Trinitarian Congregational Church Fifth Sunday of Easter
Anthony S. Kill April 29, 2018
Texts: I John 4:12-21, John 15:1-8
The first thing that strikes me about the image of the vine and the branches is that it is in fact a very different model than, say, a tree and its branches. If Jesus had said, “I am the oak tree and you are the branches” then every one of us would have been able to pick what kind of a branch we want to be or even which particular branch we want to be. Are you a high branch or a low branch? A thick, sturdy old branch supporting shoots and sub-branches, or a new green shoot on the tree? Oak branches are solid, strong and stable. They add a little new growth each year, and some new branches may grow out of the old, but each branch is quite distinct, and stays in the same fixed location on the tree year by year, season after season, and just gets more solid and stable there.
But that’s not true of a vine. Have you ever been in a vineyard, or examined a mature grapevine plant up close? Maybe some of you have.When Karen and I were first married, we lived in a neighborhood that was called ‘Down Neck’ in Newark, New Jersey, also known as the Ironbound section of Newark, where my wife Karen was pastor of a Presbyterian church.
In that neighborhood, a lot of the immigrant Portuguese population brought their family’s vines over from the old country, and many families had grape arbors in their backyard.
When you walk into a grape arbor in summer, you don’t see distinct vines, or distinct branches. You see a canopy of intertwined vines and branches and leaves that surrounds and enfolds you. You have no idea where the vine ends and where the branches begin, or how one vine is distinct from another, or whether the particular shoot before you is the vine, or a branch of the vine.
Somewhere beneath it all in those grape arbors, there was a wooden or wire frame or trellis that gave shape to the whole arbor, but you never saw the framework. It was completely enwrapped in the lush green growth of leaf and branch and blossom and fruit — one continuous canopy of abundant life so thick that you could be enclosed inside it like a cottage, a shelter from the sun or rain. And in the fall, that canopy was just dripping with huge bunches of green or purple grapes.
That, to me, is the image of the church that Jesus is suggesting here. The fruit is love – our love of God and love of neighbor, and God’s love for us and our neighbors, all bursting out of this sheltering canopy of fruitful vines and branches.
No one element is distinct, or more important or more vital than any other. No person or office or committee or ministry is more special than any other. Young and old, great and small, ordained and lay, male and female, new growth or aged stock, all produce their fruit as part of the whole. And all that matters is our relationship to the true vine that sustains us all, and our interwoven connectedness in love within the canopy of the vineyard.
It is also noteworthy that Jesus is referring to his disciples in the plural in most of this passage. What I mean is, this passage is not about private piety, or an individual’s spiritual life in Jesus. It is clearly about the community. If we borrow some grammatical rules from our brothers and sisters in the South, where they’ve developed a usage that employs separate words for the singular “you” and the plural “you” then the last two verses of that Gospel passage would sound like this:
“If y’all live in me and my words stay alive in y’all, then y’all can ask for whatever y’all hope for, and it will come to be for y’all. This is how my Father is glorified, that y’all bear lots of fruit together, and thus show yourselves to be my disciples.”
In this passage, Jesus also talks about God’s pruning this beloved and blessed garden. Pastors and professors discussing this text are quick to point out that it is God who does the pruning here, — not Jesus, not the disciples, not the church. God alone decides which dead and fruitless branches need to be culled out, and which live and fertile branches need to be trimmed back or reshaped to help the vineyard as a whole bear more fruit.
And that is certainly true as far as the text is concerned. Yet I think it is appropriate for us to think of this image of pruning the branches of God’s vineyard when we think of who and what the church is today, and who and what it strives to be tomorrow. Which branches that were fertile and abundant in the past shall you keep and nurture for the future, and which might better be pruned to allow and encourage new growth and new fruit to spring forth?
I don’t have much experience with pruning vineyards or fruit trees, but I’ve gotten to know about pruning hedges. When we moved into our home in Newton over twenty years ago, there was a very short, sickly hedge along two sides of our corner lot, and I determined that I was going to make that hedge grow and thrive. Karen was the master gardener, but that hedge was mine.
(Now that we’re finally back on our property after the 2015 fire, I’ll have to be spending time this summer working on that hedge again, to make it healthy and bring it back into shape.)
In any case, when we first moved in, I knew nothing about how to trim or prune a hedge, and I kind of did it all wrong at first, and the hedge just barely maintained itself. But I learned some things over the years. In fact, I learned some things that I think could be applied to churches and probably to other organizations as well. I learned that you can’t just trim and shape and take care of the top of the hedge, the most visible parts. A top-heavy hedge blocks the sunlight from the lower branches, and they begin to shrivel, and can become almost barren of leaves. You need to narrow the top, so that the lower body of the hedge get enough sun to grow and thrive.
I also learned that to keep a hedge healthy, you sometimes need to prune the old growth to make way for the new. This seemed very counter-intuitive to me: why would you prune some of the thickest, strongest branches? Haven’t they served the hedge well for years and years? But the fact of the matter is, it worked. Thinning out the old growth allowed new shoots to take their place, creating new branches and more new leaves than the old branches were capable of producing.
(Please be assured, if there was any doubt: I’m making a metaphor here, I’m referring to pruning programs, not people!)
And the comparison I’m suggesting is that the programs and ministries and structures that were the strongest and most successful and most effective in past decades may not be the best ones to preserve and cling to in the hopes of continued strength and success in the future.
In the changing landscape of ministry, in our rapidly changing world, this may be a time to review, re-think and revision how the church structures itself, and how it interacts with the community and the world around it. Just as one example: This church, like so many churches, has prided itself in the strength of its Sunday School programs and Youth Group programs. They were a hallmark ministry of this congregation. But there are no longer large numbers of young families bringing dozens of children to this church or to many other churches. There will always be an important place for a teaching ministry but it may not have its same prime importance it once had. What other fruitful ministries might emerge to take its place? What trimming and pruning might help nurture and encourage that new growth?
These can be scary, risky, unsettling questions, I know. But I suggest that they are questions for faithful discipleship – faithful for witnessing to the living Christ in the 21st century. They are questions that many in the congregation are asking already, and that I hope you will be asking with your next pastor.
And our assurance is this: The vineyard belongs to God, the vinedresser, and the vine whose fruit we bear is Jesus Christ. He is also the framework, I think, the trellis by which our growth is be shaped. Let us be, not just separate branches, but one flourishing arbor, a canopy of shelter and abundance, a fruitful vineyard of disciples in the field of the Lord.