Rev. Danielle K Bartz May 2, 2021
John 15:1-8 “A Tangled Mess of Community”
For over a year now, at least once a week, I think about the last time we gathered in-person for worship. There is a lot about that week that is just a blur, but there are two images for me that are as clear as if they happened yesterday. The first was just before worship started. Folks had arrived early, which, quite frankly, other than the choir, no one ever did. But, you all arrived early and were mingling in the Fireside Room. I had to usher you into the sanctuary by making some stupid joke about social distancing. The second vivid memory I have about that service is this: just after I finished preaching and praying, I sat down and struggled not to cry. Not because I was ashamed to show my emotions, but because I knew that if I started to cry, I would not be able to stop. Only a couple of tears escaped, and I was able to bless you in person for the last time in over a year.
Both of those memories are really powerful for me for different reasons. The memory of you all mingling in the Fireside Room before worship is powerful because, looking back at it, I wonder if we all knew it might be the last time in a while when we could be together. Of course none of us knew how long, those were the days when we thought a two-week break from large gatherings was all that was needed. But, that memory of you all mingling together stuck. The world was chaotic and what we didn’t know was far more than what we did. But what we did know was that we found comfort in our community. And so you got to church early, just to soak up a few more moments of being together.
We have learned more about what it means to be a community throughout this last year than the Church has learned in the last hundred years. We have learned that community exists outside of the familiar, outside of the church building, outside of tradition. We have learned that community thrives when the care and love of neighbor is put above everything else – even when that care and love can only be achieved by staying home. We have learned that community takes work, intentional work, and cannot be taken for granted. We have learned that community can handle upheaval, fear, and trauma. We have learned that community can do incredible good even when apart. We have learned that God exists in community in ways that pass all human understanding. We have learned more about what it means to be a community in this last year than we could have possibly imagined on that Sunday in mid-March 2020 when we mingled for a few extra minutes in the Fireside Room.
These lessons are not new, however. These lessons are in fact ancient. These are the lessons that were taught to the earliest followers of Jesus. Throughout his ministry, Jesus gathered people around him and told them that their relationship with God and with one another was so much more than they realized. Their relationship with God was not dependent on following traditions and engaging in the same ritual over and over again. Those things were important, of course, tradition and ritual help to create identity and are a physical reminder of faith – but a relationship with God was not dependent on them. God does not need tradition and ritual, God only needs faith, and just a wavering faith is plenty.
This was an entirely new lesson for the people Jesus was ministering to. This went against everything the people had been taught. Jesus knew this revolutionary message would be startling and people would be suspicious of it – but, as we know, it resonated. It resonated with the people who had been told they were not good enough, whose life circumstances kept them from participating in the rituals. Word began to spread, people grew excited and wanted to hear more. For the first time, for so many people, God felt accessible and personal. Jesus taught them that God loved everyone, no matter what, no matter their life circumstances or their abilities to participate in community.
Jesus was creating a new idea of what community meant. In today’s scripture lesson we hear Jesus once again trying to explain this idea. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” To ‘bear much fruit’ in life and relationship with God did not require anything other than a connection to the Divine. And that connection is unique for everyone. Each branch in connected to the vine in its own way. For some, that may mean ritual and tradition. For others that is a brief pause for prayer. For some it is found in conversation with a friend. We are all connected to the divine in our own way, and it is in those unique connections that we find community.
Most of us have encountered a mature plant, either in a garden or old growth forest, that is just a tangled mess of vines and branches. It can be impossible to find where one stops and another begins. And we also know that it can be nearly impossible to untangle those branches. One wraps around another, creating a strong fabric – a fabric that cannot be torn apart. Each branch may be connected to the vine in its own unique way, but that shared connection is what draws them together, and it creates a tangled mess of community.
We at First Congregational have proven to ourselves and the world that we are a tangled mess of community. True, we haven’t mingled in the Fireside Room for a long time (and we will not be ‘mingling’ like that for a while yet). But that fabric of our community has only grown stronger because we have realized it is not the traditions, rituals, or building that creates community, it is our shared connection and commitment to God.
The other memory I shared from the last time we gathered was trying not to cry as I sat down after preaching and praying. I am not sure what prompted that tears. Some of it was fear of the unknown, I am sure. Some of it was exhaustion of course, that week was over-whelming for me. But most of it, I think, was my deep and true love for all of you. I am in this tangled mess of community with you. I didn’t know what our community would look like going forward, but as your pastor I have a unique vantage point to see just how strong we are. I knew we would be alright. But I also knew it was going to be hard. And I knew that my heart would ache being apart from you. And it has. It has been an incredibly hard year, for all of us. But my unique vantage point as been a true gift, because I have seen that tangled mess of community we were a year ago is even stronger and more intertwined now.
Tears have flowed easily throughout this last year, and I am sure that has been true for many of you, not just me. But our tears have been punctuated with laughter, joy, hope, truth, and conviction. We continued to do incredible good for our community, we have worshipped and prayed in new ways, many of our relationships have grown deeper, and we have engaged in difficult but vital conversations. We have donated thousands and thousands of dollars to local organizations supporting our area through the pandemic. We led the effort to eliminate over $2 million of medical debt throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin. We made much needed improvements to our building. We stared at computer screens for worship, Bible study, and fellowship. If there was an award for best virtual Christmas pageant, we would have won. We evolved in our use of technology – starting with nothing but my cellphone propped on a music stand. And we kept our humor and patience when the technology failed us or started to inexplicably broadcast a country music radio station.
The fabric of our community is stronger than ever. Over the next weeks and months, we will begin to relocate ourselves as a worshipping community after a year of dislocation. We will take it slow, be deliberate, remember grace, and seek out joy along the way. We do this because we are held together by the one true vine, one that can never be broken – a vine that we are each connected to in our own way, and yet we find ourselves tangled up together. Thank God for this tangled mess of community. Amen.
Almighty and most gracious God, whose very nature is to be present in good time and in bad; in laughter and in pain, in joy and in despair; in work and in play; and in all those things that are a joy in life, open our hearts and our minds to you now.
God, you have called us into relationship to fulfill a mission whose meaning we yet dimly see. Grant us a sense of our identity as people of rich human lineage, as children of the promise, and as a people you claim as your own. Touch us that we may trust you and be strong, so that we grow in union with all in your beloved community.
We pray this day for those who are feeling unattached from your presence. Remind them of your presence and the presence of those in community with them. Renew them with life and nurture their growth.
We pray for those who are sick, hurting, grieving, and afraid. Strengthen them with you love and your grace, and lead us to reach out to them and draw them close.
We thank you that you hear these prayers, both those spoken aloud and those that we are not yet able to say aloud. Help us to hear your still-speaking voice as you answer.
We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, the one true vine, our source of connection to you and to one another, who taught us to prayer together by saying…Our Father…