Much of the debate on how we obtain spiritual and numerical growth in our churches these days has led to the modern heresy of thinking of faith in individualistic terms as opposed to community. Today's Gospel brings us a powerful pushback to that notion with the image of the vine and the branches and how they are integrally connected. The branches can only exist or bear fruit if they are connected through the vine. Without the vine the outer branches wither and the fruit dies on the tree.
An example is the giant sequoia tree that can measure hundreds of feet in height and 10 or more feet in girth and thousands of years in age. The way they withstand the winds and stress of so many years is they intertwine their roots with others, thus drawing their strength from each other. The challenge before the church is to do likewise and to remind it’s people, as did G.K. Chesterton who wrote, "A man can no more possess a private religion than he can possess a private sun or moon."
It’s that old ‘self’ thing that is getting in the way. In being centered on self, too many times, we no longer draw from the vine to produce but seek ways to be fulfilled on our own. The danger is instead of looking how we can be a part of the body, how we can bear fruit, we look for what fills my needs. The danger here is of seeing the church as existing for its members instead of its members existing to serve the world. We think too much like consumers, putting self first, thanks to slick marketers, advertisers, and those fundamentally evil smartphones taking all those “selfies”. And I am not about to go in to my rant on this except to say that The Church does not fit comfortably in the “SELF” mindset. You see, the church is not a theme park and we need to confront the danger of rating everything in terms of entertainment value. The measure of worship is not “What did I enjoy?”or even “What did I experience?”Rather, “What was I inspired to seek and do?”The measure of stewardship is not “What did I receive for my gift or time?”but rather “What did I do for others – even to the least of these my sisters and brothers?”
Did you ever hear of the sign in horse country of Southern Alberta that boasts "Horses for Everyone"?In small print it reads, "For skinny people we have skinny horses, for fat people we have fat horses, for disabled people we have disabled horses, for people who have never ridden horses, we have horses that have never been ridden."You want to be careful not to mount that last one. The risk is in losing our source of power and peace from Christ by trying to make everything fit the individual.
The true measure of church is not its market share. A recent article about mega churches spoke of trying to fit the Gospel to fit the culture around us. One example was to build a church building that looked more like an office building than a sanctuary, to make the newcomer more comfortable in coming to church. While we have to find ways to challenge the non-churchgoer to come to church, I do not believe that it is by changing the demands and expectations of the Gospel. There is danger of living by the philosophy of giving the customer what they want. Jesus in our Gospel challenges us, "Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself until it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me."
Scott Peck, writing in The Different Drum, tells a story called "The Rabbi's Gift". A monastery had fallen on hard times. There were only five monks left. In desperation, the Abbot went to a neighboring rabbi for advice. The rabbi said, "I have no advice to give you really. The only thing I can tell is that one of you could well be the Messiah."The abbot brought this thought back, but he said he really didn't know what to make of it. In the months that followed, all the monks pondered the thought. Without realizing it, they began to treat each other differently. There was a new sense of love and respect. Others were attracted to their order. The monastery took on new life. Be honest…we all long for a real sense of belonging.
Years ago, each morning on my drive to Forest Grove United Church in North Toronto, I would pass the YMCA at the corner of Bayview & Sheppard Avenues. Their sign facing the street read: “Here you are not a member – Here you belong!”And to find that place to belong is particularly hard in a transient culture such as we live in. Most of us moved to where we are from somewhere else, and if we went home we would discover that much of it has moved too. To be a part of the church becomes the place where we can be rooted, where we can feel a part, a belonging.
A young father was struggling the day of his wife's funeral, trying to put his son to bed. Both were simply numb with sorrow. The little boy asked, "Daddy, where is Mommy?"He tried to answer the question, but the little boy kept asking, "Where is Mommy? When is she coming back?"After a lot of attempts to satisfy his son, the father picked up the little boy and took him to his own bed. Finally, the little boy reached out his hand through the darkness and placed it on his father's face, asking, "Daddy, is your face toward me?"Given assurance, he said, "If your face is toward me, I think I can go to sleep."The father lay beside the young son and prayed, "O God, the way is dark and I do not see my way through right now, but if your face is toward me, somehow I think I can make it."
That is what it means to know that we can abide in him and he in us. This awareness transforms the very fellowship of the church. With his power as the vine, we the branches are joined together. We are one in his love. When we abide in Christ, we find the strength of community.
Protestant reformer Martin Luther called his church “HOME!”, for it is in the home that we first learn of the need to be a part of something more than self. We learn of love by the love we're given. We celebrate this fact today. We celebrate that God intended for us to live in the caring community with our faces turned toward God. We are called to the faith to be a part of a larger community, a church created by those who abide in Christ. Joined together by our shared love for him, challenged together to bear fruit for that love in the world, we are connected together in and through him.
Let us pray: O God, we thank you for those who gave us life this day, and we pray that you shall help us return that gift by the way we live and love as you have loved us. Amen.
Reverend Phil Rodgers is an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada.