It is a way for many of the poor in Bolivia to make a living for their families. In the city of Potosi, mining is a primary source of employment. But the work is terribly dangerous. A boy beginning in the mine at age 12 may only expect to live until age 22. Mining for tin or zinc in the mountain known as Cerro Rico, “Rich Hill,” can leave the lungs of miners scarred with silicosis, which is caused by inhaling the crystalline silica dust which the drilling generates.
A reporter named Andrew Westoll traveled deep into the heart of Cerro Rico and discovered something else. In the mine, La Negra, somewhere down a side shaft, there was a tall statue of red-painted devil. Most mines have one. The statue’s name is El Tio or Uncle. Tio is a kind of mountain diety, respected as the landlord of Cerro Rico. Many of miners, at the end of their day, will make offerings to El Tio for preserving their life and for keeping them safe from injuries. At Tio’s feet, they pour generous splashes of alcohol, leave several coca leaves, or a few cigarettes. As one observer put it, the miners believe in Jesus on the outside and Tio on the inside. This practice is a pagan custom that dates from the 1500’s. Yet, despite their offerings, the miners still die far too often and far too young. The mountain and its devil landlord still claim lives.
The Bolivian miners are connected through poverty and consumer demand to the nearly exhausted mineral resources of the mountain, but this connection is slowly stealing their life. It is a tragic thing to be caught by necessity, tradition, and complexity into a way of life that proves deadly.
Now, I have done my share of crossing fingers, avoiding cracks in the sidewalk, and leaving pennies untouched on the ground if they are flipped “tails-side-up.” Therefore, I’m not so certain that if I were a miner and supported my family in such a dangerous way that I might not pay a personal visit to Uncle Tio myself. We may see the miners giving homage to the devil as a bit of superstition– yet, how many of us have our own ways chasing after idols that have the capacity to separate and potentially destroy us?
I share this example about the miners because it reminds me of how the things to which we are connected—the things to which we give our love, our energy, and our best selves–may be more or less life-giving or deadly over the long haul. And if you believe that we are all connected in some way, then what happens to an impoverished, Bolivian miner out of necessity becomes our concern out of love.
Today, in John’s gospel, we are reminded of the life-giving connection of Jesus. He is the vine in which we are called to abide, to remain, to live. Unlike Tio, the devil of the mountain, Jesus does not demand a constant offering to appease him or to keep death at bay. But with this analogy of the vine and the branches, Jesus reminds us of the importance of community, and of keeping his words and love alive in our hearts. He reminds us that we are not meant to be isolated individuals, cut off from each other, cut off from our life-source, or cut off from the community that we call “the church.”
In our back-yard, off to the side of our home, I have a pile of branches. They are mostly tree branches that came down from various storms. For a few of them, whatever snow we had simply became too heavy and they fell from the weight. Most of the others were brought down by the wind. A few larger limbs were cut down by tree trimmers who carefully separate overhanging branches from the electrical wires that run along our street. And still others never originated with our trees at all; they are branches that blew across our lawn at some point from our neighbors’ yards. None of these branches are alive. They have ceased to bud and bloom; they are dry and brittle. If you step on one, it will likely snap in half. Over the year, my kids and I gather branches together in a pile so that they can be removed or so that we might burn them, like my neighbor, at some point. But I am not looking forward to it. Burning branches can get out of control.
So can our habit to disassociate with each other and that divine seed of our selves that needs the nurture and the support of fellow companions on the journey. It’s no surprise that people are feeling more disconnected these days. Despite all of the ways that we can connect via technology, we still struggle with meaningful relationship and with mining the riches of our souls without losing our breath and balance in the process. We are on the move, on the phone, on the road, on the net, and yet we say we have little time to connect to the spiritual source and power of our life—our God. If we follow Jesus, we need to be on the Vine.
What will it take to keep or restore our connection? What will it take for us to draw closer to the Vine and the Vine-Grower? And what role can this church play in helping folks become more connected to each other—in authentic and life-supporting ways? These are questions for us to ponder.
When I think about the branches in our yard, I am reminded of Jesus’ words, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” His words aren’t as exclusive as they might sound—he is speaking to the disciples who have been trying to follow him. His words are a caution to the church that would try to operate without calling upon his presence.
The church is a living thing – both our means of connecting with each other, but also our way of staying connected to the stories, struggles, history, and promises of our faith—not just here, but also around the world. Sometimes when we think about the life of faith, we think about in terms that are strictly personal. But the church and our faith has always been communal at heart. We are like living branches, reaching out into the world, but staying connected to Jesus and to each other through our actions of sustained attention and love.
I suspect that the difficult part about this passage today might be the word that we hear about pruning. Pruning is a painful thing. Again, I think about those branches. Did they ask to become separated from the tree of life? What is going on here?
I won’t pretend to be a gardener here, but sometimes I’ve found that it is necessary to be cut back to the bare stem. Every one of us has the capacity to love more deeply and more truly and more attentively. Yet, we don’t always know that we are carrying extraneous layers that prevent us from loving more like Christ—without conditions, without our preferences and emotions always taking front and center. Sometimes we think that loving someone – whether a neighbor, a spouse, a friend, or even a cause—is a matter of feelings or made possible by particular circumstances. We don’t expect it to be quite as difficult as it can be. We don’t expect to be “pruned” in the way that we demonstrate our love for each other—and when the pruning process occurs, we believe that our uneasiness or discomfort may be a sign that we are somehow separated from God’s will for us. But here, Jesus tells his disciples that “pruning” is part of what God does when a believer lives in God’s word— every branch that does not bear fruit is removed, and every branch that bears fruit will be pruned so that it can blossom even further.
Friends, in what way are we, through the trials of our communal life, being pruned so that we may live more in tune with God’s purposes? In what way are we, in the United States, being called to leave the mountain and our idols of self-interest to seek another kind of livelihood—one that isn’t quite so costly, unsustainable, or soaked with the privilege? In what way are we being called out of our exhausted minds and bodies to connect with others so that we may all breathe more easily again?
To abide in Jesus is to realize that there are other branches that are just as important and necessary to God’s vineyard as we are. It is to realize that we need each other—not to satisfy ourselves, but to save ourselves from becoming disconnected branches. Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story about a desert elder who lived by himself and wanted to become more receptive to God. So he decided to fast, eating only once a week for 70 weeks. When he was nothing but skin and bones, he asked God to enlighten him about the meaning of a certain biblical passage. But God refused. The elder, who was clearly disappointed that his fast hadn’t brought the desired effect, decided to visit one of his brothers and ask him what the passage meant. As soon as he closed the door to his cell, an angel of God appeared and said this, “Your seventy-week fast did not bring you one step closer to God, but now that you have humbled yourself to go to your brother, God has sent me to reveal the meaning of the passage.”
Taylor writes that, “at the very least, most of us need someone to tell our stories to. At a deeper level, most of us need someone to forget ourselves, a little or a lot. The great wisdom traditions of the world all recognize that the main impediment to living a life of meaning is being self-absorbed.”
Friends, when Jesus urges us to abide in him and, by extension, in community with a bunch of other living branches that we did not choose, it is because he desires for God’s love to be made stronger within us. He is the Vine, we are the branches. Let us pray that we choose to stay connected that we might truly understand what he means.
 Andrew Westoll, “The Mountain that Eats Men,” Utne Reader, May-June “09, p 34-41, adapted exerpt from the Walrus, (Jan-Feb 2009). See also http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/devilsminer/mountain.html
 Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, (New York: HarperOne, 2009) 90-91.