Wednesday night I met with a premarital couple on Zoom, just like seminary never trained me to do.
The first fifteen minutes were a comedy of errors as their wifi signal went in and out like a burger.
After several false starts, and shifting to a different location and device, they finally finished telling me their love story.
Once the connection was secured, they spoke of their gratitude for this last year: for them, lockdown was a welcome gift.
Not only did they reconnect with one another, they were forced to spend more time with their own and each other's teenage kids.
After twenty years as dear friends who were married and then divorced to other people, their love has grown and ripened with the gift of time together.
After an hour with them, I had a new appreciation for today's gospel reading.
Having wine but no wifi, Jesus uses the image of a grapevine to tell his disciples: secure the connection first.
Abide in me; the verb can also be translated stay or remain.
If you get cut off, no matter how compelling your story is, it won't make much difference to someone who can't hear it.
The first question we ask of faulty electronics could be asked of faith as well: Have you plugged it in?
Are you connected?
Are you receiving a steady signal; are you worshiping, reading, resting, praying—listening and not just giving God a list?
Do you spend time just hanging out with God, letting affection grow naturally, or are you too busy trying to save the world because God isn't following your timeline or specifications?
This is a lesson I'm still trying to learn, and Deborah Smith Douglas suggests I'm not alone.
The focus within much ... Protestant life has typically been on "producing much fruit" rather than "abiding in Christ."
We seem readily to appropriate the aspect of Jesus' metaphor that best affirms our own core values—productivity and effectiveness—while ignoring the contemplative element of "abiding" in God.
We tend to be preoccupied with the urgent needs of the world that require us to "bear much fruit."
There is a perilous tendency in Christian activism to cut ourselves off from the vine.
In our passion for justice, in our impatience for change, what we may fear most is being able to "do nothing."
Believing that "faith without works is dead" (see James 2:17), we can come to believe that social change is more urgent than (and can without cost be severed from) contemplative contact with the Source of all life.
We may persuade ourselves, as Henri Nouwen confesses he did for years, that being "relevant, popular, and powerful" are necessary "ingredients of effective ministry"—when in
truth "these are not vocations but temptations."
Yes, we are quick to imagine the danger of being so heavenly minded that we're no earthly good, but if we are truly connected to the real Christ, he won't let that happen.
The real Christ is the God who takes on human flesh to abide here in the world and save it.
The real Christ won't let us monopolize his love; when we try to hoard it, we clog ourselves up because he keeps it flowing.
Churches that focus only on members rupture and die; eventually God prunes them off and
throws them away.
Healthy, outward facing, fruitful churches also get pruned back sometimes, but I have yet to hear a congregation give thanks to God for becoming smaller or celebrate clearing away dead ministries that dried up long ago.
We are addicted to summer, to branching out, to endless growth, to the American gospel of more is good and bigger is better.
Then a pandemic comes along and forces us to stay home abiding with the kids.
We discover treasure we were too busy to know we had.
Time passes and ages the wine.
Friendship ripens into romance, tolerance ages into appreciation, familiarity pushes past contempt into compassion, loyalty, and vintage, top-shelf love.
This is what Jesus is offering us.
Abide in me: stay connected, stay open, and let my eternal stream of love course into you and through you.
You don't have to earn it, hoard it, bank it, measure it, micromanage it, insure it, regulate it, protect it, or parse it out like a pebble trying to direct a river.
You don't have to file reports or perform audits on your fruit—don't overthink this.
Some years and seasons are more productive than others.
Growth takes time, and you are the branches; you don't have to be the vine, and you don't get to be the vinedresser.
Marinate in the deep, wise word: instead of harvesting the Bible for the tasty little bites you like, pillaging Scripture for personal gain like industry abusing the land, sit with it.
Listen to its wisdom, let it work on you.
Take time to be confused and unproductive; fruit will come when it and you are ready.
Slow cook your faith; it is healthier and tastes better than microwaved magic.
Who made their own bread in this last year?
Did Wonder Bread ever produce that aroma in your kitchen?
Quality requires time, which means abiding.
Loving our neighbors wisely and well requires some holy fermentation.
So don't be surprised if you sip Communion this morning and nothing happens.
Don't be surprised if Jackson Barth, receiving it for the first time this morning, doesn't burst into tears or suddenly erupt into some super Christian that you're not either.
Don't be surprised if he does.
Fruit blooms whenever it is ready, unless we prevent it, either by closing ourselves off or branching out too far afield from our source.
Secure the connection first.
Stay plugged in; abide in me.
When cutbacks come, abide.
When growth explodes, abide.
When others fall away, abide.
Eat this bread, drink this cup, prioritize this friendship, keep on receiving the pulsing life of Christ, then wait and watch, taste and see and savor what it produces.