Preacher Canon Robert Titley
As we reach the business end of the election campaign, one of the arguments has been a sort of paternity dispute. The 2008 crash – who fathered it on us? Was it a world financial system gone mad, or a profligate UK government? I have a cartoon from the period from the New Yorker. It shows an elegant woman in an elegant shop, a pile of clothes on the Louis Quatorze table that serves as a counter. And as she hands over her card she says, ‘This isn’t for me – it’s for the economy.’
Shopping as public service – the idea is still with us. I bumped into Annabel Ridley in Tesco the other day and she said to me ‘We’ve got to help their balance sheet, haven’t we?’ It was a jest but I knew what she meant. When I heard about their terrible losses I thought of the nice staff in our local branch and told myself that I must do my bit.
I don’t know if Tesco boss Dave Lewis – ‘drastic Dave’ they call him – reads the Bible, but if he does he will see what Jesus means when he describes himself as a vine and his followers as the branches, and then says that the unfruitful parts of the vine must be cut off. In the case of Tesco, the lopping will involve 6,000 jobs and 43 branches (note the word).
It is a ruthless image, and it will be familiar to many of you here from the places where you work, or used to work. Losses mount, pressure grows on those parts of the organisation that are not bearing the kind of fruit you see on a balance sheet, and out come knives – or, rather, the saws. The management may use kinder words than Jesus does and talk of ‘outsourcing’, ‘restructuring’, ‘efficiency gains’, ‘preparing for the upturn’, but we know what they mean.
John’s picture of Jesus and his followers as a vine with branches reminds us of Paul’s image of the church as a body with limbs and organs, but Paul doesn’t talk of amputation when the body is not healthy. His thrust is all about togetherness: no part of the body can do without the others. John has that too, but also this scary image of branches removed, thrown away, chucked on the fire.
Some have seen here an image of hell (often pictured as a place of burning) and hell is not something we preach about much here. The idea itself is a fraught one: if God’s love is supposed to be almighty, isn’t one soul in hell a defeat for that love? Yet, here is this image of the withering branch in the flames. It stands as a warning: there is a possibility that I can make a choice that destroys me. I need to contemplate that.
We aren’t left, though, just wondering desperately, Will I be saved or not? Will I come up with the goods for God? God works with us, constantly, and the branches that do bear some fruit are pruned. It’s a kind of surgery (think tree surgeon), in which some growth is cut back so that it may be stronger and better overall.
We have heard much about cuts in the election campaign. At least three parties are committed to them, but the debate has largely been about where they will come and how deep the will be. A good critique to bring to the debate is John’s distinction between lopping and pruning. Which cuts will leave things permanently smaller, and which will cut back so that growth will be better overall.
In the Bible, pruning is good news. Take that man in the first reading, the Ethiopian diplomat in his chariot reading the prophet Isaiah: if he scrolls to an earlier passage, there he will find a vision of the world at peace, in which warriors’ spears are not just decommissioned but recycled into – pruning-hooks (Isaiah 2.4). The church in its turn encourages a pruning of desire. In Lent you might cut back on chocolate, or alcohol: thus you discover that you don’t really need them and so, come Easter, you can return to them more healthily, embrace them with more confidence.
Then last Sunday morning we had a really good Annual Meeting. We elected new church officers and we looked at our mission priorities for the coming year. Several good ideas came from the floor, new things we could do – a seed-sowing exercise. Don’t be surprised, though, if seed-sowing leads to pruning, the moment when we have to stop doing something so that other things may flourish.
Pruning can bring about still deeper change. Here in St Mary’s and the Richmond Team Ministry we are proud to be inclusive churches and to belong to Inclusive Church. The message is: whoever I am, whatever your background or pattern of life, here is a place of welcome, the embrace of God and of God’s people. So does that mean that whoever, whatever you or I are, we’re just fine as we are? Well – yes: there’s nothing you need to change to make God love you more. And then again, no: I am not yet the person that God longs for me to be; there is a fruitfulness God looks for in me, in my work, my relationships, my prayer; and unless I let God change me, unless I endure a sometimes painful reshaping, that fruit won’t come.
We talk of the Scriptures as ‘the word of the Lord’ and we talk of the ‘real presence’ of Christ in the bread and wine of the Holy Communion. We talk is if God is really here, and so God is. You and I can know that God is with us when we receive comfort and hope, when (as the psalm writer says) we ‘taste and see how gracious the Lord is’ (Psalm 34.8). But is God any less with us when what we receive is uncomfortable, and feeds our discontent? How comfortable should you be in a world where life or death for some will hang on how much money is raised in Christian Aid Week, which begins next Sunday?
I touched just now on how good we are at finding nice words for nasty things, and the ‘pruning’ metaphor can be just that. The board of directors may shut stores and talk about ‘pruning’ the business, but if you work in one, it’s destruction. It’s not the pruning-hook you feel, but a spear in the side. RS Thomas captures this in his poem, ‘The Interrogation’:
But the financiers will ask
in that day : Is it not better
to leave broken bank balances
behind us than broken heads?
And Christ recognising the
new warriors will feel breaching
his healed side their terrible
pencil and the haemorrhage of its figures.
Each of us here has some memory of loss, or a present experience of it: redundancy, bereavement, disappointment in love, promise unfulfilled. It may be that ‘pruning’ describes it well: something cut back that leads to stronger, better growth overall. Or that may sound smug, insulting, an example of a very human (but not very Christian) desire for happy endings, to say (despite the evidence), ‘It’s all good.’
That is why the deepest Christian image of how God works is an image not of cultivation but crucifixion; not controlled, careful surgery that life may be blossom, but death. Death, after which there is nothing to be said…
…and then an undreamt-of word of life: a promise that what has gone dead is being transformed, in a way that you or I could not have imagined.
The word of life will come. But when? For the disciples it was on the third day, what we know as Sunday, the day of Resurrection. And for someone here it may indeed come today. For others of us it won’t be yet: it will be a matter of plodding on through ‘the long day’s journey of the Saturday’. But the word will come, as it did to those disciples that Sunday morning, when they came for the body of Jesus and the death of hope and heard the words, ‘He is not here; he is risen.’
‘The Interrogation’: R.S. Thomas, Collected Poems 1945-1990, London, J.M. Dent, 1993, p. 305.
‘The long day’s journey of the Saturday’: George Steiner, Real Presences, London, Faber & Faber, 1991, p. 232.