nathanjhill.com

writing, reflecting, and hoping for a transformed world

Scripture: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:[3b-6] 17-19

Today, millions of people all around the world are waking up to face the day with hushed anticipation and expectation.

Some are staying up late into the evening, and others are rising in the wee hours of the morn.

All are gathered in front of flickering lights, poised on the edge of their seats, living moment to moment, prepared for something remarkable, something special to unfold right in front of their eyes. Many are prepared to shout in victory, clasping hands of their neighbors, embracing strangers, and celebrating a moment they have been waiting for with baited breath. Some are singing familiar tunes and chanting, compelling the impossible to made real. 

Now, of course, I am not talking about Advent, our 40 day season of waiting and anticipation for the coming of Christ – no, I’m talking about the World Cup, the biggest, grandest sports event that captivates the sports world every four years.

Your pastor has been one of those rising up early, not to begin my Advent prayers but to check the latest scores from early morning’s first games and refreshing my phone wherever I am to see the latest bits of controversy, drama, and excitement. Just last week, I grabbed a seat at Franklin’s Restaurant here in Hyattsville and, without even knowing the names of the people around me, suddenly became part of a tight knight family, groaning at every missed pass, praying to God with the depths of my soul, and cheering when Tim Weah slotted home a beautiful goal to put the US ahead.

The World Cup is the largest sports event in the globe, when countries send their best athletes to face in a drama requiring skill, courage, and tactical acumen, when the viewership dwarfs that of the SuperBowl, when people whose nations did not even make it follow every gripping moment – and it is a time when a huge portion of the world hopes with expectation for their nation to do the unthinkable and win the whole darn thing.

On this first Sunday of Advent, then, I invite us to think about our Advent journey – and what it might look like if we began with the same passion and expectation as soccer fans are experiencing right now? What if we practiced an active hope of our own, chanting and singing, sitting at the edges of our seat, and watched and waited for God to do the impossible in our midst? How might we live?

-—

In our scripture today, we hear the words of the Prophet Habakkuk. We don’t know much about the person behind the words, but it is believed he delivered his oracles and visions at a time when people were unsure about God’s righteousness. It was a time of injustice – a time when hope seemed a privilege – when faith seemed ill-suited to a world of war and judgment and violence.

In the first chapter, Habakkuk asks questions of God. You can hear him wailing, crying out, asking God, “Is it time yet?”

He says, “Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.”

The prophet here speaks for all of us who see a world around us in disarray. Advent, though our culture may suggest otherwise with silly holiday music, photos with Santa, and shopping sales everywhere we turn, is a perfect time for us to ask hard questions of God. Advent approaches the longest night of the year for those of us in the northern hemisphere. Light dwindles around us. The chill begins to sap at our bones. We see the shootings that take the lives of Wal-Mart employees, LGBTQ+ neighbors, college students, and innocents on our city streets. Even in the backdrop of a World Cup which has sometimes forget about the war in Ukraine, we are reminded of the migrant works mistreated and abused in the building of palace-like stadiums. We grieve alongside numerous families the loss of our loved ones who will not share the festivities with them. And we say with Habakkuk, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” How long until justice comes? How long until we can peak at a better future as a people?

It is as if Habakkuk, venting and groaning, asks what we are asking this Advent – “Is it time yet?” Is it time for God to show up?

At the beginning of Chapter Two, the prophet climbs to the top of a watchtower, promising to wait, actively and in anticipation, long into the night, early in the morning for God’s reply. What an image for our Advent together, isn’t it? The prophet sitting up and listening, asking – “Is it time yet?”

God does not keep Habakkuk waiting, responding by saying:

Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

God speaks a proclamation of hope. God isn’t done, and it is time. Or just about time. God’s vision is on the way. And while it might not arrive on two day free shipping like Amazon does, the Creator calls on the prophet and his people to wait for it – wait for what will come.

Here is our model too – for what Advent can be – especially in a world marked by suffering and despair.

