The Best Growth Happens Below the Cut

hedge-trimming_1402365i“The Best Growth Happens Below the Cut”
Rev. Todd Buegler
Trinity Lutheran Church
May 2-3, 2015
John 15:1-8

Grace and peace to you, from God our Creator and from our Lord and risen Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

So how many of you got outside on the beautiful day yesterday?  Yes, I thought so…”This is the day that the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and mow our lawns.”  But I do have a confession to make:  I am not a gardener.  Nope.  Not even a little bit.  I like being outside, and I like mowing…but gardening?  Not so much.

Probably my least favorite task, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, is weeding.  I have zero patience for weeding.  I think part of my frustration with it comes from the fact that I can go out and stare at a garden plot, and not really be able to tell which are the plants, and which are the weeds.

And really…weeds versus plants…plants versus weeds…who am I to say?  What should stay and which should get pulled out?  Is it really for me to decide?  After all, it says in the Bible, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”   I just want to look at the weeds and the plants, and say “can’t we all just get along?” Well, probably not.

And I’m not much better at shrubs.  When Lori and I bought our first home together in Maple Grove, the back yard had this row of very nice, medium sized rounded shrubs that separated our yard from the city park that backed up to our home.  After a year or so, they were starting to get kind of overgrown and ratty.  So I went to Home Depot and bought a hedge trimmer…they were on sale, so I did the manly thing and bought a big one.  I went to the back yard and started trimming.  Some off the front, the back, right, left…the top… and I stood back to admire my work.  Hmmm…it was kind of lopsided.  So I trimmed more…than more…than more…

By the time I was finished, pretty much all I had left of each of my 6 shrubs, was about 4 or 5 bare sticks standing up, about 4-5 inches tall.  Lori walked up to me as I stared at my disaster.  She looked, rolled her eyes and said.  “Way to go.  You killed them.”  (This is why, by the way, Lori doesn’t let me cut the boys hair.)

.  Yep.  And defeated, I returned to the garage to put away the trimmer.  But then a strange thing happened.  A couple of weeks later, I was out, mowing the lawn (Lori still let me mow the lawn) and I noticed something.  On the little branches, buds were popping.  And a week or two after that, there were little leaves.  In fact, there were a lot of little leaves.  In fact, on these small, tiny shrubs, the leaves were thick…much thicker than they had been before.  And a couple of weeks after that, we had these little, round, shrubs, maybe softball sized, thick with leaves…and the next year they were basketball sized…that in a couple of years we had to cut way back again.

This reminded me of an important truth:  the best growth always happens right below the cut.  Let me say that again:  the best growth always happens right below the cut.  This is true for shrubs, and it is true in life.

Our Gospel text today is all about that.  We’re looking at John 15:1-8.  You might want to pull out your pew Bibles and take a look with me.  There are a couple of interesting things about this.  You can find it on page 878 in your pew bibles.

This scripture text is right smack dab in the middle of what is called Jesus’ “Farewell Discourses.”  In chapters 13 through 17, it’s a long section of Jesus’ teachings to his followers about what it is to be a disciple.

So in John 15:1-8, he is using the vine analogy: God is the gardener; Jesus is the vine and we are the branches.  There are four quick observations that I think might help us to understand this scripture a little bit better.

  • First, it might be helpful for us to “begin at the end.” What is the outcome that Jesus is talking about when he speaks about being a vine?  It is clear when you look at verse 8.  Jesus says that the goal is that “you bear much fruit, and become my disciples.”  That we, as Jesus-followers, bear the fruit…that we produce change and transformation within ourselves, and in the world.
  • Second, how do we as followers bear fruit? How are we productive?  If you take a look at this reading, there is a word that appears over and over, so often that it actually becomes a theme of the text.  The word is “abide.”  The word abide appears 8 times in these 8 verses.  Abide means literally to “dwell within.”  Jesus is saying “dwell within me.”  It is to be intimately connected…in relationship with Jesus.  We abide in Christ like we live in a house.  “In order to produce,” he says, we must abide; be connected.
  • Third observation: look again at verse 2. It says that “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit; and every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”  I think it’s interesting that when you look at verses two and three, there are two different English words there:  In verse two the word is prune.  “Every branch that bears fruit he prunes.”  But in verse 3, the word is cleansed.  Jesus says:  “You have already been cleansed by the Word that I have spoken to you.”  Pruned, and cleansed.  Two different words.  But if you read this text in the original Greek, it uses the same Greek word for both of these ideas.  The same word means both pruned and cleansed.  To be pruned is to be cleansed, and visa verse.  In other words, it is in the act of having our life pruned, the deadweight cut away…that we are made clean.  And when the excess, the deadweight, is cut away, it creates space within us for something new to happen.
  • And lastly, and this is just common sense: Fruit doesn’t exist for the sake of the vine.  Rather the fruit exists to be picked…harvested.  Fruit is always for another.

