Sermon, May 3, 2015

Preached by the Rev. Miranda K. Hassett.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine,  neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

So when I first looked over today’s Scripture lessons, I more or less threw up my hands. There is so much here –  these are all wonderful, rich, important texts. There was no way to cover them all, and I didn’t know where to start, where to focus.

And then I remembered that today is our parish workday, the day every spring when we spend some time together, after church, tending our grounds and the plants and trees that live here, to help them be tidy and pretty and healthy and ready for spring. And I started to think, Maybe I should take a cue from Jesus here. Maybe I should talk about pruning.

So I did a little research. I am not particularly a plant person – I’m learning, as my husband develops our yard at home, and as we develop our property here at St. Dunstan’s. I’m learning. But I didn’t know much about pruning: just that it means cutting off parts of a tree or vine or bush, and that you’re supposed to do it. So I turned to Google and read up a little.

Here’s one of the first things I realized: I have a strong reaction to the idea of being pruned. In this text from the Gospel of John, when Jesus says to his disciples, and to us, that we are branches of his vine and can expect to be pruned to bear more fruit, that makes me cringe. That’s because I’m an animal. If you cut a limb off of an animal, that’s a terrible injury, quite possibly a mortal injury. My natural reaction to a big pair of pruning shears is terror. But plants aren’t like that. They are different. They grow and heal differently. Losing a limb or part of a limb is an injury, sure, and they have to heal; but under normal circumstances it isn’t a dangerous injury by any means, and it can make them healthier and stronger in the long run.

So I have a gut reaction to this image Jesus is using. I don’t want to be pruned. That sounds really bad. Painful and dangerous. Plants probably don’t especially like being pruned either. But I have to try to put myself into the mindset of a plant, for whom having something cut off – wisely and well – is not a mortal injury,  and may well be for my health. One website that I consulted pointed out that people who have a couple of backyard fruit trees – as we do at St. Dunstan’s – are much more likely to under-prune their trees than to over-prune. Of course there’s the “getting around to it” factor, but I think we’re also really worried about doing it wrong and hurting the tree. So I suspect I’m not alone in my resistance to the concept of pruning. I don’t want to hurt the tree! I can barely stand to cut my dog’s toenails, or take a splinter out of my child’s foot! I’m not going to cut off pieces of this poor helpless plant!

But… pruning is important.  If we fail to tend to our trees in that way, they get overgrown, shapeless, less healthy, less fruitful. This would have been commonsense for Jesus’ original audience. The agricultural economy of ancient Israel relied heavily on perennial plants and trees that had to be shaped and tended year by year: olive trees, fig trees, grapevines.  But it’s not commonsense for most of us. So let me share with you a little about the logic and importance of pruning.

First, pruning removes the “3 D’s”: You prune off the stuff that’s dead, diseased, or damaged. A branch that’s died, or become infected by some blight or insect illness, or been damaged by high winds or careless humans. You remove that stuff not just because it’s useless – but because leaving it there may compromise the health of the whole tree. That’s most obvious in the case of disease; you want to try to prevent any disease or rot spreading to the rest of the tree. But dead or damaged wood can also provide an entry point for bugs or infection, through broken or rotted wood. It can be a doorway to systemic illness that may weaken or kill the whole plant. So the Wise One tending the vineyard, the orchard, cuts away what is unhealthy, lest it cause the whole branch or vine to weaken or die.

Second, pruning makes space. Some kinds of trees and vines are prone to growing overly thick. Growing a crowd of branches, tendrils, and leaves. For the plant’s health, and especially for fruit to grow and ripen well, there needs to be room for air to circulate, and for the sun to shine in among the branches, because sun is what ripens the fruit. So you prune to loosen things up a little bit, to make some space within the tree or on the vine for the plant to breathe, because plants do breathe, and for fruit to grow and ripen well. This is one reason you can’t just prune a plant once; you have to pay attention, and tend it year by year.  Keep clearing it out when it becomes overgrown. So the Wise One tending the vineyard, the orchard, prunes to make some room, to create space for the plant to breathe and grow, so that the branches that are left can flourish and get what they need to bear big, healthy, ripe fruit.

