Johnny Grapevine

vineyard worker

My wife sometimes calls me: “Johnny Grapevine.”

I remember the days when my Dad and I would walk through the woods staring up into the treetops. My Dad would point-out the different kinds of trees.  We would speak about the wide variety of trees that can be found in Pennsylvania; and we’d, sometimes, even do a leaf-rubbing. But, every once in a while, my Dad would point-out a wild grapevine that had climbed up a tree and that had begun to choke the life out of everything around it. And, with no delay, he’d pull-out his great, big bow saw and start cutting the grapevine off at the ground, And after he was finished, we’d just walk away – leaving the grapevine to wither in the treetops. I still do that. Hence, my wife calls me: “Johnny Grapevine.”

Jesus once described Himself as a grapevine, and He described God as the owner of the vineyard who walks through the world examining grape branches. When God sees a branch that’s bearing fruit, God trims it back a bit; so that, more of the vine’s juices can flow into the growing fruit. And, when God discovers branches that aren’t bearing any fruit, God saws and hacks and trims until those branches are removed. And, when the branches are removed from the Vine, they simply shrivel and die – just like the branches did when my Dad and I cut them off at the roots in the woods of Pennsylvania.

The Sacred Story is one that reminds us that our connection to the Vine is crucial.

Life-giving juices flow through us when we’re connected to the Vine (Jesus); and, when that happens, we’re able to bear fruit that we could never bear without God’s help. God’s Spirit continues to lead us and guide us and empower us when we’re connected to the Vine; and we, sometimes, discover a great source of strength that we never knew we had – when we need it most. The Vine (Jesus) gives its life-giving juices to many branches at the same time (reminding us that God never asks us to bear all of the fruit of the Vine by ourselves) and that’s important for us to remember, as the Church, as we continue to join hands with each other in ministry in an Age where it isn’t always easy to find help and the volunteers we need. When we’re connected to the Vine, God calls us to live-into our God-given strengths and abilities; and, sometimes, that means we need to set some things aside – always remembering that the “new wine” God is bringing into the world is always going to be made from the fruit that’s been harvested from many different branches that, ultimately, share one thing in common – their life-giving connection to the Vine.

So, let me ask you a question….

How’s your life going these days? I suspect that we all have times when we wonder if there’s enough of us to go around.  I’m sure we’ve all had times in life when we weren’t sure if we had anything left to give; and then, something big popped-up and demanded our immediate attention and action. How do you find the strength and energy that you need to continue? Where do you find the strength to keep going when it seems that you have nothing left to give?

In this week’s message, “Johnny Grapevine”, we explore the importance of faith. We talk about the importance of reading our Bibles each day and of setting aside time to pray. We talk about living together as God’s people and about drawing upon the life-giving juices of the Vine in a world where God’s told us that it’s “not good” for us to be alone.

God has blessed you with the gift of life. God has blessed you with skills and talents that you can use to help your family and friends, your church, your community and even the world to become a better place for us all.  And that’s why it’s important for us to remain connected to the Vine (which is Jesus Himself).  We don’t always have “inner strength” to do what God’s calling us to do. We all face times in life when it seems that there’s just not enough of us to go around. We need connection. We need Christ’s life-giving juices. We need God’s Spirit living and moving and breathing in our lives.

God gives us strength. God fills us with life-giving energy. And God continues to help us to do thing that we simply can’t do by ourselves – as God enlivens us with the Holy Spirit and sends us into the world empowered to do God’s work.

 

God’s Vision and Mission for the Church

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Many pastors and congregations struggle to define their vision and mission.

We sense that our ministries need to be about more than ourselves, and our own hopes and dreams. We know that congregations are not little social clubs where members “pay their dues” and then have a right to extract their benefits. But, who in the congregation is qualified to decide what’s best? The pastor? A Church Council? The Mission and Strategic Planning Task Force? Maybe, it should all be left-up to a bishop? The Church of the Risen Christ existed for thousands of years before any of us were born, and it will continue to exist long after all of us are gone. We need to remember that.

What if we began to consider the fact that specific congregations aren’t supposed to have their own vision and mission? What would happen if we began to consider the fact that God’s Vision and Mission has a Church? Hmm….

We set aside one Sunday each year and we call it: “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Sheep are rather awkward creatures who are stubborn and unpredictable. Sheep are demanding and independent. Jesus once said that people are like sheep. We tend to drift apart, and probably know little about what’s happening in each other’s lives. We’ve learned to just divide ourselves into smaller and smaller groups. We use our Smartphones (that can very easily access the collective wisdom of humanity) to argue and debate with people that we’ve never even met. And, as we’ve done that, we’ve lost a sense of compassion and love for each other. We’ve lost part of the very essence of human community.

