Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven;
behold and tend this vine; *
preserve what your right hand has planted.
We have work to do. We have work to do. And it’s the sweetest work anyone can be called to. We get to tend the Vine that is the mission of God in the world. We get to join the work of God whose delight it is to bring fruitfulness to what God has planted.
Let’s face it, for many of us, the work we have felt called to perform has been thankless, onerous, bearing meagre fruit. In some of our churches, we keep having to do more with less. For many of us, our buildings, though in the past were centers of community gathering, learning, and hospitality, are now more often sources of stress and fatigue. We wonder where the youth are. We wonder where the people are. We wonder why things are not quite like they used to be.
When you leave this convention tomorrow, and your neighbor will ask you what did you do this weekend, what will you say? Perhaps you’ll say, “We went to Concord. We heard the bishop talk. We voted on a budget, on what clergy should be reasonably paid. We voted on the status of a struggling congregation in the middle of the state. We voted on a position on capital punishment. We sang some songs. We heard about the work of the diocese.” The diocese.
And your neighbors might ask, “what’s a diocese?” Or they may ask, “So how’s the diocese in New Hampshire doing? Growing anywhere? Any more youth or children in church? What does a diocese do anyway?” And then maybe your friends and family members will shake their heads with a mixture of sympathy or befuddlement.
But what if, when they asked you what you did this weekend, you said, “You know what?, I re- joined a movement. I showed up for a cause, the most important in my life. I decided to join the Mission of God to restore a fallen world full of injustice, cruelty, anger, decay, damage. I heard again, but as though for the first time, that I am connected to a cause that is greater than my own self-interest. I found that instead of just another pledging unit, I am nourishing a web of relationship and concern that I need to live and that needs me to live. Instead of being counted as another who makes up the ASA the Average Sunday Attendance, I am essential because every encounter I have, from Monday to Saturday, adds to the number of Average Weekly Encounters with God we have in the world. So more than just ASA (average Sunday attendance) my life increases the Average Weekly Encounters--AWE.”
We got work to do, but it’s sweet and awesome work because it’s the work that brings joy to God’s heart.
Here’s the sweet and awe-filled work that I see we have to do in this part of the Vineyard that we know as the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire. Yes, I’m calling it the Church of New Hampshire, and not the diocese. This is because we are all called into this fellowship of love, of abiding together, of tending the vine together. I’ve only been bishop for two years, and I’m already tiring of being linked to a bureaucratic word that divides me and the bishop’s office from the life of the parishes I am coming to love, and the schools, and all the ways we find to worship and serve God.
So how do we tend the vine?
I’ve come to see that there are Five Practices, five activities that are how we share the work of God, the Divine Vinedresser.
First, We show up.
We present ourselves. We make an opening in our lives for God when we stop and say God is here and I want to be present for God, in my own life, in my community, in my family, friends and neighbor, familiar or stranger. You showed up today. You said no to certain things that you could have done today, in order to be changed by encounters beyond your control. We show up when we pray, placing ourselves in the steadfast and surprising Presence of God who is beyond our control, but who loves us. We show up in our ministries in the world. We show up to discover how is God making God’s-self known in this crisis in my town, in my family. The two most frequent words Jesus uses are “listen” and “go.” We show up because as part of a living vine, we are destined for growth, exploration, and fruitfulness
The Church in New Hampshire is being called to show up in some curious ways. We used to think that showing up for youth and children meant having Sunday School rooms full. We relied on families to show up on Sunday, saying no to the cultural machine that says, in effect, unless your child makes the soccer or the hockey team or first seat in the school orchestra or accomplishes, they will not succeed in life. We have effectively lost the competition for Sunday morning. And then we lament that failure. But children feel connected to the Vine when they see adults from their church communities show up for these events, cheering them on, showing healthy curiosity and showing concern. The Church of the Holy Vine in New Hampshire is a church that stretches out beyond itself. Sometimes we resist going out and listening. We are more accustomed to staying and waiting for God to being the people to us, and then we feel a sense of failure and frustration when they do not come. When God asks “whom shall we send to bear witness to God?” we have bright examples in our midst of our churches going out and saying, “Here we are. Send us!” Here’s one example:
Twenty-one years ago, there was an epidemic of teenage suicide in Goffstown. The church there could have easily hunkered down, paying attention to its own membership and buried its head in the sand to the multiple tragedies that brought national attention. Instead the ministers both lay and ordained of St. Matthew’s went out. Actually, to hear Father Bill Exner tell it, he and others in the church had been knocking on their doors for a long time before the crisis reached epidemic proportions. They initiated a practice of monthly conversations with others in the community and created a way to have ongoing conversations with school administrators, educators, parents, children, youth, teachers, to talk about the deepest most pressing concerns facing youth today. Those conversations continue, and the whole community of Goffstown is the stronger for it. They are now considering addressing the concerns not only of middle and high school students, but of the distressed population of young adults in their twenties. That’s showing up. That’s going and listening. I am learning that the most lively churches and the most effective leadership in the Church of New Hampshire is when the ministers, both lay and ordained, see themselves not so much as taking care of St. Matthew’s, or Trinity, or St. Andrew’s, or Good Shepherd, but they say that the church is showing up, in Christ’s name, and for Christ’s sake, for Goffstown, or Colebrook, or New London. We show up.
