May 2, 2021
Years ago, back when I was growing up and my family lived in Virginia Beach, we went on a trip to see my grandparents down in North Carolina. While we were gone, a hurricane came through town and split one of the trees in our backyard. And I remember when we came home, it was a while before my parents could get the broken limb removed from the yard, so my brother and sister and I would play games in the branches. One lesson that we learned, though, was that when a branch gets cut off from its source, it starts to wither. It’s like how Jesus says that the branch that doesn’t abide in him withers. We need to be connected to our source of life.
Grapevines are old images of the Bible. In the Old Testament, God is described as planting a vineyard and tending to it. One really important passage about God planting a vineyard is a song in Isaiah. In it, God describes planting a vineyard, lovingly preparing the ground and setting up a winepress and a watchtower. But when harvest season came, the vines produced sour grapes. Something went wrong, and it ruined the harvest. It’s a metaphor for how God’s people went astray, and rather than producing good fruit—the kind of society and people God intended—they went their own way.
Jesus takes the metaphor a step further in today’s gospel reading. “Without me, you can do nothing.” And that can be hard to hear, especially as people steeped in the idea that you can do whatever you set your mind to. But Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. Like the broken limb of that tree in my childhood backyard, when the branch is cut off it doesn’t grow anything new. It withers. The good things that God wants to do through us—the fruits that we bear—happen because we are connected to the source of goodness, when our actions are rooted in Jesus.
But this is where I got confused by Jesus. He talks about how we produce fruit when we abide with him like a branch abides in the vine. But then he talks about how God will prune any branch that produces fruit, so that it will produce more fruit. It seems counterintuitive to cut back the branches that are actually producing something, right? Well, it turns out that grape vines only grow grapes on branches that have grown out that year. If it’s not new growth, it doesn’t grow grapes.
What in your life and the life of our congregation needs some new growth? Pruning can feel scary because it feels like losing, but maybe this passage is our reminder that new ideas, new participants, new directions, new leadership, is like pruning a grapevine. Letting go of “the way we’ve always done it” feels scary, but what if it’s just pruning? It doesn’t mean the old ways of doing it were wrong; they did produce fruit, after all. Instead, it gives the opportunity for new growth that produces good fruits. It makes room for the Spirit to do more.
How could new ideas and new insights make our outreach through such ministries as our fair stand, lutefisk supper, summer softball league, or Service Sundays produce more fruit of leading people to know and love Jesus?
What could new growth and new directions do to elevate our worship together, helping us connect our Sundays with the rest of our week and produce the fruits of the Spirit for our congregation?
Who could step in to lead, or contribute something new, to the educational, stewardship, fellowship, and discipleship ministries of this congregation so that we are more fully living out God’s mission for us in this place?
But also, there are branches in our lives that are simply not producing fruit anymore. And Jesus reminds us that when God finds branches that don’t produce, they’ll be cut off. It sounds scary, scarier than just pruning, but removing unfruitful branches is an important part of keeping a grapevine healthy. See, too many branches can cause all kinds of health issues for the plant. The extra branches mean more avenues for disease to enter the plant. The tangle of leaves stops airflow and makes it easier for fungus to grow. Even an abundance of branches can cause physical stress on the plant as unfruitful branches crowd out fruitful ones. And of course, unfruitful branches are taking energy away from fruitful ones.
What parts of our lives are not producing the good fruit of love for God and neighbor? What rituals or theologies or ministries do we as the Church have that have stopped producing fruit? They may be venerable branches—branches that served the congregation well and produced a lot of fruit in the past—but now they’re just crowding and drawing energy away from branches that produce fruit. Just as much as pruning to get new growth is important, letting God cut away the unfruitful branches makes room for us to let God work through us. God is the master vine grower, after all, and because of that God knows exactly what needs to be pruned, and what needs to be cut off.
So let’s trust where God is leading us. After a year of pruning and cutting as we navigated the pandemic, we can catch a glimpse of what God is doing and where God is shaping us to be. Look for the fruits in each part of our life together, where our ministries are bringing people to know and love Jesus and love and care for their neighbor. That’s how we’ll know what is rooted in the True Vine. That’s how we’ll know where we’re abiding in our Source. Let’s let God do more of that in and through us, because the vine grower is hard at work shaping this vine to produce the best fruits.
Thanks be to God. Amen.