First Congregational United Church of Christ
May 3, 2015
“Re-rooting Ourselves” John 15:1-8
Rev. Diane K. Hooge

William Sloan Coffin is known for saying that “Mother love like God’s love provides maximum support and minimum protection.”
One of the surprising gifts of marrying into the Hooge family was the relationship I developed with Ken’s Aunt Sara, his mother’s sister. She did not fit into the norms of her generation. She ran the office of the John Deere dealership in Albany, Oregon, and knew enough about the Parts Department that she ran it when they were between employees. She recognized and welcomed the local farmers who came in to buy parts, seek repairs and buy or trade in their John Deere farm equipment. Unlike her sister, whose home was always over-the-top clean, Sara’s home was a hodge-podge of piles and waiting projects to be completed. She had what she called a “wash and wear rule.” If you threw an article of clothing into the washer and then dried it and could wear it without ironing it, you kept it, otherwise she dumped it. She also was known for her “sock I.Q. test.” All the clean socks were dumped into her son’s and husband’s dresser drawers and their test was to find the socks that matched.

Sara came into this world the 11th of 12 children of a Mennonite family. Her sibling’s average family size was between 4 and 10 children. Aunt Sara and Uncle Don had one son. However, over the years, they had a long list of nieces and nephews who lived with them for various reasons and seasons. Her incredible gift was her ability to love in a way that left room—as Coffin put it, providing “maximum support for minimum protection.”

Although Aunt Sara attended church most weekends, except during fishing season, she took no active role on committees or projects. I believe her greatest gift was her ability to welcome various youth into her home with love and without judgement.
When the rest of the family thought our camping-trip-move to Nova Scotia with an 11 month old and a menagerie of animals was bizarre, it was Sara who handed me a bag of quarters and asked that we keep in touch along the way.
Later in life when the rest of the family thought seminary wasn’t appropriate for a woman, it was Sara who showed up to hear one of my first sermons. She always referred to me as her “preacher niece.”

Today’s lesson from the Gospel of John holds up the familiar images of the writer’s rural world. The vineyards of our text are about having roots. They represent security. The vine and branches are a frequent metaphor in the Hebrew Scriptures. The grapevines in Palestine are grown most commonly on terraces. The vines are not allowed to fruit for the first three years which means that the first fruit, no matter how exciting it is to see it come on the vine, is lopped off in order to maximize the development of the vineyard.

We are reminded of how we are all intertwined. We know that the best grapes are produced closer to the central vine because that’s the place where the nutrients are most concentrated. Therefore, there is a need to keep the vines from taking off and rambling all over. In this image, Jesus is the vine and God is the grower and we are the branches. It’s hard to honor the truth of nature… like pinching the first pansies to produce fuller plants, or to remove the fruit from a young tree in order to allow the tree to be as strong as possible. Thinning is something that’s difficult for me, since I’m just thrilled to experience the reality that the seeds actually grew.

This whole text is about Jesus preparing his disciples for life without his presence. John’s community was in a life-threatening situation. Their choice to follow Jesus put them in a vulnerable place with the established religious authority. They were subject to excommunication. Jesus is inviting them to enter into a deeper relationship with him. He is seeking to give them hope. They need community. These vineyard metaphors are about living focused intentional lives. Jesus lets them know that they cannot live on their own strength. Their relationship and our relationship are about allowing God to do a work in us. Being pruned is not about punishment, but about having our lives shaped and honed so that we are living out the wholeness and fullness of life which demands that we be in touch with our own spirit—our full selves. The branches of our text that do not produce are those who profess faith, but do not love. It’s about doing good works for the right reasons.

I believe that we are often blessed with people in our lives that are used by God as our pruners. They have the ability to love us while encouraging and helping us with our own shaping.

At Aunt Sara’s funeral service, there were an incredible number of cousins who shared the stories of what they experienced and learned under the care of Aunt Sara and Uncle Don. Pruning had taken place in their lives. There were stories of gratitude…stories of learned work skills and the joy of shared days of fishing for Kokanee on Odell Lake. So, as always, we’re all invited into the text. Who are the people in your life who have offered pruning –pruning that enabled you to develop in new ways, or perhaps in deeper ways? Who is it in your life who stood by you at a critical juncture? Who has believed in you when you were unable to believe in yourself? Or, who would point to you and tell about your advocacy for them? I cherish each Sunday morning when we listen to one of our community tell their life story. Somewhere in that story we learn of the people in their lives that made a difference—people who helped them to become who they are today.

Abiding in God—dwelling in God—remaining, staying, living, and making a home, means having the support and presence of God on a daily basis. It demands that we have faith in that presence, along with a supportive community, especially when we are called to do some particularly difficult work. It means becoming vulnerable and letting the Spirit guide us so that the pruning that needs to happen on a regular basis can be a part of our growth and maturity. And, it is that pruning that creates energy and space for the new in our lives. And, let’s be truthful, it’s also part of our stress, discomfort and conflicted feelings. Change is difficult! Change is often irritating. In this in-between season we, as a church have been seeking to have clarity as to what are priorities are to be– both as individuals and as a church.

This week I thought about some of the stories I’ve been told about how former Pastor Pam Shepherd talked about going to two church services for three years before it actually happened. Now, it’s impossible to think about not having two services.

As action oriented as this congregation is and seeks to be, we know that we cannot take on every issue that we’d like to take on. We’re invited in that dwelling place to discern what are our priorities? What are we called by God to take on, and what do we need to say “no” to…as least for this season in our church life?

It’s often hard to let go of those sections of the vine that took so much work to grow. And, sometimes, when those vines are about the need for forgiveness in our lives, it is hard to seek God’s healing touch and actually let go and let those strands be removed and released from us…often those vines of memories have become a false comfort that we continue to cling to as we visit our past old wounds.

During this Stewardship month, we are being invited to discern what our financial gift will be to the church. The Search Committee is faithfully carrying out their task to find a candidate to present to you for your vote to become the next settled pastor, and they are trusting this community to be able to offer a fair compensation to the pastor along with adequate funds to enable each of our leadership teams to do their work.

Each Sunday morning during this stewardship campaign we have the privilege of listening to the “Now Testament” lessons of those who have been invited to share their personal experience around their life of this church and how they are involved both in action and financial giving. Our giving patterns point to our values. Our gifts to the church are part of our desire to balance our commitment to God through this church while living in the joy and challenge of community life.

On May 31st, we will gather in this sanctuary and in the ritual of Consecration Sunday, we will process to the front of the church and place our financial commitments in the basket. It is a profound worship experience. It’s where we live into this text and remember who we are, and what our collective gifts are all about, so that we can embrace the authentic call of God upon our unique faith community. It’s an act of acknowledging our united desire to be dwelling in God. We will offer the financial gifts of our lives, as well as our time and gifts of action. May we be open to being pruned for the sake of our section of the vineyard that has the mandate to live out God’s call on the corner of Morton Street and Siskiyou in the church that is known in our community as the Peace Church. May it be so. Amen.

Brother David Steindl-Rast
“Wherever we may come alive, that is the area in which we are spiritual.”