"The Price of Authenticity"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 5/21/2000
Psalm 22:25-31; John 15:1-8
But the images in this week's lesson are not those we might suppose or even appreciate. Jesus linked our growth toward love to the methods used by vineyard owners to increase their crop yield. Listen again to his description of this process: "God breaks off every branch that does not bear fruit, and God prunes every branch that does bear fruit, so that it will be clean and bear more fruit."
In Kahlil Gibran's book, The Prophet, he uses the identical metaphor in guiding his readers through the steps of how we grow in our ability to love. He wrote:
"When love beckons to you, follow him, though his ways are hard and steep. And when his wings enfold you, yield to him, though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you. And when he speaks to you believe in him, though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden. For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, so shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth. Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself. He threshes you to make you naked. He sifts you to free you from your husks. He grinds you to whiteness. He kneads you until you are pliant; And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God's sacred feast. All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life's heart."
Understanding how this learning process works is critical to the quality of our experience. Pruning is painful. We have heard people refer to their experience of it with comments like, "I graduated from the university of hard knocks." Scott Peck began his book, The Road Less Traveled with these words, "Life is difficult."
Once we understand how growth works, we become equipped with something very much like an invisible gyroscope. It keeps us balanced. It helps us keep life in perspective. This understanding reminds us that often we have no control over what is happening in our lives. What this inner gyroscope does, is to keep us aware that we are never without possibilities that will increase our energy to love. If we understand that every experience can be used for our growth, growth happens just as automatic as the sunrise each morning.
Many years ago I had a very talented girl in my youth group. She was with us for the six years of her junior and senior high school experience. What made her unique was that she was Jewish and yet she chose to remain in our United Methodist youth group. She appeared destined to become a person who would make a difference in the lives of others.
Rachel went to New York City where she applied her drive and zeal for life to the advertising industry. She commanded a large salary, a corner office with staff, and was excelling in every aspect of her employment. Then one day I received a distressing call from her. She said, "Dick, I have everything that most people want, yet I have nothing. The culture in this industry is violating everything I want to be. I am in the wrong place. I have tried everything I know and nothing is working. I need to get out of here." She walked away. And wisely so. Even the strongest of flowers can be washed away when they are growing in a flood plain.
The point Rachel was making with her decision was the discovery that she could not bloom where she was planted. Her eyes had been filled with the "guaranteed" promises of the material world. Then she discovered they were not enough. It was as if her main branch had been broken off because it did not bear fruit. Today she lives in Colorado and has published two books. She now gives her love away in a form that can help others to grow. After a period of uncertainty, knowing that her career in advertising had ended, her life returned with energy and vitality.
Our lesson today is very specific about bearing fruit. It is the kind of fruit that is identical to that which is within God's nature. Almost without realizing it we can go to a place where we think, "This is where I need to be. This is what I want!" However Jesus taught, "You cannot bear fruit unless you remain in me." This morning we are going to consider what that teaching means.
We have all heard people say, "God has blessed me with a great job, a wonderful spouse, beautiful children, fantastic friends, and a bright future." People have used such words honestly believing that God has blessed them. But if God has blessed some people with such flowering lives, it must also mean that God has not equally blessed others. Most of us know people who struggle with nearly every phase of living.
Yet in truth, God behaves the same way toward everyone on earth. God allows the rain to fall on the productive and unproductive alike. The point Jesus was making to his listeners had nothing to do with God favoring some people over others. What happens to people who feel so blessed by God is that their thoughts have produced such experiences because they understood that nothing has separated them from the vine. They understand their pain as pruning and nothing more. This understanding, alone, can make an enormous difference in our response.
The lives of two people may illustrate this teaching for us. The first story deals with the 1999 Teacher-of-the-Year in the public school system of Austin, Texas. The article describing this occasion should be read by every teacher who is finding teaching an increasingly frustrating experience.
In accepting her award, Debra Dodson used words that may have been unsettling to some of her listeners. Many of us believe that we need to turn the clock back to another day when teaching was fulfilling and fun, and when students came to class wanting to increase their knowledge. This particular teacher has done just that. After accepting the award, she went to the podium and said,
"Thank you for this honor. People have asked if I have a secret formula for keeping teaching fun and exciting. I do. That formula is very simple; I love all my students. In doing so, I violate all the rules. Our directives are quite explicit in forbidding teachers from touching their students. I touch my students all the time. I touch them with my words, with my eye contact, with my spirit and yes, with my hands. I have come to realize that our classroom may be the only place left where many of them can feel safe, acknowledged, validated and authentically cared for. The world has become a different place from the one in which many of us were reared. For 27 years I have watched as the students have changed. Sometimes they enter my classroom angry and with attitudes like stone. And why not, 65% of white families and 85% of black families are no longer intact in this country. Many of the parents our students have are either working or out of the home a good deal of the time. Values have become fuzzy, if they exist at all. Through the years I have learned that all children respond to the same thing. By mid-year, each of my students know that I love them. I have 756 people who have come and gone from my classroom. In addition to our curriculum, I have taught them that they have the ability to become a change agent in our world. I taught them that no one but themselves can take that right away from them."