In this week’s message, “God’s Vision and Mission for the Church”, we remember that Jesus – the Good Shepherd – has come into the world to draw us together, and to shape and form us into “communities of compassion” – “churches.” Jesus comes into the world to draw people together; and to create places where people can care about each other, support each other, and love. Jesus comes into the world to create places where sheep come together, and learn the importance of holding each other in their hearts and in their prayers. The Sacred Story reminds us that Jesus comes into the world to create something that we need more than anything else in the world – a place where we can come to be welcomed and embraced, to be heard and to be cared-for, to worship and to pray, and to be equipped and empowered for life and ministry in a quickly changing world.

What if we began to consider the fact that specific congregations aren’t supposed to have their own vision and mission? What would happen if we began to consider the fact that God’s Vision and Mission has a Church…?

Perhaps, we need to remember that a “flock of sheep” wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a shepherd who was constantly working behind the scenes to hold it together? Perhaps, we need to consider the fact that ministry isn’t about trying to build something that’s going to last upon our own shifting ideas and dreams? The Good Shepherd calls us to live-into God’s great dreams for our lives and our futures. The Good Shepherd calls us to notice the sharp distinctions between what’s happening in our world and what God has planned for Creation – and then, to do something about it. God’s great vision and mission in one that continues to call people together and to create “communities of compassion” – in a world where people are becoming more and more isolated in an electronic world of shallow connections, more and more unfulfilled in a world of constant running and hectic schedules, more and more alone in a world where people tend to just move-on in life with or without us, and more and more detached from the God who comes into the world to be a part of our lives.

The Sacred Story tells us the story of a God who’s come into the world to show us that we deserve to be loved and to be embraced – to be heard and to be cared-for. The Sacred Story continues to remind us that God’s using us, in one way or another, to fulfill God’s great plans and dreams for Creation. And that’s why, on the bottom line, we need to see that it’s not our job to create and develop our own vision and mission for our churches. Our deepest calling is to immerse ourselves in Scripture (the Sacred Story); to pray; and to ask the Good Shepherd to open our eyes, guide us in the right direction, and help us to better understand how we can live-into God’s vision and mission for our “life together” as the Church.

God Works with Our Hands

Early in the morning, on April 7th, heavy rains created a landslide that swept many people in our local area into chaos. People lost their homes and most of their belongings in just a matter of minutes. Residents were evacuated with only the clothes on their backs—many of them still in their pajamas. The doors of Christ Greek Orthodox Church’s Olympia Hall were immediately opened, and a command center was created. Warm meals were prepared, and shelter was offered to many people who could only watch in silence as their homes were demolished and everything that they owned was encased in piles of rubble within a few short hours.

Landslide 1

Residents of apartment buildings that did not need to be demolished were permitted to, briefly, return to their homes to collect the few belongings that they could gather—but, since that time, several of the buildings have been labeled “uninhabitable” and residents of those buildings are now permanently displaced. These apartment buildings housed many people who are senior citizens and disabled, and many low-income households. Officials are estimating that repairs will take a minimum of eight months to complete.

Mission-Partnerships are very important in times like these because most of us, as individuals, don’t have the financial resources and the specific skills and talents to make long-term and lasting impact in situations like this. And that’s why we work together as the body of Christ. We join hands with each other—looking past the walls of our buildings, looking past our denominational differences, and even looking past lines we’ve drawn to identify different communities—and we do God’s work in the world.

Landslide 2

We’ve been asked to join hands with congregations, who are working as a Team, to accomplished God’s vision and mission for the Church by pulling together and by offering our support and care to people in our area who’ve lost their homes and belongings. We, at Christ’s Lutheran Church, proclaim that part of God’s vision and mission for our congregation is to “Listen and Care,” and this is a great opportunity to join hands with Christians in our community (and even around the world) to do what God’s calling us to do—both as a congregation and vital part of the Church of Jesus Christ as a whole.

Landslide 3

We are going to be collecting money that will be used to purchase gift cards that will be distributed to those whose lives have been affected by recent landslides in our local area—during the month of May.

Money that we collect during the month of May will be sent to Christ Greek Orthodox Church and it will be added to funds that have been collected by other Mission-Partners throughout our area. The funds will, then, be distributed to displaced residents in the form of gift cards that they can use to purchase items that they need from local businesses. We are partnering with other local churches and with businesses in our local area to do things that none of us could do by ourselves. That’s the power of Mission-Partnerships. When we work together in ways that aren’t limited by the walls of our buildings and the lines that we’ve drawn between communities, we can accomplish great things and fulfill God’s vision and mission for the Church together.

