In the summer between Grade 7 and Grade 8, my older brother and I formed a lawn-cutting business. We borrowed the Gestetner machine at the parish, duplicated flyers and went door-to-door; by the beginning of the season, we had about 20 customers. My father would patiently drive us across town for the gigs that were far away, and for the ones close to home we dragged the family lawn mower behind our bikes. Halfway through July, my brother got a better job and I was left to fend for myself, so I hired my younger brother to do all the trimming and edging. By the end of July, we had enough money to buy our own lawn mower. At the beginning of August, when the heat of summer rises and the need to cut the lawn diminishes, we picked up other jobs as we went.
One day, one of our clients asked me, “Do you know how to prune a hedge?” I said, “Of course I know how to prune a hedge. I’ve pruned lots of hedges.” He showed me the hedge at the side of his house. It started at the boulevard and went right up next to the house’s foundation. It was about yea high, and it was woolly; it had not been trimmed in a long time. He said, “I’d like it to be straight. A straight line and rounded edges. Can you do that?” “Absolutely,” I said. So he went inside, and I brought out my clippers.
Now, the thing you need to know is that the property had a gentle slope from the foundation down to the road. I started at the road, thinking a straight line and not taking into account the soft slope. As I began to cut, it was leafy and green at first, and then it got a little thicker, and then it was downright lumber by the time I got to the foundation. I didn’t want to stop because I was persistent, and I thought it would all kind of work out. Then the owner came out.
Now, you need to know that he was a parishioner in our parish, and he was also a high school principal. He sidled up next to me very quietly, and he didn’t say a word because I knew exactly what he was thinking: What have you done to my hedge? But he didn’t say it, and he didn’t say, “I thought you knew what you were doing,” and “Now what are you going to do to repair it?” Instead, there was a long silence, and he finally said, “Do you think it’ll come back?”
Vine and branches
Do you think it’ll come back? Every time I think of John 15, I think of that moment long ago in the summer between Grade 7 and 8, praying always that God is better at pruning than I am. “I am the vine and you are the branches. I am the vine and my Father is the vine grower, and he removes all branches that do not bear fruit. And the branches that bear fruit, he prunes so they bear more fruit. I’m the vine and you are the branches.” That moment in John 15 is uttered around a table at the Last Supper, a time to commemorate a moment of deliverance long ago of bringing slaves out of Egypt and bringing them back home to a land flowing with milk and honey. Jesus brings into their midst this beautiful, earthly image, just as Deuteronomy does. A land with barley and wheat and fig trees and pomegranates and vines. He describes this earthly metaphor as the way that God relates to the Son Jesus, and how we relate to the Son Jesus in us.
Pruning is both an art and a science. You really can’t prune with a machine; you have to do it by hand. The best way to prune is to get to know the vine, because the vine, each one, is actually individual and different, and each one needs to be tended over time – over years, in fact. The time that you prune during the year makes the difference about the growth and the nature of the fruit that is going to be grown. Vine growers spend at least four to five months every year pruning to provide the right kind of shade, the right kind of sunlight, in order that the fruit might bear goodness for humankind, for every creature under the heavens and, with the right kind of patience, the perfect Cab Sauvignon. It takes patience, and you have to do it by hand.
Most of the important matters in ministry, you and I do by hand: a hand of welcome at the front door; a hand of forgiveness in the liturgy; a hand of receiving Eucharist at the table; a hand of consolation when one is sorrowful. Hands folded over in prayer, hands clutching hymn books and prayer books in the hopes of being touched by God, hands folded and mimicking the one that we follow. The leper who came to him, imploring him, kneeling before him, saying, “You, if you will, you can heal me.” And Jesus touched and moved with compassion, reached out and touched him. “I do, and you are made whole.” Or Simon’s mother-in-law who is sick, and they tell him about her, and he takes her by the hand, and he raises her up and the fever leaves her, and she immediately begins to serve them. Or at sundown, all those who were sick and suffering with disease were brought to him and he laid hands on them and they were made whole.
