Before beginning the sermon this morning, I want to tell you about an important project underway at Knox, which actually goes along with the theme of today’s Scripture. Your Session has approved the formation of a task force called Knox Forward, and they’ve been asked to lead us in a conversation about what we’ve learned from the past year, and what it means for the days ahead.
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve heard a lot of people say that one of the ways we can work to redeem this unspeakable tragedy is by trying to learn from it. How has the past year changed our priorities? What do we now know is really important, and what seemed important before, but now we know it’s not. These are important questions for individuals and families, for businesses and institutions, and they’re important questions for the church. We know you have input, and the Knox Forward group is going to be in touch with you as they facilitate a bottom-up effort to hear your feedback and share it with the Session as we look forward to life on the other side of COVID.
Even as vaccines become more widespread, and the threats are seeming to ease up in places around us, and we talk about the days ahead, we are aware of the many whose lives are still being turned upsidedown by COVID and that its effects will be lasting, and we are especially prayerful for the people of India who even now are facing the darkest days of this pandemic. Let us remember these siblings in Christ as we worship today.
READ: John 15:1-8
Over the past 14 months, the life we knew has been deconstructed. Some of that deconstruction may be welcome; much of it has been tragic. For sure, there has been deconstruction of what was familiar. The normal patterns of before have been taken apart, and now we are beginning the work of putting a life back together and wondering how it is going to look differently.
We’re just starting to emerge from the deconstruction, and it’s a challenge. It can be hard to put yourself out there again. Anna and I went to a Reds’ game a couple of Fridays ago. The stadium was 30% full with distancing, most people were compliant about masks, and we are vaccinated. Intellectually, we felt quite confident that it was a safe thing to do. At the end of the 3rd inning, we exchanged a knowing stare and I said, “You ready to go?” and Anna said, “Yep” and that was that. I’ve shared similar stories with plenty of you. There’s a sort of agoraphobia, a readjustment to being out in circumstances we haven’t been part of for a year, and it’s going to take some getting used to.
Most of us have been going it alone a lot this past year. I know that some of you have been very much alone; I’ve talked to some recently vaccinated people who live alone and are venturing out into the community for the first time in a year. That’s a big deal. Those of us who live with spouses and children have been going it alone in our own ways. For my family, it’s been a year largely without activities and babysitters, and without the grandparent support we rely upon hugely as two working people with children. Many of us who work are still working mostly alone. Even if you go to an office, being in a workplace is different, in ways that mostly are lonely—no water cooler, no happy hour, no 5 days-a-week.
And church has been lonely. To be sure, many of you have been heroic in calling one another, writing notes, leaving small gifts on doorsteps, continuing to care for our community, worshipping online. But that unified rhythm of worshipping in God’s house, taking the kids to Sunday School, going to choir practice or Bible study or volunteering together and hugging your friends. So much of it has been deconstructed. What will it look like when we put it back together?
These things I’ve been sharing about COVID are really just an amplification of things we already knew about life and faith. In restarting all kinds of things that we used to do, we hear echoes of a voice that once felt familiar. Theologian N. T. Wright has described faith this way. In this imperfect world, we hear “echoes of a voice” in matters of faith. We hear echoes of the way human life should be. We have a distant sense of what a whole spiritual life might look like, we’ve just never achieved it. We have a sense of what the world might look like if God’s kingdom came into being, but we haven’t yet seen it. We know what we long for our relationships to be like, but we haven’t experienced it. (Wright, Simply Christian, x)
Before the pandemic, we were hearing echoes of a voice. The life we had before wasn’t perfect. But the deconstruction of our patterns during the pandemic has made those echoes even a little more distant for us. And now as the voices calling us back to life are growing stronger, we wonder what kind of new life God might call us to.
One of the places where N. T. Wright says we hear “echoes of a voice” is in our relationships. Our relationship with God, with one another, with our own selves, they are echoes of a voice; we have a distant sense that if those relationships were just as our Creator intended, they would sound and feel different, though we may not be sure exactly how. (Wright, Ibid, 29-38)
But God knows how. This is how Jesus once described it to his disciples:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower… Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes to make it bear more fruit… 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. I am the vine and you are the branches.” Our relationships, be they in our families, in our church, among our friends…they are richest and fullest when they are grounded in the common vine of Christ. Jesus Christ grounds us by teaching us through his own living how to love one another, how to treat one another with selflessness, care, and compassion.