Landslide 4

We’re going to make it easy for you to join hands with us as we work together to help displaced residents in our local area, too.

You can simply add your contribution to this important ministry by including it in your regular offering envelope as a part of your weekly offering. All that we are asking you to do is to designate your gift on the “other” line that’s already found on your offering envelope.

You can, also, support this ministry through an electronic gift. You can visit our church’s  newly updated website and support this ministry by using the “give now” link that you’ll find at the bottom of the home page. Just remember to enter the amount that you want to contribute in the “other” fund option and let us know that you’re contributing to the “Rt 30 Landslide” fund.

You can, mail us a check that’s written to “Christ’s Lutheran Church.” Please send your check to: Christ’s Lutheran Church, 5330 Logans Ferry Road, Murrysville, PA 15668. If you send a check, please be sure to tells us that you want us to include your contribution in the “Rt 30 Landslide” fund on the memo line of your check. We will make sure that your money is sent to the proper place.

You can, also, text CLC4ALL to 77977 on your cellphone and send your support in that way.

God’s vision and mission for our world is one that calls us into action in many ways, and this chance to join hands with other Mission-Partners who are working together to support many people whose lives were disrupted by an early-morning landslide is a great chance for us to demonstrate how We Listen and Care.

Every gift makes a difference! Every dollar you contribute will be used to purchase gift cards that senior citizens, disabled residents, and low-income households can use at local businesses as they begin to re-build their lives after this devastating event. We can do more when we join hands with our Mission-Partners than we can ever hope to do by ourselves. Let’s prove it!

When Doubt and Faith Collide

doubting thomas

I suspect that we’ve all faced doubts and fears.

I’ve talked with many parents who are are concerned about their children’s future. I’ve journeyed with many people who are coming to the end of their lives; and I have learned that even faith-filled Christians have some serious questions and doubts (and even some fears) about what’s going to happen to them after they die. The Sacred Story that we find in the pages of the Bible reminds us that Jesus’ disciples were devastated after Jesus was killed, and that Jesus’ disciples were filled with joy and faith after He was raised from the dead. The Sacred Story is a story where doubt and faith collide; and, perhaps, that’s why the Bible continues to help us to make sense out of life, and to help us to understand how we can continue to live and flourish as people of faith in a challenging world.

In this week’s message, “When Doubt and Faith Collide”, we encounter the story of a man named Thomas (perhaps, better known to you as “Doubting Thomas”).

Thomas was a follower of Jesus, and he spent three years of his life in the “inner circle” of Jesus’ closest companions. Thomas was at the wedding feast when Jesus turned water into wine, and Thomas watched Jesus heal many lepers and people who were ill. Thomas had listened to Jesus tells stories. Thomas had watched Jesus embarrass people. Thomas had listened to Jesus talk about the fact that He was going to be killed, and he had heard Jesus talk about being raised from the dead. And Thomas, like all of the other followers of Jesus, was absolutely devastated when Jesus was killed and was sealed in a tomb.

But, Thomas wasn’t in the room with the other disciples when the Risen Christ appeared. Thomas didn’t believe the other disciples when they told him that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Can you almost hear Thomas saying: “Seeing is believing”? Can you hear Thomas say, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true”? Maybe you live your life believing those very same words? Maybe, we shouldn’t be so hard on Thomas?

But the Sacred Story reminds us that the disciples continued to love Thomas.

When we’re going through tough times, we all need people who aren’t afraid to stand beside us, and who aren’t afraid to let us express our deepest doubts and fears.

When we’re going through tough times, we all need people who are willing to meet us wherever we are in life, and who won’t try to “make things better” by offering shallow platitudes.

When we’re going through tough times, we all need folks who will continue to look for creative ways to love and support us in a world where even our closest friends are going to tell us, “If you need anything, give me a call!” – as they return to their normal routines.

I’ll never forget the day when one of my closest friends told me, “What I need most of all right now is someone to simply remind me that the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ hasn’t been turned off.” Now, those are honest and authentic words, aren’t they?

The Sacred Story speaks about love and human embrace. It’s a story that reminds us that it’s “not good” for us to travel through life alone. And it’s a story that continues to remind us that the Risen Christ will always be found in places where God’s people reach-out to each other, embrace each other, shine light into each other’s lives, and honestly care and support each other. The Sacred Story reminds us that we need each other.

