Monday, May 4, 2015

Abide in Me

Jesus said, “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.”

Throughout the winter, as I turned left out of Saratoga St. and began to drive west on Finney Ave., I noticed a tree in the median strip that had a broken branch.  It was twisted and snapped, but not completely separated from the tree itself.  I don’t know what happened to it.  Perhaps a vehicle passed too close and snagged it.  Maybe a person broke it with his or her bare hands.  One thing I did know is that come spring that branch would not sprout leaves.  It needed to be clipped off and thrown away.

In last week’s gospel reading, we heard Jesus say, “I am the Good Shepherd.”  Today we hear him say, “I am the Vine and you are the branches.”  Both images, while very different, describe the relationship Jesus has with us and we with him.  The shepherd image says something about how the relationship functions.  Jesus watches over us, guides us, protects us, heals us, cares for us.  We follow his voice and trust him to lead us.  The vine image says something about how we experience the relationship.  We are closely connected, inseparable.  Angelus Silesius, a seventeenth-century Polish mystic, put it this way:

God is the fire in me and I in Him the shine;
Are we not with each other most inwardly entwined?

It is truly a mystery and a wonder that the God who is immortal, invisible, and incomprehensible somehow is present in our hearts and in our minds. Even more remarkable is that we experience God’s presence as intimate, warm, and comforting.  God invites us into that love shared by the three Persons of the Holy Trinity in a relationship that is similar to that of a branch and a vine.  

The word that Jesus chooses to describe this relationship is “abide.”  To abide is to remain.  “Remain in me as I remain in you.”  One commentator points out that the Greek word for “abide” implies persistence, a “tenacious perseverance in one’s place and character.”   He writes, “Abiding in Jesus means a relationship of endless intimacy with him, a persistent orientation toward him, a remaining resolutely engaged with his presence.” 

Jesus’ image of the branch suggests that not abiding in him is a distinct possibility.  We all know what it is like to become too passionate about an interest that leads us away from God.  We all know what it is like to be overtaken by the cares and occupations of this life.  We all know what it is like to lose our way.  Some of us, at one point in life or another, have had to undergo a radical pruning and have come through that ordeal better for it. 

The direct result of abiding in Jesus is fruitfulness.  He makes it very clear that you cannot bear fruit unless you abide in him.  I took a class in Symbolic Logic my freshman year in college.  We learned such wonderful principles as Modus ponens and Modus tollens.  In Symbolic Logic you might set up an argument to say you cannot have B without A.  If you have B, therefore you can assume the existence of A.  This is exactly the proposition Jesus puts forward.  You cannot be fruitful (B) unless you abide in me (A).  Therefore, if we are fruitful (B), we can infer that we are abiding in Jesus (A). 

I have been thinking a lot about St. Paul’s over the past few months as I have facilitated other Vestry retreats and talked with colleagues and lay leaders from other congregations.  These conversations convince me that St. Paul’s is a parish of great abundance, of fruit.  I think about the joy we experience in our common life.  I think about the generous and kind way we treat one another.  I think of gifts and talents people offer in leadership.  I think about our staff.  I think about beautiful building and grounds and the Endowment Fund that helps us to tackle major repairs.  I think about the way we rally to support different causes and undertakings.  Yes, we struggle to fund our yearly operating budget, but this is hardly a place of scarcity.  I see abundance and blessing at every turn and it tells me we are abiding in Jesus.  As a community we are allowing ourselves to be drawn into deeper and deeper relationship with God.

There are other godly fruits in our midst that we will need in the coming months: courage and faith.  I hope you had a chance to read the e-news on Friday.  If you did then you know we are going to introduce some changes to our music this summer.  I am aware how the phrase “change the music” seems to trigger every person’s worst fear about what might happen: rock bands, swaying upraised arms, sappy praise songs, and (God forbid) projection screens.

In my experience, English hymnody, with its beautiful four-part harmonies and soaring organ accompaniment, is one of the most inspiring things I have ever encountered.  When done well, there is no more powerful and moving way to worship.  Here is the problem though: most Episcopal Churches do not have the resources needed to pull it off.  Our choirs, which typically consist of 6-10 volunteers led by a part-time professional, do their best to support our congregations in what feels like a sequence of hits and misses.  For every Amazing Grace we nail there seems to be a hymnal full of selections we stumble and mumble through.

What can we do?

One place to start is with the style of music.  To the best of my knowledge, there is no radio station playing 400-year-old tunes sung by a group accompanied by an organ.  Today’s radio plays a variety of styles that most often feature a lead singer supported by a group of backing vocalists.  Those who sing along in the car or shower may not know the verses, but certainly join in the chorus. 

What would it look like to incorporate this style of music into our Sunday morning worship? 

We have already dabbled in this approach.  For the past few Advent seasons, Al and the choir have led the congregation through a series of beautiful musical wreath-lighting liturgies.  We in the congregation picked up quickly on our parts and feedback has been very positive.  We want to see if we can tap into this kind of experience on a consistent basis. 

The Worship Committee, the Vestry, and I propose an experiment this summer at St. Paul’s.  From Pentecost Sunday (May 24th) through August, we want to explore our traditional hymnody in a new way.  This way will feature our Music Director – Al Reese – leading hymns using a keyboard and leading congregational singing using a microphone.   Choir members will function as backing vocalists.  Even on Sundays when attendance is down, one lead singer will be able to carry the music for us.  From time to time Al will add in some supporting instruments to give us an even richer musical sound.

We are not trying to convert St. Paul’s to “Praise Music”, although some new hymns will be tried.  We are trying to shift the style and presentation of our music to something that resonates with a contemporary preference.  Our hope is that our singing will have more energy and touch us at a deeper emotional and spiritual level. 

We ask for your participation, input, and feedback.  At the end of the summer we will engage the congregation in a thorough evaluation of the project.  I for one have no preconceived expectations for what might come of this other than we were willing to try something new.  I have encountered far too many Episcopal Churches that are in the twilight of their years not because they did not abide in Jesus.  They are wonderful people and faithful parishioners.  The common thread that links together these small, aging congregations is that not much has changed in their churches for several decades. 

I invite you to join me for Breakfast next Sunday at 9:00 in the morning.  At 9:30 we will have a forum about this proposal and engage in a question and answer session.  I pray you will have the courage to lay aside understandable fears to see where this might take us.  I pray you will have faith to believe that wherever it takes us, even if it is right back to where we started, Jesus will abide in us as he promises.

About that tree on Finney Ave.  I drove past it on Friday and noticed that its green leaves are out, but the broken branch is gone.  It looks like someone snapped it off completely, either a city worker or someone in the neighborhood.  All that is left of the relationship it once had to the trunk is a short, twisted nub.  Later today I will take my pruning shears and cut that off.  In time, new growth will sprout from the place where the branch once met the tree.

Jesus said, “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.”