Friday, June 8, 2018


Preached at Finley Memorial Presbyterian Church
April 29th 5th Sunday of Easter

John 15:1-8
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide 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. 5I 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. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

I watched a documentary a couple weeks ago. It was about music – I should note at the outset that my musical tastes are…scattered. Growing up I went through a grunge phase so I still enjoy 90s rock music like Nirvana, Green Day, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and a lot of other groups who, for some reason, are starting to play on oldies stations. Recently I’ve been enjoying musicals, Abbey and I just watched The Greatest Showman this week – which was excellent – but I also love listening to songs from Broadway plays like Next to Normal and Tick, Tick Boom when I’m doing stuff around the house. I also really enjoy rap music and the tradition that’s grown out of the blues, and jazz. I like songs that have a social message, that speak to different experiences, that tell stories I might not have heard or stories that I have heard in a different way. That’s why I think this documentary stuck with me.
            It’s a Netflix documentary called “RAPture” (get it?) that follows different contemporary rappers, tells their stories through interviews with friends and family and footage from touring and concerts. The first episode was about a contemporary rapper named Logic – I thought, I like philosophy, I like hip hop, what’s not to like about an artist named Logic? He explains that “Logic” is short for “psychological” because he was really into underground hip hop that addressed deeper, more thought-provoking issues than a lot of popular rap songs. His friends, though, thought the name was a little strange – he says “who calls somebody “psychological” like ‘hey psychological can you please pass the salt?’” So his friends shortened his nickname to logic.
            He is fairly unassuming – his dad was black, his mom was white and he is a skinny light skinned guy with glasses. He describes himself saying
I’m a dude who looks white who is also black who has to constantly fight to be accepted by his own ethnicity of people in a genre that I chose to wake up every day and people [expletives deleted] you’re this, you don’t look like us you’re not cool enough [but, he continues] I’m not gonna just go work in accounting because I fit the, you know.
Anyway, when he started to make it big, he said that he worked every day, he woke up and started writing, recording, performing, booking shows, learning the piano, creating music, neglecting his physical and mental health. He became stressed, depressed, anxious. In his song “Anziety” he says
It was December of 2015 in sunny Los Angeles California in the heart of Hollywood/ I stood next to my wife in a line surrounded by hundreds of other people on our way to watch Star/ Wars when suddenly I was engulfed with fear and panic/ and my body began to fade/ In this moment my mind was full of clarity/ but my body insisted it was in danger. 
He was describing a panic attack.

            After this attack, he began to learn more about the way that your physical and mental states are connected and the way that you can have everything – fame, fortune, healthy relationships – and still, suddenly, for no reason, your body can insist that it is in danger. Some things started to make more sense to Logic after his panic attack – he talks about how fans tell him that his music changed their lives, that it brought them out of dark times, that it transformed the way they saw themselves, their friends, the world. He realized that he had a prominent platform and that he wanted to use it to address social issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and stigmas about mental health. He looks back on those comments from fans and says “I wasn’t even trying to save your life, now what could happen if I actuallydid?” He rose to another level of fame and notoriety just over a year ago on April 28th of 2017 when he released a single titled “1-800-273-8255”. The song reached #3 on the Billboard charts, was certified quadruple platinum, and received grammy nominations for song of the year and best music video. The title of the song – “1-800-273-8255” – is the toll-free number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
            The Suicide Prevention Lifeline states that on the day of the song release, they received the second highest daily call volume in its history, receiving over 4,500 calls. The day after Logic performed the song at the MTV Video Music Awards the Lifeline received over 5,000 calls. Google searches for the phone number doubled on the day that the song came out and the new baseline for searches continues to be 25% higher than before the song. Crisis centers across the country report that callers are mentioning the song when they call for help. “1-800-273-8255” starts with a caller who doesn’t want to live, moves to a verse from the perspective of the Lifeline counselor talking to the caller and ends with a chorus of the caller saying “I finally want to be alive.”
            This morning’s passage, where Jesus tells his disciples that he is the true vine and they are the branches, comes from a section of the Gospel of John called the “farewell discourse” that occurs between the last supper and Jesus’ crucifixion. During this discourse, Jesus is giving the disciples instructions, advice, and encouragement for the upcoming trials they would face. Jesus tells the disciples to graft themselves to him, recognize their good works as fruits from him, and realize that even though they may suffer God is pruning them in order that they may bear more fruit. About pruning: at our house we have a quadruple-trunked silver maple – our neighbor does also. We had an arborist come look at the tree once to see if we needed to do anything to ensure that it wasn’t at risk to fall on our house. The tree specialist told us that we should probably cable the trunks together and prune the branches that were growing more outward than upward. Our neighbor has had this done on her tree for years and the tree specialist tried to point out to me the difference between my tree and hers, but…they just kind of looked like trees to me.
            Over the past couple years, though, I’ve spent time on our back porch looking at the trees and have begun to notice differences – our neighbor’s tree is shaped kind of like an ice cream cone while ours is shaped more like an upside down pyramid. The neighbor’s tree has had many rounds of pruning where ours has only had one. Large, healthy limbs have to be sawed off so that the tree might grow more productively and less dangerously. This is the difference between pruning and removing. In John, Jesus says that his Father “removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” Obviously, when it comes to trees and vines, you can cut off dead portions of the plant. To cultivate the plant, though, you have to cut off live portions of it. Just like me the first time I gazed at our tree, I couldn’t see the point in cutting off some of the larger, healthier limbs. But it seems that even some healthy limbs need to be cut for the tree to grow safely.
            Sometimes this analogy is used when we talk about theodicy – the ever present question of why a good, all-powerful God would allow us to suffer. If God can do something about it, why not do it? Sometimes, people will say that God is using suffering for God’s purposes. Emily Askew, a theologian at Lexington Theological Seminary warns us about this part of the passage saying that it is a “troubling equation that is very often taken as a universal interpretation of theodicy: suffering brings growth, or worse, God makes suffering necessary for growth." (Feasting on the Gospels John v2) It is tempting to see verses like this – that God prunes us, cuts off parts of us that may seem healthy but that, eventually, we will see as helping us to reach a greater understanding of ourselves and of God – the old “all’s well that ends well” school of thought. This, as Askew notes, is a dangerous line of thought that can quickly develop into the idea that we are called to suffer so that God can work for good through our suffering – the light at the end of the tunnel justifies our current darkness. Or it can cause us to think that there is no need to seek help for our suffering because that’s just part of life.
            That was the case with NBA All Star Kevin Love who recently wrote about his own struggles with mental health. As one of the best basketball players in the world, he is in fairly good shape. 
During a game last November, though, he says 
I knew something was wrong almost right after tip off. I was winded within the first few possessions. That was strange. And my game was just off…After halftime, it all hit the fan. Coach Lue called a timeout in the third quarter. When I got to the bench, I felt my heart racing faster than usual. Then I was having trouble catching my breath. It’s hard to describe, but everything was spinning, like my brain was trying to climb out of my head. The air felt thick and heavy. My mouth was like chalk…When I got up to walk out of the huddle, I knew I couldn’t reenter the game – like literally couldn’t do it physically.
Kevin Love ended up running off the court before frantically running through the locker room, finally laying down and being taken to the hospital where he was treated for a panic attack.

