Heidi Ward, Student Pastor
I grew up in the hills and valleys of rural, Upstate NY. Think: field and cows and trees, more fields and cows and trees. Growing up, we spent a lot of time at the house of our family friend Jane.
As you rounded the bend in a non-descript, dirt road, you encountered a wonderful, country home. A big house with a large porch sat on the top of a hill. A friendly golden retriever would trot down the driveway to greet you at your car. Stepping out of the car the countryside rolled on for miles. They had a big barn, and rows and rows of Apple Orchards as far as the eye could see!
But none of those were my favorite thing about going to Jane’s house. Tucked up a small hill, off to the side of the big house were rows and rows of raspberry bushes. Every summer, the kids from the neighborhood and I would wait anxiously for the raspberries to start to blossom. We would fill our pockets, and baskets, and mouths with as many fresh sweet, sun ripened raspberries as we could find. One year, as we made our way through the raspberry bushes, we discovered a new section of grape bushes. Big, tall, vines filled with ripe, warm purple grapes. We filled our baskets with those too, lying on our backs in the grass; we ate ourselves silly while the sun warmed our faces.
Wise to our fruit raiding escapades, Jane began to teach us how to tell which grapes were ripe and ready for picking, which needed just a little more time to grow, and which weren’t any good to eat. The ones that weren’t any good we could pull from the vines to make room for new fruit to grow. Rather than simply stuffing our pockets, we would carefully look for the bright purple color that said the grapes were ready to come from the vine and explode with warm showers of flavor in our mouths.
At the height of the season, we would walk with Jane as she gathered baskets and baskets of beautiful grapes from the vines. She would take them inside, clean them, and prepare them for canning. Soon the cupboards (and our Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches) would be filled with delicious grape jam. She taught us not to simply throw away the grapes that had a bad spot or two, but to gently cut away the rough spots, so they could be used for something good. You might say, she pruned them.
In this week’s Scripture passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus uses the imagery of vines and branches like the to help us dive deeper into what it means for our life together both as individuals, and also as Christian community. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches, but each of us plays a role for the larger good of the whole, and of the community. Like the production of batches of jam, the production of spiritual fruit is contingent on the health of the entire body.
In a world that keeps us moving at lightning fast pace, focused often only on our individual lives, it is easy to miss the opportunity to pause. It is easy to overlook the incredible places of beauty, or to stop and taste the sweetness of a summer grape fresh from the vine.
I want to share with you this morning some of the places I have seen you bear fruit in my 8 months with you this year. You have taught me so very much about the wonderful things we can achieve when we reach beyond ourselves and come together as the church, when we abide in the vine that is Jesus. Embodying today’s Gospel passage, you have stepped out of the demands of a world that pushes you only to focus on yourselves, and joined hands in service to the Living God.
I have seen the fruit you have produced in the newcomers who have poured through our doors on Sunday morning looking for a new kind of church. For a place where they can come, whoever they are, wherever they are on life’s journey. They have wondered (some silently and some aloud) is there a place for me here? You have answered with a resounding yes. In a world that teaches us to fear the other and cast out the stranger, you have taught the world that perfect love casts out fear.
I have experienced it in the sweet faces of our extended church family at the Waban Health and Rehabilitation Center. The ministry a dedicated group of you has helped to plant there extends our church beyond its doors and showers God’s unconditional love to those who need it most. It is church at its very best.
I have seen it in the wisdom and institutional memory of the women of the Lunch Bunch. The way they have cared for, tended to, and carried forth the legacy of the Union Church for so many years. If you have not yet had an opportunity to share a cup of tea with these women, these pillars of the community do not miss it. I promise, you will be glad you did.
I have heard it in the laughter of the Union Church children pouring through our hallways and classrooms. From preschool to high school, they fill our building with joy, vibrancy, and vitality. They challenge us to ask and answer the hard questions. They have humbled me with their commitment to church, and as young people of faith. And I am here to tell you I made it out of the youth group campfire having eaten only 2 s’mores!! Kathy and Buzz can tell you that was no small feat.
The list goes on and on.
Much like rounding the bend on that dirt road toward the once unexpected oasis of Jane’s farm, I had no idea what to expect the first Sunday I traveled up Beacon Street to begin my ministry with you. As I walked into Starbucks for what would become my weekly Sunday morning latte, I remember thinking: WHAT am I getting myself into? Like the not quite purple grapes on those summer bushes, I felt not yet ready to be plucked from the vine.
Now, I won’t speculate on who the Union Church golden retriever is greeting us all at the door every Sunday, but sufficed to say that I had nothing to fear. You all welcomed me as you continue to welcome one another with a warmth and outpouring of God’s love beyond measure.
You have taught me so much about just how good church can be. You have formed me as a pastor, and as a person. You have helped me to allow God to prune back the branches of things that were no longer working for me, so that new fruit could be born in my own formation. You have helped to make real to me the truth that at some point we are all called to be different parts of this story at different times (the gathered fruit and the gatherer, to prune and to be pruned etc).
I will miss you all tremendously as we part from one another this week. I will carry your love, your support, your stories, and all of our experiences together in my heart as we set out to plant new fields of ministry apart from one another. I trust that as we abide in Christ so too will we abide with one another in our hearts even though we are parted.
My prayer is that the Holy One will continue to bear fruit among us. May She will help us to see when we need to prune or be pruned. May the Spirit will help us hear the call to gather, or to be gathered. May we always take the risk to step out of our chaotic individual lives into the rich sunshine of the larger body of Christ. Most of all, I pray that we will be led to places of pause full of blossoming bushes of ripe summer grapes, gushing with sweetness, and ripe for the picking; mysterious, holy, glorious fruit, just waiting for us to find it. Can you taste it? Amen.