Sermon by Elisa Owen
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
May 6, 2018
“Abiding in the Vine”
John 15: 1-17
This Eastertide we’ve been exploring what difference Christ’s resurrection from makes for us right here, right now. Since Easter, we’ve looked at how the resurrection frees us to love boldly, do justice and, more generally, dance with the risen Spirit where that Spirit may be found. This Sunday we look at how the risen Christ frees us for friendship with God, which means, by definition, frees us to participate in God’s mission to the world.
Andrew Greeley, priest, author and sociologist, tells the following story to help his folks gain insight into what it looks like to be a people constituted by Christ’s resurrection. A people fed by the risen Spirit in order that they might become, by grace alone, the hands, feet and heart of this same Spirit.
Once upon a time there was a certain bishop who was very proud of being a bishop. (I know we don’t have bishops in the Presbyterian Church, bear with me. I am using the person of the “bishop” in this story to challenge the idea that any one person, or small group of people, should ever be expected to BE the church for anyone else. Instead, church is a mutual admiration and service society in which we reflect God’s reality to one another. In other words, despite using the word “bishop,” I am highlighting the very Protestant idea that any church, including Crescent Hill, is never primarily defined by its leadership. Instead, the leadership in any church is only as good, effective, or important, or not, as it is in bringing the gifts of all its members into the service of God’s work in the world. Our passage suggests that effectiveness is manifest when can only happen when, like the branches of a vine, members of the church are deliberate about becoming an integral part of a healthy plant that first, is for the purpose of receiving the care and nurture of the vine grower, God herself. And, then, second, is for the purpose of scattering that care and nurture into the world, spreading God’s fruit that has brought into being by God’s nourishment. So the “bishop” represents the mistaken idea that anyone anywhere can be the church without the help of all kinds of God loving, truth telling friends.
So, this bishop was very careful to see that everyone treated him with great respect. After all, he was one of the successors of the apostles, wasn’t he? Never mind that he didn’t seem to remember what a stubborn, pig-headed, and difficult crowd the apostles were. As such, this guy got upset whenever the acolytes involved in the masses he said around the diocese were not trained to perfection. Some people thought he was a real jerk. Others thought he was nice enough, for a bishop, but that he had a few obsessions that he would well get along without. Other people admired him beyond measure because they needed someone they could be sure was holier than they were.
So one day, this very Sunday of Eastertide to be exact, he was saying mass at a parish where a certain mother had warned her little girl not to offend the bishop. Well, the little girl was a feisty one. She wasn’t afraid of the bishop or anyone else (few sixth grade girls are). So when she was slow in bringing the towel for the washing of hands and he snapped his fingers impatiently, she stopped in her tracks. Bring me the towel the bishop ordered. The feisty little girl remembered the Gospel reading we just read and shouted right back. Don’t give me orders, I’m not a servant, I’m a friend.
Everyone laughed, including the bishop – who, thankfully, was not so far gone he had forgotten how to laugh at himself. (One of my dearest seminary professors had a plaque on his wall reading, “blessed are those who can laugh at themselves, for they will never fail to be amused.”) He hugged her and said of course she was a friend because she had the courage to tell him when he was making a fool out of himself. That is, she had the courage to point out to him when he was not acting like one of Jesus’ friends. That is, when he was not focused on his calling, and yours and mine, to be a healthy branch of the enormous vine that grows the fruit of Christ’s risen Spirit in order to offer it to a hungry world.
Our passage this morning not only suggests how friends of Christ, branches gathered into the vine that is the Christian Church, might stay healthy through mutual accountability, it also tells us what such a gathering is for. That vine we are branches of has purpose of course – it isn’t a vine simply for the vine’s sake – it is a vine in order to bear the fruit of the vine to the world.
That said, let me state the seemingly obvious, but not always the focus of church life. Without a healthy vine, there can be no healthy fruit. You don’t need to go to garden camp to get this! What that means is that there is a very close connection, an unbreakable connection in fact, between a church’s vital communal worship of the gardener, the gardener’s friends’ internal, intentional nurturing of one another’s souls and bodies, and the gardener inspired mission in which a church engages. No church is its healthiest and truest self, a bona fide firing on all cylinders gathering of Christ’s friends, until those three things are integrated fully, and each and every person in the church dedicates himself or herself to participating in all three. The intentional strengthening of all three legs of the Christ vine’s stool, common worship, common nurture and common service, is the work of a healthy, thriving community of Christ’s friends. That’s the general point of the passage as I heard the Spirit speaking into our common life this week.
But let me get to deeper into the weed’s with you on what I hear this passage saying specifically to us here in this place about HOW we can strengthen those three legs of Christ’s vines stool. We can live into the identity the 2020 visioning process defined for this church. Bear with me while I explain further.
I am quite convinced that the 2020 visioning process gifted this church with a clear road map of how to live into the intentional strengthening of all three legs of our part of the vine’s stool. Why? I think the 2020 provocative proposals provide the answer to the question, “What does Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church need to do well in the future in order to keep abiding in Christ?” That those proposals answer the question of not only “who are you at Crescent Hill (i.e. How has God gifted you?) but also point to the answer to the question what are you then, given this unique identity, called to do? What about it? What if those proposals you worked so hard to define contain the keys to understanding the Gardener’s leading on how she proposes to nurture the branches of your part of the vine?”
Let me paint a quick picture of how I see 2020 serving as God’s roadmap for your future. First, speaking a moment to the process behind the proposals, I think that process was Spirit led. I am not equating David and Deborah with the Spirit, please don’t misunderstand. But I do believe David and Deborah’s process made room for the blowing of the Spirit through the congregation. It did this by opening up the examination of Crescent Hill’s current identity (and in current giftedness, or identity, we always find vital clues to an organization’s future calling) to the widest range of people with the widest experiences of God’s life as that life is broken and shared here in this church.
