John 15. 1-8
Pruning isn’t to get rid of branches; it’s to insure the harvest!
It started out, about fourteen years ago, as an article in theLutheran – our denominational magazine. But it, soon, morphed into something more. Becoming another brick in the wall of our adult education, complete with its own downloadable study guide. “Lutheranism 101.” Subatitle: “Culture or Confession?” Some of you may remember it. We used it a time or three here at Midland Lutheran. Overall, it’s a pretty good primer, introducing people to what we believe. Instead of getting bogged down in details – dotting i’s and crossing t’s – the author steps back and provides a panorama of the faith. Describing themes and topics and ideas. Like … Justification by grace! Law and gospel! Word and sacrament! The theology of the cross! All in easy-to-swallow, bite-sized pieces.
Anyway, that article encouraged me – dared me, actually – to do the same with my faith and my preaching. Break it down. Identify the themes. Of course, as a Lutheran pastor, most are reflected in my sermons … as I hope they’d be! But over the years, I‘ve come to see there’s another theme that didn’t make the list. An important one. For want of a better label, I’ll call it organic. You see, Lutherans, generally, are a very down-to-earth people! What we believe, the way we live, is anchored – rooted – in creation itself!
Look at it this way, the worldview for most of us Twenty-First century people has been shaped by the Industrial Revolution. We think it’s all about pushing the right button or flipping the right switch, pulling the right lever or turning the right dial. Bottom line, we feel more at home in the factory than we do on farms. More in charge. More in control. Something goes wrong in a factory, we can do something about it! We can fix it! Make it right! We construct things; we don’t cultivate them. We manufacture things; we don’t grow them. And that’s how we’ve come to look at everything around us … church and faith included! So, when it comes to either of those things, our first instinct is to do is construct! To manufacture! We make plans. We come up the prints. And we do what we always have done … we build it. From the ground up. But, truth is, you don’t build a church. You CAN’T build a church. A church building, yes. The church itself, no. Church isn’t a machine. It’s living! It’s breathing! It’s alive! It has a heartbeat and a breath! It’s … organic! Natural, not manmade! Responding. Reacting. An echo, a reflection, of something else. Of something more.
What’s it called in biology … tropisms? Plants don’t decide what they’re going to do or not do. They respond to stimuli! They react to things like sunshine and rain! Plants aren’t masters of their fate! They aren’t captains of their souls! They’re plants! Not machines! None of us are! Machines, that is! We’re creatures! Creations! The clay in someone else’s hands! The clay on a potter’s wheel! Shaped! Made! By god! By the world! Never by ourselves! That’s why most things here in the church are passive, not active. We don’t love ourselves; we are loved! We don’t forgive ourselves; we are forgiven! We don’t baptize ourselves; we are baptized! Here in the church, here among god’s own, it’s not the things we do that make us who – that make us what – we are! It’s what’s done to us! Creation? Church? None of it’s built! None of it’s constructed! None of it’s manufactured! It’s not a machine! It’s life! It’s organic! Natural! Spontaneous! And then, there’s John, chapter fifteen …
I am the vine, and my Father is the vine-grower.
The true vine and the true vine-grower! Authentic! Real! But, of course, in our Henry Ford way of understanding life, in our assembly line version of faith, it’s all about us. Setting goals. Meeting quotas. In our imaginings, it’s all about the branch. Whether or not it produces. And Jesus. The Father. Creation itself. They all fall by the wayside. Unnecessary. Unimportant. And like moths to a flame, we’re drawn to this … “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
But that’s not how it works! That’s not how any of this works! Jesus isn’t a genie wafting out of a lamp, making our every dream come true. Who has, who doesn’t. Who’s in, who’s not. It’s not that mechanical. There’s no heartbeat. No spirit, no breath. What Jesus is saying, instead, is that god loves! God loves! Jesus is the vine; the Father’s the vine-grower! And the Father has done, is doing, and will do anything and everything to make sure the vineyard does what vineyard’s are supposed to do! That is, bear fruit!
Literally, that fruit is grapes. Figuratively, the fruit is love! Turning the other! Going the extra! Doing unto! And bearing love, Jesus says, is as natural, as effortless, as organic, as bearing grapes! Because god’s committed, devoted, to the process! From beginning to end! From start to finish! God will never abandon it! God will never let it fail! And pruning is just a part of activity! And a small part of it, at that! The allegory’s not about the leaves or the twigs or, even, the branches! It’s about the vineyard! But even more, it’s about the vine-grower!
There’s more to growing grapes – and to growing love – than a snip here and a clip there. There’s watering … and weeding … and fertilizing … and, of course, there’s pruning. Cutting away not just the branches that bear nothing. But pruning so each and every CAN bear! So others each and every WILL bear! Pruning each and every branch, each and every Spring! Year in, year out! Pruning not out of anger! Pruning not out of frustration! But out dedication! Dedication to the vineyard! Dedication to the vine! Dedication to the harvest! And you don’t build a church, you don’t construct it, you don’t manufacture it … any more than you build, construct, and manufacture a vineyard. It has to be cultivated! It has to be grown! It has to be tended! It has to be cared for.
So, my friends, one more time, Jesus tells us … He’s the vine! We’re the branches! And god – god the Father – is the vine-grower! And in response … in reaction … in return ,,, to that goodNews, we say, “Thanks! Thanks be to God!”