Bearing Fruit

John 15:1-8 I decided to come to church this morning in my gardening clothes as we ponder our scripture today. I’ve got some weather resistant pants, a shirt I don’t mind getting dirty, some gloves, and, of course, some handy tools for getting down and dirty in God’s Creation. Truth is, you’ve heard it before, I was not born with a green thumb – I do not have a natural gift at gardening like so many seem. I admire those of you who love gardening. I am almost always concerned that when I mess with my plants, I do far more harm than good. Just a year and a half ago or so during one of our church cleanup days, I was tasked with trimming or pruning the bushes that line the sidewalk in front of our church building’s main entrance. That is all the instructions I was given. So with shears in my hand, I went to work. And like a first time hair stylist, I gave the bushes a classic hack job. When I was done with them, I was kind of embarrassed – it looked like I had killed those bushes I had taken so many branches off, leaving just a few stumps behind. But just this week, I paused to notice in the midst of this amazing spring – how those bushes have bounced back. Not only are they teeming with green and purple blooms, their branches are sticking back out over the sidewalk, bursting forth in color and praise anytime we make our way into our church building. I wish you could see them this morning. Pruning, the act of cutting back portions of plants, surprisingly has the opposite effect than what we think on the surface. While we are snipping off ends and clearing away dead or overgrown branches, we are actually creating the possibility for growth, for fullness, for the plant to bounce back even stronger than before. It’s kind of counter intuitive – and it’s so beautiful, isn’t it? I wonder – have you had moments in your life when it seemed like God was pruning you? These might have been times of intense change, transformation, and transition. They might have been moments of loss – the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a beloved person in your life. It might have been a rude awakening of truth, when something you thought was working suddenly falls apart. It might have even be a confrontation with addiction or a habit that you learned you must confront and overcome to move forward in life. We all have these moments – sometimes, we don’t even know they are God at work until we can look back and remember how that thing we thought was blooming was actually killing us. But what is true – what we know and what we may learn someday – pruning is painful. Just like the bush I thought I hacked to death, it doesn’t feel good, especially in the moment. But if we can hold on, if we can endure, something better, as hard as it is to see, may be on the way. Maybe this entire year of pandemic has begun a season of pruning – for our lives as individuals and as families, for our lives as a church, for our lives as community. Could something too be better on the way? — Jesus uses this image of pruning in our passage today to make clear that being a disciple is about transformation. He begins, just like we heard last week in his teaching about being the good shepherds, by proclaiming that he is the True Vine. The image he paints is one of connectedness – Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. As branches, our role is to bear fruit – delicious fruit that reflect Jesus’ commandment that he gives to his disciples later in this Gospel – “love one another as I have loved you”. Love is our fruit – love is the fruit this world full of injustice, violence, inequality, and hurt needs. Bearing fruit is not about success – it’s not about fame – it’s not about having a big bank account – it’s not about being perfect – it’s not even about having a big church with lots of members. Bearing fruit is about exhibiting the radical transforming love of God in this world. God’s role, as Jesus describes, is the vinegrower – the farmer – who cultivates the soil, provides the wind, sun, and water to nourish the vine. And therefore, if we want to grow, as disciples – in fact, the only way to grow is to remain connected to the vine. Can you imagine the audacity of a branch that decides it can detach and bear fruit? Sometimes, we hear about big pop bands who at some point break up – and some of the singers go solo, releasing their own albums. In Jesus’ teaching this morning, there is no going solo. Apart from God, there is simply no possibility to bear fruit – to exhibit the true, deep, radical love of God. And so like any good gardener, God will prune those branches that are not bearing fruit. This word prune is actually used interchangeably with the word “cleanse”. God, as the vineyard grower, will cleanse the vine of those branches who are decaying, who are lacking of life, who are failing to stay rooted and connected and exhibit the love of God. We will be snipped and shaped so we can fulfill our purpose – and if worst comes to worst and we fail to live our purpose, we will be tossed into the fire like kindling. It is a real image – an image real to anyone who has gardened a day in their life – but also real as we think about all in this world who are blessed with life and choose to use it to do anything but bear witness to the love which gave them breath. Being pruned, as Jesus knew quite well, was not a pleasant experience – it could seem frightening. It could seem to ask too much of us – to strip away those parts of ourselves that we are convinced define who we are – like our stature, our education, our salary, our stability. And yet