“Growing Together For Good” – Oct. 29 – Rev. Amy Clark Feldman (Click on title for audio)

Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NRSV)

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
    whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
    sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
    and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
    and it does not cease to bear fruit.

John 15:1-11 (NRSV)

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

Galatians 5:22-23 (NRSV)

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

Rooted, Connected, Growing Together for Good, Let us PRAY:

Our God, Root us in you, so that our time and lives together; and the meditations of all our hearts this morning; may be fruitful.  AMEN. 

Rootedness, and Connectedness.  These images of Roots and Branches – of Rootedness and Connectedness as absolute prerequisites for the growth of good fruit –show up with remarkable consistency throughout Bible – from Genesis to Revelation.  

They were images that called to us as a retreat planning committee this year. We spent time and prayer contemplating roots:  how they steady us; connect us; and draw up the nutrients, water and goodness we need, not only to stand strong, resilient, and full of life, but also so that we may produce good and abundant fruits in our lives and work, individually and collectively – because I believe we all see that the world is hungry for fruit of the kind Paul lists:  kindness, gentleness, joy, patience, peace, faithfulness, self-control, generosity, LOVE. 

            For the retreat last weekend, we chose four of the many passages on this theme – three of which we read today.   The prophet Jeremiah invokes this image of a rooted tree, un-anxious, bearing fruit by the water, in what is otherwise a fairly fiery sermon to the wayward Israelite people.  One of our leaders lead a bible study at the retreat on Psalm 1, which shares this imagery to open the book of psalms, that holiest of prayer books.  Jesus, in Johns’ Gospel, describes his abiding rootedness in God, and our abiding connectedness to Jesus and one another.  In Paul’s letters to the early church this image of the Spirit’s abiding presence and the fruit of the Spirit provides a vision of hope and abundance for a divided people.

As we explored these scripture passages, (a member of our retreat committee) shared with us new scientific discoveries about God’s good creation that brought new understandings of this image.  The book The Hidden Life of Trees (there’s also a great TED Talk about this; and a short film HERE), describes emerging science about the role roots play in connecting trees in a forest.  It turns out that trees do not do well on their own, and that what we see above ground is only part (and perhaps not the most interesting part) of the story.  Through their roots systems — deep and intertwining — the trees literally talk to one another.  The send each other messages about threats; they can share nutrients and enzymes to help strengthen one another in times of trouble or abundance; older trees help younger ones. Trees of different species rather than compete, HELP each other in different ways.    Through the roots, the forest is place of connectedness, communication, and shared nourishment.   Almost miraculously, when one tree is cut down or dies — when we who can’t see the whole picture, see only a stump where the living tree used to be – we know now that underground, the tree, through its through its roots, lives on as a critical part of this interconnected network of sharing. 

Last weekend, surrounded by the beauty of the changing trees and lush forests of the retreat center, around 40 of us dove deeply into this theme of roots, branches and fruit. We spoke it around the campfire; saw it as we watched orange leaves reflected on the lake as the sun rose. We sang it like we will during our closing hymn today.  We drew it and painted it; had deeply rooted conversations; ate it in the form of pumpkin pancakes and fruit compote. We prayed it, sharing our prayers in the intertwined branches of community.    We share it today, as we come together again as the gathered, intertwined and deeply rooted community that we are. 

We desire rootedness and connectedness for all of us, and especially, perhaps, for our youth and children.  We hope it and pray for it, because it’s both essential for a fruitful (joyful, peaceful, kind, gentle, love-filled) life, and also because rootedness and connectedness aren’t a given, and take intentionality and cultivating.  It is work I believe we are doing here as a community that is bearing good fruit. 

As I watched our kids at the retreat create together, share conversations, laughter, and worship across generations — and as we focused in on Jeremiah’s words about this tree that’s not anxious when the drought comes — I had on my mind and heart an article that the co-chair of our Youth Ministry Team sent to me earlier in the week.  It is an article in the New York Times that talks about the sharp rise over the last decade in teen anxiety (CLICK HERE FOR LINK) . It says that anxiety has overtaken depression as the number 1 reason college students seek help at counseling centers, and that when the American College Health Association asked undergraduates whether they had experienced “overwhelming anxiety” in the past year – 62% responded in the affirmative in 2016; up sharply from 50% in 2011.  We add this to the knowledge that hospitalizations of suicidal teenagers have doubled in the past 10 years in this country.   There is something about life these days that makes it hard to feel like that rooted and un-anxious tree by the water. 

