Sunday, May 01, 2005

"Apart From Me, You Can Do Nothing"

What follows is this morning's sermon drawn from the 15th chapter of John. I offer it as a counter to my previous post, Facing Fear. One of the comments pointed out that we cannot fix ourselves. As this sermon will affirm, I agree with that statement.

This sermon and my previous posts are not contradictory, however, from my perspective. My understanding is that the spiritual life of a Christian involves being in a relationship with God. As in any relationship, there's some give and take; actions and reactions. I believe that we are often called to do what we can do, and then trust God to do the rest. In most spiritual struggles that I have encountered, the root of the difficulty lies in one of these two areas; either the person is not willing, or is unable for some reason, to do what they can do, or the person is struggling with trusting God. My previous post focused on the first part, of doing what we can do to face our fears. This sermon considers the latter part; recognizing our dependence on God.

About 20 years ago, my family and I moved to a very small country town. As the Spring thaw began, we decided to plant a garden. We fertilized, tilled, planted and watered. And our efforts were rewarded. We had a jungle in our back yard all Summer. Lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, cantaloupe, onions, carrots, and of course, the amazing zucchini. We had so much zucchini that I would leave bags of the stuff on our neighbor’s porch just to get rid of it. That garden was the best one we ever planted. I still have fond memories of tending that garden in the early morning hours.
(Note to Annie; the fertilizer was about as organic as you can get. I lined the back of my station wagon with plastic, and loaded it up with manure from the neighbor’s dairy farm. It is what made the garden thrive, but I eventually had to sell the car; the smell of manure never quite left.)

I recall that some of the cantaloupe branches from that garden began to spread out into the lawn. After mowing the lawn, some of these branches were cut. Soon, the small, developing melons on these branches shriveled up, and died. Without being attached to the rest of the vine, they could not draw nutrients and water from the ground. By themselves, they could not survive.

In verse 5 of this morning’s Gospel, Jesus tells us; “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abides in me, and I in them, bears much fruit; because apart from me, you can do nothing.” Apart from me, you can do nothing.

I know that is something I need to hear. Without Christ, I can do nothing. Sometimes I get caught up into the thinking that if humanity could just find the right social program, or the right economic model, we could save ourselves. Or if we had a big enough army, my nation could whip the rest of the world into shape. Or if everyone would just listen to me, I could fix the wounds of this world. But I can’t fix it, and you can’t fix it. History is full of attempts by humanity to pull itself up by its bootstraps and get on with it. And it doesn’t work.

The truth is, whether we like it or not, that we are powerless. There’s a book by Keith Miller that I want to recommend to you, as some may find it helpful. The title is “A Hunger for Healing.” He takes the 12 steps made famous by AA and fashions them into a program for spiritual growth. In the places where the 12 steps mention alcohol, he replaces it with the word sin. So, the first step becomes, “I am powerless over sin, and my life has become unmanageable.” I think that is the truth for each of us.

Maybe you don’t feel it is true for you. Maybe your life doesn’t seem unmanageable. Maybe you do feel safe and secure. Let me simply remind you of your feelings on September 11, 2001. Is our safety and security an illusion? “I am powerless over sin, my own sin, and the sins of others, and my life has become unmanageable.” Even if it makes us feel uncomfortable, I think it is important that we see the truth in that statement.

And what is sin? I think at the root of many occasions for sin is forgetting that God is God and we are not. We cannot stop our sinful ways on our own. Paul cries out, “I do that thing which I don’t want to do!” We cannot stop the sin in this world with social programs, or large armies. We are powerless over sin, and our world is falling apart. We need, we desperately need, a Savior, because we can’t fix it.

I am the vine, Jesus tells us. Apart from me, you can do nothing. If we are connected with Jesus, if we are in relationship with God, if we abide in Christ, we find a hand offered to lift us out of our sinful preoccupations. Then we can see what our true nature, what our true calling has always been. We are the branches. We receive the essence of life itself from the vine. If we desire to truly live, we will abide in Christ, and he in us.

This awareness that we need a savior isn’t all about living happily ever after singing cum baya, by the way. In this morning’s text, we are also told that God is the vinedresser. We are going to get pruned by God, and it might hurt! Some of the things that we really love, might be cut away, because they are stunting our growth. Don’t fight the gardener. He is going to win anyway. Let God be God, and let us get on with our calling, which is to be branches that bear fruit.

Bearing fruit. Now think about that. The vinedresser can’t literally bear fruit. Neither can the vine. When we set aside the illusion this world pushes on us, the illusion that we can be our own God, we see that our true role is pretty awesome in and of itself. We are the ones who are to bear fruit. We are the ones who have the role of feeding this starving world. We are the ones who can offer spiritual sustenance to a world that seems determined to self destruct.

The fruit we bear is life for the world. We are to give it away. Freely have you received, freely give. The zucchini looks beautiful in the morning sun, with the dew glistening on its dark green sides. But laying their in the garden, it is of little use. It must be picked, prepared and eaten if it is to fulfill its purpose. And so the fruit of our life in Christ is to be offered to the world. We proclaim with our every word and deed the good news that we have a savior, and his name is Jesus Christ.

Apart from me, you can do nothing. There is a story told by a veteran of WWII who was in Italy. He passed a statue of Christ that had had its hands blown off by an exploding shell. Someone had penciled a sign and hung it around the neck of this statue...the sign read; “No hands but yours.” Just as we were offered the hand of love by Christ to lift us up to a new life, so we are called to be the hands of Christ in the world today. Let us be the Church, the living hands of Christ, and offer the love of God to a world desperate for healing.

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