April 29, Pruning, growing, and bearing fruit

Pruning, growing and bearing fruit

John 15:1-8

I have a plant in my office here at the church that I’ve had for a long time – maybe ten years or more. It was one of those plants that Loyce buys for the Brethren Benefit Trust exhibit booth at Annual Conference.

Getting that booth ready is one of her responsibilities, so each time, once we’ve arrived at conference, we find the closest place that sells plants – flowers, ferns, little palms -- whatever says “living, growing” and is readily available – and we buy a bunch and bring them back to the booth and Loyce sets them around – the bigger ones on the floor, the smaller ones on the tables – and it looks nice. Plants make that exhibit hall space a little less sterile and a little more alive.

Anyway, after Annual Conference is over, and the exhibit booth is taken down and put away, the plants get parceled out – sometimes it’s BBT employees who take them, sometimes it’s people who helped out in the exhibit hall in some way.  

And after this particular conference, we had just enough room in the back of our car to squeeze in a plant or two. And I remember thinking that it probably wasn’t worth it, because the weather was exceptionally hot, and we were going to stop for a day or two on the way home, and I didn’t think the plants would survive the trip. But they did, and this one plant has been in my office ever since.

I’ve watered it regularly. I’ve occasionally fed it with plant food. I have even re-potted it once. And it’s held up. Every now and then a leaf falls off, but new leaves appear.

But this past week I noticed that there was a dead leaf on one of the two stems, and so I casually walked over and pulled on the leaf to remove it. And what do you know? I broke the whole stem off. The plant only had two stems to begin with, and now I’m down to one.

I didn’t mean to “prune” it quite that vigorously, but that old leaf was apparently stronger than the stem to which it was attached. “Shoot!” I thought, “I’ve had that plant for a long time and now I’ve gone and killed it!”

Or have I?

Maybe what actually happened is that I’ve gotten so used to the two-stemmed plant that I can only imagine it living that way, but maybe the stem that snapped off so easily with my mild tug on the dead leaf actually needed to go! Maybe, the plant will now put its living, growing, thriving energy into the remaining stem. Maybe what happened needed to happen in order to encourage life and growth.

Maybe…but I’m having a hard time believing that. I don’t exactly feel comfortable with the idea that the stem I broke needed to go just so the stem that survives will now have a better chance to thrive. I’m not quite convinced that what I did (although quite by accident) was for the good.

It’s strange, because around the house where I live, when it comes to the outdoor landscaping, I seem to have no problem whacking things back, taking them down to the ground sometimes. I’m willing to break off a few branches for the sake of better health for a backyard tree or cut down a bush or a vine to its root for the sake of future growth, but this silly plant in my office?

Well, it’s been with me a decade at least, sharing my daily space. And even if I am not actually that attached to the plant itself, I am certainly attached to the familiarity of it.  And that means I have a strong preservationist impulse in relation to it. I liked the two stems; I’m not so happy that I’m down to one stem, even if the one I broke off came off so easily it must have been time for it to go.

In the text for today, Jesus doesn’t pull any punches: I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.  

In other words, there’s no free lunch. Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, and God is the vinegrower. The vine and its branches don’t exist to sit on the filing cabinet in the corner of my office just to keep me company, or to keep the familiar before us. The vine and its branches exist to bear fruit.

And the branches that don’t bear fruit? They get cut off. Meanwhile, the branches that do bear fruit? God cuts them back in order that they might bear more fruit, because that’s what a good vinegrower does: prunes for the purpose of growth!

And we? We like the idea of growth, but not so much the cost of it.  We know that in order for growth to happen, there is always a cost, but while the idea of cost may be acceptable, the reality is hard. Maybe it seems to us that a dead branch is better than no branch. Such thinking isn’t logical of course, but that’s the way our emotions sometimes land.

So, we wish we could keep two stems instead of keeping only one. Pruning isn’t our cup of tea. Instead, we dread the change that feels like loss, more than we desire the change that leads to life.

