It is with great pleasure that we present to you the amazing, and deeply consoling, talks from our very own Sam Bush. The audio files are below, as is the text.
Whenever I get to a place like Shrine Mont I tend to think – can’t we just stay here forever? Someone’s cooking for us, there’s plenty of free time, the only decision you have is whether to take a nap or do English Country Dancing. Why do we have to leave? This is how we were meant to live. Maddy and I went to Maine this summer with my family for a week and it’s a similar situation. You’re on the ocean, you’re away from it all, lobster is an assumed part of one’s diet, there are bald eagles all over the place and hummingbirds in the gardens. It is paradise. (Joanie knows what I’m talking about.) As you cross over the state line, you read a sign that says, “Welcome to Maine: The Way Life Should Be.” And you think, “Ah, yes, this is how it should be!” (So much more inviting than “West Virginia: Open For Business!” by the way, which just sounds sad and desperate). You cross into Maine and you think “I am home!”
But a running joke throughout that week was coming up with alternatives for the state motto. One was, “Maine: Doing Fine Thanks” (that’s how the locals would probably have it – not exactly a warm invitation to all the tourists), but the ones that really lasted were “Maine: The Way Life Should Have Been” and “Maine: The Way Your Life Would Have Been If You Hadn’t Done You-Know-What Way Back When.”
The state motto of Maine calls out a glaring truth: that, for those of us who don’t live in Maine, life is not the way it should be. Something went wrong along the way. You thought you’d be married by now or you thought marriage would be easier or you thought you’d be more financially secure and have more direction by now. Maybe tragedy struck, or depression when you least expected. Maybe some great opportunity came your way – and you thought it was going to open all of these doors, but that never happened; or maybe you have one of those houses I saw in Southwest Harbor, Maine, but you’re still inexplicably miserable and frustrated. Maybe you love your life and I hope you do. I think life is wonderful. But even our family vacation in Maine had its fair share of quarreling; of passive aggressive bickering and maybe a blowup or two. And, not to burst our bubble here, but I’m sure Shrine Mont would eventually turn into an episode of Survivor pretty quickly (probably a schism between the frisbee throwers and pickleball players). No matter where you go, life is not the way it should be.
I think Buddhism hits a home run with the first of its four noble truths: Life is Suffering. “Life is Suffering” is not a great state motto, but it’s true to experience. Public opinion doesn’t believe that “Life is Suffering” (you don’t see many “Life is Suffering” t-shirts; mostly “Life is Good”), but if you work in healthcare or counseling or ministry where you see suffering close up, you have no choice but to be on board with that idea. But it is our inclination to avoid suffering at all costs. One of my favorite novels, Theophilus North, says, “In America, the tragic background of life is hidden in the cupboard, even from those who have come most starkly face to face with it.” And it’s true. We would rather live in denial than to accept the truth because the truth can be painful. And because of our tendency to marginalize suffering, when it happens, it often comes as a surprise to us. But the reality is that suffering is inevitable and that it is reality and life is full of it.
I don’t mean to be dramatic or heavy, especially on a retreat (“Aren’t you glad you came? Is there any more booze?”). I’m hoping that this retreat provides a brief respite from suffering. I’m hoping that your burden feels a little lighter just by being outside and spending time with each other. I hope this weekend is a glimpse of the way life should be, but instead of being merely an escape, I’m hoping to provide something rooted in reality that applies not to how your life should be, but how it is. Because if the way we talk about God’s grace is all talk – if you’re not actually experiencing how God’s grace applies to your relationships, how you think about yourself, how you think about God, what He thinks about you, and what He’s doing in your life, than this won’t mean anything when you eventually experience suffering. I want to talk a little about the way life is and who God is, and how He is present in your actual life. Of course, this retreat is much more than these talks. The real reason why we’re here is to be together, to recuperate, to rest.
But, often times, even trying to rest doesn’t go as it should. Rest can be surpringly hard to do. Staycations can often turn into weekends catching up on email. Life is full of interruptions. In the book of Mark, there’s a scene right before the feeding of the five-thousand: “The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught (that must have been really fun for Jesus – “And then, we talked to this guy named Steve, and, oh man, this guy really needs Jesus, he’s been through a lot” and Jesus is like, “Yup, I know Steve, he’s a friend of mine…”). Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” Jesus understood that experiencing real rest usually requires you to leave your day-to-day situation, packing up and getting out. But, two verses after Jesus tells his disciples to come away with him, five-thousand hungry people crash the party! So much for their weekend getaway! Hope that doesn’t happen to us!
It’s hard to rest due to outside forces, but also internal forces. The Protestant work ethic which is rooted in the idea that you could find out if you were saved or not based on how hard you worked. Whether or not you believe that, we are hardwired to think that our worth is based on our productivity – and not just our worth, but whether or not we are worthy before God. Last summer, I was given a 12-week sabbatical which was a huge gift to me and Maddy. When I was preparing my time away, I presented my planned schedule to Paul. I was going to apply for a grant to study at a monastery in Scotland and write a paper about music and theology (just total B.S.) and then take a couple of classes out in Vancouver and jump through all of these hoops that would make it look like I wasn’t just wasting time watching Seinfeld and eating Cheez-Its (which are my favorite snack). And thankfully Paul looked at me with love and said, “That’s a terrible idea. You can have goals, but they shouldn’t have anything to do with work. Maybe make a goal to see 10 birds you’ve never seen. That would be an accomplishment.”
Paul hit on something that set me free. Rest is a good thing. God commands us to rest. To actually rest. Not just paid time off that you’re not actually supposed to take. To remember the Sabbath – to rest – is to remember that there is a God…and that you’re not Him. You stop moving and the world keeps going and then you realize that you are not turning the world. So resting is meant to return your role back to that of a creature. We are not the Creator, we are His creation. We see this in the Bible a lot – God is the one who cares for us and we are cared for.
