Sunday, July 24, 2011

Practicing Life on the Vine

John 15:1-8 -- Parable of the Vine and Branches

[no video or audio this week...service was held outside at Highland Retreat]

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“I am the vine, you are the branches.”
We have, in this simple, almost elementary metaphor from Jesus
one of the richest images of a full and fruitful life.

We’ve been spending time this summer with the parables of Jesus.
This parable is more a one-liner, than a story.
“I am the vine, my Father is the vine-grower, you are the branches.”

But Jesus does elaborate.
“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit,
because apart from me you can do nothing.”
“My Father, the vine-grower,
lops off the branches that don’t bear fruit,
and prunes the fruit-bearing branches, so they bear more.
Abide in me as I abide in you.
Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself
unless it abides in the vine,
neither can you unless you abide in me.”

This parable, is a parable of grace.
It’s a beautiful reminder that life in the kingdom is pure gift.
Life comes to us because we are attached to the Vine.
We can take a deep breath, and rest in this grace.
We don’t earn or manufacture a full and fruitful life. It is gift.

But, like any point of grace,
if we’re not careful, we could trip over it.
And stumble into the temptation
to think we are merely passive recipients
of the life that comes from the Vine,
to think we can just lean back
and wait for God’s life to flow.

Yes, whatever life we know, is thanks alone to the Vine.
But look at the rest of Jesus’ teachings.
Jesus never suggested his disciples
would just bask in God’s goodness and grace,
and enjoy the ride.
“Count the cost,” he said to them.
“Take up your cross, and follow me.”
“Whoever wants to save his life, must lose it.”
“The way is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life.”

Even this grace-filled image of the vine,
has a built-in expectation that we do something in this equation.
Jesus gave us an imperative: “Abide.”
You must do this, he urged his disciples.
Abide in me. Stay. Cling.
Do this, and you will live.
In other words, I am the source of your life.
But you must practice life on the vine.

So this is what I want to do with this metaphor of vine and branches.
I want us to think about how to practice life on the vine.
What are the practices that grow out of
our identity as a community on the vine.
We are a disciple community attached to Jesus the vine,
and thus, by definition, attached to each other.
So there are practices we engage in
because we are attached, and want to stay attached.
We want to abide.

This isn’t the first time I’ve talked with you about these practices.
But it’s been a while.
I developed this list four or five years ago,
as part of my doctoral project.
I introduced it first to the whole church,
and then, to small groups and Sunday School classes, etc.

I was so bold as to say these practices
are what shape us for the life we were made for.
If we want to be the people God wants us to be,
if we want to be the church God wants us to be,
it’s not only important to have rightly-ordered beliefs,
it’s essential that we engage in rightly-ordered practices.
Belief and practice flow both directions.
Practices grow out of our beliefs,
and beliefs grow out of our regular practices.
Another way of saying it, is that
we act our way into believing, as much as, perhaps even more than
we believe our way into acting.

God is the one who creates and sustains us,
but practices create an opening for God.
God never forcibly shapes us.
God waits for an opening.
And these practices, create openings.

As I go through these, ask yourself when, where, and how
you engage in these practices.
Some of them we do every Sunday morning,
but not nearly all of them.
There needs to be some other venue—
a small group you are part of, a spiritual friendship,
some place where these practices are valued and nurtured.
All these practices—even ones that can be done privately—
are still a practice embedded in community.
Left on our own, these practices, and we ourselves,
will wither and die on the vine.

At Park View we talk about ourselves as
a community of communities engaged in God’s mission.
We’re like a grapevine in that respect.
Various branches that fork out from the main vine,
and each branch forks out into a cluster of smaller branches,
and each of those fork out into yet smaller clusters of branches,
and it keeps going that way.

The question is where in that intertwined cluster of clusters
do you find yourself?
And are you attached in a healthy, life-giving way,
to a healthy, life-giving, practicing cluster?

