Living as Conduits
Bryan Dunagan, the pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian in Dallas, daughter, Collier Jane is now three years old. But, when she was two, like a typical two year old, new words were being added to her vocabulary every day. She was becoming more independent. And one day, she ran into the kitchen and punched her older brother in the gut, really hard. Just out of the blue. Her mother was in the kitchen, and as you can imagine, responded immediately with a little pruning. “Collier Jane Dunagan, what do you say?” Collier Jane, eyes wide and sincere, looked at her mom and said, “You’re welcome.”
Now, her dad gives her the benefit of the doubt. Surely she meant to say, “I’m sorry” and just got her brand new words mixed up. Maybe. Or perhaps there’s more here than a simple, funny parenting exchange in the kitchen. Maybe Collier Jane was taking things into her own hands, quite literally. Maybe she felt confident that she was doing the right thing. Maybe she had been in the other room deciding what punishment would be appropriate for her older brother. Maybe she felt quite sure she had done exactly what needed to be done. “You’re welcome.”
Maybe as they sat at Table just hours before his arrest, Jesus knew that the disciples would be tempted to take things into their own hands. They were eating the Passover meal, remembering God’s faithfulness and the story of God’s people Israel. From Creation, through the Flood, when they were slaves in Egypt, the escape and years in the desert, King David, Queen Esther, the prophets, the waiting for the Messiah….Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, God’s people, Israel, are the vineyard of the Lord, the people are the vines the Lord Almighty delights in. They were the chosen ones. God was the vine, the Israelites the branches. And now Jesus says, “I am the True Vine.”
I don’t know what Collier Jane’s mom said to her, but I just imaging that when she finished stifling her laugh, she made Collier Jane say “I’m sorry.” I think Jesus is saying here that he is the same kind of corrective. We have a tendency to take matters into our own hands. Jesus says, “I am the True Vine. And God is the gardener.” It is God who trims. God loves the vineyard. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people, Israel, are compared to a vineyard.
The prophet Isaiah offers, “I will sing for the one I love (the Lord God) a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well.
At the Temple, the doorway into the Holy of Holies, was framed with carved grapevine covered in gold. The first Century historian, Josephus, describes it, “As to the holy house itself, which was placed in the midst of the inmost court, that most sacred part of the temple, it was ascended to by twelve steps…its front was covered with gold all over that gate which was at this end…It had also golden vines above it from which clusters of grapes hung as tall as a man’s height…” The gold was given by wealthy Jews who were proud to stand in the Temple Courts, after passing by the beggars who were always crowding the roadside on the way up to the Temple mount, and look toward the Holy of Holies and how beautifully they had adorned it and declare to God, “You’re welcome!”
They were proud to be branches, golden branches…but the prophets had warned them. Isaiah continued his song, “Then he looked for a crop of good fruit, but it yielded only wild grapes….What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?…. Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Ah, you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight! Ah, you …who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of their rights!”
The disciples knew that the Temple authorities had gone astray. They knew that God’s people had been called centuries earlier wild grapes. Jesus had been teaching them what the Scriptures meant and how they were supposed to act. He had been teaching them what community looks like. He had shown them by example that time apart with God was needed to recharge, to reset. And they had seen how even when he needed that time, he couldn’t ignore those who came and found him. Over and over again, they saw him filled with compassion. And they saw him pouring himself out, healing, feeding, caring. Now, he was saying he was leaving and that they knew the way to the place where he was going, but did they?
Jesus says to them, “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be[c] in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”
So he gives them another example, a metaphor, I am the True Vine. I am the Source of water and nutrients for you, you are like a branch growing from me, and God is the Gardener. Abide in me. The word for abide here is beautiful; it means “make your home in me.” The Scripture for next week picks up at verse 9 where this week we stopped at verse 8, and we will really immerse ourselves in what it means to abide in Christ. But before we do, we need to listen carefully to our role as a branch. First, it is really important that we not march into the kitchen with the loppers declaring “You’re welcome!” God is the gardener who cuts and who prunes.
Here’s what will happen, one of two things, you will either be cut or pruned:
1. You could be a branch that is connected, and you look marvelous. You draw up the nutrients, you turn your leaves to the sun. You look really healthy. But, you don’t bear fruit. Those nutrients: the Bible study, the prayer time, the worship and Sunday school attendance just feed your leaves. But there’s no fruit. They get to you, and stop. The gardener will cut that branch for the good of the whole vine. Branches that don’t bear fruit are a waste and they will go on rubbish pile.
2. Or, you might be a branch that is connected, and lets the nutrients flow through you like a conduit, and you will bear fruit, and the gardener will prune you, limit and focus your activities and growth, so that you are able to produce abundant fruit.
No matter what, the whole vine will have pain. No branch is but without scaring the whole. No pruning takes place without loss. There will be leaves in your life that are green and fun and beautiful that have to be removed to allow you to produce more fruit.
In the last two weeks, even, at the church, we have seen new growth as we are more able to safely gather. As we were putting together the newsletter, the deadline came and there were more articles than we have had to put in a newsletter in a year. So, we had one page extra. And we had a choice to make. We could put a calendar or some pictures on the back of that page, and have a cut insert, or we could fill 4 pages. Thursday morning, when I got that message, I quickly wrote back, “4 pages! We have had enough planned in the last day to easily fill them!”
So be sure to read the newsletter. There is lots going on – and you don’t have to be able to be present in person for many of the opportunities! You can find it by clicking Newsletter on our website and opening the May New Vision. Worship team also put out a survey to the congregation to help with future worship planning. Please fill that out and submit it.
Everything is greening up! The vine, of course, has survived this long winter. And we, the branches, are putting on leaves! It is exciting. But there may be things that don’t grow well again, things that don’t produce fruit anymore. And it may be painful. It won’t be just like it used to be. And, that is good, as long as don’t find ourselves in the kitchen with the loppers saying “You’re welcome!” instead of “I’m sorry” because we have taken on the role of the gardener and remember that we are branches, to uphold the budding leaves and give support to the fruit, and to be conduits to provide the nutrients for growth, from the Christ the vine to abundant good fruit. Amen.