One passage that I think illustrates this well, is John 15 and I’d like us to spend some time with this passage over the weekend.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
If this passage is a play, we find that our role is not completely insignificant, but it is probably not the role we wanted. If this is a second grade play, our role is comparable to a lamppost (actually, it’s worse because we’re just part of a lamppost – I hope I’m not dredging up any childhood trauma of being cast as an inanimate object). In this play, we are not the vinedresser. We are not even the vine. At the end of this parable, the credits role: Vinedresser – God; Vine – Jesus; Branches – Disciples and all of Humanity. We don’t have any lines or have stage direction because plants – branches, especially – don’t move a whole lot. Can you imagine the director’s notes: “Um, ya, branches, that was good, but can you sway a little more during that breeze? Let’s take it from the top one more time.” For those of you who are gardeners or plant experts, you understand that when you leave a plant somewhere, you can pretty much count on it being there when you get back. They are rather immobile, non-threatening beings (unless you ingest something poisonous).
I’d like to give an illustration with the help of Christopher Walken to show exactly how harmless plants are. This is a clip from Saturday Night Live entitled “Indoor Gardening Tips from a Man Who’s Very Scared of Plants.”
I admit, part of the reason why I played this clip was because I needed to stretch my talk out another four minutes, but I still think this sketch makes a good point.
Looking at these plants (and realizing that they don’t actually need googly eyes to be less threatening) shows how the fruit tree or the grapevine is a profoundly passive metaphor. The plant (let alone the branch) has no input on where it’s planted, where it grows, or even what kind of fruit it produces. It’s completely at the mercy of external forces as to whether it even produces fruit at all. It has no say in the matter. It simply must be what it is.
The problem is that we don’t like our role. We feel like we got miscast. We really should have been the vinegrower. This is not a new problem. There is something inside of us that is not in harmony with our intended purpose and we see it early on in the human story. From the get-go, we aren’t satisfied with being mere creatures. This desire is what convinced us to believe the lie in the Garden of Eden that we will “be like God.” And I think that all sin stems from this desire. This is why I think everyone is so addicted to their phones because the phone is a little world in itself which you can control. You have the whole world in your hands! (“You’ve got the latest headlines in your hands! You’ve got all your family photos in your hands!…sorry, I’m going overboard.)
This part of us – the part that really doesn’t want to be branches – is the cause of suffering in the world. The second pillar of Buddhism actually addresses this, saying that suffering is caused by human desire and craving (by the way, this is the Christ Episcopal Church retreat, in case you thought you were in the wrong place – this is not a Buddhist retreat) but it goes to show how sin is a universal doctrine. The Bible makes it clear that death and suffering entered the world through sin as a righteous punishment. God tells Adam that because he ate the fruit which was forbidden, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground.” This, in fact, is a just punishment for our rebellion and it is also a strong reminder that we are not God.
Anything that’s going on in your life that you can’t control with ease is the sign of a fallen world. That ranges from inconveniences like your cat getting flees so you have to vacuum the whole house for a week to something more serious like an infection in the lungs. Last summer, my nephew Draper (who was four) got stung by a green head at the beach – and those things hurt – and he starts to cry and says, “What was that?!” and we rush to explain that it’s OK, that it was just a fly and he continues, “But what kind of fly?” and we rush to say that it’s called a green head and that they’re nasty bugs and then he says – tears streaming down his face – “Why did God make that?” And everyone just kind of pauses and looks at each other, like, “Uh…anyone else care to explain that?” The simple answer – and it’s not perfectly sufficient; I think suffering is best met with compassion rather than explanation (that’s what people actually want when they’re suffering) – is that the green head is a sign of a fallen world.
So what’s my point. Well, my point is that life is suffering and that we actually have something to do with that. But, our intended purpose is to be that of a branch. And, by the grace of God, once in a while, you’ll get a glimpse of that. And it feels so right. This pretty much always happens in response to being cared for by the vine. I’ll talk more about that tomorrow.
The kind of peace that I get when I’m at a place like Shrine Mont is often rooted in realizing that my status is that of a branch (or “creature”). There’s no striving. You simply wake up, you eat and are nourished, you get some sun, you enjoy the company of others, you enjoy God’s creation you feel connected to Jesus. You are what you are, no more or no less. You are stripped of your title and your status. And, while that can feel limiting to your ego and your pride — especially if you feel like you’re a really important person — it hopefully feels freeing to simply be.
The gardener is taking care of you and, thankfully, the gardener is not Christopher Walken. He is not afraid of His plants. The Gardener knows what is best for his plants and is the one responsible for their growth. When the Corinthians were bickering about which church sect was better based on their leader, The Apostle Paul said, “I planted, Apollos (who was another church leader) watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”
The Corinthians are arguing about which group is the right one based on various leaders in the church and they were separating into competing camps. But Paul knows that their perspective is human-centered. Paul understands what Jesus was saying about us being branches and Jesus being the vine and God being the vinedresser – one’s personal growth is God’s responsibility.
What does this mean for you? Well, it means you are not in control of your life. That might sound like bad news, but I hope that it actually takes the pressure off. God is working on you right now, whether you know it or not. He knows what you need in order to bear fruit and He is giving you that now. And as He works out His plan for you, all the while, you are connected to a vine that is bringing you life and nourishment and the grace because the vine is the gospel. The vine is Jesus Christ.
So, this is an opportunity to step away from the daily grind, to be nourished, to find relief and rest. I hope you get a good nap in. I hope you spend some time outside. Throughout the weekend, I’ll be drawing from my favorite books, movies, poems, scripture that help further illustrate that you are a branch, connected to the vine. You are being cared for by a loving Gardner who knows your every need and who has met and is meeting your need this moment.
