Our preaching theme in October is ‘Community’ and my assigned text this Sunday was John 15.1-17. Confession: I’ve always found the ‘I am’ sayings in John just about impossible to preach for their lack of narrative and abundance of repetition.
You can listen to the sermon here below or in the sidebar to the right. You can download it in iTunes here.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He prunes any of my branches that don’t produce…”
Who are we kidding? This just doesn’t work.
As a message, as a teaching- a sermon- Jesus goes about this all wrong.
It’s all bass-akwards.
Sure, Jesus had a big heart for the least, the lost, the left behind. Sure, Jesus could suffer for my sin. Yes, that whole swallowing up Death in Victory feat is pretty impressive, but take me from an expert: as a preacher, Jesus doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Far be it from me to brag (pause for laughter) but when I was in graduate school, I worked as the teaching assistant for Dr. Cleophus Larue, Princeton’s Professor of Homiletics (as in, Preaching).
Dr Laure is a famous black preacher himself, and, I don’t like to toot my horn, but let’s just say renown professors of the homiletical arts seldom select their worst students to be their assistants.
So, I know of what I speak and I’ve got the resume to prove it. I know what makes for a good sermon and this just doesn’t work.
I know a good sermon should pick at and prod against and pull on the tension in the text or in the room, teasing out the MAIN IDEA only at the very end.
I know that preaching isn’t just talking and it’s not the same as lecturing. I know that for a good sermon the rhetorical form of the sermon should match the form of the scripture text.
And I know that for a sermon to be good, for the word to be a living word, then the preacher’s words have to land on target:
The sermon has to be written for the ear not the eye.
The verbs have to be active.
The imagery has to be relevant and compelling.
You have to convey with the idioms of the day.
You have to meet your listeners where they’re at, where they’re coming, appeal to their self-interest.
You have to excite their passions and answer their questions and, for God’s sake, first rule of all:
you’ve got to do it in 20 minutes or less.
Because people get hungry.
I got the grades to prove it. I know what makes for a good sermon.
I used to edit students’ sermon manuscripts, and I can tell you if I took a red pen to this sermon then you would think Jesus preached this on Calvary instead of in the Upper Room.
All of which is to say that this is textbook wrong, or at least you could say…this just doesn’t work.
Savior of the world maybe.
Good preacher no.
He starts off promising, despite how the rest of it goes.
Jesus begins the sermon with an illustration, actually more like a piece of performance art.
Jesus takes off his robe and ties it around his waist like a slave. Jesus rolls up his sleeves, and Jesus stoops down on his knees.
And like a slave, the savior washes his listeners’ filthy feet.
One at a time he does what no Messiah would ever do and only a servant ever would.
He washes their feet!(?)
The congregation- they have no idea what he’s doing.
They’re hanging on every word he doesn’t say.
It’s a brilliant counter-intuitive way to begin a sermon.
And when Jesus finishes and stands up and puts his robe back on, he keeps it short and sweet: ‘Just as I have washed your feet…wash one another’s feet.’
Bam- his words match the ritual action. What they hear echoes what they’ve just seen.
It’s visual. It’s memorable. And the takeaway can fit onto a bumper sticker: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’
Jesus starts off with A plus promise. If he’d only stopped there.
But then Jesus commits the first mistake of preaching: he just keeps preaching. He rambles on and on about betrayal and his Father’s House and Comforter coming.
He preaches so long you forget this teaching started with a street theater grabber like the foot-washing.
What’s worse- Jesus then makes the kind of promise that NO preacher should ever make, a Dennis Perry kind of preaching promise.
Jesus says in his sermon: ‘I won’t say much more to you…’(14.30).
Jesus promises he’s almost done preaching and then what does he do? He keeps on preaching.
By my count, Jesus preaches for another 2,040 words, longer than this sermon will end up being, which makes this the only basis on which you could ever argue that Jesus was a Baptist.
I mean- just because he died for us doesn’t mean we can’t be critical right? 🙂
Even if you just take this sermon within the sermon in John 15, it doesn’t work. Jesus just comes out with his main idea right away: ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper.’
