Writing a sermon is sometimes a melancholy endeavor.
You look at the scripture, you dig around in the history and the meaning of words and phrases at the time.
You pull together some thoughts about what it is that you think Jesus was trying to get at, or what the disciples might have heard back then, or what Jesus’ words, actions or events might have to say to us today.
You spend a lot of time turning thoughts over in your head.
Some are appropriate thoughts, leading you to new insights to be shared.
Some are dead-end wonderings, not really fit to be uttered in a public setting.
And on occasion, you muse about how to tell the difference between the two.
So it was, that I was thinking about this passage from John’s gospel for today, about the Vine and the Branches, mulling over the themes of vines, branches, and pruning. I found my hands touching the various pieces of wood furniture in my home. Tables, chairs, a carved bookcase. All these things once connected to a living, growing tree. I found my mind wandering to a question I had never before considered.
“Does the vine mourn for the branches that it has lost?”
Yes, I know, I’m imbuing a plant with human consciousness, thought and emotional range, but it seems to me that Jesus introduces such a thought in telling this particular story.
“Abide in me as I abide in you.” Jesus says.
“Those who abide in my bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus says.
These are powerful words of connection. They remind us of the intimacy that God wishes to share, that God has with God’s people.
We do so long for connection in this world, we seek it in our electronics and in our politics and in our sports teams and in our worship of celebrity.
We want to be connected.
And right here, Jesus offers this ultimate “connection” illustration. We are part and parcel of him. His words are intended to reassure us.
But we are only human, and sometimes words strike us in interesting ways, and so when he goes on to say,
“Apart from me, you can do nothing.”
It triggers something else in us. Instead of allowing us to revel in the closeness and connection we have with Jesus, we entertain the thought of not being able to do anything apart from Jesus and it stirs up the thoughts of separation.
Those thoughts and feelings are powerful as well.
We look at this teaching of Jesus and a subtle shift takes place in us as we consider pruning.
Our eyes shift from looking at how we are connected to Jesus to how it would be not to be connected, and in that moment we move from joy to fear, for if there is one thing that we as humans do understand it is the concept of loss.
We fixate on these words about pruning, because our inclination is to try to not lose a single thing, because, well… we grieve when we lose things!
Such words are the basis of many an in-reach effort to bring back those who have become severed in some way, all those folks who were excised by this event or by that.
They don’t come to church anymore because of what Pastor so-and-so did, or said, or taught.
Or they don’t come to church anymore because of the decision made about the carpet, or the chairs, or because….well — the reasons are legion!
And so, because we grieve the loss of things that were once connected to us, we try to put them back together.
We tell ourselves that it’s what Jesus would have wanted, right? Gathering up the lost!
And indeed, Jesus does speak of seeking the lost in other places… but not here.
Such gathering work is hard to begin with, and even harder here! Trying to gather up dried and withered connections and figuring a way to graft them back into a living community is not a task with much hope connected to it.
Such efforts rarely produce much fruit.
So it is, that we look at the words of warning and the talk of pruning in this lesson, and try to find some consolation for ourselves there.
“He (that is, God the vinedresser) removes every branch that bears no fruit.” Jesus says.
“You have already been cleansed/pruned.” (same word) Jesus says to his disciples.
“Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Jesus says.
We try to console ourselves about how those who are no longer connected are really better off, (or we are better off without them!)
But here too, there is a troubling element in such an attempt at reassurance.
How do we know when the pruning has been “of God?”
How do we know when what we sometimes refer to as “dead wood” are those who have severed themselves from our fellowship? Or have they gotten “lopped off” through our own careless words or actions?
If that is the case, who has been doing the pruning really? And, are such really consigned as Jesus seems to indicate only to the fire?
So does the vine mourn for the branches that it has lost?
We do, for sure, and it bothers us. We mourn for every loss that comes along, and the more we mourn them, they more they pile up, the more we look and fixate at what has been cut away.
The pile of things taken away preoccupies our mind.
But in reading and re-reading the passage from John’s gospel I have to say that there is very little mourning of what was lost going on by Jesus.
Instead Jesus’ (and God’s) paramount concern appears to be not how to re-connect the severed, but rather how to tend to the connections that are already in place for the sake of bearing fruit!
Once the vine is withered, the game is lost. There is no re-connecting!
That may at first sound harsh, but it’s consistent with the words here about pruning. Some things do get cut away for the sake of the health of the vine.
Some things in us do have to be nipped and our wild growing tendencies need to be held in check, for the sake of the overall health of the community, of the connection with Jesus.
My mind wandered to the olive trees of Judea as I thought about this.
Some of those trees, you know date back to the time of Jesus, who may very well have perhaps taught and prayed under their shade.
But those old trees, have been nipped and pruned, and segments of them are no longer around.
I doubt those trees mourn the loss of a branch, even though the moment of the clip may have been painful.
They do not mourn it because they have the benefit of seeing what followed the momentary pinch. The greater harvest, the longer health, and the centuries of productivity.
Or I thought of the vineyards of Italy and Slovenia, and how some of the vines there are still producing grapes after 500 years, meaning that they were planted by the hands of monks and peasants around at the time of Martin Luther and the Reformation.
A glass of Chianti at my dinner table may very well have been made from the same vines that bore the fruit that was made into the wine for Popes and Kings in the Renaissance.
Such vines did not live so long by being left alone, or left to fend for themselves, or left to grow wild.
They were meticulously trained and shaped and the tendrils as they grew were wound around the supporting structures.
Season after season the roots need to be dug up and the soil loosened around them, and the fertilizer is spread, and the wayward shoots nipped off, all in order that greater productivity could be assured. More fruit, more wine, more sustaining of life and joy.
That’s “abiding power.”
That’s “staying power” connected and being fruitful in ways that we often can barely fathom, barely hope for ourselves.
But that is the kind of fruitfulness that our God, the great vine grower has in mind for us, and the kind of fruit bearing that Jesus, the vine to whom we are connected says we are capable of doing.
So, the vine does not mourn for the branches it has lost.
The vine focuses its efforts on the new growth that comes from the pruning.
Those who tend the vine and branches revel in the kind of fruit that well pruned vines can produce.
Which gets us back the thorny issue of loss.
We tend to mourn loss more than we look for the fruit that comes from judicious pruning.
We tend to want to hold on to things instead of letting them be snipped away, letting go of things that are no longer bearing fruit or allowing for new growth and new direction.
If we wither, we do so because our connection to Jesus has gotten choked off by other connections.
We put connection to friends, or our devotion to policy, or our love of procedure, or our sense of tradition, or our fear of change before our connection to Jesus!
We don’t mean to, we just have eyes that are loss averse.
We put our connection to something else as being more important than connection with Jesus, and in doing so, we experience a kind of withering.
You can feel, when it happens.
You know this kind of withering.
We think that by avoiding loss we can avoid the mourning over things, and hold on to everything, but such is not the witness of scripture or of this world.
Trying to hold on to everything simply guarantees that it will all slip from your grasp!
Does the vine mourn for the branches it has lost?
Both the vine and the dresser are focused instead on something quite different. They are focused on bearing fruit and doing whatever it takes to make that happen.
That appears to be the hardest thing for us to keep in our field of view.
So, thanks be to God that the vine dresser and Jesus are on top of that, reminding us to worry less about what we stand to lose, and to look forward instead to the fruitfulness we stand to gain!