The prophet exhibits faithfulness in a world gone awry. Habakkuk will wait – will continue to watch – for the movement of God, trusting that God’s vision is on the way, even if the harvest hasn’t arrived yet. Even in the midst of hunger and despair and barren fields and confusion. The prophet says this with a simple prayer of affirmation that might be our prayer in this Advent season:

God, the Lord, is my strength

The prophet will hope, despite all of the odds, despite what the pundits may say – hope for the impossible, home for the improbable, hope for the unthinkable.

This is a prophetic hope – the kind of hope that has marked Christians through generations, even stubbornly when the world around us wants us to be weighted down by cynicism. It’s why, even as our lives in a local congregation change, as we experience transitions – we continue to hope, continue to look ahead, continue to watch in expectation for what God has yet to do.

Habakkuk in a way models for us the reality that hope is active – hope is not a passive reality. As followers of Jesus, as those deepening our connection with God, our faith is a way of life for us to navigate this world, to make sense of what we experience, and to continue to trust that more is on the way. We believe that the unthinkable, something greater than a mere winning goal in the World Cup, might be right around the corner in fragmented communities and lives like our own.

Just as the prophet did, we are to climb to our watchtowers and look with expectation for what God is about to do and say in our lives and in this world. We are to rise early in the morning and stay up late into the night, refreshing our screens, singing our songs, and living at the edge of our seats.

For Advent is a story of the greatest upset of all – of a God who would not stay distant from us but step into our lives and into our world to deliver us from the violence and pain that holds us captive.

How then might we live into an active hope in this season?

At the beginning of our service, we did invite you to be aware of some special resources made available to you – a devotional booklet with prayers and readings, study groups on Sunday morning and Thursday evening to gather with others and listen and act, and activities for children. That may be a place to start.

Or it may be that you have a question for God. Perhaps these next 40 days is a time for you to take a real risk. Write down that prayer on an index card. And wait and see if God answers your question.

Sarah Augustine writes in her book about her first trip as an indigenous woman to visit indigenous communities down in South and Central America, communities that were being pushed off their ancestral lands in favor of mining companies and international deals that left them without rights and well-being. These communities, though up against odds that seemed insurmountable, organized and began to fought, using all the tools they could muster to protect the place they called home.

Sarah visited with them, and in one meeting with elders, as they shared stories and listened, one of the eldest women turned to her and asked, “Why have you come here?”

Sarah was caught off guard by the message – and she started to mumble a response about learning and listening.

And the elder asked again, cutting her off. “No, why have you come here?”

And Sarah said she felt a call from God in that moment, that those who were waiting on the edge of their seats for justice to be done, were tired of those who came to listen. They were ready for those who came to live an active hope, who wanted to climb the watchtowers and cry out to God, and then work and look for the world we wished it could become. Sarah began a relationship that day, as a lawyer, to help those people fight – with hope – for the restoration of their land and their dignity.

Today, millions of people have risen with hushed anticipation and expectation – not just for soccer – but for how this world might be. May we sing and shout louder than a soccer match. May our prayers lift to the heavens. May we move in action to care for those who are working for hope right here and now. Is it time yet?

Know, beloved ones, it is – hope is on the way! Thanks be to God!

Isaiah 43:19-21

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

My first encounter with Betsy Hall-Wallace came from an email.

When I was called to be a pastor of this incredible congregation and officially voted in about ten years ago and before I began my first day officially on the job, I got a three page long email from Betsy on September 21, 2012. In this long email, she noted that we were already Facebook friends and that she wanted to tell me all about the liturgical arts ministry that she was invested in here at UCC. I don’t think I responded, even though I was very intrigued and could tell her enthusiasm to meet me and to engage our church with sight and sound.

What is the Liturgical Arts ministry?

Well, if you were lucky enough to be here for worship, especially during one of our holy seasons like Lent, Christmas, Easter, you would walk into a sanctuary that would be transformed – sometimes into radical spaces, like a first century stable, a bus stop as we waited on God to show up, a garden with a stone over a tomb, or a path of railroad ties during Black History month.

Liturgical arts is our ministry in the church focused on grounding worship in a celebration of more than vocal words and music – but in color, shape, symbol, and texture.

Carole Windham, Betsy's dear friend and compatriot in this ministry, said that Betsy was at the heart of this effort because “she could see possibilities in the strangest things.”

She might see a rock – and to us it looks like a rock, but to Betsy it became an elaborate centerpiece to witness to God's beauty and good news. What we might discard as junk at a local yard sale, Betsy would see it from the right angle and think – I can use this at Christmas!

When I came as pastor, I made a bit of a risky decision to say yes to Liturgical Arts. Previous pastors had celebrated this ministry, but I remember Betsy saying that one of them said... don't tell me what you are planning. Just surprise me! Plausible deniability.

But I took the risk to say – let's sync up. Let's work together. And our conversations were always surprising. I might offer a theme and a few images – and somehow, Betsy would take those things and deliver something that helped our scripture and our worship come alive.

In all of that work, and in her roles as an elder and leader, we saw Betsy's heart and enthusiasm – her love of people, her openness, her broad theology of welcome and inclusion, her vibrancy.

Church was not a program or a commitment – participating in church meant building relationships of care to share God's love.

God says through Isaiah – I am about to do a new thing.

To know Betsy was to experience a spirituality and way of seeing life that burst with newness and possibilities.

Betsy saw possibilities in Bill when she met him. She changed his life, and no doubt, he changed her’s. She saw those possibilities in her son, Ian, and his wife, Katie. She saw possibilities in dance students and co-workers and church members. She loved them all.

Just like the people of the Old Testament who wandered through dry wilderness in the desert, Betsy had this way of bringing out abundance on tough days when she asked us to carry boxes up and down, bring out the lift, and move stuff around. On one of those long work days, she would pull out a bag of goodies – it might include scotch eggs, shortbread cookies, olives, chips and salsa, cookies, cheese, sausage, crackers, fresh veggies, on and on. There was always some cold lemonade on hand. You didn’t go away hungry in Betsy’s presence – she made sure you were fed and watered. And sometimes, you needed it – because some of those days were LONG.

And even when her health began to deteriorate, she didn't let that stop her. She continued to work on a chalice of seashells in collaboration with our youth, though her hands didn't move with quite the agility she was used to. She continued to love those around her with those long emails and encouraging messages – her last message in my inbox after Easter this year said, “You all did an amazing job!” She fought hard – even a condition like ALS was not an invitation to give up. Even when she could not communicate verbally, her eyes sparkled with the newness of her abiding love.

She saw in a space like this sanctuary and in human beings a way to convey God's love through a medium far bigger than a painting canvas.

The story of our faith is one of a God, a Creator, who loves us enough to see things possible with our lives that we do not see. God saw that rich possibility in Betsy to help her leave a legacy that will echo on for years to come through the lives of her loved ones and through the worship ministry of our church... and beyond.

God sees possibilities in each of us too. We are invited to respond to that love by sharing our love with others. We are invited to see God doing a new thing and live in such a way that our praise of our Creator echoes through the beauty we create and share.

That is a story that Betsy believed in with all of her heart, and it is that story that she sought to communicate to all of our senses every time we gathered for worship. It speaks to her heart – that of a mother, wife, friend, instructor, and witness that life is an incredible gift to be shared.

Bill and Ian, you did great work in this past year caring for Betsy, providing her with the best that you could in very difficult circumstances. Thank you for witnessing to us what loving attentiveness looks like. I know Betsy felt your love and care to the end.

Betsy, we love you. We will miss you. But your ministry continues. We give thanks that God gave us such a wonderful witness to what is possible. Thanks be to God!

O God Who Reigns Over Death O God Who Shows Us How to Live,

We honor your sacrifice and your love poured out. We honor the way you show up and lead us even when our lives are a mess.

Help us survive, week to week, day to day.

Help us survive in a world that is groaning and aching from violence, climate change, division, and inequality.

Bless the survivors. Bless those who continue to love.

Bless those who share of their lives though they sit with great trauma.

And more than help us survive, empower us to witness to your good news - that proclaim freedom for those bound up, new relationships for those who are alone, inclusion for those pushed to the edges, rest and healing for those walking wounded.

