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Vines and Branches…

April 29, 2015

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While I was preparing the lesson for tonight’s “Pastor’s Study Class” on Sacramental Prayer (we are reading Richard Foster’s Book “Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home”), the Gospel reading for this Sunday kept coming to my mind. Part of the focus of Chapter Ten is on how Sacramental Prayer invites us to draw closer to God and experience the Sacraments and Prayer in a meaning-filled way. He talks about how we are called to experience prayer as something more than just words or phrases, but as a holy connection with God. Sacramental Prayer is a prayer that literally draws you into a closer communion with your creator.

As I reflect on John 15:1-8, I can’t help but think about how important it is for us to be connected to each other and to our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. At yesterday’s meeting of Florida Presbytery (PCUSA), there was a break-out session to discuss the proposed revisions to the denomination’s Directory for Worship. One of the discussions in my small group was about who we are as a denomination. One of the hallmarks of the Presbyterian denomination is our connectional nature. While each church (and each member) has the freedom to live out their faith as an individual without having to subscribe to a rigid set of doctrines or “laws” like some other faith groups do (one of the hallmarks of the denomination is the statement that “God alone is Lord of the conscience”). We are connected to each other and worship/serve/live together in our diversity. It isn’t always easy and it isn’t always pretty. Like any family, we have our moments when arguments get heated and disagreements are recognized. Somehow though, this diverse group of Presbyterians is able to worship together and come to the Lord’s Table together despite our differences in theology. The Sacrament of Holy Communion or The Lord’s Supper draws us together around one table where our Lord feeds our very souls as we share the bread and the cup.

Too often these days, I fear, the words of John 15 are used to chop off anything that is not exactly like we think it should be. Denominations fracture and people leave because of differences of opinion or theology. Instead of working to focus on who binds us together (Christ and his call for us to serve), we focus on our disagreements. And the solution for many, sadly, is to chop off that part of the tree that doesn’t look like us or think like us or agree with us.

If we focus so exclusively on the pruning aspect of this allegory that Jesus shared, we miss the point of the greater lesson in my mind. Instead of loving one another and seeking better ways to work out our differences or even agree to disagree, we turn ugly. “Hey, you aren’t producing the proper fruit (code for you don’t look or believe just like I do), we have to remove you or remove ourselves from you in order to maintain the purity (in our view) of our own fruit.” I also have to admit, in discussions that turn heated I find myself becoming the very thing that I don’t want to be… Pharisaic and judgmental!

What if we thought more about removing what is not fruitful from our own lives and less about removing what we believe is not fruitful in someone else’s lives? Would we perhaps be closer to what Jesus was talking about. Didn’t Jesus say that we should be careful to first take the log out of our own eye before turning our attention to the speck in our neighbor’s eye (Luke 6:42 and Matthew 7:5)? Indeed, Jesus tells us in this allegory that He is the vine and God is the vinegrower responsible for pruning, not us.

I believe that the meat of this lesson is found in the way Jesus talks about the connectional nature of the vine and our part in that connectional system. We are called to abide in Jesus. He is the vine and we are the branches. God is the one who carefully tends the vine and branches to ensure proper and healthy growth.

I remember when I was growing up in Minnesota that my Dad would often cut back the roses before winter set in. He would cut the bushes VERY close to the ground and every year my Mom would worry that he had cut them back too far. One year, he did cut the roses back too far and the next spring we had to buy new rose bushes. I also remember the city coming through the neighborhood and “trimming” our beautiful elm trees (before Dutch Elm disease killed so many of them). I use the word “trimming” loosely as it looked more like they had been attacked by a B-movie horror character with a chain saw! Thankfully, the trees were made of sturdier stuff and somehow endured the lousy job of “pruning”. Sadly though, the trees never regained their former beauty and shape. If you ask any Master Gardener, they will tell you that there is a proper way to trim and prune bushes and trees that will help them to flourish and grow.

There is a tree right next to the church that caught my eye a few weeks ago while I was teaching the Wednesday night class. I took a picture of it a few days ago and that picture is at the top of this blog. While some of the tree seems to be healthy with leaves growing, a significant portion of the tree seems to be bare. It appears to my untrained eye that there is an issue somewhere within the connectional system of the tree. Is it the job of the rest of the branches on the tree to decide the bare branches need to be cut off from the tree? No. I can imagine the circulation system within the tree has done everything it can to help the failing section flourish. In the end, it will be the Master Gardener who will make the decision about that branch. The instrument of the Master Gardener may be the city work crews. They have been busy today cutting down other trees around the lake which have been killed off by the flooding caused by a year of heavy rains. Or the instrument could be a storm taking that branch down. Whatever the instrument may be, I can guarantee that it won’t be the other branches cutting that branch down.

In the Gospel reading, I think it would be healthier for the branch (the church) to focus on abiding in the vine (Christ) and not worry about who needs to be removed and who needs to stay. I know that I have at times had to undergo some pretty serious pruning in my own spiritual journey. Who has done the most effective pruning? Well, that would be the Master Gardener.

By caring for our own souls and perhaps even sharing some of that “love your neighbor” attitude that Jesus talks about with other branches on the tree, we might be a part of the healthy and life giving nature of the vine. Perhaps if we showed more concern about caring for and praying with the other branches, we might contribute to the growth of the other branches as we grow ourselves.

In the end, as one little branch in the great big vine called God’s creation and God’s children, I don’t see it as my job to be the one with the machete deciding who gets cut off and who gets to remain. I have a sneaking suspicion that it is my job to do what the Lord asks me to do. “Love God with all that you are, Michael! Love God with your heart, soul, mind, body and strength! And love your neighbor as yourself because your neighbor, even though they may be different from you, is also created in the image of God.”

May the Lord help both of us, dear reader, to be instruments of that love. May we abide in Christ and share his love, mercy, and peace with others. If we did more of that, then maybe more people would want to be a part of this thing called the Church. In the words of Micah 6:8 — What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

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  1. Abide in my Love… | Michael Moore's Blog

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