It’s Sunday morning and I look out toward the pews, out into the sanctuary and beyond. How many members will be here today? Will we have any children? Will any guests decide to join us?
From my vantage point, just behind the giant pulpit that I’ve preached from just one time, I don’t have a full view of the sanctuary. I see a few people over by the piano. I see a couple on the other side. I can see that some people are gathered in the narthex (lobby). How many will be with us today?
Our pianist completes his prelude. It’s 10:29. I think to myself, “it’s too early.” I want us to officially start worship at 10:30 not 10:29. So I slowly walk to greet the community that is gathered, and still gathering for worship.
I have mixed feelings as I gaze out. I am so incredibly grateful for each person present. I tell them this. “Thank you for being here today.” I hope that I convey the importance of their presence. I’m also a bit sad, a bit anxious, a bit regretful. Where have all the worshipers gone? Why are there only a few of us when we have a sanctuary that will hold close to 200? Why am I concerned about this? Where is my faith? I suck as a pastor. All these thoughts are mixed with my gratitude for those present.
I wonder, how do the worshippers feel? Have some of them left because of our size? Or have they left for some other reason? Some have moved away. I think of those who’ve died since I came. I miss them. How do those who remain feel?
I know some of their thoughts. One member, resigned to the decline, and resigned to her perception that we aren’t really doing much to address it, said, “I’ve come to accept that we might die. And that’s ok.” Others reminisce about the “good old days” when lots of people were in worship and Sunday School. Some are so excited when we have visitors join us that they are afraid that we overwhelm them with welcome. We have lots of mixed feelings as we gather.
As I reflect on the text for this Sunday, as I reflect on the metaphor
I wonder about our place within all this. In my mind we are just past the pruning stage. There’s a mess on the ground as those unproductive branches have been cut from the vine. They lay there, withering, as their life blood of water is cut off. They lay there, withering, until someone can gather them to feed them to the flames of a great fire.
One day, in a breakfast meeting with other pastors. A gathering that is for support, another pastor (one who’s church has way way more people) told me that his church is experiencing the same decline…it’s just that my church is farther along that road. Any statistical analysis of the church in America paints a similar picture.
I think of this as I think of those cut, withering, discarded branches. Do they represent our church? Have we been pruned? Are we to be replaced with something else? Depressing thoughts, these.
Then I remember the words of Jesus,
“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”
We don’t use the word abide much. Live in me Jesus said…just as I live in you. He said these words to his disciples just as they were about to endure a terrible time. The words were remembered and written to a community that was in the midst of its own difficulties.
The words are filled with hope, with promise. “Live in me,” said Jesus. We might wonder about this. We might feel as if we’ve failed to do this. Or that apparently, we aren’t living as we should have. We might wonder if we are the discarded branches. “Live in me, as I live in you,” said Jesus. Does he mean us?
I remember a sermon and discussion with our congregation. It was over the concept of “all are welcome.” I had asked the members to think about who might hear these words and subsequently think, “they don’t include me.” We had quite a list that included many who’ve been marginalized by religion. Not long after this we chose, as a congregation, to be explicit in our welcome to our LGBTQ neighbors.
Of course Jesus means us! It is Jesus living in us that allows us to see the value and dignity of our neighbors. It is Jesus living in us that calls us to that first story…that beginning story in which we are told that God created human beings in God’s image and then declared that creation to be good. Jesus invites us to live in him just as he lives in us.
Jesus lives in us! This is good news. Jesus lives in us and there’s nothing that we can do to change that. Jesus lives in us even when we don’t feel it. So how do we know this? Sure, we can take the promise at face value, but we also can look at the evidence around us.
Here’s what I see.
• On this Sunday children are with us…just as they are most Sundays. Today, they gather at the Wiggle Spot and commence building a tower of cardboard bricks. When the congregation receives Communion, these children are included. The expressions on their faces as I give them bread, “this is the body of Christ, given for you,” are enough to warm any heart. They know they are receiving something special…even at the youngest age. Most respond with the word, “amen.” Amen indeed.
• Others are gathered who came because they discovered they are truly welcome at our church. Our church is now their church.
• I ask a question during my sermon and a few members of the congregation share their thoughts, allowing us as the gathered community to learn from one another.
• It is time for prayer and our community members share their concerns, their joys, and their thoughts of others. We have become more intimate in our praying.
• It’s announcement time and we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. The members love acknowledging one another. I am blessed as I give a blessing to those whose birthdays we celebrate.
This is life. This life is a reminder that Jesus is living, in and with us. We are not the branches laying on the ground awaiting the fire. We live in Jesus, as Jesus lives in us.
It’s just past the grape harvest and the vines have been pruned. We’ve been pruned. We don’t like it. It hurts. We feel bare and exposed. We are small. But all that is ok because we live in Jesus and he lives in us. I hope and pray the our knowing Christians join the cause of the oppressed in the fight for justice not because of some philosophical principle of “the Good” or because of a religious feeling of sympathy for people in prison. Sympathy does not change the structures of injustice. The authentic identity of Christians with the poor is found in the claim which the Jesus-encounter lays upon their own life-style, a claim that connects the word “Christian” with the liberation of the poor. Christians fight not for humanity in general but for themselves and out of their love for concrete human beings.” this will give us courage live with Jesus in such a way that we make a difference in our little part of the world.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.