Think about that as we go down this list quickly.
So here are the practices
I think are required to live the life we were made for.
_____________________

First, the practice of public worship.
This one, I believe, rises to the top
as the most essential practice of God’s people of the Vine.
Worship is one opportunity we all have, and we all need,
to step into God’s great narrative that defines who we are.
It is the time to come into God’s presence as a community,
and do the very thing that we were created to do—
to honor and glorify God.
Worship reminds us of our truest identity and purpose.
It is one of precious few times during our weekly routine,
that we are brought back to reality, so to speak.
When the false narrative that our culture uses to define us,
is challenged directly by God’s narrative.
When we are reminded of who we are in Christ.
Or in the language we used this past spring in a worship series,
worship shapes our ultimate desires.
The larger culture engages in all kinds of so-called liturgies—
from shopping to sports to politics—
that are aimed solely at shaping our desires, our longings,
our loyalties.
Communal worship is the one time—the only time, I dare say—
when those other liturgies we’re immersed in,
and actually called into question,
and where we participate in an alternate liturgy,
to shape our desires toward God’s Kingdom,
instead of toward stuff, and power, and self-gratification.
Coming to worship is not about
fulfilling your duty as a good Christian.
It is about the fundamental reshaping of our human desires.
About learning to desire the life for which God created us.
About becoming more fully human.
Where, how, and with whom are we nurturing this practice?

Next, the practice of authentic witness.
If we are in Christ,
if we are gripped by the transforming gospel of Jesus,
we are witnesses . . . by definition.
An authentic witness is one who gives witness to Jesus,
the Source of one’s life, the Vine,
and whose witness is authentic, that is, true to the original.
And that witness is, of necessity, both in word and deed.
It’s nonsense to separate word and deed,
and argue about their respective priority,
to have one without the other is to be counterfeit.
Proclaiming the gospel in authentic witness,
is an essential practice of the church.
Where, how, and with whom are we nurturing this practice?

The practice of hospitality.
Welcoming and being willing to be welcomed by the stranger.
This is a practice that takes practice.
Especially in a culture that values privacy so highly,
that values self-determination.
Being receptive to the “other,” being truly hospitable,
will always be an imposition on the self.
Hospitality is the only way to be free from the tyranny of the self.
If we believe that God has a mission in this world,
and it is our calling to participate in that mission,
then perhaps the practice of hospitality
is the practice we need to be working the hardest at cultivating.
Because hospitality is a counter-cultural practice.
And by hospitality, I mean a radical openness to the other.
Our culture conditions us to protect ourselves, not open ourselves.
Especially now,
in these highly polarized and anxious times we live in.
It takes diligent practice, and careful self-scrutiny,
to develop our ability to be genuinely hospitable.
Where, how, and with whom are we nurturing this practice?

The practice of identifying with Jesus,
is explicitly and intentionally choosing Jesus
as the touchstone for all of life:
naming Jesus savior, redeemer, Lord, teacher, and example.
Acknowledging that there is no realm of life,
visible or secret, that is not profoundly shaped by the fact
that we have identified ourselves with Jesus.
Where, how, and with whom are we nurturing this practice?

The practice of submitting to scripture,
is allowing scripture to “read us” and form us.
It is granting authority to, bowing to,
the Living Word revealed in scripture.
And engaging actively in the communal practice
of reading, listening, and interpreting.
Where, how, and with whom are we nurturing this practice?

The practice of prayer,
forms us for our life and mission as a church,
as we intercede on behalf of God’s purposes in the world,
and God’s purposes in the lives of individuals,
practicing the prayer that Jesus taught us,
“may your kingdom come . . . may your will be done.”
Where, how, and with whom are we nurturing this practice?

The practice of discernment,
in a world of so many confusing options and competing voices,
that clamor for our attention and loyalty,
practicing communal discernment helps us first recognize
and then participate in the activity of God in concrete situations;
it empowers us to say “yes” to that which is life-giving,
and “no” to that which diminishes life.
Where, how, and with whom are we nurturing this practice?

The practice of prophetic engagement with culture.
Our culture is certainly not all depraved.
And I hope no one thinks I’m saying that.
But the fact is, we human beings are steeped in sin.
We need a Savior.
Human culture is formed by broken and sinful human beings.
Therefore, the gospel has something important to say
not only to us individual sinners,
but to the culture we create and inhabit.
A church with a healthy attachment to the Vine
will regularly practice holding culture up for inspection,
and engaging it with the gospel of Christ,
to help us to see it clearly,
and resist those cultural values
that deny or diminish the gospel,
and embrace those that enhance it.
Where, how, and with whom are we nurturing this practice?