We ask your healing mercies on those recovering from COVID,

….

and for family members recovering from surgery,

….

Hold close those who are called to give care, for the worry and exhaustion in their bodies.

Remind your church that we have much love to give, though we are changing, though things are difficult.

May we ever look to you.

We pray this in the name of Jesus, Our Risen One, the Suffering Servant, amen.

O God of Resurrections,

We are surprised this morning.

Your goodness catches our breath.

You remind us of the beauty and unpredictability of Creation.

And You call us by name.

We praise You – that nothing stands between us and Your love.

We praise You – for overcoming death.

We praise You – for calling us to be disciples,

to co-create a New Creation with You.

On this Easter day, as we rise to joy and celebration,

guide our worship. Give us words to speak.

Forgive us when we stumble and struggle.

Heal us.

Help us see and know and believe.

And as You call us anew,

send us out to usher in resurrection everywhere we go.

May Your kingdom come, O Risen One.

In the name of the Creator, Son, and Spirit,

Amen!

As part of a new focus on study of scripture as a church, I decided to implement the Narrative Lectionary beginning last fall.

The Narrative Lectionary is a schedule of readings across a year that traverse the Bible more or less narratively. We began in Genesis, continued through major books of the Hebrew Bible, and have spent most of our December and Lent in the Gospel of John. It’s been really cool for our Thursday evening bible study group, because it does allow us to piece together different narratives and themes of scripture that reveal how deeply interlocked and connected these stories are.

For example, we preach on Jacob’s incredible spiritual vision of a ladder with angels going to and fro, and then later we read about Jesus in the Gospel of John speaking about angels descending and ascending in his presence.

When scripture is read in silos, we can miss how deeply Jewish scripture is and what we miss when we disconnect Jesus from his own community. (Of course, this should challenge us to confront our deep rooted anti-semitism in many theological interpretations and church practices.)

I recommend it if you want to shift in a different direction than the regular lectionary, but know there are other options out there like the Women’s Lectionary which look awesome too.

As part of my study and discipline to prep for sermons and discussions, I find the resources at NarrativeLectionary.org really helpful. There is a weekly blog post with commentary from diverse perspectives about the passage. You can also access archives of previous entries. There is a weekly podcast as well with theologians from Luther Seminary. It’s not a long podcast – usually 20 minutes, so it gives a quick entry point and some places to start.

Beyond that as far as resources, I enjoy the New Interpreter’s Commentary – my church has a copy which is a luxury, I know. Additional commentaries like the Global Bible Commentary, the Bible and Disability, Womanist Midrash, Women’s Bible Commentary, Voices from the Margins, and the People’s New Testament commentary also add to the conversation.

But the primary place that I often begin are still the pages of the Washington Post (or local news or whatever) and the voices and experiences of my congregation. They often add perspectives that I would never think of from their own stories and witness and questions. That’s the gift of a series like this.

I'm always looking for tools to help me organize my writing as a pastor, amateur sports journalist, and game designer.

I've used a variety of note apps on Mac and iOS over the years, like Notes, Bear, Evernote, VoodooPad, and more. The key is to have a cross-platform piece of software that synchronizes the notes, allowing me to edit and write wherever I am and whenever inspiration strikes. As a bonus, I prefer functionality to export documents to HTML or as a PDF and stash images and crucial links. Oh, and I love Markdown.

Bear.app has been my go to – it was pretty, pleasant to work with, and functional. However, I did get weary of using hashtags to mark documents for organization, as I kind of prefer a clean output option rather than having to delete the hashtags when emailing them to a colleague or copy-pasting them into an online editor. It's exporting functions were missing a few features too.

Enter Craft, a quickly maturing note/writing/production app that has swept me off my feet. I transitioned from Bear and now use it exclusively, except for some occasional quick notes in the basic Notes.app.

At its core, Craft is a little different. Yes, it can be used to type up documents of all kinds, but formatting is a key feature from the get go. Select an entire paragraph, and you can turn it into a quote, bold it, or whatever with various Markdown options. Sort articles into folders based around themes or projects.

Where Craft really rocks is its output options. Turning a Craft story into a DOC or PDF is simple, but even cooler is to create a private link that makes your sermon or game idea into a simple webpage for viewing. Even cooler than that is to write a rich text note to your congregation, for instance, with images and literally copy paste it into your email app to send out. It's gorgeous.

They’ve just added team options and various collaboration features.

An online version of this app is on the way too.

It’s great.

Here are some examples:

Over the past few years, I've written about soccer, specifically Major League Soccer and my beloved FC Dallas.

I got into FC Dallas while living in Dallas just past the 2010 World Cup. I decided I was going to follow the LA Galaxy back then because they had Landon Donovan, American hero. And yet I stumbled across an FC Dallas game on some sub-station on the cable network. They intrigued me – young players, lots of energy, and promise.

Plus, I could go watch them live. And indeed, I did.

They became my first season ticket experience as a sports fan. I attended my first playoff game. Over time, my knowledge of the game as a whole improved – understanding terminology, tactics, talent levels, and more.

While I don't consider myself a sports journalist on par with many seasoned pros at ESPN and elsewhere, writing about soccer has challenged me. You need a story of substance. Sure, you can just be silly and make up stuff, which I have done from time to time, but listening for stories, conflicts, and challenges can mean the difference between something boring and something interesting.

Stories show up in unlikely places – in a player showing up for a fan's birthday party, in a formation change, in conflict behind the scenes, in the stats from work on the field, in a goal by a clever player.

Writing about soccer has challenged me to pay attention to things I might have missed. I am still learning. I have so much to learn. But it's been fun to write about things other than theology.

Sometimes, a bunch of guys kicking a ball around is theology – it is life.

Matthew 11:25-30

#sermon

  • Yesterday afternoon, I had one of those naps that are just sublime. I was tired. I laid down on the couch, and somehow, I drifted off to sleep. It was maybe 20 minutes long. And it was the kind of nap that I woke up from surprised that I fell asleep.
  • I was grateful for that small gift of God’s presence with me yesterday, even as I am grateful for the big gift of you, University Christian Church, for giving my family and I time away this summer on sabbatical.
  • What is sabbatical? Sabbatical is not simply vacation. It is an opportunity to step away and step back. It is an opportunity to rest and renew. It is a chance to breathe after what has been a long and difficult couple of years. Sabbatical comes from the concept of sabbath – which is core to our Jewish siblings faith and the Torah, to mirror God’s rest on the seventh day of each week as we learn in Genesis 1, to simply be.
  • Barbara Brown Taylor, in the video we just watched, pointed out that sabbath is kind of a little death. We let go of our need to produce. Our need to be busy. We are given the holy gift of creating space in our life, space where we don’t have to necessarily live up to the expectations of our culture and world. And sometimes, that can feel like dying.
  • And I wonder why – maybe it is because sabbath is still so difficult for us to practice in our capitalistic, fast-paced world. For some of us, those who are students, those who are working jobs that are more than full-time, those with a household and family to look after, rest can seem like a luxury we do not have time for. Even for you who are retired, some of you have said you are busier in retirement than when you worked. What is that? What can we learn from Jesus about this gift of rest?
