May 13, 2012 Gospel: John 15:1-8 1st Reading: Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31 2nd Reading: 1 John 4:7-12
There was once a gardener who decided to grow vines. He found a place perfect for growing grapes. The climate was just right with warm days and cool nights. The sun shone directly on this plot of land. There was just enough rainfall, and not too much. The soil contained all the right nutrients and was loose, fast draining, and loamy.
So the gardener built a system of trellises and supports the grapes could grow on. He planted cuttings with plenty of room for roots that could spread three to six feet from the base of the plant.
Although the plants had all the information they needed to grow and produce good fruit they needed a lot of help. The Gardener had to watch for fungus and rot. He had to train the vines along the supports. He had to wait a couple of years for the root system to develop and the vines to bear fruit. When the fruit started to appear he had to keep watch that animals and insects didn’t devour them and then he had to check their ripeness.
This gardener knew he was supposed to prune the vines, but he didn’t have the heart to do it. Every branch seemed like a miracle, every twist and turn of the vine was a delight. He just couldn’t bring himself to do it.
The second or third year the vines began producing fruit. They started as tiny dots on the branch. As they slowly expanded, delicious, beautiful grapes began to dangle from above. The clusters glistened with dew in the morning. As the weeks went by they began to blush with ripeness. The entire vineyard began to smell so sour and sweet it would make your mouth water just to be nearby. And what a harvest it was that year, plentiful grapes, mouthwatering tart and sweet, everything the gardener had hoped for.
He thought to himself, if it is this good this year, just think how much better it will be next year. And he let the grape vines grow where they would. The next year was almost as good. In fact the gardener wondered if he had just romanticized the previous year, misremembered how good it had been. But the third year, it was clear. Production was way down. The vines were so thick you could hardly find the grapes that were there. Most of the vines were empty. Others had rotted because of a lack of air circulation. All of the plants’ resources were being used to keep the vines alive. There was no extra energy for growing grapes.
Finally the gardener realized that the pruning was necessary. The vines that produced no fruit, he cut them back. He even cut the ones that had produced, knowing it would cause them to bear more. Even as he did it, he was afraid that he might be hurting the plant. He cut them back to what looked like dead wood. And when he was done, he looked around in despair. There was no more green anywhere.
He spent the next few months in a depression. Where would he go now that he had destroyed his precious vineyard? What would he do now that he had failed as a gardener?
Of course, when fall came, it was a complete turn around. The gardener found himself surrounded by such healthy thick vines, and fat, juicy, sweet grapes. And he took them to all his neighbors and friends and donated the extra to the food pantry and let the kids from next door come and pick all they wanted. And he took cuttings and gave them away. And his cup truly overflowed as he had more grapes and friends than he knew what to do with.
At the Synod Assembly this past weekend, we talked as gardeners whose vineyards aren’t producing very well these days. Most congregations are shrinking and aging. Some are dying. We’ve all been aware of this for some time now. Reactions to this fact range from sad to confused. Sometimes we blame ourselves. Sometimes we blame the pastor. Sometimes we blame that world out there and those people who don’t know what they’re missing. If they would just come here instead of going to soccer on Sunday mornings. If they would just meet us, they would like us, and they’d join us.
Part of the problem may be that we’re afraid of pruning. We let every branch grow because you can’t be sure if something might eventually grow there. We want to keep every activity, every communion setting and hymn, every committee, every classroom. You never know what person might have a connection to it. You never know what it might produce.
And in our lives we aren’t always good at setting priorities. Families are pulled in so many directions. It must be hard to pick and choose what activities to participate in and which ones to keep doing.
So we find ourselves pulled in every direction. Our resources dwindle as our time and energy go so many different places.
But God gives us a standard for pruning. We can ask ourselves, what produces fruit? When I hear this, I always think this means bringing people to Christ. I’ve done a few baptisms, taught a few Bible studies, and led Bible School, but I don’t know that I single-handedly brought anyone to Christ. When I ask myself whether I have born any fruit, I can’t truly say that I did.
What if bearing fruit, means sharing love?
The vine supports life. It is a branching out of that life in different directions. It is an experiment to try to reach the sun, to give life and growth to the plant. So maybe when we realize that we’re stretched too thin, we can ask ourselves, is this particular branch giving me life? Is it a branch that can support and grow love?
I know in my life I need to do some pruning. When I had the baby, it was like sending out a new shoot and that one is growing so fast. And my roots can’t support so many directions. There are parts of my vine that aren’t giving me life. I am not sure which branches those are, but I am certainly going to be doing some pruning. And our lives are in constant change, so it is good to be watching out for those places that could use a little snip.
Jesus came among us, a strong and healthy vine. He wasn’t afraid to send his vine into unlikely places. Everywhere he went he produced fruit—so much fruit that others were jealous. And he let his vine be pruned all the way back. It looked like it would be dead. The vines lay limp all over the ground. His friends mourned the loss of hope, the loss of life, the loss of love. But that vine sprung up with new life and once again it reached out to all of us. And we have become his branches. One vine together sharing love and life with all we meet.