I’ll close tonight with a quote from the Book of Hebrews: ”So there is a special rest still waiting for the people of God. For all who have entered into God’s rest have rested from their labors, just as God did after creating the world. So let us do our best to enter that rest.”
I’d like to start off this morning with an excerpt from East of Eden (1952 novel by John Steinbeck which focuses on two families in the beginning of the 20th century in the Salinas Valley of California which he beautifully illustrates):
“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”
Wow, we really jumped right into the heart of things didn’t we? Good morning! Last night we read from John 15 and saw how Jesus cast us as branches in this parable. I also spoke about how we feel like we have been miscast and so often times we feel that life is not how it is supposed to be. This passage from Steinbeck is a clear picture of the way life is.
We are told from kindergarten that we are the masters of our fate and the captains of our soul, but, if that’s true, why do we so often feel caught? Why does Steinbeck say that is the only story in the world? Do you ever feel caught? Have you ever been faced with a dilemma and it feels like the next decision could make or break your life? Even in our clearer moments, a lot of times, we don’t have the perspective to know if we’re making a good decision. Often times, there is a problem and we rush to fix it, but we’re still stuck in uncertainty.
This happened nationwide in wartime England leading up to the German blitzkrieg. Has anyone heard of The Great Cat and Dog Massacre? It’s a doozie. In early September 1939, the citizens of London were so afraid that they were going to run out of supplies and not have enough food for their pets that they euthanized 26% percent of the city’s pet population. 400,000 dogs and cats were exterminated over a period of about four days in what would be later called The Great Cat and Dog Massacre. None of this was done out of real necessity. The British government didn’t issue any instructions to do this. It was a spontaneous act by a people who were terrified by the thought of war. Of course, almost immediately, people realized that they had made a terrible mistake. This is often what happens when fear takes over – when we feel helpless and desperate to take matters into our own hands – when there is a problem that we cannot control and we think the answer is to control it.
The same goes for our personal lives. Maddy and I are already going through this with Auden (and we know it’s just the beginning). Should we let him cry when he’s unhappy or should we always comfort him? Is that going to determine how well rounded he is as an adult? (I’m not actually asking you this – I know each of you have very strong opinions about the matter). Often times Steinbeck’s question, “Was it good or was it evil” goes unanswered (although the answer, in a boring way, is probably “both”).
So Steinbeck is right. We are caught – in our lives; in our relationships – in wanting to be a better person (wanting to be a better daughter, a better husband, a better friend) but falling short of executing that desire. Is there a relationship in your life that you wish you could resolve, but you don’t even know where to begin? Maybe you’ve confronted it directly before but that just made it worse.
We are not just caught in our lives and in our relationships but we’re caught in ourselves or, as Steinbeck says, in our thoughts. Sigmund Freud famously said that there are three devastating insults that have happened to the human being. He called them “outrages upon humanity’s naive self-love.” The first was a Cosmological insult, when Copernicus discovered that the Sun was at the center of the universe. This was devastating to realize that people weren’t the center of the universe. We thought all of existence was a big party just for us, but apparently we were just a part of it. The second was a biological insult when Darwin published his theory on evolution. This suggested that we’re not as special as we think we are. This theory “robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world,” implying that we have an animalistic nature in us. That’s another punch in the gut to our pride because we’re not even the center of the earth. We might be a little lower than the angels, but we’re only a little higher than the apes. The third is a psychological insult, humbly presented by Freud, himself – that even in our own persons, we’re fundamentally not in control of ourselves. “Man’s craving for grandiosity [branches who want to be vines or vinedressers] is now suffering the third and most bitter blow… that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind.” According to Freud, our self-awareness and free will is but a teardrop in the ocean of the unconscious. If you disagree with that – if you think you know yourself; just describe yourself to your wife and ask her if she agrees with that description.
If you agree with Freud, this belief could easily lead to despair and to shutting down. Do you know if you’re doing the right thing and if so, for the right reasons? What if you’re not? What if you want to do the right thing, but you can’t? What if you’ve tried and are tired of trying? Any hope, therefore, has to come from the outside. Something outside the branches has to do the work because the branch is unable to care for itself.
The branches, wanting to be more than branches, reach out far out in the pursuit of glory like the builders of the Tower of Babel, but only to their own detriment because the life they enjoy comes only from the vine and the further you get from the vine, the further you are from your life source. And, all the while, disease and pests are encroaching, the beetle and the caterpillar, with their own needs, indifferent to your problems or your well-being. One of the collects we pray on Sunday is “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” So, especially in our times of need, we as branches look to the Vinedresser and can trust that He is at work.
Let’s talk about pruning. Pruning is the Vinegrower at work in your life. Unfortunately, He’s not at work the way we’d like Him to be. Jesus says “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” This is what W.H. Auden was talking about when he said, “”God is love’ we are taught as children to believe. But when we first begin to get some inkling of how He loves us, we are repelled. It seems so cold, indeed, not love at all as we understand the word.” The way pruning is described here is not the language of self-betterment, but one of death and resurrection. In scripture, we see that God is not really in the business of self-betterment, but He is in the death and resurrection business. In order to make a more fruitful vine, the vinedresser doesn’t wait for the branch to improve on its own. That would actually be more cruel because the branch is unable to do that. If an apple is rotting on a tree, you don’t wait for it to get better, you pluck it off so that more fruit can grow. This is the reality of tending a garden and it is the reality of life. That’s not to say it’s easy.
At first glance, the concept of pruning looks savage and cruel. Who would hack off a branch for the good of the vine? How often has your life been going pretty well only to be completely offset by a trouble that you had nothing to do with? Have you ever been confused as to why something unfortunate or tragic happened in your life?
