Sometimes I wish Jesus would just let well enough alone. Don’t get me wrong. There are times when he says just the right things…just what we want, we need, to hear…words of comfort and assurance. We got those last week, right? “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.” And all that good stuff about being a beloved child of God, and how in Christ we are enough. It’s all true, of course. And it’s all good, of course. And it’s all something we are so desperate to hear in a world where the streets are bloody and the pandemic lingers on in uncertainty and the church seems to shrink more and more into irrelevance, and our own lives are often full of more chaos and challenge than we think we can handle. I don’t mean to be whiner…but come on, Jesus. Just tell us that we’re all going to be OK.
And he does. “I am the vine. You are the branches. Abide in me as I abide in you.” Yes! That’s it. That’s what we are longing to hear…that we are clearly, completely, organically, intimately connected to the risen Christ who is our source and our sustenance…he one to whom we come starving each week to be fed and nourished and comforted. Jesus’ words enfold us like a soft warm blankie on an icy winter night. And we snuggle in like we did with our mommas when we were little and it was storming and we were afraid…and it is good.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Woven through all the comforts of abiding and nourishing come some difficult, rather unfriendly sounding words, too…words about pruning and cleansing. “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit” and “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers.” The Greek word used throughout this passage is catharos. Do you hear the English word “catharsis” in there? And it means just what it says…a deep and almost violent removal of that which is impure within us, or as John describes it…the complete cutting away of the impure and unproductive branches on the vine so that new growth might take place.
I don’t find this particularly comforting or helpful. It doesn’t take much to imagine that this process of pruning is going to hurt. And I say that because I know myself all too well. I know my shortcomings…”and my sins are ever before me” as the psalmist writes. Not to mention: What if I like the unproductive and unlovely parts of myself? Or what (at the very least) if I’ve grown used to them…even fond of them? I know that I’m a mess in some ways…but can’t we just work around the bad stuff and focus on the good?
A true story: My Grandpa Piehl (God bless him) had what seemed to me to be the best roses in St. Marys, Ohio. A narrow bed of them ran along the southeast side of their house on Jackson Street…less than a dozen bushes in all. But every year these hardy, prodigious plants were full of blooms…always these rich, almost velvet-y looking reds and yellows and pinks. Gorgeous. And I was amazed (as a child) that they grew so well…because my grandpa was also a cruel, cruel man. Never to any human or any other animal for that matter. But to his roses…cruel. Or so at least it seemed. Every fall he would cut them back ruthlessly to almost nothing. And the minute a bloom began to droop it was plucked off the plant. And, as you might imagine, things like aphids and leaf mold were absolutely not tolerated.
As I grew older, and eventually when I had my own rose bushes, I began to understand that his cruelty wasn’t cruelty at all. It was an important part of his love for those plants…as important as the regular watering and feeding he did to keep them healthy. Roses, you see, in order for them to grow up beautiful and fruitful, need two very different kinds of care. The pruner’s knife is as necessary a tool as is the watering can. And sometimes what looks harsh or even painful can be just what is needed for those plants to flourish.
Phyllis Tickle, the late Episcopalian writer and teacher, did her church history homework in one of her last books, and observed that there are significant upheavals among God’s people about every 500 years. About 500 years after Jesus earthly ministry comes the reforms and rise of monasticism under Pope Gregory the Great. About 500 years after Gregory, the Great Schism tears the eastern and western churches apart. About 500 years after that, the Protestant Reformation sweeps through Europe. And now, about 500 years after Luther and his homies, there is again epic turmoil in the church. Tickle refers to these moments in history as rummage sales (I love the image) when the church’s institutional structures are re-configured and everything that we’ve been stashing in the closet for a few hundred years comes out to be examined and maybe priced to go. In light of today’s Gospel text, I’m wondering if it isn’t more like a pruning…as the Holy Spirit moves among us to make the church more fruitful and more faithful…better prepared for what lies ahead.
There is an awful lot of anxiety loose in the church these days. Where are the young families? Why aren’t they coming to church…at least our church…like they did in the past? What’s going to happen to the place we love as we all get older? Who’s going to lead? Who’s going to serve? Who’s going to do all the stuff we do just like we’ve been doing it? Those questions are regularly part of the conversation at Council, at Cabinet, and in Renaissance Committee because it feels, at least to some folks, that a lot of what we’ve always known as church is being cut away. It makes us afraid…sometimes angry and crabby with one another. Layer on all the uncertainty and upset of the past 14 months and it can be a bit overwhelming. Not much fun is it? And as long as we continue to insist that this whole church thing is all about us, that’s going to continue to be the reaction: fear, anxiety, crabbiness, uncertainty, upset.
But it doesn’t need to be that way. Instead of worrying about ourselves, our focus needs to be on the One who is this vine…the beloved Christ in whom we are rooted and out of whom we grow. Maybe it would help to remember that the Father who loves us is the one yielding both the watering can and the pruner’s knife. Maybe it would help to remember that our turmoils and struggles are not here to kill us but to shape us…to cultivate us into fruitfulness. Maybe it would help to remember that the One who loves us enough to die for us is the same One who now re-forms us for just this purpose.
That, brothers and sisters, is exciting…uncomfortable maybe, but exciting. The church does not exist because this is a nice place to hang out with nice folks or that we have a nice building with nice windows (even if we haven’t seen them in a while). We are here (and that includes wherever our scattered “here” is right now) because we are joined to Christ…we are abiding in Christ…for the sake of the world. We are planted where we are planted and we will continue to grow and flourish by his hand so that Christ’s redemptive and reconciling love can be shown forth in this community…branching fruitfully forth with Good News.
And together with the guidance of the Spirit, we are going to figure out what that means for us…what that looks like for this congregation…as we emerge from pandemic into whatever our new normal is…as we strengthen our relationships with one another…as we listen to the stories of our neighbors and those whom we serve…as we invite other folks from so many other places and walks of life to join us in life-changing, world-redeeming work…and as we model for others the joy and possibility which is ours by means of a risen Savior. In all these ways, we are a part of God’s own mission in and to the world…drawn together (even if it’s only online) for refreshment and renewal, and then breathed by the Holy Spirit back into the places that need God’s love and care…bearing with us the seeds of mercy and grace and hope as we go.
“I am the vine,” Jesus promises. “We are the branches!” we reply, confident that in Christ we are being raised and readied to work with him. Thanks be to God.