It's Always Pruning Season

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Easter Sunday 5 May 2, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Using metaphorical language, Jesus describes himself as the true vine and God as the vine dresser. And he insists that his followers stay connected to the vine so they can produce good fruit. What this requires is pruning away whatever gets in the way of that vital task.

Have you ever arrived at a lecture or tuned in to a televised speech halfway through it?

That's essentially what we're doing today. In the Gospel of John, we have arrived in time to hear Jesus' farewell speech - but only after he's already started speaking. And we have stopped listening (or, in this case, reading) before he's finished. If you want all his remarks, later today start at John 14:23 and read all the way through John 16:16.

But just as we sometimes can find important wisdom in an excerpt taken from the middle of a lecture, so, too, can we go to just the eight verses we read today and pull out a wealth of insight and guidance from someone who describes himself as the truth.

Indeed, in Christianity, truth is not a doctrine, not a dogma, not a particular statement of faith. Rather, truth is a person, Christ Jesus. What a liberating idea that is.

In the case of Jesus' farewell speech, we get a clearer sense of just who this man called truth is and of how we are to relate to him because we have dropped in on Jesus speaking to his disciples at a key moment - for them as well as for us.

So what's he trying to tell us?

First, we need to recognize that Jesus is using obvious metaphorical language when he says he is the true vine and his Father is the vinegrower. It's language we should expect from a first-century rabbi in a culture deeply engaged in agriculture simply to avoid starvation.

If Jesus were giving this talk to 21st-century Americans, he might use rather different analogies. Instead of calling himself the true vine and God the vinegrower, for instance, he might describe himself as the indispensable software and the one he calls his Father as the mainframe computer.

All analogies eventually break down and no doubt that one collapses sooner rather than later, but the point is that Jesus was speaking in language that his hearers could grasp quickly.

Vines, vines everywhere

The language Jesus uses also reflects the history of the people of Israel. Vine language is quite common in the Hebrew scriptures.

In the fifth chapter of Isaiah, for instance, we read that "the vineyard of the LORD ... is the house of Israel."1 In the second chapter of Jeremiah God says this: "I planted you as a choice vine."2 At least twice Ezekiel likens Israel to a vine.3 And Hosea calls Israel "a luxuriant vine."4 Indeed, even the coins of the Maccabees - those early rebel Jewish warriors so deeply associated with the festival of Hanukkah - bore a vine as an emblem of Israel.

So, if I may use agricultural language, Jesus was plowing familiar ground, but he was placing himself at the center of the vine imagery.

What do even those of us who aren't farmers, who don't oversee vineyards, know about vines? That they must be pruned. If a vine is going to produce good fruit, the branches that merely suck up energy without producing anything must be removed.

Some of you who work on the plants, bushes and trees in your yard or neighborhood know that pruning can seem painful. Novices at pruning inevitably wonder whether they're killing the tree, the shrub, the rose of Sharon bushes. In some ways, it's like the difficult word-pruning advice that author Annie Dillard once offered to writers: In her book The Writing Life , she says that writing means laying out a line of words. It's a line, she says, that serves as "a miner's pick, a wood-carver's gouge, a surgeon's probe." This line of words, she writes, "is a hammer. You hammer against the walls of your house. You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere .... Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay or everything will fall down .... Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck."5

Friends, what Dillard describes about the often-painful process of writing and editing is the pruning life to which Jesus calls us. We cannot do everything or be everything. We must choose, and every choice we make eliminates something. And yet it's those hard choices that give our lives focus, direction, meaning.

Last year in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd at the hands (well, the knee, really) of a Minneapolis police officer, there was lots of talk about pruning unjust systems - from policing to education to health care. And not just a few snips here and there but major deconstruction and reconstruction.

It was an important conversation, one that needs to continue. But I hope we were motivated from that to take a hard look at what needs to be pruned in our own lives as well as in the society around us.

Pruning in your own life

What is taking up our time that produces no good fruit? Is it mindless shopping to find bargain prices on stuff we really don't need? Is it watching hour after hour of TV sitcoms or reality shows that, two hours later, we can't remember? Is it, in other words, being entertained to death?

Please understand that I'm not talking about people who spend helpful time meditating or quietly reading or hiking alone through the woods taking note of the beauty of God's good creation. Those kinds of activities can give us perspective, insight and a sense of awe, which is, after all, where the impulse of religion often starts - with awe and wonder.

But imagine what constructive and generative things we might be free to do if we pruned from our lives those habits that take the precious time God gives us and throw it away for no good purpose. Imagine the children and grandchildren for whom we could be better models. Imagine the people in grief and trauma who could use our hugs, our empathy and our presence.

Do we need recreation? Of course we do. And sometimes that means playing golf or riding bicycles or attending a terrific play or concert.

But let's also think about the word "recreation" in its parts - re-creation. What Jesus is asking us to do is to prune away whatever stunts our growth, our creation. He's asking us to stay rooted in him so that the gift of life God has given us can flourish.

After all, a flourishing life is exactly what God wants for us. Jesus himself said he had come so we may have life and have it more abundantly.

In their book For the Life of the World , theologians Miroslav Volk and Matthew Croasmun write this: "The flourishing of human beings and all God's creatures in the presence of God is God's foremost concern for creation, and should therefore be the central purpose of theology."6

And what is theology? It is, of course, the exploration of who God is and what God wants. Is there any more important field of study? (That's a rhetorical question, friends.)

But we can't flourish if we haven't trimmed away the excess, haven't pruned the clutter, haven't focused on remaining connected to the true vine. In Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of the Bible, called The Message, he renders verse 5 of John 15 this way: "I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you're joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can't produce a thing."

Staying connected to Jesus

So how do we remain joined with Jesus the vine? Well, one way is by doing what you're doing today - worshiping the triune God, for it is worship that reminds us week after week that our relationship with God must be what Peterson calls "intimate and organic."

We also stay joined to Jesus by the spiritual disciplines of regular reading of scripture, by a prayer life that keeps us connected to our source and by ministering to people who need the healing that only God can offer through us. And we stay connected to the true vine by cutting out whatever interferes with that connection.

What will be the result of this steady relationship to Christ? Eugene Peterson's paraphrase puts it this way: "... if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon." One reason we can be sure of that is that when we dwell in Christ and Christ dwells in us, we will ask only for what Christ himself would want for us and for our world.

So let's move outside the walls of the church and produce the kind of fruit that will bring honor and glory to God.