Hands: healing, redemptive, forming, shaping, pruning every week, Sunday by Sunday and day by day, in parishes large and small in this diocese, from Mississauga to Collingwood, Orillia through the Kawarthas, from Peterborough down to Brighton and every point in between. Communities gather to be pruned Sunday by Sunday. While there are similarities among us as churches, every community is very different and unique, a one-of-a-kind. It takes time for every parish and community to be pruned by God and shaped by God over time, and it needs to be done by hand. Over the first 11 months of my episcopacy, I have been going from parish to parish – 40 altogether so far – and each time I step in the doors of a church community, each one is recognizable and yet so unique. And yet there’s only one way for me to get to know this diocese, and it’s by hand.
Like the moment at Trinity College School in Port Hope. It was the last chapel service of the year, and the chapel was filled with students – a whole student body along with all the faculty and staff – and the service was exuberant. At the end of the service, all the students left the chapel except for the graduating class of 2019. Then finally the 2019 class moved out, and there were two lines formed by all the students and faculty that wended their way from the chapel’s front door out into the middle of a field, where a sapling had been planted to honour the class of 2019. As that class started to wend its way there, you could hear the tears forming as a recognition of a passage in time in a place that had formed so many. We gathered around the sapling, and they waited for me to say a perfunctory prayer. That is not the occasion to say a perfunctory prayer. Instead, I invited them to come very close, to huddle in together. Then I invited the entire faculty and student body to huddle in behind them, to surround them, to reach out and touch their backs, and to pray together. For what seemed like an eternity, we just stood in silence and listened to creation around us, and the sobs of a graduating class, standing in front of a little sapling that was calling them to live their life in the way that God was intending. Then we prayed and left.
Opportunities to grow
“He removes in me all that does not bear fruit.” How we long for God to remove the deadwood in our souls. How we long for God to take away the bits in ourselves that get in the way, that always show up at the wrong time, that are always a nuisance, to keep us from growing. Or the part of us that grows a little too wild. How often we settle in ourselves to carry the burdens and sins of our lives, choosing to keep them close so that they might fuel our anger as a way of keeping us, rather than allowing God to just take them and burn them because they’re not needed anymore.
How often in church communities and parishes we hang on for dear life to all the old things that, in fact, don’t give us life anymore. How often we have said to ourselves as parishes, “We tried that once. We don’t do that here. We can’t do that because that might upset so and so.” And so we just keep doing over and over the old things, hoping for different results. But God calls us to remove that deadwood that we don’t need anymore. As every parish in this diocese knows, when we tell the truth, there are parts of us that we need to let go of. So in Synod, take the time as communities to say, “What is it in us that we need to let go of so that God can make room for something new?”
“And the branches that bear fruit, God prunes so that they may bear more fruit.” Pruners know that it’s important only to clip the cane that is first-year growth and always to clip above, leaving at least two buds. Two by two. Two by two, they came into the ark. Two by two, Jesus sent them out into the mission field, and he gave them authority over all unclean spirits, and he commissioned them to take nothing with them except for a staff. No bag, no bread, no money – to take sandals and not two tunics, to go empty-handed so that you may offer and receive blessing. You can’t offer and receive blessing when your hands are holding deadwood. You cannot offer and receive blessing when you are too comfortable.
It is in that moment of being sent out into the community, beyond the safety of the four walls of our church community, that the vine has an opportunity to grow. It is in growing that the flower flourishes and the grapes and the fruit are formed. The fruit is not capped: it is given away with no strings attached. It is when we push ourselves out into the world that we meet our God and our maker. When we offer the fruit of who we are as community, ministry happens. The mission of God is always fueled by presence or, for the vine, sap. It’s well known that when you are pruning a vine, it’s important to cut the new cane, and the new cane needs to be connected to the previous year’s growth, and it needs to be connected to the previous year to that. You can count the growth all the way down to the soil, just like you can count the rings of life on a stump. As long as there’s a connection from one year to the next, the sap will actually grow evenly and push out new life to the buds.
