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The Rev. Joseph Winston May 10, 2009
Grace and peace are gifts for you from God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.1 It is difﬁcult to get a good night’s sleep when one must lie down on the hard ground. The cowboy knew this fact. His body told him this every morning through his sore back and aching muscles. Despite these painful reminders, he was a happy man. He was not stuck behind some desk. Work though still needed to be done. Slowly, he pulled himself off his blanket, stuffed his sock covered feet into his boots, and stifﬂy walked towards to coals that were last night’s ﬁre. Taking a bit of kindling from the stack of wood, the practiced hands quickly made a ﬁre. Now with the campﬁre started, he could take some time for himself. He slowly sat back down and took off his well-worn boots. From his dusty
Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:3, 2 Corinthians 1:2, Galatians 1:3, Ephesians 1:2, Philippians 1:2, 2 Thessalonians 1:2, Philemon 1:3
camp sack, out came today’s shirt and pants. Without hurrying, he put one arm and then the other into the shirt. The jeans followed in the same manner. One leg carefully placed into the pants and then the next. He slid his feet back into the boots. To complete the outﬁt, the man put on his hat even though the sun was only beginning to creep up into the eastern sky. Everything needed for breakfast was in the saddlebag: a coffee pot, some coffee, hardtack, and jerky. He poured water just enough water for a single cup of coffee from his canteen into the blue porcelain coffee pot, added the coffee, and placed the pot on the ﬁre to boil. After taking a bite from the biscuit and the meat, the cowboy went to go check on his horse. All the while, the quarter horse had been watching this familiar early morning ritual and he knew that it was ﬁnally his turn. The cowboy untied the animal and then took his faithful steed out for his morning walk. The prolonged drought meant that the water level in the stock tank was lower than normal but there was enough for the both of them. Realizing that the coffee was almost ready, the cowboy hurried the horse back to the ﬁre. There he brushed down the animal and saddled him up. While enjoying the cup of hot coffee, the cowboy carefully listed all the work that needed to be completed before sundown: ten miles of fence to check and to mend if necessary, ﬁnding how much water remained in the tanks, checking the state of the pasture, and recording all the calves in his log book. The empty cup of coffee meant the workday had ﬁnally begun. Carefully, the cowboy stomped out the last remaining embers of the ﬁre, packed everything back 2
into his saddlebag, and placed it along with the camp sack on the saddle. Finally, he swung his long, lanky frame one to the horse and started down the line. Etched deep into our cultural memory is our love affair with the cowboy and his ways. From the skies, we broadcast music that would have been familiar to the cowboy. At the most expensive malls in this country, we still can buy just about every item that he wore out on the range. And if you want to pretend to be a cowboy, we will let you. You can take your vacation on a dude ranch. Our infatuation with the rugged individuals that appear in the stories about the cowboys has become like second nature to us. That is why we believed the ﬁctional tail that I just told. No one questioned the idea that a man could be out on the range all by himself. No one complained about the work that was required of him. If truth were told, many of us would like to live this type of life. Who wants to follow the commands of others? Who wants limits rather than freedom? Who wants responsibilities when there is so much to experience? It is obvious that we as a nation have wholeheartedly embraced the idea that the world functions the best when it is “every one for themselves.” Our lives here in the United States prove this. It is a fact that all over this country, our children are abandoning team sports. Most of them would rather play electronic games against a computer rather than having a good time with their friends. In the few team sports that remain like football or basketball, we celebrate the accomplishments of the stars and almost never praise the work of the group. Our language speaks most clearly on this point. We tell our children to go out and “make” the team as if their presence on 3
the team is what transforms the group from losers into winners. Our educational system is exactly the same. We do not grade our children on how well they work well together. Instead, our annual performance tests see how well each individual scores. The business world continues this trend. High proﬁle companies look for “star players” who can advance the bottom line. Once again, our language tells us this same reality. We can ﬁnd many books that will tell us how to be a “self-made millionaire.” Just try to ﬁnd one that tells you how to be a successful team player. Even in the military, a place that should understand the beneﬁts of teamwork has two slogans that say otherwise. The generic advertising tag line for the US military is “Be all that you can be.” And the Army’s phrase is “An army of one.” Both of these phrases tell us that as a nation we love the strong and rugged individual. Today’s Gospel lesson provides us with a completely different way to look at life. Instead of praising the individual with their unique attributes, Jesus tells us we are all the same. We are branches of the vine. In this world describe by Jesus, we all have jobs. The Father’s role is one of vine-grower (John 15:1).2 Speciﬁcally, this means that He takes care of the vine every day so that it bears fruit. He tends to the plant. He tills the soil. He waters it when needed. He feeds it with the best fertilizer that money can buy. As the One who looks after the vine, the Father is very concerned about its health. Even today, the Father removes the branches that do not produce grapes (John 15:2a).3
This work by the Father is not a lesser role than what the Son does since the Father provides what the vine needs to grow. Luke Timothy Johnson; Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., editor, The Acts of the Apostles, Volume 5, Sacra pagina, (The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), p. 422. 3 The verb to remove (α ρει) is in the present tense. The taking away of branches is happening
He then discards these cut down branches because they are completely worthless to Him (John 15:6b).4 Like all other farmers, the Father wants the best possible harvest. This means that He always trims the branches producing fruit so that their yield increases (John 15:2b).5 As the vine, Jesus provides life to the branches (John 15:1, 5). He gives the branches vital nutrients that He extracts from the soil. He provides us with life giving water. He supports us. We are the branches in the story of the vine and its owner. According to Jesus, we must do two things. First of all, we must stay attached to the vine (John 15:4). Just like with most other plants, branches cannot grow on their own. Separated from their roots, branches wither and die. That is why we cannot remove ourselves from Jesus. Secondly, the vine-grower expects that the branches bear a good amount of fruit (John 15:5). Branches must be trained to do this and so must we. The Father continually prunes the branches, cutting back on each of us for one reason. We need to love God and our fellow humans. This is the fruit that Jesus speaks of.6 Being a branch attached to the vine that is Jesus has three frightening results. The ﬁrst is this. Many of us have come to the mistaken belief that God no longer cares what we do. We constantly hear this message in society and it is accurately summed up in the phrase, “It’s all good.” Do whatever you want. It’s all good. All
right now. 4 The verbs to throw (βάλλω) and to wither (ξηραίνω) are both aorist ( βλήθη and ξηράνθη). This expresses a fact that is always valid. Johnson, Acts, pp. 421, 423. 5 The verb to to prune (καθαίρει) is also in the present tense. God is adjusting each of us. 6 This commandment is summarized in John 13:34-35. Ibid., p. 420-421.
