“A Unique Endurance”

John 15: 1-6

“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 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.”

-John 15: 1-6

Many times Jesus taught the disciples using figurative language. He said that he was the bread of life, that he was the good shepherd, and the gate for the sheepfold. He told them that he was the light of the world and the way. He said that he was the resurrection and the life. In today’s Scripture he says that he is the vine and they are the branches. Whenever he gives one of these analogies, it is as if he is giving them a back to basics talk. He wanted the disciples to look at the fundamentals of faith. Coach Vince Lombardi was known to do this to his Green Bay Packers team, saying, “Gentlemen, this is a football,” as he held a football in the air. Of course the disciples understood what Jesus was talking about. They could easily envision how a branch receives nourishment from the vine and  produces fruit, and how being disconnected leads to being dried and useless.

Sometimes Jesus sounds like a coach when he talks to the disciples, doesn’t he? He taught the disciples that although adversity was coming their way, they could, and must, be able to do more than survive, they must grow the kingdom of God. Has anyone ever warned you that things were going to get tough in business? Maybe your boss told you that the tough economy is challenging the health of the organization. Jesus coached the disciples with this kind of warning. He used the kind of psychology that coaches use when they prepare a team, similar to the way your boss warned you about challenging economic forecasts. We get that same message today, don’t we? One of our congregants had a very difficult situation and asked me, “When will this end? When will the circumstances be over?” In those times, when we feel trapped, alone, in the dark, and hopeless, we need hope more than ever before. We need to feel connected to God, to the vine, especially when it seems that the only thing that is going to change is how we feel about a situation. We may finally conclude that the first step is to change how we feel about the situation, and how we deal with it, than the situation itself.

We encounter similar messages, such as the article “How you handle adversity in the workplace tends to have much more impact on your career than how you handle the good stuff,” by Heath Row in Fast Company magazine. The article asks, “What do National League baseball teams that rally to win late-inning games have in common with highly productive workers?” According to Martin Seligman, president of the American Psychological Association, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, the answer is, quite a lot. While studying the performance of players and managers in Major League Baseball, and of players and coaches in the National Basketball Association, Seligman found a remarkable correlation: Optimistic teams — as measured by how they talk about their performance in the sports press — play better under pressure than do pessimistic teams. For Seligman, the finding marked a new way to think about competition, work, and life.

“For my whole life, the field of psychology has concentrated on correcting what’s wrong,” says Seligman. “But rather than trying to minimize what’s worst in life, we should maximize what’s best.” Seligman developed the concept of “learned optimism” — and applied it directly to workplace productivity. “When pessimistic people run into obstacles in the workplace, in relationships, or in sports, they give up,” he says. “When optimistic people encounter obstacles, they try harder. They go the extra mile.” What is Seligman’s advice on learning to be optimistic? Realize that when you react to adversity, you’re reacting not to an event but to how you feel about that event. You may not be able to control what happens to you — but you do have some control over your emotions.

“When adversity strikes, how you think and what you believe determine how you feel and what you do,” he says. Optimism in difficult situations, says Seligman, not only wins close ball games — it also helps people to grow in their careers. “How you handle adversity in the workplace tends to have much more impact on your career than how you handle the good stuff,” Seligman says. “The people who know how to overcome adversity are the ones who rise to the top of the organization.” This approach can be applied in every aspect of life. If we believe that whatever obstacle that has come our way is only temporary, and only affects a specific part of life, the attitude is much different than to say that the obstacle is permanent and can be applied to the whole of life.

This is valuable psychology, but definitely not enough to get us out of the dark. Jesus was coaching the disciples to move through adversity with endurance, but he went much farther than Coach Lombardi or Dr. Seligman. Jesus taught a unique endurance beyond self-preservation and developing a positive attitude about life. Jesus wanted the disciples to learn to emulate and develop an outward-focused love-centered approach toward life. If you were to pinpoint the basics of this approach, it might begin with “Jesus Loves Me,” a song you learned in Sunday school as a boy or girl.

Dr. James C. Brown encountered a Sunday school girl and wrote about her in A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul. He and his staff were worried about how Mary, a 5-year-old little girl, might react to an MRI test. Her parents had passed away. She had suffered from a brain tumor, and a stroke had paralyzed her left side. Dr. Brown wrote, “About two minutes into the first sequence, we noticed that Mary’s mouth was moving. We even heard her muted voice on the intercom. We stopped the exam and gently reminded her not to talk. She smiled and promised. We reset the machine and started over. Once again, we saw her facial movement and faintly heard her voice. What she was saying wasn’t clear. The staff was getting a little impatient. They’d put a busy schedule on hold to perform her emergency MRI.

We went back in and slid Mary out of the machine. Once again, she looked at us with her crooked smile. She wasn’t upset in the least. The technologist, perhaps a bit gruffly, said, ‘Mary, you were talking again. That causes blurry pictures.’ But, Mary’s smile remained as she replied, ‘I wasn’t talking. I was singing. You said no talking.’” Dr. Brown said, “We looked at each other, feeling a bit silly.” “What were you singing?” someone asked. “Jesus Loves Me,” came the soft reply. ‘I always sing Jesus Loves Me when I’m happy.’”

From the beginning, Jesus was building a church that instilled faith in times when we feel the most alone and afraid. Jesus was pointing the disciples toward an endurance that included producing fruit. It began with “Jesus Loves Me,” but it did not end there. Jesus was establishing a community of compassion that was outward oriented. The church as the body of Christ would go out into the world serving and loving others as Jesus loved. It is our job to perpetuate these instructions that Jesus gave the disciples. We must point the world toward the loving community of faith that we share because we offer the love of Christ. If a new church is being built, you might find a mother putting her newborn’s feet into the fresh cement, symbolizing that as a parent, she is pointing her child toward the church from the very beginning. What a sweet image, two little footprints outside of the church pointing toward it. What a reminder of how important faith can be in life!

Being in the church means we need to remind each other always that it is our job not only to be attached to the vine, but to produce fruit. When our member Senator Mark Kirk experienced a stroke, I was impressed that he asked me to bring him “A Bible, and a picture of Jesus.” As he recovers from his stroke, he recalls feeling the prayers of our faith community and many all over the world in a very tangible way. He found faith in dark moments when verses like Romans 8:18 really came alive: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed,” and Colossians 3:2, “Set your minds on things above, and not on things on the earth.” Ironically, being connected to that kind of hope does not detach us from earth’s sufferings, rather, we feel engaged even more with God’s power to confront and battle life’s sufferings. We find strength beyond ourselves and are able to produce fruit for the kingdom of God. I am impressed and grateful that during his recovery, Senator Kirk’s faith overflows. He is producing fruit in his family, his church family, his staff, his colleagues, everyone who encounters him seems to receive inspiration andencouragement in their own lives.

Yes, life is not just receiving nourishment from the vine, not just survival- but about producing fruit. And what exactly is this fruit? What does it look like? The Bible tells us that the fruits of the Spirit are: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22). It took time for the disciples to learn the unique nature of this endurance and to learn how to produce these fruits.

Every now and then we encounter someone who leads us in that same direction, but we need to be reminded of these basics, don’t we? Even John Wesley, the great Methodist minister, was influenced decisively one evening during a conversation with a porter. I enjoyed reading about this incident in the Wesley Center’s Crisis at Oxford chapter: “Late one night he had a conversation with the porter of his college, which began with pleasantry, but ended with a point that deeply impressed the merry student: “Go home and get another coat,” said Wesley. “This is the only coat I have in the world, and I thank God for it,” replied the porter. “Go home and get your supper, then,” said the young student. “I have had nothing to-day but a drink of water, and I thank God for that,” rejoined the other. “It is late, and you will be locked out, and then what will you have to thank God for?” “I will thank him that I have the dry stones to lie upon.” “John,” said Wesley, “you thank God when you have nothing to wear, nothing to eat, and no bed to lie upon; what else do you thank him for ?” “I thank him,” responded the good man, “that he has given me my life and being, a heart to love him, and a desire to serve him;” and the porter’s word and tone made Wesley feel that there was something in religion which he had not as yet found.” This simple porter influenced a student who became one of our greatest theologians. In the same way, we are equipped to produce fruit in the life of others. Let us remember that during the dark nights of our souls that we are attached to the vine of life. Let us go back to the basics and allow the love of Christ to fill our lives and nourish the lives of others.

Amen.