In my first year of ministry, I have been to parishes that are celebrating significant moments in their lives – their 50th anniversary, their 100th, 150th, 175th, 200th. When you stand in the front foyer of most of those churches, you can see the history in black and white pictures of rectors and old colour images. Some of those pictures show that the church building was once in the middle of a field and now is in the middle of a bustling downtown core of a suburb, or in the City of Toronto, or beyond. The one thing that keeps parishes moving is knowing that that presence somehow continues to course its way through a church community. You do not live 175 years in a straight line. In fact, you meander – you twist and turn, and there are gnarls and blemishes. But as long as that presence continues to feed, there will be fruit that comes to life on the vine.
The heart of discipleship
It is the presence of God that fuels all that we do. The heart of discipleship, as we contemplate what that means for us as a diocese, is understanding what it means to abide. John uses the word “abide” 43 times in the gospel. It means to hold, to stand, to be expectant, to tarry with expectancy, to surround, to dwell. To dwell in the vine means to always live with a sense of expectancy that the God who delivers us does not act just in the past but comes to us from the future as we listen with expectancy.
It is like Cleopas and his wife on the day of the resurrection, who finally get to their front door and implore him, “Stay with us.” And when he is there, revealed, they say, “Were not our hearts burning within us?” Or as we hear from that first reading today in Isaiah, “I have called you by name, and you are mine. When you go through the rivers, I will go with you. When you go through the waters, they will not overwhelm you. When you walk through the fires, you will not be burned. When you walk through the flames, you will not be consumed. I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel.”
More often than not, we look backwards in time with a sense of expectancy instead of turning our faces to the future with courage. How often in our parishes we long for the good old days that always seem so much better than they are now. But when we long for yesterday, we back our way into the future, losing those moments of deliverance that God presents to us in the here and now. When we listen to those with all the statistics about the future of a church community, it is easy for us to wring our hands and to give up. Well, my friends, the Church has always been one generation from closing or taking off. That is the nature of Church. And that future depends on you, and it depends on me. And it takes courage for us to be able to imagine a new future. When the flames erupted through the roof of St. James, Roseneath on April the 9th, did those flames consume the community? No. The community imagines a new future as they contemplate how God is calling them.
In those moments when we wring our hands, how can we find the energy to find new models of working together in our communities so that vines may work and live side by each, amalgamating, merging, creating opportunities for clergy and lay leaders from parishes to always work side by each? Sometimes it means letting go of old grudges. I am told that in Port Hope there was a time when St. Mark’s and St. John’s would never cross the river to dawn the doors of each other’s parishes. And yet now, and for some time, they are celebrating the Eucharist on Wednesdays every week, and they gather to hear the Passover story on Easter Eve every year.
Repurposing our properties
This is our time for us to think imaginatively about how God is calling us to repurpose our properties and our ministries as we go forward as a diocese. This is not a time to be afraid. It is a time to have courage. Some years ago, when I was serving in a parish in Oakville, we had a large maple tree in our front yard. At a silent auction, I won the services of a parishioner who was an arborist. For the first 20 minutes or so on a Saturday morning, he taught me how you’re supposed to clip the branches on a tree, and how in fact you have to climb into the tree and clip out all the branches that grow inward or downward or at cross purposes or rub against each other. He only brought a pruning knife and a saw, and no ladder. After a few moments, he went up into the tree. He literally climbed the tree, and he just kept sawing and cutting, and twigs and branches would fall to the ground. The memory of that old hedge from long ago came to my mind, and I thought, “Are you gonna leave a little bit of the tree behind?” It’s a little like for me when I go get my hair cut and I say, “Please, Lord, leave just a little on top. Make it look better than it really is.”