I was reading the Christian Century magazine this week, and there was an article by one of the staff members at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan. It’s a church that our youth have visited on several occasions when they were in New York attending Christian Citizenship Seminar. Jim Chinworth has talked about it as an interesting and vibrant place to worship – there’s always lots going on.

The article was titled “Opening Up God’s House” and the writer, Donna Schaper, was reflecting on the ways that a church facility can be central to the growth of a congregation’s mission and ministry if the congregation will “open it up.”

As you might imagine, Schaper had a list of “do’s” and “don’ts.” An example of one her “don’ts” was “Don’t set up a binary between building and people” (in other words, on the one hand, it doesn’t help to act like the building is profane and the people are holy, but on the other hand, polishing the building without doing ministry is silly). That was one of her five “don’ts.”

On the other side of the ledger, she had five “do’s” which included things like “imagine five congregations (worshipping at different times) in your building” and “open space to arts groups and other mission-consistent gatherings,” but her number one “do” for opening up God’s house was this: “Remove the pews from your head, then your heart, and then your sanctuary.”

How about that!!? Remove the pews: That was her number one piece of advice about best use of the church building! And I share that with you because I knew when I read it, that some of you (maybe even many of you) would hate – hate! –the idea of “pruning the pews,” (so to speak), even for the sake of growth, for the sake of new life, for the sake of new possibilities.

Am I right?

But what if pruning is what leads to growth? What if removing something or cutting something or changing something…is what makes room for growth, is what encourages new life?

Schaper writes, “When the sanctuary is static, the energy of worship is static as well. When the worship space can change, it can look full with 20 people in it or 200. A full set of chairs is spiritually uplifting to those leading worship as well as those participating in it. And the flexibility of chairs means you can use the room for different activities all week long. The possibilities are endless with chairs; they are highly limited with pews.” (Christian Century, 3/25/18)

Now I know --- I know! – that some of you will say to me after worship this morning on the way out of the sanctuary, “Why would you bring up that thing about getting rid of pews? We had our conversation about how to design the sanctuary and what should go in it and what it would be used for when we built the building and we…chose…pews! And we paid good money for them. So, there’s no point in talking about it now, and besides, we like our pews! They’re comfortable. They’re familiar. And we each have our own pew!” (Well, except for a few of you who keep moving around the sanctuary just to keep me on my toes.)

But honestly, I am not using this moment to declare that we need to get rid of the pews. I actually like pews. But I do want to use an example that gets under our skin enough that we would think seriously about what pruning for growth might actually look like…both in terms of what it might cost us, as well as in terms of what it might crack open. And I want to ask you: Is there anything that can’t be on the table in terms of what might need to be cut or changed at some point for the sake of growth?

Because like it or not, the fact of the matter is that where there is growth there is also change, and not only that, for growth to happen, things need to change. And I need to ask you: Are you willing to at least entertain the idea that it could be that even what seems like a forever-decision that was made twenty years ago (because that’s how long it’s been since the fire at Walnut Street) might not be the same thing as making a best-decision for today.

You don’t like to even think about a no-pews sanctuary? You think it’s foolishness, stirring a pot that doesn’t need to be stirred, making trouble for no good reason, a horrible, horrible idea….? Fine. But know this, whether we are talking about pews, or programs, or ministry, or anything else that touches our life together, there is no such thing as a ‘no-change’ option.

For the Christian, for the church, for us as Christ-followers, there is no such thing as a ‘no-pruning’ option. The vinegrower prunes the branches so that they might bear fruit. That’s the way it is. Spiritual and personal and communal growth requires change, and since faithful discipleship requires growth, it requires us to change.

The truth is, we are not the same people we were twenty years ago when the old church building burned, or 18 years ago when we moved into this building, or 15 years ago when I came here, or eleven years ago when Karen and Jim joined the pastoral staff, or x number of years ago when y happened, and so on. The church is not a memorial to the past. The Christian community is not a memorial to the past. Life moves on. The spiritual life moves on. The congregation’s life moves on. Your life moves on.

