Friday, May 12, 2006

Sermon: "Reflections on Becoming a Grape" (Delivered 8-15-2004)

[I delivered this sermon on 8/15/2004, my 27th Birthday. A month earlier I had visited with my friend, colleague, and one-time pastor Rev. Tim Jensen who serves the First Unitarian Society in Carlisle, MA. Tim had asked me how my first year in the ministry had gone. Then he asked me what I was reading. The darnedest things, I answered: Ben Mezrich’s book about Princeton grads trading on the Asian stock-markets, Michael Lewis’ book about the founder of Netscape, and I had even thumbed through a copy of the Harvard Business Review. “Ah,” Tim responded, “Uva uvam vivendo varia fit.” He then recommended I read Lonesome Dove and told me the same stuff about it that I say about it in the first third of the sermon below. Become a grape and the grape changes… thank you, Tim! This sermon is dedicated to your wisdom and support.]


“I am now 33 years old, and it feels like much time has passed and is passing faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting now to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful. But since it’s my own choices that’ll lock me in, it seems unavoidable – if I want to be any kind of grownup, I have to make choices and regret foreclosures and try to live with them.” – David Foster Wallace


“Uva uvam vivendo varia fit.” Actually, this Latin saying does not come from Cicero, or from Virgil, or from Dante. However, if you guessed that the phrase comes from the great cowboy-Western novel Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, you’d be correct. In the novel, the Latin saying is found on an old weathered sign in front of a South Texas ranch, that reads, “Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium, For sale cattle and horses, for rent horses and rigs, goats and donkeys neither bought nor sold, we don’t rent pigs, Uva uvam vivendo varia fit.”

Not that the novel is any help translating this saying. According to the story, one of the protagonists, Augustus McCrae, while serving as a ranger carried with him on the trail a Latin primer. The primer turned out to be quite a bit more useful at starting campfires than it was at teaching Latin, and McCrae was soon left with only an appendix of Latin sayings, un-translated, and indecipherable. “Uva uvam vivendo varia fit” was chosen because it was the most handsome looking saying.

Incidentally, this caused some consternation back at the ranch when McCrae’s partner discovered that he didn’t have the slightest idea what the Latin saying meant. As the dialogue between the two partners goes,

"I don't see why you had to put them greek words on there"
"By God Woodrow, I've told you before, it ain't GREEK, it's LATIN."
"What's it say then?"
"It's a motto, it says itself..."
"You ain't got any idea what it says! Heck, for all you know it could be an invitation for people to rob us!"
"As far as I'm concerned any man who can read Latin is welcome to rob us. I'd like the chance to shoot at an educated man for once in my life."

Now, I am not going to be spending the entirety of this morning rehashing the plot line of Lonesome Dove. But I do want to use this obscure Latin saying as a kind of jumping off point for my return to the pulpit this morning. Fortunately for me, as a Latin saying goes, “Uva uvam vivendo varia fit” is complete grammatical nonsense, which means I am more or less free to decide on whatever meaning I want it have.

The words which I am going to play around with are these, “uva uvam vivendo varia fit” which essentially mean as follows, “grape grape living changing becoming.” And I am going to suggest that there are some meanings I can tease out from these words, meanings that have to do with what it means to be a religious community together, and perhaps even some deeper meanings as well. So, these are my reflections on becoming a grape.

Here’s one translation: “Uva uvam vivendo varia fit. A grape ripens when it sees another grape.” Or, translated another way, “When a grape is in the presence of other grapes, wine is made.” In other words, this is an affirmation of community. It is the aphoristic opposite of, “one rotten apple spoils the batch”; it says the influence of others upon us is enriching, is beneficial, is good for us. A grape ripens, matures, its finer qualities are drawn out from it, become manifest and evident, when it sees another grape. This is an affirmation of the transformational nature of community. I want you to say it with me: “A grape ripens when it sees another grape.”

Now, I want you to turn towards your neighbor. Not the person you came to church with. I want you to turn towards somebody you don’t know too well who is sitting near you. And I want you to say to one another something like this, “A grape ripens when it sees another grape. I can learn something from you. Your being here affects me.”

Did you really believe it when you said it? I have to tell you. There are probably some here who are ambivalent about this idea that a grape ripens in the presence of other grapes. There is perhaps a tension between the individual and the community, the solitary and the corporate. Do grapes in the presence of other grapes produce fine wine, or fine whining? Or, put another way, how is truth found – by oneself or with the influence of others? I actually think it is a little bit of both. The great thinker about Faith Development James Fowler suggests that the process of faith development, of spiritual growth, includes periods of inner reflection, self-examination, and individualized expression AND community participation, identification with others, and association with a group. Fowler argues that there are aspects of human development, events that cause our faith to deepen that are impossible without the encounter with others in community. Turn again to your neighbors: “I am grateful for the opportunity to encounter you.”

There is a second translation: “Uva uvam vivendo varia fit. The changing vine becomes the living vine.” This aphorism is true. It speaks to one of the inherent realities of human living, an inherent reality affirmed time and time again by liberal religion: That life involves flux and change. That revelation is not sealed and that there is still more light to break forth in the world. That tomorrow will be different from today and that we should look forward to tomorrow. The changing vine becomes the living vine. Uva uvam vivendo varia fit.

I think that this principle is affirmed in the wonderful poem by Carl Dennis, in which he describes that our soul exerts a force in our life as strong and as imperceptible as the moon’s force upon the ocean.

Now I’m ready to posit a tug
Or nudge from the soul. Some insight
Too important to be put off till morning
Might have been mine if I’d opened myself
To the occasion as now I do.

Here’s a chance for the soul to fit its truth
To a world of yards, moons, poplars, and starlings,
To resist the fear that to talk my language
Means to be shoehorned into my perspective
Till it thinks as I do, narrowly.

“Be brave, Soul,” I want to say to encourage it.
“Your student, however slow, is willing,
The only student you’ll ever have.”

The church and our lives are opportunities for transformation, where our ideas and our habits don’t petrify, calcify, fossilize, but where like the green growing vine we are constantly putting out tendrils that grasp in shadiness upwards towards light and life.

Now a few minutes ago I had you all turn towards your neighbors and declare to your neighbors that you were glad and grateful for the opportunity to encounter them. I was wondering what action I could request that you do in order to symbolize this translation, this meaning. I was thinking of, but quickly and wisely scrapped the idea of something along the lines of interpretive dance where I asked you to embody the motion of a living vine. (Relax folks; it’s a joke.) So, I decided that sometimes for some of us it is easier to speak words of affirmation and acceptance to other people and that sometimes some of us have a much harder time speaking words of affirmation and encouragement to ourselves. So taking a cue from Carl Dennis’ poem I invite you to turn towards yourselves and say these words of encouragement to yourselves: “Now I’m ready to posit a tug or nudge from the soul.” Ready? “Now I’m ready to posit a tug or nudge from my soul.”

A grape in the presence of other grapes makes fine wine. We should be grateful for the opportunity to be transformed by the encounter with others in community. The changing vine becomes the living vine. There is an invisible but real pull on us towards change and life.

But there is a third translation to the Latin saying. It is probably the most incorrect of the translations, but it is also the most Zen and also my most favorite. “Uva uvam vivendo varia fit. Become a grape, and the grape changes.” A little paradoxical ain’t it.

So even though this translation is probably the least accurate, it may have the truest meaning. In the novel Lonesome Dove, we encounter the two protagonists going through something of a late-onset mid-life crisis. They had set off fixin’ to settle the wilderness. They had dreamt of civilizing the frontier. And like any good pair of heroes, they had been remarkably successful. They hung all the horse thieves and defeated all the desperados. And having done this, having fulfilled their ambition and realized their goals, having civilized the frontier, they were faced with… well, they were faced with a civilized frontier that was not nearly as interesting now that there were no horse thieves left to hang or desperados to drive off.

There is an old-saying that a congregation would be well to ask what happened in the minister’s life this past week that made him decide to preach what he preaching. For me, this past week saw two related cognitive shifts take place. The first was the realization that this was the first time since I was seventeen that I had gone an entire year without packing up all of my possessions and moving them to a new living place, whether across town or across the country. This was actually somewhat of a relief. Four time-zone changes in five years is a lot. But it was a bit of realization… oh, so I don’t need to box up all my books, fill out a change of address form, or dig out that box that the stereo goes in.

The second realization was related to the first. “Wow,” I said, “I’m beginning my second year here at this church.” You see, for years and years it was my dream to be a minister, my dream to serve a church and now that dream is realized. Uva uvam vivendo varia fit. Become a grape, and the grape changes. I don’t mean this saying in any sort of “grass is greener” sort of way. I mean it only in the sense of a dream or desire fulfilled means a loss of one thing. In this way, a dream realized involves a dream lost. A longing fulfilled involves the end of longing. You chase something and catch it and you lose the chase. What do you do with a dream realized? And believe me, being the minister here at SMUUCh, fulfilling this dream is amazingly wonderful. A dream come true.Become a grape, and the grape changes.
Well, those are my reflections on becoming a grape.

NPR correspondent Bailey White tells this story (buy her book!) about deciding to plant a wildflower meadow:

“About six years ago, like so many romantic gardening fools, I fell for it: the wildflower meadow. I don’t know whether it was the pictures on the seed packets, or the vision I had of myself, dressed all in white, strolling through an endless vista of poppies and daisies.

“’A garden in a can,’ the seed catalogs said. The pictures showed a scene of rolling hills and dales, an area about the size of Georgia and Alabama combined, covered solid as far as the eye could see with billowing drifts of lupine and phlox.

“But I wasn’t born yesterday. I had been tricked by those pictures before. I come from down south, where vegetation does not know its place. I knew what Lady Bird Johnson was talking about when she gave the wildflower romantics a look and said, ‘You can’t just scatter the seeds around as if you were feeding chickens.’ Even the more responsible plant catalogs, in their offer of wildflower seed mixes for the various regions of the country admitted, ‘We have not been able to develop a mixture suitable for Zone 9.’ So I knew it wouldn’t be easy.

“But it’s hard to squash a romantic. I made a plan. I would prepare my ground, about a half acre, and plant the wildflowers in rows. I would keep the weeds out for five years, by cultivating between the rows with a push plow and a hoe, and weeding by hand within each row. By the end of those five years, I figured I would have eliminated any perennial weeds and weed seeds.

“Then the garden would be on its own. The wildflowers would spread, eventually taking up the spaces between the rows, and I would get out my white dress and begin my leisurely strolls.

“My garden’s first spring: the seeds arrived. I planted by hand. The rows, neatly set out with stakes and string, seemed endless. I crawled up and down and up and down every afternoon examining each seedling as it sprouted. My hands got hard and callused. They took on the curve of the hoe handle so that everywhere I went, I looked as if I were gripping a ghostly hoe.

“The first summer, my annual plants bloomed. The Coreopsis tinctoria was spectacular, a glowing red, and the cosmos was shoulder high. Its lavender petals brushed my face as I scritched and scritched up and down each row. I loved the sight of the clean brown earth stretching away from the blade of my hoe. On my hands and knees I weeded between plants. My knees ached, but the smell down there was nice, damp ground and bruised Artemisia. I developed a gardener’s stoop and a horticulturist’s squint.

“That first winter, I could relax only a little. Bermuda grass can establish itself during a winter and get away from you the following spring. So every evening at dusk, I would stalk up and down my garden like a demented wraith, peering at the ground for each loathed blue-green blade, my cloak billowing in the wind and my scarf snagging on the bare gray branches of last summer’s sunflowers.

“At night, I would lie in my bed under the quilt listening to the wind outside and pinching and sniffing the little bunches of sweet Annie I had harvested and dried in July. I dreamed of that summer, only four years away now, when the garden would be finished. My white dress would be linen, I decided.

“The second summer was very fine. Some of the annuals had reseeded, and the perennials and biennials bloomed for the first time. But I had a real problem with something called Old Horrible Snakeroot, one of the terrifying mints, creeping in around the edges. Every afternoon, dressed in a wide straw hat, big boots, and little else, and pouring sweat, I violently hoed the perimeter of my garden. I wore out my first hoe that year with sharpening the blade, and the handles of my Little Gem cultivator became as smooth as ivory.

“During the third and fourth years the rows began to close in. There were great irregular patches of gaillardia spanning several rows, with Queen Anne’s lace and moss verbena weaving themselves among clumps of black-eyed Susans

“When I stood up to ease my back and looked across the garden, I could see that it was truly as beautiful as the picture in the Park’s seed catalog. I wiped the sweat out of my eyes and washing my face in the watering can. My white linen dress would have lace.

“The fifth summer, I had to go to the doctor about my knees. ‘You’ve got to quit squatting down,’ he told me. ‘I can’t quit squatting down,’ I said. ‘I’ve got a garden.’ He sighed and gave me a pair of elastic bandages. I had a problem with thistles that year. The seeds must have blown in from somewhere. I wore gloves to pull them out, and every time I took out a thistle, I would transplant a wildflower in its place. Every one of the transplants thrived and multiplied, and by the end of that summer, there was not a spot of bare ground for a weed seed to settle in. My garden was complete. That winter I bought the linen and the lace and sewed my white dress.

“In March I went out to the garden. The linaria was the first thing to bloom. I knew it would be. I knew that a week later the verbena would show up, then the Shasta daisies and the gaillardia – a clump here, here, and here. In midsummer the Queen Anne’s lace would begin to bloom. I knew exactly how it would be. I knew the name of every plant. I could recognize each one even before it got its true leaves.

“I sighted down the length of the garden. There was no trace of the neat rows I had worked and worked for all those years. The garden had taken over itself, just as I had planned. I walked back to the house. I looked at my soft, limp hands. I looked at my white linen dress, with lace. It seemed like the stupidest thing I had ever thought up. ‘The fact is,’ I said to myself, ‘I want something to hoe.’ I’ve started reading about intensive gardening. It involves double digging and raised beds. Every season you pull out the old plants and put in new ones. It’s a garden that never gets finished.

“I gave the white dress to my sister, Louise. Sometimes she comes for a visit and strolls in the wildflower meadow. She ooohs and aaahs and brings her friends to see it. They pick armloads of flowers. I sit on the edge and draw diagrams of my next season’s garden in the raised beds. I’m learning about companion planting. In the wildflower meadow, the Queen Anne’s lace waves its filigree heads over the marsh pinks, and the sweet alyssum tucks up neatly around the clumps of painted daisies. But I hardly notice. I’ve got a new garden now.”

No one ever told us we had to study our lives, make of our lives a study. Listen for and posit tugs and nudges from the soul, that we may respond to if only we open ourselves to the occasion. A grape ripens when it sees another grape. The changing vine becomes the living vine. Become a grape, and the grape changes. Uva uvam vivendo varia fit. May it ever be so.