The Fruit Falling out the Windows–Pastoral Reflections on the Dedication of a Banner

Banner Dedication
in advance of the sermon
June 28, 2015

E-mail from Virginia Douglas to Mary Hammond:

I don’t remember what year it was that this image [of a large tree rooted in the middle of the sanctuary, with branches wide and fruit falling out the windows of the church] popped into my mind and I shared it with you. I’m thinking it could be 20 years ago now and quite possibly at one of our Bob Evans’ lunches! But it sure has turned out to be a “fruitful” and enduring way to think about the mission of PCC. Some churches are called to “grow big, in place,” while PCC seems to be called to “grow big, all over the place!” It’s nice to realize also that many fruit trees, and notably apple trees, are grafted in order to produce good fruit. That makes me think of the way we are grafted one into the other, as the Church is grafted into the “root of Jesse.” PCC has indeed, “packed up and shipped out” many of its prize fruits. We can all rejoice at the spiritual nourishment that has been so freely shared with the world.

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Rooted in love
a poem for the Dedication of the Banner
copyright Don Parker, May 30, 2015

Rooted in love,
nourished in the rich soil of Christ’s community,
a tree grows in the place called Peace Community Church.
Its sturdy trunk has been built cell by cell, layer on layer,
with acts of caring and compassion
and works of peace and justice.
Its branches reach out and flourish,
green, verdant with life,
drawn by concerns beyond these walls
and producing fruit–
fruit that feeds those seeking a new life,
hungry to make a difference in a world gone right:
a world that respects diversity,
that values and works for justice,
that pursues peace,
that equates equality with ending poverty, sharing opportunities,
and realizing the dignity of every person–
in short, that strives for community,
that grows into community,
that does all to preserve community–
communities rooted in love.

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The Fruit Falling Out the Windows
Pastoral Reflections on the Dedication of a Banner
Psalm 1, Isaiah 61:1-4, Rev. 22:1-2,5
Mary Hammond
June 28, 2015

