A few years ago, during “Snowmaggedon,” snow and ice severely damaged a couple of boxwoods in my front yard. When I asked Scott Aker (horticulturalist) what to do, he said, “Cut them way back—almost to the ground.” I looked at him skeptically. Scott laughed and said, “No, really. Cut them way back. They will look dead, but they aren’t. They’ll come back.” Now the only thing I knew about boxwoods is that they are slow growers. But I trusted Scott, so I hacked away. Today, those little boxwoods are lovely and healthy. They filled out nicely, and they did come back—despite their pathetic looks at the time of their severe pruning.
In today’s gospel, Jesus talks about vines. Now I know that a boxwood is not a vine. However, a boxwood, like most plants, needs cutting back or pruning to make it healthier and stronger. Jesus used the metaphor of a vine and its branches, of the need for pruning and cutting back, to teach his disciples a lesson about Christian life. Most first-century Jewish people had a vine, or a fig tree, or an olive tree in their yard—even the poorest of families. So they connected immediately with this image.
If you have ever worked with grapevines, you know several things. “In a vine, branches are almost completely indistinguishable from one another; it is impossible to determine where one branch stops and another branch starts. All run together as they grow out of the central vine.” It is critical to a vine that “the branches must be firmly fixed to the trunk so that the life-giving sap can flow through from the trunk. The branches cannot be twisted or broken or diseased: if they are, they must be cut off so as not to impede the growth of the healthy branches.” If you want healthy vines, you must prune them. In other words, during the dormant season, you must cut back vines that may have grown to be five or six feet tall. You cut them back until the trunk is only one or two feet tall. It looks like you have killed the plant. However, well-pruned grapevines are the ones which yield grapes and wines that excel in appearance, bouquet and taste. Also, “the best grapes are produced closest to the central vine. Understandably, that is where the nutrients are the most concentrated.”
Why does Jesus use this metaphor about a vine? Jesus wants us to understand what it means to be a Christ-follower. Jesus says that God is the vine-grower. The gardener. Jesus is the true—the authentic, the real—vine. We—Jesus’ disciples—are the branches of that real vine. So in order to thrive and grow, we must stay with him, remain part of him, abide in him. We branches must stay fully connected to the vine, for unless we do so, we will not flourish. We must remember that we are not the gardener. We are not the vine. We are the branches, integrally connected to the vine and to each other.
Of course, we disciples forget that truth too easily. We like to think of ourselves as independent, strong people. We forget we must stay connected to Jesus and to each other. We forget just what that means. In today’s world, the number of Spiritual but Not Religious people continues to increase. There is a deep hunger for spirituality. Yet those spiritually hungry people are seldom part of a faith community. Why? Because they perceive traditional church-goers as hypocritical—they think we talk the talk but do not walk the walk. Too often, the voices these young people hear in the media are conservative and condemning, rather than welcoming, loving and non-judgmental. When what they hear is non-welcoming of their spiritual journeys, they tune out—and go to Starbucks instead of to church.
Regardless of age, every person longs their deeply held beliefs to connect to their real lives, and people want to make a real difference in a world that is chaotic, stressful and unjust. We want what we believe to make a transforming difference in the world. Two days ago, I read an article in the Washington Post, written by a millennial. [Note: all of you will not agree with what she says, so don’t shoot the messenger!] She contends that despite the ethos and offerings of mega-churches these days, millennials are not tempted so much by what she terms loud music, preachers in skinny jeans and lattes in the narthex. Here is what she contends young adults want: “congregations that authentically practice the teachings of Jesus in an open and inclusive way.” She also said, “I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.”
An ancient-future community. This is what we offer in the Episcopal Church. Worship that is grounded in ancient Church traditions, yet with vision for how the Church can walk in Jesus’ way today—perhaps the way people of faith have walked together peacefully through the streets of Baltimore this week. Perhaps the way some of us wonder out loud and together how we can work to make a real difference in communities where racism and classism have eroded human dignity and future potential.
As a spiritual leader, I believe people want true community—a sense of belonging. At the same time, I know our society has not taught us how to live well in community; rather, it emphasizes so much our individual achievement. Be the best on the team, not just part of the team. Yet Jesus calls us to live in community. That sounds nice, but living in true community is often a bit messy. Love God first. Love our brothers and sisters next.
Yet it is impossible to put a face on God, so we struggle with just how we do that. Also, we know we are supposed to love our sisters and brothers in Christ, but sometimes they are not real lovable. They demand too much of us. They disagree with us. They don’t act the way we think they should act. Yet that’s what Jesus calls us to do. To stay connected with Jesus. To stay connected with them.
To abide, to stay, to remain in community with Christ as the primary vine means that we agree to be part of something greater than our individual selves. Being a Christian is not about me, or you as individuals. It is not about what you “get out” of the group. It is not about what I “need” or “take” from the group. Jesus calls us to be part of the group, to commit to each other and to the community. To come together on Sunday for worship—whether we feel like it or not. We pray together as a group. For example, every committee or group that meets in this parish does not exist for itself—each group must work toward the larger vision of the whole parish. To stay connected means that as we take in God through bread and wine, we remember the Holy One who spoke truth to power, who did not just talk the talk but walk the walk.
To be part of Jesus’ vine means we commit to each other and walk with each other on the journey. We also commit to grow, sometimes to grow up, and to give back, not just take from each other.
Yes, sometimes that is painful, because it means God must shape us and prune us rather severely so that we grow stronger in our faith. In order for us to grow, God calls us to study scripture, say our daily prayers and ask what we can do to change this world in which we live.
God, the Gardener, creates, tends, prunes and strengthens us. Christ, the Real and Authentic Vine, nourishes us when we stay connected and close to him, learning what he knows, doing what he does. As branches, we connect to Christ until we encircle each other in intricate, interwoven relationships. In Christ, we grow in love. We pool our resources of time, talent, treasure. We pray and break bread together. We work together for justice so that there will be peace. We invite and welcome all who are spiritually hungry into this place, into this faith community. Fed by God in many ways, we become strong and sure, prepared to go out into the world to be fearless witnesses of the risen Christ. In this, God is glorified. Amen.
© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
 The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX: Luke/John, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 760.
 David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol 2, (Louisville & London: Westminster John Knox Press), 472.
 Rachel Held Evans, “The last temptation of cool,” in The Sunday Washington Post, May 3, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesn’t-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e story.html?postshare=754143048643695. Accessed on May 1, 2015.
Pictures accessed through Google images.