Doubts and fears are healed as people continue to live in “community” with each other, and as they listen to stories about the ways that God’s been acting in other people’s lives. And so, in it’s deepest sense, the Sacred Story reminds us, this week, of what it means to be the Church of the Risen Christ – a gathering where people love each other, encourage each other, build each other up, and stand beside each other through thick and thin – sharing the Sacred Story and speaking with each other about the ways that God’s been at work in their lives in a challenging world.

When Grief and Easter Collide

easter pic 3

I shared the news of my father’s death with you three weeks ago.

My 95-year-old Dad’s health began to change rather quickly right after Christmas. We did our best to navigate through the ups-and-downs, and we put our heads together and we figured-out what to do every time life threw us another curve.  But three weeks ago, right in the middle of Lent, everything took a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse and my father died. I shared my tribute with you on the next day: “When Your Dad Dies”

The days that followed my Dad’s death were both busy and numbing. We needed to call the funeral home and give them some time to prepare my Dad’s body for the visitation. My sisters and I hosted a short visitation three days after our father died; and then, we had a short service, and a private burial on a cold and bitter afternoon. My Dad’s body was lowered into the ground right after I performed a short committal at the cemetery; and, right after that, my family and I faced what I’d call a “pregnant moment.” There’s that “pregnant moment” of silence when you’re standing at the edge of a grave and you realize that there’s nothing else that you can do. And, as much as you’d like to stay there a little longer, you know in your heart that it’s time to walk away. And then, you hop into your car and just drive….

One of the things that I’ve learned through all of this is that when people that we love fall into a raging river there’s not a whole lot that we can do. And so,  I returned to work and  continued to prepare for Easter. I wrote a short sermon about love for Maundy Thursday. I prepared a short series of meditations focused upon the “Stations of the Cross” for Good Friday and used those meditations to share some things I have learned about care-giving, compassion, forgiveness, and facing the moment of a loved-one’s death as I’ve shared my Dad’s final journey with him. But, I was still left in that “pregnant moment” where we all find ourselves right after we bury someone that we’ve loved and need to walk away. And then, right in the middle of Holy Week, it hit me….

This year’s Easter message, “When Grief and Easter Collide”, moves to the very core of hope in the Sacred Story that we share. Shortly after Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the very people who had shouted “Hosanna!” decided that He needed to die. In just a few short days, a man who appeared to be doing quite well was arrested and was put on trial. A man, who appeared to be doing quite well just a few days earlier, was swept into a raging river that led to a savage beating, crucifixion, and bloody death. And then, just a short time after Jesus died, His body was removed from the Cross and it was prepared for burial. The opening of the cold, dark Tomb was sealed as Jesus’ family and closest friends stood there in silence. And then they (just like myself and other members of my Dad’s remaining family) needed to walk away.

But, the Sacred Story tells us that the “pregnant moment” that occurs after someone is sealed in a grave isn’t the end. The women returned to the Tomb and discovered that the stone has been rolled away. A man dressed in dazzling white told them that Jesus – who once was dead – had been raised to new life. And in that moment, the Sacred Story takes us to that critical moment in life when faith and harsh realities collide. The Sacred Story is one that speaks a word of hope and peace “When Grief and Easter Collide.”

My journey from the sadness of Good Friday to the joyous celebration of Easter this year has, once again, reminded me that God takes care of us no matter what we face in life or in death. The Sacred Story has taught me that, sometimes, we need to slow down because God’s power can be experienced in new ways during pregnant moments filled with pain and loneliness. The Sacred Story that tells us about a glorious Day when God will wipe every tear from our eyes drew me to a place – to the Church – where people supported me and surrounded me and sang songs of great hope and faith that I’m not ready to sing yet. The Sacred Story drew me to a place – to the gathering of God’s faithful people – where I was reminded that I’m going to see my Dad again – in a place where we’re not going to have to worry about life throwing us curves, and in a place where we’ll finally find the peace and rest that we crave.

Easter is a special moment in time when life and eternity collide. Easter is a glorious day when we remember that when the raging waters of life sweep people that we love away from us, it’s not the end of the story!

Christ is risen! An empty Tomb bears witness to the fact that our tombs – and the tombs of the people that we love and have loved – will be empty someday, too. “When Grief and Easter Collide”, death and decay are swallowed-up in the victory of Christ!

The Great Liturgy of my brothers and sisters in the Orthodox tradition announces:

“Tonight, Hell groans: ‘My power has vanished. I received One who died as mortals die, but I could not hold Him. With Him and through Him, I lost those over which I ruled. I had held control over the dead since the world began; and lo, He raises them all up with Him to shine in glory.”

Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

 

What Comes After Easter?

easter pic 2

What’s Next?

