Joan Gandy, Minister
First Presbyterian Church Natchez (January 1, 2018 to present)
Sermon preached as guest minister, 3/19/17, for FPC Natchez 200th anniversary
Texts: Psalm 150; John 15:1-8
Let me take a moment of personal privilege to say: Good morning! How wonderful it is to be home! Today is a noteworthy celebration in this church -- celebrating two centuries in First Presbyterian Church in Natchez. Such a time as this calls for
-- remembering the past and honoring those who have gone before you;
-- giving thanks for the present and all of you who are together working to be the church of Jesus Christ in this place today.
-- and looking to the future, hoping that you, with God's help, will leave for those who come after you a strong legacy of love, love of God and love of neighbor.
This is a day for stories and for memories:
Someone wisely said: "We are our stories. There are some things we remember, some things we never remember or refuse to remember, and some things that we remember that never really happened."*
The lesson before us this morning from the Gospel of John reminds me of a personal experience which is not a story or memory about the church. But bear with me and maybe you'll see why I have unearthed this gardening experience as relevant for today.
On a beautiful late spring day some years ago, I knelt on the ground, a sharp spade in hand, and dug at the honeysuckle vine that had been a garden pest for years. Surely if I can get to the roots, I can destroy it, I thought. And I dug and clipped; dug and clipped.
As soon as one piece relinquished its place in the ground, there was another, connected, equally long or longer piece that seemed to go on into infinity.
To this day I remember the vision of the vine that I had in those moments -- the vision of the strong, persistent plant as it must have made its way under ALL the ground within miles of where I knelt.
No doubt, Jesus had in mind the grape vine in his lovely story. But honeysuckle is a vine most of us know very well. It is a beautiful vine with fragrant flowers and small berries.
Children love to pull the tiny tubes from the center of the flower and sip the nectar. But it is the strength of the plant, its roots and its hearty main vine that make it a force with which to contend in the garden.
I love it as a metaphor for the church --
-- the church that is strong and tenacious like that vine;
-- the church that is rooted in God's ground, in God's love, with the gift of Jesus Christ in its heart and soul and as its anchor;
-- the church that persists against its detractors and the demons that attack it;
-- the church that bears beautiful fruit, the fragrant Word of God made so sweet in acts of love and kindness that the world ultimately cannot resist its invitation. We hear from the psalmist:
"O taste and see that the Lord is good: happy are those who take refuge in him." (Psalm 34:8)
As we, the church of Jesus Christ, are rooted together in God's love, as we make God our strength and, yes, our refuge, we are made strong and fruitful.
That is our life. That is our power. That is our call. That is God's promise.
"I am the vine." Jesus says. "And you are the branches." God is the vine grower. God is the tender of the vine, the one who plants and prunes, the one who waters and feeds.
More than two centuries ago, it happened here. God planted a vineyard at this place on the corner of Pearl and State streets. He planted Jesus Christ in the hearts of those who established the church as a place to teach the Gospel and form a community of disciples.
It was a vineyard, where God grafted one person after another into the body of Christ through baptism and gave the promise of eternal life to the new community through the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments.
The vineyard was planted. The vine grew; and the branches sprouted and began to bear fruit. This magnificent building grew here. More members came. New programs came to life.
Members of the church, this God-planted vineyard, learned what it meant to love one another and their neighbors. By the very lives they lived, they sought to spread the good news.
The history of this church is rich with metaphors of the vine
-- stories of people who were strong and tenacious;
-- people who refused to be deterred in their mission by the many obstacles were put in their way.
This church planted in the name of Jesus Christ would stand, even when some poor decisions were made; wars were endured; and serious issues divided families and the congregation. In good times and in hard times; in times of joy and times of pain, God's word would continue to be preached, heard, and enacted in the name of Christ.
How good it is to be encouraged by the beautiful scripture that is before us this morning, by the image of our God tending the vine, giving strength and power to Christ, in whom we share all blessings as long as we abide in him.
This scripture is a call to discipleship that asks us to examine how we are connected to the true Vine. These verses ask us whether we are abiding in Jesus through prayer, through the Word that we read and hear, and through acts of kindness.
Are we allowing the Word to cleanse us and prune us?
In good times and in hard times, when the future is looking bright and when we sometimes see only dark shadows, God in Jesus Christ always stands beside us, urging us on in our fruitfulness, encouraging us when we need pruning, loving us when we abide in him.
I look out and miss deeply those who are no longer present in the pews, those whom I, like you, loved very much. You have lost beloved sisters and brothers recently and through the recent past of this church.
Every generation endures such pain of departure. But the biblical vision of how we are connected to the past and to the future offers comfort.
John of Patmos tells us in the Book of Revelation of the vision he witnessed -- a vision of all the saints sharing in one fellowship in the presence of God on the throne.
A great multitude is gathered together, praising God, worshiping God, singing in the presence of God. They are sharing joyfully in one fellowship, an enormous crowd with the Lamb of God at the center, the one who leads like a shepherd, the one who guides all to nourishing springs of water, the one who wipes away every tear.
Listen to these words from Revelation:
"They are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (Revelation 7:15-17).
We gather before God, humble, grateful, and somewhat amazed at what a 200-year ministry in this place has meant and means today -- and will be tomorrow because of your faithfulness and the faithfulness of so many before you.
Of course it is a day to celebrate -- to celebrate the planting of this church and the tending of this church by the Lord God Almighty. It is a day to celebrate the love of Christ planted in each heart.
Someone has written: "Celebration is not noise. It is not a spinning head. It is not just individual kicks. It is the creation of a common identity, a common consciousness. Celebration is everybody making joy!"** That suits this occasion, I believe. Do you? "Celebration is everybody making joy!"
And what a rowdy bunch we might be if we enacted some of the instructions of the psalms. The psalm read this morning, Psalm 150, urges loud praises to God in his sanctuary and in the sky and calls on us to dance, beat drums, play strings and pipes and sound the loud clashing cymbals.
"Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary!"
Finally, I offer these words to you that I see as instructions from our Lord that we can glean from the gospel lesson this morning:
Abide in Christ, love one another, bear fruit, and become agents of the promise that God has given us in Jesus Christ.
Pass on to another generation the traditions of love and service that tell the world about the God you know and worship.
Be a community that flourishes, grows together, works together, laughs together and cries together; eats together and feeds others together;
Be a community that will not give up; a community that grounds itself in the loving care of the vine tender; a community that abides in the love of its Savior Jesus Christ.
Pray fervently for God to keep you growing in discipleship, growing in love.
And pray that God will continue to prune you by his Word, reminding you of his faithfulness to you and his promises to you. May God bless you to be fruitful branches of the true Vine! In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, to whom be all praise and glory now and forevermore! Amen.
* John Westerhoff III, "So the Gift Can Be Given: The Journey of Faith Formation," in Faith Forward: A Dialogue on Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity, eds. David M. Csinos and Melvin Bray (Kelowna, BC: CopperHouse, 2013), 258.
** Parker J. Palmer, The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America's Public Life (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1981), 187, quoting Thomas Merton, Love and Living (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979, 53, 51).