Crows Nest Uniting Church
Easter 3 • 19 Apr 2015


Acts 8:26-40
1 John 4:7-12
John 15:1-8

Rev. Chris Udy



You mightn’t guess it
by looking over the back fence,
but there was once a time
when the garden
of the Manse the Udys lived in
was glorious.
It had hellebores and aquilegias,
and rockeries, and box hedges,
a winding path of pavers, and a pergola,
and even a well-pruned grapevine.
It was beautiful.
But that was in Canberra,
where Ginie had time and energy
to plan and to plant and to make the garden grow.
 
My only contribution to the garden,
then and pretty much now,
was to do the pruning -
well, the mowing and the pruning,
which probably amount to the same thing.
Other people may enthuse
about blood and bone
and dynamic lifter and compost
and watering systems that drip and seep
and mulch and floral borders -
but I like pruning.
 
Pruning gives you instant results,
a sense of real power,
and the high probability
that with luck you’ll kill
whatever it is you’re working on,
so you won’t have to bother with it ever again.
Pruning turns a jumbled and chaotic mess
into ordered and disciplined structure
and, for me at least, it gives the illusion
that, for about a week,
the garden is no longer a cause
for private guilt and public shame;
for a while it might even look
like somebody loves it.
 
What we do with our gardens
is about the closest we come to understanding
some of the concerns and rhythms of life
for people of the land -
people whose symbols and images
are much more tied into natural cycles
than ours are.
For those whose lives depend
on what the land produces,
the seasons and natural cycles
are as much a part of who they are
as breathing and a heartbeat,
and the symbols and images of the land
hold as much meaning
as names and nationalities.
 
So when Jesus wanted
to describe God's nature and purpose
to those who first responded to his call,
he used images and symbols of the land,
because those first disciples in Galilee
were fishermen who lived beside the lake
and farmers from the villages nearby.
The parables Jesus told
were about their lives and livelihood.
He talked about sheep, and shepherds,
and growing wheat, and making bread,
and those who heard him easily filled in
the colours and the details -
subtleties and nuances we miss.
 
In our reading from John’s gospel for today
Jesus describes himself as the vine -
the true vine;
He talks about bearing fruit,
and being pruned,
and burning the dead and diseased branches
that the pruning takes out.
For us, his images
probably don't have the same impact and depth
they had for those who came to hear him first.
If our vines don't bear enough fruit
we go to Thomas Dux and get more -
so the pruning we do
is primarily cosmetic -
almost an optional extra;
and if we don't get around to it
or do it at the wrong time
it's no great disaster.
And since we're not allowed
to burn anything these days
and everything's either meant to be composted
or put in the wheely bin,
we over-react to the idea
that prunings get burned in the fire.
 
So what do we do
to find our way in
to this image of Jesus as the vine?
 
One friend of mine interpreted it like this.
Jesus said - I am the Electricity grid,
and you are the appliances.
If you're connected to me,
you can do what you're meant to do -
but if your plug's pulled out,
your little light will fade away to nothing.
 
That's not bad - as far as it goes -
but it misses out on a basic element
of the image Jesus is using.
It doesn't make much sense
to take secateurs to the wiring system -
and cutting back appliance cords
tends not to make them work more effectively.
There's something basically different
about the way a living grapevine works,
that isn't like plugging in
and turning on to the power network.
Living things aren’t like machines -
there's something essentially different
about the way organic things work.
If we try to understand a plant or animal in isolation
or in purely mechanical and technical terms
we miss that essential difference.
And when we go beyond plants and animals
and start treating people as machines -
when we view people as nothing more
than Facebook friends and economic units
who can be used up or left out
as fashion or production demands;
when we forget that men and women
need to live with a sense of purpose and of hope,
in a community that connects them
to sources of meaningful life -
then we're sowing seeds for misery and disaster.
 
Over the last twenty years or so
we’ve deepened our understanding
of those groupings in Australia
who live with a significantly higher risk
of misery, depression and disaster.
Suicide figures published over the last 10 years

http://www.mindframe-media.info/for-media/reporting-suicide/facts-and-stats

indicate that those most likely to take their own lives
are people who live in rural and remote areas,
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders,
and middle aged men.
What individuals in those three groups have in common
is that they are often isolated -
sometimes geographically,
but much more significantly,
they are isolated emotionally, and spiritually,
disconnected both from other people
and from sources of meaning and hope.
Even though they may be financially secure -
they may have everything they need to live -
they may even be quite comfortable
in material, mechanical ways -
when people have nothing to live for -
when they’re separated and cut off
from significant relationships
and from the communities
that connect them to sources of meaning and hope,
people wither away.
 
People need to be connected to sources of life.
We aren't like machines
that can be turned off and on
according to someone's whim -
or even our own.
When the connections
that sustain and nourish us are broken,
we die - literally as well as spiritually.
 
