Read John 15:1-8
Now it would be quite easy for me to reflect today on my vacation to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico two weeks ago. But I won’t do that, I promise.
I could show you photos of beautiful beaches at sunrise and the wide stretches of white sand along the Pacific Ocean, but that would be mean of me. It would be tempting to share the amazing golden orange sunsets I experienced every night at the balcony of my resort hotel in the Romantic Zone, but that just wouldn’t be fair to you!
Oh, I could tell you about my amazing snorkeling expedition into the coral reefs of the Arcos Nature Reserve, but that would be rubbing salt into the wound since you all had snow and ice that week. And I’m sure you would be jealous to see the multitude of skimpily clad locals and tourists enjoying their fun in the sun…and that I definitely won’t show you. Okay…just one photo of the local demographic in their swimming attire. In all honesty, what I want to talk about this morning is what happened after I returned from this paradise on the west coast of Mexico. It’s what happened to me when I returned to Nashville that had the biggest impact on my time of rest and relaxation.
I took a lot of classes in in psychology and sociology during my undergraduate program in International Studies. I researched the sources, structures and effects of conflict in human relationships as part of my Masters in Conflict Resolution. I also specialized in pastoral care and counseling for LGBT Christians in my Masters of Divinity program, and of course I have honed these skills over my 13 years in ordained ministry. And so I hope you will permit me to me to get a little psychological to start off my sermon reflection this morning.
Most of us have had the experience with or know someone who has suffered from depression. Many describe depression as a kind of spiritual, emotional and even mental death. It feels like something had died within us. From a psychological perspective, depression happens when a person gets cut off from the center of who they really are, the real person, the real self, the driving force behind life itself. Depression happens when our focus turns to the exterior part of our person called the ego. We all have an ego, which is a kind of mask or persona, which reflects the way we think of ourselves or like to think of ourselves. We all need an ego to get along out there, to get noticed, get a job, find friends, establish a life for ourselves. Our ego is something we make up. We couldn't survive for long without one.
The problem is: the ego has little life of its own. It is not necessarily a bad thing. It is just that it cannot restore itself when things go wrong. So when tragedy strikes and our ego takes a blow, we often fall apart. We use words like "shattered" or "destroyed" to try to describe the experience. It is not the real us that it is being shattered; but we mistakenly assume that it is. It’s the part of us that relies on other people for value. It depends on the exterior world for a sense of identity, for support and validation, like our reputation, for example - that is the part of us that gets in trouble when things begin to go wrong.
When we over-identify with the ego we inevitably question if we are smart enough, sexy enough, rich enough, or powerful enough. And so we get hooked on acquiring possessions that indicate our level of success. We seek jobs and relationships that give us a sense of importance. We become confrontational when others call our identity into question. We push back so that nobody pushes us around. We act in argumentative ways to convince others that we are right. We get combative when others suggest we aren’t okay or need to change. And then we begin to live in anger and disappointment when others don’t measure up to our own standards of right-ness. We begin to live our lives further and further away from the things that really matter.
When that happens, it is just a matter of time before depression begins to kick in. Some people describe it as the experience of feeling totally lost, of not knowing who they are anymore, of being split off from a part of oneself. What is really happening is a kind of disconnection. We get cut off from that part of us that is real. Many people have to seek professional therapy and counseling to deal with depression. Sometimes it takes an expert in psychology to help us re-connect with that life-giving center that is inside each one of us. It is only when we are connected to that center that we are restored, can begin to heal and start to live a vital and significant life again.
I returned from the paradise of my vacation and immediately faced some harsh realities. Realities that I had not spent much time evaluating. Realities that I had resisted to face. But when I did, I was faced with a critical question; am I really good enough to be your pastor. I’ve spent the past eight months since being called to HTCC diving right into the work you called me to do. I had coffee or meals with most of you within just a few months. Then I tried to tackle the uncertainties of what our next home would look like and where we might relocate. And so we jumped right into the launching of new ministries, worked to expand our spiritual disciplines, introduced progressive theology to our faith journey, educated folks on our covenantal relationship with our parent denomination, the UCC, recruited folks onto ministry teams, networked with numerous organizations in the city, expanded our marketing and online presence, told the Holy Trinity story to every person who would listen, and worked with our Vestry to streamline our budget and increase our funding. But my main motivation for doing all of the hard work was so that I could prove to you that you didn’t make a mistake in hiring me. Prove to you that I was capable, had the right stuff, that I was good enough.
And now, eight months later, I’ve spent some time evaluating exactly where we are and how far we’ve come. And I am not satisfied. I am still uncertain about our future. I still wonder if we will survive. I still question whether I have what it takes to lead you into the future. And I’ve been depressed about it. And I know that many of you feel the same as me. I didn’t help matters when the reality of ending my 24 year relationship to come here left me feeling alone and empty. The realization that the most important and significant relationship in my life was past the point of reconciliation. And I entered a dark time of depression that I had not known in over 28 years.
I hesitated to even admit this to anyone. I was ashamed that my ego, the mask that I put on to convince others that I was okay, began to crumble and break. I couldn’t expose my vulnerability. What would you think about me? My own testimony of suffering from depression might be a long way from our gospel text this morning, which is not about depression to be sure; but it may be the kind of analogy that helps people like you and me make sense of what the writer of the Gospel of John is talking about. John is referring to a life-giving connection that exists between God and everyone who wants to live in God. Whether or not John meant this connection in a personal way or in a corporate way between the church and God, is anybody's guess. But it does seem that John likes to talk more about the church and its relationship to God. What is important in our sacred story is that John is talking about the most vital connection that any of us in the church can ever have. And Jesus makes this connection in one of the most familiar analogies in the Bible: the metaphor of the vine and the branches.
In the original Old Testament imagery that Jesus eludes to from the prophet Isaiah in chapter 5, and we heard in the video this morning, the vine was the nation of Israel. God planted this vine and, like a good vineyard-keeper, has gone to considerable trouble to see to it that his efforts are not wasted. He plants grapes of the best possible stock, clears stones away from the roots, digs around the plant to make sure the water and air can nourish it, and even builds a watch-tower to keep out intruders. But, like a plant that has lost connection with its life-giving source, Israel, according to the prophets, has turned away from God and produces sickly grapes of inferior quality. Consequently, the vineyard is punished for failing to produce. God prunes it back, and in some cases even burns it to the ground.
John is describing the vital role of the church in the world whenever it remains connected to its source, through Jesus, its reason for being. Just like a plant, when that connection is cut off or ignored, there are always consequences; and because that living reality is so precious to God, God will not stand idly by. If cutting off diseased and dead limbs are necessary to preserve the plant that is precisely what God does, just as a vinedresser does to preserve the healthy vines. Cutting it down to the very trunk, if necessary.
Those of us who don’t work in vineyards, or harvest grapes for a living might not always understand why Jesus uses this analogy to describe our relationship with God. But since its beginnings at Pentecost over 2000 years ago, God has been pruning away all those things within the church that do not demonstrate the fruit of God’s spirit; or embrace and expand the creative energy that God embodies. Churches have been dwindling over the last several decades because worship experiences trivialize the reality of living in the real world. They don’t talk about doing the work of justice for those who have been abused by judgmental church theology and structures. They ignore the endless lies of our nation's leaders and are complicit with silence concerning the innocent who suffer daily. They spend most of their energy attempting to preserve their status, or their buildings, or their influence, or their viability as an institution in a world where most people cannot afford a roof over their heads. And we wonder why there is no life in the church anymore. But life does not necessarily equate to numbers of people in the pews, or the size of offerings. Because a life sustaining and transforming church has to do with the impact it has in the community and on its people.
Always worrying if we are doing enough, reaching enough people, being an impact, making a difference in this messed up world, or even working as hard as we can at what we think God has called us to do is not really what God wants at all. One of the most significant chapters in the book I’ve been reading, Unoffendable, is chapter nine entitled, “Ain’t You Tired?” The author, Brant Hansen, summed up exactly what I’ve been feeling this past week. Ain’t you tired being offended by life’s circumstances all the time? So much of my ministry over the past year has been trying to help people heal from their negative experiences of church. In fact, I really believed that that was what God called me to do here. To absorb your pain and heart break from the failures of past leadership and experiences and prove to you that I was different. I’ve heard so many stories about how messed up things were in the past, and how disappointed some still are. And my biggest fears have been, when will they find fault with me? And the book gave me that answer, of course someone will find fault. It’s a way of life for most of us. Because we all get offended; we all get disillusioned; we all question whether this is really the best place for us, and then we leave. It happens over and over again. And it can be tiring to have to work through difficulties with people. But the author says for what it is worth, it is way easier than starting over. Because the next church will inevitably disappoint you too. It always happens that way when you are easily offended.
My vacation into depression last week gave me a wake-up call. That all God wants from me, and you, is for us to know Him. God wants to know us, and He wants us to know Him. Not ideas or abstractions about Him, just Him. And when we surrender control to try and please God with a ton of ministry goals and strategies, and just focus on having a life-giving, love sustaining relationship with Him, there’s so much less at stake in life for us. And when we realize we have nothing to prove, when we really believe that we are enough, we’ll hardly be quick to anger and can rid ourselves of it much more easily. Because anger and resting in God are always at odds. We can’t have both at once.
We have been given an interesting opportunity in this faith community; an opportunity that often seems like a huge challenge. And that is to simply love people and invite them to love God—it is a relationship not based on fear, or guilt, or intimidation, or as a fire insurance policy. God only desires that our church community be based on a relationship that is grounded in love. But in order to do that, God needs us to drop our arms. No more defensiveness, no more taking things personally. God can handle it.
In my moments of depression last week it was this family of faith that reconnected me. I reached out for prayer. I reached out for comfort. I reached out for love…and it was here for me…like the sweet grapes in a lush vineyard I was refreshed.
Friends, do you feel disconnected? Alone? Burned out on life? Have you been separated from a life-giving connection to God? Spiritual family is the best form of therapy that you can experience. It is that simple truth that empowers us for our journey ahead. And that is all God requires of us, Holy Trinity. That’s who we are. And that’s who I am…one of you, seeking God’s love in the embrace of those who love me. Let love be the energy that connects us to God and to each other. Amen!
(Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon, “Under the Knife” from May 18, 2003 – www.fernstone.org)