Sunday, May 24, 2009

Springtime In God’s Garden: 
Time for Wounding

Copyright © 2009, Robert J. Elder
Seventh Sunday in Easter: May 24, 2009

John 15:1-8

He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. 
Every branch that bears fruit he prunes 
to make it bear more fruit. 

Right away I need to confess I am not much of a gardener, though I am grateful for my sweet wife, who is. At our house, she – blessed with a love for growing beautiful things – takes responsibility for the front yard mostly, which is on full view to our passing neighbors. Meanwhile, I am in charge of the back, which runs down a steep hill and which virtually no one can see unless they are very determined. It’s a perfect division of responsibility. We do have some large bushes and other plants down there. And standing out on our deck, looking straight down, it is annoying even to me to have to see large amounts of unwanted growth having its way between the shrubs. I am easily frustrated by weeds, of which there is an abundance in and around my area of yard care responsibility.

Another of my chief faults as a gardener – and a reason I am not the principle tender of the front yard – is that I am a very reluctant pruner. After all, I grew up in the dry stretches of Oklahoma, where having a flower garden – or any kind of garden – required not only constant attention, but a nurturing of each little sign of growth. The idea of cutting back that which had labored so hard to come forth still seems anathema to me. I remember a friend of mine in Amarillo, Texas – who had the same sort of spindly little sticks for trees in his yard that I had in mine, the sort that are held up by stakes and ropes against the gale force prairie winds that always blow there – who said he used to go into his yard every morning to check on his pathetic, struggling little trees and ask, “What can I do for you today?” He swore they only survived the harsh climate because of intensive irrigation and chemotherapy.

When you have lived under such circumstances, the idea of pruning, of cutting a plant back, comes with almost as much difficulty as renouncing your faith. So with my yard today, I continue to live as though growing things must be allowed to grow willy nilly, so precious is any sign of growth. The problem is, I live in Oregon, where it often appears that a good gardener’s chief duty is hacking things back. So some spindly little ground cover that a landscaper once told me would spill over a retaining wall for some nice green softening of all that concrete actually took over in five years time and had to be dug out. It was on the move, threatening to overtake the woods, smother the dogs in their kennel, and open the back door to come inside for a look around. Even so, I have reluctant shears. What if I cut it back and end up cutting it back too much, and I lose all the nice growth that has come along over those five years? It was the same with a Japanese maple tree, which began to look like a young elephant grazing on the front lawn. Meantime, I had some bulbs that had been busy naturalizing from the initial handful I planted when the house was new, so that before long I thought I might have to part their foliage to see out the front window.

Yet still I am a reluctant pruner. Though I do know better. I do know that healthy, attractive, well-kept yards in western Oregon require pruning, and lots of it. I am just a poor candidate for the job, I suppose. So it is unsettling to me to realize that one of the ways Jesus describes God is as a master pruner, pruning even the branches that bear much fruit so they will bear more. It sounds harsh, it sounds like discipline, and I am not much a fan of discipline. Few in what a friend of mine called “our five-second-attention span, non-stick, Teflon coated, don’t tie me down, I’m outta here if everything and everyone doesn’t cater to me culture”[1] are.

What if God prunes from me the things I love most? What if my attachments to life’s pleasures, to comfort, to security, to family or friends, what if these were to be the very things God was planning to prune from me so I could be a more productive branch, a better disciple? I know as I look back on my life that I have been pruned here and there, and I see now that those times were valuable, made me a more productive servant for God, but at the time I can tell you I saw no reason to be thankful, any more than the pinched-off branches of my backyard shrubs will thank me for their vegetable version of pruning pain. One preacher, commenting on this passage by actively mixing metaphors, said, “I once heard the bit about ‘bearing more fruit’ as a demand that I get cracking and strain hard to bear much fruit if I wanted Christ to abide with me. Then I was taught that I was justified by grace and needed no works, so I forgot about the fruits. Now I begin to hear it as a simple promise: trust yourself to the water and let the current take you where you need to go.”[2]

Thinking on these things, I discovered there is some good news in this passage for me, for all of us especially. Jesus said, “I am the true vine...Abide in me as I abide in you.” That “you” is not what I spent most of my life thinking it was, a word addressed to me, Rob Elder, by Jesus. I thought it could mean I was to get with it, be in Jesus, think only on Jesus, set the rest of the world’s clamor aside, because that’s what Jesus demanded of me, Rob Elder. It’s amazing what a seminary education can provide, and for Presbyterian preachers at least, it provides a requirement to acquire a muddling ability with New Testament Greek. So studying this passage I discovered that when Jesus says, “as I abide in you,” he uses the plural form of “you,” a finer point which cannot be rendered in English with our all-purpose singular or plural word “you.” Still, I spent many years living in the South, so I understand this plural concept very well. The southern plural for you, “you-all,” is well understood there, much more elegantly than the more abrupt and thoroughly sexist, “you guys.”

So Jesus said something like, “ I abide in you all.” All of you. The body of Christ, the people of God, the community of the faithful, the saints gathered in his name.

While we may be preoccupied by the nature of the garden metaphors in John 15, it would be good if we would recognize that the passage, for all its threat and promise, for all of Jesus’ talk of pruning and burning and fruitfulness, the passage is mostly interested in having us see in yet another way what it means to abide in Jesus. An old-fashioned word, abide is used over and over again in John’s gospel. Early on, when they met him for the first time, the new disciples asked Jesus where he was abiding. Our English translations use a variety of words such as dwell, stay, remain, but the Greek word is insistently the same: “abide.”

We don’t use it much in conversation: “One hit, one error, and two left abiding on base.” Doesn’t sound right, does it? But John uses this word always in a double-meaning sort of way. There is the plain sense of it, the “he was staying at the house” sort of sense. But there is always the deeper sense, the “even when he was gone I could feel his presence” sort of sense, as in an abiding assurance.

So where do we go to do this abiding in Jesus? Mountaintops? Desert retreats? Missionary work overseas? Visit Jerusalem to “walk where Jesus walked”? Well, yes, we can go all of these places – or none of them. The key has to do with abiding in Christ’s body, and Christ’s body is not a place, Christ’s body is a people, the body is the community. Our presence, when open to the presence of Jesus among us, is an abiding presence. It is relationship with each other and with him.

Whenever we receive new members into the life of a congregation, there are four membership questions they answer, as all of us have in one form or another. The fourth question goes this way: “Will you be a faithful member of this congregation, giving of yourself in every way, and will you seek the fellowship of the church wherever you may be?” This is a serious question, because it requires us to reflect on our attachment to Christ – the true vine – as it involves an attachment through him to one another.

We live in a world where most attachments are lightly made and easily broken. Friends come and go. Legal contracts seem always to contain an escape clause when needed. Commitment to Christ, and to a particular church, are paper thin, especially when such commitments test us or begin to require anything of us. I once received an anonymous “encouragement card” saying how annoyed the writer was when the church focused for several weeks each year on stewardship and the financial needs of our congregation. Snip snip, the sheers are coming close. Here is an attitude that is ripe for the pruner’s clippers. “giving of yourself in every way...seeking the fellowship of the church wherever you may be.” These are ways of abiding, shouldering a share of the common task, gladly taking up the burden that belongs to all. Standing to one side focusing on what is mine is a way of turning away from the community in which Christ calls us to abide, and it is in need of pruning if the vine is to thrive.

Our scripture lesson takes us back 2000 years to a night when Jesus was at the table with the disciples on the eve of his crucifixion and death for their sakes – for our sakes. As they surrounded him at the table they all pledged their undying loyalty. Yet within the space of a day, all had failed to abide with him. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Jesus said, yet we all try to go our own way, value our own opinions and actions more highly than we should, fail adequately to take into account the needs of the whole community as we focus on our own needs and wants. Snip, snip, the pruner’s sheers are needed.

Steven Covey tells of riding on a subway one Sunday morning when the otherwise peaceful and quiet car was invaded by a man and his large brood of children who proceeded to race up and down the aisles, making noise, bumping into passengers. The father sat, staring down, doing nothing. Covey, a bit indignant, finally decided to say something: “Sir, don’t you think maybe it would be wise for you to say something to your children – settle them down – the passengers are getting annoyed.” The father looked up and said, “Oh! I suppose so. I just didn’t notice. We just left the hospital. Their mother died an hour ago. And I don’t know what to do – how to respond – And I suppose they don’t know how to react either.”[3] Snip, snip, the superior attitude that presumes to know the motivations behind people’s actions are pruned away and community – an opportunity to abide in Jesus as we abide in each other, opens up.

To abide in Jesus requires a strength, a strength not our own, in the end. It is the vine that sustains the branches.

The old hymn text – so often sung at funeral services – prays to God:

Abide with me: fast falls the eventide; 
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide! 
When other helpers fail and comforts flee, 
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.  

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; 
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies: 
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; 
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

[1] “Hang In There,” a sermon by Paul Debenport, First Presbyterian Church, Albuquerque, NM, May 4, 1997. 
[2] “Abiding, even under the knife,” by Walter Wink, Christian Century, April 20, 1994, p. 413. 
[3] Steven Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.