Third Sunday of Lent, 2018
Spiritual Geography: The Landscape of our Faith
The Vineyard Click here for audio
Pastor Marty Raths
During Lent we are looking at the importance of geographical place, and how certain places have a spiritual prominence in the scriptures. The past two weeks we looked at the desert and the mountain. In the coming weeks we will be looking at the garden and the sea and the road, and this morning we are going to look at the vineyard.
Of these six geographical places, three of them are wild places. The desert and the mountain and the sea are all wild and untamed places, and they help to remind us that we are in no position to confine or manipulate or control God. Let alone try to play God. We have very limited powers over these places, and even less so over God.
Standing before a vast desert expanse, or at the foot of a high mountain, or on the shore of an open sea, can make us feel very small. And these places remind us that we are very small in relation to God of all creation, and utterly dependent upon God’s grace. God’s words to Job are a word to all of us:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who determined its measurements – surely you know!
Or who shut in the sea with doors
and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped?”
For two chapters God goes on like this with Job, and at the end Job can only conclude, “You are God, and I am not.” And the wild places in the spiritual geography of our faith are a constant reminder to us of this: God is God, and we are not.
But this is not the entire witness of scripture. There is an old rabbinic story. A wise old rabbi was known to carry with him two well-worn slips of paper, one in each pocket. On the one slip were the words, “You are made of the dust of the earth.” And on the other were the words, “You are made in the image of God.” Dust of the earth, and image of God.
Once, when asked why the two slips of paper, the rabbi replied, “Because we humans have within us a little of earth and of heaven, and there are times when we need to be reminded of the one and times when we need to be reminded of the other.” Dust of the earth, and image of God.
Six geographical and metaphorical places. Three of them are wild places, but the other three, the road and the garden and the vineyard, are cultivated places. Someone besides God has had a hand in them, in planting a garden, in making a road, in tending a vineyard. And these places remind us that faith is a cooperative venture. We absolutely need God, but God needs us too. When it comes to the work of the kingdom, we cannot do what God needs to do, but at the same time God will not do what we need to do. It is not always apparent who needs to be doing what. Us or God. But together we need to be doing it, like in that old sailor saying, “Pray to God in the storm, but keep on rowing.” Faith is a cooperative venture, between us and God, like the cultivation of a vineyard.
In the Old Testament the vineyard is a symbol for the people of God. The Israelites are the vineyard, and God is the vine grower, and being a vine grower is very labor intensive work. In Psalm 80 it says that God brought a vine out of Egypt, cleared an area, planted the vine, and oversaw its growth. But it was up to the vine to take root, to grow, and to bear fruit.
The passage from the Gospel of John adds a new dimension to this. God is still the vine grower, but Jesus says that he is the true vine and we are the branches. This is that cooperative venture again. We are to bear fruit, but we can only do so by being connected to Jesus as our life source, and our spirit source.
Have you ever been to a florist and seen a bunch of those multicolored carnations? When I first saw them years ago, I was so amazed that they could come in so many different colors, until I was told that they do that artificially with some of the carnations, by placing the cut stems in different colored dyes. But I still remember thinking, as I often do, there is sermon illustration here.
In a way we all have a cut stem, and we cannot help but draw upon some spiritual source in life, and like those cut carnations it can color our whole life, and give a distinct tinge to our person. What are we drawing upon in life? What spirit source feeds our attitudes and thoughts and motivations? Sleights and hurts and wounds? Grudges and resentments? Disappointments and regrets? Guilt and shame? Or love and forgiveness and acceptance?
Each will give our person a distinct spiritual tinge? What is ours? Are we more inclined to see what is good in the world, or what is not? Do we assume the best about others, or the worst? Are we inclined to forgive, and to work towards making amends? Or do we cling to past wrongs, giving them far more life than they deserve? I hope that I can say this because I am part Irish myself. I once heard Irish dementia described this way: forgetting everything but our grudges. Though I have to say that that seems to me to be more a human inclination than just an Irish one, and like so much in life, if our grudges become a spirit source for us, they will tinge everything, and if we have ever experienced someone like that, then know what that looks like.
