This is the third consecutive Sunday we’ve heard Jesus tell a story about a vineyard. They make a powerful trilogy and I think of them like a classic boxing combo. Jab. Jab. Today, the haymaker.
One beautiful thing about the three-year lectionary cycle is you get the chance to look at things a little differently as they keep coming around. You can pick different angles. And something really stood out to me from the second reading, from Philippians 4, “Finally, brethren, fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honor, and everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise.”
And it’s one of those super practical things that you can put right into practice. Start with the simple question: what are you filling your mind with?
Sometimes in preaching you can really reach people if you’re willing to be vulnerable, so I’ll just share something painful and troubling and traumatic from my past: we weren’t allowed to watch Married With Children. Or most other television. Or most of the movies my friends would be talking about. That hurt sometimes. Everyone would be talking about something and I was completely left out. At home, it was a constant fight. I don’t have to explain. If you have a kid, or if you’ve ever been a kid, you know how that goes.
And for those of you who are still kids, what I’m going to say next will be very annoying, so sorry, but here goes: I appreciate it now.
What I didn’t want to accept, back then, is that the things we fill our minds with, the things we allow into our heads, they change us. I didn’t think of myself as an impressionable youngster. I thought of myself as being above that, as being able to watch or listen to whatever without being negatively affected by it. I knew right from wrong and some movie wasn’t going to change that. That’s a pretty common youthful delusion.
Then I did grow up, and guess what? I found out it’s just as common an adult delusion. There’s this sort of myth, I think, that we strictly modify what children are exposed to because they are impressionable and it will, over time, change them for better or worse, but that adulthood means that’s over. You’re formed and complete and now you can watch or listen to anything and sort of float above it, not let it change you. Wrong! So completely wrong. I didn’t want to admit at the time that I was an impressionable child. Now sometimes I don’t want to admit that I’m an impressionable adult. I’m not saying we don’t make any progress when it comes to critically evaluating right and wrong, of course we do. As we mature, certainly it affects us less. I’m saying that there’s no age at which you can watch and listen to just anything without it affecting you at all. What you fill your mind with will change you. What you fill your mind with will change you. Being an adult doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary to carefully choose what you allow in your eyes and ears. It simply means that you are equipped and expected to make those decisions for yourself now.
I’ll tell you a story. This morning I was climbing the steeple ladder to get a photo. I put my hand up on the ledge and felt a sharp sting right in the center of my palm. Wasp. No doubt about it. Now, I’ve had time to reflect, and it’s obvious that this was God’s way of giving me a sort of mini-stigmata. But that isn’t what went through my head in that moment. I would not like for you to see a transcript of what did go through my head.
Well, where did that come from? It was put there. Now personally I’m not one to get bent out of shape about colorful language, that’s just me, maybe I’m wrong. But it’s just a small example. There are much more critical ones. What are we filling our minds with?
Let’s use Jesus’ image of the vineyard. The Lord of the vineyard wants it to bear good fruit. What kind of fruit does your vineyard yield? Well, there’s a very simple question to ask: what did you plant there?
There’s a super popular tv show I got into, really pretty hooked on the story and characters. There
was just one little problem. It was making me worse. It didn’t seem like it when I was watching; it was just entertainment. But the seeds sprouted, later on, in my thoughts and in my spirit, and as they grew, they weren’t good. I quit watching. It was making me worse.
We used to have more of a social, cultural agreement about what was helpful and what was harmful to plant in our senses. We still have standards, there are some limits, but they’ve moved so far down you barely remember there are limits at all. There are popular, mainstream entertainments now that a few decades ago, if you’d been caught with that kind of content, people would’ve asked ‘what’s wrong with you?’
Add to that the sheer availability of basically anything. Everything is on the internet. I found a detailed video of how to overhaul a 1998 Rockshox Indy C mountain bike suspension fork. That’s awesome. The downside to being able to find anything on the internet is… well, you know. Most of the people here, I’d confidently guess, can remember a time that you opened a web browser and at the same time you sort of hit the ‘minimize’ button on the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Maybe it was a long time ago. If it wasn’t, if it’s an ongoing part of your life, I want you to know you’re not alone, and that Jesus Christ has the power to deliver you from this.
Now I’d like to notice something about all that’s been said up to this point. It’s all been about what you keep out. It’s all been about the defensive aspect of what you plant in your mind and spirit, and defense is important. But that defense is meant to be preparation for planting something actually good! In fact, that’s the part Paul is talking about. “Fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honor.”
It’s important, but it isn’t enough, to just not plant toxic poison. Plant something beautiful! Fill your mind and spirit with beautiful and true and good things, honorable and pure things, things that make you better, that make you courageous and generous and determined and joyful.
Do you know anyone whose mind is just soaked in Scripture? Just in going through an ordinary day, just with ordinary things happening, they are often bringing to mind some verse of the Bible in context of the conversation or activity. You can tell that their mind is a garden of Scripture, planted and cultivated over years and years. It bears constant fruit. That’s a great blessing. It will make your life better. It will make you better. How do you get that kind of flower blooming in your spirit? Don’t you see, it couldn’t be more simple: you plant it!
The whole world of art exists for this purpose. Some have forgotten this, now, but most people still sense deep down that art is supposed to make us better. It needn’t always be pretty, it needn’t always be comfortable or pleasant… but it should always strive to be Good. Even when it is depicting what is bad, it is doing so in the service of good.
When I listen to a Beethoven symphony, I get up afterward and I don’t just think ‘that was entertaining.’ I have the very real feeling that it made me a better person. Do you have art that does that for you? Fill your mind with what is true and beautiful and good. Like Beethoven, this doesn’t mean only things that are explicitly Christian. All beauty and goodness and truth are from the same source. I remember seeing an interview with Willie Nelson; the interviewer asked him if he’d ever considered recording a Gospel song. Willie looked legitimately confused by the question and took an awkward moment to come up with an answer. He then said, ‘sorry… I’m just trying to think of any song I’ve recorded that wasn’t a Gospel song.’ Now maybe Willie might not have been quite right about every single song… but his view, his philosophy of his life’s work is dead on. The Catholic Church has placed a high value on art from the very beginning. I think it’s safe to say that no institution in human history has done more to bring great art to the lives of ordinary poor and middle class people, not even close. That’s no accident; it’s theology. It’s Philippians 4:8.
Here’s the bottom line: the vineyard does not belong to us. And the Lord of the vineyard has asked us, entrusted us, to bear good fruit. That includes our outer works: care of the poor, comfort of the afflicted, the sick, the imprisoned, work for justice and peace. How effectively we do this will depend very much on how we cultivate the first field we plant: our own minds and spirits. You can fill it with toxic poison, or with ‘everything noble, good and pure, everything we love and honor.’ If that field of your own spirit isn’t the holy garden it should be, the question is painfully simple and obvious: what are you planting in it?