In June, I shared some information with folks at meeting for business regarding the current demographic make up of our community…It was that when I considered the members and attenders who we saw in worship or heard from– at least on an occasional basis, I counted over 10 people whose ages were above 80 years old; at least 7 who were over 85; and about 4 over 90. Highlighting these statistics– that reflect an aging population –opened up for me a consideration of other ongoing changes in the meeting. We seemed to be gathering less people at our fundraiser dinners; as well as extra curricular events like luncheons, book studies, and trips that also attract a smaller number of participants. Our efforts this year at recruiting folks to serve on our standing committees and to fulfill leadership roles have yielded MANY blank slots. There are less people consistently in worship, and our newsletter has ceased to exist. Now, the ongoing changes are not all negative. We are a group that over the past few years have obtained a better handle on the financial numbers—expenditures and income. We have successfully planned and calendared fundraisers each year at a brainstorming session. Our efforts at communication now include a website, a Facebook page, and extensive use of email. We have a small core of young children who are so interested and engaged in their Sunday school class. In the fall, our series on Quaker Faith and Practice yielded a relatively large group who met for discussion after worship each Sunday. All of these changes –for better or for worse—indicate that we are not the same meeting as we were 10 years ago or 5 years ago or even last year. These changes have also culminated in a number of informal conversations that expressed concerns about the future of our meeting…Our goal here today is to bring all these variables into a forum where as many of us as possible can worship, discuss, and discern a way forward in the light of all our transitions.
The scripture reading we heard earlier from John is set in the context of a time of turmoil and anxiety among the followers of Jesus. These are a part of Jesus’ final words to his disciples just after the Last Supper. His comments are given in the form of a farewell discourse, which is a common literary practice of that time that gives the last testament or farewell remarks and instructions of a famous or important person.
One of the major objectives of this discourse or speech is to prepare and equip the disciples to carry on after Jesus departs. Believers today understand these words to be an ongoing encouragement to modern disciples, which describe and guide our efforts to remain a faithful and viable and life giving community within the ebbs and tides of an ever-changing world.
Jesus describes our communities—then and now—as a living, breathing, growing, changing plant. Jesus himself is the vine—the source of all the branches; the core of the plant that makes it a plant. Disciples—then and now—are branches, that when connected to the vine, grow and produce fruit. God is the gardener who tends the whole thing—fertilizing, caring for, loving, and pruning—all over time to keep the plant healthy, and growing and developing and producing.
When I consider our meeting, set against this description of Jesus’, I envision a beautiful plant originating from a vine that we call Christ, Source, Word, Spirit, or Light with a number of branches heading in a number of directions in various phases of fruit development. If we follow through with this illustration, we, as faithful productive branches, will be pruned by the Gardener, as we abide—or stay connected or persevere or remain with the Vine. I also am led to consider the changes we have been through and the changes we will continue to experience as a part of that pruning process.
It is challenging for me to consider that pruning as something positive. I really love the good old days, and the people and activities that comprise them. As bible commentator Barbara J. Essex says: The paradox is that the vinegrower must cut away lifeless, unproductive branches and prune those branches that are productive. At some point, all the branches need to be cut. Young vines are not allowed to produce fruit for the first few years. This means a drastic pruning is needed each season so the plant can develop to its fullest. Vineyards, then, are long-term investments and labor intensive…The mystery of these actions—cleansing and pruning—is that the plant looks useless and dead. Yet the branches’ connection to the vine ensures new life and new growth. When God is doing the maintenance, we are assured that new life and new growth will result. Despite what the plant looks like, its connection to the vine renders it alive and not dead.”
New York Yearly Meeting Superintendent Christopher Sammond describes last year’s pruning of his apple orchard in this way: “When we moved onto our property the old apple orchard had not been pruned for many years. I invited Friend Ron Peterson to come take a look. He removed all the dead trees, and then pruned those that remained. I was shocked when I looked at the pruned trees. I thought they would die as well. So much had been cut and what was left, looked ill equipped to grow and develop, let alone bear fruit.” When Christopher confronted Ron about his methods, Ron said that the goal of someone who prunes is to make sure that each branch get the benefit of direct sunlight. The result of Ron’s pruning of Christopher’s apple trees was a GREAT ABUNDANCE of apples this fall. The neighbors say they have never seen this old orchard look so good and healthy.
Another account of someone’s pruning efforts was that the one apple tree in their woods was one fall, pruned “by the book”, which means seemingly drastic trimming was done to it. A severe ice storm late in the spring annihilated all the surrounding tress. The pruned apple tree not only survived but thrived and produced a great amount of fruit.
If we are in fact being pruned a bit, let us work to abide well within this environment of God’s love. As previously mentioned, the John passage goes on to describe abiding as remaining connected to the Vine, which is Jesus. Another synonym used for abide is “wait”. As Quakers we understand waiting to not be a passive phase, but to entail active seeking and learning and being made ready to receive the nurture that promotes growth. As disciples are nurtured and prepared for bearing fruit, “Jesus invites those disciples to enter into a more profound relationship by urging them to abide in him. Rather than sounding a note of despair, Jesus speaks a word of hope and trust for their souls. Reassurance comes from remaining close to Jesus, weathering whatever storms may come. Jesus tells the disciples to abide in him, as he abides in them. In his translation The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Eugene H. Peterson uses the words, “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.” The notion of making a home, of finding the heart’s true home in Jesus, brings a settled peace to the turmoil that often characterizes our lives.”
My hope and prayer for us as a faith community is that we see this season of change in our meeting not as turmoil or disorder or an ending, but rather as the opportunity to discover and experience new ways of producing the fruit of abiding in that divine presence which enables, encourages, prunes, and challenges us so that we work to bring forth the Reign of God in this time and place with those of us who are here, as well as with those who will join us.
The paper of queries that we distributed last week outlines a way to engage in a process that can illuminate our vineyard with the Light necessary to grow fruit as disciples of the one who is our creator, redeemer, and sustainer. I also want to mention at this time that we are accompanied in our efforts today as we consider these queries, by the thoughts, prayers and Light of a rich and diverse collection of many who know and love this meeting Quakers and non-Quakers alike.
As we continue in worship, I am going to offer a couple of the queries for your consideration, along with some personal comments that have resulted from 10 years of ministry among you. You are encouraged to record your own responses to these queries for us to utilize as we continue to discuss and discern together.
Who are we called to be?
What is the mission or purpose or reason for existing as a faith community?
To experience and share WITH EVERYONE the mercy, grace, love and peace of God from a programmed Quaker perspective.
What values will shape and guide our work together? Our testimonies are a good start.
What is God’s Vision for us? To invite, engage, support those who will accept it from us; to be ACTIVE in the community…to be in prayer for those in our community.
Where are we?
What is the specific geographical, social cultural context in which we are located?
IN THE MIDDLE OF OUR VILLAGE!!!
A community affected by the close by recreational opportunities, increasingly culturally diverse population.
What are the needs of the people around us? Many need basic necessities, treatment for addictions, support for young families.
What issues are unique to our community? Pollution of the Hudson River, the presence of a path that provided heroin and other drugs to this area, the need for a new source of employment.
When are we?
What is going on in this season of our history?
What changes, issues, opportunities can we see appearing on the horizon?