“I think that we are withering.” The leader of the small, rural church was obviously speaking from her agricultural roots.
“It's like this little church isn’t rooted to Jesus anymore. And, I think that we are withering and dying because of it. We don’t have fellowship anymore. No one signs up to provide coffee and donuts. We don’t do any projects together for the community anymore. It’s like the entire congregation is depressed. It is like we aren’t getting fed. It’s like we are not attached to Jesus anymore.”
I’ve been there; “Unattached” to Jesus that is. There are times in life that are not that bad; where things not go your way, and you can just brush it off as a bad luck. Then there are times when life really, really, really does not go your way. There probably are not enough really in there.
Sometimes the troubles of life become like a snowball that just cannot stop as it descends down the hill.
It is during times like that when you create for yourself a little shell…a little tomb that can fit you and only you. It is lonely in that little tomb? Of course it is, but at least it feels safe.
The only problem with little tombs of protection is the simple fact that nothing can grow in a tomb. Without some huge intervention like someone rising from the dead, it is a one way ticket to complete death of the soul.
This death of the soul is not some sort of divine punishment either. When Jesus declares in John 15:2 that the vinegrower “removes every branch in me that bears no fruit,” it is possible to get the wrong idea that those ominous words are some sort of divine punishment for not being good people.
But, you do not need God’s hand directly smiting from above with brimstone and fire in order to come to a place of being unattached to God. Things just happen in life, and we become distanced from the one who created us. And, in the same way that branches are removed that cannot bear grapes because they have become unattached to the grape vine, so too we can fall away and thus fail to bear good, holy fruit when we become unattached.
This is just a reality of life. If you are not attached to the one who gives life, your will life will start to wither. This is nothing more than cause and effect. Branches do not live without vines and Christians do not live without their savior. No need for divine punishment here, the act of not being connected is punishment all of its own.
Do you know who I think was connected to the vine? I once heard of a young man who was a former member of an Amish community. After his mandatory year away from the community, he decided not to live with the Amish community. However, that did not mean that he was unattached to God. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
Now, before I explain, you have to understand that some Amish people have the tendency to read the bible very literally; so when this young man read in the bible about those who were commended by Jesus for offering water to a stranger and also those who were condemned because they had not, he read that literally to mean that he must provide water at all times.
So, the young man carried bottles of water in a small backpack wherever he went. And, whenever he saw someone who looked like they were even the least bit stressed or struggling, he would stop and give them a bottle of water.
“I am not an extraordinary person, this is just what Jesus said we should do,” he would explain. ‘When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink,” Jesus said (NRSV, Matthew 25:35).
But what the young man did not realize was that when he stopped and gave a bottle of water, people got much more than water. Whenever he gave a bottle of water, he would stop and give them some of his time. Whenever he gave a bottle of water, he would show that in this big world where we can feel so small and insignificant that someone actually sees us and cares.
Whenever he gave a bottle of water, he was connected to the vine. The vine of Jesus Christ who would go even to the point of death on the cross out of love for the world. The young man was a branch from that source of love that was bearing fruit through the simple gesture of providing water from his backpack.
Why did I share with you the story of this particular guy?
I guess that I wanted to be clear that being connected with our vine, Jesus Christ, is not some huge, insurmountable, mountain climbing task.
If you feel as if you are disconnected with God, it may be a clear sign that your vine has withered a little. Perhaps, your drooping leaves need to be pruned just a tad.
But pruning is not the same as cutting off. In fact, Jesus promises that you are not cut off. “Abide in me as I abide in you.” “As I abide in you.” In other words, “Live, because I already live in you." Jesus already abides in you. Jesus already lives in you. You are not cut off. The vine of Jesus’ love is already feeding you and giving you life. Shake off the withered leaves and allow new, fresh leaves to grow. Jesus chooses to give you new life.
Here's some practical advice for the week. Do something simple like offering someone the gift of water. Offer someone the gift of some of your time. Offer someone the gift of love. Love each other as Jesus has loved us. Be a branch that bears some fruit, and God will prune you and make certain that more fruit grows.
When people have built small tombs of protection, and have closed themselves off to others, it is not uncommon for them to seek the advice of a pastor. The loneliness of such little tomb can be stifling. And, when asked what they should do when they feel stressed, lifeless, and alone, my prescription is always the same. It always sounds something like this: “Do at least one act of love...one act of kindness...to someone else today.”
After-all, the problem is not that they do not want to be a part of the vine. The problem is that they have simply forgotten what it feels like to be one of the branches. Go, do what a branch does, and you will realize that you were never cut off from the vine in the first place.
What, then, would the prescription be for that little, rural church that feels uprooted from Jesus? I would say, "Do something loving in your community."
God the Father is glorified when we bear much fruit. And, on top of that, we cannot live, unless we live in the vine. We cannot thrive unless Jesus thrives within us. So, go and do something loving, and in doing so the faith community will be reminded that we have this love of God pumping through our veins. It feeds our soul. It provides juicy fruit for all those around.
Sometimes we just forget that we were branches of a vine who loves us to the end.
“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus reminds us. “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.”
Let us not do nothing. Let us do something that smells of God's love. We are branches of Jesus Christ after-all.