Jesus said all this to his friends so they could have joy. Complete joy. His friends are like branches and he’s like the vine. The vine is strong and woody, growing up from deep roots, sending all the lifegiving energy from the soil up into the branches. The branches that are not pruned off “abide.” The pruned ones fall to the ground and dry up. God the farmer rakes them up and bundles them off for kindling.
The branches bear fruit, and the grapes become juice or snacks or wine. The branches don’t live as long as the vine. They get trained and pruned every year and bear fruit. The vine lives on and on, mostly invisible but always working that connection between roots and branches, minerals and fruit, capillary action and photosynthesis.
The whole plant follows the instructions of its DNA, downloading energy from the sun and uploading it from the earth. As far as we know, plants don’t decide which photons to photosynthesize, or which molecules to suck up into the xylem. They are on autopilot.
But we are not. Of course, our heartbeats are on autopilot, and our breathing and digestion and so on. But you and I as conscious, self-aware animals, a big part of our brains is devoted to stuff that depends on paying attention, deciding, choosing, and so on. We shouldn’t walk through life on autopilot.
The rule of life for a grapevine is pretty much all in the DNA and the decisions of the vine-growing farmer. And so while Jesus recommends that we live like good branches, it’s just an analogy.
You may know we’re focusing on the notion of living an intentional life during these autumn weeks at St. John’s. The sermons and Sunday school discussions and blog posts are dedicated to waking us up from our unthinking slumber.
Today in the adult Sunday Forum, Prof. Charles Taliaferro is going to describe and gently recommend some venerable practices of living in the presence of God and noticing it. And in her blog post, Rie Gilsdorf has a report on trying to live according to a conscious rule.
What was it about Jesus that drew people, anyway? That compelled them to throw away their old lives and follow this homeless guru? Apparently, he knew what he was talking about. He knew how to carry himself. Whatever might have needed pruning in ordinary mortals like us, well, he had already pruned. People said that if God could live in human form, God would behave like rabbi Jesus.
But WE have plenty of pruning to do. Things that are NOT the way of Jesus. Here is my own pruning list…
Instead of step one — TURN — I just keep doing the same thing that doesn’t work. Or I branch off trying plenty of false paths.
Instead of step two — LEARN — I cling to selfish habits. I plead ignorance. I say I just can’t, but really mean I won’t. The Way of Jesus is the student’s path, and if I’m getting all A’s, I’m probably not choosing challenging enough things to learn.
Instead of step three — WORSHIP — which just means “worth-ship,” in other words, valuing that which is worthwhile or deserves to be prized. Instead of gathering weekly (the best we can) to give God credit and ask for what I need, we act as if other things have more worth-ship. Whatever it is we crave or are addicted to or have grown to expect, we act like those things are more important than what we cultivate here..
I know I’m not on the path for step four — BLESS — when I get so depressed that I can’t see all the people who love me. When I act like I have to do everything by myself. My mom used to tell me, “It must be pretty lonely up there on that mountain.” When I forget to take joy in what others do, and who they are, I miss the chance to bless.
If I want to avoid step five — PRAY — I stay really, really busy, letting the routine carry me through the day. I never notice that God is right there, as close as my breath. Autopilot: eat, work, sleep, wake, repeat.
And step six, man I always think I’m doing that: GO! I’m impatient, restless, distractible, focused. But man, am I productive! I may not be getting done what really needs doing, but I crank out the lessons and the meals and the home improvement projects and the sermons. You’re welcome. But GO does not mean anyplace. It means Go where you intend, with God’s help. Check your map. Otherwise, you’ll end up somewhere you didn’t need to be, like I so often do.
To avoid step seven, just go with the flow of being a materialistic, hard-working, over-committed person who is too busy to ask for help and can’t afford to rest. Step seven is rest. It’s not supposed to be optional. We need sleep, and idleness, and unproductive time, and people that are just plain good to be with without accomplishing anything. And yes, I am talking even about you, the busiest person of all.
That’s my negative list. How not to follow the way of Jesus. How to know I’m not on the path. What to do to get myself pruned. To not bear fruit.
Of course, we want to be branches, not kindling. We need SOME pruning, but by actually paying attention to our lives, we won’t need the kind that requires a saw. Just those hand nippers. By showing up and being intentional about where we are going, we won’t keep arriving someplace, bewildered, wondering exactly how we messed up. Again.
The positive list is in Romans 12, and if there’s a rule of life for me in the Bible, this is it.
-God help me renew my mind.
-Help my love not be hypocritical, demanding something of others that I would not also do.
-Help me cling to what’s good.
-Help me be eager to help others, and be enthusiastic.
-Help me rejoice in hope, endure suffering, and persist in prayer,
-Keep my eyes open for chances to be hospitable. I can afford it.
-Deliver me from the presumption that I do not have to bless those who trouble me
-Let me be truly humble, not just look humble.
-Help me live at peace with everyone, not because I have avoided conflict, but because I have embraced it, having faith in others besides myself.
-Give me the strength no not just avoid evil, but overcome it with goodness.
That is not exactly my rule of life, but man, Paul sums it up pretty well there. A rule of life, to me, means avoiding all those false paths by actually showing up and paying attention. It’s an examined life. An intentional life.
As the Buddha replied to a curious seeker, who asked, “what are you?” I am awake.
Maybe someday I can say that. I’m working on it.