St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 3, 2015)

Liturgical Color: White

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


Pruned and Fruitful

Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

It may actually be the case that Marie and I have finally learned some things about pruning. It has taken a few years, some books, and some training. But the number of blossoms on our fruit trees this spring seems to offer some hope that we will, at last, reap a decent harvest. And while the season for vine blossoms is not yet upon us, we have some dawning hope for grapes and kiwi, with our vines showing some early signs of new life.

So, today, we read of our Lord speaking about vines and pruning and fruiting and abiding. Yes, we abide in a mutuality with Christ, who is the central vine, providing us nourishment, sustenance, strength, focus, energy, and partnership. Lopped off from this vine, we might as well be dead.

And there it is. Lopping. Pruning. Removing that which detracts from the eventual full-fruitedness of the vine. Selectively. Carefully. And, if my experience is any indication, with a measure of experimentation and uncertainty. It is a painful thing to prune away what appears to be healthy growth for the sake of an as yet uncertain outcome. And it is, no doubt, the cause of some distress to whatever is being pruned.

Now, depending upon which expert you consult, there are between two and four basic pruning cuts, each aimed at producing a different effect. These make a useful outline for a few comments.

First, pinching: One of the easiest forms of pruning is achieved without cutting. One simply pinches off a terminal bud with the thumb and forefinger. Pinching stops the stem from elongating and encourages bushy growth. It is typically done on annual and perennial flowers and on some vegetables; but it's also effective for directing growth on small-leafed shrubs to give the plant an even shape.

I suppose we might liken this pinching type of pruning to the growth that comes once we have achieved one milestone or another. When we come of age, or reach our adult height or complete a degree in our chosen field, it might be said of us that we are pinched back, permitting the flourishing of growth that can happen at the pinnacle of the branch.

I feel pinched back when I let something slip from my lips that I wish had never passed them. The pinching comes when I see the hurt or hear the words of rebuke or even receive the gift of forgiveness. The pinch helps me remember not to let that branch of myself grow, but let a more fruitful approach flourish at that point.

I felt a pinch yesterday when I heard Pastor Bill Veith and his remarkably eloquent sons, Nathan and Jonathan, eulogize and honor Karen, wife and mother. The pinches of recognized mortality, of imagining our legacies, or of what people might say at our own funerals, help us to keep our hearts grafted to those vines that bear fruit—the vines of encouraging words, of easy forgiveness, of gratitude, and of loving well.

A second kind of pruning is called heading: One cuts farther back on the shoot than for pinching. In many cases, the lateral bud has already grown a leaf, and the cut is made right above the leaf. Heading back stimulates the buds just below the cut, encouraging dense growth. It is a more aggressive approach than pinching, helping to give a desired shape or limit growth.

Perhaps God is heading us back to a place that will stimulate growth at a place long forgotten or a place not lingered at long enough—a work that is as yet incomplete within our hearts and in our society. Baltimore and Freddie Gray come to mind in this context. President Obama has called us all this week to do some serious soul searching as we meditate upon the unfinished business of the Civil Rights movement—so manifestly apparent in events around the country in recent months. It would be fruitful for us to consider the racism that continues to affect attitudes, behavior, and systems; to reflect on the use of force by those who seek to protect and serve; and to perhaps see more clearly the effects of economic dislocation and concentrated poverty.

A third cut is called thinning: Thinning reduces the bulk of a plant and results in minimal regrowth: each cut removes an entire stem or branch, either back to its point of origin on the main stem or to the point where it joins another branch. Because a number of lateral buds are removed along with the stem or branch, clusters of unwanted shoots are unlikely to grow back.

A third cut is called thinning: Thinning reduces the bulk of a plant and results in minimal regrowth: each cut removes an entire stem or branch, either back to its point of origin on the main stem or to the point where it joins another branch. Because a number of lateral buds are removed along with the stem or branch, clusters of unwanted shoots are unlikely to grow back.

I can't help but think of Nepal. I have a hard time imagining that our Lord was referring to such drastic examples of pruning when he offered this extended parable, but the tragedies surrounding the earthquake and its aftermath hang heavily on the heart. Many thousands have been killed or lost. Many more thousands are injured, and the tolls are not yet fully known. This cut is deep indeed, and will need international help for some time to come.

A fourth and the final cut type is shearing: Shearing is used to create a hedge or a bush with just about any desired shape. This is a form of heading that makes no attempt to cut back to a bud. However, because plants chosen for this treatment typically have many lateral buds close together, the cut is usually near a bud. Shearing stimulates many buds to produce new growth.

