SCRIPTURE LESSON: John 15: 1-8

We Participate Beyond Worship

Conference Minister Sue Artt tells the story of when she was a little girl hosting a birthday party. She sent out all sorts of invitations and couldn’t wait for the fun and festivities.

The day of her party came at last. The house was decorated, the cake was made, the party games and prizes set out and ready. Sue watched the clock like a hawk.

Finally it was time for the party and Sue positioned herself on the front steps to welcome her young guests when they arrived. But no cars pulled up. No kids leapt out. No one came. Not a single little friend.

What a devastation. And a puzzlement, too.

To this day Sue can’t explain it. But what she can explain is the lingering effect of that day long ago. Every time the Rocky Mountain Conference offers an event or hosts an Annual Celebration, Sue has a not-so-secret fear that no one will turn up and she’ll be, as she was then, left standing alone.

During this season between Easter and Pentecost, we are taking time each Sunday to think together about the promises we will be making—some of us for the first time and some for the nth time—as we enter into covenanted membership on the birthday of the church universal, as well as that of our church.

In previous weeks we have explored our pledge to pray ongoingly for the church and its pastor, to worship regularly, and to live into our Relational Covenant, a series of four core promises that help us keep our dealings with one another healthy, loving, and safe.

This morning we are spending time thinking together about another covenantal promise that grows out of our membership: to actively participate in the programs, ministries, and missions of the church.

Reflecting on this, I recall a friend in another community who decided to join a gym. This one had many marvelous offerings—yoga and Pilates classes, racquetball courts, all the newest equipment, a sauna, fabulous personal trainers at the ready.

But none of these factors influenced her decision. No, what motivated my friend to join the gym was how conveniently it was located. It was on her way to work. And this meant that she could quickly pull into the gym parking lot, dash inside, and hurry over to the smoothie bar and order up a shot of wheatgrass or a protein shake. Healthy purchase in hand, she was out the door and on the road again.

In his helpful little book, I Am A Church Member, Thom Rainer encourages his readers to see that belonging to a church involves more than scurrying in at Christmas and Easter to attend worship, and then hurrying off again like my friend with her nutritious smoothie or freshly pressed juice.

Belonging to a church is about, well, belonging. It is about showing up not only in body but also in spirit.

Belonging to a church is about participating in the life of the congregation not simply for the good it endeavors to do or the programs it offers but because showing up is how we as a church become a living, breathing creation, one that connects us not only to God when we are in the sanctuary but also to one another beyond the worship hour.

Showing up for and participating in the church’s offerings outside of this one hour a week we come together to praise God is how we, branches to Christ’s vine, come to experience ourselves not only as abiding in his love but also abiding in the love Christ gives us to share generously with one another.

When I was doing a 9-month seminary internship, my mentor caught me by surprise when he told me that a requirement for his confirmation class was that each student attend every session. No exceptions.

Charles was a wildly liberal guy and his rule left me genuinely confused. But then Charles told me what he said to his students: if you are not here, we are not the same. We need you here, bringing your light, your thoughts, your story. And we need you to be here to receive our light, our thoughts, and our stories.

Charles’ wisdom was wisdom from another time, another culture, another way of being than we Americans typically embrace. We imagine our choices to participate or not affect only ourselves. What we fail to grasp is how, by showing up, we make everyone richer, more complete, more alive. Ourselves included.

Participation matters, yours and mine. Not because there’s a secret chart tucked away somewhere and the more people to come to something the more successful we can call that event.

Taking part in the church’s happenings—from the silly to the serious—is how we become and continue to be a community of caring. It’s how our branches come to touch and then to become intertwined.

Participating in the life of the church beyond the worship hour is how we become a people together, each of us affecting everyone else and in many marvelous ways.

Participating is also how we make real our support for those who have taken the time and put in the loving energy to create the opportunities that enable us to grow together in faith and love.

I don’t know about you but I’ve spent a lot of time in sanctuaries singing, praising, praying, reflecting.

But honestly when I think back on my life in the church, the memories that flood me are not so much the music I heard or the sermons that were preached but rather the time I spent outside of worship with folks I knew a little or a lot. And with those memories comes the awareness, the gratitude even, that these people—knowingly or not—blessed and changed me. And, I would hope, were affected and blessed by me.

This is why we show up. Not because we need X number of bodies for the road clean up or because Shepherd’s Hand is out of hygiene kits. Not because we think we ought to join the newest Rob Bell book study but because whenever we come together—for whatever reason—we leave just a little different than when we first arrived.

When we were but a wee thing, a church barely a year old, we went to Grand Junction to participate in the Pride Parade there. We carpooled and then gathered in the hot June sun, waiting to be told when and where to fall into the line of floats and groups walking down Main Street.

Our bright banner before us, we marched with colorful leis and rainbow pinwheels. It was a high moment, a bonding experience, and it was holy too.

Never will I forget watching Walt Anderson push George Miller down Main Street in a wheelchair so that George, still recuperating from ankle surgery, could be an active participant, not just a spectator on the sidelines. That memory is as potent and instructive as any parable Jesus told. Had I not been there to see this with my own eyes, I would be so much poorer.

Maybe you weren’t there that day but were present another time for something else we did together as a church. And like me, you have a scene or a sense that lingers, a gratitude as juicy as a cluster of grapes as you savor a time God shaped us as a community because we showed up not simply in body but also in spirit.

Worship grounds us in a sacred story that connects us to those who have gone before and stretches out to include those yet to come. A story of God’s grace and God’s glory. Of God’s unfailing goodness to us, God’s children, from the dawn of creation throughout all eternity. Worship connects us to Christ our Vine and to the great heart of the Farmer in whose fertile ground we are planted.

Then we step outside the sanctuary—virtual or otherwise—and into our story together, people called together and nourished by a common source.

It is this story, this identity, that has us experience ourselves as God meant us to experience ourselves. Not separate entities, not isolated units of humanity, not squares on a screen or dots around tables at the Ute but as people whose lives are as interlaced and interconnected as the fruit-bearing branches on a grapevine.

In John’s gospel this morning, Jesus speaks out of his experience as a man of the earth, as someone who took joy in observing the natural world and noticed how, among other things, our lives together and with him mirror the grapevine.

Had Jesus lived in Africa and spoken Zulu, instead of an image he would have had the perfect word to use, one that would have said it all—ubuntu. Quite literally ubuntu means “I am, because you are.”

In God’s world, in Christ’s wise and wonderful way of seeing, no man or woman is an island. We are bound to one another in countless ways. When we know this, when we feel this, showing up for the life of the church beyond worship isn’t a stale obligation but rather a deep and abiding joy.

May it be so for each of us.

Let us pray:

O Christ, Holy Vine, we live in you. Your blood flows through us. Your fruit ripens in us. All your beloved world over are one with us in you. And so we remember this morning that not only do we belong to each other, we belong to everyone else because we belong to you and are rooted in your infinite life. May we never sever ourselves from others or from you but by the sap of your love flowing in us flourish and blossom and bear fruit.

(Adapted from a poem by Steve Garnass-Holmes)