My sermon from September 4th, 2011 based on John 15:1-17 . 2nd of 5 in “Lessons from the Farm” series.
In today’s gospel lesson Jesus is using an agricultural metaphor to teach about the spiritual life. God is the vine grower, Jesus is the vine, we are the branches. Through this parable Jesus wants us to understand that, in order for us to thrive as branches, in order for us to be what the vine grower would hope for us to be, in order for us to produce fruit, we must stay connected to the vine, we must stay connected to Christ who is the source of strength. I want us to hold to this idea and to this image throughout our time together this morning.
Today we continue our sermon series, “Lessons from the Farm.” Through these five weeks we’re going to look to different agricultural realities and metaphors and lessons learned from the farm that speak to us about what it means to grow more fully in the Christian life, to become the people and the community that God calls us to be. If you were with us last week I hope you might remember the illustration I shared using my two tomatoes.
You’ll remember I had a store bought tomato that on the surface appeared perfect, but that we concluded was surely less flavorful and less satisfying than the one I had just recently picked out of my garden. The tomato from the garden was ripe and a deep red and juicy and flavorful in a way that a store bought tomato will never be.
So as we explore these various lessons from the farm it is my hope that we will continue to open ourselves up to the idea of having a farm fresh faith, a faith that is alive and vital, a faith that is juicy and flavorful. Faith like this can help us to be transformed as we connect to God’s love for us.
Through this series we’re looking at 5 keys to living and growing in the Christian faith, things that aren’t rocket science, but things that though we know them, we often struggle to live. My hope is that as we work through this series together you will be inspired to remember and to act upon and live those realities that you already know.
Last week we talked about the reality that we’re stuck in the mud. We talked about the realities of the human condition and the fact that, try as we might, we can’t get ourselves unstuck. We acknowledged the reality that we need Christ, who came to earth to show us God’s love, who invited us into a new way of living, who was ultimately killed, but who rose on the 3rd day proving God’s ability to triumph over even death. And so as we talked about the reality of our condition and our need for Christ we talked through the need that we have to surrender our lives to Christ and to then turn and follow him as we live moment to moment and day to day.
This morning then we’re going to talk about the second Lesson from the Farm, the second of these principles that we know, but that we often struggle to live. After we respond to God’s love for us, after we acknowledge our need for Christ and turn to follow him then we need to be participating in and involved with a Christian community. We need to have other people in our lives who come alongside us and walk with us as we grow in our Christian faith.
To continue with the vine metaphor from today’s gospel lesson, we need not only remain connected to Christ in order to be who God would want us to be, in order to produce the fruit we’re called to produce, but we also need to remain connected with one another as the body of Christ, as the church. If we were the only branch on a vine like this, if all of the other branches were cut off, chances are we wouldn’t make it either. Yet we often try to do just this with our spiritual lives…
At one point when I was in high school I got roped into helping put up some hay. I don’t remember many of the details. I don’t remember even where we were, I don’t remember how many bales there were in the field, but I definitely remember it was about 140 degrees outside with 90% humidity. At least that’s my memory of it…
Now I did grow up outside of town here on a few acres, but for the most part I always have been and always will be a city boy. Yet somehow I got roped into helping put up hay on one of those brutally hot summer days. Though I can’t remember the specifics, I think there were only 2 of us and I, at least, didn’t know what I was doing. If my memory serves me correctly, the other guy knew what he was doing and assumed that I did too, I guess that’s why he had roped me into helping. So he didn’t really communicate what needed to be done. I didn’t really ask what needed to be done. We just started loading hay onto the trailer. It was ugly. We stacked it high, but we did not stack it tight. How that hay ever stayed on that trailer I don’t know…
A couple of weeks ago, in preparation for this series, I went out to Ben Myers’ farm and spent some time interviewing him. Ben’s property actually neighbored my families’ when I was growing up and he was always a great neighbor and someone who I knew was wise so I wanted him to help this city boy understand some important things about farming so that I might better be able to communicate and teach those things to you as well.
Remembering my less than successful attempt at putting up hay I asked Ben if he could tell me a little bit about how the whole process is supposed to play out, how many people you should have and how the hay should be stacked. Let’s hear what Ben had to say.