So, where is the final shaping that needs to be done in us? Where are the edges of growing that need additional attention? Where is God calling that may not have been acknowledged or may have been shoved aside or avoided for what we deemed more pressing matters? God may be pruning us with shears too, not only with loppers and saws.

God is pruning us, shaping us, preparing us, as we grow and flower and bear the fruit of discipleship. We are pinched and headed back, thinned (well, some of us more than others) and shorn, all for the sake of growth in grace and building up God's kingdom here on Earth.

Perhaps some of you saw the rather odd episode of Gray's Anatomy this week. I apologize if I'm being a spoiler, but the episode follows the aftermath of Derek's death over the course of nine months.

Meredith, Derek's wife, needs to get some distance. She takes off without a word, where we later discover she is pregnant with Derek's child. The relationship between Miranda and Ben is strained over questions of end-of-life preferences. Another couple—Richard and Catherine—get engaged. Suffice it to say that everyone is affected by the death is a significant way.

The one that particularly comes to mind in the context of today's gospel is Amelia, Derek's sister who struggles with co-dependency of a narcotic kind. With a pocket full of black market Oxy to avoid feeling the full weight of Derek's death, she threatens to take them as she reconnects with Owen. He, also a recovering alcoholic, says, "We're supposed to feel. We're supposed to love, and hate, and hurt, and grieve, and break and be destroyed. And we build ourselves to be destroyed again. That is human, that is humanity. That is being alive. That's the point. Don't avoid it. Don't extinguish it."

Owen tells Amelia to go through the pain and not around it. And she finally dissembles into a heap of convulsive weeping. And we know that she will be okay.

That's it, isn't it? Owen doesn't get it entirely right. But the basics are there. We go through, not around. Or we fail to learn.

The pruning, whether of the lopping or shaping kinds, provide God-granted opportunities to grow in new directions, to reshape, to embrace new conditions, and to bear sweeter or perhaps even somewhat more bitter fruit.

The vine, the root stock, is beyond solid. It is eternally healthy and trustworthy, grounded in the richest soils of an everlasting and unrelentingly gracious gardener God. Christ, the vine, roots us, grounds us, and gives us strength to carry on when the pruning becomes most radical. Our beloved congregational son, Bill, is being so pruned in these days. And many here, if not all, bear the trunk scars and healing rings of those loved ones who have been pruned into eternal life.

Christ stands with us, feeding and nurturing, along with the regular courses of pinching and heading and shearing that come in daily life. Students will feel the cuts of a year ending. Parents will be scraped by the ever-new challenges of rearing those growing children. Moves and jobs and births and all bring both pruning and fruiting. And Christ is always there, to the end of the age.

The call is to feel, to move through rather than side-step, as difficult as that might be. So that God may be glorified, our lives be enriched, and the kingdom be spread—in ever new and more adaptive ways.

It is much worth noting that Jesus offers these words to his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. He knows what is going to happen—both to him and to the disciples —and they don't. They are about to be cut down by his crucifixion and death and he is assuring them that it will not be mere, senseless cutting, but that they will survive, even flourish.

No matter what happens, Jesus is with us. No matter what happens, Jesus will hold onto us. No matter what happens, God will bring all things to a good end.

Which is not to say, by the way, that everything happens for a reason. Rather, it is to say that no matter what happens, we have God's promise in Jesus to work for good. Again, keep in mind that these words are said just before Jesus goes to the cross. This cross is the chief example of God's commitment to wrest life and hope from the very places that seems most devoid of life and hope.

The cross means that God chose not to sit back in heaven, removed from our mortal and difficult life in this world, but rather came in Christ to be joined to it—all of it—so that we would know of God's unending commitment to us. It is evidence and testimony to just how much God already loved us and God's promise to be with us through all things. Just so, the resurrection is the promise that no matter how much tragedy we endure, these hardships will not have the last word. (this insight adapted from "In the meantime..." David Lose)

We know in the end that what looks like removal is actually pruning for abundant fruitfulness. And we know that branches don't live off their own fruit. The fruit is for others—for the benefit of the world.

And so today we are reminded that we are all connected. We are all connected to a God who will not abandon us. And God is pruning us into fruitful life for the sake of the world. May those truths become flesh in us as we partake of the fruit of the vine at Holy Communion. Amen.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.

 

 

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