John 15:1-8 [Jesus said] “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I 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. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
For the first time in my life, I am the tender of apple trees, which brings all sorts of new experiences: tent caterpillars, which are disgusting; what to do with an abundant harvest, applesauce, cider, and pies; and every spring, as a steward of the orchard, I have to figure out pruning. Pruning is not something you want to take lightly. I’ve seen the ugliest trees that were pruned back so hard, they looked stumps that would never live again. And whether it’s true or not, I fear that if I prune too hard, the tree will be shocked and I won’t get any fruit that year. But pruning is good for the tree and helps the tree put its energy into fruit instead of branches.
So this year I hired a professional. I know my limits. Out of curiosity, I asked him how he decided which branches to cut. First, he said, he looks for disease and anything that isn’t growing comes off. Second, he looks for branches that are crossing another branch, interfering with the life of the other branch. And third, any branch that looks like it is going “wonky.” Even after that tutorial, I’m wouldn’t be entirely sure which branch to cut. Pruning seems rather mysterious to me.
|The Red Vineyard atArles by Vincent Van Gogh|
In our gospel today, John relates a parable of Jesus about connecting with God, and he uses the metaphor of vines to talk about it. The vine and the vineyard were ancient metaphors for the people of Israel in the Old Testament, so to the first hearers of the gospel, it have seemed initially to be nothing new. But Jesus takes an old metaphor and repurposes it, saying that he is the true vine, not Israel. Life will come from being connected through Jesus, not just because you were born into a particular family.
The passage is a lovely image of connection, that growth and life come from being connected to the life-source. But when it comes the part about pruning, it gets scary. Who gets cut off? We all have our days, or weeks, or years when we might feel that we are the branch withers or grows in a wonky way. We’ve all had times in life where we feel far from God, unable to tap into life in Jesus.
So what then? Do we get cut off?
In this parable, Jesus doesn’t say that he’s going to make the cuts. He’s not even going to decide. Jesus is the vine, but it is the Father who is the vinegrower.
|Tuscan Farmer II by artist Christopher Clark- go see his work|
In Greek, that word is “georgos”, which doesn’t directly translate to vinegrower, by the way. It’s more of a generic term. It comes from two Greek words put together: ge, for earth, and ergon, for work. It means earth worker, soil tiller, farmer. Georgos is also a name, which in English is George. So an image for God in this text is the farmer, or for fun, you could call God George. God the farmer tends every acre of land, every tender shoot that springs from the earth.
At the time that the gospel of John was written, the Christian community had suffered greatly under Roman persecution. Many followers of Jesus had been cut down, and fear and doubt constantly infected various branches. John’s gospel which we heard today reminded those followers that Jesus was the way to life, that he abided with them, that he remained with them, even as he sent the Holy Spirit, the advocate and helper, into their midst. And as the text reminds us, pruning happens, not to punish the tree or vine, but to help it grow.
I think of my pear tree. When you cut off the suckers, they come back more plentiful than ever. You can't hold back that new growth, that new life. When you prune a tree back, it puts forth its energy even more, investing in blossom and fruit. A good harvest of fruit leads to more seeds, and more seeds to more trees. A pruned tree bears fruit, and thus, new life, even when it might have seemed to be cut and wounded.
|Celebration by John August Swanson|
God the good farmer is wise about the cuts that are made. God’s wisdom in pruning is so wise that it may be beyond our understanding as human beings. And that is okay. Our job is not to be the farmer, nor the vinegrower, nor the vineyard owner. We are not even the vine. We are merely the branches. And our purpose is to stay connected to Jesus, to remain with him, just as he remains with us, and to love. For love is what Jesus came to grow. Amen.