I was perusing an old scrapbook given to the church by the family of Mae Chesbro. Her family ties go all the way back to the beginnings of this congregation in 1866. Mae’s uncle, a founding member, hand-crafted the couch in the back of the sanctuary.
A headline of a newspaper article from the 1960’s stopped me in my tracks. First Baptist Church: Small but Significant. The article chronicled two outreach ministries of the church during the years when Bill Sheeley was pastor. Mary Caroniti and Enid Buckland were active members at the time.
Steve and I had the privilege this week of talking to Mary at the Nursing home about those days. Her eyes instantly lit up. “Oh, that was wonderful!” she exclaimed, as she shared about the two-week summer day camp held one year at Finley State Park. Pastor Sheeley had a big van. The church ladies joined him in gathering up the neighborhood kids for a summer adventure. The leaders organized activities and games. The group cooked outside. The kids played, swam, explored, and everyone had a great time.
Mary also shared about the Golden Agers Club. Members of the church picked up nursing home residents once a week and brought them to church for games and snacks. Anyone who knew Enid, knew she loved games! And that Mary Caroniti—she sure loved to cook!
“How did you ever get the visitors downstairs,” I asked, “without handicapped access?”
“I don’t know,” Mary replied, “We just did.”
As we talked, Mary commented, “You know, you couldn’t do either of those things today, with all the rules and regulations. It’s a different time.”
I agreed.
“Small but Significant,” the headline read. That described First Baptist Church very well. There weren’t many folks there in the 1960’s, but those who were there dreamed big, saw needs, got their hands dirty, and met them. The same was true in the 1970’s, the 1980’s, and the 1990’s.
In the year 2000, change was in the air. The name “First Baptist Church” no longer adequately described the congregation’s makeup and ministry to either itself or outsiders. So, the church changed its name to “Peace Community Church” by a remarkable six-month consensus process.
By the time Steve and I had been here fifteen years, 250 people had come and gone through the doors of this building–students who graduated or moved on, townies who discovered a way-station to sort out religious convictions and then return to former traditions, dechurched people who had lost their faith or left the church for years or decades, new residents seeking a friendly welcome, working folks who lost jobs and had to leave Lorain County to find employment, core members who became shut-ins and passed away.
One day, Virginia Douglas and I were having lunch, talking about the constant ebb and flow of hellos and goodbyes, the continuing congregational reality of “small but significant.” She suggested this amazing image: “It’s like a big tree, rooted deep in the sanctuary, branches extending far beyond the open windows, with the fruit falling outside.”
This image bears witness to the truth of who this church is, how this church does ministry, and what God makes of the people in this place.
This past January, the congregation spent a month reflecting again on the vision that comes with the church’s name. I mentioned this image made plain to me long ago. Joyce Parker was captivated by it and recreated it for us so beautifully in a banner. Don Parker added his poetic embodiment of the image.
Our culture prizes numerical growth–more money, more possessions, more success, more of everything. Church culture too easily mirrors popular culture–more members, more baptisms, more programs, more financial security.
Ask any pastor who has been to a denominational meeting. After the initial question, “Where do you serve?” comes the follow-up, “And how big is your congregation?” Then, comes the ‘upward mobility’ question: “How long have you been there?” After 20 years, especially in a small church, that answer usually takes some explaining!
Numerical growth is not bad–some of it is necessary to survive. Steve has often told those around here who prize smallness, “Don’t worry, folks–I’ll tell you when and if this church gets ‘too big!’”
Yet, another kind of growth also exists. It is qualitatively different. The tree provides a good metaphor for this deep, wide fruitful growth, nourished by streams of living water. Roots extend far down into the rich, moist earth. The tree bears fruit in due season, seeding itself and producing more fruit.
The tree of life is an early symbol in many different religious traditions and diverse faiths. Rita Nakashima Brock, in her landmark book, “Saving Paradise,” chronicles her years of deep archaeological research on early Christian art. Images of paradise in its abundance and lushness defined Christianity throughout its first 1000 years. Grapes hanging, trees blossoming, rivers coursing–all of these images were predominant. The focus on the violent death of Jesus and the cross as the primary symbol of Christianity was not prominent until the Crusades when “sacralized violence” overtook images of paradise. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is introduced early in the biblical narrative in Genesis 2. The Tree of Life for the healing of the nations concludes the biblical vision in Revelations 22.
What does it mean, in 2015, for us to see ourselves in this image of the tree planted deep in the soil of this place, bearing fruit that falls out the windows? What does it mean to connect ourselves to this biblical image of paradise restored, the Tree of Life bearing fruit for the healing of the nations?
A final insight about this newspaper headline from the 1960’s came to me recently at the gym, reading through my Prayer Journal. I always bring something to read, meditate on, or pray about when I do elliptical, to make the hour pass quickly. Otherwise, I could never do it!
As I prayed for the church, I stopped on the phrase, “small but significant,” written in my journal. The ‘but’ shouted out to me. Such language insinuates that ‘small’ is bad or defective, but size is compensated for by significance.
When I got home, I crossed out the ‘but’ and changed it to ‘and.’ Small and significant. How does that sound? No judgment on ‘small.’ No elevation of ‘significant.’ Just a pairing that speaks of what is true and has been true for many more decades than the 36 year Hammond tenure at the church.
As we ponder the future of this church, our country, and world, I invite us into continued conversation—and continued revelation—of the meaning of this image now beautifully rendered on this remarkable banner.
Enid Buckland has passed away. Mary Caroniti is in a nursing home, celebrating in 2015 her 50 years as a member of the church. Today, there is a Neighborhood Center on East College Street where Seniors gather. Welcome Nursing Home hosts activities for residents. Visitors come and share their talents. The Boys & Girls Club and the City Department of Recreation offer many summer programs for kids. Yet, there is always more to be done, and unique gifts of grace and welcome for the church to offer.
In every day and age, the church must respond anew to the call of God. Through it all, the Holy One continues to richly bless the small and significant ministry of this church, year after year, decade after decade. May we rejoice in the fact that we are part of this ongoing story. Amen.