It’s like giving away the punchline before you’ve told the joke.
Sure, Jesus doesn’t have as much experience as, say…me, but even Jesus should know that if you begin where you should end you’ve got no where to go.
So it’s no wonder he just repeats himself over and over again.
But it’s not just the mechanics of the sermon Jesus screws up, it’s the substance.
Preaching, as one with a Master of Divinity degree knows, is a proclamation of the Gospel.
Preaching is the announcement of the unconditional promise that nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Apparently Jesus skipped Preaching 101 though because his sermon- if you can even call it a sermon- is loaded down with very conditional-sounding if/then statements that all run in the wrong direction:
‘If you remain in me, then I will remain in you.’
‘If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit.’
‘If you don’t remain in me, then you will be thrown away.’
‘If you keep my commands, then you will remain in my love.’
‘If you do what I’ve commanded, then you will be my friends.’
Even a C minus, tone-deaf rookie preacher should know that when you make conditional if/then statements the listeners can’t help but then ponder the alternatives:
‘If you don’t remain in me, then I will not remain in you.’
‘If you do not remain in me, then you will produce no fruit.’
‘If you don’t keep my commands, then you will not remain in my love nor will you by friends.’
And then it’s no time before your listeners aren’t even listing to you anymore. Now they’re listening to that voice inside their heads, the one reminding them of each and every instance in which they did not keep his commands.
It’s no time after that that your sermon- if you can even call it a sermon- starts to sound like something other than Gospel. Good news.
To make matters worse, Jesus takes his most vivid, arresting, attention-grabbing language and he applies it to the wrong people.
He shoots at the wrong target.
All those metaphors or pruning and throwing away and burning up in fire- that’s the stuff of good, visceral, brimstone preaching.
But Jesus uses it against the wrong people.
It’s just basic, elementary rhetoric.
That kind of rabble-rousing language should be aimed against OUTSIDERS.
Every good preacher knows you use those kinds of metaphors to draw a line between us and them. It’s the oldest sermon trick in the book. The quickest way to unite a crowd, to inspire an audience, to mobilize everyone there listening to you is to demonize those who are not there.
Every good preacher knows the surest way to create an ‘us’ is to label a ‘them.’ And to heap hot, heavy language on them like Pruning Off, Throwing Away and Burning Up.
But Jesus takes that language and he turns it in the wrong direction. He turns it towards you.
And he says: ‘If you don’t remain in me. you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up and thrown into a fire…’
What’s he doing?!
It’s a bold, stupid and probably counter-productive move. I would never dare tell my listeners that God might prune them off, throw them away and burn them up.
Jesus is breaking the unspoken rule of all preaching:
You have to suck up to your listeners and manipulate them into liking you.
Far be it from me to toot my own horn, but I think we can all agree that, as a preacher, Jesus could benefit from some pointers from yours truly.
Or, if not from me then certainly we can agree that Christ could use some coaching from the greatest of all spiritual teachers…Oprah Winfrey.
Just the other day, I was working at the Starbucks in Kingstowne, slamming back Americanos while I studied Jesus’ preaching here in John 15.
And then I noticed these cardboard-sleeve ‘sermons’ staring me right in the face:
“Follow your passion. It will lead to your purpose.”
“The only courage you ever need is the courage to live the life you want.”
“Your life is big. Keep reaching.”
And then my personal fav:
“Love from the heart of yourself. Seek to be whole, not perfect.”
Take it from a Dean’s List someone who knows: these are great, textbook sermons. They’re brief and to the point. They’re memorable and spoken in the language of our culture and they literally meet us where we’re at.
And they appeal in an unconditional, unambiguous way to our greatest passion: ourselves.
These cardboard-sleeve sermons are all about my freedom to be unique. To be special. To be fulfilled. To be the star of the movie entitled ‘Me’ which at the director’s discretion (ME) may or may not include a (minor) supporting cast.
Oprah- I think she was wrong about The Kite Runner, but as a preacher she’s textbook.
And when you read her cardboard-sleeve sermons it becomes all the more apparent how Jesus’ preaching just doesn’t work.
