Gospel: John 15:1-8
1st Reading: Acts 8:26-40
2nd Reading: 1 John 4:7-21
Last master gardener story for 14 weeks! This is my last Sunday before I leave for my sabbatical. A few weeks ago I took my Master Gardener Final Exam. Here was one of the questions: Which are the following are noxious weeds. Listed there was English Ivy. They wrote this question because people commonly have this in their yards and may have questions about it. I have english ivy in my yard. Every year I cut it down from climbing my Douglas Fir and every year I cut it back from spreading into my lawn. This year I am pulling it out. It is A vine, but not the true vine. The Kingdom of God has been compared to a noxious weed before—a mustard plant, a mustard seed. The Kingdom has some potential of growing out of control, like a noxious weed, and it grows big enough to shelter the birds, an analogy perhaps of sheltering those who have nowhere else to go. But English Ivy chokes out other plants, and I can't imagine it would be a good analogy for the Kingdom of God.
But a vine is a good image. God is the vinegrower. God sees everything that is going on. God plants the vine. God tends it. God can see when it needs to be pruned back so that it will produce the best fruit. In class we learned a little about pruning. There are many kinds of pruning. Some removes dead pieces of the plant. Some provides air flow. Some shapes the plant. Some improves productivity. Some removes disease. The best kind of pruning is different for each kind of plant. I've been afraid of pruning in the past, because I didn't know what I was doing. Now I know what a difference pruning makes, I have already started working on pruning the plants in my own yard and the azaleas here in the churchyard. Pruning may be a little intimidating, but plants are very forgiving, especially established plants like we have here at church, and the dangers of not pruning far outweigh the potential problems of pruning.
God is the vinegrower. God plants. God watches the life cycle of the plant and of the seasons. God has a vision for the health of the plant and for the whole garden. Maybe it sounds violent. It is about making sure the whole plant is healthy. We all have cuts in our lives. We've all been wounded before. We've all learned from those wounds. We've all grown after being pruned.
Their are protests going on in Baltimore. Parts of the plant have not got the tending and sunlight they needed. They have withered because other parts took more than their share. They will not just lay down and die. They are so frustrated that they are making their voices heard. Many of them are protesting peacefully. A few are causing damage to property and people in trying to be heard. Perhaps this is a pruning for our nation, to help remind us of those we forget and try to make this a more just place.
The people of Nepal are feeling pruned after the devastating earthquake last weekend. Lutheran World Relief was one of the first to respond, since we already have partners in affected communities. God has not left them alone, but is with them in their grief and loss, with us in our response, and shaping our relationships to be stronger and more prepared in the future.
The theme of our Synod Assembly was about pruning and the the root, the fruit, and the scar. Many analogies were drawn from the analogy of an apple orchard. The root stock determines the size of the tree. These days we like to grow shorter trees, so we can reach more of the fruit with less labor costs, ie. Less climbing up and down ladders. Therefore we use root stock that is smaller, so our trees don't get so big. Perhaps in our churches, too, we are not growing big sprawling trees, as we did in the past. Now we are more efficient, although smaller. We are also growing different fruit than we used to. Fruit used to refer to the number of people in the pews. Maybe that isn't the best measure of discipleship. Maybe the fruit is how many people we are able to touch with the love of God—maybe it is how many people we serve. Or maybe it is how many people volunteer, come to be part of the work we do in the community.
Some of the most interesting parts of the Assembly Bible Encounter were about the scar. Many apple trees are now grafted onto other root stock. To graft, one cuts a certain place on a branch. One prunes and cuts a V shape down into the branch. Then a branch cut into a corresponding V shape is shoved in that wound. Some kind of dressing is applied and in two years the branch may be joined to the tree. A tree is wounded. Something new is attached in that place. The wound heals. Fruit grows—delicious fruit to feed the neighborhood and maybe even world. We don't like to think about scars very much, but we all have them. I have the one on my chin from playing church league softball, , the one between my eyebrows from my car accident, and several on my arms from cat scratches. I have some scars on the inside, too, from where I've been hurt. But the scar becomes the toughest part of the apple tree—the part that is least likely to break. It is our toughest part, too, tough skin, and an inner strength, too. Because of those scars, we get better at ministering to those who are going through something similar. We can be there for them because we know how much it hurts. But we also know it won't destroy us, and that the person who is hurting will come through. They may have some scars, but new life will come and fruit will grow again someday, and God is always present.
Jesus wasn't immune to pruning. All the branches get pruned in the Kingdom of God. The ones who aren't producing fruit and the ones that are, so that they can bear more. Jesus was pruned back pretty far. He was really sticking out there and it was the authorities who wanted to hack back that plant that was encouraging the fruit of empowerment of neglected people. They hacked him right back to the ground. But we have this wonderful image of the root of Jesse. There is this stump, and out of it is growing a righteous branch, Jesus. This shoot emerges, so bright green where there was only death. This means new life for all of us, because we are being adopted, grafted onto that tree of life.
Philip was pruned, too, in the first reading for this morning. He was growing in a particular direction. Then the angel started training him in another direction. He had his expectations of how the Kingdom of God works. One by one they were pruned away. He thought he would open the scriptures to the man from Ethiopia. Instead the inclusiveness of the scriptures were revealed to him. He though he knew what could prevent this man from becoming part of the community—the color of his skin, his language, his religion, the scars he bore on his body from becoming a Eunuch. Instead, Philip was shown how there are no barriers in Christ Jesus. Philip experienced a pruning in this reading. And he grew from it, because he was still attached to the true vine, Jesus.
Maybe we're getting pruned. God is putting us in a situation through our sabbatical that is a bit uncomfortable. We don't know what to expect. Maybe our expectations will be pruned. Maybe the way we look at things will be pruned. I hope they are. I am excited about the new growth that God promises to bring. It is very difficult for me to let go and remember that God is the true vine, not me. It is too much of a load to carry when I think it all rests on me. It is God who sustains us all and we are being reminded of that. But also, you are all strong branches and you abide in love, you abide in God and you support one another. Abide, remain, take care of each other, show up, worship together. Part of the story of King of Kings that I love occurs in your interims. A pastor leaves. People are upset. There are deep wounds. But you are stubborn. You aren't going to let this ruin this congregation. You aren't going to let the Synod Office shut you down. You aren't going to sit around and feel sorry for yourselves. You get to work. I expect nothing less, this time. Be stubborn. Show up. Open yourself to the learning and leadership that God is calling you to. Love fiercely. Abide!
The first vines I was ever aware of are the vines on which Tarzan swings. These thick ropes hang throughout the forest. They are strong enough to support even Tarzan. As vines, we don't exist for ourselves, but when we are strong and lush, we reach down to the forest floor and provide a way to climb for those who have fallen below or who wait in darkness and hunger. We provide fun and recreation for those who would like to soar through the jungle. We receive new life and love from God and we share it with anyone who reaches out to grasp God's love.
I am going away for a little while to be renewed. You are staying here to be renewed. We will be apart for a time. You were King of Kings congregation before I came here, you will continue to be while I am away, and you will be into the future, whatever happens. I do not make this congregation what it is. Jesus does. It is God that makes us one. It is love that makes us one. Abide in God. Abide in love. I will do the same. When we return in a few short months, we'll compare notes and see what we've learned, graft that into our tree and move forward with new life and new growth emerging from our scars.