Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | May 2, 2021
John 15: 1-8
There was a church pastor who served on a presbytery committee. When the committee assignment was over with, the minister was heard to say, “Now I can get back to working my normal 70 hours a week.”
It was said with some pride, as if to say, “I’m a busy pastor. I have important things to do.”
My thought was, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
One of the great myths of church life is that we have to get busy or we’ll die out. An active church is seen as a successful church. So the more stuff we do the better off we are. Some doing is a good thing.
Doing is good as long as it comes from the source of our being. When we act out of our sense of identity then our actions reflect the heart and soul of who we are. When we do things to try to create a sense of identity then we are engaged in useless busy work.
I believe that the role of the minister is not to tell people what to do, but to remind people of who they are. It comes through the clearly stated words that we practice – such as when we baptise someone – “You are God’s beloved child in whom God is well pleased.”
Or from teachings from the life of Jesus when he told people, “I am the vine, you are the branches, abide in me.” He used an image of natural, growing things. Who we are stems from who he is. When we have that essential connection then our actions come naturally.
We don’t have to force ourselves to be a church and we don’t have to prove ourselves. We are who we are because God is who God is. We don’t have to rely on how much we do for God; we just have to rely on God’s grace.
I was getting ready to move from Clarion, Iowa to Minneapolis, Minnesota. After eight and a half years of pretty good work I was ready to take my lessons learned to a new congregation and see what might happen.
A few days before my final church service in that parish a woman came up to me on the street and said, “I just want to know why you never visited my mother!”
The loaded question in the form of an accusation. There was no good way to address her concern, so I mumbled something useless and walked away.
That sort of thing pushes all the right buttons. We all have them to some degree. One of those buttons says, “You Are Inadequate.” It seems like people are always pushing that one. People at work, at school, at home. There’s always a comparison being made, even if it’s in our own mind: you don’t measure up to the standard; the job you’re doing is not good enough; you could be doing more; you could be better; you’re not trying hard enough; you’re not producing the desired results; you’re too much of what we don’t need and not enough of what we do need.
We try harder. We try harder to be good at what we do. Better at work and better at home. Just better in everything, especially church. Church is where we really come up short of expectation. It seems as though no matter what the path we believe it is that God has set before us, we just can’t seem to get it good enough. We never give enough of whatever it is we have to give: time, talents and money. Church seems to have an appetite that can never be satisfied.
What could I have said?
“The last time I visited her she would not put her hearing aid in. She said it was useless. So everything I said to her I had to shout, literally at the top of my voice. The other people along her corridor might be disturbed at that and wonder what all the yelling is about.
In response to everything I said to your mother, or shouted at her, she responded, ‘I just want to die! Why doesn’t God just take me!?”
And when I prayed with her, in spite of her insisting that I ask God to ‘take her home tonight,’ I managed to shout out a blessing that I doubt was very effective. The reason then why I ‘never visited’ your mother is because she is in such a bad way, in pretty much every way, that my presence with her did not register.”
A lot of the places where you work are concerned about production quotas. Business, industry and the public sector all have certain quotas that have to be met. If they are not met, somewhere along the hierarchy, heads will roll.
But in church, what if any, are the quotas? Quotas are about things you can count and measured; church is about a realm that cannot be easily grasped. A realm described in many ways, such as “I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me.”
“Abide in me,” said Jesus. We often go on to say, “We need to be better branches; we need to abide more!” Abiding is a tough concept to get ourselves around. Tough because we think action produces the desired results. Abide seems inactive and thus negative in our way of thinking. “What are you doing? Abiding? Well then quit wasting time and get busy.”
In the same passage where Jesus speaks of abiding in him, he describes what happens to the branches that don’t bear fruit. God comes along, prunes them away and throws them into the fire. That seems to present a fairly clear image as to why we should get busy. This is one of those biblical images that are used to justify a violent God who wreaks havoc in our lives to teach us a lesson.
But if the lesson is that if we are not productive enough, we get punished, why would we want to participate in a system like that? It would be easier to simply to get along with God. At least then if something bad happens, it isn’t because God did it for our benefit.
I think the image has more to do with the idea that if we partake of the essential relationship between ourselves and Christ, if we abide in Christ, then the outcome will take care of itself. Just as the essence of the vine flows through its branches, it is Christ in and through us. The relationship needs no justification. It speaks for itself.
The church I served before coming here created a “peace garden.” It was a small garden space, nicely landscaped with plants and trees, rocks and benches. The idea was to create a space where people could just sit and be still.
Sometimes in my comings and goings from the church I would notice that garden and the bench and the unspoken invitation to come and abide. After a while that invitation became rather like an accusation – “what’s your hurry? What’s the rush? What are you trying to accomplish?” Looking back, I see that perhaps my time there could have been more effective if I had spent more time that garden and less time in the office, the car, or the committee meeting.
But live and learn is part of the wisdom we gain from experience. In terms of ministry I have managed to go from driving 45,000 miles a year to not owning a car.
How that possible, how is it accomplished? The writer William C. Martin tells us –
“There are powerful illusions that hinder the working of the Word in the church: the illusion that there is something to achieve. The illusion that there is something to lose. The illusion that there is something to do. If you believe there is something you must achieve in the parish, you will never achieve it. If you believe you have something to lose, you will lose it. If you believe there is something that must be done in order for God to be pleased with your life, you will never get it done. Instead, seek the still water of your own soul. There you will find for yourself the Reality behind the illusion, and you will be blessed.”
The western mind insists on a separation between heaven and earth. Jesus has reconciled all things. You cannot create a heaven on earth, but you can recognize heaven in earth. And so –
Watch the events within the parish with detachment and serenity. For all events are of a common origin and share a common destination. The smallest thought and the greatest dream return to their home in God. To live at home is to know true peace. Your people are longing for home. But they wander in confusion and sorrow. If you are living at home, you create for them a space where they may find:
Tolerance, dignity kindness, acceptance, all the qualities of a home governed by love. If you remain at home, nothing can displace you or bother you. And when you die, even then you will be unperturbed, for you will still be at home.” (The Art of Pastoring)
For all of us, our essential connection is with Christ and each other. It’s a heart to heart reality, not a person to institution reality. As you think about your life, where you are, what you have to do, everything you might be wrestling with, and everything you might want to avoid or run away from, think of how God might be saying to you, “Stay here for a while. Abide in me.” Amen.