(This sermon was titled “Dependence to Service” and coincided with Plainfield’s Big Serve:Change the World, a community-wide effort to serve through numerous projects. The scriptures were Isaiah 5:1-7 and John 15:1-8.)
The last time the lower 48 states experienced a total solar eclipse was February 26 of 1979. The path of totality, as it is called, crossed the Pacific northwest that Monday afternoon and then had its maximum totality in western Ontario at about five o’clock. A solar eclipse can be experienced within thousands of kilometers of the path of totality. I have fond memories of the ’79 eclipse. I was in fifth grade and remember how our classroom teacher, Miss Kappel, on whom I had a huge crush, prepared us for the experience by making pinhole projectors. The school also set up a telescope to project the image of the moon crossing the sun. I was utterly fascinated. Ever since then I have wanted to experience “totality.”
I am very excited because in two years, on August 21, 2017, which happens to be Eun-Hye’s 57th birthday, the lower 48 will experience its next total solar eclipse. The path of totality will enter the U.S. near Portland, Oregon, cross the entire country, and exit near Charleston, South Carolina. The point of maximum totality will be near Hopkinsville in western Kentucky at 6:22 pm and will last for two minutes and forty seconds.
There is a worldwide community of solar eclipse chasers. Upon their first experience many of them report a deep feeling of cosmic connection to the universe that may sound like a religious conversion, and they seek to relive that experience as often as they can. One such person is Australian Kate Russo, who is a professor of clinical psychology in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her first experience was in 1999 on the coast of France. She has written two books about experiencing total eclipses. In her first book Total Addiction: The Life of an Eclipse Chaser, she describes her first experience like this:
I felt connected with the crowd until the moment of totality and then I was so focused on what was happening within me that everything else melted away except me and the Universe. I think that is why I don’t remember details of the actual eclipse because I was taking it all in on a very physical level.
On her blog “Being in the Shadow,” she writes:
The eerie twilight that confuses birds and other animals and, at times, humans, is like no other experience you have ever had. It is impossible to be a passive observer. You do not simply see a total eclipse. You experience it. You are immersed in it. You are completely overwhelmed by it. Many people say that the experience of totality changes their lives.
While not invoking religious belief, Russo’s descriptions of what she feels during totality are intimately religious in nature. She uses the word “connection” to describe her feelings. Other words to describe the totality experience are “oneness” with and a grand sense of “dependence” on the Universe.
About 200 years ago the German grandfather of modern theology Friedrich Schleiermacher described the essence of Christian faith as a state of mind he called the “feeling of absolute dependence,” or depending on the translator, the “absolute feeling of dependence.” Instead of grounding Christian faith in scriptures, creeds and doctrines, or institutional authority, Schleiermacher grounded Christian faith in our innate human feeling of being finite. For Schleiermacher this absolute feeling of dependence was the starting point for everything we know and experience. Before we can say anything about “God,” we exist as finite creatures with a beginning and an end, with extremely limited extension in space, as completely dependent on our surroundings and people to meet our biological and social needs.
“The essence of religion consists in the feeling of an absolute dependence.” – Friedrich Schleiermacher
We are dependent on Jesus, and Jesus is dependent on the Father. Jesus said that God the Father “removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit … Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” The fruit, of course, is the thing that leads to reproducing to whole organism. The work of the vinegrower is to prune the branches producing fruit so they can be more fruitful and to remove non-fruit producing branches, presumably to make room for new branches to grow.
Be careful not to read into this metaphor condemnation to hell of non-fruit producing branches. For several reasons, perhaps the subject for another sermon, this metaphor probably has nothing to do with our medieval concept of eternal judgment and hell fire. Jesus probably did not intend his hearers to see themselves as individual, discrete branches in the metaphor. Branches on a vine are pretty much all the same, unlike branches on a tree. The vine supplies all of the branches, and Jesus said, “I am the vine,” but what is the fruit? In Isaiah’s vine metaphor, the people of Israel are the fruit, but the fruit turns out to be “wild grapes.” The result is that God removes the protection around the vineyard and allows for it to be overrun and commands the clouds not to rain on it. In Isaiah it is clear that God has a grander purpose for the whole vineyard, even if he needs to start over with it, than with any individual branch.
I am reminded of Paul’s metaphor of the olive tree in Romans 11:17-18: “But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot [i.e. we Gentiles], were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.” Similarly, Jesus talked about the overall purpose of the vineyard, to produce fruit, which necessarily entails the waste of non-producing branches. So, what is the fruit in Jesus’s vine metaphor?
The fruit could be new converts, doing good works, or living a virtuous life. The most direct way to think about the fruit is revealed in the verses that follow in John 15. The fruit is love. Scholars offer several answers to what the fruit is, but the clear thing is that dependence on God in Jesus Christ comes before fruit-bearing.
Just like it is difficult for Kate Russo the eclipse chaser to explain to someone who has not experienced totality the sublime emotions and experience that can accompany being in the presence of the totality, it is difficult to explain to someone who is not currently “abiding,” that is, “depending” on God in Jesus Christ what it is like to depend on God. You just have to have the experience. And there’s the catch. If the feeling of absolute dependence just is, then how do we allow ourselves to be cultivated by God to live distinctly Christian lives out of the feeling of absolute dependence?
Kate Russo provides a good example:
- Recognize and grapple with your experience.
- Seek to be renewed.
- Remain passionate.
- Tell others.
When we do these things in our faith, God prunes us and makes us more fruitful. How does God do that? One way is that God cultivates and prunes us through acts of service. In this understanding, we do not do acts of service as an end in themselves, as the fruit of our lives, but rather serving is the manifestation of God working in our lives. This perspective turns the conventional understanding of serving on its head. Conventionally, we may think there are people out there who need help, therefore we help them; transaction complete. Through what we might call the “abide-dependence” view of service we see ourselves as the ones who need help because we are completely dependent on God in Jesus Christ, the Vinegrower and the Vine, for our very existence, therefore we allow God to work through us, to strengthen us, to connect us more deeply to other branches in the vineyard; we serve because God is serving and supply us.
This morning we celebrate communion, which is, in a way, like the brief experience of totality in a solar eclipse. We remember and experience the totality of Jesus’s life in his teachings, death, and resurrection. The effect of a total solar eclipse on us is tremendous because the sun is always there, even when our side of the earth is turned away from it, but when it is blocked completely by the moon we come to appreciate deeply the cosmic relationship between us, the sun, and the moon, and, indeed, the whole of the heavens. Similarly, the cross on Good Friday and the death of Jesus blocks out the very source of our dependence, God in Jesus Christ … and then there is the resurrection!
What should be the impact on our lives? I suggest we can appropriate Kate Russo’s words about eclipse chasers to our lives as Christians:
- “Elipse chasers prioritised spending on experiences rather than tangible items.”
- “Eclipse chasers made choices that allowed them to live with passion.”
- “Eclipse chasers expressed gratitude in their lives and felt they were lucky in life.”
Kate also writes: “Did you know – the word ‘passion’ comes from the Greek word ‘pathos’ meaning ‘to suffer’, and expresses an intense desire or compulsion, or unusual enthusiasm for an object, event, person, or thing.”
Can we be like that as Christians? Prioritize experiences, like serving, over tangible items? Live with passion for God in Jesus Christ? Express gratitude in our lives and “feel lucky,” or, as we would say, “feel blessed?”
If being an eclipse chaser can do that to people, then surely the Son of God can do that for us. That is truly the fruit Jesus seeks to grow in us.