So there is a specific way that it makes the most sense to load a trailer… who knew?! And one of the keys for me in what Ben said is that you ideally you have at least three people, one on the truck organizing the bales and two on the ground loading the bales and maybe even a fourth to drive the truck. When it’s done right, putting up hay is not a one-person job.
There simply are some things that are not meant to be done alone. Not just putting up hay, but living the Christian life as well. We need other people. Other people need us. However, our spiritual lives often look a lot like I’m sure I did trying to put up hay, not knowing what I was doing, not talking to the person closest to me in that experience. In these situations, things aren’t really put together, there isn’t any balance and if the truck were to hit a bump, the whole thing might come tumbling down.
The Christian life has so much to offer, but when you do it all by yourself it can be exhausting and even confusing, it can at times be unfulfilling. Yet more and more I encounter people who seek to go at it alone, who seek to live out their faith in isolation. Several months ago I was visiting with a woman in our community and I asked her if she attended church anywhere. She responded quickly saying, “I usually go to the church of the shade tree.” Though she didn’t say it, I heard in her statement that sentiment that I hear people say all the time, “I’m not really religious, but I’m spiritual.”
Without giving it a great deal of thought I quickly responded and said, “well that can be a great place to experience God, but it’s a really tough place to be in community with others. She smiled and shrugged her shoulders and that was about the extent of that conversation…
This sentiment that one can be spiritual, but not religious, is increasingly common. And while I understand, at least on some level, what people are saying when they make that statement, I think it is often a cop out. Our spiritual lives are best lived in relationship with others, in a community. Our spiritual lives have the best chance of bearing fruit when we remain connected to the vine, to Christ and to the community of faith as the body of Christ in the world today.
As a culture we used to live in community in ways very different than we do today. I imagine that some of you can remember a time when laundry was done on the front porch and then hung out to dry. We now have our washers and dryers tucked away in the basement or in an interior room of our house, we do all of that inside. Groups of families from the neighborhood used to gather around the one radio on the block or the one color tv on the block and now on any given evening we are in our own homes in front of our own screens oftentimes with more screens than people in any given room.
The church is the last place where we’re really expected to authentically engage in these relationships, but even here we often struggle to know what that looks like or how to do that. We are so used to just smiling and saying fine whenever anyone asks how we’re doing that the idea of really engaging in community, letting down our guard, finding a place to be ourselves and to be loved anyway and even to be challenged and encouraged to grow, this all seems like a foreign concept in our culture today, but it is our call as the church.
From the earliest days the church was a group of Christ’s follower’s who committed to living in community with one another as they sought to grow in and share Christ’s love with the world. The book of Acts explains it like this…
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
The early church was not simply a community who came together for an hour or two once a week. They were a group devoted to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship and to the breaking of bread and to prayer. They were together regularly supporting each other and sharing life with one another on a variety of levels.
Our call as the church, as the body of Christ in the world today is that we might regularly be in community and relationship with one another. When the church is functioning at it’s best a significant part of how we stay connected to the vine, of how we receive the strength and the nourishment and the sustenance that we need, is through the relationships that we share with one another here.
In some churches this call to be in community with one another is a push toward participation in a formalized small group ministry. While I am confident that our congregation would greatly benefit from a program like this, it isn’t something that we have today and it likely isn’t anything that we’ll offer, at least not through this school year.
However, there are still a number of different ways in which you might connect with others in small group setting through the church: Sunday School classes, recreation, study, UMW, youth group. To fully be connected to the vine that is Christ we need to be growing in our faith more than just in worship on Sundays, we need to be connecting with one another throughout the week too.
As you grow in your Christian faith you need opportunities to connect with others, but the flipside of that is that they need you too. When Ben and I first started talking about putting up hay he told me a story…
When we fail to be a part of the community of faith when we fail to be present and active and engaged we are in many ways like those kids who told Ben they couldn’t handle it and left him to do all of the work. Putting up hay isn’t a one-person job. Growing in our spiritual lives isn’t a one-person job. I challenge you to commit to being involved in this community of faith, in ways more than just worship, for your own sake, for the sake of others in this community, and for the sake of the mission to which God has called us.