The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire



Sermon - April 29, 2018
Pacific Islander & Asian American Ministries (PAAM) Sunday
Scripture Reading: John 15:1-8  

Sermon Title: Pruned

The Rev. Robert Vodra


     When I was growing up my parents had a small orchard.  Orchard is probably an exaggeration, about 4 apple trees, a couple peaches and plums.  There were good years and not as good years.  In good years, we would have fruit on newspaper all around our breakfast room, with a dehydrator running in the corner.  In a good apple year we would have dried apple slices, applesauce, homemade apple fruit roll-ups, and then canned apples and applesauce for the winter.  Peaches and plum years were the same except it was plum sauce or peach sauce, and different flavor fruit roll ups.   We usually had some of each fruit but seems like one year we would be flooded by one, and another year flooded with a different.  Of course, you always got one or two in your lunch box, and we also did our best to share, resorting at times to leaving bags of fruit on people’s front door steps, or bringing them to church, with a sign saying “Please, take some.”  And these were honestly a lot better than you will ever find in a store.  The plums and peaches were so juicy you would need a napkin to eat one, and that napkin would be soaked by the time you were done eating it. 

     So just about this time of year was pruning time.  My father would normally do this, and when I got older, I could help.  The fruit grew on new wood, but often you would have 2 or 3 suckers going up, and so you would have to prune one or two of those away to give the one room to grow fruit.  Often once the little apples or other fruit grew, you would have to go out and where two were growing together you would remove one of them, give the other room to grow.  I saw the results -  we got lots of good fruit.

     But I am still a bit nervous pruning at my house.  On the side of our house we have a big bush.  I think it is a burning bush, turns red in the fall.  When we moved in, this was just below my son’s bedroom window; he lives on the second floor of the house.  But the center of the bush was empty. I knew if I pruned it back to bush size it would be dead.  So I did my research, and it was a three year process.  First year take 1/3 of the branches back to the size you want, second year, second third, and last year the remaining branches.  I did it, it looked bad for a few years there, but seems to have worked.  My yews did not fare as well, they were also overgrown, and  by doing some bigger pruning I could get them under control, but apparently, they didn’t like being pruned way back.

     Have any of you felt pruned lately?  There is a lot of bad news, everywhere you turn it seems.  This past week I took a little vacation, went up to North Conway for the night.  When we got back to our hotel room I flipped on the TV, and I guess that close to Maine you get all the Maine stations.  A police officer had been shot, so every TV station was covering the press conference.  To get away from that I flipped on my Kindle and looked at Facebook.  There was a video of a black, former NFL player, being tackled and pinned down by police in Atlanta. He was carrying a phone.  

     And then we are hit with this passage from John, seems almost like a threat doesn’t it?  If you don’t produce good fruit you will be pruned, perhaps thrown into the fire.  There are days in which I do not produce any fruit, good or bad.  But rather than a word of warning, I would like to suggest that these are words of hope. 

     Jesus speaks these words on the night before his crucifixion.  He knows what is going to happen – both to himself and to his flock – and they do not. They are about to be cut down by his crucifixion and death and he is assuring them that it will not be mere, senseless cutting but that they will survive, even flourish. The second context is that of the community for which John writes. Because by the time they hear these words they have already been scattered, likely thrown out of their synagogue, and have had plenty of reason to feel like they’ve been abandoned. But John writes to assure them that while they have indeed been cut, it is the pruning for more abundant fruit and life.

     Jesus continues. Jesus didn’t say, “abide in me or else.” That would be a different matter. “Abide in me,” Jesus says, “as I abide in you.” This is more than good advice. More than an invitation. This is a promise, that no matter what happens, Jesus will be with us. That no matter what happens, Jesus will hold onto us. And that no matter what happens, God in Jesus will bring all things to a good end.  This is not to imply that everything happens for a reason, but it is a promise that God will be with us in all that happens.  Jesus said these words on the way to the cross, even in a place that is worse than we can imagine, God is there.  It may not turn out the way that we expect, we may not see any miracles, but we can trust that God is with us in anything that we face. 

     Many have argued that the cross is necessary as a sacrifice for God to forgive us of our original sin.  Personally, I have always had a problem with that.  If we believe in a God who loves us, why would this God require a human sacrifice?  

     If the cross means anything, I think it means that God chose not to sit back in heaven, removed from the pain of our mortal, free, and difficult life in this world, but rather came in Christ to be joined to it – the ups and downs, the hopes and disappointments, the frailties and faults of our life in this world – so that we would know of God’s unending commitment to us. The cross was not the instrument that made it possible for God to love us, the cross is evidence and testimony to just how much God already loved us and God’s promise to be with us through all things. Just so, the resurrection is the promise that no matter how much tragedy we endure, these hardships will not have the last word.

     Who are you in this story?  Do you feel pruned?  Do you feel like you have been cut off, ready to be thrown into the fire?

     I would like to suggest as a church, we are the pruner.  Let me try to explain.  When we were getting ready to sell my mother-in-law’s house there were some bushes in the front.  We decided that at minimum they needed a serious pruning.  So I went into the back of the bushes, where they were growing from the house, and started to see which ones should be removed and which ones could stay to create a nice under control bush.  I started to follow one stem, it went up, then over this way, then back over this way, then down, back up, around… this one branch had to be 25 feet long.  And way at the end there was a little clump of leaves. 

     Sometimes in the church we have those branches.  The original purpose is forgotten.  They may still have a little life, but the effort that bush must have used to get its energy all the way to those leaves, and then all the way back into the roots, was crazy.  And all that wood, that whole length of branch, served no purpose.  Nothing was going to bloom on it, it was just connecting those few leaves to the roots.  It was hard to remove, it had wrapped itself around other parts of the bush, had to cut it into a dozen pieces to get it out.  It was not doing any harm, but really was not doing any good either. 

     Maybe there are things in our church that have a long history, and still have life, but it is time to let go of.  But the job of the pruner is not just to prune and walk away.  Remember how I said we had to go back and thin the fruit when it appeared?  We also had to go out about every other week and spray the trees.  When it was dry we had to water the trees, and when they needed fertilizer we had a watering stake we would put into the ground, which fed the fertilizer right to the roots.  Our job as the church may be to thin, to prune, but then to spray and water and fertilize.  We want to make sure that all that remains has everything it needs to grow. 

     An important part to remember is that nothing produces fruit that is not connected to the vine.  Those things which are cut away will never produce fruit.  We must remain connected together, keeping our faith clearly centered on God, in order for our branches to produce the fruit. 

     My parents no longer have any fruit trees, although they live in the same house.  The last year my father really tried, it was going to be an apple year.  One of the apple trees was loaded with good apples.  A few peaches, a few plums, but that year one apple tree was just going to town.  It was almost time to pick them - a few had already fallen.  One night a deer, or maybe more than one deer, came by.  It, or they, kicked the tree, we think, and almost every apple fell to the ground.  Then the deer ate.   When my parents looked out the next morning, there were only a few apples left on the tree, but hundreds of apples littered the ground under the tree, each with one bite taken out. 

     That is always a risk.  Sometimes, like with the yew bush, I took off too much, bush is dead or close enough to be considered dead.  And sometimes it is totally beyond your control, you can prune and thin and water and fertilize and spray, do everything by the book, and some deer will come in and destroy all that you had worked for.  Sometimes that project at the church will get all the support the church can give it, but just does not work out. 

     I will criticize my parents in their decision the next year.  They gave up.  Now in Southern Connecticut where they live, there was a huge deer problem.  There were very few places where people could hunt, and the deer apparently avoided those areas during hunting season.  The only predator they had were cars.  I remember visiting and seeing 14 deer in their small backyard.  So I do understand their decision to give up, but wish they would have at least kept the trees.  As the next years passed, each tree was cut down.  If you are no longer caring for the trees, the apples are very small, full of worms, and just make a mess in the fall. 

     Take some time this week and think about what role you want to play in the care of this vine.  Are you a pruner who will suggest that maybe this branch or that branch is not serving its purpose anymore?  Maybe you are more of a watering person, making sure the church plant is healthy.  Maybe you are a fertilizer, seeing where something is lacking in the church plant.  Or maybe you are more of a general gardener, caring for the whole plant, and fulfilling different needs as they are discovered. 

     We all have a role to play.  Jesus invites us to abide in him as he abides in each of us.  When we feel pruned, or we have pruning to do, Jesus is with us as a guide and example.  We may never be totally successful, but we all have our roles to help this church plant, grow, and flourish and produce good fruit.