"I Am the Vine!" Sermon on John 15:1-17 by Michelle Ellis - May 30, 2021
I feel that I need to confess before we look at this together, that I am not a gardener. My posture with gardens is to dig a hole, put in a seed, do some watering and hope for the best. But I do want to offer a couple of things I noticed in observing from a distance. We’ve got apple trees in our yard. They grow these tall shoots that reach high into the sky. It seems like they are constantly wanting to overextend themselves and reach higher than they can handle. The tree does this because Joe and I have not been great pruners. Left to its own, the tree wants to take on too much, invest its energy in growing taller and make tons of not so great fruit. The tree needs someone to prune it, to cut off those tall upward shoots, and to trim it so it can focus its energies on doing a few things well instead of a lot of things poorly. The tree needs someone to cut back new growth, to pay attention to how it’s growing in ways that are unproductive and to intervene. The tree needs someone prune it, so it can be more fully itself, more fully what it was meant to be.
This tree has been a picture to me of myself at times, left to my own devices—sending out a ton of energy to things that aren’t going anywhere, wanting to do a lot of things and produce without creating the space and time for things to grow to maturity. I need the Master Gardener to cut off the branches in me that don’t bear fruit and to trim me clean for the sake of bearing more fruit. He has done that work in many ways, especially in the last year and a half, calling me to come to terms with difficult past events in my own life and my automatic ways of being that were well-meaning, but unhealthy. I don’t know whether trees experience pruning as being painful, but I certainly do. Having pieces of me cut away does not feel good. Last year, Joe did some pretty intense pruning to the trees in our yard. I watched as he lopped off a big portion of most of our trees. I did not like it. Pruning is necessary, but painful, and hard to watch.
There are many lenses through which to view the past year and a half for us corporately. The one that I find myself captivated by as we read this passage is wondering whether the Master Gardener might be using some of the events of the past little while, including the pandemic, to do some corporate pruning in us. Cutting away the wild shoots that take energy away from the good fruit, pruning to create more space for the fruit the Gardener wants to free to come to maturity. I wonder whether God might be doing some pruning in churches in particular, calling us out of our automatic ways of being, good as they may be, to wonder again and be grounded again in what it means to be friends and followers of Jesus together in this time and place. Might it be that even being prevented from meeting in person for this long has perhaps been part of a pruning process for us? Cutting a piece of our corporate life away for the sake of making space for mature, fruit to grow, fruit that will give joy to God and others, fruit that might not have had a chance to mature otherwise?
It’s always a painful to be pruned. It’s hard to see promising beginnings being nipped in the bud. It’s difficult to have pieces of your life cut away and to feel at first only their absence. But notice too, that the Gardener is never closer to the vine than when the pruning knife is in hand, taking thought to its long term health and productivity. Pruning is a thing of careful observation, closeness and intimacy. Pruning is only done by those who hold the true flourishing and health of the plant dearly at heart. If you find yourself in a time of pruning, of pieces of your life being cut away, of new beginnings being cut short, of the way you previously saw the world and your story no longer fitting, you are also in a time when, aware of it or not, you are close to God, being delicately and carefully held and observed very closely by the Master Gardener, who always prunes for the sake of freeing the vine to be more healthy, more fully alive and more fruitful, more truly itself. If you are in a time of pruning, the Master Gardener is close to you giving thought and care to your life in a special way. You are also walking in the path of Jesus who also learned obedience through what he suffered for the sake of the joy that was set before him.
I’ve got another observation. When we first arrived here around 8 years ago, Mrs. Ezinga offered to share some of her gardening skills with us in exchange for us helping a bit in her garden. I think she may have been a bit disappointed in how slowly we caught on! Anyways, I remember her saying that we could come and pick raspberries to take home one day. It was a sunny summer day, I walked into her yard and could not believe the abundance of red, ripe raspberries. They were a delight to pick. They hardly needed to be pulled to drop into my hand. They were warm and sweet, and I remember asking God to help me bear fruit like that in my life. Sweet, beautiful, ripe fruit that was a delight to him and to others.
I’d like to notice a few things together from this text about being plants and bearing fruit.
First, notice the picture in this passage that Jesus gives for what it means to be human. He doesn’t picture each one of us as individual trees growing in an orchard, or as rows of individual carrots growing in a garden, each of us on our own, self-sustaining and separate from each other. Instead, we are all branches, connected to the vine, Jesus, and connected to each other. We are all branches on the vine and our lives and fruitfulness depend on us remaining in the Jesus vine. We can’t grow any fruit unless we are connected to the vine. We won’t have any life at all if we are not connected to the vine.
A branch on the vine has one main job. Can you guess what it is? This is the primary job of the branch: Remain on the vine! That’s the job. Producing fruit is not the main job of the branch, that's a secondary thing that will come if the branch focuses on it’s main job: remaining on the vine. This sounds like a bit of a strange command to follow. Remain! Stay there! Don’t fall off! I’d like to offer up two ways that one can do this job of remaining.
The first is to recognize that you are a branch on the vine. Remember that your life comes from the vine. Remember that you a part of something bigger than you, with roots that are deep, that extends much farther than you can reach on your own. Shape your imagination around the reality that you are not an island, but your life is interconnected to those around you and God in deep ways and intricate ways. Leslie Newbigin says this: “Abiding is the continually renewed decision that what has been done once for all by Jesus shall be the basis, the starting point, the context of all my thinking, deciding and doing.” It’s orienting your thoughts and your imagination again and again in the reality that you are held by God, dearly loved by him who gave his life for you. In that way, it’s a bit of a resting. Resting in being held and given life through the vine.
The second way to remain is to love one another. Jesus says when you obey my commandments, you remain in my love. Then he says, “This is my commandment: Love one another.” Love one another: at the same time the simplest and the most difficult thing to do. Love one another. What does that look like through differing opinions on vaccinations and restrictions? What does that look like when we feel isolated, when the person in front of us to love has very high needs, and when we’d just rather be left alone? What does loving one another look like in light of the legacy of generations of trauma and abuse like we heard about this week in the news? What does loving look like when walls are built up strong and high? Maybe it makes most sense to begin with the people who you interact with most days. What does the call look like to love where you’re at? To show kindness to a grouchy coworker? To name what isn’t working in a relationship in pursuit of health? To give up your sleep for a new born baby or an aging parent? To take steps towards your spouse instead of away? To choose to stand up for someone who is not able to stand up for themselves? To show welcome to someone who is new to the country? New to the valley? To walk closely with someone you love through illness? Jesus names that most kinds of loving include both deep joy, and also dear loss. He says that in loving there will be deep joy, but also a laying down of one’s self. Let’s ask him to invite us into this kind of loving, this kind of life together.
Lord, we want to remain in you. Keep opening our eyes to the reality that we are branches in your vine. Given life by you, held up by you, cared for and lovingly pruned by you for the sake of our life. Show us also how we have life in one another. Lord, you’ve shown us the way in loving. You laid down your life for us, your friends. Guide us and empower us to be friends to each other the way you are friends to us. Bring people into our lives you are inviting us to be friends to. Lead us in the kind of love that lays down oneself for the sake of the other. Lead us into the kind of love that brings joy to you, and joy to us. In the name of your Son, Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.