Saturday, April 28, 2018

Under the Knife

Easter 5/April 29, 2018
Calvary Lutheran Church, Park Rapids, MN
Installation of Justin Fenger
John 15:1-8

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

A pastor once began a Confirmation Sunday sermon like this.
He brought a beautiful potted plant into the pulpit and held it up for all to see its lush, green loveliness.   “This is what your life in Christ looks like,” the pastor told the confirmands.   “As you live like this plant, rooted in Jesus, you are full of life and health and promise.  And you produce good fruit!”

Then the pastor grabbed the green plant in one hand, and a machete in his other hand.   “And here is what your life looks like when you become separated from Jesus Christ,” he said, as he quickly swung the machete, severing the plant from its stalk, and causing the pot and the soil in it to crash to the floor.

Besides making a mess in the chancel…the pastor gave those young confirmands a striking, jarring image of Christian life they would not soon forget….a little like those old TV commercials showing an egg still in the shell alongside another egg being cracked and fried…as the announcer grimly intoned:  “This is your brain…and this is your brain on drugs!”

Now I tell this story even though what the pastor did was a little  heavy-handed--not the kind of thing impressionable adolescents, visiting relatives, and doting godparents need to be hearing on Confirmation Sunday!

How much better it would have been had the pastor just left his machete in the toolshed—if he had just held up that lush, green plant, still rooted in the soil of the flowerpot.  

That’s how we prefer to picture today’s gospel lesson here in John, chapter 15, isn’t it?  Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches, and isn’t that wonderful?    Everything is green and growing, a vine laden with bountiful bunches of juicy, purple grapes.  The fruit of the vine is abundant—and that’s how we want to picture our life in Christ, too, isn’t it?

But to do that—to focus just on the vibrant vine, the green branches and the luscious fruit—we have to ignore much of what Jesus says here in John, chapter 15.

Because, no matter how you slice it (no pun intended!), if you and I are branches on Jesus the vine, we’re going to come under the knife!   And we know that because Jesus says so.

I am the true vine and my Father is the Vinegrower, declares Jesus…and the Vinegrower always is sharpening his knife!

The Vinegrower’s knife is his primary tool, and it’s good for two things.

The knife is good, first, for trimming away dead wood—branches that have shriveled up—become fruit-less.  The Vinegrower is no sentimental softy when it comes to dead branches.  He simply doesn’t allow dried-up wood to occupy space that could be filled by living, fruitful branches.  

But it’s not just the dead branches that feel the blade.   The fertile, fruitful branches feel the knife, too….not a destroying knife, though, but a pruning knife.   The Vinegrower “wounds” the healthy branches, trims them back—not to lop them off into the fire—but to spur them to greater growth and fertility.

When in our baptism we are grafted into Jesus Christ the true vine, we come under the “care” of this Vinegrower…so we better get used to feeling the blade.

And although that may be the last thing we want to hear on this lovely spring morning, it is surely what we need to hear.  It’s good for us to hear this—because the Vinegrower is not some sadist who gets his jollies out of hurting the branches on his Vine.

No, the Vinegrower is purposeful in what he does with his razor-sharp knife.  He always has the bigger picture in mind, the over-arching mission, the purpose that he’s pursuing with single-minded focus.

The Vinegrower hankers for the fruit, after all!   It’s all about the fruit!  The fruit is why the Vinegrower planted the vineyard in the first place--to harvest the fruit, to reap the rewards of his creativity, to see the whole Vineyard flourish.

OK, so this may be a great metaphor, a wonderful word-picture….but what about you and me?   We’re human beings, after all--not grapevines.    What does all this look like in our very real lives?

Well, right over there is the baptismal font, with water in it, and we make good use of that water, whenever we can.  The font—conveniently located where we have to walk right by it every time we enter this sacred space—the font reminds us of the greatest day of our lives when in our baptism we were grafted into Jesus Christ the true Vine—forgiven, freed, made alive, and joined to the Triune God forever.

Such baptism into Christ is “for life”….and not just for eternal life, but for life here and now--a fertile, fruitful life in Jesus Christ.
How does our common baptismal life unfold, though?   How fruitful are we?   How determined are we to “abide,” to stay close to, to live in intimate connection with the Body of Christ?

The life of faith is a life lived “under the knife”—for every single one of us.    Our American evangelical friends are correct:  God has no grand-children!

But what exactly does that look like?   What precisely makes for fruit-bearing in the Body of Christ?

It boils down to God fussing over us, constantly pruning us, drawing us deeper into fertile faith practices that bring out the fruit we were created to bear in Jesus Christ.   There’s an “edge” in each of these faith practices—an edge that cuts in on us, trims back the sinner in us, even as it ushers forth the faithful disciple in us.

So we become more faithful and fruitful whenever we pray.  Praying reminds us that we can’t make it on our own; prayer tunes our hearts to the beating heart of God.

And we grow in faith and fruitfulness whenever we immerse ourselves in God’s Word.   Reading, learning, inwardly digesting the Bible re-orients our lives, away from ourselves and towards God and our neighbors.  The Book of Faith lets God into our frantically-busy lives, so God can get a Word in edgewise.

We become more faithful and fruitful when we gather at least once a week for worship.   Public worship reminds us that God has dibs on the first minute of every hour, the first hour of every day, and the first day of every week.   And we worship best when we worship with others, because we’re in this thing together….there are no Robinson Crusoe branches on the True Vine!

We become more faithful and fruitful when we give away lots of money.   Although left to ourselves we’d prefer to keep every last red cent for ourselves, God prunes us of such selfishness—God’s knife cuts away our greed and lays us open to generosity that flows into us and through us to others.

We become more faithful and fruitful when we serve our neighbors in Jesus’ name.  God the Vinegrower slices away our “me-first-ness”….opening us up to our neighbors, giving us excuses all the time to act like Christ in their lives.

Get the picture?   All of this true-Vine-and-branches stuff isn’t just a metaphor or some light and airy way of imagining ourselves.   It’s very, very, very concrete, extremely down to earth:  we feel the knife of the divine Vinegrower in the ordinary, everyday ways we practice the faith that became ours in our baptism.

This morning, the concreteness of God the Vinegrower’s work comes to focus in our welcoming of Pastor Justin, as he joins the ministry team here at Calvary.   Pastor Justin, in company with Pastor Steve and the others on your ministry team—think of them as God’s “assistant vinedressers” in this vineyard called Calvary.  

God will use Pastor Justin and your other servant-leaders to make sure we’re planted, fertilized, watered and pruned in order to be the rich, lush branches that adorn Christ the one true Vine.

That’s quite an assignment for us all, isn’t it?  

Thank goodness, though, that God is the one doing the heavy lifting.  First, last and always this is God’s work in us.  
This is no DIY business (do-it-yourself!).

No, this is what God is doing in our lives:  busily, continually, patiently trimming away all that holds us back….and also pruning us constantly to increase in us the fruits of God’s  creativity and grace.

It’s why God creaed us in the first place.  For we are what [God] has made us,” we read in Ephesians (2:10,) “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

God’s looking for our fruit. 

God trims away all that leaves us dead and dried up. 

And God prunes us, ceaselessly, bringing forth the bountiful harvest he’s been waiting for.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

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