Each summer at Pilgrimage, we go rogue–that means we abandon the lectionary, the set list of Scripture readings–and focus on a theme. One year we focused on community. Another year–when I was trying to finish my dissertation–we had “The Laity Days of Summer,” where members of the community preached. Another time I invited you all to choose characters from the Bible for me to preach on. I know. What was I thinking! Melchizedek????
This year’s theme emerged from my reflections on recent events in the community. The VBS theme this summer is “Seeds of Faith.” When Janet sent me the Scripture texts for VBS, I saw lots about growing. Then Wayne began planning the youth mission trip to Koinonia, an intentional farming community in southwest Georgia. These ideas of growth and community were bouncing around in my head when I attended our Council retreat in February. In a visioning process, one word kept emerging: deeper. “We want to go deeper—in learning, spirituality, and service. We want to know each other better.”
As I began thinking about these events–VBS, the Youth mission trip to Koinonia, and the Council retreat–and the ideas that emerged from each: growth, community, and depth–the theme pretty much wrote itself: “Growing Deeper into Community.”
Once the theme emerged, I realized how timely it is. Since I became your pastor in 2001, the way folks do church has changed. People used to come to worship every week. Every week! I know. That’s just weird, isn’t it? (By the way—Thanks to all of you who DO come every week!) People used to be eager to join. Now, they’re more reticent to do so.
These trends aren’t just happening in our church; they’re happening in all churches. And they’re not just happening in all churches; they’re happening across the board in society. Joining groups, staying committed to groups–that used to be a given in society. Now? Now community happens in very different ways; it’s much more fluid. Human beings are hard-wired for connection, so connections are being made, communities are being formed, but they look very different from the way they looked 50 years ago…or even 10 years ago.
So, many are talking about the demise of the 21st century church. But like Mark Twain said, rumors of its death are greatly exaggerated. The church isn’t dying; it’s changing. And our task as a Christian community of faith is to reflect deeply on these changes and to imagine together how we might re-create the church–re-create this church–so that we still are a vibrant force for sharing God’s love with others and establishing God’s kin-dom here on earth.
So, how do we do that? How do we recreate church? How do we adapt to the changing times and remain a vibrant force for sharing God’s love in the world? Today’s passage from John offers a helpful image to guide us as we try to answer that question this summer.
“I am the true vine, and my Abba is the vine grower who cuts off every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, but prunes the fruitful ones to increase their yield.”
Thus begins one of John’s primary metaphors–Jesus as the vine. As a metaphor, it’s important not to take this bit about pruning literally…like I did in a Bible study back at my Baptist college. When we got to this verse, with great enthusiasm I began listing all the folks the vinegrower (God) wanted to lop out of the community. Dr. Rowena Strickland, my Bible prof, gently reminded me that John’s vine imagery is a metaphor, and metaphors are invitations to sit with the image and let them unfold in our imaginations….not for making “hit lists.” J
So, what happens when we sit with this pruning metaphor? Some of you did some actual pruning in the Confession a minute ago. I recently learned that Laurie Spencer is a landscape designer. When planning the Confession, I asked if she might help us with some props. She found these trees with a collection of both healthy and dead branches in the discard pile at the nursery where she works.
Why were they on the discard pile? Nobody wants to buy a tree with dead branches on it. What if the whole thing is diseased and the disease spreads to the rest of the tree? Then you’ve shelled out good money for something that soon will die. That’s not a good investment. So the tree gets shunted off to the discard pile.
Some folks today have mentally placed the 21st century church on the discard pile. So many dead branches. What hope is there? It’s too risky to invest in something that could well die soon. But here we are with two perfectly good trees. And look! They’re in bloom! Laurie’s been watering them for us, now we’ve pruned away the dead parts, which means these little trees now have a chance. Like John says, the vinegrower “prunes the fruitful branches to increase their yield.” Sometimes, you have to jettison the branches that no longer bear fruit so that the healthy branches have a better chance of growing and thriving.
Several years back I attended a workshop where the leader talked about the four stages of a committee or group’s life. First, there’s the birthing stage, where everyone is flush with excitement about starting work. Then there’s the building stage, where structure is provided and the new ministry takes root and thrives. The third stage is maintenance, where we do the thing because we always have done it; it still bears some fruit, but also might be feeling a little tired. In the fourth stage, the ministry has run its course. Where there used to be large numbers of people attending, now there are just a few. Where it used to be “the” group folks wanted to join, now it’s composed of the same people who’ve been doing it for years.
The workshop leader–a pastor himself–encouraged us constantly to assess in our congregations where the energy is…and isn’t. In those places where the energy isn’t, he encouraged us to ask whether some pruning and TLC might increase fruitfulness, or if it might be time for that ministry to die.
Suddenly, everything made sense. If we’re pouring tons of energy into a ministry or practice that no longer has energy of its own, it drains the community. If we pour all our energy and resources into something that doesn’t give any energy back, then the community fritters away vital resources that it could be using to imagine new ministries…or to re-imagine the community to adapt to changing times.
So, a part of our task this summer might be assessing what ministries are thriving in our community and which perhaps have run their course. Where is the energy these days? What new ministries might we imagine that will help us better address the changes happening to all Christian communities today? What other ministries might it be time to let die gently?
And how do we do this assessment process? How do we decide which branches to prune? How do we nurture the pruned tree to help it grow to its potential? I’m glad you asked! The rest of the passage from John 15 offers good guidance.
“Live on in me, as I do in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit of itself apart from the vine, neither can you bear fruit apart from me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who live in me and I in them will bear abundant fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. Those who don’t live in me are like withered, rejected branches, to be picked up and thrown on the fire and burned. If you live on in me, and my words live on in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you.”
From where does life come? From where does our energy come? How we might re-create the church–re-create this church–so that we still are a vibrant force for sharing God’s love with others and establishing God’s kin-dom here on earth? We abide in the vine; we give ourselves over to the care of the vinegrower. If we don’t live on in the vine–in Jesus’ teaching and spirit–then we already are dead. But if we abide, if we live and move and have our being immersed 24/7 in the love of God, the spirit of Jesus, then we will bear much fruit.
Well, that sounds right preacherly! But what does it look like to “abide” in Jesus? How do we do that? And what does abiding in Jesus have to do with growing deeper into community?
Those are the questions we’ll be answering together this summer. And what fun we’re going to have doing it! The Summer Theme Planning Team already is hard at work creating experiences that will help us grow deeper together in Jesus. There will be a day at the lake, an ice cream social (to christen our new picnic tables), a new build-it-as-you-go banner, some artsy-craftsy Bible studies, drama, music, landscaping. We’re even going to send our teenagers on a fact-finding mission (trip) to learn about community and report back to us.
In preparation for today, Laurie and I exchanged several emails. In one, she commented on these particular trees. She wrote: “When a tree is in a pot a long time there is no room for the roots to expand and grow strong. They go round and round in circles inside the pot, and eventually the tree chokes itself to death. Roots are their foundation and source of nourishment and need to expand into the earth. Spreading the word so to speak! When branches die on top, roots are dying at the foundation. We cut the dead and dying parts out, plant it to give it sunshine and food from the earth, and we create a tree that can grow strong again.”
So, here’s what I propose. I propose we plant these trees, nurture them, and watch them grow. It’s kind of scary, isn’t it? What if they don’t take? What if we try and they die anyway? Legitimate concerns.
But…what if we try and they live? What if we work at it and they grow stronger? What if we care for the trees and they blossom every year, and become constant reminders of what it means to grow up and out and deep and together in Jesus? What if THAT happens?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2015