I Am the Vine — You Are the Mystic

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Luke’s Church, San Francisco, on May 7, 2012.

Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  That is a statement about history and for the last month the Sunday readings have been exploring what that means in very concrete terms. We’ve heard about Thomas who was challenged to touch for himself. We’ve heard about the sharing of food on several occasions.  We’ve heard about the disciples encountering the risen Christ in very practical ways: touch, taste, see for your self. It’s been physical evidence we’ve been given.

Today we’re on different turf.  Today, in fact, we are back in the upper room at the Last Supper and Jesus is talking in very different terms. He says, “I am the vine; you are the branches.  . . . Abide in me as I abide in you. . . abide in my love.”  Now what’s that all about?  “Abide in me . . .”  Some other translations say, “Remain in me.” But however you put it, this is a lot different, it seems to me, from sharing a meal. “Remain WITH me” is one thing; “Remain IN me” is different.

Whatever it means, it seems to have to do with relationships, so let’s begin with relationships we know about: spouse, child, parent, close friend.  You know, we might say to anyone like that: “Stay with me; stay with me.”  And that’s a very specific, material request. But the relationships that matter to us don’t depend on that, do they?  You can be here and the one you care about in Missoula or Mongolia or Montenegro and the relationship is still as strong as ever; the distance may even make the relationship more on your mind than ever.  They are, we would say, “in our thoughts.” “in our hearts;” not with us at the moment, but in our lives in a very real way, separated from us physically but not spiritually.

This opens up, I think, one of the most basic aspects of what it is to be human.  A human being isn’t like a tree, isn’t like a dog or cat, isn’t like your house. If I’m in your house, that’s a very specific thing and it ends the minute I go out the door.  But “in your thoughts” has no location; it is wherever you are. I’m in your house or I’m not in your house. And I can’t be in it when I’m in China.  But I can be in your thoughts anytime, any place, I can, in fact, be in your thoughts even if I’m dead.  Human beings have this strange capacity to claim a reality for what we call “spiritual” things.  We seem to believe that there are realities that science can’t measure.  We can talk about courage and patience and justice and love.  Try stopping in a drug store and asking for some of that: “I’d like a bottle of courage, please; charge it to my account.” Well, you might do that in a liquor store but that’s different. Or stop at Walmart and ask for a few pounds of justice.  You can’t buy these things at a store, but do you doubt that they are real?

The fact is that we are here, yes, because of what happened on Easter Day and, yes, because of the resurrection and also for lots of very tangible reasons: friends and liturgy and building and community and lots more – but more important, I think, because of some other very real things for which we would have no adequate words at all. We use that word “spiritual” and I think we also need the word “mystical.” It’s not a word we use a lot but I think it’s a good word, a useful word, and I think there’s a bit of the mystic in all of us. We may not give it much of an opening. We may very well find it uncomfortable territory and an area of life we’d rather avoid most of the time. But it’s real, and it’s there. and the gospel today, it seems to me, asks us to explore what it might mean to remain in Jesus, live in Jesus, abide in Jesus, be aware of a relationship, a mystical reality, at the center of our lives.

So what I want to do in this sermon is to encourage you to think of yourself as a mystic.  And I’m going to give you two examples that you may not relate to very easily, but bear with me.

My first example is Julian of Norwich. You might have heard of her; she’s had kind of a revival lately. Julian was born in 1342 and at some point became an anchoress, that is, she was walled into a cell with only three windows to live in seclusion and meditation for the rest of her life.  The revelations that came to her there have been published again and again because of the beauty of the language and mystical truth they contain. Here’s a brief sample:

Our Lord shewed me a spiritual sight of His homely loving. I saw that He is to us everything that is good and comfortable for us: He is our clothing that for love wrappeth us, claspeth us, and all encloseth us for tender love, that He may never leave us; being to us all-thing that is good, as to mine understanding. . . . Also in this He shewed me a little thing, the quality of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little[ness]. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall [last] for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath Being by the love of God.  In this Little Thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loveth it, the third, that God keepeth it. But what is to me verily the Maker, the Keeper, and the Lover,—I cannot tell; for till I am Substantially oned to Him, I may never have full rest nor very bliss: that is to say, till I be so fastened to Him, that there is right nought that is made betwixt my God and me.

Now, there are modern translations of that and maybe I should have used one to make it less remote – but I love the language.  All creation, Julian says, is to God like a hazel nut in the palm of your hand – yet God loves us. And here’s Julian’s way of speaking about “abiding in Christ:” that ties us into this morning’s gospel.  She says, “He is our clothing that for love wrappeth us, claspeth us, and all encloseth us for tender love,.” Jesus said, be to me like thr branches of a vine.  Julian says, God is to be to us like our clothing that wraps us, clasps us, and encloses us out of love.  We should be, as Julian puts it, “oned” with God so there is nothing at all between us.

Mysticism is the sense that we are made to be  in that sort of relationship with God. The branches that abide in the wine.  Here’s one more example: Thomas Traherne was an English priest  who was born in 1636 and died at the age of 38. He served a small parish in the west of England and no one had much heard of him  until about 1900  when a scholar picked up a collection of his writings from a push cart on the street  with other books no one wanted. Traherne also had that deep sense of the reality of an unseen world.  He wrote:

What is more easy and sweet than Meditation? . . .To think well is to serve God in the Interior Court, to have a Mind composed of Divine Thoughts . . .

And Traherne always looked to the world to turn our minds toward God.  He said,

When you are once acquainted with the world, you will find the goodness and wisdom of God so manifest therein that it was impossible another or better should be made.

He said,

You never enjoy the world aright until every morning you awake in heaven . . . You never enjoy the world aright until the sea itself flows in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars and see yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world . . .Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God as misers do in gold and kings in scepters, you never enjoy the world.

The great advantage I have in understanding that is that I live in the Northwest Corner of Connecticut and can hardly avoid that kind of delight in creation  that notices the light green haze spreading up the mountains and notices the shad blow and apple blossoms and lilacs and lets it improve the day. Mysticism is just that simple: an awareness of beauty,  an ability to think about something  more than the next meal, the next chore;  to be aware of a larger purpose in every small task well done. To be a mystic is to be truly human, to know that life is more than what the genes make us or perhaps to know that somehow our genetic makeup, our physical self is never satisfied with physical things alone.

Let me be very specific.  Do you let the mystic in you live?      Do you encourage that part of yourself or stifle it?  You could ask your Rector for suggestions.  You could join a prayer group.  You could go to your google search slot and type in “Jesus Prayer” or “Centering Prayer.”  You could look in your Prayer Book for the short forms of prayer for morning, noon, early evening and evening.  You can make prayer and Bible reading and meditation a real part of your life, as much a routine as meal times; after all your spiritual side needs feeding and exercise as much as your physical side.

“Abide in me,” Jesus said.  Let your life be so deeply grounded in the knowledge of the love of God that it transforms who you are, transforms all that you do, and though you transforms the world God made until God is all in all.

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