And love is proved in the letting go.
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 29 April 2018
There’s a prayer of Thomas More’s that I was given some years ago which I use and find challenging! It’s disarmingly simple!
Thank you dear Jesus, it reads,
for all that you have given me,
for all that you have taken away from me,
for all you have left me.
Thomas More was, as many of you will know, Henry VIII’s Chancellor. He supported his king over many things but notin his disputes with the papacy that arose from Henry’s desire to find another queen who might provide him with a male heir.
So Henry imprisoned Thomas More in the hope that he might renege. He didn’t and was eventually executed for treason.
It’s perhaps not surprising that when he was in the Tower he wrote a piece called ‘The Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation.’ It fits with what we know of his life – and this prayer too, personal and simple, fits!
The challenge of the prayer lies in the middle phrase.
The opening phrase is unremarkable:
Thank you dear Jesus for all that you have given me.
The concluding phrase too comes easily:
Thank you dear Jesus for all you have left me.
But to pray:
Thank you dear Jesus
for all that you have taken away from me.
That’s not easy!
That phrase can of course be interpreted in a number of ways, but it’s a prayer that seems to acknowledge what today’s Gospel reading refers to as pruning, and how important pruning is when you look after vines.
In the parables Jesus often talks about vineyards, of labourers being hired to work in them, of tenants usurping their rights and refusing to pay the rent to the owner. And Jesus also talks about vines and vine growers, not just because he lived in an agricultural community, but also because the vine had become something of a symbol for the people of God.
Prophets in the Old Testament used parables too and one tells of God bringing a vine out of Egypt and planting it in the land of Canaan; how the ground needed clearing of stones; how God tended the vine, training it and caring for it only to find that when the time came to collect the grapes, only wild grapes could be found!
How had this happened, prophets in the Old Testament asked themselves? What more care could have been lavished on the vine to ensure that it yielded good grapes?
The vine had become a symbol for the people of God. Now, John’s gospel is saying, the risen Christ is the embodiment of that spiritual reality:
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower…..
I am the vine, you are the branches…..’
It’s a profound reflection on the intimate bond that lies at the heart of the Christian life. For John the sacramental nature of this bond and that the fruit of the vine is what we drink at communion, that is no doubt another layer of symbolism he found in this image of a vine.
The main thrust of the image, whether reflecting on the intimate relationship between the branches and the vine or on the necessary pruning that takes place, the sole purpose of both is to bear fruit.
Why must the branch abide in the vine? Because it cannot bear fruit by itself.
How is the Father glorified? If we bear fruit.
Why is a branch pruned? To make it bear more fruit.
To pray those words of Thomas More ‘Thank you dear Jesus for all that you have taken away from me’ is rarely easy – but the suggestion is that the struggle is worth it!
Some of you will know this poem by Cecil Day Lewis. Sean, to whom this poem was dedicated, was the elder son of C Day Lewis. The title of the poem is ‘Walking Away.’
It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with the leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away
Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.
The hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.
I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.