Guest Column by Welling Hall
The Rev. Teresa “Terri” Hord Owens preached at the 9:15 a.m. ecumenical service Tuesday, Aug. 9 in the Amphitheater on the theme “Learning to Abide.”
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) — as many other denominations today — faces declining numbers. When Hord Owens assumed the position of general minister and president, she was asked how she would increase numbers. Could she bring more people into the pews? To remind herself and others about who actually does the work, she wears a necklace inscribed with Phillipians 1:6:
“God began doing a good work in you, and I am sure he will continue it until it is finished when Jesus Christ comes again.”
Hord Owens’ confidence is in God, and she invites the members of her denomination to reconnect with Him.
She spoke about talking shop with other Chautauqua chaplains of the week and discussing what people mean when they say, “I am spiritual, not religious.” This common saying seems to reflect a general cynicism about the church, about followership, and what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
Too often, church-goers argue about things like the placement of screens, the color of the carpet and the communion schedule. When the church is disconnected from the real work and life of Jesus, it wilts and dies.
Hord Owens turned her attention to the agricultural images used by Jesus. She said that there is much to be learned about both spiritual growth and withering by taking wisdom from the practices of tending a vineyard. First, vines cannot grow alone. There are climatic conditions that must be met (soil, acidity, humidity). Yet, even if all these conditions are met, a single vine cannot grow alone; there must be at least two vines to encourage and support each other.
As individuals, she said, we require community to flourish. It is good to follow your own individual spiritual practice, but this is not enough. The most delicious grapes are a product of cross-pollination.
Paul taught in 1 Corinthians that all parts of the body are vital to the functioning of the body, even the little toe. Just so, none of us can save the world or make it a better place through our own isolated action. We need each other to learn empathy and compassion and to produce the best fruit.
Hord Owens said that Chautauqua is all about cross-pollination, hearing new voices and learning different perspectives. These new voices bring fresh energy, wind and light to our work. As we learn that different doesn’t mean deficient, we can grow in distinctiveness. In community and solidarity, we can use our diversity to build a more just, safe and faithful world.
Hord Owens then explained that vines need guidance to grow. Most people do not like authority, rules or being told what to do.
Trellises train vines and hold them in place so that they do not destroy each other. Humans without rules, laws and guideposts like traffic signs can also do damage to each other. We need spiritual practices so that we don’t hurt each other. We will not all agree about theology and doctrine, but rooted and grounded in the love of God, we can remain kind to each other.
Hord Owens cited Psalm 1, saying that if we remain planted by rivers of water, we will bring forth fruit in season. If we do not remain so planted, we can dry up. A dried up flower falls apart, and its sharp edges can even draw blood. People who are spiritually dry can hurt others. Hord Owens urged the congregation to consider their power to hurt other people, and to consider our need for spiritual trellises so that we do not hurt each other.
Vineyards have beautiful, green canopies that must also be tended. Sometimes, Hord Owens said, the church becomes more concerned about its image, about numbers and projects, than about the fruit. A canopy that is too dense can smother the fruit. When church-goers become more interested in the color of the pastor’s stole than in what the pastor is saying through the power of the Holy Spirit, the church withers. When the canopy becomes more important than the fruit the vine bears, we have forsaken Jesus’ message.
Hord Owens spoke of the importance of cross-pollination for improving our spiritual fruit. Cross-pollination depends on learning to abide with each other. We need persistence to stay with each other, rather than walking away. How can we live in this crazy world with storms, disasters, war and divisiveness if we cannot stay together at the table? “If the church cannot do this,” Hord Owens asked, “who can?”
She closed her sermon saying, “I am an advocate for the gospel of Jesus Christ.” If we stay and abide, supporting each other as vines in a vineyard, we can change the world. We can see the reflection of God’s glory when we look at each other.
The Rev. Natalie Hanson, interim senior pastor for Chautauqua, served as liturgist. Motet member Charlotte Gifford read the Scripture. The anthem, sung by the Chautauqua Motet Choir, was “I Am the True Vine,” by Julian Darius Revie. Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, played On a Theme of Orlando Gibbons (Song 34), by Charles Villiers Stanford (1908) and On a Theme of Orlando Gibbons (Song 22), by Charles Villiers Stanford (1908). Support for this week’s service is provided by the Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree Jr. Chaplaincy Fund and the Robert D. Campbell Memorial Chaplaincy. Mary Lee Talbot will return as the morning worship columnist in the coming days.