that matters today for us is experience. Advertisers tell us, “Just do it.” Try it and see if you like it. If not, then go and try something else. Today, we ﬁrmly believe that no one can challenge lives that we lead: not our friends or family that care about us, not the pastor calling for the discipline of the unrepentant sinner, not even God can punish us. We have arrived at this wrong conclusion since we believe what we say to ourselves: “It’s all good.” . . . “Just do it.” In our world, no longer is there right and wrong. Rather we say, “That did not work out for me.” The lesson from Jesus today stands in stark contrast our attitude. Jesus clearly tells us that the Father acts decisively in our world today. He destroys the people and the churches that remove themselves from Jesus. The Father changes even those who abide in the vine. Jesus tells us that God the Father loves us so much that He will not leave us alone. He prunes us individually and as a church so that we follow the great commandment to love God and our neighbor. That is why we cannot continue to have the line in our bulletin that reads, “Leave as You Would Like to be!” God the Father does not leave you alone. He always is working on you. To deny this is to reject the work of the Father. This brings us to the second consequence of today’s Gospel. As branches, we are required to bear good fruit (John 15:2, 5, 8). Many Lutherans become extremely nervous when we hear the command that we must do something. Almost immediately, we protest this requirement because we either feel it leads to us believing that our works make us right before God or that works of charity are not something that Lutherans do. Neither reason is correct. The Lutheran Confessions 6
speak clearly to us on these points. Over and over, the confessions remind us that our work never brings us favor in God’s sight.7 We hear the same thing in today’s Gospel Lesson. The work of producing fruit does not clean us. The freely given Word of God saves us (John 15:3). The third result of today’s Gospel Lesson is this. There is no such thing as an individual Christian. This scares us because we have completely adopted the American ideal of individualism that allows every one to be different. We are literally afraid of begin absorbed into some mass collective where no one can be distinguished from anyone else. However, this is not the world that Jesus reveals to us. Instead, Jesus shows us the love found in the Trinity. This love is much more than an emotion that we feel. In the Trinity, love is the way of life. The love of the Trinity brought existence into being. The love of the Trinity spills into every part of creation. The love of the Trinity brings us salvation. Jesus invites us into this love and as children of God; we share this love with everyone. This is what God wants us to be: One with the Trinity. We constantly rebel against being incorporated into the Trinity because each of us believes that we are the center of the universe. We see this in our actions. We do not take care of others and we forget that we need God. The other less commonly discussed reason why we are fanatically individualistic in this country might strike you as either backward or just old fashioned. In our discussion about our love affair with individualism, we were only able to
For example see Augsburg Confession, Article XX, n. 9; Theodore G. Tappert et al., editors, The Book of Concord, (Fortress Press, 1959), p. 42.
see the results of our relationships with ourselves. For example, while we saw a decrease in team sports we were not able to identify the power that causes us to act like this. The traditional name for these forces that have no name or no face, that are formless and at the same time nowhere and everywhere is demonic.8 These forces of evil want to do everything in their power to keep us away from being One with the Trinity. Jesus came into the world to show us how to live and to overcome the evil forces in the world. He accomplished both of these items by giving Himself to other people who never deserved His love. One famous and well known example of giving all of yourself for another person is the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story, an ordinary man goes from Jerusalem to Jericho. Somewhere along the way, he was attacked by robbers, and beaten within an inch of his life. Both a priest and a man that should have known better saw him lying on the side of the road but they just left him to die. Only the wounded man’s sworn enemy, the Samaritan, stopped to help him. The Samaritan then took the injured man to an emergency room and stayed with him through the night. In the morning, the Samaritan completely paid the bill and left enough to cover the man’s rehab. As the Samaritan left the ER, he told the told the billing department that he would cover all future expenses. This is how God acts. Jesus gave you forgiveness, not because you are an individual, self-reliant independent American but because He wants you to live
Arthur C. McGill; Lindell Sawyers and Ray T. Woods, editors, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method, (Philadelphia, PA: The Geneva Press, 1968), p. 41.
with others. Jesus gave you life, not because you deserved it, but because He loves you. The idea that anyone can be completely independent of other humans is a complete myth. The single cowboy does not have the means nor the resources to create everything that he needs to live. You did not will yourself into existence nor can you live all alone. You were created to live in community with others. God has gathered us together in this place for three reasons. First, we come together to worship God and thank God for the gifts that we have been given. Second, we have been given others that need our assistance. Finally, we have been commanded to tell others about this amazing God who gathers us together as His children. “The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”9
Johnson, Luke Timothy; Harrington, S.J., Daniel J., editor, The Acts of the Apostles, Volume 5, Sacra pagina, (The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992). McGill, Arthur C.; Sawyers, Lindell and Woods, Ray T., editors, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method, (Philadelphia, PA: The Geneva Press, 1968). Tappert, Theodore G. et al., editors, The Book of Concord, (Fortress Press, 1959).
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