31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
October 29, 2023
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
Years ago, a colleague of mine was walking down a rural road that led to the church she was serving. As she walked along, she would often notice the wild grapes that were growing by the side of the road. Perhaps they had had a wet summer like we recently did because one day, my colleague noticed how big the wild grape vines had grown, like really big, like the vines were taking over and growing everywhere. Here is the curious thing though. There were very few grapes on the vines. The vines had put so much energy, so much nurture into growing bigger, that they hadn’t produced much fruit.
Some churches are just like those grape vines growing along that rural road. They are so focused on growing bigger, so focused on spreading everywhere, that they use all of their energy to focus on themselves, and they forget their purpose.
Our purpose as Christians, our purpose as Christ’s community, is not to be the biggest. It’s not to have the most people, the most things, the most money. We are nurtured by God, connected to the vine that is Jesus Christ, so that we might bear fruit, so that through us, others might come to experience the peace and joy of knowing they are unconditionally loved by God.
Sometimes, the Church forgets that though. Sometimes, Christians forget that, too. We focus on how thankful we are that the Church is here for us in times of celebration: weddings, baptisms, and Confirmations. And we are especially grateful that the Church is here for us in our times of darkest need – when we or a loved one have received a medical diagnosis, when we are grieving, when we feel lost and alone.
We are so thankful for the ways the Church’s ministry supports us and gives us hope throughout this journey of life; however for those of us who have committed our lives to the way of Jesus Christ, we need to remember that the Way of Jesus Christ does not end with being thankful for what we have and receive. We are nurtured by Christ’s love, nurtured by this community of faith, so we can then nurture others. So we can bear fruit.
And we, as the First Congregational Church, do bear fruit, an abundance of fruit. It is absolutely the truth that God has pruned us, that this Christian community is smaller than it was 10 and 20 years ago. And despite that, we are bearing more fruit than ever.
The pandemic accelerated a slow decline for some churches. For FCC though, church members jumped into high gear and used their amazing talents to move us from worshipping by way of an iphone to cameras on tripods to the streaming system and the dedicated streaming volunteers we have now.
FCC’s online worship welcomes people throughout the nation and the world to praise God and hear the good news. Whether you are home due to your health, on the go with your family, or living in a place where a progressive, welcoming church community is hard to find, it doesn’t matter. You are welcome here. You can praise God here. You are connected to the vine that is Jesus Christ.
And that worship, with three amazing choirs: adult, bell, and youth plus church members, school age and beyond who share special musical, that worship with faithful lay preachers to share God’s Word whenever I am away, with an authentic time of prayer where we can all share our joys and burdens and a dedicated prayer ministry team to pray beyond Sunday, this worship bears fruit in people’s lives in ways we can never imagine.
When I first arrived in ministry with you, fifteen years ago, there was very little community connection – within our church or beyond. Now, though, I can barely keep up. Men’s Fellowship, Women’s Guild, Middle School Youth Group, Ladies’ Night Out, Kids’ Club, All Ages Game night, and after worship luncheons. God’s love and God’s joy is being discovered by so many as we eat and play and connect together, reminded that we are precious to God and to others, that we belong.
And that love and joy are not just for those within this Christian community. We have a tremendous amount of connections with other non-profit organizations in the Bristol area. Together with Meals for Neighbors, St. Vincent DePaul, Asbury United Methodist Church, Bristol’s Family Resource Center, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Brian’s Angels, and Family Promise, we feed people. Through our support of St. Vincent’s Homeless Shelter, Family Promise, and Prudence Crandall Domestic Violence Center, we house individuals and families.
We offer tangible gifts of love providing Christmas and Easter presents through our ministry partnerships with Salvation Army and the Family Resource Center. We offer intangible gifts of hope, from the Blue Christmas worship service we host to the banner out front that says, “God loves you abundantly”. That banner might seem like just words every church says; however two weeks ago, when Roger was putting it up, there was a woman sitting on the Sanctuary front steps, and she told Roger how much she needed to hear that. She felt alone, like no one cared about her. She needed to know that God cares, that God loves her.
That banner is a gift of love – telling all that your family doesn’t need to look a certain way, that your life doesn’t need to be going a certain way, that you don’t actually need to know anything about God at all, to still be totally, unconditionally loved by God, to belong to the supportive community that is FCC.
And while once upon a time, FCC might have been called a sleeping giant on the hill, people are coming to know us as a Christian community where they will be welcomed, where they will be nurtured, where they can belong and be connected.
I am so thankful for all of the ways the ministry of this Church bears the fruit of God’s love and hope in our world, and I am so thankful for all of the ways you nurture my ministry so that I can faithfully serve, faithfully serve you, and faithfully serve our wider community: as one of Bristol’s police chaplains, as the coordinator of the Sunrise Easter worship service, and even as Cubmaster for Pack 6.
Cub Scouts is ministry for me because as I play games with them and teach them about the outdoors, I regularly get to tell these kids that they are wonderful and amazing just as they are. I get to tell them that I am so glad that they are here – even when they are practically bouncing off the walls. And I get to tell their grown-ups, you are not alone. I am a part of your village of support now. You are not alone.
It’s the same message I share with grieving families as I walk with them through the journey of grief, sometimes by officiating at their loved one’s memorial service and other times by sending them Journey of Grief booklets throughout the first year after their loss. God is here with you. I am here with you. You are not alone.
And who doesn’t want, who doesn’t need to hear that. To hear You are wonderful and amazing; You are important and wanted; You are supported and cared for. You are not alone. God and this Christian community are here with you.
These words and the actions that go with them nurture people of every age. The ministry of our church bears fruit in people’s lives, bears the fruit of hope, joy, kindness, and love.
It is an incredible blessing to be connected to the vine that is Jesus Christ, to be nurtured by God’s love on this journey of life. It is an even greater blessing to be the branches of God’s love, sharing our gifts, sharing God’s gifts, of love with all.