The wisest among us have discerned that deep down there are really only two spirit sources: love and fear. That is why John wrote in his first letter, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” All the other negative fruits in our lives are really just the fruits of fear, fear of being hurt, fear of being alone, fear of constraint, fear of difference, fear of change, fear of the unknown . . .
And what Jesus wants for us, and what he needs from us as his followers, are lives whose spirit source is love, so he says to us, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” More and more let love become the source of what you think, how you see, what you value, what you do, who you become. Let love not fear give your persons their distinctive tinge.
Now in the passage from John, Jesus goes on to say in verse 12, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus knew that we must help one another to abide in him, to remain connected to him as branches to the true vine. Just as we need God, and God needs us, we need each other. It is called being the church.
Ana came forward to sing a solo in worship. She was a newer member of the congregation, and this was the first time for her to sing a solo at church. And as she began to sing a familiar hymn, a look of fear and near panic spread across her face. Her voice came out weak and shaky, and since she was singing without accompaniment, she struggled alone, and it was apparent for all to see and hear, and hard for all to see and hear.
But then, someone in the congregation began to hum ever so quietly the melody, right along with Ana. Then others, one after another, joined in the humming. And before long, a four part harmony of humming from all around the sanctuary accompanied Ana as she sang, and it lifted her spirit and enabled her to finish the hymn with a clear and strong and beautiful voice.
And Jesus knew that we have to do a lot of humming for each other if we are going to keep connected to him. A lot of humming. (If not a hum, can I at least get an “amen” to that). Amen! As we all know, life is a struggle sometimes. So we need each other. We need each other to get through the difficult times. We need each other to hum along when our own voice falters, and our own spirit fails. We need each other if we are all going to abide in him, and in his love for us. It is called being the church.
And we need to be willing to get pruned once in awhile. Now I am no expert in pruning, but I know that it is intent is not so much to remove unproductive branches, as it is to help productive ones become even more productive. “Every branch that bears fruit,” Jesus says, “God prunes to make it bear more fruit.” If a vine has too many branches, they can grow long and spindly and bear fruit that is small and poor in quality. This is sort of the ancient equivalent of multitasking, trying to do too much all at once and not doing anything really well. But pruning some of the branches helps to concentrate the growth, so that the vine can bear the largest and best quality fruit possible.
And I know that pruning is a foreign concept in a consumer culture like ours. When it comes to pruning, less is better, and less becomes more in terms of the size and quality of the fruit borne. But that makes little sense in a consumer culture that believes that more is always better. But anyone who has ever devoted themselves to something knows the truth of pruning. To be our best at something requires sacrifice, and the setting aside of other things. That is what allows us to direct our time and focus and energy upon whatever it is that we most want to be developing and doing and accomplishing.
In a similar way the artist Michelangelo once said about his artistry as a sculptor, “I saw a slave in the stone, and I carved to set it free.” Sculpting in marble is a lot like pruning. It does not happen by adding but by subtracting. The figure only emerges as the marble itself is carved away.
In a museum in Florence, Italy there are four unfinished slave sculptures by Michelangelo. One of them is pictured on the insert in your bulletin. This one is called the Blockhead Slave. That is not a very flattering name, but it is not hard to see why it is called that. Most of the original marble block still remains around the head area.
But what is significant about these unfinished sculptures is that they visually reveal the power of pruning, how less can be more. These figures were allowed to emerge, and reveal themselves, and come to life as much as a sculpture can, only as Michelangelo carved away the marble.
And these unfinished sculptures visually challenge us to ask ourselves: what is constraining us in life, weighing us down, holding us back? What is enslaving us? And what would a master sculptor need to carve away from us to set us free? Or, to come back to the image of the vine and the branches again, where does God need to do some pruning in our lives for us to be able to bear the best fruit possible? For God is glorified by this, Jesus says, that as his followers we bear much fruit, and the best possible fruit, the fruits of the Spirit, as a part of the harvest of the Kingdom. Amen.