So let’s just summarize:

  1. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches that bear fruit. Jesus’ call for us is to bear fruit.
  2. We do this not for ourselves, but for others. Others will receive the fruit.
  3. We do this by abiding in, staying close to, staying intimately connected and in relationship with Jesus. And finally;
  4. To grow, there is pruning, cutting, cleansing within our own lives that needs to take place.

To make any of this happen, connection to the vine is essential. A writer, Elton Trueblood, once said that we are a “cut-flower civilization”.  In our culture, we tend to focus on the short-term and the superficial; on how we appear to others.  And we can maintain that for a while.  But like a cut flower without roots, our spirit will soon wither.

But to abide in Jesus is to have deep roots. To abide in Jesus is to allow the life to flow from the roots into our lives. To abide in Jesus is to tend the connection, to prune and remove all that would hinder our relationship with Christ. We know that the connection has been created by God, there is nothing we can do to make God love us or to give us life. The connection is part of who we are, the connection is for us to nurture.

In this Gospel, Jesus is really describing how we do the mission of the church.  To be in mission is first to give up something of yourself, and to create space for God do something new within you.  God provides the new…but we need to let go of the old.  Then, to be in mission is to focus on the other; it is to bear fruit.

So my question for you this morning is, what do you need to let go of?  What do you need to cut?   What do you need to prune, or be cleansed of?  It might be greed…or it might be self-interest…or it might be a lack of vision to see the needs around you.  It could be anger, or sorrow, or maybe jealousy.  Our Gospel today calls you to prune these things; to let go of them.  To do this is to abide in Christ.

My friend Jeff was a kind of crusty, tough contractor type.  He knew a lot about construction, was pretty “Type A” and loved working with his hands.  He signed up to go with the second team I’d ever led to Jamaica to work at Westhaven Children’s Home, an orphanage for about 80 developmentally disabled children and young adults in the mountains of Jamaica.  Jeff went there to build.

But then he met the children of Westhaven, who just want to love and be loved.  God did some pruning within Jeff that week.  Maybe a bit of his self-assuredness…the crusty exterior and perhaps a bit of the pride gave way, and God worked his heart like a baker kneads dough.

Jeff had a good week.  And went back to Westhaven the next year…and the next…and the next…and then went twice in the season…and then went back for several weeks as a crew leader…and when position of Director of Mission Jamaica opened up, Jeff was really the only man for the job.  So he shut down his contracting business, and that’s a position he holds today.  And now he coordinates the ministry of over 400 missionaries who travel to Jamaica every year.  He is the one we will work with when Trinity brings a family group there next spring.

This is what happens when we let God work within us.  We see a need…we understand what God might do…we stay close, we abide with Jesus, and we prune.  And God does the rest.  This is fruit!  This is mission!

And there’s more!

  • When you let your heart be melted just a bit by a compassion child, whose information is in the narthex today…that’s mission.
  • When we hear the stories, the joy and the pain of those who live on the Pine Ridge reservation, that’s mission.
  • When our team travels to Ethiopia and spends time in conversation, in prayer, in worship with our sisters and brothers who live there…that’s mission.
  • in Chile, when we support the work of EPES with our presence, with our money, with our prayers…that’s mission.
  • In Jamaica, when we work to build shelter for those children at Westhaven…when we sit with, care for and feed them…that’s mission.
  • …in your home; in your workplace; in your school…when you let go of something that might be holding you back, when you allow God to prune, to create space within your heart that God might do something new, guess what? This is mission!

And so when we’re connected to Jesus, the way that a branch is to a vine…when we prune away those things that draw our energy and focus away from God’s mission, and when we are willing to reach out…amazing things happen.  There is fruit that is harvested.  Lives are changed, and God’s Kingdom on earth, here and today, becomes more and more of a reality.

There is mission ahead of you.  Think and pray about where you should prune to create space and look for God’s transformation within you, and in the world you encounter.

The greatest growth…the harvest…the fruit…always comes when we prune and create space within us for God to work.  The greatest growth; the work of God, it always comes just below the cut.

Amen.

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