Sermon preached at St Michael and All Saints, Sunday 6 May 2018
May is Mary’s month; but it’s also exam month. Do you remember the annual tyranny of cramming, and past papers, and exam halls? It’s still one of the most common anxiety dreams, I gather, turning over an exam paper and having nothing to write.
In the Ignatian tradition they love exams: daily exams. The Daily Examen is a meditation that at its heart includes a review of the day just passed, to identify times when you grew closer to God, and times you drew further away. The examen concludes with a forward look, at how tomorrow you might collaborate more effectively with God’s plan for you.
As we heard in our Gospel today: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.’ I wonder how often you ponder God’s plan for you, and assess your current state of fruitfulness?
Today’s Gospel makes more sense if you read the bit before the verses we’ve heard. Chapter 15 of John’s Gospel is often called ‘Jesus the True Vine,’ because it opens with Jesus using this metaphor of himself. The Vine is husbanded by God the Father, who removes the branches that bear no fruit, and prunes even those that do.
I think we have several gardeners in this congregation. You’ll already have been busy pruning this year. Indeed, many of you started in the Autumn. I want to talk to you about pruning, because we know it’s the best way to maximise fruiting, but perhaps we’re a bit afraid of the secateurs.
Let me read you a section from Nathan’s gardening book about pruning: “The purpose of pruning is threefold. Firstly, there is the need to remove poor quality wood, such as weak twigs, dead or diseased branches and damaged stems. Next, there is a need to shape the tree or shrub – this calls for the removal of good quality but unwanted wood so that the vigour of the plant is directed as required. Finally, trees and shrubs are pruned to regulate the quality and the quantity of flower production over the years. In order to achieve these benefits, it is generally necessary to prune each year. Some will require virtually no cutting at all – others will need fairly drastic treatment if their beauty is to be maintained.”
So, pruning is for health, vigour, and fruitfulness. But let’s be honest about the pain, and about the sacrifice involved. These blades are sharp – not for nothing does Isaiah make pruning hooks from spears. And quite often perfectly good bits of the plant are thrown away, just because they distract growth from the core. Moreover, pruning at the wrong time of year can be fatal: if you prune an olive tree when the sap’s rising, it will bleed to death.
So without bleeding this metaphor to death, how should we look to our own pruning, in order that we might bear fruit for God? The verses before our reading today provide the starting point: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Cue for a song? But it isn’t Abide With Me, it’s Abide IN me. The famous hymn takes its inspiration from Luke 24:29, when the travellers on the road to Emmaus ask Jesus to ‘abide with them’ because it’s nearly evening. It’s about keeping company, but our Gospel reference takes this much further. If we’re to abide IN the true vine, we need to be attached to him quite physically, so that he also abides in us, because we’re the branches of his tree. And that means that we need to walk with God every step of the way. It’s about that moment-by-moment steering and correction, to ensure we never stray far off the route; because we can’t, really, if we’re in lockstep.
The Daily Examen tries to help us with this, by encouraging a daily review of the extent to which we’ve been part of, or distinct from, God’s growth that day. Our pruning is about ruthlessly stripping out those activities or behaviours that our daily examen shows us are not fruitful. Are you wasting your time with the wrong people? Are you allowing negative thoughts to poison your soul? Are you labouring in vain? We must chop off these deadwood activities and throw them in the fire. No one said that saying no and walking away was easy. And perhaps for a season it’s an act of Christian sacrifice to sub-optimise, in service of others. But if God has a plan for us, we must hurry to fulfil it, and not waste time sending our life’s sap out into condemned limbs. But this does require courage to withstand the pain; and a steady and patient faith that time heals all wounds; and the hope that God will bless and transform our scars with abundant new growth.
Apart from the brutal excising of dead wood, there is the seemingly wasteful pruning of good growth, sacrificing low-grade fruitfulness for the flowering to come. Again, I wonder what you have going on in your life that is ok, but is really distracting you from putting all of your energies into your real gifting, where the flowers and fruit will just burst forth.
It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said: “As the gardener, by severe pruning, forces the sap of the tree into one or two vigorous limbs, so should you stop off your miscellaneous activity and concentrate your force on one or a few points.” So do ponder God’s plan for you, and see what more you could do to align your efforts with his.
Well, that’s not very cheerful, is it? So let me also tell you all about my favourite wine. Old Vine Zinfandel. On my honeymoon, I was to be found floating above the Sonoma vineyards in a hot air balloon. With the lovely Nathan, of course. Everywhere you looked, in that eerie clear blue silence, there were vines – stretching their arms out across the countryside, espaliered from the lakes to the Bay. But every so often we would glide across scruffy, cross-looking vines, ones that refused to look neat and hadn’t read the dress code. These were the zinfandel, the goths of the species, and among them, the old vines. These tend to be in their 70s, and some are incredibly venerable, brought over to California in the Gold Rush, and still going strong today. They don’t produce much fruit each year, but the fruit they do produce makes divine wine. The fruit is incredibly concentrated in flavour, because of the absolute focus of the vine. But even these Ents still need pruning, albeit with great care. You have to circle them gently, secateurs in hand, and with no wires to guide you, making precise pinches designed not to disturb these fragile elders. But after a lifetime of careful pruning, what riches they produce. Fruit that will last indeed.
So I wish you a zinfandel future, which perhaps you could start in the pub next door right after the service.