Jesus describes us as branches in a vine
connected to him as the source of life,
being tended and cared for by the Father.
This isn’t a connection of convenience -
we aren’t interchangeable appliances
who get plugged in at times of need
and then get stored away in the cupboard.
The connections we need are organic and essential;
they need to be sustained all the time -
even when there’s no apparent growth
or sign of fruit -
because as soon as we lose our connections,
we start to die,
and re-connection isn’t speedy or simple.
 
We need connections,
and we need a variety of connections
into all the different dimensions
and arenas of real life:
to a family where we belong -
even when we may not want to;
to a community that knows us by name
and by reputation;
to a society that gives us work
and meets our material needs;
and to the source of meaning and hope -
to the life of the spirit,
and to God in Christ.
 
We sustain our connection with Jesus
through the positive disciplines of the Christian life -
through rhythms of worship
and habits of prayer
and those regular conversations
we sustain within a community of faith.
Through those positive disciplines
Jesus feeds us,
he gives us energy and nourishment,
he sustains our hope,
he keeps us growing
and heals the cuts and bruises of the soul:
the ordinary damage of everyday life.
“Abide in me” he says - “live in me” -
make that relationship a lively reality,
as natural as breathing
and as close as a heartbeat -
and your life will bear much fruit.
 
A garden grows
because someone loves it;
waters and feeds it,
worries about it -
and finds reward and delight
in its flowers and fruit -
and sometimes, to stay healthy,
a garden also needs pruning.
 
Jesus doesn’t leave us
with only the positive disciplines of Christian life.
He also talks about God pruning the vine -
removing branches that bear no fruit,
pruning back the branches that are fruitful
to make them bear more
and pulling out the dead wood
to clean up the vineyard.
The image is pretty drastic.
Being cut back
doesn't sound like a pleasant experience
and none of us much like the idea
of fruitless branches being lopped and burned.
Although we can understand
the image Jesus is using,
most of the time we’d prefer to stay
with the more comfortable
and comforting images of discipleship -
we don’t much like to be reminded
about these harder disciplines of Christian life.
 
But we also know that's not the way life works.
Life has seasons,
and seasons bring times
both of consolation
of growth and flowers and fruitfulness -
and also times of desolation -
days when nothing seems to come together -
when we’re fractured and disconnected
and we need to live each day
with disciplines of hope and patient courage.
Pruning seems to be a winter occupation.
It’s needed when energy’s low
and the weather has turned grey.
It comes when one season of growth is complete
and before the next one comes -
and the purpose and intention of pruning
is not to store up savings
or to balance some kind of budget -
the intention of pruning
is to make sure everything’s ready
for more fruitful, generous living.
Vines get pruned to bear more fruit,
and the point of bearing fruit,
we should remember,
is not to enrich the vine,
but to sow the seeds of life
and to bless the earth.
 
God surrounds us with people
who need to make their connection to life
through us -
people who need our help and love.
As long as we have more than enough to live on
and there is anyone on earth
who needs a share of our surplus stores
we will always be confronted by suffering
and challenged to respond.
We can try to isolate ourselves
from anyone in trouble:
refuse to watch the news;
distance ourselves from families and neighbours;
build walls around our affluent suburbs;
cut our international aid budget yet again …
but it won't work -
the walls turn our homes into prisons -
and in cutting ourselves off from others,
we cut ourselves off from God -
and we start to rot away.
 
Sometimes, then, the only way to healing
is to expose the illness,
to open wounds,
to cut out the infection,
and to grow again
from a healthy, living heart.
 
Pruning can be risky and dangerous work.
No surgery is painless,
and suffering will always leave a scar -
but usually doing nothing
is both negligent and cruel,
and leaving things to tangle and choke 
is ultimately worse than intervention -
so while the positive disciplines of life
provide us with energy and strength …
sometimes we also need pruning.
 
At pruning time we face up to our facts.
We name our fears and admit our need;
we set aside excuses;
we look for honest options
and we aim for adult maturity.
We accept responsibility for ourselves
and we recognise our essential connection to others -
we respond to the call of God
and we take up the cross of Jesus.
 
“I am the vine” Jesus said,
“and you are the branches.
Those who abide in me
and I in them,
bear much fruit.”
 
This morning we came to the table
to share the fruit of the vine
and the broken bread.
We recognise that there’s something here
that gives us nourishment -
not just physically,
but a nourishment of the spirit:
a sense of connection,
and a source of meaning -
that has its origin in the life of Jesus.
Here we ‘abide in him’ -
we draw on his inspiration and grace,
and with that nourishment
comes a call
and a commission
to live a life like his:
a life of generosity,
compassion and forgiveness,
peace and grace.