if we go over to the other side of this process, letting God remove the lifeless bits of us, we discover something we may not have ever thought possible – growth, fullness, purpose. Just like the bushes on the walkway to our church building, sometimes, we must let go to bear fruit. Sometimes, to do something good and well, we must do drop other things in our lives. — Friends, in my own life, I can point to this truth in me. I continue to be pruned by God. Over a year ago, I was experiencing days of intense high blood pressure. I was not well. The pandemic was hitting, no doubt adding to my stress, but I was able to get in and see the doctor just before everything got locked down. Luckily, she was blunt and truthful with me – she was the voice of God in my life. She said, “Nathan, you need to make some changes.” I began medication. I began to exercise more. I began trying (most days) to eat better. In a year, I have lost weight, I feel better, and my blood pressure is normal. It has not been easy. I miss eating Five Guys burgers. Heck, I used to go to Five Guys and get the regular Cheeseburger with two big old patties. But as I sat in the doctor’s room, I thought about all the times I have told you, church, to do what your doctor says and to take care of yourself. How can I say I love you when I am not willing to love my body and care for my soul in the same way? How can I witness to God’s power over racism, death, and division in this time if I am not rooted in the oneness of the one who offers another way? My pruning, truth be told, is still in process. I have much yet to do. Maybe you do too. Are you in a season of pruning? Are you aware of something you need to release or let go of? Are you afraid of the pain and change that is going to come? If so, I know and share in that. — Church, in our life, we can point to this truth too. In 1959, on the first Sunday in May, University Christian Church was born, a product of the thoughtful, prayerful pruning of our mother church, Mt Rainier Christian Church. Mt Rainier sent over 100 of its members to help create and birth this “mission church”, a church that was envisioned to be cutting edge, to serve its community, to try something new. 62 years later today, we celebrate fruitful ministry, resulting in baptisms, spiritual growth, laughter, celebration, transformation, service, and the witness of God’s love at our intersection. How painful it was for one church to let itself be pruned and cut back – and yet all in order to bear fruit and expand God’s community. How many other stories are there like that in our church throughout our history? Moments when something seemed to lie fallow for a season and then God used that opening to bring life. — And so church, I think we are in such a season again. In this past year of the pandemic, we have witnessed to God’s love in so many ways – nimbly moving our worship services online to global impact, turning our busy intersection into a sacred ground for support of black lives, transforming Zoom sessions into Bible Study and Bible Bingo hours, using our emails and texts and phone calls to stay safe and yet remain connected through prayer, love, and care. We have launched new ministries that are bearing fruit, like our Blessing Box ministry, like a redesigned kitchen. And yet we have lost too – we have lost some beloved church members, saints who will not be replaced. We have had some members of our community who have gone to look for another place, another community, where they feel called to bear fruit. We have experienced disruption in some of our practices and traditions which we believe will continue to bear fruit. And we have learned the hard lessons that some things that we do are simply not bearing fruit as a church. In this coming mission year, as we take steps to implement our Future Story of where we feel God is calling us to move as a community, we are entering a season of pruning, asking God to remove the dead branches so that once again we might burst into fullness and wholeness, reflecting God’s love in this hurting world. How do we do this? Jesus’ command is to abide in him. Abide sounds passive and active to me – like sit with Jesus, hang out with Jesus, linger with Jesus – but it also sounds like sometimes we have to go find Jesus, whereever he is. We abide through prayer and study of scripture. We abide through active listening to each other. We abide through difficult conversations. We abide by trusting in God. We abide by showing up for our neighbors. We abide by waiting and watching and learning. We abide by letting go and letting God do the painful work of changing who we are. In this coming mission year, beginning in July, I propose then a vision for us as a faith community – to grow inward so that we might grow outward. In short, grow inward to grow outward. Kind of easy to say, right? Our Future Story, which is on our website, describes a vision of our church where we are engaged afresh in our community through mentorship, relationship, through the sharing and cultivating of fruit at this intersection, describes one scene where a young girl swings back so she can swing forward. I think our coming mission year is such a year – where we must begin to cultivate the soul inwards so we can swing forward into God’s vibrant fruit-bearing future for our lives and our community. Say it with me: Grow inward to grow outward. May we abide in Christ, the true vine, who roots us in God’s love and vision of wholeness for our world – so that we might bear the kind of fruit that makes a difference for another 62 years. Thanks be to God.