Now does mean that everything has to be up for grabs? Does that mean that radical or uncomfortable or controversial change is good? That it is always healthy? That in our commitment to encourage growth, and to be productive and effective, we should be focused on cutting off programs or patterns or long-standing relationships that once upon a time yielded important and valuable fruits, but now are perhaps easing in the direction of being more stagnant than productive?

I don’t know. Those are hard questions. On the one hand, cutting off the branch that bears no fruit, while it seems fair, also seems kind of harsh. Even pruning the branch that could produce more fruit seems sort of aggressive. Cutting anything that once served us well and still echoes with good memories is hard…But on the other hand, carrying the deadweight of unexamined patterns, or tolerating the laziness of non-engagement, or allowing fruitless branches to suck the life out of the whole plant, seems foolish – maybe even unfaithful.

In the scripture, when Jesus emphasizes fruitfulness, I don’t feel it’s a particularly judgmental statement; it seems to me to be more of a matter-of-fact statement: He simply says that any branch that does not bear fruit will be removed and any branch that bears fruit will be pruned.

Everybody will feel the cut. There’s no way to live the soft life if you are living the life of discipleship, because the life of discipleship is about not about intentions or potential or even nostalgia; it’s about fruitfulness. And this is the question: Are we adding something good and sweet and nutritious to this world, to this community, to this body – are we yielding fruit…or not. Are we growing, or are we stagnant, stuck.

Look, we’re Brethren, right? So, we should know all about this: It’s what you do that matters. It’s how you are that matters. It’s the fruit of your living that matters. That’s why the Alexander Mack seal has not only the cross and the heart, but the bunch of grapes on a vine that springs from the heart.

Okay, I’ve given two illustrations so far, but let’s not worry too much about either one – plant or pews – because we have more pressing changes at hand: We are going to go through a difficult and uncertain time for a while now, because after today, we are down a pastor. And it’s going to affect us: in program, in energy, in availability, in presence.

And not only that, but changes like these can raise the anxiety levels in a congregation and expose our differences in terms of vision and ideas and preferences. That’s just the way it is. But I think at the edge of change, we need to keep our focus on two things – two things suggested by Jesus in this passage from John’s gospel.

One thing is abiding in Christ. In times of change, we stay rooted in our discipleship-identity, our Jesus-affinity. When we are tempted to think that the only thing we need is for the “right person” to come along and make it all better, then we need to step back and say to ourselves: We are already in the company of the right person and the right people, because we are in the company of the spirit-presence of Jesus the Christ and we are also in the company of this wide and wonderful congregational community to which we belong, living together as the body of Christ.

As healthy branches on the vine, we commit ourselves to staying close to the Jesus-example of seeking justice, challenging the status-quo, meeting people where they are, offering forgiveness, tolerating risk, acting with gentle courage, and making peace in this world. This is the Jesus-spirit to which we hold close in the midst of every change.  

So that’s one thing: abiding in Christ.

The other thing we need to keep our focus on is bearing fruit. We don’t just abide, we bear. We need to be in growth-mode. We aren’t just to wait for what’s next. We need to lean in to what’s now. We need to be talking about mission and ministry, about resources and assets, about energy and vision, today and tomorrow and the next day. This isn’t a time to hunker down and hope for the best, or to sit still and wait for someone to bring us new energy and vision. We need to be bearing fruit now.

And I think the message of Jesus in this part of John’s gospel is that these things go together. Even as we seek to keep close to the example and spirit of the living Christ, abiding with Christ in this body of Christ, we must also find our motivation and re-double our commitment to actively make an impact in this world, ushering in the kingdom of God, being faithful witnesses to God’s mercy and grace.

Abide in me as I abide in you. (says Jesus) Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…

So, there it is: Faithfulness and fruitfulness, presence and productivity, intention and action, risk and reward, pruning and growth: May it be so with us.

 

Amen. 

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

April 29, 2018