The practice of keeping Sabbath,
is communally honoring the Creator,
by regularly resting and allowing others to rest from work,
and taking time enjoy God and God’s gifts.
Our culture needs such a counter-cultural community
who demonstrates there is a better way to live,
than in constant grasping and striving and producing.
Even the so-called rest and recreation our culture promotes,
is often yet another way to grasp and strive
after something elusive.
We, and our culture, are impoverished, without a true Sabbath.
Where, how, and with whom are we nurturing this practice?

The practice of disciplined contemplation,
regular and disciplined time of attending to God,
through prayer, reading, and thoughtful meditation.
It’s a way of replicating, on a smaller more personal level,
what happens in our gathered worship.
We listen for an alternate narrative of our lives,
God’s narrative that defines who we really are.
Where, how, and with whom are we nurturing this practice?

The practice of mutual accountability
is humble submission to Christ’s body, the church,
as it seeks to form all its members—including its leaders—
into the way of Jesus.
It’s the practice of trusting God’s Spirit to be present in the church,
in the whole,
as well as in individual voices, even in the minority voices,
and being willing to give an account, and ask for an account. It’s being willing to mutually submit
our individual ideas, desires, and behavior,
to the wisdom of the body of Christ.
Where, how, and with whom are we nurturing this practice?

The practice of sharing resources,
is to, with generosity and compassion,
consider our resources as not our own,
but gifts from God that we offer back to God,
as vehicles for God’s blessing on others and the world.
A radically counter-cultural practice,
in a culture where every home has its own
locked garage and shed and attic,
filled with the same stuff as our neighbors.
Where, how, and with whom are we nurturing this practice?

The practice of nurturing common life,
entering more deeply into each other’s lives.
Sounds so good, and it’s so hard to do in a culture
of over-activity, over-achievement and over-commitment.
It’s spending significant time with members of our church family,
more time than what we generally do now.
And more time than we have,
if we don’t give up something less important.
Where, how, and with whom are we nurturing this practice?

The practice of peacebuilding and justice-seeking
in the name of Christ,
working for the repair of human relationships,
seeking the transformation made possible
through personal and collective submission to Christ.
Where, how, and with whom are we nurturing this practice?

And closely related, the practice of healing and forgiving
in the name of Christ,
participating in the saving and reconciling activity of God
to heal all sin and brokenness of this world,
personal and systemic.
It’s the practice that grows out of our trust in God as Savior.
And the recognition that we need salvation,
of body, mind, spirit, and relationships.
Where, how, and with whom are we nurturing this practice?

The practice of being with the poor.
This is a deliberate choice to go beyond being do-gooders.
We do very well with helping the poor.
We are model helpers.
But do we know how to be with the poor?
Are we willing to accept them as our neighbors,
with gifts to offer us?
and be willing to know them deeply enough
to call them our brothers and sisters?
Where, how, and with whom are we nurturing this practice?

The practice of learning,
becoming, in actuality, a “disciple community,”
collectively looking to Jesus as master teacher,
and seeking deeper knowledge of life in the kingdom of God.
Where, how, and with whom are we nurturing this practice?

The practice of creation care,
recognizing that God’s love extends to all creation,
and exercising our spiritual mandate
be God’s stewards, and care for all of life.
Where, how, and with whom are we nurturing this practice?
_____________________

These are some of the practices—and there are even more—
that create openings for God.
These are the intentional, habitual, and communal patterns of action,
that will help us live the life for which God created us.
These are the practices that form us as the body of Christ in the world.
The practices that help us abide in the Vine.

As a sign of our desire and willingness
to practice life on the Vine,
let’s sing together a prayer to Christ the Vine,
Thou true Vine, that heals the nations . . .

Thou true Vine, that heals the nations,
Tree of life, thy branches we.
They who leave thee fade and wither,
none bear fruit except in thee.
Cleanse us, make us sane and simple,
till we merge our lives in thine,
gain ourselves in thee, the Vintage,
give ourselves through thee, the Vine.

Nothing can we do without thee;
on thy life depends each one.
If we keep thy words and love thee,
all we ask for shall be done.
May we, loving one another,
radiant in thy light abide;
so through us, made fruitful by thee,
shall our God be glorified.

—Phil Kniss, July 24, 2011

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