Following her remarks, which were much longer than this brief excerpt, there was a thunderous applause as the audience rose to its feet. It was as if they felt that every teacher in America needed to hear what she said. We need to remember that we are part of the vine even while we are being pruned.
The second illustration comes from a nurse. One day we were talking about the paper work and administration that has become such a time consuming part of her profession. She was telling me how the tasks of the floor nurse have remarkably changed over the years. There have been hospital budget cuts and patient time-quotas that were never there in the past. Nurses run all day and often patient care has been compromised. But she said, "As I run, I spread my sunshine. I can't change what the hospital is doing to its medical staff but I am in charge of who I am."
She recalled a doctor who evokes anger in many of the nurses. She said, "I've been working on him. The other day he barked at me and I touched his arm and said, 'I know you must be having a very difficult day. If there is any way I can make your job easier, please ask me.'" As she said that she laughed. "Do you know what he did?," she said. "He stopped reading what was on his clipboard and looked at me over his glasses for the longest time. He said nothing. But since then he hasn't used his scolding tones on any of us. I am going to work on him every opportunity I have."
It is not surprising that everyone enjoys working with this nurse. It is not surprising that she has a wonderful husband and beautiful children. It is not surprising that her patients glow during her shift. It is not surprising that she actually believes that God has blessed her over and over again. And God has, but in the same manner that God has blessed all of us. We have all been given the ability to rise above our circumstances. We have been given the ability to radiate from a creative level of awareness each time we can remember that no experience can separate us from the vine.
What is at the heart of Jesus' message is learning how to give away what we are instead of allowing our surroundings to mold us into their images. We are here to make a difference. It was never part of God's created order for us to become like the darkness that sometimes surrounds us. There are moments in life when it feels like we are being pruned. There should be no question about that. Such an experience should come as no surprise. But such pruning should not be interpreted as a signal that we have lost our connection to God; we are being pruned so that more fruit can grow.
The teacher experienced the pruning sensation with students who came into her classroom angry and with attitudes she said were like stone. The nurse experienced the pruning from all the hospital protocols and from a doctor who prefers barking rather than speaking. But in each instance, the teacher and the nurse changed their circumstances by remembering that they were still part of the vine. Each seized the moment to bring the strength of the vine into their moments of pain.
As we have mentioned before, such stories are about how others have coped with life. The rub comes when it is our turn. We can be very clear in our mind about Jesus' message. The challenge comes when something ugly or terribly unjust comes into our lives and it becomes our turn to decide who we want to be in our dealing with it.
This can be a very challenging choice when we must confront a major issue in life and many of us do not choose wisely. Some of us allow our painful circumstances to take up residence in our minds. And through our worry, fear, and lack of understanding, such experiences can become like a cancer. In time we may become consumed by the very thoughts we created.
Jesus lived what he taught. He never allowed his being abandoned, his being tortured, or even his crucifixion to cloud his understanding. He was always part of the vine. If he was destined to draw all humanity to his understanding about God's constant presence in our lives, he had to remain on higher ground. This ability did not come without his willingness to pay a price.
If we are to make a difference in the healing of our world, we have to take the high road in spite of who is right and who is wrong, in spite of which personal needs are met and which ones are not, and in spite of how uncertain our future appears. By remaining part of the vine, our authenticity shows. But as Jesus demonstrated from the cross, often such authenticity has a price.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We thank you, O God, for creating us with spirits that can be discerning as well as compassionate. We have learned that being successful in life is fairly easy to achieve. We have also discovered that making a difference in the lives of others takes something far more than success. We ask that you guide us to understand what it means to serve. Instruct us how to heal with our words. Teach us how to look at the frailties of others with eyes that do not see. Help us to discover that when we are extensions of your presence, mountains move, bridges are built, and the crippled get up and walk. May we so live that those who cannot understand truth might have it revealed to them by seeing its presence in our lives. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, that we can enter this place of worship and be reminded of who you created us to be. It saddens us that others frequently label us as "religious people" because we attend church and want to develop our spiritual lives. How often we wish we could inform all people that we really have no choice, that we are either engaging in growth or decay. Help us remember that it was this very concern that caused Jesus to leave his carpentry shop to become a teacher.
We confess that there are times when we simply do not know how to understand our experiences. There are voices that tell us that "this is right and this is wrong" or "this is just and this is unjust," but Jesus taught us something greater. He taught us with his words and life to bring who we are into the world of factions in order to make healing and understanding visible. Everyone on earth would much rather be in a place where love reigns, but we cannot find such a place because we grow comfortable in our use of labels, judgments, and our misinformed sense of righteousness in our attempts to extend our love.
While we know that all of us have so much more we must learn, we ask you to be our guide. We ask that you love us enough to break off the parts of us that do not bear fruit and to prune those areas of our lives that do, so that they might produce more. O God, we do not need to know what the finished portrait will look like; all we have to do is remain confident in you, the artist. May such trust and confidence manifest in our spirit everyday we live. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .