For today, I saw that the suggested Scripture reading were the John verses, and I remembered using the vine imagery last Spring, so I hesitated using it again. I feel it’s a set of verses many of us have heard over and over, plus it’s sometimes fun to explore less well-known Scripture.
But then I discovered that when we read this imagery last year, I cut off the John verses right before verse 6, which is when it says that the pruned branches will be burned in a fire, but if you abide in God that you can ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you. And I thought “well played, Kim, well played. Good job skipping right over the piece of this Scripture that brings up some tough questions and makes it somewhat difficult to read.”
So, today, we read them and we ask what to do with them.
The overall imagery of these passages is similar to last week’s shepherding imagery because it emphasizes the interconnectedness of the faith community. A vine, especially a well-established one, can have branches entwined so closely that it is hard to determine where one ends and another begins. This vine shares nutrients to the very tips and farthest reaching branches. A vine is an interconnected community.
For the people of John’s time to hear these words would have been comforting, as they needed a foundation and rooting in this new faith community that was forming. Kathryn Matthews states, “Just as the disciples must have been bewildered by some of the things Jesus was saying, and anxious about the negative response of religious and political leaders, so the early Christians a generation later, expelled from their religious home, also needed a word of tender reassurance from the risen Christ, telling them that they weren't alone or abandoned.” (ucc.org)
These words would have given those people in the early Christian community the comfort they needed to be rooted together in God’s love, and also the motivation they needed to grow and expand from that root. These words would have brought them some instructional comfort during a time of possible anxiety-producing wondering.
Along with the comforting words, though, we read that branches which do not abide in the vine are thrown away, wither, and burn in a fire. Remember, in this analogy, we are branches. As a branch, I don’t want to face withering and burning.
To make sure we have the right fire insurance, we may find ourselves asking:
What does it mean to abide in God? Am I abiding enough?
What if I don’t produce fruit? What if I don’t know how to produce fruit? What does this fruit even look like?
What do I need to do so that I don’t burn?
Furthermore, we read that those which do stay connected can ask for whatever they want and it will be granted.
What do we then say to the person whose loved one dies of leukemia, even though they tried every treatment and said every possible prayer? Did they not believe enough?
What do we then say to the adult who has never found a partner in love, but desperately longs for that relationship? Are they not loveable enough?
What do we then say to the people whose neighborhood is full of crime and they don’t feel safe? Are they not worth saving?
I bring up these questions because I hear your stories of faith journeys - I hear the questions that many of you ask and I also know from my own experience the anxiety that can surface when exploring our spirituality and beliefs. These end up being the questions of our faith.
In many of these questions is an underlying fear - fear of rejection by God, fear of abandonment by God, fear of being thrown into a fire by God (however that looks).
And to that I say 2 things:
FIRST,particularly for people who feel alone in their questioning, take note of the communal nature of a vine. Gail O’Day, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, points out that a vine holds within it a lot of corporate accountability, a lot of community. The nutrients are shared across the branches and often one branch may be helping another to stay upright.
Contrary to how our culture sometimes tries to tell us that it is through individual efforts that we succeed in this world, we need community to thrive. We need to be connected to friends and to loved ones in order to grow. We need the people who will hold us when we are questioning and we need the people who challenge us when they ask their questions.
Thinking of community reminded me of a piece of conversation from last week’s Progressive Pints. The question was: can you be faithful to something you don’t believe in?
At first, my response was yes, because I know some here who are faithful to this community, which is founded on Christianity, but not sure that you believe in all that the UCC Christian church states.
And then, I listened to the conversations around the table and changed my answer. The people that are faithful to LCCC without knowing if they believe in all the Christian tenets, do believe in what the community stands for - extravagant welcome for all, serving others who are in need, and supporting one another during both joyous and sorrowful times. (Of course, we stand for those things because of what Jesus taught us.)
It is in this community - in this vine - that you are connected. As individuals we are accountable to one another to act in such a manner as to encourage thriving and growing - asking the necessary questions and listening to another one’s questions along the way.
This ivy plant sits in the windowsill in my office here and brought some good inspiration for today. It has this one area of the plant that is shooting off like nobody’s business, this other area that isn’t reaching outward a bunch but is growing more dense, and then this one leaf that is hanging out by itself on a branch. And all are connected to the roots.
Similarly, we have growth here and within the wider Christian church that is shooting far outward, some that is simply getting thicker in the middle, and some that is hanging out amidst the rest (but introvertedly so).
Hopefully, this communal aspect of the vine reminds you that you are not abandoned in your times of questioning, that you are connected (even if feeling like an off-shoot) and that you are supported, even if you aren’t sure which direction you’re going.
SECOND, particularly in response to those questions these passages evoke which stir up fear... perhaps because your prayers asking God for something which your heart desires have not been answered, I remind you of our passage from 1 John.
There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear.
If you have fear within you regarding God - not a respectful reverence for God, but a cowering fear of God - first, stop beating yourself over the head for “apparently not getting it right.” Nobody has the Christian faith perfectly, 100% right.
Next, ask where the fear is coming from - what voice is telling you that you should fear the Divine?
Fear is often what lies underneath our anger. What we don’t want is that fear turning into anger toward God. It makes sense that people get angry at God for what we call unanswered prayers because underneath there is likely a fear - a fear that they aren’t worthy to be heard by God or a fear that they don’t have enough faith.
The response to questions like “Did I not pray hard enough for my loved one to be healed?” is complex and yet likely insufficient. However, I do know the answer is not “God didn’t hear you...or you are not worthy of God’s response...or you don’t abide in God enough.”
If you are rooted in a peaceful love with God, then you can grow. However, it is hard to lean in close to the vine and get the nourishment you need if you fear the source of nourishment.
Yes, pruning is needed for healthy growth. But this is careful and not haphazard. Besides, I think we can all agree that our lives need pruning from time to time - we all need some attitude or habit or way of thinking cut out of our lives. (And, no, you cannot suggest to the person sitting beside you what that should be for them unless you’re willing to hear it back from them as well.) Nancy Blakely reminds us that, after pruning, “what remains is centered and focused on God’s word.”
I think the fear of “pruning” is a fear of being rejected by God’s love. Sadly, some of us here have heard that God’s love doesn’t reach us because of who we love, because of what we have done in life, or because of what we believe in.
In this community, I hope that we encourage one another to cultivate the spiritual fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control, and generosity.
In this community, I hope you hear “you are loved.” You are in the midst of God’s love. God’s love is perfect - in a way that we do not fully understand, no matter what analogy we use to describe it. There is no hiding from it, there is nothing that can get between it and you, there is no action or lack of action that can dissolve it. Even if you become a scary, slimy swamp monster, God’s love is still offered to you. (see I Love You Stinky Face) While we hold great respect and reverence for it, it is not to be feared.
God’s love both grounds us and it encourages us to grow. Amen.
Scripture: 1 John 4:15-19; John 15:1-8