Toiling in the Vineyard

We live in an age of Internet abbreviations where LOL means “laugh out loud” and YOLO means “you only live once” and AFGE means, “another spiritual growth experience” or so I am told, although, why the letter F is used to represent the word “spiritual” is unclear to me.  Maybe someone can explain it to me after the service today.

Until then, I want to speak about spiritual growth and the way it tends to happen to us over and over again often against our will. In the Unitarian Universalist Church we believe in creating congregations were we practice acceptance of one another and encourage each other’s spiritual growth. But how is a Unitarian Universalist Church’s approach to spiritual growth different from the approach taken by many of the other world’s religions? That is what I want to focus on today. How we as a congregation can work together to help facilitate spiritual growth.

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we believe in religious freedom. However, when I was a Director of Religious Education here in the 1990’s I would sometimes find myself in the position of saying to a child, “Yes, we believe people should be free to think for themselves. Yes, we believe people should be free to explore on their own. Yes, we believe people should be willing to question authority –but- you still have to come down from the roof.” In the Unitarian Universalist Church we believe in the free and responsible search for truth and meaning while maintaining a safe and nurturing environment for everyone.

One metaphor for our approach to spiritual growth can be found here in the mountains of East Tennessee. If you go hiking on the Grapeyard Ridge Trail in the Smokies you will see a lot of grape vines hanging from trees on both sides of the trail but you will not see any grapes because grapes need structure in order to grow.

Of course, there are also a lot of vineyards springing up in East Tennessee and if you go to one of them you will discover grapes are growing in abundance. Over 30 varieties of grapes grow in Tennessee – but- you will not find any of these grapes on the Grapeyard Ridge Trail (even though grape is in the name of the trail) because where there is no structure and there is no growth.

When Jesus was asked to described the difference between a true prophet and a false prophet he said, “It is by their fruits you shall know them.” And the apostle Paul followed up by saying, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

I think the pairing of these two teachings offers us insights because they suggest that the goal of religion is not about producing good doctrine or good dogma or good creeds or good theological treatises. The goal of religion is to bear good fruit. The goal is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and other fruits of the spirit.

When I was on sabbatical I went to visit my daughter Sally in France and we went on a bike trip that began in Bordeaux, a region known for its vineyards. One of our first stops was La Cité du Vin, a wine museum filled with interactive exhibits, multimedia presentations, hologram projections engaging all the senses – sight, sound, taste, touch and smell where we hoped to learn more about vineyards and the production of wine.

I want to be honest with you, when I went to this wine museum I wasn’t looking for an idea for a sermon. I was thinking more about the tasting room at the end of the tour. However, once I got inside I discovered how prevalent vineyard imagery is in so many of the world’s religions and mythologies. Indeed by the time I finished the tour I had a whole page full of sermon ideas.

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One idea that I took away from that museum is the realization that there is not just one structure that helps grapes to grow. There are over 50 different kinds of structures that help grapes reach their full potential. Similarly, when it comes to spiritual growth one size does not fit all. We need a variety of different structures that help people grow. And here is where the UU approach is different – we welcome that variety. We do not try to make one size fit all.

We live in an age where many people like to say, “I am spiritual but not religious.” However one way to think about it is to say, “Spirituality is about our inner life and religion is about the outward structure that helps us to grow.” Through coming to Sunday services, participating in religious education classes, engaging in deeper conversations, learning from the great wisdom traditions of the world, singing hymns, receiving pastoral care, offering a listening ear, donating to good causes, volunteering to serve in the church and the community, by all these things and more, we are giving our lives the structure that helps us grow.

One size isn’t for everyone. Some of us are Tai Chi people, some of us into yoga or contemplative prayer or meditation or a walking in the woods.

The outward structure is meant to facilitate our inner life; that inner life that sounds along the ages, “From Sinai’s cliffs it echoed, it breathed from Buddha’s tree, it charmed the Athen’s market, it hallowed Galilee,” that inner life that flows through all things and all people, that inner life that declares, “I am the vine, you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you then you will bear much fruit.” That’s the voice of the inner life. That’s the voice of what Quakers call the inward teacher.

One of my favorite spiritual writers is the Quaker mystic Rufus Jones, who was the first chair of the American Friends Service Committee, the only denominational service committee to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize. Rufus Jones was a social activist and a peace activist par excellence. He was also a deeply grounded spiritual person. He spoke to how spiritual growth is a continual theme of the Bible when he wrote, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not. They spin not. They let the forces of life operate…that further growth…A good many persons expect the Kingdom of God to come…suddenly from the sky, but Jesus said that it would come like the growth of a tiny seed…like a mustard seed…like yeast. You start with a tiny germ of life and the growth is sure to follow; first the blade, then the stalk, then the ear. It grows the farmer knows not how. It is a mystery, but not a miracle, for life at every level is a normal process.” His words suggest that like a tree planted by the water we are called to grow. Like a vine that produces branches that bear fruit we are called to grow.

