“I am the vine and you are the branches.“
– John 15:5
My Dear Friends in Christ,
You’d probably know the painting by Norwegian Expressionist, Edvard Munch. One of the most iconic images in art, it’s also entered pop culture through countless memes. Entitled “The Scream,” it depicts an ambiguous figure in agony, mouth agape in horror, hands held up to the face, a red sky swirling about. In 2012, it took only 12 nail-biting minutes and five eager bidders for Sotheby’s Auction House to sell. Bidders, in the room and connected by phone could be heard speaking several different languages as the $40 million starting price shot quickly up the scale. Gasps could be heard as the bidding climbed higher and higher, until a pause at $99 million, which prompted the auctioneer, to smile, “I have all the time in the world.” When $100 million was bid, the audience began to applaud. With the crack of the closing hammer, the final price, with buyer’s premium, was $119.9 million dollars, making it at the time world’s most expensive work of art sold at auction. (Now, only nine years later, this doesn’t even make the top 10!) A tangible reminder of how and what we value.
I am the vine and you are the branches. Especially in light of all that’s going on, with the pandemic, with riots, and police brutality, abuse in the church, scandals by so many, I’ve been reflecting a great deal lately on what we value and how we assign that value. We may think value is easily assigned by a price tag but, as I reflected in my chapel, I realized more and more that ultimately, I assign value with my time. With that insight, I took a quick look then on what I value as witnessed by the way my time is spent. I must admit that I wasn’t all that impressed with the portfolio that emerged. I spend less time in prayer than I do watching television. I spend less time praising someone and extolling virtue than critiquing even the smallest problem or infraction. I spend more time trying to impress others than working on being the disciple God calls me to be. I spend more time being hurt and alone and angry than I spend reaching out to share with others the Good News I have received. Not very impressive for any Christian, let alone one called to lead others. It was quite a wake-up call.
Consider this portfolio in light of all Christ calls us to be and to do:
- to work to form a community that knows, loves, and serves Jesus Christ humbly and joyfully;
- to serving the struggling, (let alone the extraordinary suffering from the pandemic: exhausted parents, health challenges, financial crises, unemployment, or difficult situations);
- to building up spiritual resources while allowing God to make the best use of my time, talent and treasure; to speak with the prophetic voice of the Church:
- so that I welcome all, even and especially those who are different
- so that I cry out for the dignity of the human person for all people, of all colors, at all stages, in all walks of life,
- so that I fight against prejudice or intolerance, especially for those on the margin and those facing persecution
- so that I rightly oppose any injustice that seeks to relegate some, especially those in need, to the back burner, as someone else’s problem, or undeserving of the same privileges we enjoy.
Again, these are only the basics of being a disciple of Jesus, merely the minimum due, the bottom line and I don’t have enough to pay the bill. It’s a startling realization, a splash of cold water in your face, the blaring alarm of a true wakeup call (like those letters from American Express: Mr. Jaskot, we would like to remind you that American Express is a charge card not a credit card. Please pay your balance in full.) Even as I started to get overwhelmed, I also I came to realize something very important. The challenge isn’t the amount of what I give or do or know or am. God doesn’t care about the amount. After all, it’s easy to pay $120 million for a painting if you’re a billionaire. But I’m not. In fact, I don’t even have $120 million… for a painting or anything else. And I certainly don’t have 120,000,000 minutes which turns out to be about 228 years. No matter how good the science of cryogenics becomes, I can’t imagine that I’ll be around that long. Again, though, the challenge is not what I have but what do I do with what I have, not what I can’t do but what I can. Further, how do I value what I have? How do I show that value by what I do and what I give?
And there’s a deeper challenge. I can’t do any, let alone all, of this on my own. I need to get help. I need to meet Jesus, not in some theoretical way, not as a theological concept, not in general. I need to meet Jesus. It is only in meeting Jesus I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
It’s why the continuing saga of Saint Paul really challenged me. He was one smart cookie: a brilliant theologian mixed with a passionate and practical mind. He knew God wanted him to eradicate those heretics claiming Jesus is Lord and changing his beloved Judaism. Then Saul meets Jesus who literally knocks him off his high horse. What Paul knew, better to say thought he knew, was not, in fact, true, let alone what God wanted. Paul had to leave behind what he knew, move outside his comfort zone, and strip the veneer of his pride. Then, alone, afraid, and timid, Paul had to be led by the hand to meet Jesus, to see how Jesus would transform him and use him for the good of God’s people and the Church.
Like Saul, far too often, I know what’s right, what God wants, how I should fix things, set things straight. God had to force me too, force me outside of my comfort zone, get me beyond what I “knew,” to what God wanted. God had to strip the veneer of my pride.
Unlike Saint Paul, though, I spend a whole lot of time holding on to stumbling blocks that keep me from becoming who and what God wants me to be. I struggle as I grasp for what is safe and hold fast to what is comfortable and known. God is still at work, still seeking to meet me, still seeking that in meeting me, to shape me as with Saint Paul.
Here, God reminds me that it is not my work but His and that I am only the means for Him to accomplish it. Like Saint Paul, I often feel alone, afraid, and timid. Like Saint Paul, I have to be led by the hand to the gentle love of Jesus. And like Saint Paul, I find that love in the very Christian community I have been called to serve, even if my service is imperfect and limited.
As with last week, Jesus Himself gives us an image of who God is and how God works. Again, Jesus wants us aware of the One we are meeting, that we are not afraid, even in the face of much challenge and darkness, including that of our own making.
