"Working all things for good"

5 Easter.B.24
John 15:1-8
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

“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.” I don’t know about you, but when I come across a passage such as this from the Gospel of John, speaking of pruning, I become nervous.

Think of it, at any given moment—particularly if life is going relatively well, there are still so many difficult things with which we have to contend. Oftentimes, it feels like being pruned. Cut down to size, disappointed, and humbled. While pruning might be good for the vine, it is not necessarily comfortable for the branch.

At the last church I served—even before I arrived in town—I received a rather distraught call from the Senior Warden. He was young—had great ideas and boundless enthusiasm, and he wanted air conditioning in the parish gymnasium. He researched the project, came up with a host of compelling reasons as to why this would be a good idea for the parish and the community, how much it would cost, how the church would benefit, etcetera, and presented the concept to the vestry, who immediately shot him down.

It was such a good idea—he knew it was. How could this have happened—he assumed everyone would see things the same way. He wondered if he was right for the job—could this be a reflection on his leadership, or perhaps the vestry was, itself, filled with the wrong sorts of people. How could he accomplish what he was convinced was a good idea.

He, my friends, had been pruned.

I told him the truth. Of course the vestry said “No.” That’s the first instinct when faced with change. “No.” I told him that every time I walk into a church built before the advent of electricity and I can flip a switch to turn on the lights, I say a prayer of thanksgiving. Because you know—at some point—some poor Senior Warden suggested the church get electricity and someone probably shot him down with a statement such as “Well, candles were all well and good in my day.” The key, of course, is not to give up.

Pruning builds resiliency, it makes us stronger, more productive. That’s the point. Consider the illustration that Jesus, himself, uses in today’s Gospel reading, that of the grapevine. Grapevines produce fruit clusters based on the previous season’s growth. Before it is pruned, a grapevine may have 200 to 300 buds capable of producing fruit. That’s a lot—too much, really. If the vine is not pruned, the number of grape clusters would be excessive and the grapevine would be unable to ripen such a large crop or produce adequate vegetative growth.

If you’re a vintner, the purpose of pruning is to obtain maximum yields of high quality grapes and allow adequate vegetative growth for the coming season.

Think of it this way—pruning (from a human perspective) helps us to focus on what is most important—it narrows and strengthens our focus; it forces us to grow, to extend effort, to become stronger and ultimately, more resilient when challenges arise. I suspect that if I took a poll, asking each of us here the accomplishment we were most proud of achieving in life—it would not be the easiest, but the most challenging—be it raising children, starting a business, earning a degree, and overcoming defeats in a myriad of shapes and sizes. It is not the easy moments that matter, but the defining moments that build character and make us into the people God intends for us to be.

Which brings us back to the Gospel passage for today. The main thrust of this passage is not a threat: “Prepare to be pruned!” It is instead, a promise. These words of our Savior are a reminder that Jesus is always with us. He is with us when things are going well and the wind is at our back, and Jesus is with us when the pruning shears appear. He is with us, working all things for good.

The Fifteenth Chapter of John is situated within the section of the gospel narrative, known as The Book of Glory. By now, Jesus has turned his attention from performing signs that point to himself as the Messiah. Having established his identity, he is working to cultivate in his disciples the ability to continue his ministry once his physical presence is gone. These words are found in the portion of John’s Gospel that is part of Jesus’s instructions just prior to his crucifixion. Jesus says: “Abide in me, as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” This is more than good advice—this is a promise. Here, Jesus is telling us that no matter what happens, our Savior will be with us. God, in Jesus, will bring all things to a good end. This, mind you, is not to say that everything happens for a reason. Sometimes, disaster occurs out of the blue, a cell turns cancerous, a driver runs a red light, a hurricane advances and a tornado hurtles through a home. These, I believe, are not God’s will. Instead, I believe God works through the tragedies we face bringing us to a place of peace. No matter what happens, we have God’s promise in Jesus to work for good.

I suspect you are wondering if Zion Episcopal Church in West Virginia eventually decided to put air conditioning in the gymnasium. They did. It took a few more sessions, but everyone eventually understood the benefits of being able to use the space not for 3 seasons of the year, but for 4—how it would be a blessing for Vacation Bible School, the Monthly Meal Ministry and those working on collecting and sorting items for the annual Farmers’ Market. And, importantly, the Senior Warden did not resign, with his tail tucked between his legs. He went on to suggest other bold ventures, such as the establishment of a parking lot (which did not happen) and some more that did. Not all buds will bear fruit—but when we are pruned, the fruit that we bear is good. Today’s lesson reminds us that the fruit we bear ultimately comes, from the strength of the vine from which the branch is rooted. That vine, is Jesus, and we, therefore, are to have confidence, that even in those moments in life when we feel the sharp cut of the pruner’s shear, that ultimately, we are being strengthened for something good that is yet to come. In Jesus’ name. Amen.