Beloved Community

 

April 29, 2018 (The Fifth Sunday of Easter)

Service for the Lord’s Day (Confirmation Sunday)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Acts 8:26-40

Psalm 22:24-30

John 15:1-8

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

 

15:1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 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. 5 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. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” (John 15:1-8, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Living God, you sent your Son into the world that we might have life through him. Teach us to keep faith with those who have believed before us and taught us the faith that our witness may be as bold, our love as deep, and our faith as true.  So, that we may we abide in his risen life and bear the fruit of love for one another to know the fullness of joy. Amen.

 

Each year I am amazed at what I learn from the young people in our confirmation class.  They are inquisitive students but more, they are also incredible teachers.  Yes, they challenge my patience, they test my will, they question the Bible, theology, polity, the church and most things I hold dear.  Boy, am I getting old!

 

This year is no different.  This year, we have a much smaller class in terms of number of students in the class but what they lacked in size they more than made up in their intellectual quests.  They questioned, they challenged and debated. They pushed back on fantastical stories of the Bible and antiquated teachings of the church.  Our debates this year were invigorating for me and the other mentors.  This class taught me what Fortnite is.  Ask your children. They exposed me to Black Mirror, 13 Reasons Why, Atlanta and other binge worthy shows.  So, I might sound a bit more hip and cool with the younger members.  What I really learned from this year’s class is the importance of community.  Sam Rhoad put it into words in his faith statement that he is being confirmed to the Indian Hill Church, a community, not a book, not a denomination, but a community of faith that means so much to him and his development.

 

This year’s confirmation class had eight members from six different schools, Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, Madeira, Indian Hill, Seven Hills, Summit, and Wyoming.  Each of the confirmands has been active in one way or another in the life of Indian Hill Church, but they did not know each other as a group at all.   They have grown and gelled into a cohesive class.

 

One of the best images I take from this year was the spring retreat at Camp Pyoca in Southern Indiana. The group was working together to solve a challenge of getting everyone across a ten-foot divide using a rope swing on the low ropes course.  It was a difficult challenge because they needed athletic strength and skill, but more importantly they had to communicate and work together to successfully get everyone safely across the gulf.   Eliza, Oliva, Oliver, and Robert worked together to get the mentors and others across the divide.  They could not do it by themselves— they had to work together.  A community, a connected group of individuals not isolated lone rangers but a cohesive community working together.

 

But community is more than problem solving and ropes courses.  It’s fitting that we hear this passage from John on Confirmation Sunday in the last weeks of the season of Easter.  We go backward in time, to the night before Jesus is arrested in the garden on Maundy Thursday.  When Jesus words, “I am the vine and you are the branches” it is a message of community, connection and Resurrection.

 

It is the message of Jesus from our Gospel reading from John.  We hear familiar language of I am the vine… Abide in me as I abide in you.  These hopeful images are easily lost in the harsh words that follow from Jesus, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.  Before we get nervous that Jesus’ is condemning us for not bearing fruit, not being righteous enough, let’s slow down and go deeper. Let’s appreciate that he is lifting up the importance of being connected and to be a community of God’s people.  Recently, studies have come out about young people, especially young men who commit acts of violence, they often fall through the cracks, they are loners, no father present in the home, no team to challenge them, no group to support them, no community to notice them, and in desperation they act out of rage.   A branch withers when it is not connected to the trunk of the tree.   A person dies when they have no community to connect too.

 

Instead of condemning the disciples, Jesus is telling them and all of us the consequences of separation.   His words are not to vilify— instead they are the simple truth for the disciples who need to hear the importance of community more than ever.   Jesus is making a promise, a promise from a friend to his friends.   He is saying goodbye.  Jesus is saying, “As I leave it is vitally important for you to stay together.  Remember how important you are to each other.”

 

And so, here we are on Confirmation Sunday, when we celebrate young people and their decisions to continue their individual journeys of faith in whatever form they may take.  Here we are as a church, as parents, as children, seeing them make their first decision as adults to express their faith.  This is the first step in a continually evolving relationship we have with these young people, who we will nurture and support as they mature.  Here we are as individuals hearing Jesus clearly state what happens when relationship and community change.  It makes the connection all the more important, even though it will be different, even though some may leave and or be cut off.  The importance of a supportive community is vital.  Jesus gives the image of separation like a branch being cut off from the trunk of the tree.  A branch can’t survive without its connection to the trunk.  It is withering image of a dying relationship.

 

As this confirmation class grows and matures in life and in faith it is even more important for them to be connected to a community, a community of faith, a church.  In a few years they will be driving, in a few more years they will be going off to college, in a few years after that they will be entering the work force, and then getting married, starting families, and living life.  All great and wonderful things, that we hope and wish for them.  But imagine doing all those great and wonderful things without a community of love and support, of comfort and encouragement.  We must let them know that we are here for them and will always love and support them.

 

These confirmands will no doubt have some struggles.  It is all part of life. And when the struggles come, the ups and downs of growing up we all need a community beyond our families to support us.  When you are struggling with a decision and you are too embarrassed to talk with mom or dad, we are here.  When you receive a standing ovation on stage, we are here.  When you miss the game winning goal kick, we are here.   When you break up with your girlfriend, we are here.   When you get into the college of your choice we are here.   When you fail and have to come home to start over, we are here.  Throughout all of this we call life, we are here, loving you, supporting you and praying for you.   It is what a church is all about, not rules and regulations, not impossible to believe stories and antiquated creeds, but community, love, support connected around Jesus who calls us to stay connected, to build up the beloved community.

 

Let us pray: