Lesson: John 15:1-8
Last Tuesday I shared with the elders on session my excitement as a budding gardener. The building supervisor of my small complex is a retired minister who has gardened her entire life. There’s a side yard between our parking lot and the San Rafael creek where she’s created a vast garden of bulbs, veggies, flowering plants. It’s gorgeous. A little over a month ago, I felt the desire to play in the dirt. So, I asked if there were a space where I could pull weeds? I love pulling weeds with my hands in the dirt and real progress to be seen. She laughed and then showed me a space on the far side of the building to work. And I did. Then I was asked if I’d like to take over tending the five rose bushes that are in large containers on that side of the building? It meant having a bit of space-mostly shade but I could add plants as I saw fit. Sure! I’ve been learning something new each week about pruning and fungus and I have been enjoying the different perfumes from the flowers.
Last weekend my gardening square footage increased dramatically as I was asked if I would water and tend the plants and flowers on the other side of the fence – the ones directly along the sidewalk. They needed watering and since I was already moving the hose, would I mind? In exchange I would have full reign to change up the plants if I wanted. Great! Now I have actual property to tend. I’m moving up.
Yesterday I tended the rose bushes and remembered the extra watering. I pulled on the hose and dropped it over the short fence. Then I walked around and began watering. As I watered I realized I didn’t really know which plants were in my zone, so to be on the safe side, I kept watering and walking up fence line toward the side of the building until the hose could not reach. I coiled the hose up and went to collect my cuttings. That’s when I noticed that the rose bush nearest the building – which had been standing about three feet tall was laying at a 90-degree angle.
My first impulse was to be angry with the “mean person” who mangled my little rose bush. Then as I stood there in shock, it started to dawn on me that I’d put the hose over the fence right here…right next to this rose….and when I started walking toward the building, and pulling the hose to reach more plants…I had not looked to see what path the hose traveled. And that’s when the little voice in my head said, RUN! There was no other explanation except that I, with good intentions, had accidentally flattened this rose bush with the hose. I touched the stem lightly and it popped off into my hand. In my disbelief, I actually considered sticking it back in the soil as if it would take root again.
This is all leading me to say that I think Jesus knew what he was doing when he assigned roles to his gardening metaphor. No loose ends or swapping parts! No, Jesus said he is the vine. God is the vine grower. We are the branches. The plant is much safer with me as the branch rather than the caretaker of the vines. In only five weeks I managed to take out 20 percent of the plants entrusted to me!
I am the vine…
Every time I read this phrase I hear the voice of the pastor from my family’s church in Texas. Davis says the same words every month when he is behind the communion table. Every month he serves the elders and he repeats part of today’s verse. As I recall it, Davis says this: Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Cut off from me you can do nothing.”
Now, that’s not perfect translation of the Bible, but that is the way I remember him saying it. It was this second line that always took me out of the moment to think existential thoughts about what it is that I would have to do to be cutoff. I cannot tell you if there was a third line, perhaps one that says abide and stay in relationship with me. Needless to say the angst and fear it caused me each month as I contemplated what Jesus and what Davis meant was great – I trust these two guys and why were they being mean? Although I’d be willing to bet that is not what our dear minister meant. And I am also quite sure he continued the metaphor, but the words of comfort didn’t stick in my memory. This part of the metaphor have been used to scare youth and instill fear, so it’s worth taking a look a bit more closely at this metaphor.
Jesus’ metaphor of vine and branches is one from farming and his audience would have been familiar with the lingo. I know some of us garden for pure beauty, but I am pretty sure a farmer raising grapes expects the vines to produce a crop of fruit. I’d wager that the majority of fields of grapes growing to the north and east of us are intended for a purpose beyond beautiful snapshots by tourists, but are actually to be harvested. Their first priority is making money off of the fruits of their vines.
