Fifty years ago The Fund for Theological Education was born; and in its first year, 1954, it awarded five fellowships to first-year seminarians. One of those seminarians was Frederick Buechner. In one of his many books, Buechner offers a definition of grace, a description with which I'd like to begin my sermon. He writes, "Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There's no way to deserve it anymore than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace."
I've often thought about adding another thing to Buechner's list. Finding a good congregation is grace. Being part of a church you can call home-that is grace. It is grace to hear God's Word proclaimed in a gathering of God's people, to be drawn into the mystery of God through corporate worship, to be connected in community, formed as a disciple, sent forth to do justice and show mercy.
Yes, congregations are important, very important. Oh, this is not a new revelation. The church's importance is obvious in the earliest New Testament writings when Paul affirms the church as the body of Christ, claiming that the risen Christ continues to work through the church, his body, just as Christ was at work when he lived here on earth. Later, John's Gospel would use another image to describe the communal nature of God's work in the world. In fact, biblical scholars suggest that the image of vine and branches is really a parallel to Paul's image of the body. And both are communal images. Both celebrate unity in diversity. John doesn't say, "Christ is the vine; you are the branch." It's not about me and Jesus bearing a little fruit for the world. There's no such thing as a "me and Jesus" faith. No such thing as a Christian apart from community.
Further, like Paul, John uses an image that's wonderfully egalitarian. One branch is often indistinguishable from another. There's no hierarchy of branches. You can't tell which branch sprouted first, which branch is longest, even where one branch stops and another begins. Only the vine is distinct. The branches are rooted together in that one vine, and only as a result of that common life source do the branches bear fruit. And the fruitfulness of the vineyard depends upon the whole community of branches, the fruitfulness of all. One solitary fruit-bearing branch won't make much wine. Oh, dear friends, this is a stark contrast to our culture's emphasis on success as individual achievements. In God's economy, success depends upon the whole community of branches, upon the fruitfulness of all.
Yes, congregations matter! Which means that pastors matter. For in the midst of this egalitarian community, there are some who are called to be servant leaders, called to tend to the table and to the Word, to tend to the community's mission in the gospel. And most of us would agree that such leadership isn't easy. It's messy at times. It's hard. Even the most fruitful branches can get tangled. Indeed, M. Scott Peck writes that the absence of conflict is the essential dynamic of a fake community, a group of people just pretending to be a community. It reminds me of a pastor from New York City responding to a parishioner's complaints about the music in worship. He said, "It's okay not to like everything that goes on here. If you liked everything, then there'd be something wrong. This wouldn't be a community of real and diverse people." I'd say if you like 70% of what's happening-that's pretty good! We're a community of diverse and wonderful people.
Yes, leading a community in mission can get messy. It can be hard. Things don't always move as quickly as we'd like. They don't always go the way that we'd like. Early in my ministry, I had some deep questions about my calling as a pastor. My family went through some serious medical struggles. Our son was born with Downs Syndrome. My husband experienced life-saving surgery; and there were days when I thought to myself, "I don't' want to be a pastor. I want to be a doctor where you can really make a difference, a surgeon where you can heal people in one quick operation. Pastoral ministry is too messy. It takes too long." But then I began to experience for myself that true healing is a lot more complicated than a one-day operation. It takes time and it takes community. It was not just the pediatrician that helped us when our son was born. It was the church, the people who prayed, who cried with us, who brought us food. And I'll never forget one particularly person, Nancy Paulsen, a stranger to me, but a member of my church. She appeared one day at our door and said, "God has given me a deep love for children with special needs. During the school year, I work in a special education class, but now it's the summer, and I have some extra time. I wonder if I might offer to be with your son, say eight or ten hours a week. Would that help you?"
That's where the healing occurs. Healing from the deep heartaches that we carry. My cousin Jake served as a counseling pastor for thirty years in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and his theory is that about 80% of our problems in life are a result of unresolved loss. Losses from which we haven't healed or mended. Losses which continue to oppress and to color our lives. Oh, loss will always be a part of life this side of heaven, and there are losses from which we will never fully and completely heal. Yet, my cousin Jake believes that it's the church that helps people in this ongoing process of recovery and healing-in worship, in prayer, in Bible study and pastoral care, in small groups and 12-step work. Further, churches are the vessels by which people are empowered and encouraged to reach out in healing to the world.
I remember visiting with a politician some weeks ago. He was passionate about the work of congregations. Sadly, he said, "Politicians get elected with great passion to change and heal the world, and then they turn around and realize that they have to run for re-election in just a couple of years, a recognition that sort of mutes that passion for justice. Well," he said, "congregations can be steadfast in that passion. They can be the conscience for a community. And their work doesn't have to be huge.
In the city where I last served as a pastor, the Civil Rights Commission compiled a report on race relations, particularly between European-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans. The churches got together with the sole purpose of making that report public, not just a tome gathering dust in some office. Well, as a result of that public report, changes were made in that community-in education, in the police department, in city government.
In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam laments the decline of community in our country, the decline of social capital. People go bowling. They just don't join leagues; they bowl alone. And within that sociological analysis, Putnam makes a startling pronouncement, saying the future of America is in the hands of the churches.
Yes, dear friends, I believe that we need good congregations. We need good pastors. It's within community that we are healed. It's within community that we bear the fruit of healing and justice for the world; but even more than pastors and congregations, even more than fruit and branches, we need the vine. We need the presence of Christ. Jesus said, "I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit." Yes, we are called to abide, to remain in Christ and in his community. But even more, dear friends, we cling to the promise that Christ abides in us. That is the abiding which is unshakable.
A friend once told me about his work in a vineyard in Germany. What was most surprising for him was the toughness of the vine that held the branch. Harvesting wasn't an easy task, not like plucking grapes from a stem. Each branch was well secured to the vine. Dear friend, that is also our identity. We have been well secured to the vine of Christ, a strong sprout from a strong tree; and though we may struggle at times to attend to Christ, to attend to his community, Christ never struggles to attend to us.
Back when my children were toddlers, they loved it when I would take their hands and swing them around in a circle. Holding them tight, I would spin them around, up and down, and they would laugh with delight. And each time, without fail, my children could play that game a whole lot longer than I ever could. I just got dizzy and tired. But they'd cry out, "More, Mommy, more!! Faster!" They loved the movement, the thrill, the change of scenery. As disciples, we abide in Jesus Christ. We delight in the community of branches that surround us on the vine, and we rejoice in a God who promises to hold us secure. For, you see, this God will never get tired. This God will never let you go. And, dear friends, held secure in that promise, we rejoice to think of the amazing fruit God will continue to bring forth in our lives. Amen.
Let us pray.
O loving God, in the vine of Jesus Christ, you hold us secure. You surround us with the gift of community. Nourish us well through these gracious gifts that we might bear your fruits of love and justice in the world. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.