Sermon #231 St. James the Less #138 5/2/21
Jesus said to his disciples, ”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
The New York Times ran an article the other day that caught my attention. In big, bold letters it said, “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Felling: It’s Called Languishing.”
The writer of this piece, Adam Grant, a psychologist, began seeing a pattern among his friends and colleagues. Many of them were bemoaning the fact that they had trouble concentrating or weren’t excited about the future even with the vaccine now widely available. They talked about having trouble getting out of bed, or mindlessly playing games on their phone late into the night.
When trying to nail down this unsettling emotion Grant says, “It wasn’t burnout—we still had energy. It wasn’t depression—we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing.”
He goes on to say, “Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. “And,” he claims, “it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”
After a year in which our “threat detectors” have been on high alert, we are exhausted. Our brains have been put through so much stress that they need a vacation, or at the very least, some stability and constancy.
On the mental health spectrum that ranges from depression on one end to flourishing on the other; languishing is smack dab in the middle. It is the “absence of well-being” where motivations are dulled and our ability to focus is muddled.
I was struck by his phrase, “The absence of well-being.” When I hear that I think about a lack of wholeness, a void of some sort in a person, maybe even disjointed and disconnected from oneself and others.
If this year has taught us anything it’s that if we are going to live well, then we need each other. We have been disjointed and disconnected far too long. We now know better than ever the value of a hug, or being surrounded by family or friends, or welcoming someone into our home for a meal.
We have learned that people really do matter. Even the most introverted folks have discovered the deep desire to be around others.
This idea of languishing has hit home for me. I haven’t been depressed over this past year, but there have been times when someone asked how I was doing and I should have honestly responded with “Blah” rather than “I’m fine.”
I have languished at times while impatiently waiting for the world to get back in order—longing for a sense of normalcy and feeling stuck in the unbearable present. And I doubt I’m the only one here whose felt that way.
The True Vine
For any of us who can relate to this feeling, Jesus’ parable today is like a cool drink of water on a hot summer’s day. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower, “Jesus says. “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”
This is Jesus at his most pastoral, most imaginative moment. After washing the disciples’ feet during the Last Supper, Jesus gathers them around and says this last “I am” statement.
Throughout the Gospel of John he’s told these very same disciples that he is the bread of life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, the way, the truth, and the life. And here in our passage he saves his best for last, just hours before he is betrayed and put on trial.
“I am the true vine.” That one phrase captures everything Jesus wants his disciples to know about him. Long ago Israel’s prophets talked about the nation of Israel being the vineyard/the vine and God being the vinegrower.
But now, Jesus is now taking all of this on himself. Wrapped up in himself are all of Israel’s hopes and dreams, their promise of redemption, but also all their past failures and unfaithfulness.
In the same way that we talk about Abraham and the people of Israel being elected, or chosen, by God to bring blessing on all the nations—now Jesus is God’s Elect, his Chosen and Anointed One.
In this one simple phrase Jesus is claiming his kingship, his right to the throne, and yet in some holy mystery we know that he is enthroned on the cross.
This soon crucified king gives his followers a simple command, a command he issues to us as well, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”
Though Jesus is the vine, the chosen One of Israel, we are not cast out of the vineyard as weeds—rather we are branches who are given life and nutrients from the true vine. We are not only in the vineyard, but we are inextricably linked to the Source of all life. All we must do is abide.
Now “abide” is not a word that we typically use now adays. One writer translates the word into the phrase, “make your home with me.” So it sounds more like this, “Make your home with me as I make my home with you.”
Simultaneously Jesus is making an invitation and taking the initiative. He invites us to make our home in him—he welcomes us in with open arms and waits for us to step through the doorway. But as quickly as he invites, he tells us that he has already made a home in us. “Abide in me as I abide in you.”
Abiding in What?
Pretty amazing stuff, right? I know it rocked the disciples world when they heard this. But like every great invitation Jesus offers, it challenges us to reflect on our priorities and see where there might be conflicts of interest.
So, I’ll ask you the same questions I’ve been asking myself this week: What have we been abiding in these past twelve-plus months? What have we welcomed into our home, and even made it our home?
Jesus says that he’s the true vine, he doesn’t say he’s the only vine. There are plenty of other vines that we can attempt to get nutrients from, but they very well may not be good for us—sweet to the taste but in the end toxic.
Economists use the word “consumer” to describe us—and that actually sounds pretty biblical to me. What are we consuming? What are we abiding in these days?
How much are we abiding in CNN or Fox News, Facebook or Tik Tok, Amazon or Netflix? How much time in our year of languishing have we mindlessly consumed these other sources; taken them in as a source of truth and comfort and strength?
Again, these are all vines, they all have something to give, but their sources are strictly from this world. They are rooted in the worldly objects of money, power, and greed…Sin.
Though he’s not the only vine, Jesus warns that unless we consume or abide in him, we will not bear fruit.
Jesus is telling us that we languish when we are disconnected from the true vine, the Source of all life. We are not the person God is calling us to be when we are off on our own, doing our own thing. We shrivel up and wither in this instance, even though personally and professionally it may appear we’re thriving.
The troubling part for those who do abide is that they won’t escape the vinegrower’s pruning. Even the branches that are bearing fruit, Jesus says his Father will prune so that we can bear even more fruit.
Fruit that very well may not be that impressive on any worldly scale. Bearing the fruit of the kingdom may be something that only the vinegrower sees and delights in, and yet Jesus says that’s all that matters because after all it’s his vineyard, he’s the vine, and we are merely the branches.
The purpose of a Christian is not to thrive, not even to flourish (if we use the mental health scale), but simply to abide. And I think if we are truly abiding, those other metrics for how happy or successful we are begin to fade away into oblivion. The vinegrower doesn’t use such worldly measurements.
How to Abide
So, a few thoughts for those of us who are languishing in one form or another.
Firstly, I must ask: How’s your prayer life? Are we abiding through an ongoing conversation with the True Vine? This is as essential as water.
Second, are we regularly, even daily, reading Scripture? Earlier in John, Jesus said, “If you continue in my Word, you will really be my disciple” (8:31-32). How can we ever expect to be in a healthy place if we neither speak to the Lord of the vineyard or hear what he has to say?
Lastly, are we being fed regularly by the Sacraments of the Church? Again, earlier in John, Jesus said, “The person who is feasting on my flesh and drinking my blood is making a home (abiding) with me, and I am making my home with that person” (6:56). He’s using the same terminology in our passage and this one that centers on the Eucharist. I can’t imagine this is a coincidence.
Coming together as a community to break bread week after week is vital for us; it is food for the journey—heavenly food that sustains us and energizes us to go out and be the Body of Christ to the world.
The Christian practices of abiding are so simple it can even seem cliché, and yet it so hard to do, or better yet, to keep doing day after day, week after week.
But I get the sense that we cannot languish while abiding, at least not for very long, for the hope of one who abides is rooted not in the present circumstances but in the eternal promises of the Chosen One of Israel, the living and reigning true vine from whose roots flow new and abundant life, even to the branches that are languishing.
5th Sunday of Easter. Year B. John 15:1-8. Dale Bruner’s Commentary on John. Article: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html?referrer=masthead. Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash.