Sermon: Grapes, Castro, and Lonesome Dove
A couple of weeks ago, i decided i wanted to download my very favorite novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude by columbian author gabriel garcia marquez, and read it again. Has anyone else ever read that book? I’m never sure i get that book, but i love reading it every couple of years. So i went online only to find that it is not available in ibook or kindle format. OMG. I have to buy a paper book?
I could not do that at 11 pm in my pajamas. Instead, I downloaded a new biography of the author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, thinking that maybe if I understood him, I would understand the book. A few days later, I downloaded a book by another author the biography mentioned, which led to another book, and another. And one night, Alex asked me what I was reading in bed, and I answered, “a biography of Fidel Castro.”
“FIDEL CASTRO?!” alex cried. “WHY in the WORLD are you reading a biography of Fidel Castro?”
“The crazy thing is NOT that I am reading a biography of Fidel Castro,” I said calmly. “The crazy thing is that reading a biography of Fidel Castro helps me understand Lonesome Dove.”
“You are NOT going to preach about Fidel Castro,” Alex said.
“”No,” I answered. “I am going to preach about Lonesome Dove.”
What does Fidel Castro have to do with Lonesome Dove?
The more important question is… What does Jesus have to do with Lonesome Dove?
Lonesome Dove is an 8-hour miniseries about Texas rangers turned cattlemen who leave the dusty town of Lonesome Dove, Texas with a bunch of cows to go North. It has a few bad words used copiously so you don’t get a clip.
And there is no doubt in my mind about who selected this film or where they sit at breakfast. It was the Curmudgeons, the Grumpy Guses, the self-appointed Pastoral Harassment Committee, what I call the Peanut Gallery, a.k.a. Bob and Aubrey and Jerry Mason. And friends, unless they each voted twice.
I’m going to let you in on a big secret: those sourpusses don’t pick on me when they’re alone. Ok, Mason does. But Aubrey and Bob are more like Susie Mason’s german chocolate cake than her gooseberry pie when we’re one-on-one. But get ’em together and give ’em an audience, and, boy, here it comes.
So I asked Bob what Jesus had to so with Lonesome Dove, and he started quoting lines from the movie that he sees as life lessons. He quoted the main characters, Woodrow and Gus, and then he mentioned Jake Spoon. And I told Bob, if I have to preach about Lonesome Dove, I’m going to preach about latin phrase on the sign.
The sign at lonesome dove both starts and ends the story. It hangs in front of the ranch, identifying it as the hat creek cattle company and livery emporium. It lists the names of the main folks and the animals they rent or sell, excluding pigs. Here’s what the book by Larry McMurtry says about the sign. (highlighted passage)
When asked about the meaning of the Latin, Gus answers, (highlighted passage).
But the sign gets forgotten as Jake Spoon returns to Lonesome Dove. Jake was an on-again, off-again compadre who was more concerned about appearances than reality and more concerned about gambling and women than about cows. When he is with Gus and Woodrow Call, he’s a pretty good guy. When he’s away from them, he always gets in trouble. When he parts company with them in the story, he ends up getting mixed up with, and hanged as, a murderer and a horse thief.
And that, of course, brought to my mind the latin phrase on the sign. It is really the only unexplained thing in Lonesome Dove. Even when it is placed as a cross on Gus’s grave by Woodrow, there is no translation, but here it is: “A grape only changes color in the presence of other grapes.” Thats what the Latin on the sign means, and it makes me think of Jerry and Bob and Aubrey graping it up during breakfast.
It made me think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the other authors of the Latin American literary boom and how their philosophies and literature changed after the Cuban revolution and friendship with…Fidel Castro. They were all friends, and they changed color together (my dad would say those were definitely RED grapes), and most of the, went on to win Nobel prizes in literature, not because of their friendship with Fidel Castro, nor despite it. I have to understand the company they kept to understand what they said in their books, but its more important that I understand their roots.
But this Latin phrase, uva uvam vivendo varia fit, made book critics think of John 15. As it suggests that we are affected by the company we keep and where we choose to be rooted.
The Bible seems to have two streams of opinion on this issue of what company believers should keep. On the one hand, we’re told to be equally yoked in our relationships and to spend time with other believers. On the other hand, we see the model of Jesus, who spent a lot of his time with tax collectors, partiers, and, as Lonesome Dove calls them, “sporting women.” He was criticized for this by the religious authorities of his day, but he defended it by saying that he came for the sinners, not the righteous. He hung out with us. We are the company he keeps.
This passage is not about who our other friends are, whether they are communists or Christians, cattlemen or horse thieves, saints or sporting women. Rather, it is about what we are so ultimately connected to that we can’t see ourselves as separate from. “i am the vine, you are the branches.” Jesus says, “remain in me” and “remain in my love.” in other words, don’t just bump into me and move on. Stick with me, be rooted in me. “you’re not my servants, you’re my friends.”
So wherever you are, whoever you’re with, Jesus can be there. He chose you, but its your decision whether you remain in him.mBecause you’re there, and you remain in him, he’s there. Thats the kind of relationship Jesus wants with his followers. He wants us to choose to be inescapably his. He doesn’t want followers who sneak off from him to go play cards. He wants those that remember they are his disciples as they cut the deck. He wants Guses that read their Bible while they’re feeding the pigs, not Jake Spoon who blow in the wind like they are connected to no one and nothing but would read the Bible in public if it would get him something. Get it?
Christ offers us connection. Connection to each other, connection to something bigger than ourselves. If we stick with him, we are less likely to turn into an off-colored grape, because we’ll obey his commandments out of love. Its not so much about what color grape we are as about in whom and in what we are rooted. christ invites us to be his friends, to be the branches of his vine, to be connected.
The next time you watch Lonesome Dove, you will be one of the few people who know what the sign means. And you’ll see how the characters are changed by the company they keep.
More important, we’ll remember the next time we’re with our drinking buddies, our playground chums, our coworkers, or our dysfunctional families… That the company we keep matters, but what matters more is the vine from which we branch and sticking to it as closely as he sticks by us. Amen.