Sometimes a branch looks perfectly strong and healthy and when that branch is severed, it can feel like a part of you is severed. And whenever a part of me feels disconnected to God, I often feel loneliness and loss. And I think pain like that is real and that it should be taken seriously. We often don’t take pain seriously. We say things like, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I’m pretty sure that, before the age of modern medicine, the saying was, “Whatever doesn’t kill you just makes it easier for something else to kill you.”
Talking about pruning can easily lead to rationalizing pain and loss as if we know the will of God. I think we do this to try to soften the blow rather than be present in the pain. “That bad thing happened to you because you had sort of gone astray and God is pruning you – getting you back on track.” In my twenties I started a rock band and I wanted it to be successful. I bought an old van and we played shows up and down the east coast. I worked hard at it, but it wasn’t succeeding which made me wonder what I was doing wrong. Was I too ambitious? Was God teaching me a lesson? Of course, the one thing I never considered was maybe I wasn’t the next Bob Dylan. Case in you point: you never choose humility (I’ll talk about that later). I tried to rationalize why things hadn’t gone the way I wanted them to, and I felt confused and resentful and tired. But, in trying to understand why my band wasn’t successful I think I was misunderstanding my role as a branch. The branch is not aware of what’s going on.
It’s actually not the branch’s responsibility to understand the meaning behind the pruning. That’s the vinegrower business. The branch has no choice but to trust that the vinegrower is loving and that His intention is to bear as much fruit as possible. You may ask at at times, “Why did God do this?” And, one answer to that question is “Not because God had to, but because God was free to do so. Unlike you, God is not constrained by anything outside of Himself.” The comforting part about this is that, although life is suffering, the suffering is not pointless. It’s not random. The vinegrower is good. He is not pruning out of spite or out of anger, but out of love. I’m going to give an illustration of how God prunes us through a clip from the movie Buck that drives home the point that the vinedresser is loving and is the only one who is competent in pruning.
Buck Brannaman grew up performing rope tricks with his brother and was nationally famous by the age of 6. They were stars of a Kellogg’s Sugar Pop cereal commercial. His father was the driving force behind their success, but similar to Michael Jackson or Brian Wilson, it was not in a loving way, but in a controlling way. And he was abusive. Buck eventually was rescued by a teacher who noticed the bruises on his body and he was sent to a foster home. This clip tells the story of Buck meeting his foster dad and then cuts to what Buck does now. He is brilliant, supernaturally talented at training horses. He was actually a major contribution in the movie The Horse Whisperer with Robert Redford, on set giving tips and advice.
First, how about how Buck’s foster dad cared for Buck and how it changed his life? How Buck grew quickly to trust his foster dad because he knew he respected Buck and was going to care for him. And did you notice how Buck trains the horse? He’s not mad at it. He loves and respects it too much to bribe it. He knows how to get it to listen and he wants what’s best for it because he loves it. Comparatively, the horse’s owner admits that she’s insecure and, out of that, the horse grows up to be insecure. It’s kind of like a parent raising a child, right? Sometimes when Auden whines when he’s hungry and tired, I say, “Gosh, he’s being whiny” and Maddy says, “Where do you think he got that from?” Buck, however, is fearless. He is competent. He knows what he’s doing. This horse can’t help itself, but Buck has the power to help it.
The point of this clip is not about “trying.” You hear Buck and that other woman say that “It’s good to try.” I went to church out on the West Coast this summer and the message that day was, “God loves you no matter what as long as you try.” That is not true. That sentence is just five words too long. The point that I’m trying to make is that God is in control of your life. And God can actually help you. He knows what you need and He is making that happen. Not to make you a more perfect person. Pruning is not what’s going to make you right with God. He’s not pruning you to perfect you – He is simply working out his plan for you.
I have one more illustration to share about how the Holy Spirit enables us to trust in Him and gives us the peace to simply be branches. I got the illustration from Paul Zahl and would not have told you that unless Dave was here – otherwise, I would have totally plagiarized. But PZ does such a great job in using this illustration in his sermon which he titled “How to Be Happy.”
Sloan Wilson is a forgotten American novelist and, in his time, was the embodiment of the American struggle after WWII. In addition to being an author, he had a distinguished war record.
He was once a commander of a coast guard diesel tanker in dangerous waters in the Philippines in 1944. During a staging movement to supply ships with gasoline, his boat came under attack by Japanese kamikaze planes. He sees an aircraft sail over his ship and land into a large troop transport which veered out of a convoy and lay burning, dead in the water. He sees, hundreds of men lining the rail, trying to escape the heat. He knows more planes will eventually close in for the kill and then gets an idea to come along their side and get men off. Another officer reminds him that they’re carrying fuel and aren’t even a rescue boat, but he orders to send a message to the sinking ship that he’s coming to their rescue. And he gets their reply: “Will comply. God bless.”
These four words are directly linked to what it means to be happy in life. He says that’s a summation of all a person would need to know to have a life that is not rooted in striving and in perpetual conflict. The tanker, which was just about to capsize, says, “Ok! We’ll do it. We won’t make a move. We’ll wait till you get here.”
And, of course, none of us comply. We all resist. We don’t want to be branches and we’d like to be in control. The biggest problem you probably have is that you haven’t accepted the hand you’ve been dealt. But, by the grace of God, in these moments, it feels like we have no choice but to trust Him and He is faithful. And then we see that we’ve been dealt the best hand of all, a hand we never deserved. Because God is good and gracious. The last two words, “God bless” go to show that we’re really only able to comply when we actually believe that God is good.
Even still, when we find it difficult to trust Him, we only need to recognize that there was One who trusted and complied on our behalf. The most moving episode of compliance that ever happened is in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus says, “Yet, not my will, but thy will be done.”
