For the past several weeks, without saying much about it, I’ve been preaching on the lectionary, the recommended scriptures that guide preachers and churches through the Bible every 3 years.  At this time of year, most of the readings speak to the situation the disciples face in the days after Easter:  How will they follow Jesus when he is no longer a daily, physical presence with them?  It’s a relevant question for us today because, this is exactly the situation in which we find ourselves—we are trying to follow a Jesus who is not physically here.
          In today’s scripture, understanding the challenge, and wanting to encourage the disciples, Jesus tells them:  “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide [who remain] in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”  Another translation:  “Live in me.  Make your home in me just as I do in you.” (MSG)  “Remain in me and I will remain in you.  A branch can’t produce fruit by itself.  If you remain in me and I in you then you will produce much fruit (CEB).
It’s a metaphor about a grapevine.  Vinegrowers know that the best fruit grows closest to the vine.  The meaning is clear.  We need to figure out, even in the midst of his physical absence, how we will stay close to Jesus.  This is what we’ll be exploring today.
Before going on, let’s deal with the problematic, maybe offputting aspect of this passage.  Jesus continues:  “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”  That sounds a bit threatening; some of us don’t like the idea that God might throw some people into the fire, or wonder if we might be that person.  There’s an explanation for these words.  To be fair, this passage originates from the Gospel of John, and in John, Jesus is known for saying divisive sounding things like this.  The author of this account of Jesus’ life was heavily influenced by the dualistic Greek philosophy of his day, much of which had to do with drawing contrasts between insiders and outsiders, those who understand the wisdom being taught to them, and those who do not.  So in John, there is plenty of reference to those who “get it” when it comes to Jesus, and those who do not, and this book is home to many metaphors about light and darkness, those who enter through the gate or hear the wisdom, and those who do not.
Accepting John’s style for what it is, I would invite you to consider that this passage need not be about insiders and outsiders, implying that some must be left behind.  The passage talks about how vines are pruned as a means of keeping them healthy; a gardener trims the parts of the vine that are draining life from us in order to give more nourishment to the parts that are healthy; and so it should be in our own lives.  We all have aspects of our lives that bear good fruit and add to our health and other aspects of our lives that steal life and vitality from us.  The passage need not be about insiders and outsiders, but can be about nourishing the best parts of ourselves, and pruning away the things that are stealing life from us—or what the passage calls staying close to the vine.
But how do we do that?  How do we stay close to Jesus?  Well, most of us can probably come up with some obvious answers:  we pray, we come to worship, we study the Bible, we engage in the church’s ministries of care and service.  But having been at this ministry thing for a couple of decades, and also because I’m a regular guy myself, I can already here the pushback:  “Adam, life is so busy, there are already so many demands on my time; how can I do more?”
The tough love reply is that doing more to attend to your spiritual life is always the right thing, and practically speaking will have good results in your life.  Different spiritual traditions share some things in common; over on Hyde Park Square right now there’s a sign outside a meditation studio that reads, “Meditate 10 minutes a day.  If you’re busy, meditate for 20 minutes.”  Christians are wise to heed the same advice.
But another thing we don’t always talk about enough is finding God in your daily life, in the rhythms and practices and daily grind of the things you are already doing—God can be found there too, and this is something commonly known as observing practices of faith; it is about finding meaning and even the presence of God, in daily living.  Here are some examples:
One I’ll just call noticing, or what some would call mindfulness.  You can practice noticing God and expressing your gratitude in places where God is likely to be found.  When you’re playing with your children or grandchildren, when you’re taking a walk outside, when you interact with a stranger who serves you a coffee or delivers the mail, when you hear music or pass by public art:  instead of just considering these things to be the normal course of human events, you can remember that they are all gifts from God.  Perhaps right in the midst of these things, you might say a short prayer, a simple word of thanks to God for what you have seen; maybe you commit to noticing God along with a friend and compare notes a few times a week about what you’ve seen.  Most of the time, God is much more present than we realize, we just aren’t paying attention.
