FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER, May 2nd, 2021 JOHN 15:1-8
A big city lawyer was losing his edge. For thirty years he’d taken the train to work, commuting through rain, snow, and heatwave, giving clients advice on seemingly unimportant matters, before catching the train home again. “There must be more to life than this”, he told himself one morning. And so, he made the kind of rash and radical decision that people can do when they’re having a midlife crisis. He sold his house, moved to the country, and bought a chicken farm. “This is the life”, he said to himself, as we strode around his twenty acres, breathed the fresh country air, and felt the soil beneath his boots.
So, one Monday morning he began his new business life in earnest. He bought one hundred chickens. But, tragically, within hours they had all died. Undeterred, he bought a second batch of one hundred chickens, with the same terrible outcome. “Perhaps my old life wasn’t so bad after all”, he thought, and maybe there’s more to this farming thing than I had assumed. So, he wrote to the Agriculture Department for some advice. “My chickens keep dying”, he wrote. “Is it possible I’m planting them too close together?” Within a week he received a reply from a veterinary scientist at the Agriculture Department. “Dear sir, thank you for your letter about your chickens. I’m afraid we couldn’t possibly answer your question without a soil sample.”
This Easter we’re reading parts of John’s Gospel, and if ever we city people find ourselves slightly removed from Jesus’ rural metaphors it’s now. Last week, Jesus said he was a shepherd. This week he says he’s a vine, and his Father is the gardener, and we, well, we are the branches on the vine. It’s an image of fruit and life and growth; but also, of knives and loss and burning.
But this year, even we city types get this image. Pruning, cutting, amputations? Oh yes, we know all about that, fifteen months into the pandemic. Here we stand, stand – broken, bleeding, butchered. Your attachments lie scattered around you, victims of the pruning.
There is that relationship. You know it was doing you no good, you understand it was stunting your growth, you are aware it was making you bitter, small-minded, petty, resentful. But it gave you comfort when you were lonely. God, the gardener too the knife of the pandemic and pruned the dead wood.
Then there is that object of beauty, that trinket of desire. How you saved for it, sacrificed for it, denied yourself for it. Just to possess it for a while, to breathe in its aroma, to caress its beauty, to wallow in its luxury. You know it was getting uppity, forgetting who was in charge, losing sight of what it was and where it came from. Truth be told, it was starting to possess you, instead of the other way around, beginning to be your master, not your servant; your creator, not your creature; your god, not his gift. Instead of it being your object you were becoming its subject. It needed to go to set you free to be the person God made you. God, the gardener too the knife of the pandemic and pruned the dead wood.
And there, scattered around this valley of brokenness, randomly littering the hillside, lie your health, your freedom, your mobility, your financial independence, a family member, a job, your vigor, your youth, your unrealistic dreams, your opportunities. God, the gardener too the knife of the pandemic – and many other tools where you have felt like a passive victim of random events, and pruned the dead wood.
To everything there is a season, but you had hoped summer would last forever. You know all things decay and eventually die, and you understand that you had to let go in order to embrace the new growth, fresh harvest, rich fruitfulness. But, when the gardener takes a knife to you, it hurts.
He knows what he is doing. This vinedresser, this butcher, this surgeon. Of course, he does, he’s been doing this with his vines for centuries. And the results are spectacular. He knows how to make the fruit big, the foliage small, the vintage sweet. You see, he planted us with a purpose. That we bear much fruit. It is not for our sakes that we were lovingly cultivated, adoringly pruned, and joyously threshed. It was for the sake of God’s world around us.
I know it hurts, I know it wounds, I know the scars can take years to heal, but sometimes, to grow into spiritual maturity, we need the knife to lop off some of our foliage, so that the grapes can flourish. Succumbing to the vinedresser’s knife, painful thought is, is always worth it, in the long run. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If anyone remains in me, they will bear much fruit.”
You see it’s possible to suffer from runaway growth. Our lives can become unruly. We can grow a mess of shoots and leaves sprawling all over the place. Easy on the eye, pretty even, but not what we were made for. Our calling is to be simpler than that, to have the life-giving sap flow into the fruit and not the leaves. Cutting back the greenery will produce a healthier plant and a better crop. In God’s vineyard, leafy, showy branches are not the point. It is not about our possessions, our careers, our hobbies, even our relationships. Those things are usually beautiful. But sometimes they get in the way of what is truly important and rob the fruit of growth. What God is interested in is fruit – the excellent fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The life of the plant must go into the fruit, not the leaves.