One thing that is amazing about Jesus is that he doesn’t consider himself that different from you and me. He is the vinegrower incarnate, but he only considers himself as the vine here. Philippians says that Jesus “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!”
Jesus is what we were meant to be but could never be. He complied in a way that we never could. But he did it on your behalf. The vine was struck down. It’s fruit poured out and made into wine at the foot of the cross. Three days later it was raised back up, raising the branches along with it. Jesus the vine said, “When I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all men to me.” So whether or not you like being a branch, you are one and you are connected to the vine because Jesus has drawn you to him. And, even though life is suffering, Jesus is present with you in your suffering. And death will not have the last word because Christ has overcome the grave on your behalf. And even though your experience may be what Steinbeck describes as “caught,” through Christ you have been set free. Being a branch connected to the vine might ironically look like you’re bound, but abiding in the vine is experiencing freedom like never before. Freedom from striving, freedom from wanting to be the vinegrower, freedom from Satan, freedom from yourself, from sin and death.
I’m going to end with poem by John Donne, the famous 17th century English poet and cleric, who wrote this in response to the verse in Genesis that I read last night, where God says in the garden, “Cursed is the ground because of you. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”
“We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ’s cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.” – John Donne
I’d like to talk about what happens when, by the grace of God, you comply. The result of compliance – the branch, doing what it was born to do; relying on the vine and trusting in the vinedresser- is fruit. This is tricky territory. Fruit is so attractive to us because it implies that you’re getting better. When you exercise you might start to feel better and look better and that’s why you exercise and it’s great! But what happens when your identity is rooted in you feeling better and looking better and you stop? You might start to feel guilty and then you end up like me on sabbatical, watching Seinfeld and eating Cheez-Its.
I’m not saying people can’t change. By the power of the gospel, people can change (and they do!). There is recovery for the addict, there is hope for the depressive, there is healing for the broken. In order for it to last, however, it needs to be rooted in the vine. Lasting change does not come from an outcome-oriented program. It comes out of a response to the life and love and healing given by the vine. When Jesus says he is the true vine, he’s referencing a passage in Isaiah where God is talking about the Israelites: “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines…. and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded… wild grapes.” This is true to life. You can spend a fortune on choice vines (just go to Ivy Nursery – it’s expensive, but it’s really nice), you can set up everything just right, but only the true vine will yield lasting fruit.
From my experience, any program that promises change that is solely focused on the change will yield wild grapes because it’s not rooted in the true vine. There’s a New Yorker cartoon where one butterfly is saying to another butterfly, “The thing is you have to really want to change.” And life, from my experience, does not work that way. Jesus was spot on when he said, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” But fruit is often a natural response when you realize that you are connected to the vine and, by the grace of God, you comply with being a branch.
A quick history on spiritual fruit – In the 18th century, there was a profound movement called The Great Awakening. People like George Whitfield (the first celebrity in America) would come to town and preach to 8,000 people without a microphone (think Paul Walker, Christmas Eve when the organ blower died, circa 2015) and thousands would confess their faith in Christ. In the aftermath of these sermons, something happened that would change the shape of Christianity in America. For the first time, on a massive scale, people were wondering how to tell who the true converts were. Lingo like, “Am I saved?” started developing (“Did it really happen?” “Am I really a Christian?”). Everybody heard George Whitfield and everybody had some formal expression of faith, but, when everyone started coming down from their spiritual high, people thought you could tell the difference between the true believers and the fakers. People would ask, “Does God love me?” and, to answer the question, they would look to their own life. People would say, “Minister, am I saved?” and the minister would say, “How’s your walk with Jesus?”
And, sadly, that is most people’s idea of Christianity in America. You have a lot of churches telling people that, if you’re a true Christian, your life will look like X, Y and Z. There’s a lot of habit-formation. And discipline is a good thing and I want more and more of it; but the gospel and the fruit of the gospel is based on God’s promise, not on your fruit. All the weight is on the Word, focused on Christ and not the Christian.
So, again, God the Vinegrower is at work in your life through Jesus, the Word made flesh. If you ever have any doubts, if you ever think, “Oh, God can’t actually be talking to me. I’m still ‘unclean’ because I’ve done something particularly bad,” look to Verse Three in this parable: “You have already been cleansed by the word I have spoken to you.” You’re already clean? You don’t feel clean so what cleaned you? The Word of God.
The Book of Hebrews says the Word of God is “alive and active” – it is at work on you when you receive it. We talked about this at Men’s Bible Study last week, that God’s Word doesn’t just describe things, but it does things. It brings light into the world (let there be light); it raises a dead girl (little girl, get up); it brings Lazarus out of the tomb (Lazarus come out!). God’s word is effective. So when God says in the book of Isaiah, “I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more” (43:25), that becomes a reality. Without you doing anything, but simply hearing the Word, Christ has made you clean. As the vine, Christ, the Word made flesh, is pouring Himself into you, and by simply receiving Him – fruit is produced.
And fruit is an apt metaphor because fruit is the best stuff on earth (like Snapple products – “Made from the best stuff on earth!”). When you sink your teeth into a good piece of fruit, it’s transcendent. A strawberry, right off the stem, still warm from soaking in the sunlight; or a peach right off the branch – those are golden moments. Sweet and satisfying. Paul’s letter to the Galatians says that the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. That’s a lot of fruit and I’m not going to talk about any of them specifically because I think I’ve already talked enough and I don’t want you to get sick of me before tomorrow morning’s talk.
I’ve tasted this fruit in my life and seen it in other people’s lives. You hear that your sins – all of your sins, yes that one which nobody knows about – are forgiven and you feel a wave of relief. You hear that Jesus is the friend of sinners and you feel like you can be honest with yourself and with other people. You hear that Jesus has defeated death; suddenly, you feel less afraid of getting old. That is the power of the Word which is alive and active.