The Sacred Story of our faith has carried us through the Season of Lent and to another celebration of Easter. We’ve explored 5 Faith Practices that can strengthen our lives of faith, build-up our families, help us raise faith-filled children and grandchildren, and even strengthen our ministry as a church. We were challenged to reflect upon Christ’s call to love each other and to live-well with each other on Maundy Thursday, and we explored what it means to love and extend compassion as we gathered in the dark shadow of the Cross on Good Friday. And then, on Easter, we witnessed the dramatic collision of grief and hope, and we were reminded that we are the carriers of a Sacred Story that has the life-giving power to change people’s lives and to shape the future of our world.

And now, we find ourselves standing in a very different part of the Sacred Story.

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint [the body of Jesus.] And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the Tomb.” (Mark 16:1-2) The women who went to the Tomb had heavy hearts and grave concerns about the future. Life hadn’t unfolded in the way that they had expected, and there were many reasons to be afraid. And, when they got to the Tomb, the women experienced the totally unexpected. Jesus Christ had been raised from the dead! The empty Tomb stood as a clear sign that our God doesn’t remain silent in a world where the raging rivers of life sweep people away. And we can still celebrate that fact on Easter. We can still celebrate the fact that we have a God who comes into the world to shatter the darkness and to bring life-giving Light once again.

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome could have walked away from the Tomb and said nothing. They could have very easily said to each other, “Wow! What we just witnessed is incredible, and it’s something that fills our hearts with faith!” They could have returned to their homes and families, to their friends and acquaintances, and to the places where they lived and worked without saying a word. And the Sacred Story may have ended right then and there. One of the most important things that we need to remember in the days and weeks after Easter is that, if people hadn’t continued to share the Sacred Story with each other, Easter would probably be just another ordinary day of the year—much like any other day.

What’s Next?

We live in world where Easter just IS another ordinary day of the year for many people. Easter’s a day when little children hunt for Easter eggs and eat chocolate, and it’s a day when people peel foil-covered chocolate eggs and eat yellow peeps. We live in a world filled with people who rush to the Easter buffet to get ahead of the “Church crowd,” and where schools coincidentally schedule “Spring Break” at Easter. And in that same world, we’re stunned by violence and bullying. We continue to be shocked by incidents of road rage and to be stunned by the shooting of innocent students in our public schools. We don’t always speak to each other in helpful ways, and we often walk away from people who don’t think about life in the same ways that we do. And, ironically, the Sacred Story tells us that we shouldn’t be surprised by any of that…. The Sacred Story continues to point us toward the fact that mere human beings don’t have the power to transform our world into the place that God created it to be. Secular humanism has clearly failed – and humanity’s best route forward continues to be found in an ongoing process of death and resurrection.

We have a mighty task before us as carriers of the Sacred Story.

God continues to call us to live-well with each other, to encourage each other, to forgive each other, to build each other up, and to spur each other on. Christ continues to call us to interpret our lives through the lens of the story of God’s love, and Christ continues to draw us together into a community of love where He nourishes us. Christ continues to call us to share the Sacred Story of God’s welcome, love and warm embrace in a world where people continue to divide themselves into smaller and smaller groups. Christ is a Risen Lord who continues to call us to serve each other, to surround those who struggle with our warm embrace, to feed the hungry, to spend some time with the lonely, to help people who are struggling with illnesses that we don’t fully understand, and to be a voice for those who have no voice in a world that’s content to simply leave them in the dust.

What’s Next?

St. James once wrote: “Be doers of the word, and not just hearers only” (James 1:22); and, I believe, that that’s the great mission that’s set before those who see themselves as Easter people. The Sacred Story reminds us that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome could have walked away from the Tomb and said nothing—but they didn’t do that because they knew that they had something important to share with the world. The women who came to the Tomb on that first Easter morning could have easily said, “Wow! What we just witnessed is incredible, and it’s something that fills our hearts with faith!” And then, they could have returned to their homes and families, to their friends and acquaintances, and to the places where they lived and worked without saying a word. And the Sacred Story may have ended right then and there.

How will you be changed by the Sacred Story’s proclamation of Christ’s victory?

We live in a world filled with little children who are being taught that hunting for colored eggs, eating chocolate, peeling foil-covered chocolate eggs and biting the heads off yellow peeps is what Easter is all about. We live in a world filled with children who are being taught that they need to rush to the Easter buffet, so that they can get ahead of the “Church crowd”—and we’re teaching those same little children that Easter is nothing more than an excuse for a “Spring Break.”

Will we, as God’s people, allow that trend to simply continue unchallenged, or will we continue to understand that we are the carriers of a Sacred Story that speaks of hope and new life in the face of life’s great unanswered questions?

What’s Next?