I am the vine and you are the branches. It’s a powerful statement because Jesus uses the same words God used on Mount Sinai: I am. Moses asks “Who should I say sent me?” God tells him from the burning bush, “Tell them ‘I Am’ sent you.” The term “I Am” most often and only relates to God, appearing over 300 times in the Bible, first in the book of Genesis (15:1) and last in Revelation (22:16). Here in the Gospel of John, Jesus often uses this divine formula. In these important self identifying references, Jesus uses the personal pronoun “I” which would not be necessary in the grammar of the day.
In this way, Jesus emphasizes His own Divine identity and offers us insight into the relationship that God seeks with us. As we heard last week: I am the sheep gate. (10:11) I am the Good Shepherd (10:14). And today: I am the true vine and my Father is the vine dresser (15:1). I am the vine and you are the branches (15:5). Then, like the infomercials of the 1980’s: But wait!! There’s more: I am the Bread of Life (6:35, et. al.); I am the Light of the world (8:12); I am the Resurrection and the Life (11:25). I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life (14:6). Each of these statements say something about the way God comes to us in Jesus Christ, describing some aspect of Jesus’ divinity.
Taking my own advice, I looked it up and found a fascinating website about John’s Gospel which I often find confusing or unclear. The website, which I have included a link to here is called: Catholic Resources. https://catholic-resources.org/John/Intro.html.
I am the vine and you are the branches also speaks eloquently about the intimate relationship Jesus offers to us and the way we can bear fruit for God and for others. The fruit only comes from branches that are attached to the vine where each of the branches get the nutrients, food and water, that allow it to survive. In this image today, Jesus reminds us pointedly that he seeks to be close to us and, in that closeness, offers us everything we need to survive. More than that, though, Jesus reminds us that this is the origin of any fruit we bear. Before we can achieve anything, even think of achieving anything, indeed even hope to achieve anything, before we can bear any fruit, we must know and love Jesus Christ and remain in him. Only if we remain in him, we will bear fruit.
Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit. This is a relatively simple declarative sentence. To remain in Jesus, to allow Jesus to remain in us, bears fruit. PERIOD. Now, the “fruit” we are called to bear is not some esoteric theory, not some theological proposition. Remember the image. I am the vine and you are the branches. What is the fruit of the vine? Grapes! What are grapes used for? Wine. We are called to be wine for others.
Wine is a symbol of delight and abundance. If bread is the necessary, then wine is the delectable, the over-the-top, the sign of blessing, that God’s love, that the presence of Christ is not only about the basics but about an abundance of grace. Notice though that it’s not the branch who determines what the fruit is or how much will be borne. No, our call is to remain in Jesus and to allow Him to remain in us. Everything else is up to God.
It’s crystal clear, so abundantly obvious, so elegantly simple. Ah, but it so very painfully challenging, so difficult to achieve at all and let alone to persevere. Remain in me. But, how do we remain in Him? How do we recognize and connect to God’s presence, allow that presence to nourish and grow us as branches, all so that we can bear fruit. The answer is profoundly simple but painfully difficult and challenging: time. There’s no other way to see God’s presence in our lives or to grow that presence, no other way to remain in Him and allow Him to remain in us, but to offer Him your time.
To remain in Jesus, to remain branches connected to the vine, we must do the same things we talked about last week, the ways we can train our ear to hear the voice of our Good Shepherd:
- Read sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels.
- Become familiar with the rich teachings of the Church, not just a part here or there, looking for that which supports my own agenda, but the whole and rich body of teachings that allow us to meet Jesus.
- Reflect in quiet prayer on what you learn.
- Celebrate in public worship. Who you meet and what you learn. And lastly…
- Serve others. Give to others of your time, talent and treasure. See how you can help another meet Christ.
Notice the paradox: we can only remain connected to the vine, we can only receive from the vine when we give of ourselves. And it is only then, that God can bear fruit in and through me. So simple to understand, yet so difficult to mete out those minutes in the face of routine or, worse yet, problems that arise to interrupt routine.
In the worst way, I wanted it to be something else, I want to meet Jesus in a different way, a way that was beyond me, something that I could say was impossible, something to write off and not be held accountable. Simply spending time with Jesus in those 5 ways was too simplistic, too easy a solution, something I could set my mind to do even with the difficult follow through. I wanted something more complicated that would let me off the hook and allow me to remain where I was, allow me to remain just good enough as a disciple and as a pastor.
God gave me the wake-up call and I am passing it along to you. As disciples, whether pastor or not, we cannot remain complacent. “Good enough” is not enough and we’ll have to answer for hitting the snooze button and rolling over to ignore the wake-up call. As I said last week, there is no other way to meet Jesus than to allow God to transform us, each one of us. To surrender myself in these very simple ways is the only way I can meet Jesus. In that meeting, even if we don’t realize it, we have been blessed by so many graces and gifts. What’s the value of your relationship with Jesus and how do you show that value? Live that value? What needs to be pruned from your heart or life to allow God to grow stronger? How will you sacrifice your time to remain in Jesus? What fruits will God bring from that? We may not have $120 million to offer but what will we do with what we’ve been given? Let’s make the best of it. I am the vine and you are the branches.
A brief shoutout to our Confirmation candidates who are making their retreat in preparation for the sacramental gift of the Holy Spirit that will be administered in the Fall by one of our bishops. In the past, the retreat has been a powerful catalyst for the Holy Spirit to make inroads to the life and faith of our young people. Please continue to keep them in prayer, not just this weekend, not only until the Fall but well into the next century. We need to pray for one another, and we need to pray especially for our young people who face so many challenges. I look forward to meeting and interviewing each of them. It’s truly one of the highlights of my year as I learn so much from them and the way they see the world. I pray that they come to know ever more fully and abundantly the delight God takes in them and the grace God seeks to share with the world through them. More later, especially as we approach the Fall.