Another unmentioned fruit of the gospel, I think, is humility. Not false humility like the David Budbill’s poem Dilemma: “I want to be famous so I can be humble about being famous. What good is my humility when I am stuck in this obscurity?” That is a contrived, false humility. That is branch still striving to be the vine. Real humility comes when you realize that you’re not God and that God has already taken care of everything (including your self-worth and your salvation). You’re just a branch and without the vine, you’re dead. And, like I said before when I was talking about my band, you never choose humility. That’s why I think it’s a fruit. There’s nothing virtuous about it. Humility is actually just waking up to the reality that you’re just a branch.
Unfortunately, when we become aware of fruit, it spoils. I remember, after I had sold the van and wasn’t booking many shows, I told Paul that I really felt like I wasn’t ambitious anymore – that I had given that up, that I was a new man. And Paul looked at me with love and said, “That’s great, Sam.” And I sensed something disingenuous in his tone and asked him what he really thought and he said, “I think you’ll probably be on your death bed, even if you’re 93 years old, and still feel at least a little bit of ambition.” (So, now I’m hoping that I live until at least 94.)
For fruit to be at maximum juiciness and flavor, it has to be enjoyed in the moment because it spoils fast. No matter how good the last perfect peach you had was, I doubt you are still in that transcendent place and if you are, I’m a little worried about you and it makes me wonder what was in that peach. Likewise, when you become aware of how patient or generous or how much self-control you have, my bet is that the fruit will spoil.
Of course, we want to keep the good things we’ve received, but my experience is that most fruit is temporary. Like enjoying a good book. Billy Collins talks about forgetting a good novel in his poem, “Forgetfulness.” He’s talking about loving a book, but not being able to hold on to the experience. He says, “The name of the author is the first to go, followed obediently by the title, the plot, the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of.”
Can you relate? As an English major, I constantly feel this pressure to remember everything I’ve read. Someone the other day was talking about Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and I remember being deeply moved by it in high school. Can I actually tell you what it’s about? Not really (I remember there’s a monster)! Sorry, maybe you can, but I can’t. Come find me at lunch and tell me what it’s about and tell me why I was so moved by it in high school – I want to know! The other day I read an interview with Robert Capon in the latest Mockingbird magazine I thought, “I’d like to read this every morning for the rest of my life. I want to read it every hour on the hour. This man’s understanding of the gospel is so on target, so connected with reality, that I need it as a constant reminder of what I believe.” I haven’t read it since and I completely forget what it says. Lord have mercy!
Sometimes, you might respond to the gospel in this way. You hear that Jesus loves you, that God is gracious and that your sins are forgiven, you feel better for an hour or so, but then maybe you feel depressed or get in a fight with your spouse or your roommate that night. And then you wonder if your faith was ever real. Lots of people become Christians and, because their life doesn’t improve, they doubt whether their faith was legitimate or not. That is why our hope and salvation is hinged upon the vine and not the fruit.
That is also why so much of our church service structure is built around remembering – because we forget. Every week, we take the body and the blood in remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. If you have a terrible memory – if you’re constantly saying, “I’m so sorry, what is your name again?” – this should come as a relief. We are forgetful, but God is faithful. Later on in this passage from John, Jesus says the fruit that he’s talking about does last. The gospel is a wellspring to which you can return time and time again.
I’d like to give you an example of fruit that was produced after a group of people were cared for and when others didn’t get in the way of the caregiver. It’s from the book Being Mortal by Atul Gawande who is a surgeon and brilliant writer and it’s about hospice care and the current state of medicine in regard to aging and palliative care.
Bill Thomas was a 31-year old family doctor who had just become the director of Chase Memorial Nursing Home in a tiny town in upstate New York. He gets there and he sees despair in every room. The whole place is depressing. And he first tries to fix it by changing the guests’ medications, but this doesn’t help. He then came to think the missing ingredient was life itself, and he decided to try an experiment. If he could introduce plants, animals and children into the lives of the residents – fill the nursing home with them – what would happen?…The aim, he said, was to attack what he termed the Three Plagues of nursing home existence: boredom, loneliness, and helplessness. To attack the Three Plagues they needed to bring in some life. The following is a conversation between Bill Thomas and an administrator and I’m going to play both parts so please try to follow along:
“So,” Thomas said, “Let’s try two dogs.”
The administrator said, “The code doesn’t allow that.”
Thomas said, “Let’s just put it down on paper.”
“All right, I’ll put it down. I’m not really into this as much as you are, but I”ll put two dogs down.”
Thomas said, “Now, what about cats?”
“What about cats?! We’ve got two dogs down on the paper.”
Thomas said, “Some people aren’t dog lovers. They like cats.”
Administrator: “You want dogs AND cats?”
Thomas: “Let’s put it down for discussion purposes.”
Administrator: “Okay. I’ll put a cat down.”
Thomas: “No, no, no. We’re two floors. How about two cats on both floors?
Administrator: “We want to propose to the health department two dogs and four cats?”
Thomas: “Yes, just put it down.”
Administrator: “All right, I’ll put it down. I think we’re getting off base here. This not going to fly.”
Thomas: One more thing: What about birds?”
Administrator: I said the code says clearly, “No birds allowed in nursing homes.”
Thomas: “But what about birds?”
Administrator: What about birds? How many birds are you talking?
Thomas: Let’s put one hundred.
Administrator: ONE HUNDRED BIRDS? IN THIS PLACE? You’ve got to be out of your mind! Have you ever lived in a house that has two dogs and four cats and one hundred birds?
Thomas: No, but wouldn’t it be worth trying?
None of the other staff members were on board with this and Thomas asked them, “Would you just hang with me?” And the administrator says, “You’ve got to prove to me that this is something that has merit.” And that was just the opening Thomas needed. They didn’t say “no.”
