4/29/2018 Fifth Sunday of Easter The text is John 15:1-8.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Yesterday was one of those perfect New England spring days. The temperature was ideal. The sun shone brightly. Daffodils and tulips were yawning after a winter’s rest. With grass greening and weeping cherries in full bloom, it was a day that beckoned to me to go outdoors and get some work done. And that meant pulling out the bow saw and pruning shears.
As is the case for many of you, it was a tough winter on the trees in my yard. A big limb came down from one of the maple trees, and tore the trunk, leaving the huge branch resting on my fence. In the same area, another substantial limb broke, but this one was part of the weeping cherry. Thankfully, last week, my neighbor came over with his dad, took down the maple branch and cleaned the mess of twigs and smaller branches. This left me to deal with the broken limb hanging from the weeping cherry. So with saw in hand, I painstakingly removed it.
What remains of the massive cleanup is a bunch of smaller branches that need to be cut back for the trees to recover, AND last year’s growth of bittersweet that did a good job entangling itself in the corner of the fence. (For those of you who haven’t struggled with an invasive vine like bittersweet, let me tell you – you are lucky! For, once bittersweet gets established, it kills trees and brings down fences. It chokes the life out of anything it entwines – and no amount of pruning seems to get rid of it!)
Thankfully, this is not the type of vine that Jesus spoke about when he said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.” The invasive bittersweet is nothing more than a weed that attempts to choke out life rather than give life. The people of his time and place would have understood Jesus’ words in relationship to grapevines. For, when Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower,” he was speaking about a crop that was as familiar to the people as corn is to Iowa, cotton is to Mississippi, and cranberries are to Massachusetts. He spoke about maintaining the vineyards and the people he spoke with were very familiar with the particulars of growing grapes. They knew that the vines were very rugged and yet were very delicate and needed to be handled with kid gloves.
In order to keep healthy vines growing and producing good fruit, young grape vines were not permitted to bear fruit for the first three years and they were drastically pruned in December and January to preserve their energy. Established vines also needed to be pruned and in pruning them, two principles were generally observed: first, all dead wood was ruthlessly removed; and second, the live wood was cut back drastically. The branches of the dead wood that often harbored insects and disease were burned. The live wood was trimmed back in order to prevent such heavy growth that the life of the vine went into the wood rather than into fruit. All this pruning meant that in the early spring the vineyards looked like a collection of barren, bleeding stumps; much in the way things will look in my yard once I have finished the job. Yet, because of the intricate pruning in the fall, the same vineyards were filled with juicy purple grapes.
In his parable, Jesus tells us that as the farmer wields the pruning knife on his vines, so God cuts dead wood out from among His saints. Also, God cuts back the living wood so it can produce in abundance. For most of us, those cuts come to us as painful challenges and yet, as opportunities for growth.
At Emanuel, we are experiencing a time of pruning. It can be a painful process to let go of the past, to cut away those things that prevent us from moving forward in faith. And yet, this present time is but a springboard to the future, to a time of full vines and great fruit. For, we are not pruning ourselves…God is the one wielding the knife and preparing us for the time of harvest.
As long as we remain connected to Christ, we have nothing to fear. As Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”
My friends, we cannot live in the past. And, we cannot live the Christian life and be fruitful Christians apart from Christ any more than those limbs in my backyard could live after being torn off the tree trunk from this winter’s storms. Every branch, every person, draws identity, sustenance, and life from the vine. No two branches, no two people, are alike and yet everyone is the same. Every Christian is unique and yet every Christian is the same. Our identity is derived from the Vine. We are known by the Vine. We receive our sustenance and life from the Vine.
So rather than trying to graft the dead wood of the past onto the present and the future, or allowing the invasive vine of doubt and fear to overcome us, we look forward with faith and trust in Jesus Christ who knows what is best for healthy growth. Our past, our present and our future are safe in God’s hands as long as we remain attached to the vine and don’t seek to go our own way.
And so, my friends, on this day as we enter the painful and yet exciting pruning process of discernment let us do so with confidence knowing that God is on our side. Let us rejoice that we are attached to him. And let us rejoice in knowing that we are attached to each other though him. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.