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Learning from the Legends: Thomas Merton Teaches Us Contemplation

John 15.1-8

Let me acknowledge up front this morning that I am not a gardener.  I choose plants for our yard based on the lack of care needed for them to grow.  So, when I say that I have rose bushes  in our front yard, understand that these are not carefully cultivated specimens of exotic varieties.  These are knock-out roses that I bought at Aldi.

That said, every once and a while, I have to do a little something with these roses.  They deadhead themselves, but occasionally they will get suckers. Perhaps you know the pain. You may not know that suckers are these side branches that grow off the plant.  The main trunk of the bush grows up from the roots in the ground, and then the branches come off of that main trunk, and of course, that is where the roses grow.  But then, there are these side branches, called suckers, which shoot right out of the side of the root. They take off in a different direction entirely.  And they don’t ever have roses on them, only leaves.  And basically, all they do is sap the nutrients from the main plant and accomplish nothing.  They bear no fruit.  The only thing to do with them is to cut them back as soon as you notice them, and hope they don’t cause too much trouble.

By now, you’ve figured out where I am going with this.  Jesus in John 15 demonstrates that – like your pastor – he is not a gardeners, but he knows enough about it to make an important point.  John 15 is a well-known passage sometimes called the “true vine,” probably better translated the “real” or “authentic” vine.  According to the metaphor, Jesus sees himself as the branch, the trunk, the source vine.  And then off of that vine come the various branches that all grow layer upon layer over each other.  It is off of these branches that the fruit comes.  Most likely grapes in Jesus context…yellow knockout roses in mine.  A beautiful picture, isn’t it?

But then comes the bad news.  There are, in this metaphor, those bad branches.  Branches that don’t provide any fruit.  Suckers.  According to Jesus and his metaphor, this is where the Father comes in, as the gardener, and prunes these branches away.  Just like those suckers, the Gardener takes them off of the plant so that they are not siphoning away the nutrients from the branches doing the work.

Jesus’ point?  Watch out for suckers.  Watch out for those things in your life that pull away your attention and your energy from the real and authentic things of God.  The way of love.  The way of service.  The way of sacrifice. The way of humility.

This Lent, it is a helpful reminder. For it is this time of year that we most fully ask ourselves, “where are the suckers in our lives and in our hearts?” What if you did that this week? What if you sat down and made a “Sucker List”: what are the things that distract you from your walk with God?  Each one of us would have a different list, and so I won’t begin to suggest your suckers.

 

But I will share a quote from Ed Stetzer that is illustrative here.  A few months ago, I was listening to a news report on the radio and they were interviewing Ed Stetzer, an evangelical leader and voice.  He’s the head of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois. He was talking about his fellow evangelicals and politics, and he said something that made me pull over in the middle of the road to write it down.  He said, “a lot of people are being discipled – or spiritually shaped – by their cable news choice.”  And I thought it was brilliant and equally indicting regardless of your political persuasion.  Rachel Maddow or Tucker Carlson.  What or who is discipling you?  What is spiritually shaping you?  What is the list of things that distracts you from the Real Vine of Christ?  Maybe it is your cable news choice.  Or maybe it is something else from the world of entertainment or sports or social media or Netflix or one of a thousand other distractions.  What is truly discipling you?  How are you being spiritually shaped, and is it the thing that you want to have spiritually shaping you?

 

That is the question that we must ask ourselves at Lent.

And that is the question that Jesus asked his disciples. “How close to the Vine are you?”  You see, Jesus knew what was coming.  He shared these words literally hours before he was arrested and taken to be crucified.  He knew what awaited the disciples – both in the days surrounding the crucifixion and the oppression following the Resurrection.  Jesus knew the rest of their lives would be lives of suffering and pain.

He knew that there was only one way to make it through: “Abide in me.”  Jesus mentions this verb “abide” seven times in these eight verses. The original Greek word is meno, and has this host of meanings: “stay in place” or “remain” or “endure” or “hold out.”  It explicitly names our connection that we need to have with Jesus as the authentic vine.  The word abide makes a distinction between separation and connection.  Abide in me. Make sure you are connected to the Vine.  Watch out for suckers.

Jesus knew that this is what they would need to make it through the suffering that lay ahead.  He knew that in order for them to bear fruit, they would need to stick close to the Vine.  The suckers – the parts of them that shot off on their own, did their own thing, and distracted from the faith – would only cause destruction to themselves and to the community.

And, of course, the good news for the disciples is the good news for us, as well.  Abide in me.  Instead of being discipled by those things our list, Jesus must be that which forms us, grows us, changes us.  Back last summer, the worship leadership sat down and talked through themes and series for the year, and one of their ideas was to sit at the feet of the Masters.  Those who have taught over generations what spiritual practice and discipline look like.  So over these weeks of Lent, we will look to those who have taught us what it looks like to practice this “abiding.”  This morning, we turn toward a fairly recent teacher: Thomas Merton.

Thomas Merton was born in France in 1915.  His was a hard childhood: his mother died when he was six and his father was a travelling artist who would go on trips and leave young Thomas at home alone.  Thomas was fifteen when his father died as well, and he spent the next decade lost and wandering.  In his mid-20’s he had landed at Columbia University and had a profound experience with God through the Catholic Church. At 26 he joined Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky where he spent the rest of his life as a Trappist monk.

Merton became known as a deeply spiritual man and wrote about his experiences in both theological and autobiographic ways.  He became a student and teacher of the practice of contemplation.  From his life of wandering and chaos, he found in this practice a way of centering.  For him, contemplation became a way to motivate and inform his life of action and fight for justice in the world.  He wrote a book for his fellow monks called simply Contemplative Prayer, in which he shared some amazing wisdom about how to engage in this practice of what the Gospel writer calls “Abiding” in Jesus.

The life of contemplation is one of carving out space to listen and to pray.  Now, maybe you are thinking, “that’s all well and good…FOR A MONK…but have you seen my life?  Have you seen how busy I am? I don’t have time to sit in a cell somewhere and pray for hours and hours on end!”  But here is where the master teaches us with a bit of surprising wisdom.  Merton was a monk, but even HE didn’t sit in a cell all the time and pray in silence.  For Merton, contemplation was something that happened in the midst of life.  A waking or seeing God in the midst of life around us.  So for Merton, contemplation happens in the midst of life.  It is intentional, but it is more about receiving through the senses than searching the inner mind and soul.  He writes of infused contemplation to describe this receiving.  He writes, “meditation has no point unless it is firmly rooted in life.”

So, maybe contemplation isn’t that far away.  No, we don’t have time to sit for hours and contemplate God.  But perhaps we can meditate, abide in God’s love in the life we lead.  What if we made a second list, an Abiding list?  Things that we can do to bring us closer to God this Lent? What if we made a point to sit and listen to music for a half hour a day, thanking God for the gift of music?  Or read a chapter from the Gospels every day, slowly, contemplatively?  Or do like Merton did and go walk around the park with your camera for an hour, seeing and receiving the presence of God?  You may think you have time for some of those things, either, but perhaps if you go back to your “sucker list” and cross off something, you’ll find you had more time than you realized.  And thus, through Lent, you are moving away from one list and toward another.  Away from the suckers that distract and toward the things that connect you to God.

So, contemplation for Merton is not a life lived in the four walls of a cell, but instead lived in the world, but not discipled by the world.  The distinction is subtle.  Like the branches of Jesus’ metaphor, we are to stretch out and into the world around us.  Yet, we cannot ever lose our connection to the vine.  We must spend time in the world, but see it through the eyes of the Creator.

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”

May that be our calling and our hope this season and in the seasons ahead.

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