So, one day, they threw out all their artificial plants and put live plants in every room. Staff members brought their kids to hang out. They moved in a greyhound named Target, a lapdog named Ginger and the four cats. The birds, of course, were the craziest part. When the bird delivery truck arrived the birdcages hadn’t. The driver released 100 parakeets into the beauty salon on the ground floor, shut the door, and left. The cages arrived later that day, but they’re unassembled so everyone is trying to put these cages together and catch these birds. It was total pandemonium, but it was shock therapy.
….And what happens? Well, at first there is resistance. The nurses aren’t thrilled with the idea of having to clean up dog poop. But eventually everyone gets on the same page. They’re running a home and not an institution. (By the way, this is what our church office is like There are dogs and babies and lots of yelling and laughing. It’s a lot like this nursing home.) And then, eventually, what begins to happen? Well here’s a report from one of the nurses: people who we had believed weren’t able to speak started speaking. People who had been completely withdrawn started coming to the nurses’ station and saying, “I’ll take the dog for a walk.” All the parakeets were adopted and named by the residents.
Researchers studied the effects of this program over two years. The number of prescriptions required per resident fell to half that of the other nursing home. Drugs for agitation decreased in particular. The total drug costs fell to just 38 percent of the comparison facility. Deaths fell 15 percent. The study couldn’t say why, but Bill Thomas thought he could. “I believe that the difference in death rates can be traced to the fundamental human need for a reason to live.”
What would have happened if the nursing home residents had started a “Think Positive” campaign to get better? It might have worked at first, but not for very long. I believe that the change had to come from an outside, unexpected power. Which is exactly what the gospel is. This missing ingredient to our lives and the Three Plagues – boredom, loneliness and helplessness – is life itself and Jesus is the way and the Life.
By receiving the Word, I hope that you will be able to sleep a little better. I hope that you will be able to breathe a little easier. Perhaps you will feel more generous, more loving, more kind or gentle or more patient. And while we can’t preserve this fruit, the vine is preserving you and me.
So whether or not you can taste any fruit in your life right now, tomorrow you are invited to eat the body and blood of Christ, the most nourishing food you will ever find. The food that fed the world’s hunger once and for all. It is made the best stuff on earth.
There’s a poem by John Updike called “Hoeing.”
I sometimes fear the younger generation will be deprived
of the pleasures of hoeing;
there is no knowing
how many souls have been formed by this simple exercise.
The dry earth like a great scab breaks, revealing
the pea-root’s home,
a fertile wound perpetually healing.
How neatly the green weeds go under!
The blade chops the earth new.
Ignorant the wise boy who
has never performed this simple, stupid, and useful wonder.
I like to imagine the speaker as the divine vinegrower. This is God, delighting in us, caring for us, hoeing and weeding and pruning, loving and sustaining.
You could say to God, “Is all this pruning and all this work really that effective? I mean, look at the world – it’s a mess!” And you would be right! In the world’s eyes it is a fool’s errand. To which God might very well say, “Yes, a stupid and useful wonder.” Why he delights in his vineyard can be a baffling thought, but, indeed, he delights in it. For what purpose? For what gain? Well, it is not the business of the branches to know the vinegrower’s purposes, but it’s because he loves the vine and the branches along with it and he loves taking care of them.
While we’re at it, why did Jesus go through the trouble of dying on the cross if the world is still hardly the way it should be. If Christ set us free from being caught in the net of good and evil, then why do you still feel trapped sometimes? Well, Jesus did not die so that you could bear fruit. Fruit is simply a byproduct of the gospel. Jesus wasn’t thinking, “How do I get these people to be more kind and loving? I know….” He did not set us free as a means to an end. Otherwise, that’s just a way of manipulating us. God’s grace is not a system or an equation. It is not a way to negotiate for your good works. It is a gift. A gift to be received. He is not bartering for your piety.
I’d like to give an example of who we think God is, but who He in fact is not. This is a two-minute interview with two guys from Boston, Massachusetts, one named Louie Iacuzzi. That is his real name. And it will not take long to discover that he is a tried and true Boston native. This video just surfaced this week and it is already a video very close to my heart. I was raised on the Boston Red Sox and am still a huge fan. I’m from 20 miles outside of Boston – it’s close, but it is a world away from Louie. Louie and his friend speak a slightly different dialect – we call it a “Boston accent” but it is really a language in itself. There are no subtitles, but I hope you’ll be able to understand what they’re saying. Louis and his friend were driving when they “supposedly” discovered a brown paper bag on the side of a highway and they wanted to see what it was. And this is what happened.
This is what many people think God is like. Jesus dies on the cross as a once-and-for-all sacrifice for your sins – all the sins you’ve ever committed and will commit – but, you know, it’d’ be nice if you did something in return….What these guys say is what many people think God says: “We want to give it back to them but in reciprocation, we want to go to a nice playoff game…we’re looking for something, we don’t want to just hand it over to them. We need to negotiate. My man had to run across three lanes of traffic. We’re hoping they do the right thing, you know, we did the right thing. We could have put it on Ebay. We’re big supporters, so you know…”
This is the opposite of the gift God gives through His son, Jesus Christ. God risks His love and gives it freely no matter if it’s unrequited or reciprocated. It is given without an end goal in mind. The branch, in its stubbornness, may still insist on being the vinegrower. I’m not sure what that looks like for you – you might be hoping for your breakout #1 top-of-the-charts single when you’re 93 years old. If you don’t change – and I hope you do, we all want to, and it’s possible, but if you don’t – that doesn’t take away from the power of the cross, in fact, it makes what happened on the cross all the more powerful because it is a power greater than anything you could ever do.
Galatians 5 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” From the net of good and evil; from the law of who you are supposed to be; from your bad habits; from your past; from your anxiety about the future.
