I imagine a fair number of you have along the way seen the Broadway musical West Side Story, one of the greatest of them all. It is a contemporary retelling of the story of Romeo and Juliet set in New York City, with gang wars going on around them. Late in the play the two young lovers have a moment alone on stage, and there they sing a beautiful song called “One Hand, One Heart.” Listen to the lyrics:

Make of our hands one hand,
Make of our hearts one heart.
Make of our vows one last vow:
Only death will part us now.

Make of our lives one life,
Day after day one life.
Now it begins, now we start;
One hand, one heart.
Even death won’t part us now.

The couple is singing about the mystery of love. In their love for each other their lives become one—one hand, one heart, one life pulsing in them. An outsider looking at them couldn’t see that oneness, but it’s there. And even if the two lovers are in other rooms, down different streets, dealing with other people, it’s still there; it transcends time and place. Love has united them as closely, as completely as, say, a vine is united to its branches.

In the gospel lesson for today Jesus is with his disciples for their final supper before he goes to his death. He and they have been through intense months and years together, and now they know it’s over. And the words we hear are some of his last urgent counsel to his friends. Listen to what he says:

I am the vine, you are the branches…Abide in me as I abide in you. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

It’s an extraordinary image for the life of faith. Jesus is saying that at the heart of following him is something as intimate as the relationship of those two lovers. His disciples are to “abide” in him and each other. Abide means to dwell with, to stay connected to, to be with, even to hang in with. They are to be parts of his own life—branches from the vine of his life and Spirit. Everything the branches need comes through the vine. Branches grow in every direction—each different, twisting its own way, intertwining with others—but all the branches take their life from the vine.

There is one life, one source, one love that flows through everything, Jesus says, and it flows through me and into you. And your calling as disciples is to stay connected to the vine, to keep letting this life flow into you. And if you do, he says, your lives will be rich and fruitful.

And the words from our first lesson from the First Letter of John are similar:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God…God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

There it is again, this abiding. Those who dwell in love dwell in God, and God lives and dwells in them. It’s all intermingled. Knowing God, knowing Christ, is not about believing a set of things, or knowing certain facts. It is more like knowing your closest friend, or spouse, or child, or mother, a knowing that can run so deep that one life interpenetrates another, one life actually lives in another: One hand, one heart.

Both these lessons give us a starkly different picture of God from the one we often hear about. Isn’t God the great monarch who rules far above us? We think of God as creator, judge, king. We imagine a great and remote ruler of the universe. But John is saying that God is the life that flows through everything that is. God is the energy, the peace, the love buried in the depths of our lives. Yes, God has created and sustained the universe, only not as an all-powerful king. The only God we Christians know is revealed in a wandering teacher who hung on a cross out of love for us. And that means that God is “pure unbounded love,” a vine of life that we can choose to stay connected to or can cut ourselves off from.

There is a wise teacher named Father Zosima in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov who keeps saying that God is everywhere and in everything. To know God is to enter into that flow of love. And so the teacher says, “If you learn to love all things you will perceive God’s mystery inherent in all things.”

Do you see how Dostoevsky turns our usual notion of faith on its head? The usual order of things is first for us to have faith, and then to get on with loving. But here he points to another way. First learn to love, he says, and then love will lead us to faith. In the novel an elegant older lady confesses to him one day that she has lost her faith and asks for his help. And his answer to her is, “Try to love your neighbors, love them actively, unceasingly. And as you learn to love them more and more, you will be more and more convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul.” Abide in love, he is saying, and you will abide in God.

I’ve seen that happen time and again. Often people discover the reality of God not by thinking their way there or deciding to believe, but by working in a soup kitchen, or tutoring a child, or caring for a dying parent. When we move out of our self-preoccupation, our busy egos, and actually open ourselves to the needs of another, a deeper life can flow through us, we can see how connected we are to God and each other, how much we need each other, how much our life is not about us but about an immense mystery of Love holding us.