I think this is yet another passage where Jesus is being descriptive. We have probably all seen vines that grow without tending – the ones that are a heap of interwoven shoots that are just messy. But, a loving vine grower clips and trims and ties back the branches so that they have the best possible chance of growing fruit. This means that some branches will be pruned or cut off. A branch will not survive on its own accord. It dries up and it can be disposed of – either in a trash heap that’s burned or perhaps to modernize it, we might suggest that the pruned branches should be put in your green compost bin. Wouldn’t that change up the feel of this passage? God will compost the pruned branches. Ah, that God, She’s so eco-friendly – she is a fantastic gardener!
Jesus uses the word, abide, numerous times in this passage. Abiding is a word we do not use very much. It can also be translated as remain – remain in relationship with me, remain connected. This seems to be Jesus’ point – stay connected with me – hold on, stay close, and do not let go! As one commentator put it, “If we remain… on the vine, we are tended in safety, trellised to fullness, kept from disasters of our own making.”[i] (Including protection from hoses!) Vines, like churches and families, and individual lives, are meant to grow and stretch and learn. The promise of “abiding” in Jesus is not for its own sake, nor an end in itself. Jesus imagines and promises a dynamic and changing community. Vines are pruned and cleansed. Branches that wither and die are removed. This points to a constantly fluctuating community that is called to be living, creating, reforming.[ii] “A part of this, Jesus tells us, is also submitting to the pruner’s shears, allowing ourselves to be humiliated [humbled] and reworked so that new growth can come.”[iii]
I want to share a story I heard from a pastor in Arizona Let’s call her Mary. I met Mary at a training in February. Mary introduced herself and confided that she was having a difficult time trying to lead her congregation into their future. She said she saw so many gifts and so many fruits, but her congregants were wrapped up in a vision of intergenerational ministry – they desperately wanted young people and families. Who can blame them? I thought. Mary continued to tell a story of how the church wanted to put on a vacation Bible study program over the summer as a way of attracting families. But, they didn’t have any families. No children at all. So, someone had the idea that they would go to the neighboring community and borrow some. And they did!
They found a few families who were interested; they picked them up and transported them to their church building where they put on an old-fashioned church school program. All week they made crafts, sang silly songs, and did all the fun activities you might expect. Each day they transported the families to and from the church back to their homes in the neighboring community. The congregation was devastated when none of these families was interested in coming to church on Sundays. Mary said her congregation was absolutely distraught by their inability to attract young people. Mary revealed that she was disheartened because she felt they were wasting their gifts in pursuit of a goal that simply was not practical. It turned out that their church was in the middle of a large, flourishing retirement community. Rather than being open to the ministry in front of them, they were withering on the vine – caught in a negative spiral based on assumptions of what a healthy church looked like from previous communities and generations. Despite their best intentions, her community was not able to abide with and love their own community for what it was – to appreciate and love themselves for who they are.
Abiding with Christ, also known as faith, is something that hopefully does not stay stagnant. Rather, faith is a dynamic relationship with the living God and from time to time we could benefit from God’s pruning.[iv] From time to time it’s important for us to take stock of where we feel God leading and pruning in our life together. As a community, we have shared needs and callings – abiding together we can learn, grow, and not stagnate. I believe that God plants callings and visions in our hearts. After church we will discuss where we feel this vine is growing and we may discern in coming weeks and months ways we may need to prune our projects, assumptions, and practices as a community. I hope you will attend today and again at the second of these meetings on May 31st. I want to remind you again that God is the vine grower. We have enough to do as branches! Let us continue to grow together… knowing God’s masterful hands guide us, and trusting Christ to lead our way. Amen.
© The Rev. Diana C. Bell, 2015”True Vine” by An
Image “True Vine” by Anthrovik, Flickr CC, 2004
[i] Volck, Brian, “Pruning Time.” Ekklesia Project: Lectionary Reflections. May 07, 2009. http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2009/05/pruning-time/#sthash.7oEK5g8a.dpuf
[ii] Boyce, James, “John 15:1-8 Commentary.” Working Preacher: Preaching This Week (RCL), May 06, 2012. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1290
[iii] Sutterfield, Ragan, “ Believe it or Not.” Ekklesia Project: Lectionary Reflections. May 03, 2012. http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2012/05/believe-it-or-not/#sthash.Kc5gcwc3.dpuf