Second Practice, We Tell the Story.
Stories are the way the seeming chaos of our lives is joined and brought to order within the overarching story of God in Christ. The story of the Vine itself is only one example of a story that stretches back from the Creation where Adam and Eve were tasked to take care of the Garden, to the days of the prophets Isaiah and Micah, to the great parables of Jesus to the carvings and drawings on so many of our vessels from which we eat and drink from the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. When you tell a story, virtually any story, you can find a way to connect it to the stories of God’s people seeking meeting and life and relationship.
We are people of a story. The story of “our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life, and above all of the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ”, is actually a constellation of countless stories. We are our stories. Stories shape our understanding of reality. The Gospel is simply “the good story” that gathers up all of our stories of failure, loss, success and renewal, hate and love. The failure of the Church to include children and youth in our life is not so much a failure of low numbers in Sunday School, but a failure of all of us to creatively find ways to share our story. As a result children find themselves ill-equipped to face the colossal and threatening forces that take them away from the love of God. Telling the story is about forming Christians for the 21st century. The forming and education of Christians is undergoing a radical and rattling change. Sunday School for many churches does not work anymore as a means to share the story. But every other Wednesday during Family Worship led by Grace Burson, Rector of Holy Spirit, Plymouth, the story is actively shared in the Dining Hall of the Holderness School. And the number of participants in Weld Hall rivals what happens in the Church of the Holy Spirit on Sunday Morning.
I sometimes wonder if we might do better to stop trying explain what the Bible says in our sermons, but just retold the story without explanation. Let the power of the story do its own work. Or if we held open mic opportunities for members of our communities “members or not” to share their own stories of healing, forgiveness, grace, hope and resurrection. The St. Mark’s in the Bowery Poetry project, now at least fifty years old, is one example of the vine reaching out to the outside community of writers, playwrights and poets and being interwoven into the Vine through the Word made flesh. What stories are waiting to be told in our congregations to link us to the world and to God?
Third practice: We splash water.
Jesus’ baptism was not something that excluded him or set him apart. He wasn’t joining an elitist tradition of religious fanatics when he went out to the Jordan. He wasn’t looking to separate himself from the wounded creation or from the full catastrophe of human society. When he entered those waters, Jesus immersed himself into both the infinite possibilities and the infinite tragedies of being human. When we pour water at a baptism, or when we splash water on our faces when entering a church, we remind ourselves that we are joined with Christ in his complete joining of the human race. We also acknowledge that we are part of a wounded creation that needs our care because we cannot live apart from it. When we splash water at our baptism or when we enter a church, we proclaim the cosmic truth expressed by the South African Nguni Bantu word Ubuntu, which means “I am because you are.” My soul, my life, my personhood, my dignity depends on your soul, your personhood, your dignity. And my life, my personhood, my dignity depends on the health and vitality of the creation. Water is what connects all of us, spiritually and as a church, water is how we can ensure the growth and vitality of the Vine.
So, let’s invite anyone who wants to live in the Ubuntu of Jesus to enter those waters. Let’s see some baptisms, for God’s sake. I saw a Parish Register this year whose last baptism was in Bishop Phil Smith’s episcopate. (That was in the 70’s, my friends.) Likely, that was a matter of sloppy record keeping rather than actual practice, but still. In my travels around the Church of New Hampshire, I’ve encountered congregations who would prefer to be isolated and cut off from their neighborhood, preferring instead to just keep to their own. The waters of our baptism, like the waters of the Red Sea, expel us to join the mission of God in the world even if we would sometimes pine for the old days of our bondage. One reminder of that inclusion and expulsion would be to take those ornate and carefully carved lids off the fonts around here, and get some water in those fonts, let’s celebrate that God wakes us up with the water of new life from the nightmare of separateness from the creation and from each other, from other races, classes, other political parties. Here’s another way we can celebrate God’s mission of Ubuntu by splashing water:
Might we be called to show up in a laundry mat, as is being done in other parts of The Episcopal Church. Small teams, maybe of only two apostles (which, remember, simply means person who is sent) offer to pay for and do the laundry of those who use a coin-up laundry. They offer to pray for whatever is on their heart. Before long a community forms. One such a community of “Laundry Love” gained enough strength that Bishop Jon Bruno of Los Angeles actually ordained a deacon to help support it, and the ordination took place in the laundry mat. That’s showing up. That’s tending a vine that has stretched beyond the ivy-covered towers. Vines need watering. Let’s go find some ways to splash it around.
Fourth, We share the food.
Tomorrow we will approach a table, just as you we all do every Sunday morning and at other times during with week. We will share a time of divine invasion into the work of our Convention as our prayers will call the Holy Spirit to transform our gifts of bread and wine into the very presence of the Risen Christ. We will share this most holy food, we can do no other. And when we do that, we will become once again what we receive, the hands and feet and heart and eyes of Jesus Christ. We will become what the world so hungers and thirsts for us to become, fellow servants of God for a broken world.
Because we can share it in a convention center as well as we can share it in the most meticulously cared for, and venerated, gothic arched chancel, we can be bearers of God’s death-defying forgiveness, peace, and justice in the world. When the world sees us, with all of our conflicts and complaints, in all of our glamour and our poverty, gathering reconciled at the eucharistic Altar, the world rightfully comes to expect that we extend that same thanksgiving meal in prisons, from the ChIPs program to Death Row, in feeding programs, at our workplaces, on the streets, the laundry mats, behind the ballot curtains, in the marbled halls where just laws are being fashioned in the State House.
And when the world sees us not caring, not exhibiting the same compassion that Jesus had for the hungry crowd who seems to him helpless and harassed, like sheep without a shepherd, the world will quite understandably dismiss us as self-absorbed with our own survival. The place where youth and young adults seem most to connect with our aging denomination is when we, unabashedly in the name of Jesus, go out into the highways and byways, the shelters, the tent cities here in Concord, in the wounded earth, and among the dispossessed, and show leadership by service. Will Pendleton, of Christ Church, Exeter, is our first representative in the Young Adult Service Corps, having returned from Cuba as a servant leader. The Young Adult Service Corps, and the Episcopal Service Corps, are like an Episcopal Peace Corps, offering opportunities for young adults in their twenties to serve those in need, both locally and abroad, and to experience the mission of God in the world. We hope in the coming year or two to establish such a mission here in New Hampshire, to serve the communities among us that are finding themselves off-the-grid of the economic recovery. Places like Tilton and Franklin, Coos and Sullivan counties are places where we might plant new vines where God can give the growth in ways we can only imagine.
The connection between how we share the holy food of the altar, and how we establish justice was made crystal clear to us in the words of Jesus: The words “when you do it the least of these, you do it to me” are St. Matthew’s version of saying, “All are meant to be connected in the vine. See your selves and others as separate from the vine only at your spiritual and economic peril. “ Episcopalians, of every political party. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Episcopalian, Republican spoke some shimmering words that I recently discovered framed and hung on the walls of Edgerton House, our center for chaplaincy at Dartmouth College. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
Ike got it. He tended the Vine. How are we sharing the food to tend the vine of a peaceful society? Where are we being called to share the food, in the coming year?
The Last Practice is not something we do, but something we watch for: God Surprises
It’s God’s life breaking through into the life of our Church, into the life of the world. There are many ways God surprises, and as sure as I am standing here, I know that each of us can list at least several surprises of the past year. Surprises of how God brought delight to us when we saw persons in our church, people who had been at enmity with each other, find a way to reconcile. That is always a surprise, even when we spend our days striving and praying for it. In a world marked by the need for retribution and violence, a world addicted to holding grudges, to angry rhetoric and partisanship, in a world of such coarseness as ours, never, never take reconciliation and forgiveness for granted.
But, let me list a few other godly surprises that I’ve seen over the past year.