The rock star Bob Geldof organized the Live Aid and Live 8 concerts to help fight world hunger but he is not a particularly religious person. He once said of his younger days, “I was a quarter Catholic, a quarter Protestant, a quarter Jewish and a quarter nothing – the nothing won.” When he was a young adult he was an atheist, even so, he decided to volunteer in a church soup kitchen feeding the homeless. Why did he do this? I suspect it was because even though he was not religious, he sensed that volunteering in a church soup kitchen would help him grow – in his case from a young man with a conscience to a global leader on social justice issues. We do not have to be particularly religious in order to benefit from the structures of religion that can help us grow.

Dolores Huertas got her start as a social activist organizing grape workers in California with Cesar Chavez in the 60’s. She wanted to make sure that those who harvested the grapes were compensated fairly and treated justly. I saw Huertas speak at the Children’s Defense Fund Conference at the Alex Haley Farm a summer ago. She often works with religious organizations that are committed to social change in part because religious organizations are dedicated to spiritual growth. She argues that it is absolutely essential that we see the potential in every person because “Every moment is an organizing opportunity, every person a potential activist, every minute a chance to change the world.”

There was an old bumper sticker for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee that reads, “Plant Justice, Harvest Peace.” The scripture tells us, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few,” so “Let us no grow weary in doing good for at the proper time we will reap a harvest, if we do not give up.”

I was once meeting with a clergy group where one minister seemed to want to give up. This minister was complaining that our denomination’s headquarters in Boston does not always see and appreciate the work that ministers do on the local level. “Yes,” my friend the Reverend Jennifer Slade replied, “The UUA does not always see the work of those of us who are toiling in the vineyard.” Of course, ministers are not the only ones who toil in the vineyard, all of us do important work that goes unrecognized and unappreciated.

The parable about workers in the vineyard, that we read earlier, captures this paradox perfectly, all the workers in that parable got paid the same wage even though they did different amounts of work, economically this seems unfair, but I think the parable is not about the work we do for economic reasons. I think the parable of the workers in the vineyard is about the work we do because love compels us to do it. It is about the work that is it’s own reward. Much of the work of the church is this kind of work. Without this kind of work the doors of the church would close like the Walmart down the street or most of the businesses on Cumberland Avenue or the East Towne Mall or Saint Mary’s Hospital or Sears or K-mart or Toys R Us or so many other businesses that have gone belly up in the last decade. Our church survives in an age when so many others are going out of business because we foster a willingness to do this work. Our church survives and thrives because of our willingness to toil in the vineyard.

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However, our work in the vineyard requires structure. And one of the reasons we need structure is because there is often a part of us that resists growth. Birth is a painful. Growth is painful. Most of us don’t like to do painful things.

Young people have created a new word -adulting. When we are being more responsible than we want to be we are “adulting.” I think it is a word that is useful for people of every age. I, for one, feel like every day I am growing to be more and more of an adult largely against my will. I had a professor in seminary who said that we need the church to call us to be more loving than we want to be, more forgiving than we want to be, more compassionate than we want to be, more generous than we want to be, more open-minded than we want to be, more outspoken for justice and peace than we want to be.

Today we are living in a time when people are beating their plowshares into swords and using their religion as a weapon for war. However in this church I will continue to insist as long as I have breath that religion must always be an instrument of peace. My friends, I do not claim to know what the future holds but I suspect in the days ahead we are in for an AFGE – another spiritual growth experience.

However, in these troubled times we can seek guidance from the world’s religions that helps us grow. As the Tao te Ching, the ancient scriptures of China, tell us, “At birth we are soft and yield, when we die we are hard and stiff. All green plants are soft and yielding. At death they are brittle and dry. When we are hard and rigid we consort with death. When we are soft and flexible, we affirm greater life.” We are called to growth. We are called to life.

Spiritual growth can be painful, however, if we do our work right, if we provide the right structure, then one of the fruits of the spirit is peace. If we align our inner life with our outward world we can toil in the vineyard for the day when everyone ‘neath their vine and fig tree shall live in peace and unafraid, and into plowshares turn our swords, nations shall learn war no more. But until that day arrives there will be discouraging moments, painful setbacks so it would be best to continually prepare ourselves, everyday, for yet another spiritual growth experience.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, January 12, 2019)

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