So what does this mean for your life? What does this mean for you as you go back into the world today. By the way, whenever someone says, “Well, this is a nice message, but I’ve got to go back to the real world,” the gospel message is as real as it gets. It is dealing with the heart of the matter. Most of the things we worry about – deadlines, responsibilities, chores, things that stress us out – are all secondary issues. The gospel doesn’t just deal with those things which are real, but with primary issues – Am I loved as I am? Is there any hope? The Word of God answers these questions with a resounding “Yes, in Jesus, there is.”
So how does this message apply to your daily life? Well, to go back to John Updike’s poem, while I think the poem is a great description of God as the vinegrower, it can also serve as a description of a person who has accepted their position as a creature and is taking delight in their task at hand.
Of course, in the big picture, we’re just branches; but in our individual lives, we each have gardens that we tend – family, vocation, community. I don’t think it does us any good to put ourselves in the position of Creator, as if we are ever the God-figure (particularly with raising children – it didn’t taken any time for me to realize that I’m just as needy as my son Auden. I am not the “God-figure” in our relationship). But you are a gardener with your own little acre of land to care for. So what does that look like, being both a branch and a gardener.
You might not know who Brian Eno is, but he’s especially famous in England where he’s from. He was a in a glam-rock band called Roxy Music in the 70’s and has since established a successful career as a producer, working with U2 and Coldplay. He talks about creating as a musician in an interview with The Guardian and I think what he gives is a picture of what it means to be a Christian in the world. Here’s what Brian Eno has to say:
“Essentially the idea is that one is making a kind of music in the way that one might make a garden. One is carefully constructing seeds, or finding seeds, carefully planting them and then letting them have their life. And that life isn’t necessarily exactly what you’d envisaged for them. It’s characteristic of the kind of work that I do that I’m really not aware of how the final result is going to look or sound. So in fact, I’m deliberately constructing systems that will put me in the same position as any other member of the audience. I want to be surprised by it as well. And indeed, I often am….What this means, really, is a rethinking of one’s own position as a creator. You stop thinking of yourself as me, the controller, you the audience, and you start thinking of all of us as the audience, all of us as people enjoying the garden together. Gardener included.”
Again, God is in control. That is one of the differences between us and God. But, because He is in control, we don’t have to be. We can tend our gardens and let them be, knowing that He is the ultimate Vinegrower and we are His branches.
Now that you know that God delights in you, you can simply delight in whatever it is that you do. Or, as Steinbeck says at the end of East of Eden, “Now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” Garrison Keillor published a collection of his favorite poetry from which I have freely borrowed over the weekend. He titled it Good Poems and in the introduction, he wrote, “To write a good poem may seem faint praise compared to the blurbish terms “brilliant, luminous, powerful,” but among friends, it’s all the compliment you’d ever need or want. By the grace of God, to be given the freedom to comply as a branch, is to get a glimpse of the life for which you were intended – “the way life should be.” Knowing that you don’t have to be the Almighty God, knowing that you don’t have to be perfect, you can simply be a branch. You can be a nobody. God loves nobodies. Almost every person He chooses to work with in the Bible – Abraham, Moses, David, the disciples especially – were all nobodies.
What does it look like to be a nobody in the world? It actually looks like freedom. Here’s an illustration from one of my favorite novels, My Son is a Splendid Driver by William Inge. It takes place in Depression-era Kansas. And the main character Joey runs into an old crush of his that he was deeply in love with named Betsy. It’s been years since they’ve seen each other and they decide to have lunch together and catch up. Betsy was a promising actress and the last time Joey saw her, she was headed to New York to make a go at Broadway. Pg. 210
This is a person who has crashed and burned and been brought back to life in a way she never would have expected. This is a glimpse into the life of a creature who has accepted her creature-ness. And it might sound simple, but it is the diving board that will launch you into caring about things you never did before, not as a way to prove yourself, but an expression of creativity, as fruit of the gospel. You might want to take up an instrument at the age of 75 or take up cooking.
As for your day-to-day life, a man once came up to Martin Luther and said, “I’ve become a Christian, what should I do now?” Luther asked him what he did for a living and the man said that he was a cobbler. Luther said, “Then make a quality shoe and sell it at a fair price.” He later wrote, “The same is true for shoemaker, tailor, scribe or reader. If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor.” That is the life of a branch. Those relationships in which you find yourself already in is where you are supposed to be.
What happens when you sin? Well, this is how the gospel turns the world on its head. The world says, “Who you are is what you do. Your identity is based on your reputation, your accomplishments, your failures, your status, your pedigree.” The gospel says, “Your identity… is not your experience.” And that’s a good thing because your experience is as a sinful person – a branch who wants to be a vine; a person who wants to be good, but is caught in a net of good and evil. Your identity, however, is that you are marked as Christ’s own, completely justified through his death on the cross and resurrection from the grave. Your experience is as a sinner, your identity – based on what Christ has done – is as a vine, a justified child of God and heir to the throne.
There is no upward trajectory to your life as a branch. There are good years and there are bad years in the vineyard. The branch was never meant to be more than a branch. You were never meant to be more than a creature. In your life there will be good seasons and there will be bad seasons. Hopefully, the reminder that there is a God and that you aren’t Him helps take the pressure off for you to be anything more. You are not in control of your life, but a loving and very competent Gardener is. He is working on you. He is pruning you. At times this will be painful, at other times, it will bear fruit. And even if are unable to understand this, it is not your job to understand it. Your job is to receive what the vine has given you and is giving you right now.
I’ll close with an excerpt from a Raymond Carver poem:
“And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”
That is why you are here. That is your purpose as a Christian and a person and a branch. You are here on this earth to be loved by God. Now go in peace to love and serve the Lord.