When I asked at St. John’s, Walpole during a baptism of a child if anybody else wanted to wade in the water and a father and his teenage son nudged themselves through the pews and got themselves pretty drenched and something stirred among the whole congregation. God surprised us all then.
When Hannah Anderson convened a group of souls at St. Andrew’s, Manchester to be trained in Servant Leadership fifteen persons showed up, more than 9 congregations were represented and are on fire for bringing Gospel servanthood into our communities. That is a God Surprise.
I was surprised by the openness by which the good and faithful people at Trinity, Tilton chose to live into the hope of the resurrection, even as they face the strong likelihood of their closing. The parish church, one expression of God’s community, sometimes may need to so radically transform itself, so fundamentally alter how it is faithful to the Spirit, that it needs, like a grain of wheat, to die. The conversations continue, though with sadness and grief, into the unknown. But surprisingly, new people that God has brought to that church will continue to gather among themselves, or in the nearby congregation, to wait in prayer and silence, a wilderness of some kind, without jumping into an easy remedy too hastily. Though the conversations have been stressful and painful and direct, we can be surprised by the sense that God is showing up in some new way that asks us to show up. If this decision feels like a pruning, a cutting off, it’s important to remind ourselves that what is being pruned is a building and a way of being that has brought more suffering and pain in recent years than life. It is not people who are being pruned, they are being loved into a new way of being and worship and service that is full of the light and joy rather than anxiety and burden of an institution.
God surprised me when Tim Breen, the Head of School, and the Trustees, of the White Mountain School chose to reaffirm and reclaim its roots by including this sentence in its new mission statement: “Grounded in our Episcopal heritage, we prepare and inspire students to lead lives of curiosity, courage and compassion.” The trustees are looking at architectural rendering of a new chapel. The Head and Trustees of the Holderness School are also looking at plans for an enlargement and refurbishment of its Chapel of the Holy Cross and having open conversations about how to strengthen its spiritual life program for its students. What surprises me is the movement toward being what Bishop Andy Doyle calls “unabashedly Episcopalian.” We may hear ourselves saying to a skeptical world, “As an Episcopalian I am a Christian but I’m not closed hearted, rigid in my thinking, or fearful of those who act and believe differently than I. Instead, I am beginning to hear schools like the White Mountain and Holderness say, “It is Because we are Episcopalian, that we are curious, compassionate and courageous when facing the unknown and the challenges of world.” Do you hear the difference? That’s God surprising us in a place we wouldn't have expected.
I was surprised by the presence of members and leaders of the Lutheran, Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ, and other denominations in the state house and state senate on Maundy Thursday, as we bore witness against the death penalty on the eve Good Friday. Marti Hunt of St. Andrew’s, Hopkinton and Father Dan Ferry of Grace Church, Manchester, and many others, urged us to show up and stand up to say that because of the execution and resurrection of God in Jesus the violence of the death penalty, has no place in God’s kingdom of mercy and justice. God surprised me by the leadership of those who will continue that work and witness, work and witness which we are invited to continue tomorrow afternoon when we come to our resolutions.
As I was writing this address a surprise arrived in the mail in the form of an approval of a grant from the United Thank Offering to help fund our observance next summer of the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of Jonathan Daniels. Next year, we will be invited to hear some powerful preaching at blessed Jonathan’s home parish in Keene, and at other places in New Hampshire, and to participate in a civil rights pilgrimage in the south that ultimately leads to the site of Jonathan’s witness to God’s justice for all God’s children. When you become aware of God’s surprises and you begin to give thanks for them, the more they seem to land in our laps. The Vine wants to grow. It’s what vines do.
When I gathered the clergy a few times over the course of the past year, and despite vast, differences in circumstances, part-time, full-time, rural, or urban, suburban, some of their churches burgeoning with growth, others just hanging on, all of them facing seismic changes in how we are the Body of Christ in a society that world, I do not take for granted the depth of respect, mutual concern, and prayerfulness among them. It is a deep honor to serve them and the all people of this Church, this part of the vineyard. Even as we find old unfruitful ways of serving God are being trained to grow in new ways, and even pruned, may we continue to abide with each other and in Jesus who is doing some new and powerful things among us. God surprises because that is the nature of a God who is ultimately beyond our knowing, but who loves us deeper than we can love and care for ourselves.
So, come, let us tend the vine, together with God.
Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; *
And let us help, for in aiding you we will find our life restored, refreshed, and renewed. Here we are, O, Lord, send us!