot: “‘Life is what we make of the mess that we make of things” and that wreckage is the raw material where we find the force and the fuel to make our lives our own. The kids looked at me with some disbelief, but a few adults smiled and nodded; I might not have reached many of the younger people, but it was something I wish I had heard when I was younger.
Because I think we have to get it wrong before we get it right in a lot of our life and certainly in our ongoing journey with the Lord. That’s the reason for the pruning shears, that’s what we need to lose at the last; we need to move from the love of law to the law of love.
Let me put out some definitions: the love of the law is that concern, that interest, that occasional compulsive fixation on who or what is right so we don’t get it wrong. The love of the law worries about how we miss the mark and tries to make a map to take us where we’re supposed to be. It starts small; most maps we make to learn to love the law start with the standards of our friends or our family or our neighborhood or our nation: some standard of law can simply be a way to say, “everybody should live life like we do” and they can be pretty basic.
Some examples: when I was a kid, my mother had old Blue Willow dishes in the kitchen, so that was right; but my aunt had a brand new set of green and yellow melamine resin dishes, called, Melmac; and I wasn’t too sure if they were right.
In school all the kids looked more or less like me; except in fifth grade we were joined by the daughter of a family of refugees from Estonia, and she was different. By the seventh grade, there were what we called colored people in our classes. I thought these people were probably all right, but I wasn’t sure, because they looked so different from what I had grown up with.
I grew up around a small tennis club in Sacramento, California in the 1950s. And in those days tennis was all white clothing and no arguing allowed, a sport for ladies and gentlemen. I remember sitting in the grandstand watching a tournament when I was a little boy, and when a player lost a crucial point and threw his racquet on the ground, I spoke out with all the authority of a precocious seven year old and said, “Just for that your score goes down to zero!” My parents were embarrassed but I was proud! I knew the rules; the ones who played by the rules and observed the law were right: Ken Rosewall, Arthur Ashe, Margaret Court, Chrissy Evert. When Jimmy Connors came along the game changed; he was noisy and that wasn’t right: it might have been more exciting, but there were still rules for things like that.
So when I joined the church in 1967, part of the reason was so that I might find more rules to follow. But something else happened: a certain growing edge, a somewhat uncomfortable feeling, like I was being turned around, learning to live into a growing tension and understanding how we might try to act in respect, to get it right, in our love of the law, and yet grow to prayerfully and gracefully live out our lives in the light of the law of love,
John writes this: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.”
As I came to know Jesus; I saw that he wasn’t the lawgiver, the judge or the son of the big policemen in the sky; rather he was the icon, the model, even, if you want to use tennis as the metaphor, the teaching pro who shows us how the game really should be played. In his relationship with his father, with his family, with his friends, in his relationship in the Spirit which he sends to share with us; he shows us how to play out, live out the law of love we see in his life and death and resurrection, and that makes it all a whole new and different kind of game.
And it wasn’t, it isn’t easy, trying to connect this new life and law of love we see in Jesus back to the old laws we might have seen so clearly before; those customs and expectations, the etiquette and law that we so wanted to use to order our ideals. It is not easy to try to leave those old laws behind as we move to live in this new love.
Paul puts it his way in the letter to the Galatians: “The law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ.” But there comes a time when we must graduate to the law of love.
And it can be tough to face the fact that a large part of us would like to keep those old expectations as we come to understand ourselves in a new family of relations. For the fact is that Jesus’ family keeps getting bigger!
Some examples going back to John, “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” and “those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” That sounds easy at the start, but the plain truth might be that the rules on these relationships, the law of love, might be wider than what we find immediately comfortable!
Look at Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus is told that his mother is outside waiting for him,. He replies, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers? whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Remember the definition of neighbor that the lawyer in Luke had to come to; the neighbor is “the one who showed mercy.” That is not easy to see clearly if you’re carrying around the love of law. This is an offense to many of our old familiar sensibilities. How do we make sense the of the law if we’re called to live with a family that just might include everybody, if love can be that large?
Let’s go back to tennis for that lesson! I didn’t learn easy, and remember having to take lots of time to groove my stroke in tennis before I could be free to move it out, to play well. But following the rules and the ritual finally made me fit to play the game freely. And the same when I learned to cook, I was tied to the recipe book: how many “quarter teaspoons” was important! When I learned more, then I knew better; when I knew what rules could be moved, overlooked, set aside for the love of a good family meal.
Moving from law to love takes us to a different focus. It could be the difference between the sensate thought (the part of us that knows how much and how many) and the intuitive idea (the surprising hunch that comes out of nowhere and is right on the money). Perhaps it’s the difference between slavishly following the recipe and formula;or carefully, prayerfully, lovingly preparing the bread and wine. Maybe it has to do with what tastes better, is more real, lovelier to the touch or the tongue at the last.
But as I grow older, I find by grace that the law in me grows less and love seems to matters more, and this may be true for you as well. It has not always been an easy process, and sometimes there’s been pain. But, for the most part, the rigid rules and roles I followed faithfully for such a while have faded away, burned out, maybe been pruned back, to be replaced with a new and abundant neighborhood of sharing and caring that tries to makes room for not less than everyone.
So perhaps that is where the lopping off of the old limbs makes sense: to help us be free to live in that larger landscape; where, as Paul writes in Second Corinthians, “what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”
For we know that love never dies, and pruning just might be what it takes, so that, in letting go of the love of law and faithfully following the law of love, we might live both wilder and deeper, making better, more charitable mistakes in all our ministry with family, friend, neighbor and stranger, in a world that grows ever larger, less concerned with law, more infused in love, more grounded in grace, rising with the gift of the spirit, coming to live more life and bear more fruit, as we come to abide with Christ in the love of God.