21st Century Congregations
Tending the Vineyard 

OCTOBER/2016 -- Canon Rich Simpson

Francis of Assisi (whose feast day we will celebrate on October 4) is reported to have been out hoeing beans one day in an Umbrian garden when asked: “What would you do if you knew the world was going to end today?”  

His response? “I suppose I would finish hoeing this row of beans.”  

Now there is a great deal about my old friend, Frank, that cannot be fact-checked. Even the Prayerbook hedges its bets on the famous prayer that it attributes to him. (See BCP, page 833.) So we have no way of knowing if this story happened or not. Even so, it rings true from what I know of him. It rings true to an earthy spirituality that is not so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good.    

I found myself remembering this story when I read this article in late August in The Christian Century. I hope you will click on the link and read it now too! It’s about clergy formation at Princeton Seminary, and cultivating a more earthy spirituality and forming clergy who are not so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good.  

But I think it’s potentially about way more than that. It’s about Christian formation for laity, deacons, priests, and bishops. It’s about the Jesus movement that began in an agricultural society and about the founder of this movement who spoke a lot about seeds and weeds and bearing fruit and the harvest that is plentiful even when the laborers are few.  

We don’t live in an agrarian society. Even those of us who live in more rural areas have our smart phones and Facebook. Most of us don’t kill our own chickens or milk our own cows, even if we grow some of our own vegetables in the summertime. Some of you reading these words did volunteer over the summer at Gideon's Garden in Great Barrington or at Community Harvest Project in Grafton and other places across this diocese and many more worked in their own gardens. In these ways we not only get in touch with this good earth, but I think also with the teachings of Jesus. What did you learn this summer in this work about God, about yourself, about the journey of faith, about the Reign of God, about your congregation?  

I confess that I am not a very good gardener. I’ve had mixed experience with growing my own herbs (the legal ones) and tomatoes. But even this limited experience has taught me not to jump too quickly toward metaphors that connect gardening to the spiritual life. I do know enough to know that both are very challenging and a lot of work. Both also require outside help, including enough rain and sunshine.  

All of this brings me back to The Farminary and to 21st-century congregations in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts.  (Did you click on the link above yet?) In our day, when it is easy to think that our food comes from Stop and Shop or The Big Y rather than this fragile earth, our island home, we need to get our hands dirty. We need to learn to pay attention. I had a teacher in seminary, Professor David Graybeal, a southerner who taught us an important acronym: OPATCO. On Paying Attention to Community (as Ministry.) I think this is what the Farminary is about as well – and why that skillset is so important to ministry in this time and place.  

The earth teaches us many lessons, but perhaps this is the most important: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. ‘For me, the takeaway is that we do not control life. Not even our own lives, not the life of our congregations, certainly not the life of a diocese. There are lots of things that elude our desire for control.  

To everything a season…  

And yet we ordained and lay leaders sometimes go into congregations thinking that if we do “a,” then “b” will follow. But not always. (And not even often!) Sometimes you work hard, and another comes by to reap what you have sown. Sometimes you show up late to reap the hard work of what others have sown before you. So saith our sacred texts. So says Jesus of Nazareth, who invites us to “pay attention” to the birds and the flowers, and to learn from them.  

Among other duties as assigned by the bishop, my work in this time and place focuses on clergy transitions in our diocese and working with congregations as they say goodbye and hello. Whether a priest has just retired or has taken a new call, whether their tenure was plagued with conflict or with conflict-avoidance, whether the parish is grieving or relieved – it is a moment in the life of the congregation that is worth paying attention to. What is the soil like and what are the conditions for new growth? What is possible? Is it a time for planting or for plucking up what has been planted? There is no formula for this work, only best practices and an invitation to those with eyes to see, to look, and to those with ears to hear, to listen. To pay attention.  

As the days get shorter in this part of the globe we’ll soon be hearing those end-of-year gospel readings and then those Advent gospel readings about “keeping awake.” Anxiety is high this election season, and it’s been high in the Church for a while now. There are signs of endings all around us.  

But there are also signs of new beginnings all around us as well. I think we could do worse than to continue to hoe our row of beans, in our little part of the garden here in central and western Massachusetts, even when we may fear that “the end is near.”  This is the work we are given to do, with God’s help.  

The Rev. Dr. Richard Simpson
Canon to the Ordinary
The Episcopal DIocese of Western Massachusetts
37 Chestnut Street
Springfield, MA 01103
(413) 737 - 4786