Preached September 29, 2013
Texts: John 15:9-17 & Colossians 3:12-17
We continue through the Disciple’s Path series this week, talking about what it looks like to follow Jesus, particularly in the United Methodist tradition. We support this congregation with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.
Last week, we talked about prayer (and hopefully, not just talked about it, but actually prayed!). This week, we look at the second of the membership vows: to support this congregation with our presence.
So basically, our question this morning is, “Why are you here?” What made you get out of bed this morning when you could have slept in? What made you steer your car here to the church rather than to brunch or to the golf course or to the mall?
I imagine our answers area as varied as we are. Some of us had to be here! Some of us wanted to be with friends. Others enjoy the music, or the beauty, or the food. For some of us, it’s just what you do – our week wouldn’t feel right if we didn’t start it at church. Some of us are here looking for answers, or for peace. And the list could go on.
I have another question this morning, though. What happens when the reason we came no longer rings true? What happens when Alastair is away and the choir is small, or when hurt feelings creep in between us and our friends, or when we hear more questions than answers in the sermon? Why bother with church then?
That is a question that has been asked frequently in recent years, especially by younger Americans. One 24-year-old woman named Sarah recently wrote about why she, in her words, “lacks enthusiasm for church.” Among her reasons were these:
- Because the people who teach me and who ask me hard questions and who I want to live like and learn from are outside of my church.
- Because I met, or perceived – rightly or wrongly – more hypocrites in the church than I sensed anywhere else. 
She also refers to music that feels “simplistic or whiny” and preaching that “didn’t so much make me think as fed me other people’s thoughts.”
And you know what? She’s got some good points (she makes 22 of them, in total!). So why bother with church, anyway?
We find one answer, I think, in Jesus words to his disciples in John 15. The chapter begins with the image of a vine: “I am the vine, and you are the branches…abide in me, and you will bear fruit…apart from me, you can do nothing.” We hear in this passage (and rightfully so) the need to remain connected to God. We hear our soul’s deep need for relationship, for a spiritual life.
To this point, our young author Sarah would agree. We do have a longing for God – a “God-shaped” hole in us, as the saying goes. But does abiding in God require us to be in church? Sarah doesn’t think so. She writes:
The awareness that my deepest moments of worship will come this afternoon, on a training run in breezy sunshine with my iPod and audio Bible, nags me.
She is right. We can experience God elsewhere. So once again – why bother with church?
My answer would be because, frankly, we don’t have much choice in the matter. If we are abiding in Jesus – if we’re a branch along the vine – then we are side-by-side with other branches whether we like it or not. God may meet us anywhere, anytime, in any way – certainly. But when God begins to work in our heart and we begin to walk with God, we’ll find ourselves drawn into relationship with others who are walking with God, whether we like it or not.
We may wish it was otherwise. We may not have anything in common with these people! We may not like their style of music or their political persuasions. We may think they are shallow or hypocrites. But you know what? We are still connected to the same vine.
As author Eugene Peterson puts it, “The church is God’s thing, not yours!” Peterson writes:
You say that you have almost nothing in common with these people. But isn’t that just the point? You have nothing in common with them; but God does. This just happens to be the way that God goes about making a kingdom, pulling all sorts and conditions of people together and then patiently, mercifully, and graciously making something of them. What he obviously does not do is pre-select people who have an aptitude for getting along well and enjoying the same things. Of course you don’t have much in common with them. The church is God’s thing, not yours.
That’s pretty much what Jesus tells his disciples in John 15:16:
You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last.
And why did Jesus choose them – and us? Because he loves us – and because he wants us to love each other. To take care of one another. To watch out for one another.
Jesus knew that abiding in God – staying deeply connected, keeping that relationship with God strong – was not easy. He knew there were all kinds of things that we might turn to in our efforts to fill that God-sized hole in our hearts – things like busyness, or food or drink, or one unhealthy relationship after another. Jesus knew there were plenty of distractions, reasons we might loose our grip on faith – grief too deep to carry, pain we can’t make sense of, just plain apathy.
Jesus knew that any leaf along the vine would occasionally need the canopy of protection that other leaves offered. He knew that abiding in God would require some encouragement and support from other people from time to time.
And so he gave the command: Love each other as I have loved you (John 15:13). In his last days with his disciples, knowing he will be leaving them soon, he tells them, “Take care of each other. Stick together, you’ll need each other. Love one another.”
Obeying that command is not always easy. Sometimes it is difficult because we disagree – sharply, deeply. Sometimes it is difficult because we don’t feel loved ourselves – so how and why should we love others?! Sometimes, it is just downright inconvenient to set aside our agendas in order to care for the needs of another person.
The author of Colossians knew that caring for one another wasn’t easy – why do you think he wrote, “Bear with one another, and forgive one another whatever grievances you may have against one another.”
And yet, we are called to care. We are called to love. And we are called by God to do so as one branch of many along the common vine of Jesus, as part of a community of Jesus followers.
And that means showing up, because while we can do a lot of things from a distance, there are some things that only happen when we are together. We can’t feel a hug through the computer. We can’t taste a virtual bread and cup. We won’t notice that the woman who sits at the other end of our pew was missing for three weeks in a row and might need a phone call.
It also means being willing to move beyond the relative anonymity of Sunday morning worship. In a crowd of 100, it is possible to slip in and slip out without really connecting with anyone else. But supporting the church with our presence means actually sharing life together – going beyond the small talk, to really be present with another person. Abiding together means putting roots down together.
Those kind of relationships rarely happen in Sunday worship. They require smaller groups – like Sunday School, Covenant Groups, even choir and committees when the members provide support for one another and join in service to others.
Sharing life together means knowing people well enough that we can ask the kind of hard questions that Sarah wrote about. It means sharing the deep moments of life, and looking past the superficial to know each other’s hearts. It doesn’t happen overnight, or even in a few days together at a retreat or event (though those are good ways to get started!) This kind of loving one another happens in the day-in-and-day-out sharing of life that requires us to show up again and again and again, whether we feel like it or not.
There are plenty of reasons for any of us, young or old, to “lack enthusiasm for church” on any given Sunday – or Wednesday, or Saturday, or whenever it is that we gather to share life and learn to love. We are called to show up anyway – to abide in the vine that connects us to Jesus, but also to one another.
When we do show up, sometimes it feels like we are just going through the motions. But sometimes, the words of the hymns give voice to our hearts’ longing, or the congregation speaks our faith when we cannot. Sometimes hearing someone else’s struggles and triumphs helps us in the midst of our own.
But we don’t show up because it helps us. That part is gift, grace. We show up because we are connected to the vine, and the vine winds through this real, broken, powerful community of people trying to follow Jesus together.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing… You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last…[So] Love each other as I have loved you.
 Sarah Greek, “Why I Lack Enthusiasm for the Church,” http://humanepursuits.com/2013/06/18/half-time-huddle-why-i-lack-enthusiasm-for-the-church/
 Eugene Peterson, The Wisdom of Each Other, 26.