Here’s another one:  You can practice faith in what and how you eat and drink.  Do you believe what Scripture says, that your body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit—and so do you treat it that way?  When we put into these God-given machines the things that make them operate best, we can remind ourselves it is an act of faith and care.  We can slow down the pace at which we shove food into our mouths, and instead savor how good it tastes, and remember the places it came from, praying for people in our human family who harvested, packaged, and delivered it.  We can contribute to programs that fight hunger, not just once a year, but in increments when we are eating, so that other people can honor their bodies as well.  And all this you can do through something you are already doing about three times a day.
A third example:  You can practice faith in choices you make that affect the health of your spirit.  Most of us say “yes” to too many things—can you say “no” to something if doing so would reduce stress in your life or create more time for God?  What about a decision for forgiveness?  Are you carrying around a resentment and could ask God to help you forgive in a way that could give new life to your spirit and add lightness to your soul?  Saying yes and saying no with intention; offering forgiveness; these things have mental health benefits; they are also acts of faith.
These are just a few examples; I could go on.  As the summer begins, I’m going to be spending more time talking about our daily tasks; we’ll be looking at how they can either be the meaningless daily grind of life, or ways in which we practice an active life of faith.
I’ll be honest with you about the challenge I have found with staying close to Jesus—this confession is true whether we are talking about daily practices, or the more traditional ideas of more prayer, worship, or study.  I do find it hard to fit it all in to my busy life, and moreover, when I fail at what I set out to do, I often end up feeling guilty and defeated.  When my goals are about spiritual growth, those feelings cause me to feel even further from God than I did in the first place, and then I wonder, what’s the use in trying?
Here’s an example from my own life—along with something I’ve decided to do about it—something I believe is bearing fruit.  On any morning when I can do it, I love being up early.  In the midst of a busy life and a joyful, if often very noisy home, I love having time in the morning—and I’m a better person throughout the day when I have it.  There are dozens of things I’m happy to do with quiet time in the morning.  I have multiple prayer practices and meditations practices I enjoy; morning is a great time to read, whether for pleasure or study; I can exercise, whether that means a real workout or just a few minutes to tend to my aging back; in my amateurish way I do a Qi Gong martial arts practice that helps me wake up my mind and my body; sometimes I just try to get organized for my day or attend to a note or two I need to send.  Sometimes I just drink my coffee and listen to music or enjoy the quiet.  There are so many things I can do with this time, and that’s the problem.  I struggle to choose how I will spend the time that I have, or I want to do several of these things; I find myself worrying about what time it is and how much time I’ve got left.  A few months ago, I figured out that, as much as I like the morning, I was ending this time feeling frustrated and defeated because I had not accomplished all I had hoped to do—and I knew that wasn’t bringing me closer to God.
So I made a change.  Now when I get up in the morning, however much time I have, I just choose one or two of the things I’d like to do, I might set a timer if I need a nudge about when to switch or stop, but most importantly, I stop what I’m doing just 5 minutes before I know I need to start the rest of my day, and I do two things.  I spend that 5 minutes thanking God for the time that I did have, receiving the gift of what I was able to enjoy; and I remind myself that in the eyes of God, whatever I was able to do was enough for today.  Unlike me, God is not trying to squeeze more productivity into our morning; God is just happy for us to be together, and remembering that is a means of grace.  I’m not failing; I’m doing what the day allows—and I can receive and enjoy God’s grace as sufficient for today.  And that 5 minute adjustment has made a significant difference in how my day begins.
In that spirit, I am finished for today: let us pray:  God, as we hear the music that follows the sermon and have some time to reflect, let us be thankful for the time you have given us today to be in the presence of your wisdom and Word and to stay close to the vine.  And may we remember that the time we share always makes you glad; may we know that what we have brought to it today is enough.  Amen.