Barbara Essex explains why God’s role in this process is so important as she explains how vines work. Listen: “Left alone, vines, thick trailing plants that attach themselves to other things, will grow uncontrollably and result in one big tangled mess. A vinegrower or vinedresser is needed in order to keep the vines in order. The paradox is that the vinegrower must cut away lifeless, unproductive branches and prune those branches that are productive. At some point all the branches need to be cut.” (Essex, Feasting on the Word, Year B)
I love this phrase Essex used, that “Left alone [we] attach [our]selves to other things… grow uncontrollably and result in one big tangled mess.” Isn’t that what life sometimes feels like? And I love that she indicates, as every gardener knows, that this is not a metaphor about good people versus evil people. All of us need to be pruned in order for good fruit to grow.
Jesus says God has made this long term investment in us—to be our vinegrower. We are meant to be connected to the true vine and to draw upon it for strength. We were not created to go it alone. We are more healthfully connected to one another when we remember that we are connected through the vine. God plants us in good earth, and then diligently prunes and waters and plucks out bad growth, so that we can be healthy and bear good fruit.
There are plenty of personal applications for this wisdom, but there are important communal ones too.
Author Rod Dreher says that reform movements have existed in the church throughout history because of this need to be pruned, detached from the other things we have wrapped ourselves around that have made us a big tangled mess. Martin Luther led a reform movement to detach the church from its attachment to the false authority of popes and bishops and to return it to the authority of Scripture. St. Francis of Assisi, disillusioned by the material excesses of the church, gave away all of his own personal wealth and started a reform movement to reconnect the church with the plight of the poor.
Rod Dreher suggests that in our own time, the massive declines we are seeing in church membership will not be faithfully answered by becoming more technologically or culturally savvy, or by winning in the political arena. These are the “other things” the church has attached itself to like a vine, and we have become a mess. What we need is to detach ourselves from these things to which we have clung too tightly, and remember that we are part of the true vine.
Dreher draws upon the reform movement led by St. Benedict of Nursia in the 6th century. As the Roman Empire collapsed, and the state sponsored church was left in turmoil along with it, Benedict set out with a group of Christian friends and began the monastic movement. It was a commitment, in the midst of frightening shifts in culture, to rededicate life to a rhythm of prayer, service, education and community grounded in God. Dreher says in our own time, church communities must rediscover how to be Christian villages, helping people order their lives by prayer, and education, worship, and discipleship. We need to be connected to one another because we are connected through the vine, with God is our vinegrower. (see Dreher, The Benedict Option)
I think Rod Dreher has it mostly right. The church is in need of some pruning in order to detach ourselves from other things to which we have been clinging so that we can remember the true vine and be guided by the vinegrower. We have to be ready to let some things go, and also be ready to dig deep and invest ourselves where there is a clear need for Christ.
Perhaps you will be guided by this metaphor when you hear from the Knox Forward group I mentioned before the sermon. The pandemic has exacerbated our sense of what the church must do that is really important; it has also awakened in us a sense of the things we’ve been doing that do not matter—that do not keep us connected to the true vine, and to one another. What might we look like if we allowed the vinegrower to do some pruning, and to regain control of our lives?
There is, of course, a personal dimension to this message as well. “Left alone [our lives are] thick trailing plants that attach themselves to other things, will grow uncontrollably and result in one big tangled mess. How is that true of your own life, your relationships, your spirit?
So that you know that I’m not just preaching these things at you, I’ll tell you how I believe this challenge applies to me. You may have read in your email this past week that I am preparing for a three month sabbatical to begin in June. One of the ways I understand my call as a pastor is to provide leadership in this community as we seek to ground our shared life in the true vine of Jesus Christ. I am to help us be shaped by God, the vinedresser, so that we can bear good fruit. That work only happens effectively if my own spiritual life is grounded in the same way. Going back to where I started this sermon: that call is hard enough in regular times; it’s always a challenge to hear the echoes of God’s voice and know where God is calling us to go. But in this past year, it’s been much more difficult, as so much of our life has been deconstructed. So I’m looking forward to this time to be thoughtful and prayerful about my own spiritual life, so that when I come back, I can be a worthwhile resource to you as we rebuild our life together. I’m sure that for some folks here at Knox, particularly on the staff, it’ll be a relief not to have me around. But in all seriousness, if a pastor takes seriously the function of a sabbatical for enriching one’s own spiritual walk, the three months I spend away from you could be much more valuable than years spent preaching to you on Sunday and answering your emails each week.
I’m not out the door just yet—it’ll be a month before that sabbatical begins. And as always, in that time I pray that if today’s words about connecting to the true vine, pruning out the dead branches, and bearing good fruit…if there are words here that have been thought provoking to you in your own spiritual walk, or in the life we share as a community; if there are ideas you hope for me to be prayerfully pondering while I am away…I hope you will talk with me about it. Amen.