Look at it again, his imagery falls flat.
Jesus is the vine, okay.
God the Father is the Gardener, fine.
Which leaves us to be…the branches?!
Just ask Oprah- it should be the other way.
It should be Jesus is the Soil and God is the Gardener, or God is the Soil and Jesus is the Gardener- fine, either will work.
But we should get to be the Plant and we should get to be whatever Plant We Want To Be bearing Whatever Kind of Fruit We Want God To Help Us Bear.
The way Jesus has it sucks. Branches?
Branches are all completely dependent on the plant. If that sounds good to you then fine for you, but that’s not who I want to be.
I want to follow my passion, discover my purpose. live the (big) life I want to live.
Instead of a branch that can do NOTHING apart from the plant, Jesus SHOULD promise that with him I can do ANYTHING I want, fulfill my desires, realize my dreams, achieve my goals.
Take it from an expert- that will preach. Every time.
For my sins, I’ll turn to Jesus, but for sermons I’ll take Oprah every time.
The problem with Jesus’ sermon here isn’t just the branch analogy that Jesus draws. The problem isn’t just that a branch is not the object of attention- unlike my self-image. The problem isn’t just that apart from the plant a branch is no better than firewood- again, contrary to my self-image.
No, the real problem with Jesus’ preaching, with his choice of metaphor, is the kind of plant of which we’re supposed to be branches: Vines.
Why not a tree? Or a friggin’ tomato plant?
Vines are tangled and messy, inefficient and not very attractive when you get right down to it.
Vines get so knotted together it’s hard to tell which is what- not really the kind of anonymity a narcissist like me prefers.
Vines gets so wrapped up together that every blemish and bare spot on every branch is visible to at least a few other branches- that isn’t cool.
The thing about vines- the branches get so twisted up with each other that when fruit does bloom it’s hard to tell which branch produced it.
And the thing about vines- the branches get so wound around each other that when fruit goes bad you can’t tell whose _________ stinks.
And the thing about vines, they’re as likely to choke and kill each other as they are to flower and bear fruit.
This is a terrible sermon, an awful choice of metaphors.
Even brown-nosing St. Paul gets it better when he chooses the analogy of the Body.
At least the hand and the ear keep a comfortable distance from each other.
“I am the vine and you are the branches.”
Take it from someone who knows: this is a terrible homiletical move.
Because, frankly, I don’t know if I want to get that to close to you, get that tangled up in you, so wrapped up in you that I can see your imperfections.
Or, to be more honest, I don’t know if I want you to get that close to me.
I’m the pastor for a reason.
I LIKE being able to stand up here at a distance.
I don’t know if I want you to get knotted enough up with me that you can see my prune marks and smell my stink.
John 15- this is a terrible sermon within a terrible, too-long sermon.
I know how to preach a better sermon.
Oprah can squeeze a better sermon onto a cardboard coozie.
Jesus’ sermon- it doesn’t work.
But that’s the thing, sermons aren’t everything.
As a preacher, as much as it kills me to admit, sermons aren’t everything. Or even much of anything.
Oprah might be able to deliver the pitch-perfect, culturally-determined message we’re hungry to hear.
But when your Mom or Dad dies, Oprah ain’t bringing you any chicken soup. You need a church.*
And when you lose your job or your child or when your spouse leaves you, Oprah isn’t showing up in your living room for coffee and a listening ear and a maybe a prayer. You need a church.
Oprah can tell you what books you should be reading, but she’s not going to show up and read at your hospital bedside. You need a church for that.
And when your _________ stinks- and it will- and when you’re deluded into thinking you’re the plant at the center of the earth basking in the well-deserved light Oprah is not going to show up and point out all your places to prune, notice your bare spots or exhort you to bear fruit for something greater than yourself.
She won’t do that. She won’t.
You need a church to do that.
You NEED a church for for that.
You do. You DO.
Because no one else, no where else will.
“I am the vine and the vine you are the branches.”
As one preacher to another, Jesus, take it from me: this is a terrible sermon.
But it just might be true.
*Paraphrase of a comment from Nadia Weber Bolz