We must make sure our resources – the light and water and nutrients are going into producing fruit and not the worthless leaves. Where are we putting our resources? Here’s the takeaway for St Paul’s as we plan for our rebirth when we can meet together again without restrictions. Where are we going to put our resources – in things that bear fruit or in things that merely look nice but aren’t that important? Where will we spend our money, our staff hours, how will we use our building, what will we do with all our gifts of time and energy that our members offer? Leaves or fruit? Showiness or substance? Keeping things going or growing in new directions that are right for a post-pandemic culture? Things that are of secondary importance or the kingdom of God?
Look at the great wine regions of the world and examine the soil in which the vines are rooted. Great wine grapes flourish in fields that are inhospitable to nearly any other crop. Vines like steep hillsides where erosion has stripped away the topsoil. They flourish in hot and dry climates. Experts say that to produce great wine the vines must suffer. A vine that has to struggle produces better wine than one that is protected from hardship. God is using the pandemic and other events to produce in us love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in you. The challenge, then, can be to embrace those struggles and not resent them.
But there’s more. The branch, says Jesus, must remain attached to the vine if it’s to live. I used to live in a vicarage that was separated from the 12th Century Church by an ancient stone wall. But this historic wall was being destroyed by ivy. It looks nice but it attaches itself to the crevasses and cracks between the stones and cannot be pulled off, or even cut off with secateurs. The villagers told me the only way to get rid of the ivy and save the wall was to sever the vine near the root, maybe twenty feet away from part of the vine that was causing the damage. Then, in time, the vine would die, and would loosen its grip on the stonework. But it took months for this painful death to occur. At first, the vine showed no sign of death. After a couple of weeks, the leaves started to curl, and then as the year progressed and the seasons changed the vine succumbed to the inevitable, and could be pulled off with no harm to the wall. When the branch gets cut off from the source of its power and life it dies.
Remain attached to the vine. When we separate ourselves from Christ, we run the risk that we might not ever have the desire to return. Now it’s important to hold this truth in tension with the truth that God will not throw us out of his family or stop loving us. So do not fear. If you’re feeling anxious that you may have cut yourself off from the vine, let me reassure you that haven’t. I mean, you wouldn’t be here if you had. But let’s not take for granted our relationship with Christ. It is the most vital thing in our lives, and we need to devote space, time, and energy to cultivate it.
Let me finish with a parable. A woman was walking through the mall one day when she noticed a shop she had never seen before. It had a chalk board outside bearing the slogan Open for business: come in and browse. So, intrigued, she pushed open the door and stood in the entrance. She glanced around trying to see what it was that they sold. Surrounding her were the most beautiful displays she had ever seen. She studied the rich colors of the walls and she breathed in the fragrances. Heavenly music filled the shop, but not in an intrusive way. Like everything else just seemed perfect. And so, with senses alive, she made her way around the shop lingering in each display until her curiosity pulled her to the next. She opened boxes, she ran her hands through powders, or were they liquids or maybe they were gasses – she couldn’t tell, she had never felt substances like these before. Hanging over each section of the shop were signs that read “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithful, gentleness, self-control.” And as she felt and looked and listened and smelled her way through the shop, she grew hungry for these goods. So, reaching for her wallet she went to the counter, where a kindly old lady was standing. “Did you see anything you would like?” The shopkeeper asked. “Oh yes”, replied the customer, “I’d like all of them please.” The shopkeeper smiled, bent down, and opened a drawer under the counter. She handed her nine little packets, each containing a few tiny dull granules. “What are these?” she asked, “These are not the things you have on display. I want the feelings I experienced as I walked around the shop”. “My dear”, the owner smiled gently as she pointed to the packets, “these are the things we sell. This is a seed shop. Plant these, day by day and they will grow, and in time you will have the things you seek.”
And so may you know the life that comes from being attached to the vine, and may you grow rich in his fruit, so we may share it others.