May 2, 2021
"The Present and Future Church"
Pastor Scott Landis
My very first call to ministry was to a large rural congregation in southeastern Pennsylvania where I served as an associate pastor. If you’ve ever been to that area of the mainland you know how lush and beautiful it can be. Rolling hills give way to gentle streams and dense groves of hardwood trees that come alive with spring green in March and an astounding variety of color in autumn. The red-brick church where I served, nestled in the rolling hills of the Perkiomen Valley, was surrounded by spacious graveyards – and offered parishioners an incredibly bucolic setting. One I still enjoy visiting whenever I return to what, I suppose, will always be home.
Close to the church was a large family-owned farm cared for by two of our members who we affectionally called “Memmy and Pappy” (similar to our “Auntie and Uncle” here). Memmy and Pappy were often heard speaking many memorable phrases in Pennsylvania Dutch – their first language – while they worked tirelessly in their fields of corn, and soy, all the while caring for herds of cow, sheep, and pigs. It was a hard life that none of the kids or grandkids were interested in continuing.
However, one of their grandsons, also named Scott, took an interest in farming but with a new crop in mind. Scott’s passion for fine wines prompted him to ask Pappy for a section of the land to begin a vineyard. He, and his finance Pat, worked as hard in their vineyard as Memmy and Pappy worked in other sections of the farm and the “fruit” of their labor was obvious.
During my tenure at the church, Scott and Pat asked me to officiate their wedding – and, naturally, they wanted it to be held in their vineyard. They invited me to visit with them there. It was then and there that I was introduced to the beauty and challenges of cultivating grapes – and a much deeper appreciation for Jesus words in the 15th chapter of John.
Without going into all the details, vine-growers face enormous challenges as they seek to produce the best possible grapes – hopefully resulting in the best possible wine. The nuances of slope and soil, just the right balance of sun and rain, and various tricks to keep the deer from eating all the profits give nightmares to the vine-grower as they pray for a bountiful outcome. Suffice it to say – in growing grapes, there is a lot that CAN be controlled and an equal amount that cannot. [Pause]
We pick up our story in John today in a section known as the “Farewell Discourse” of Jesus. In his typical method of “talking story” with his disciples, Jesus introduced what would be a familiar agrarian metaphor to them as he prepared them for his departure. His central message has a kind of ironic sting as we reflect on our experience today – a reality that has made a distinct shift this morning as we gather for worship for the first time in a VERY LONG time.
Jesus’ invitation – offered in the form of a challenge – was for believers to “abide IN him – as they were to abide WITH one another.” Using the vine-growing metaphor – Jesus’ followers are described as the “branches” and HE is the vine which holds them altogether. Translated to our experience: As we abide in him – or allow ourselves to be held together in him – we deepen in our relationship with one another – and with God. Our lives begin to bear much fruit as we become more mature in our discipleship.
So, we could have some fun with this metaphor as we imagine just what kind of grape we are maturing into: do you fancy yourself a rich cabernet or perhaps a buttery chardonnay or even a tangy merlot? But – I digress.
Let’s get back to the “necessity of abiding.” What I believe Jesus meant, is when we abide in the vine, it is much like coming together as a spiritual `ohana – which was impossible for us for well over a year. But now that the door has reopened, I wonder, what our future will look like? [Pause]
I’ve been told that the best grapes are produced when grafted onto a sturdy, mature, central root. The foundation needs to be strong in order for the new branches to abide and grow into full maturity thereby producing the best possible grapes. I wonder if we might learn from that as we move from the present to the future church. [Pause]
If we were to reflect on what “church” means to us – and to our world – today, I wonder what images come to mind? I wonder about that particularly as we begin to emerge from our post-pandemic reality of separation, and facemasks, and Zoom. I also wonder what church will look like in light of the most recent Gallop poll which is getting a lot of attention these days – a poll that offers some alarming statistics for our present-day church.
The poll showed that up until about the year 2000, those claiming affiliation with some religious institution held fairly steady at about 70%. Since then, there has been a rather precipitous drop in professed religious affiliation, with the biggest decrease being among the Millennial, Generation X, and Z groups. In other words, not only are our kids and grandkids no longer interested in farming – as Memmy and Pappy soon realized, neither are they interested in the church (at least the one we have tried to preserve). In fact, the data reveal the percentage of folks who claim church affiliation today has dropped to 47% - a reality that does not bode well for what we value as sacred and essential to Christian faith. [Pause]
In talking to a Catholic Priest this week (whose denomination has been hit hardest by loss) about this very phenomenon, he said there is general agreement by Catholic church officials that the church as we know it is rapidly dying. To deny that is as foolish as denying global warming. Their priests, he said, need to be prepared to offer hospice care to these dying churches.
“Well, that’s pretty distressing – and sobering,” I said to my colleague.
But then his eyes lit up. And a huge smile filled his face as he responded. “Scotty, it’s the best thing that could happen. Remember those words from Isaiah,
‘I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.’ (Isa 43:19)
I invite you to sit with those promising words for a moment and imagine for yourself. What is the new thing – the way forward – the new way of abiding that God is calling forth today? There are no wrong answers. What’s important is that we begin to let go of what needs to die (as Jesus described the branches that are no longer useful) so that there is room to graft in the new opening, the new possibility so that a new and different form of maturity can emerge.
Did you listen closely to Jesus’ words? Abiding does not involve just hanging out and growing old or gnarly or haphazardly or however we want. And, abiding does not allow for doing the same thing over and over with no growth at all. Abiding is much more difficult than that.
We as branches are all grafted into the root – our center – which is Keawala`i in our case. This is the essence of who we are. But we will all need to be pruned periodically – and that hurts – but it is essential in order that our branches will grow stronger, fuller, and our fruit much more mature and delicious. To abide may require much from each of us and may not always be pleasant. But the result, the new that Isaiah spoke about and Jesus alluded to, can be amazing – and perhaps even better than what ever thought possible.
The time is now. We are transitioning into a new moment in our history as the church of Jesus Christ – and Keawala`i is an integral part of that. Open your eyes. Get ready to see. What are the new branches being grafted into our center today? How might we be pruned to produce even more delicious fruit which will carry us “from generation to generation.”
What an amazing moment to be alive! What an opportunity to abide in the vine.