After a couple of hours, I came back to see what he had done, and he invited me in, and there was a huge pile of branches. When I stepped under that canopy, there was an incredible spaciousness. In this Synod, we talk about making space. Our governance working group is bringing a different model of governance through our Synod Council, that we pray God creates a different kind of space that allows us to make decisions more effectively by creating committees on the ground, close to the ground, with a mixture of Synod members and those who have a particular expertise that we need. We have learned in our governance patterns in the past and in the present that there are many moments when we rub up against each other and we often work across purposes in trying to make an effective decision, and we don’t always get it right. I am looking forward to that conversation in this Synod, where we get to dream together, to say, “How will we make decisions most effectively for a changing circumstance in the Church?”
Space for diversity
In standing beneath a great canopy, we also create a space for diversity: diversity of language, diversity of culture, diversity of liturgical expression, diversity of biblical interpretation and theology – of rather than working at cross purposes and always rubbing up against each other, to determine that one way is better or not than the other, to create that space where branches are always moving outward and upward. From the table we hear the words, “Love one another as I have loved you. Love one another.” The summer of 2019 and General Synod will be remembered for many things, and one thing only. For many of us, that one thing only was that the change to the marriage canon did not happen, because it didn’t have enough votes in the House of Bishops. And no matter which part or side you stand on that question, there was deep upheaval and unrest for all. But for me, a deep hope emerging at General Synod at the same time was the Word to the Church, an apology from the bishops, and two little words that open a door: local option. Or as Isaiah might put it, “I am about to do a new thing. Do you not perceive it?”
A word to all our LGBTQ2S community members: you are home. This is your home. You are sisters, brothers and siblings in Christ, fully in this community. As we move towards Pentecost 2020, marriage is open in the same way that it is open for all couples in equal measure. If you are a cleric who believes God is calling you to marry same-sex partners, you will have that opportunity. It is given to you. And if you hold to that teaching of the traditional view of marriage, you may, and live that with integrity and teach it with integrity. It is now a time for us as community, living under a huge canopy, to create that space for diversity where all may love one another as Christ has loved us.
We hear in the first reading that the journey from exile home restores the whole of creation. “The rivers will flow in the desert, waters in the wild place, and the jackals and the ostriches will honour me.” As we make our way homeward as creation, we take creation with us. We learn from creation in the sorrow and the groaning, as we know that the temperatures of the earth are rising. In all that we do as a diocese, we are summoned to be responsible stewards and to do all in our power to transform our law, and to let go of that which creates no life, that is marking our own carbon footprints at home, in our parishes and in the work of the diocese.
“I chose you. You did not choose me.” Those are the words that Jesus said to his disciples as parting words in this reading. “I chose you. You did not choose me.” For the last 11 months, I have been learning what it means to be a bishop. I have learned over those last 11 months that there’s a part of me that’s a little like that kid in Grade 7 and 8 who is learning. There are moments when I have made mistakes or been persistent, but you have been teaching me and forming me and helping me to learn what it means to be a pastor. It is our time as church leaders, lay and ordained, for us to make our mistakes and to take those risks for the sake of the gospel. As one of my mentors, George Black, once said, “You’re gonna make mistakes. Make them boldly and make them quickly and get on with it.” No truer words could be spoken. Rather than cowering with fear that we might get it wrong, take the risk and get it right.
This staff, for me, I hold with great thanksgiving. It was made from a branch of a cherry tree that was pruned on the property of St. Jude’s, Wexford. It was fashioned in the form of a staff for me by picking up that which was taken off, and to remind me of what it means to go boldly, empty-handed, carrying nothing but a staff. I am deeply grateful for your continued prayers as I learn what it means to be your bishop, and I have deep pride and a great grateful heart for the way that I have been called to do this awesome duty. I could not do this without my colleagues in the College – of Peter and Riscylla, of Kevin and Jenny, and of Mary Conliffe – who inspire and hold and pray this community of the Diocese of Toronto into the future. I am deeply grateful for every bishop here. I am also deeply grateful for Jenn Bolender-King, who keeps my schedule tidy and moving in a way that makes some sense. And I’m deeply grateful for my wife Mary, who has been standing by my side through this whole year and holding my hand and encouraging me to take bold steps.
May God keep us, bless us and hold us, and inspire us to be courageous for the sake of the gospel that courses through our very being. Amen.