            Even after his panic attack, though, Kevin Love didn’t want anyone finding out about it. He writes “growing up, you figure out really quickly how a boy is supposed to act. You learn what it takes to “be a man.” It’s like a playbook: Be strong. Don’t talk about your feelings. Get through it on your own...” After the panic attack, he says “call it a stigma or call it fear or insecurity – you can call it a number of things – but what I was worried about wasn’t just my own inner struggles but how difficult it was to talk about them. I didn’t want people to perceive me as somehow less reliable as a teammate, and it all went back to the playbook I’d learned growing up.”
            Kevin Love learned a playbook about being tough. Logic learned the playbook of never taking a break from work. The playbooks we learn about how we are supposed to act are sometimes wrong. If we make the mistake from this passage and assume that our suffering is somehow, for some reason, God’s will, that God is making us suffer we might think that the problem is with us and not with the playbooks. We might make the mistake of thinking that we don’t need to talk about our problems or to seek help because God is using our struggles to make us stronger. We might mistakenly believe that God will give us strength to work longer hours at a more rapid pace to be a better employee...or that God will allow us to live up to expectations when we feel emotional so we’ll be more in line with what our playbook expects. In the face of these playbooks and the way that we might give them theological stamps of approval, I want to close by saying that this passage is not a call to suffer. It is a statement of Jesus in response to suffering. He is describing suffering and not prescribing it.
            God doesn’t call us to suffer for not living up to a flawed playbook. This passage teaches us that we are not called to suffer, but we are called to abide in the true vine. Jesus says:
‘I am the true vine…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. 5I 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. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples
Abiding is a long term action. Pruning is short. 
Abiding is a lifelong goal. Pruning is a temporary. 
Abiding involves suffering, it involves growth, it involves setbacks, it involves bearing fruit, it involves pruning. 
Abiding in Christ means abiding with one another, speaking, listening, supporting. 
To return again to Logic’s song “Anziety”, he concludes with a long stanza of spoken word saying:
I have anxiety
Just like you, the person I wrote this for
And together we will overcome this feeling
We will remember despite the attacks and constant feeling of our mind and body being on the edge
That we are alive
And any moments we have free of this feeling we will not take for granted
We will rejoice in this gift that is life
We will rejoice in this day that we have been given
We will accept our anxiety and strive for the betterment of ourselves
Starting with mental health
We will accept ourselves as we are
And we will be happy with the person we see in the mirror
We will accept ourselves
And live with anxiety.

In this passage, Jesus says “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” Let us truly believe these words. We will rejoice. We will accept ourselves. We will strive. We will live. We will bear fruit. We will abide.