Today’s readings are Joyce’s choice: Paul to the Colossians and the Gospel of John, ch. 15. The verses of the Gospel just read have been called – by Jean Vanier no less – “the heart of the Gospel”. They come from Jesus’ last discourse when he was opening his heart, about to leave his disciples. And what does he say? Remain in my love. I’ve told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy be complete. Love one another. I won’t call you servants anymore; I call you friends. You did not choose me, I chose you. I commissioned you to go out and bear fruit. And again, Love one another. These are words that come from the heart.
That chapter 15 begins with Jesus saying: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-dresser”. “I am the Vine and you are the branches”. This is why he says, “Remain in my love” – like a branch in the vine. Don’t disconnect. It’s why he says: “Go and bear fruit”. The image runs on.
Why, I wonder, did Jesus suddenly start talking of the Vine (and branches and pruning and fruit)? Well, they had been drinking wine, “fruit of the vine”. Or perhaps, if they were still in the Upper Room, there was a vine on the outside wall, its tendrils by the window. Or if they were now on their way to the Mount of Olives, perhaps it was the thought of the vines – as well as olive trees – that grew on the hillside, or the smell of the lopped burning branches, pruned in preparation for the new growth of spring. Or if they were passing the gates of the Temple, perhaps it was sight of the great carving of the Vine that adorned them. In any case, it’s a marvelous image, and surely it’s good for this evening. Doesn’t a Psalm call the woman of the house a fruitful vine?
Pope Francis wrote recently: “I have sometimes seen young and beautiful trees, their branches reaching to the sky, pushing ever higher, and they seemed a song of hope. Later, following a storm, I would see them fallen and lifeless. They lacked deep roots. They spread their branches without being firmly planted, and so they fell as soon as nature unleashed her power” (Christus Vivit, 179).
The branch must be rooted in the vine and the vine rooted in the earth.
Well, Joyce, if ever there was a rooted person, if ever there was a “remainer” (I’m not talking politics), it’s you.
Your whole life rooted in the Granite City, “where the Don flows down the valley to greet the silver Dee”. Rooted in Queen’s Cross, born just across the road from it, educated there, making your first confession and communion there, married there, working there for so many years; rooted in your faith and your Church, rooted in your marriage and family, and all the while steadily bearing fruit: in various parishes, at the Cathedral, in the diocesan office, with the Scouts and Beavers, the Queen’s Cross former pupils, your ecumenical connections. Treasured from Lochinver to Inverbervie and beyond. Bearing more fruit than you realise. One priest said to me, “That woman saved my vocation”.
We live in famously unstable times; so many people uprooted and unsettled at so many levels, so much changing. Joyce, you’ve been such a refreshing contrast. So stable. Always calm, always equable – in 8 years I’ve seen you flustered 1½ times; always dependable, always sensible, always helpful, always making peace, always open too. Such a secure point of reference. Full of memories, but not a slave to them. Very patient with me, I must say. So good to work with. There you are, the rooted, fruitful Vine in the midst of the house, a Branch that remains. Or “like the tree that is planted beside the flowing waters, that yields its fruit in due season and whose leaves shall never fade; and all that [she] does shall prosper” (Ps 1). Or like the palm-tree or the Lebanon cedar: “Planted in the house of the Lord they will flourish in the courts of our God, still bearing fruit when they are old, still full of sap, still green, to proclaim that the Lord is just. In him, my rock, there is no wrong” (Ps 91). Many would like to know your secret, Joyce: the special blend of nature and grace that has made it all possible. If only it could be patented and bottled.
“I no longer call you servants”, Jesus says, “I call you friends.” Many people are blessed to call you a friend, Joyce. So, thank you. All of us here are saying that, priests and bishops and laity, friends and colleagues and family.
So, retirement dawns. It might have its surprises, but I remember a sermon on baptism. The preacher pointed out that water can take many forms: still or running, hot or cold, turning into ice or steam, but it’s always water. And so the moral is that the grace that begins to flow in our baptism is able to adapt itself to all the changes of our lives and carry us through. So I think the Vine, the Tree will stay by the flowing waters. It won’t shrivel or be blown over. It will survive the heat and “its leaves remain green”. It won’t mind the drought, “for it does not cease to bear fruit” (Jer 17:8). We’re watching this space, Joyce. Thank you – more than words can say. And may the joy of Christ always be in your heart.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen)