1"I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. 2He cuts off every branch of me that doesn't bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. 3You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken.
4"Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can't bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can't bear fruit unless you are joined with me.
5"I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you're joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can't produce a thing. 6Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire. 7But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. 8This is how my Father shows who he is--when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.(John 15:1-8 MSG)
The dead branches were entangled and enmeshed throughout the fence that bordered the back yard. Very few leaves grew in the older sections; only coarse, hardened bark remained. The grapes that at one time had been a welcomed addition to the summer snacks were now only an occasional tidbit. It had become an overgrown jungle and an eyesore of dead and decaying debris.
The gardener stood and looked at the task before him. Where to begin? How much should be cut? The pruning shears stood at the ready but the overwhelming complexity of tangled branches held the man for a moment as he tried to envision the end results. He knew a grape needed to be trimmed. He knew that by removing the old canes new growth and abundant fruit would spring forth... at least that is what he hoped. He wondered if it wasn't too late.
His wife had argued that the vines should be left alone. Yes, there was very little fruit, but in the peak of summer grape leaves covered the entire mass like a hedge. It was green and luscious. If he were to cut it back then they would probably lose the comforting vegetative embrace that had endeared them to the yard when they had purchased the house.
"How do you know what you will find behind all that growth?" she had reasoned. "Who knows, perhaps the grape is the only thing holding up the fence. It looks to me that it is still providing us a very useful function."
He had agreed that in the peak of the season the grape provided a beautiful backdrop to their yard. But, in his heart and with his discerning gardening eyes, he knew there was still much more the old plant could offer. As he looked deep within the tangle he could see that the surface beauty was only a facade of healthfulness. The inside showed that the plant was strangling itself and was destined to die an early death.
The difficult part of pruning is the first cut. He had a clear objective of where he would eventually end up - the dead and unproductive branches beneath. However, It was the live, green, and fruitful branches he would need to cut first in order to reach the inner core. He reached down to a branch that had yielded a small amount of sweet fruit earlier that summer and snipped it from the branch. The tan colored cane came loose in his hands and was discarded onto the ground. Many more discarded branches would join it before the job was done.
At the end of the day, the gardener stepped back to view his work. The rubbish pile had become massive while the plant was simply a stump. He had discovered that there were actually four plants living within the mass. The faster growing Thompson grape had overgrown the others to the point that they had become completely lifeless. Their stumps would need to be dug out and thrown in the rubbish pile too.
The following spring, new life sprung from the remaining old stump. The leaves and new canes that grew seemed to have responded to the cutting with a loud rejoice and bursting forth with the renewed energy after being bottled up for years. The gardener allowed its branches to grow helter-skelter that summer instead of keeping it trimmed to maximum fruit potential. Even then the bounty of grapes that filled the kitchen counter was overwhelming. Yet, even with its newly found vigor, the back yard did not regain the plush embracing feel that it once had. The three new grapes that had been planted needed a few years of root development before they would fill the fence-line with their green canopy. At the base of the vines, once covered in debris, a new celebration of life began as the tubers and bulbs from last years planting began to take form. New life did abound - a plentiful life securely in the hands of the Master Gardner.
Points to Consider:
As we read John's accounting of Jesus teaching his disciples about the vine and the vineyard, we generally think of its implication on a personal level. Our lives are blessed and we will be fruitful disciples the more our lives are centered on Christ and the more we allow God to lead us in our life's journey.
Today, it is important to consider how this lesson can be applied in a world where many traditional Christian churches in the U.S. are facing decades of declining attendance and membership numbers. Are our churches becoming less fruitful? The evidence is very strong that they are. There are fewer people in the pews each Sunday, there are fewer children and young families in attendance, adult baptisms are a rare event, and the average age of the congregations are frequently above 50.
In these situations is it time to allow the Master Gardener to do some cutting with His pruning knife?
Yes, even in the most stagnant of churches there is still life. There are occasional events that reveal God's glory to those in attendance. There is healing and prayer support for those in need. There is ministry outreach to those less fortunate. There is good music, good sermons, and good food -- just no one to experience it. There is life but the bounty is diminishing.
So what needs to be cut? That is not a judgment for anyone to make except the Master Gardner Himself. But it does require an awareness and willingness of the branches to listen and avail themselves to that knife. The cutting could seem severe.
Perhaps it will mean tearing down a 125-year old building that has long outlived it usefulness and is costing more in maintenance and repair each year then it cost to build. Does historical value have any kingdom building value? What modern facility could be built in its place that could possibly attract young families? A daycare center? A gymnasium? A new sanctuary with modern features?
Perhaps it will mean looking at the worship service offerings. Do traditional services need to be moved to a different time of day so contemporary services can be offered in "prime time?" Are there traditions of worship that are being clung to that have lost their ability to point seekers to Christ? Are there seekers in attendance at all and if not, what pruning needs to be done to help bring them back into our churches so they can discover Christ?
Maybe the problem is bureaucracy. Have the church organizations become overburdened with infrastructure and bi-law? If less were spent each year to support these bureaucracies would more money be available to plant new churches and support new pastors? Are there simply too many programs? Is it time to cut back and focus only on a few ministry options that are bringing the love of Christ into people's lives in real and authentic ways?
Do we fire the organist and hire a children's minister? Do we sell the downtown church property and move to a neighborhood filled with families? Do we eliminate bulletins so the money can be used to fund a Celebrate Recovery or Alpha program?
What needs to be cut in your church so that new life will spring forth and the abundance of God's love will freely flow to the entire world?
The important thing to remember as we look at the branches in our churches is that even though we see life, even though the green leaves of the branches provide a beautiful backdrop to our backyard, pruning still must take place. Evidence of life does not indicate abundant fruitfulness and it certainly does not mean we are on the right track. In fact, it is very possible that the life we see in our churches today is choking out the life of those trying to find God in our modern world of infinite choices. Pruning can be painful but the long term affect will result in an abundance that only God can provide.
Loving Father and Master Gardener: We praise your Holy Name because from you all blessings in our lives flow. Help us to recognize your Spirit so that we are able to follow where you lead. Open our hearts to everyone we meet, recognizing that these are your people and you have sent them to us to love, teach, and lead into your arms. Give us the ability to mold our churches into vessels that reach out to the poor, the un-churched, the de-churched, and that a foundation is being laid to provide the teaching of your Word for generations to come. Help us to become fruitful disciples of Christ, willingly accepting and responding to your shaping and molding of our lives. Lord, we love you and we know that as we abide in your love our lives become the fulfillment of your Kingdom in the world around us. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, we pray. Amen.