Third, pruning is a way to tell the plant how to direct its energy and growth. Here’s an example, not exactly pruning but the same principal: Last year we ordered two dozen young blueberry bushes and planted them along the north side of our property. They came to us with berries already formed – tiny green berries! So exciting, proof that these are fruit bushes that will fruit for us! And the first thing we had to do was pick off all the little green berries. And we’re going to do it again this summer: pick off all the little green berries. Because fruiting takes a lot of the plant’s energy and resources, and we don’t want the plants to put their energy into developing berries yet. The plants are still new and still small, and we want them to focus on developing their root and branch structures. On becoming stronger, hardier, better-rooted plants. It’s not time for them to fruit yet. Maybe next year. But right now, taking off the berries is a way to tell the plant, Don’t do that this year. Just focus on becoming a stronger plant, please.

Much the same applies with trees and vines. Take our little pear tree, out there. See those funny branches reaching straight up? I had to look this up – they’re called watersprouts. Growing those funny, vertical, fast-growing branches is a way that some trees, and especially pear trees, sometimes respond to pruning or to weather stress. Sometime this summer, we need to prune those upright watersprouts. Because the tree is putting resources into growing those guys. And they’re not what we want. They make the tree crowded and tend to shade out the rest of the tree, and any fruit they bear will be too high for us to reach!… So we’ll cut off the watersprouts, to prevent the tree from putting its resources into growing stuff that’s no good to us. So the Wise One tending the vineyard, the orchard, cuts away what is not useful, or not ready, to encourage the plant to put its energy into fruitful growth.

Cutting away what is dead, diseased, or damaged. Making room for air and light. Directing resources towards needed growth. None of this really resolves my fear that being pruned may be… uncomfortable at times. But it does help me see the point.

Jesus is, actually, quite clear that the point is fruitfulness. The phrase “bear fruit” appears six times in these eight verses.  And he sums it up this way: “My Father is glorified by this: that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” Discipleship is an important word and idea in the New Testament. Some churches talk about discipleship a lot, but it’s not a very Episcopalian word. I don’t remember talking about discipleship in Sunday school or confirmation class, and as a priest myself, I haven’t used this word, this idea, a lot. But I may start. Because that word, discipleship – it captures this idea, this thing we are talking about here, about being more than just members of a church, about being followers of Jesus. Being people who, I hope, are members of a church because that community of faith helps us find the path and the strength and the clarity to follow Jesus. To live lives shaped by his Gospel of mercy, generosity, healing, hope, and love.

This Gospel – this parable that Jesus offers today – it’s an image, a metaphor of discipleship. And it’s really very simple, because in this parable, this image, we’re not the one with the pruning shears. Worrying about who else is fruitful, who is growing in the shape God intends for them – that is above our pay grade. Leave it to the Wise One who tends our orchard, our vineyard. We’re just… branches. And all we have to do is abide in the vine. Hold on. Stay connected. And let the vine bear fruit through us. The vine is strong and true, so if the branch is healthy, if air and sun and water and good soil are available, then fruit will happen. It’s not something to force or fret about, for us branches. We just stay connected, and let the life of the vine live in us.

Let me hang one more idea on this overgrown metaphor: The fruit isn’t for the plant. Its usefulness is elsewhere, and beyond. It’s to feed somebody else. Or maybe to be planted elsewhere to start something new growing. The fruit we bear is to feed and nurture others. The Acts of the Apostles gives us one vision of what that can look like – Philip the deacon, being open to the whisper of God: Take that road today. Go talk to that stranger. The first letter of John gives us language for the generosity of fruitfulness: “We love because he first loved us.” The word “love” appears 27 times in these 14 verses. We love because God in Christ loved us. We carry the love we have received out into the world. Bushel baskets of love, borne out from the vineyard, the orchard, to feed and delight those beyond its walls.

Let us pray. May the Wise One tending this vineyard, this orchard, this garden of God, shape us gently and tenderly, clearing away what is unhealthy, creating space for light to shine in, focusing our growth where we have the greatest potential to bear fruit for your Kingdom. Amen.