Remember, we in the Presbyterian Church believe God is present in the corporate body, and speaks through the gathered community. And so the community was duly gathered and asked to consider prayerfully what the vocational gifts are with which God has gifted not individuals in this church, but this particular corporate body of believers. In case you don’t have the gifts that were identified through that process on the tip of your tongues and the front and center of your minds, here is what you came up with.
First, God has gifted you with deep and meaningful relationships among your members and friends. Those relationships make your experience here worthwhile and inspire you in your lives of faith. And so, the deepening relationships action team from 2020 has recommended to the session that we become intentional about how those deep and meaningful relationships can be deepened still further, and how we can ensure that no one God calls into our midst slips through the cracks as we deepen and broaden our fellowship as we go forward. Deepening relationships by design is one of the things we are called to going forward. And look at that! This is the nurturing of one another leg of the 3 legged stool that makes for a healthy vine!
Second, God has gifted you with a hope and faith born of God’s love as that love is experienced and deepened through not only challenging worship, but also as an extension of that worship, through personal practices that strengthen faith, resilience and obedience to the God you’ve learned to love. So, as an extension of your passionate worship, you have said that intentionally deepening your spiritual practice is something you have in the past done, and something you would like to be more intentional about doing into the future. Thus, providing opportunities for members here to deepen spiritually is something Crescent Hill is called to in the future. And, voila, that is another way to nurture one another, to encourage one another in the faith into which we have all been gathered, an extension of vital worship – by seeking out new ways to actively seek the Spirit beyond Sunday morning both as individuals and in small groups.
And, finally, God has gifted you with a passion for social justice, as that justice is sought after as we care for our planet, and work to reconcile races and cultures. And this gift comes to you in the midst of a world that seems hell-bent on decimating our natural resources and dividing us by “any means necessary.” And voila, that is the mission leg of the stool; working for justice in these areas, setting up relational and institutional frameworks that allow the broadest number of people to live out their passion for the righteousness, justice and peace they know through Jesus Christ.
All of this to say is I do not think all the talking you’ve done with each other over the course of this transition process so far is in vain. I think it has yielded the fruit of a map for the future of this Church. But there are a few things that remain to be done as we figure out how to abide in the vine that is our reason for being into the future. What remains to be done? We need to move beyond recognition of the identity God has gifted us with toward an understanding of what it looks like from each person’s vantage point and from those who might join us’s viewpoint to do social justice well. Do we focus on certain areas of social justice? Or do we focus on inspiring and training individuals to put faith into action in whatever area of social justice God has called each person to? We also have to consider what it looks like to put the systems in place that allow us to invite more people into the deep relational gifts we cherish here, and what it means to nurture all ages, children, youth and adults, in deepening their faith journey.
Brad Braxton was, briefly, the pastor of Riverside Presbyterian Church, a grand ecumenical church on the banks of the Hudson River in New York City. That church has a proud tradition of engaging the world on social justice issues. Upon arrival he encouraged the congregation to look inward in order to strengthen its outward facing work, to do some soul searching.
He said, “Sometimes in progressive institutions that are committed to external justice, we forget that the first public of a congregation is the congregation itself,” he says. “Riverside had compelling answers to some of the twentieth century’s great questions, but we’ve got to recognize that there are different questions being asked now. What will the great answers be? This is a wonderful marvelous experiment of trying to remain relevant as the landscape is shifting.” (Remaining relevant in my view is simply claiming our God given identity and being deliberate about living into it.) Braxton continued, “It’s challenging, frightening, and, at times, exhilarating.” (From an article, “The Audacious Thing,” Paige Parvin, The Emory Magazine. Spring, 2009)
Exactly at that spot is where we at Crescent Hill find ourselves my friends, asking where God is challenging us to find new life. And God will guide us. His first instruction in that journey we find in this morning’s passage, “abide in me.” Recognize that process and product are both ministry and both vital to the church’s future. Recognize that the first people we must reach out to, the church’s first public, are those who are nurtured and learn to nurture inside these walls.
The second public for this church, and any, are those that are touched by our mission of justice and peace. Ministry and mission, in other words, happen both inside and outside the church’s walls, and the latter CANNOT exist without deliberate claiming and nurturing of the former.
Through your 2020 process, you have done much of the soul searching needed to discover how, specifically at Crescent Hill, the vine will be fertilized by both internal and external outreach; internal and external so that the vine will be healthy enough to bear God’s fruit into the world. Those internal foci are deepened spiritual practice and deepened and broadened opportunities for meaningful faith sustaining relationship. The external fruit will be scattered through increased opportunity for engagement in social justice. Through all three emphases those looking for authentic Christian community will find in Crescent Hill a place in which they will be treated as a friend of Christ, while at the same time being called to be one for others. And in strengthening all three legs of this part of the vine’s stool, and encouraging everyone who attends here to involvement in all three, we will be offering to each other a chance to bear Christ’s fruit to the world.
When Jesus calls us friends in this morning’s passage, he is doing much more than expressing for us mild affection. He is offering us his life. And, with his life, he holds out for our taking the privilege of participating in his mission to the world. Privilege of participating in his mission to the world I say because Christ’s mission to the world is the Master’s business. And, through our participation in the master’s business, we find our salvation. Find our salvation not in what we give, but in what we get through being drawn closer to the vine grower as we are drawn more deeply into His life’s work. The Master’s business is nothing less than the steadfast offering to us of life in the company of the risen, conquering, Christ. That is, life in Jesus Christ, life in and with the triumphant communion of all his saints, Christ’s Easter people, the holy gathering of Jesus’ friends.
In the name of the Creator, the Son and the Holy Spirit.