Pruned back to the Vine

Today’s scripture readings:
Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8
Sermon audio:

Spring is, without a doubt, my favorite season. Coinciding with the Easter season, these weeks of spring are a time when we can literally see resurrection happening all around us in creation. Trees that had seemed to wither to nothing in the fall are showing signs of new life. The bulbs we buried in the ground as the cold and dark of winter were setting in are sending up shoots and are even beginning to flower. Spring is a visual reminder that the promise of resurrection will be fulfilled. New life is all around us.

One of the things I most look forward to in the spring is planting our gardens. When Oby and I moved into our house a year and a half ago we built a raised bed in our backyard that we plant as a vegetable garden. The first year in our house we spent all winter thinking about what we would plant in that garden. We had scraps of paper all over the place with little drawings and sketches. “Maybe we could put some lettuce and herbs here in front, have some peas or maybe some green beans vining up the lattice in this corner. We’ll put peppers and tomato plants here and squash and zucchini over here. Or maybe the squash should go over here, because they’re going to spread all over the place and take over everything. Or maybe we shouldn’t put any squash in at all. Do we even like zucchini?”

Last spring—our first spring in this house—we settled on a plan and got everything planted. For the first few weeks, we were out in the garden almost every day, monitoring every sign of new growth, constantly pulling weeds, diligently checking the rain gauge after each storm, watering the garden with the hose when it needed it. Weeks later the first signs of fruit started to appear. Harvesting the first tomato, snacking on the green beans, making our first pesto with basil from the garden—it was all so satisfying.

The weeks passed. Spring turned to summer. The scorching heat and humidity set in. Suddenly being outside in the garden was a lot less fun. Now the garden needed watering almost every single day. What a drag. It was miserable just being outside at all, much less toiling in the garden. We started to let things slide. Our meticulously tended garden started to go downhill. The squash and zucchini really did take over everything. Our tomato plants became one huge, sprawling mass. Maybe there was fruit somewhere in that jungle of plant matter. But we were done. We threw in the towel. “It’s almost the end of the season anyway,” we decided. “Let’s scrap it and try again next year.”

Around that same time we went to the State Fair. I remember looking at the blue-ribbon tomato plants—these perfectly manicured, neat and tidy plants with magnificent red fruit. Needless to say, they put our tomato plants to shame. This is what they could have looked like if the care we had poured into those plants at the beginning had been sustained through the entire season, if we had pruned the plants to maximize the production of fruit, if we had just been a little more vigilant and attentive.

Most days I wake up feeling like it’s the first day of spring. I’ve got a fresh start and great intentions. I feel motivated to conquer every task on my to-do list; to be attentive to my spouse and to all my significant relationships; to exercise, eat healthy, and take care of myself; to live in a way that reflects love of God and love of neighbor. And many times I get to the end of the day wondering where things went wrong, telling myself, “Just go to bed and try again tomorrow.” Somewhere along the way I lose my focus, pulled off course by the many distractions of the world and my own self-centeredness. My life starts to resemble our vegetable garden—sprawling and tangled, lacking focus, bearing mediocre fruit.

“I am the true vine,” Jesus says, “and my Father is the vinegrower. I am the vine, you are the branches.” Jesus teaches using images and metaphors that would have been familiar to his followers—metaphors that maybe aren’t as resonant for those of us living here today. Last week he was talking about sheep and shepherds. This week it’s grapevines. Jesus’ followers would have understood the metaphor well, but you don’t have to be a master vinedresser to follow his train of thought. Jesus says he is the vine and we are the branches. God is the vinegrower, the one who tends the plants and oversees the whole operation. The vinegrower’s objective is to produce a plentiful harvest of fruit. And so the branches that don’t bear fruit are cut off, thrown into a pile, and burned. The assumption is that the fruitless branches are already separated from the life and vitality that the vine provides, since they no longer bear fruit. The vinegrower is simply removing the branches that have already fallen out of relationship with the vine. The vinegrower even cuts back the good branches so they can bear more fruit, better fruit. At some point, every branch will need to be pruned so the plant can develop to its fullest.

The irony is that pruning can make a vine look useless and dead. But the branches’ connection to the vine ensures new life and new growth. Despite the branches’ appearance, their connection to the vine makes them alive and not dead, even if it takes many seasons to begin bearing fruit. A vineyard, apparently, can be a long-term, labor-intensive investment.

Left to their own devices, vines will grow uncontrollably, resulting in one big tangled mess not unlike our vegetable garden at the end of last summer. What is needed is a responsible vinedresser who can cut away the extraneous growth, removing the shoots that are merely a distraction. A vinedresser keeps the branches focused on life in the vine and prevents them from wandering off in other directions.

The problem with becoming a big tangled mess is that we fall out of relationship with the true vine. We start to forget who we are, why we’re here, and what kind of fruit we’re supposed to bear. When we stray too far from the vine, a sort of inertia sets in—an inability to do much of anything. It might be the inertia of aimlessness, of apathy, of uncertainty, of being overwhelmed or confused. When we are far off from the central stalk of the vine, we can find ourselves lacking a sense of identity and purpose, stuck and unable to bear any fruit at all. We hear that thousands of people have been killed in a devastating earthquake and tell ourselves that people die in natural disasters all the time, or we’re paralyzed by the sheer scale of the catastrophe. We hear protestors railing against racism that poisons our society and convince ourselves that things actually aren’t as bad as they say, or we mistrust the witness of those who describe their experience of injustice. We hear scientists’ warnings about the accelerating pace of climate change and decide there’s nothing we could do to make a difference, or convince ourselves it’s someone else’s problem to solve. When we wander far off and lose our connection with the vine, it’s more difficult for us to bear the kind of fruit the vinegrower had in mind.

But when we allow ourselves to be pruned back close to the vine, close to Jesus—when we abide in him, to use the language of today’s gospel lesson—we bear good fruit, producing love in abundance. God seeks to cut out of our lives all the clutter and distractions, the self-centeredness and the drama, the hopelessness and apathy that pull us away from the vine, the source of our life, so that we can bear good fruit in the world.

What would it look like for us to allow God to prune us back, to draw us closer to the vine? What stands in our way and causes us to resist? Maybe it’s a fear of having something pruned out of our lives that we think we can’t live without: money and possessions, alcohol or drugs, gambling, a toxic relationship. Maybe it’s simply a fear of change, or a suspicion that life in the vine won’t be as satisfying as the life we’re living now. Or maybe it’s that we’ve come to believe the voices that tell us we’ll never be good enough, that we could never bear fruit worthy of the vinegrower, the our branches will always be bare and worthless.

When God is able to break through our resistance and prune us back to the vine—when we are drawn close to Jesus, when we abide in him and he abides in us—the result is that what God wants for us will be what we want for ourselves, and it will surely come to pass. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you,” Jesus says, “ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” All that is extraneous is carefully and lovingly removed. What remains is centered and focused in God, and the fruit we bear reflects God’s love for the world.

Thanks be to God, who tends to us faithfully through the entire season, through every season, and to Jesus Christ, our vine, the source of our life. May we bear great fruit. Amen.

Resources consulted:

Nancy R. Blakely, “John 15:1-8: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).

Stephen A. Cooper, “John 15:1-8: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).

Barbara J. Essex, “John 15:1-8: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).

Craig R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003).

Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

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