  • As I prayed over our passage this week, as Jesus declares to those gathered with him, the word “rest” is what stuck out to me.
  • In the opening part of this short passage, Jesus describes how God has given divine wisdom to infants. He doesn’t mean literally babies – but the most unlikely of their society – his disciples, the poor, those who hear and respond to Jesus’ invitation. This was a prophetic reversal.. No doubt – a direct incitement of religious leaders who believed you needed to have a long set of credentials to know God and how to follow God. Rather, God was prepared to work in those who didn’t mean their culture’s expectations.
  • There is joy in Jesus’ words. Following Jesus is life-giving. It is not a drudgery. It is not clocking in your time card. It is rest – compared to the world’s oversized drive to quantify our time and our skills into money into our value.
  • Jesus no doubt was contrasting some of the religious burdens placed upon people’s lives by certain religious leaders of his time – making it seem that God’s sabbath was unattainable.
  • But don’t we live with such outsized expectations? We are so busy. We are so burdened. One of our culture’s strong narratives is a focus on our growing economy, on our productivity, on our success. I heard a tech company CEO who claimed to only sleep five hours a day, because they had to work hard and be more productive and do more, more, more. I don’t think those expectations are healthy for any of us.
  • Who deserves rest? Think about the homeless person with their head curled up on a jacket at the steps to the train station, often harassed and told to move somewhere else. Even those stepped over deserve a place to rest – in fact, that was one of the reasons the Day Center was started.
  • Think of the Afghani people – fighting and struggling for years and years, wave and wave of violence. Think of all others in this world who live in fear in the midst of war. I truly believe part of the sabbath call is for a world free of violence for all who suffer.
  • Think of immigrants in this country who are navigating a hostile, convoluted system to gain status or protection for their loved ones.
  • Think about your burdens that you carry with you – for loved ones, for your anxieties and fear, for your frayed relationships.
  • Sabbath and rest challenge our world’s values and busyness. We deserve rest. We need rest. We are created and fashioned by God for that opportunity to simply be. Rest is part of God’s plan for us.
  • What does this look like for us as a church and as disciples?
  • No more apologizing when we are tired. No more feeling guilt when we need to take a nap or time off or turn off the phone. Seriously. If someone asks who gave you permission, say God did.
  • As a congregation, as leaders, as a board, a polity that pauses in the midst of hard questions for silence and space, balancing our urgency to grow and be witnesses to Christ’s love with care for our bodies minds and souls.
  • And as a movement for wholeness, as followers of Jesus, it means sticking up for others when they are not given the rest they deserve. Advocating alongside them.
  • I learned during my sabbatical and continue to learn – that life is to be enjoyed, and we all deserve to enjoy it. I want that for you. More importantly, God wants it for each of us.
  • Today, join me in reflecting that Jesus invited all who are weary and heavy laden to come to him and receive that gift of rest. Join me in a moment of silence – and if you feel comfortable, offer that burden that you are struggling with to Jesus.

I've been on a strange journey – one of grief, lack of self-confidence, internal turmoil, and doubts.

One of the painful losses was my love for singing praise music. I use that term loosely – praise music can be a lot of things for me, from Bob Marley to Bon Iver to actual “christian worship music”.

I just didn't feel the passion to pick up my guitar and try to make something beautiful.

For me, that's unusual. Music has always been a entrance into faith for me. Music is an opening to something larger and spacious, a way to communicate emotions and experiences that defy logic and reason and rest in beauty. I love music of all kinds and learned to be unashamed of that passion. Using my guitar and singing has been a big part of my ministry for many years.

If it wasn't for music, I wouldn't be a pastor.

So for at least two to three years, I let it go. Some of it was stress and just needing to focus on other things in my ministry, but I think too it was a reconfiguration of my life of faith. I needed to confront things, change things, and reassess where I wanted to be.

I just needed to be okay with where I was.

After a long time, I picked up my guitar again.

After a long season, I am leading worship again.

It's fun. I'm easing back into it.

Last Sunday, I led a song in front of a small crowd of returning church members and friends, and... yeah, it was good. It felt beautiful. I could hear their voices encouraging my own. It was okay to be not okay, and it was okay to sing anyway.

So, yeah, I feel like making music again.

John 15:1-8 I decided to come to church this morning in my gardening clothes as we ponder our scripture today. I’ve got some weather resistant pants, a shirt I don’t mind getting dirty, some gloves, and, of course, some handy tools for getting down and dirty in God’s Creation. Truth is, you’ve heard it before, I was not born with a green thumb – I do not have a natural gift at gardening like so many seem. I admire those of you who love gardening. I am almost always concerned that when I mess with my plants, I do far more harm than good. Just a year and a half ago or so during one of our church cleanup days, I was tasked with trimming or pruning the bushes that line the sidewalk in front of our church building’s main entrance. That is all the instructions I was given. So with shears in my hand, I went to work. And like a first time hair stylist, I gave the bushes a classic hack job. When I was done with them, I was kind of embarrassed – it looked like I had killed those bushes I had taken so many branches off, leaving just a few stumps behind. But just this week, I paused to notice in the midst of this amazing spring – how those bushes have bounced back. Not only are they teeming with green and purple blooms, their branches are sticking back out over the sidewalk, bursting forth in color and praise anytime we make our way into our church building. I wish you could see them this morning. Pruning, the act of cutting back portions of plants, surprisingly has the opposite effect than what we think on the surface. While we are snipping off ends and clearing away dead or overgrown branches, we are actually creating the possibility for growth, for fullness, for the plant to bounce back even stronger than before. It’s kind of counter intuitive – and it’s so beautiful, isn’t it? I wonder – have you had moments in your life when it seemed like God was pruning you? These might have been times of intense change, transformation, and transition. They might have been moments of loss – the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a beloved person in your life. It might have been a rude awakening of truth, when something you thought was working suddenly falls apart. It might have even be a confrontation with addiction or a habit that you learned you must confront and overcome to move forward in life. We all have these moments – sometimes, we don’t even know they are God at work until we can look back and remember how that thing we thought was blooming was actually killing us. But what is true – what we know and what we may learn someday – pruning is painful. Just like the bush I thought I hacked to death, it doesn’t feel good, especially in the moment. But if we can hold on, if we can endure, something better, as hard as it is to see, may be on the way. Maybe this entire year of pandemic has begun a season of pruning – for our lives as individuals and as families, for our lives as a church, for our lives as community. Could something too be better on the way? — Jesus uses this image of pruning in our passage today to make clear that being a disciple is about transformation. He begins, just like we heard last week in his teaching about being the good shepherds, by proclaiming that he is the True Vine. The image he paints is one of connectedness – Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. As branches, our role is to bear fruit – delicious fruit that reflect Jesus’ commandment that he gives to his disciples later in this Gospel – “love one another as I have loved you”. Love is our fruit – love is the fruit this world full of injustice, violence, inequality, and hurt needs. Bearing fruit is not about success – it’s not about fame – it’s not about having a big bank account – it’s not about being perfect – it’s not even about having a big church with lots of members. Bearing fruit is about exhibiting the radical transforming love of God in this world. God’s role, as Jesus describes, is the vinegrower – the farmer – who cultivates the soil, provides the wind, sun, and water to nourish the vine. And therefore, if we want to grow, as disciples – in fact, the only way to grow is to remain connected to the vine. Can you imagine the audacity of a branch that decides it can detach and bear fruit? Sometimes, we hear about big pop bands who at some point break up – and some of the singers go solo, releasing their own albums. In Jesus’ teaching this morning, there is no going solo. Apart from God, there is simply no possibility to bear fruit – to exhibit the true, deep, radical love of God. And so like any good gardener, God will prune those branches that are not bearing fruit. This word prune is actually used interchangeably with the word “cleanse”. God, as the vineyard grower, will cleanse the vine of those branches who are decaying, who are lacking of life, who are failing to stay rooted and connected and exhibit the love of God. We will be snipped and shaped so we can fulfill our purpose – and if worst comes to worst and we fail to live our purpose, we will be tossed into the fire like kindling. It is a real image – an image real to anyone who has gardened a day in their life – but also real as we think about all in this world who are blessed with life and choose to use it to do anything but bear witness to the love which gave them breath. Being pruned, as Jesus knew quite well, was not a pleasant experience – it could seem frightening. It could seem to ask too much of us – to strip away those parts of ourselves that we are convinced define who we are – like our stature, our education, our salary, our stability. And yet if we go over to the other side of this process, letting God remove the lifeless bits of us, we discover something we may not have ever thought possible – growth, fullness, purpose. Just like the bushes on the walkway to our church building, sometimes, we must let go to bear fruit. Sometimes, to do something good and well, we must do drop other things in our lives. — Friends, in my own life, I can point to this truth in me. I continue to be pruned by God. Over a year ago, I was experiencing days of intense high blood pressure. I was not well. The pandemic was hitting, no doubt adding to my stress, but I was able to get in and see the doctor just before everything got locked down. Luckily, she was blunt and truthful with me – she was the voice of God in my life. She said, “Nathan, you need to make some changes.” I began medication. I began to exercise more. I began trying (most days) to eat better. In a year, I have lost weight, I feel better, and my blood pressure is normal. It has not been easy. I miss eating Five Guys burgers. Heck, I used to go to Five Guys and get the regular Cheeseburger with two big old patties. But as I sat in the doctor’s room, I thought about all the times I have told you, church, to do what your doctor says and to take care of yourself. How can I say I love you when I am not willing to love my body and care for my soul in the same way? How can I witness to God’s power over racism, death, and division in this time if I am not rooted in the oneness of the one who offers another way? My pruning, truth be told, is still in process. I have much yet to do. Maybe you do too. Are you in a season of pruning? Are you aware of something you need to release or let go of? Are you afraid of the pain and change that is going to come? If so, I know and share in that. — Church, in our life, we can point to this truth too. In 1959, on the first Sunday in May, University Christian Church was born, a product of the thoughtful, prayerful pruning of our mother church, Mt Rainier Christian Church. Mt Rainier sent over 100 of its members to help create and birth this “mission church”, a church that was envisioned to be cutting edge, to serve its community, to try something new. 62 years later today, we celebrate fruitful ministry, resulting in baptisms, spiritual growth, laughter, celebration, transformation, service, and the witness of God’s love at our intersection. How painful it was for one church to let itself be pruned and cut back – and yet all in order to bear fruit and expand God’s community. How many other stories are there like that in our church throughout our history? Moments when something seemed to lie fallow for a season and then God used that opening to bring life. — And so church, I think we are in such a season again. In this past year of the pandemic, we have witnessed to God’s love in so many ways – nimbly moving our worship services online to global impact, turning our busy intersection into a sacred ground for support of black lives, transforming Zoom sessions into Bible Study and Bible Bingo hours, using our emails and texts and phone calls to stay safe and yet remain connected through prayer, love, and care. We have launched new ministries that are bearing fruit, like our Blessing Box ministry, like a redesigned kitchen. And yet we have lost too – we have lost some beloved church members, saints who will not be replaced. We have had some members of our community who have gone to look for another place, another community, where they feel called to bear fruit. We have experienced disruption in some of our practices and traditions which we believe will continue to bear fruit. And we have learned the hard lessons that some things that we do are simply not bearing fruit as a church. In this coming mission year, as we take steps to implement our Future Story of where we feel God is calling us to move as a community, we are entering a season of pruning, asking God to remove the dead branches so that once again we might burst into fullness and wholeness, reflecting God’s love in this hurting world. How do we do this? Jesus’ command is to abide in him. Abide sounds passive and active to me – like sit with Jesus, hang out with Jesus, linger with Jesus – but it also sounds like sometimes we have to go find Jesus, whereever he is. We abide through prayer and study of scripture. We abide through active listening to each other. We abide through difficult conversations. We abide by trusting in God. We abide by showing up for our neighbors. We abide by waiting and watching and learning. We abide by letting go and letting God do the painful work of changing who we are. In this coming mission year, beginning in July, I propose then a vision for us as a faith community – to grow inward so that we might grow outward. In short, grow inward to grow outward. Kind of easy to say, right? Our Future Story, which is on our website, describes a vision of our church where we are engaged afresh in our community through mentorship, relationship, through the sharing and cultivating of fruit at this intersection, describes one scene where a young girl swings back so she can swing forward. I think our coming mission year is such a year – where we must begin to cultivate the soul inwards so we can swing forward into God’s vibrant fruit-bearing future for our lives and our community. Say it with me: Grow inward to grow outward. May we abide in Christ, the true vine, who roots us in God’s love and vision of wholeness for our world – so that we might bear the kind of fruit that makes a difference for another 62 years. Thanks be to God.

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