A little while back, a study came out that sent ripples through the world of Youth Ministry.  Data was released from the first years of a longitudinal study of religion that included in-depth interviews over time with 3000 youth and their parents across the country (CLICK HERE FOR A LINK TO THE NATIONAL STUDY OF YOUTH AND RELIGION OR HERE FOR A SUMMARY FROM THE CENTER FOR YOUTH MINISTRY TRAINING).  The data showed a lot of things – including, that while 84% of the kids interviewed considered themselves “religious,” most felt a “benign whateverism” towards organized religion (like church).  It showed that while most of the youth (and parents) struggled to articulate much about their own faith, the researchers were able to see certain patterns or a picture emerging over the thousands and thousands of hours of interviews of how most of the kids and their parents conceptualized God. The researchers called what they heard Moral Therapeutic Deism.  It’s an idea with 5 points, but stick with me –and as I read them, perhaps consider this theme of rootedness and connectedness; and see where there may be gaps in this picture.  It includes:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. (and not happy with job God is doing on this front)
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

At first read, this might not sound so bad, but if we read more closely — I don’t know about you, but in this picture I don’t feel the deep rootedness of God’s abiding love with us, coursing in and through us; nourishing us, helping us to grow.  I don’t feel the connectedness of our lives like branches or roots, or the type of living, intertwined faith that produces fruit for the good of a hungry world.  In fact, I don’t see church or community anywhere in this image.  The center of this image is self, not God, or even community, which I can only belief makes for shallow and anxious roots.  I feel for the interviewees and the many others who may be searching for something deeper, more rooted, and more connected during these anxious times.  And I find great hope and resonance in the work we are doing here and that many others are sharing in to create spaces and communities where deep rooted faith can be cultivated and nourished – for kids, parents, elders, all of us. 

Kendra Creasy Dean – a researcher from Princeton Theological Seminary, in response to the study, wrote a book (CLICK FOR A LINK TO ALMOST CHRISTIAN) where she highlights positives points in the data that push against this shallow faith, and shares some things she sees working in churches she researches across the country.  She says that those with deep- rooted, fruitful (consequential) Christian faith: 

  1. “Have a personal and powerful “God Story” that imparts identity” — helps them know who they are. They can articulate where God is in their story, and where they are in God’s Story.
    • She calls this “a creed to believe” (I love that, without knowing Dean’s research, there was a session at the retreat about writing a personal creed, in which participants were encouraged to explore and write what it is they believe – what roots them).
  2. “Have found significant belonging in the life of a congregation”. They know they are aren’t a tree standing alone, but intertwined with and dependent on a forest.  
    • She calls this “a community to belong to” (Next week we will share intergenerational worship, because we know that children who worship together with all generations of  gathered community, are more likely to find rootedness in worship as adults).
  3. “Have a sense of divine vocation or purpose to their lives”. They listen and seek to discern where God is calling them.   
    • She calls this “a call to live out” (This has so much to do with our mission-mindedness and our ability to make space to listen for the still-small voice of God, and to pray for one another and the world.)
  4. “Have a keen faith in the future” – come drought, storm or sunny weather they are not anxious or fearful.
    • She calls this “a hope to hold onto”[1]

A creed to believe, a community to belong to, a call to live out, a hope to hold onto – That is what deep-rooted and connected faith looks like. 

 One of my favorite snapshots of the retreat was during our opening plenary on Saturday morning.  We were imagining ourselves and our lives as trees.  We each had a large piece of white paper on which we drew and glued yarn and tissue paper and all sorts of things to form a tree.  We labeled each part of our trees – the roots were those people, places, things that form and root our identity; the trunk, our strengths; the branches and fruit, gifts that have been given to us, and those we share.  The kids were so engaged in this, and most of them had found a patch of floor in the hallway to do their drawings.  I watched two our kids find opposite ends of the same piece of paper, each starting their roots at their respective ends so that as their trees grew toward the middle. As their trees met, they worked together to form a beautiful mass of branches and leaves and fruit that covered the whole middle of the paper, so that you couldn’t see where one set of branches began and the others ended.  As I looked at these kids I could see their rootedness and sense of connection growing. 

This is our charge and our hope as people of faith – to sink our roots deep into the ground; to feel the living water that for us is Jesus nourishing us and giving us life;  to know that how fruitful our life is, depends not on us along, but on how intertwined our roots and branches are with others.  Rooted and Connected, together bearing the fruit of kindness, gentleness, joy, patience, peace, faithfulness, self-control, generosity, LOVE – for our good and for the good of the world.  May it be so…


[1] http://assets.ngin.com/attachments/document/0042/5177/NationalStudyYout_Religion.pdf