Preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at St Mary’s Garsington on 10th May 2015.
Amidst all the excitement of the election, it nearly passed me by that Friday was the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Victory in Europe or V.E. Day. Bells of churches and cathedrals across the country, however, reminded us in their own inimitable way of the joy and relief of that day but also how precious is the peace that we can all so easily take for granted. One of the most evocative and powerful things to have come out of the commemoration the events of the First World War over the last year, has been the stories of ordinary people who lived through the darkest days our nation has seen in living memory. Some are famous and honoured, like the story of the six Victoria Crosses that were awarded before breakfast on 25th April 1915 at the Battle of Gallipoli, others are less noted but equally remarkable and poignant. Equally so are the stories from the Second World War, here is one of them:
The day after D Day, an American soldier, Jack Leory Tueller was on the front line. He was a trumpeter, and his job was to play the trumpet to lead the men to battle. But that night he was told not to play because there was one German sniper in the darkness and the sound of the trumpet would give their position away. But Jack considered, and thought that the sniper was probably just as cold and lonely as he was, and so he played a love song on his trumpet and the night passed peacefully. The next day, a jeep came up from the beach with German prisoners in it going to be taken to England. One of the German prisoners kept saying, in broken English ‘Who played that trumpet last night?’ Jack held up his hand. The prisoner said ‘when I heard that music, I thought about my fiancé in Germany, I thought about my mother and Dad, I thought about my brothers and sisters, and I couldn’t fire.’ Jack stuck out his hand and shook the German’s hand. ‘He was no enemy’ said Jack, ‘He was scared and lonely like me … the power of music.’
The retelling of the stories of war are so important for they remind us, amidst the daily ups and downs of the rhythm of our ordinary lives, what it is that really matters, what is precious and can easily be forgotten or taken for granted. They have the power to plunge us down into the depths of the sacredness of life and awaken us to what is most dear, what it is that is important.
It is this perspective that lies at the heart of our gospel reading this morning. Jesus uses a very simple metaphor which would have spoken to the ordinary people he was addressing in first century Palestine as much as it does to us today. None of us need own vineyards or be amazing gardeners to immediately recognise the core of what Jesus is saying when he likens himself to a vine and those who follow him as his branches. He is reminding us of what is important, that lying at the heart of all that we say or do is a deep rootedness, a connection in Christ which underpins our daily lives, giving them a sense of meaning that goes beyond the random events that blow around us like the wind. Not only are we connected to Christ but he goes on to say that this connectedness is crucial for without him we can do nothing on our own. We are wholly reliant on the vine, a fact which as branches we can often forget.
Jesus describes this connectedness in terms of abiding. It’s not a term we usually use in the common course of everyday speech. The word ‘abiding’ is probably best known for the hymn ‘abide with me’ which is invariably sung at funerals. In many ways it’s this hymn which perfectly expresses the sense of the word whose translations of remain or stay are far too weak in comparison. For abiding carries with it a deep sense of living with, stability and interconnectedness. It is this sense in which Jesus uses it in the passage, in both the epistle and the gospel abiding comes not through our own worth or capacity but as the gift of the Holy Spirit who is given to be the advocate or helper to the early Church: ‘I have said these things to you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.’ John 15: 25 and again in 1 John 4: 13: ‘By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us his Spirit.’ Through the presence of the Spirit within us we are deeply connected to Christ, so much so that there is a mutual indwelling, he lives in us and we in him.
But this is not a static relationship, there is a strong sense of the work of the vinedresser, the Father who prunes and shapes the branches that they may produce good fruit.
In order to be connected to the main vine of the plant, the bad rotting grapes, or the withered vine branches have to be cut off, so that the fruit may be born. There is the notion that to abide in Christ means being open to being pruned and changed. To hand over to the Father our identity, not as ourselves but as the branches that will bear fruit. It is a risky and unnerving trust that he calls us to but unless we take him at his word we cannot become that which he has created us to be. If we still wish to be in control, all our efforts will come to nothing and the fruit we bear will be miniscule in comparison. But if we are open to his power within our lives he can bring out the best in us through the loving hands of the vinedresser. He can bring healing out of fraction, love where there is little shown, compassion in the face of ridicule, faith when all around speak only words of despair. For the fruit which the Father cultivates in each one of us are the very fruits St. Paul describes as the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control: and that’s not by any means an exhaustive list. If people can see virtues like these in us, then that is a sign that we are dwelling in God and he in us. They will see and know what it is that is important in our lives. But if we are not patient and kind, gentle and faithful, and show love and joy and peace then we have forgotten who we are and must hear once again the story of the good news of Christ.
I found it remarkable that after all the drama of the election, with its successes for some and humiliating failure for others, that on the same day as all this political drama was played out, the very same people went to the centotaph and stood beside each other to remember those who had given their lives for the freedoms we take for granted. If ever there was a witness that life is more than our everyday happenings and we forget this at our peril, this was it. The wheel of fortune turns and we are raised up and then brought low, but the love of God endures and it is on this that we may place our faith and our hope, it is here that we may rest secure within the abiding love of God. Amen.