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Just a Thought... From Pastor Alan

Pastor Alan wrote this after his return from Sabbatical this year.....

Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There's no way to deserve it any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace."

As a reader and student of many writers and theologians, I must confess that I love Frederick Buechner!  In one of his many books, Buechner offers the above definition of grace that continues to thrill me every time that I read it. 

I've often thought about adding another thing to Buechner's list. Finding a good congregation is grace. Being part of a church you can call home – that is grace. It is grace to hear God's Word proclaimed in a gathering of God's people, to be drawn into the mystery of God through corporate worship, to be connected in community, formed as a disciple, sent forth to do justice and show mercy.

Yes, congregations are important, very important. Oh, this is not a new revelation for me.  Not something I came up with while on my month-long vacation. The church's importance is obvious in the earliest New Testament writings when Paul affirms the church as the body of Christ, claiming that the risen Christ continues to work through the church, his body, just as Christ was at work when he lived here on earth. Later, John's Gospel would use another image to describe the communal nature of God's work in the world. In fact, biblical scholars suggest that the image of vine and branches is really a parallel to Paul's image of the body. And both are communal images. Both celebrate unity in diversity. John doesn't say, "Christ is the vine; you are the branch." It's not about me and Jesus bearing a little fruit for the world. There's no such thing as a "me and Jesus" faith. No such thing as a Christian apart from community.

More so, like Paul, John uses an image that's wonderfully egalitarian. One branch is often indistinguishable from another. There's no hierarchy of branches. You can't tell which branch sprouted first, which branch is longest, even where one branch stops and another begins. Only the vine is distinct. The branches are rooted together in that one vine, and only as a result of that common life source do the branches bear fruit. And the fruitfulness of the vineyard depends upon the whole community of branches, the fruitfulness of all. One solitary fruit-bearing branch won't make much wine – despite our culture's repeated emphasis on success as individual achievements. In God's economy, success depends upon the whole community of branches, upon the fruitfulness of all.

Yes, congregations matter! This means that pastors matter. For in the midst of this egalitarian community, there are some who are called to be servant leaders, called to tend to the table and to the Word, to tend to the community's mission in the gospel. And don’t think I’ll get much of an argument if I assert that that such leadership isn't easy. It's messy at times. It's hard. Even the most fruitful branches can get tangled and snarled. Indeed, M. Scott Peck writes that the absence of conflict is the essential dynamic of a fake community, a group of people just pretending to be connected. It reminds me of a pastor from New York City responding to a parishioner's complaints about the music in worship. He said, "It's okay not to like everything that goes on here. If you liked everything, then there'd be something wrong. This wouldn't be a community of real and diverse people." I'd say if you like 70% of what's happening-that's pretty good! We're a community of diverse and wonderful people.

Yes, leading a community in mission can get messy. It can be hard. Things don't always move as quickly as we'd like. They don't always go the way that we'd like. Early in my ministry, I had some deep questions about my calling as a pastor. Months after arriving at St. Paul I encountered serious troubles with the operation of the food pantry.  And there were days when I thought to myself, "I don't' want to be a pastor. Can’t I be something that doesn’t take as much effort, God? Pastoral ministry is too messy. It takes too long." But then I began to experience for myself that true healing is a lot more complicated than a one-day operation. It takes time and it takes community. It wasn’t me alone who resolved a crisis that could have easily dissolved and destroyed the food pantry efforts – and for those familiar with the situation that is no exaggeration  But it wasn’t me who rescued the pantry and kept it from going under. It was the church, the volunteers, the people who prayed, who cried with us, who stepped up and offered to restructure the operation, put safeguards and checkpoints into place.  It took the “body of Christ” to right the wrongs and put the pantry back onto the right path.  

Yes, I believe godly-operating congregations are essential. Doing the work of Jesus is not an optional feature. We need good pastors. It's within community that we are healed. It's within community that we bear the fruit of healing and justice for the world; but even more than pastors and congregations, even more than fruit and branches, we need the vine. We need the presence of Christ. Jesus said, "I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit." Yes, we are called to abide, to remain in Christ and in his community. But even more, my dear family, we cling to the promise that Christ abides in us. That is the abiding which is unshakable.

We have been well secured to the vine of Christ, a strong sprout from a strong tree; and though we may struggle at times to attend to Christ, to attend to his community, Christ never struggles to attend to us. As disciples, we abide in Jesus Christ. We delight in the community of branches that surround us on the vine, and we rejoice in a God who promises to hold us secure. For, you see, this God will never get tired. This God will never let you go. And, held secure in that promise, we will continue to rejoice at the amazing fruit God will continue to bring forth in our lives.

  And, how happy I am to be back with you again, to continue God’s work as a community of believers!

Pastor Alan