Sermon text: John 15: 1-8
Even though it was 70 degrees in the morning sun I stood before my beloved tomato plants in a cold sweat, pruning shears at the ready in my hand. Last spring I got the gardening bug along with every other person stuck at home during the pandemic. I had a modest collection of vegetables and herbs growing at the parsonage. It had been a joy to watch the plants grow, but now I stood and contemplated something that felt wrong. I was going to cut off some perfectly healthy shoots from my tomato plants to help them produce better fruit.
To be clear, I have no idea if this is the best practice. But after consuming a few internet articles and YouTube videos it was suggested that this was the way to go. That by trimming excess parts of the plant I could help it divert energy into producing the fruit. It felt counterintuitive to prune, but the gardening words of wisdom made sense logically. And so I began my pruning with a heavy dose of self-doubt in the back of my mind. I wonder, do vinegrowers experience those emotions the first time they go about trimming their vines?
Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”
As I sketch that metaphor in my brain I do not picture God the Father in a cold sweat as God begins the pruning process. I’d like to think that God has experience at this surgical endeavor and that with wisdom the correct cuts will be made, the perfect balance of wood and buds will be connected to Jesus the vine. And yet, despite the comfort of a wise and practiced hand, I still have questions about the process, perhaps even a few anxieties.
Jesus tells us that we will abide in him and he will abide in us and that apart from him we can do nothing. If we are the branches and Jesus is the vine then that means we are connected to him, we are rooted to him, that all of our nourishment, energy, and structure come from him. We are interconnected. We are interdependent. In the same way that he is the shepherd and we are the sheep.
As the wise and discerning eye of the vinegrower examines us, what will be found? Are we, the branches, connected to the actual vine, or to some other weed that has forced its way in? What stagnant and dead pieces of me need to be removed? What type of fruit am I producing? Is it sweet? Is it sour? Is it rotten? Did it mature and ripen? What part of me is producing well and should be cut back to produce even more?
Once again, I don’t know much about those agrarian processes, so I took to YouTube to watch some winemakers in their craft. I learned that pruning is a wintertime activity. It is done when the vines are dormant. In the case of grapevines, a balance is sought where enough buds are left on the branches to produce fruit, but not too much wood that the vine won’t be able to sustain and ripen all the fruit.
I watched as three foot branches were snipped down to mere inches, somewhat bewildered and aghast at how much is pruned. It seems absolutely barbaric to remove so much from the plant that grew vigorously, and yet it’s the healthy thing to do, to give shape and structure.
Every so many years we go about another type of pruning in our lives, an activity that may be more relatable, one we do as we move or when we’re stuck at home during quarantine. We sort and clean out our junk, boxes and boxes of things that we one day thought would be useful. We are like goldfish, growing to the size of our environments…except goldfish don’t have basements, or attics, or storage units. Cleaning out our possessions is a sort of pruning. The passing years make our VCRs obsolete, our old clothes become too small, and the Thighmaster and the treadmill are branches that never bore much fruit…just guilt. Like the vinegrower we prune and toss those items into the yard sale or the Salvation Army bins or the trashcan, and we breathe a sigh of relief, and our overgrown lives feel more manageable.
If vinegrowers prune during the winter when the plants are dormant, then now is the perfect time for us to go under the shears as we languish in the dormant conditions of Covid. Perhaps God can give us license to also pick up the shears to snip off some dead branches and prune the ones that bear good fruit as the church. This remains the perfect time for us to make cuts to the ministries of our congregation that have outgrown their productivity and to prune the branches that do bear good fruit so they are ready to go gangbusters in the near future.
We prune, not just for our own benefit, but for those who enjoy the fruit. After all, vines don’t produce grapes for themselves, but for others. Where, as a church, do we need to make a clean break, and what needs to be nurtured? Those are the collective questions we can address together.
As individuals, we must also go under the knife of the vinegrower. What parts of our lives are rooted well to Jesus and bear fruit, and which branches are simply dead, or are growing unwieldy and are getting in the way? Do you have too much going on in your life? Perhaps not all of your fruit is ripening? Are you rooted to Christ and thriving? Are you not connected at all?
Our purpose is to bear fruit, and that is something that we can neither force or will—it is the byproduct of abiding, dwelling, being at home in Christ. We produce fruit organically when we are interconnected and interdependent with God.
As I think about this language I realize that it is stark, but then again the process of pruning is just that. Its starkness is what makes cutting all that living wood off so difficult, especially when you’re a novice. But, the metaphor reminds us that, like vines and branches, we are constantly changing. Our faith, our church, our lives, our community…it all changes as fast as shoots rising from the earth.
Therefore, it is truly a gift that God stands with pruning shears in hand. It is a gift that God will remove the dead pieces that weigh us down and will prepare the fertile and vigorous branches to produce more fruit.
So may we grow, abiding in God’s promises, rooted in Christ, bearing fruit, and glorifying God as disciples. AMEN