A few summers ago I traveled on a mission trip in the hill country of Honduras outside Tegucigalpa with a group of teenagers and a medical team from a parish I served. For a week we lived and worked with people who slept in dirt floor mud huts, whose teeth were often rotting, and who suffered from frequent illnesses and infections. We worked alongside them to build a church in their little community that could also serve as a community house. We wielded axes and shovels to clear a foundation, and spent days lugging cinder blocks and cementing them into walls.

I think we did a little modest good there. But what I’m sure of is that that trip affected our own lives profoundly. Many of us said that God had never seemed so close, both in the work itself, and especially in our encounters with the Honduran people who welcomed us in, with all their grace and joy. “Those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

And so the key to life is our learning how to abide, to live on the vine, to stay connected, to hang in there, to keep Christ’s life flowing into us and through us. And if we do that, Jesus says in our gospel, we will bear much fruit.

The fruit of love is everywhere, of course. I think of rescue workers on the Gulf Coast, of nurses and teachers at their daily tasks, of legal defense lawyers serving the poor, of a friend who cared for his spouse in the long journey of Parkinson’s disease. In all these their works of love brought forth remarkable, life-giving fruit.

Here at the Cathedral this week we celebrated the beginning of another summer of having our Cathedral Scholars, a program that brings high school students from the city’s schools here for five weeks of academic study, leadership training, and a chance to work in a job here on the close. Our staff then keeps up with and supports these youngsters during the year. At the opening ceremony this week we listened to the reflections of a young woman who had arrived in the U.S. from Vietnam when she was 13 not speaking a word of English. She became part of the first class of Cathedral scholars eight years ago, managed partly as a result of the experience to attend Bowdoin College, and is now back teaching in her Southeast Washington high school, a bright, beautiful human being. That’s fruit from the vine!

But there is also a sobering tone to some of what Jesus is saying in the gospel today. It’s one thing to be told that Jesus is the vine and that we are the attached branches. But he goes on to say that “every branch that bears fruit [God] prunes to make it bear more fruit.” Pruning seems to be part of the deal—pain, sacrifice, being cut back in order to bear more fruit. Have you ever felt yourself being cut, stretched, wounded, hurt, by the very God you’re trying to love? Have you ever simply known the pain of loving well, the cost it takes, the energy it demands, and the sacrifices it entails?

On this day especially, as I think of bearing fruit and being pruned, I can’t help but think of all the mothers who are here on this Mother’s Day. That is a vocation filled with abiding, loving, bearing fruit, being pruned. A mother’s calling is to join with her spouse to create a place of abiding in love, a place where children can grow like branches from Christ’s vine, coming to bear fruit themselves. It’s hard to think of a more sacrificial vocation than motherhood—the surrendering of time and energy, the giving up of so much of what she wants from her life to enable her children to claim new lives for themselves.

And how much pruning it often entails for the mother and in fact for both spouses—being willing to give up making career moves on the fast track, or simply working one hard job all day only to come home to the second full job, the nurturing of home, family, and children’s needs. A mother’s work is all about abiding in love, being there, hanging in there, being a vessel, a channel for God’s love.

But this loving isn’t easy. Jesus today puts it bluntly: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” That may sound like an exaggeration, but I don’t think it is. Love is not easy. There’s too much to be anxious about, too much self-absorption. At every turn we’re being urged to think about ourselves and our own happiness. No, my sense is that we can’t love; we can’t bear fruit on the vine, without God’s life, Christ’s Spirit, opening our eyes, stirring our desire to care and to respond, deepening our awareness that we aren’t in this alone. We need the vine; we need the love and energy that come from God if we’re going to abide in love ourselves.

And so we come here week after week—to abide on the vine together, all branches of one life, taking in the music and words, the bread and wine, that are Christ’s lifeblood.

Make of our lives one life,
Day after day one life.
Now it begins, now we start;
One hand, one heart.
Even death won’t part us now.