St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

Trinity

Listen!
Isaiah 6:1-8 | Romans 8:12-17
The Sunday after Pentecost Sunday is probably one of the least observed festivals of the Christian year. So you are fully excused if you didn’t know that today is Trinity Sunday. To be honest, I don’t think I’d have realised either, if it hadn’t been for an argument on the subject breaking out amongst some of my theologian friends on Facebook….

And I’m absolutely sure that the reason Trinity Sunday gets so little play in the Christian calendar is that the idea of speaking on the subject of the Trinity sends preachers everywhere into fits of despair.

Because if there is one thing that is absolutely certain about the idea of God as Trinity, one God but three, it is this: we don’t understand it.

And it’s almost impossible to speak about the Trinity without tying yourself in knots of language and logic; and it’s also almost impossible to speak about the Trinity without saying something which is probably, technically, heretical.

But we’re not going to let that stop us…

Because actually, this problem – our inability to articulate the idea of the Trinity with clarity and consistency – really points to what I believe to be the single most important truth of the Trinity: that is, the acknowledgement that when we come to speak of God, when we try to capture the nature of God in words, in language, we find that it cannot be done.

To try to describe God and fail is to admit that to fully name or describe the nature of God is beyond us; that our tools of language and intellect are simply inadequate to the task.

And really, that probably shouldn’t surprise us. As I’ve said before, when it comes to things of God, anyone who is confident that they know the answer probably hasn’t understood the question. A sort theological Dunning-Kruger effect…

And of course, this is not just a limitation when we speak of God. In fact, language seems to fall down when we seek to speak of almost anything really important: when we try to describe the beauty of a scene, or a work of art, or piece of music; when we try to define the love of a parent for a child; even when we try to describe a flavour, or sound.

And faced with these challenges of language, we do two things.

The first is to deconstruct; to try to describe fragments, to capture some aspects of the truth. We study the metre of the poem, the harmonies in the symphony, the frequencies of light in the sunset. And we can do a lot like that – this is the approach that lies at the heart of science, after all, especially in my past field of theoretical physical science.

And some of the more philosophical-theological descriptions of the Trinity try to do just this: to seek at least some rigorous propositions about the nature of God. And so we find ourselves wrestling with consubstantial, coexternal, perichoresis and other, even more technical language. And while I’m glad that there are people who try to think clearly and rigorously about this question, I’m even more glad that I’m not one of them. For it seems clear that for any benefit this approach may bring, it will always also fail to capture the heart of the matter.

And the second approach we take is that of analogy. And this, I’d suggest, is the realm where the language of the trinity most naturally plays.

The very terms we use are clearly intended as analogy: to speak of God the Father and God the Son is not to imply a literal truth, but to describe something of a relationship.

And given that an analogy can only ever illuminate one part of the truth, it’s not surprising that a range of language emerges to describe the trinity:

The traditional, familiar words: God the Father, Son and Spirit;

God the Creator, Liberator, and Sustainer;

God the Lover, Beloved and Love;

God transcendent, God incarnate, God ever present;

God the Source, Word and Spirit;

All language, analogy, seeking to express a fundamental truth: that we encounter God in a variety of ways.

That we encounter God in creation.

That we encounter God in the life of Jesus Christ.

That we encounter God in the unexpected presence of the divine.

That we encounter God in prayer, in meditation, in music, in silence.

That we encounter God in face of a stranger, or the embrace of a friend.

That we meet God in all these ways and many others, and yet, at the same time, it is but one God, the same God, that we meet.

And at the same time, we experience God in different ways, different roles:

We experience God as the one who comforts us in distress.

We experience God as the one who challenges us in complacency.

We experience God as the one who convicts us of our wrongdoing.

We experience God as the one who heals us in our brokenness.

But once again – all the ways we experience God, it is the one, same God.

The language of the Trinity, whether it be formality of technical language or the poetry of analogy, represents our effort to capture this mystery, to hold together three profound truths:

The genius monotheistic insight of Judaism – that there is but one God; that all of God is found in all our encounters with the divine.

And the great mystery of the incarnation: that in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God entered into creation and became like us, to bridge the infinite gulf that lies between creation and creator.

And the mystery of Pentecost: that in the sending of the Holy Spirit, God’s presence has been offered to each of us, not just to specially chosen people at special times in their lives, but to all of us, all the time.

The mystery of God’s action in these different ways is captured in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, describing the reality and the meaning of their experience of God:

When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness that we are children of God, and joint heirs with Christ

We cry out to God, naming God as our parent, claiming an intimacy of relationship with God which would be ludicrous and presumptuous if it were not for assurance that this cry does not come from us alone, but is the Spirit of God within us, echoing the words that Jesus taught us to pray, witnessing that we are indeed children of God, joint heirs with Christ.

This, in the end, is the point of the doctrine of the Trinity: not to confuse us, not define a set of beliefs that separates the true believer from the heretic (though far too often that has been how these words have been applied) – but offer us that assurance – that the spirit within us that prompts us to pray, that spurs us to call out in our weakness for strength that is beyond us: that spirit, that prompting, is God at work – that when we look at the life and teaching and person of Jesus Christ, and seek to live as his people, his followers, his friends: that challenge is God at work – that when we experience the wonder and grandeur and awe of creation, in art or music or science, we are wondering at God at work – that when we see the face of God in other human being, that recognition is God at work.

That our God is not limited to one way of being; or even to three: that the God who we dare to call our Father is also our creator, our saviour, our companion, our conscience, our friend.

The God to whom we cry is the one who has adopted us, and made us God’s family.

Amen.

Vanuatu Update

A couple of days ago I received an update from Marnie Frost at UnitingWorld. The literacy program has just recommenced following Cyclone Pam, with 40 teachers and principals (see photo!) being supported to travel from remote communities to Port Vila to complete training that will lead to their re-accreditation.

Funds raised in the Cyclone Pam appeal (to which St. John’s and Wahroonga prep both generously contributed) are being used on a number of projects, including rebuilding hostels and schools.

Women’s Shelter Gala Dinner

On Saturday August 15th, at Hornsby RSL at 7pm, the Hornsby Lion’s Club are holding a Gala Dinner to raise funds for the Hornsby Women’s Shelter. The special guest is Linda Mottram of ABC Radio, and the evening includes music from “Street Party” and live and silent auctions.

Tickets are $65 – you can book online or by calling 0414 806 840.
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Messy Church – What a Wonderful World!

Messy Church was back at St John’s for 2015 with ~ 70 Mums, Dads, Grandparents and kids gathering to celebrate God’s wonderful world. We made suncatchers to remember our beautiful Earth, and bird baths to remind us to look after God’s creatures. We planted seedlings to recognize the importance of plants, flowers and food. We explored nature’s wonderful textures with our hands, eyes and noses! We chatted about ways in which we could live responsibly to help save the planet. And we wrote our prayers and praises for God’s world on little colourful cards that then became an awesome praise quilt! Then we had a time of celebration and shared a meal together. What a Wonderful World!

tn_Messy Church collage May 2015

Overnight walk in June: Govett’s Leap to Mt Victoria, Queen’s Birthday Weekend

The Cartophiles’ second overnight walk of the year is a three day trek over the Queen’s Birthday Weekend, 6th – 8th June.

We start at Govetts Leap on Saturday morning, pass Bridal Falls then drop into the Grose Valley and follow the river to the Acacia Flats campsite. On Sunday we walk through the Blue Gum Forest and continue to explore the valley to the Burra Korain Flat Camping Area. On Monday it’s a short walk but a very steep climb of about 430m to Mt Victoria past the spectacular Victoria Falls and the smaller Victoria Cascades.

The distance each day allows time to stop, explore and enjoy the fantastic scenery and we should be finished by midday on Monday to allow time to get home.

For more information see 2015 Overnight Walk 2 (Govetts Leap to Mt Victoria) flyer.

You must register for this walk by Monday 29th May. For more information contact Kit Craig on 0411 507 422 or email cartophiles@stjohnswahroonga.org

Pentecost

(due to a technical error, audio is not available for this week’s sermon…)
Ezekiel 37:1-14 | Acts 2:1-21
Ever felt like a dry bone?

In Ezekiel’s day, the people of Israel certainly did. Not long before they had been part of something exciting, something vital; they had been part of the people called to be the people of God, and it had really meant something. They’d been a nation of that worshipped God, a nation that identified with God, a nation in which each generation taught the things of God to the next generation, in which children grew up practicing the faith of their parents, and grandchildren the faith of their grandparents. They’d been called by God to show the love of God to the whole world, to be a light to all the nations, a wellspring of hope and faith and all that is good and true and godly.

But within the span of a generation – less than a generation – it had all vanished. Suddenly they were a minority, surrounded by people who did not know their God, did not value their faith, did not care about their understanding of good and evil, right and wrong.

The community had been broken, families separated. The people were scattered like the bones of Ezekiel’s vision. Worship, instead of being the vibrant heart of the community, had become a thing mocked by outsiders.

Any of this sounding familiar?

Have you ever felt as if the Church has lost something? As if not so long ago, or not so far away, we were vibrant, full and active, as if the Church was at the heart of society, as if people looked to the Church for guidance about right and wrong, looked to the Church to pass on the faith from one generation to the next?

Ever felt like a dry bone? Then Ezekiel’s vision is for you.

In his vision, the prophet looked out over a valley full of bones, dry and scattered. The people of God, with life and breath and hope sucked out of them. “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.”

And perhaps God might have said “I will start again. I will find a new people. I will create a new nation. There is no life here.”

But instead, God said “I will bring you back, and you will live”. And, commanded by God, the prophet spoke to the bones, repeated God’s promise to them.

And there was a rattling noise, and the bones came together, bone joined to bone, there were sinews and flesh, and skin covered them.

Where before the people had been scattered, now they had come together. They had looked like a random, broken, meaningless mixture of bones, now they looked like an army.

But still there was no life in them. Still they lacked the spark of life, that indefinable something that separates the living from the dead, the makes a body into a person, a group of people into a community. They lacked something, something for which there is no good word.

And God spoke again. “Speak to the wind, speak to the breath, speak to the spirit, and command it; it is time – come, blow, breathe, be in these bodies and make them live”. There is something here that is impossible to capture in our English words; breath, wind, spirit, the same idea, the same word – ruach – in Hebrew. The wind blows, God breathes, the Spirit comes.

And the breath – the wind – the spirit of God came into them, and they lived, and they stood on their feet – a vast multitude.

Seven weeks ago we gathered here on Easter Sunday to celebrate the great day – and the great mystery – of our faith.
Today we gather to celebrate Pentecost; the day of the sending of the spirit, the fulfilment of Ezekiel’s vision.

But before Pentecost was a date in the Christian calendar, it had long existed a Jewish festival; perhaps less well known than Passover, but a significant day in the religious life of Judaism. At Pentecost, fifty days after the celebration of Passover, the people of Israel would gather to remember another crucial event in their story; the giving of law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

And I don’t think that it is coincidence that it is at the festival of Pentecost that the Spirit came.
Because the giving of the law was one of the central facets of the Jewish faith. In fact, it’s probably not a stretch to say that the Law was the one thing above everything else that defined the relationship between God and the people – the promised land would be given, but lost; the Temple would be built, but thrown down; the Law was the constant. There was even a sense in which the Law was the presence of God with the people of Israel – as the story is told, the stone tablets upon which the ten commandments were written were placed into the ark of the covenant and kept in the holy of holies, the place of God, almost as if the Law, the Torah, represented God’s presence amongst the people.
But for the people of Jesus Christ, God’s new law comes at this Pentecost; the law that is the Spirit of God; the law that is God’s presence with each and every one of the people.

Ezekiel’s prophecy and the story of Acts chapter 2 are paired together in the lectionary because they both ultimately speak the same word to us.

They both speak of the possibility of new life.

The possibility of change.

The reality that the past does not need to define the future.

For the disciples on that Pentecost day, everything changed.

Their fear was replaced with boldness.

Peter denial of Jesus replaced with his very public witness.

A time of waiting and wondering replaced with a time of action.

The letter of the Law replaced with the presence of the Spirit.

A group of individuals turned into a people.

And this is the way that God has worked ever since; taking unlikely people – dry bones – drawing them together by their shared love of Jesus into a body, and then breathing the Spirit of God into them so that they might live.

We are the bones that God has drawn together in this place. We are the bones that have come together to form the body of Christ, the body which, with the breath of the Spirit of God in it, lives, to the glory of our God.

That is Ezekiel’s vision. That is the story of Pentecost. That is the faith of the Church. Where we gather, God is with us. And where God is, there is life and hope and purpose.

Amen

Hummy Mummies

A small local choir (The Hummy Mummies), in which Elly Cowan sings, is raising money for St John’s Ambulance. Come along and enjoy an afternoon of old favourites…and discover some new ones. Sunday 14th June at 2pm here at St John’s. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for concessions (children and pensioners). Tickets can be purchased from Elly Cowan on Sunday 24th May and Sunday 31st May. For more information about the concert speak to Elly or go to www.facebook.com/the20kproject

Godly Play training day

On June 7th, after the morning service (starting around 11am), Judyth Roberts will be running an introduction to Godly Play training session at St. John’s. Anyone interested in exploring this way of telling Biblical Stories to children is very welcome to attend. There is no charge to attend, although a contribution to cover the cost of lunch (which will be provided) would be welcomed. For more information, contact Chris.

Chris will be coordinating some games and movies in the Upper Hall for any children whose parents want to attend.

Jesus’ Prayer

Listen!
Psalm 1 | John 17:6-19
In the past few weeks we’ve been looking at some of what is normally called the “farewell discourse” – Jesus’ conversation with the disciples, as recorded by the author of John’s gospel, immediately before he was arrested and taken away to be tried and executed. We’ve seen over the past couple of weeks over and again Jesus speaking of the disciples “abiding in him”, and then going on to teach them that if they love, like he loved, they will be in him, and he will be in them, just as God the Father was in Jesus and Jesus in God.

And as we’ve explored those words it’s seemed to me that this is one of those places where we – at least, I, with my analytical science sort of background – are in danger of overthinking things. Of analysing the logic and the words to the nth degree, and missing the underlying poetry of the words:

abide in me and I abide in you

if you obey my commandments you will abide in me

and this is my commandment: love one another

Today we jump ahead a chapter or so, into the middle of a prayer that Jesus prayed for his disciples.

And, given that the chapter begins with a description of Jesus praying these words out loud, it seems clear that he prayed them wanting his disciples to hear them, wanting them to know just what it was that he was asking for them.

And it’s a long prayer, so we’re really not going to be able to get into everything that it has to offer; I’m just going to focus in on the bit that jumped out at me when I read the passage earlier this week.

I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.
And what struck me as I read this was that it’s a very odd thing for Jesus to say just before he is taken away from his disciples and put to death. I mean, as they reflected back upon these words in the 24 or 48 hours to come, having seen Jesus taken and killed in a particularly unpleasant way, they would be hearing these words: “the world has hated them”. Not exactly words of reassurance, no “she’ll be right” here. No, we have “they are about to kill me, and, oh, by the way, they hate you too”

There is a brutal, uncompromising honesty here in Jesus’ prayer – a reality, for, if the traditions of early Church are correct, every one of these men would end up being killed because of their commitment to following Jesus.

Jesus refuses to give them cheap peace; cheap comfort. The nearest he will go is to assure them that what they face they face for good reason; for the same reason that he faces it.

the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world

Which leads me on to a couple more questions:

What does it mean to belong, or not belong, to the world?

And… more disturbing to me, if the world doesn’t hate us, does that mean we do belong to it? ‘Cause that doesn’t sound like the way we ought to be…

Quite often in the run up to Easter I’ve spoken about the crucifixion of Jesus in these terms: that Jesus’ commitment to love was so absolute, so uncompromising, that it ended up getting him killed. That if you love the way God loves, in the end, the powers that rule this world will want to get rid of you.

Crucifixion is what happens when you love. But not when we love. The sort of love we seem to specialise in never gets you killed, or hated, or even disliked

Now a fairly common direction for a sermon to take at this point would be to start talking about the way that the Church (or most of the Churches, and most of the people in them), have gone so far in the effort to be inoffensive that they no longer stand for anything; and that this is why no-one hates them, and also why they are fading into irrelevancy.

And I think there is probably something in that line of thinking. The only problem is that the step after that seems to be to say “and if the Church’s problem is that we have become inoffensive, the obvious, logical, response is to go out of our way to offend.” To pick a fight, to start a culture war. This is the logic that leads to Westboro Baptist – Fred Phelps (until his recent death the leader of that group) referred to the negative response to his Church picketing the funerals of victims of AIDS as “proof of his righteousness”.
The truth is, sometimes when you are offending people, it’s not because you are righteous, it’s just because you are being a … (sorry, I can’t think of a good word to finish that sentence that I’m comfortable using in public)…. because you are being offensive.
Perhaps the only thing worse that the world ignoring the Church is the world is the world hating us, and us deserving it.

I don’t think that the analysis that says that our problem is that we’ve just become too nice, too inoffensive, too unwilling to ever say anything anyone might disagree with is wrong: I think that’s exactly the problem.

But too often our mistake is in what we choose to make a fuss about. Because surely what we ought to do is look at what things Jesus spoke against, and what the prophets who came before him spoke against.

And when you look for the subjects that come up again and again in our scriptures as making God angry, it’s not homosexuality. It’s not scripture in schools or prayers in schools. It’s not Muslim immigration. It’s not drug injecting rooms. Or women wearing headscarfs. Or teaching of evolution.

The themes which come up over and again in the condemnation of Christ at the prophets:

abuse of power

the protection of the status quo at the expense of justice

the rich taking advantage of the poor

the destruction of creation in the cause of profit

These are the things that made the prophets of God angry; and they are also the things that speaking against will earn you the enmity of the world.

Because the world, in the idiom of Jesus, doesn’t just mean ‘everyone else’ or ‘people in general’. The world refers specifically to those who hold on to power, and to the structures and systems and stories that keep them in power.

In Jesus’ day, that meant the power of Rome, and the military and economic might that protected it; and the power of the Temple authorities, and the social and religious structures that protected them.

Jesus himself spent a long time healing and teaching and generally being good, without getting into trouble. But it was overturning the tables in the temple, preaching against the religious elite, and being seen as a threat to the authority of Rome that got him killed.

The call of the Christian gospel that gets us into trouble is the call that challenges the assumptions that underlie our world, just as Jesus challenged the assumptions that underlay his world.

The assumption that maximizing growth is the prime goal of our economic system.

The assumption that it is ok for us in the developed world to consume far more that our share of the world’s resources, because we have somehow ‘earned’ them.

The assumption that solving global problems such as climate change is someone else’s problem.

The assumption that we have the right to protect our standard of living by reducing the assistance we give to those who are barely able to survive.

The assumption that enemies must be fought and defeated.

The assumption that protecting our borders against those who would seek our help is so important that it trumps all questions of justice, charity, or basic human rights.

Start challenging those assumptions – each of which is clearly contrary to the teaching of Jesus – and you perhaps we will start to know what he meant when he said “the world hated them, because they do not belong to the world”

As Bishop Camara famously noted: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

It may be that there are worse things to be called.

Amen

Jesus’ Command

Listen!
1 John 5:1-6 | John 15:9-17
Last week our gospel reading gave us the image of the vine and the branches; and with it, Jesus’ command that we were to abide in him; and with that, his promise that if we did, he would abide in us, and we would bear much fruit for him and for the Kingdom of God.

I mostly neglected that part of the story though, to focus instead on some of the harder words in the passage – the talk of God’s way of pruning even (in fact, especially) the fruitful branches; in order that they might become more fruitful.

And part of the reason for that decision was that I don’t think that that phrase “abide in me”, as used in the start of John 15, can be understood until we’ve read through to today’s passage. Jesus keeps using the phrase “abide in me, abide in my love” until finally, as if in answer to the unspoken question, he tells us what he means.

If you keep my commands, you will abide in my love

It’s perhaps not quite what we would have been expecting to hear.

It’s not “sit back and enjoy the fact that I love you”

It’s not “stop your struggles and enter into my unconditional love”

It’s not “don’t worry so much about doing, instead, just be”

If you keep my commands, you will abide in my love

Is God’s love, then, conditional upon keeping God’s commands? And if so, which ones? And how perfectly? And does that mean that when we fail – for surely we do – we are no longer loved by God?

After all we’ve heard, in the end, is God’s love conditional?

Now to the Hebrew mind, to the ears of those disciples who first heard these words, it was probably very simple, very reasonable: for this was, in the main thrust of teaching of the Old Testament scriptures, exactly right: God loves those who are obedient to the commands of God. Loves the covenant people, but is set against those who are their enemies, those who would oppose the will of God in the world.

But to hear these words in the voice of Jesus – in the voice of the one who taught us that we should love our enemies, and pray for those who curse us, precisely because by doing so we are children of our father in heaven, who sends the rain on the just and the unjust – in the voice of the one who forgave sinners, welcomed outcasts, strangers, foreigners, sinner – the one who included all those who did not (at least by the measures of the day) obey the commands of God – what’s with that?

Fortunately, Jesus did not stop there.

He didn’t finish up by saying “obey God’s commandments and you will abide in God’s love”

He went on to explain.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you

Those few words completely change the meaning of everything that Jesus has been saying in this passage; turn them, perhaps not on their heads, but at least to face in a new direction. It’s a piece of rhetorical brilliance, one the Old Testament Prophets would have recognised, or, for that matter, a stage magician would have been proud of.

Everything is set up for a demand for obedience to the law: if you want to be loved by Christ, by God, obey the commandments: and then “oh – but when I say commandments, what I mean is this: love one another”

You want to abide in love? Then love.

You want to abide in me? Then love as I have loved.

You want my joy to be in you? Let my love be in you.

Or rather – let my love flow through you.

Because the truth is, there is something dynamic about love. It is, in grammatical terms, a transient verb. Love does not stop; when it stops, it stops being love. Love is not a possession or a resource to be accumulated. It is a process, a dynamic, a relationship. It’s like water – if it stands still, it gets stale, stagnant. Only when it is allowed to flow out, can more flow in, and only then can it remain fresh, refreshing, life giving.

And once the commandment that Jesus is giving is understood, his statement that “if you keep my command you will remain in my love” is no longer a condition on God’s love; it’s a simple statement of fact: if you love others as Christ has loved you, you will be in God’s love. You will be, as it were, in the flow.

To paraphrase words St. Francis of Assisi probably didn’t actually pray: make me a channel of your love

And it’s all lovely and beautiful, and the sort of thing you make inspirational posters out of, with pictures of babbling streams flowing through green woods, with “love one another” printed in some flowing font.

And then Jesus has to go and throw another spanner into the works.

“Oh, and if you were wondering what love is? At it’s best, it is this: lay down your life for another”

The love that Jesus is speaking of; the love that he asks his friends to abide, to be channels of, is the love that he is about to show for them, the love that will not even be dissuaded by death.

It isn’t the love of the far-weather friend: it is the love that stands beside another even when everyone else turns their back.

It is the love that offers help not just when it is convenient and easy, but when it is hard, when it helping hurts, when helping costs.

The love that is willing to be seen with, to be associated with, those who don’t fit in, those who society rejects, those who reject society.

It is the love that welcomes the stranger into our midst not just when they are the sort of stranger who we understand, and who knows our ways and tries to fit in; but who welcomes the difficult, the annoying, the rude, the boring.

It is the love that Jesus has lived, and that he is soon to die.

And now, Jesus says, now I’ve told you this, now I’ve explained, now I’ve shown you what I am doing: now I can call you my friends. Now you know the secret, the very heart and soul of what I have been about, now you are no longer servants, obeying without understanding; now you are friends, obeying not out of fear or out of duty, but because you get it.

To be the people of Jesus Christ, to be the friends of Jesus, is really all about this: to know Jesus’ command, and to live it:

I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another

That is where we began, that it where we end.

Amen

Mother’s Day @ The Growing Place

Children, do what your parents tell you. This is only right. “Honor your father and mother” is the first commandment that has a promise attached to it, namely, “so you will live well and have a long life.” – Ephesians 6:1-3

Parents are a gift God gives us. Today the children reflected on what it means to honour and respect their parents through their attitudes and actions. Parents are not always perfect, but we can love them and forgive them because they loved us first!

We made a little Mother’s Day Teapot craft embellished with the beautiful words of Proverbs 31 – “Her children rise up and call her Blessed.

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Pruned

Listen!Psalm 22:25-31 | John 15:1-8
One of the many memorable moments during our recent holiday, came while we were staying with my parents. A few of us, including my mum, had just started to play a board game, when my dad slipped out into the garden, muttering something about “going to prune those bushes”.

While obviously not wanting to disturb the game, my mum, it must be said, looked just slightly concerned. “I don’t really like him pruning things when I’m not there,” she admitted. Pressed on this, she admitted that he does actually have a very good track record; “but he does cut things back a lot further than I would.”

And indeed, the bushes that had been selected for the day’s pruning were indeed very much smaller by the end of the day. They looked, in all honesty, as if great violence had been done to them.

But at the same time we were surrounded by the evidence – lots of other plants, which in their turn had been pruned just as hard, and had looked just as close to death, but which were now thriving, full of springtime flowers and the promise of summer fruit.

Because, of course, that’s how pruning works (when you know what you’re doing, that it. When I prune things, they mostly give up in some combination of disgust and despair, curl up their leaves and die).

The parable of the vine and the branches, taken from Jesus’ farewell discourse is perhaps best known for the wonderful image that Jesus offers to his friends – those who abide in me, and I in them bear much fruit. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard a lot of sermons on this passage which go along the “let go and let God” sort of line – the whole Mary and Martha story, telling us to stop working so hard all the time, that the branch doesn’t have to do anything to bear fruit, it just has to stay connected to the vine. There’s a great children’s’ book in the “Lost Sheep” series called “Basil the Branch”, in which Basil (a branch) tries really really hard to push out grapes, with no success, finally to give up, only to discover, the next morning that while he’s a been asleep, fruit has been growing.

To which I want to say – as I often do – “yes, but”

And the but in this case is simply this: Jesus did not say “you don’t have to do anything, I’ll do it all through you”.

He did say “apart from me you can do nothing”. But not “with me, you don’t need to do anything”.
And that’s quite an important difference.

And the other importance difference is the whole pruning part of the story. The bit that we tend maybe to gloss over a little. “my Father is the vine-grower … Every branch that bears fruit he prunes”.

Now if it were me, that is so not the approach that I would take. Because, let’s face it, it’s not easy to get anything to the stage where it bears fruit. Whether that be a project that you are involved in, or a skill you are learning, or any investment of time, or money or energy – it’s hard to get to the point of payoff, the time when all your effort seems to be rewarded, when your work bears fruit.

And for the incompetent gardener like me, it’s the same – it’s rare enough for me to actually get a plant to the stage where it bears fruit – when that does happen, I’m really not about to cut it back.
When something is yielding results, we don’t interfere. If it’s not broke, we don’t fix it. If it’s fruitful, we leave it well alone.

But of course we all know what happens when a fruitful plant goes untouched (if you don’t, come over to the manse someday and check out the curry tree which is supposed to be a shrub, but has kind of taken over a little bit).

And in our wiser moments we know that the same is true of all our successes – that when they go unchecked, unchallenged, unpruned, slowly, subtly, they go wrong, or bad, or just stale.

In the business world, of course, it’s the Kodak story – so successful, so profitable, that no one would dream of cutting back… until it was too late. Or move on a couple decades and talk to Blackberry, or Nokia. Fruitful, but unpruned.

Fortunately, God is a better gardener than we are.

Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit

And just remember, as I mentioned in passing, that this conversation took place during the last few days of Jesus’ life. If there was ever an example of the fruitful branch pruned back, wasn’t that it – the end of Jesus’ ministry, the ultimate pruning back of the fruitful branch.

Jesus’ disciples have, I guess, been on something of a high – sure, life following Jesus had it’s ups and downs, but it was certainly fruitful. Why, they surely asked themselves, in the dark days of the trial and crucifixion, would God allow Jesus’ ministry to be brought to and end – and such a sudden and violent end?

And so to prepare them, Jesus gives them an answer: so that it might bear more fruit.

It’s almost as if Jesus is telling his friends – telling us – that when something that seems good and worthwhile and effective and fruitful gets broken or cut back or taken away, it might not be the disaster that it seems.

There is a rhythm to nature: the seed that dies to grow, the branch that is pruned to be fruitful; and so it is too with our lives, and our spiritual lives.

It’s as if there is a sort of natural cycle: times of abiding, resting, reflecting, in Jesus, times when we pause and think and pray, times which are a gap, a space.

And times of abiding lead into times of growth, of work, of planning and executing, of building.

And then there are times of fruitfulness, times to see results, to celebrate success, to enjoy the fruits of our work for the kingdom of God.

But – much as we wish it might – it doesn’t stop there – for the fruitful branch is pruned; things die, are lost, fail.

And when our successes and glories and fruits are gone we are thrown back to the only thing that remains: to abide, rest, reset, in Christ.

Until the time comes to start the circle again. To grow something new, something which will be more fruitful still.

And I guess at any time in our lives, we probably find ourselves in more than one place in this cycle. Parts of our lives are resting, parts are growing, parts and fruitful, parts are being painfully cut back.

And perhaps it’s worth asking ourselves where we are – for this parable, this image, has something to say in each stage.

Where we are resting, abiding, waiting: the promise is that there will be growth.

And where this is growth, that it will not be in vain.

Where there is fruit; rejoice in it, but do not trust that it will last forever.

And where there is the pain of pruning – have faith; that the gardener prunes only so that there will be fruit next season.

So it is in the vineyard – so it is with us.

Amen