Have You Been Pruned?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/28/24, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was:  John 15:1-8. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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Our reading this morning from the Gospel of John feels very special for me, because this was the theme scripture for the World Gathering of Young Friends, held in Lancaster England, back in 2005. I was sent to this gathering by the Quaker community that I was part of at that time, Great Plains Yearly Meeting.

I was a very new Quaker at that point. I hadn’t been to seminary yet. I wasn’t even a Christian yet. I was doing a lot of exploring, a lot of reading, a lot of listening. I had had a series of profound experiences of God’s presence, but I was still in the early stages of making sense of any of it.

So here I was, a brand new Quaker, 22 years old. I’m barely formed at all but really seeking for the truth, and my yearly meeting sends me to England, to gather together with hundreds of other young adults – 18 to 35 – from across the world. All of us coming together to hear what God was calling us to as a generation, as a people, as the future of the Quaker church.

It was a big deal. Bigger than I counted on. While I was in England, I met some nice people. I visited some holy sites like Pendle Hill, where George Fox received his vision of “a great people to be gathered,” and Swarthmoor Hall, where Margaret Fell and her family hosted the early Quaker movement and turned the estate into a center of operations for Quaker missionary efforts as they expanded throughout England, Europe, across the seas, and throughout the known world. I drank a lot of very good tea, too.

But this trip ended up being much more profound than a historical exploration, a cultural exchange, or even a networking opportunity with other Friends from across the globe. For me, my time in Lancaster was an opportunity for God to speak into my heart in a way I had never experienced before. At the World Gathering of Young Friends, I received what I understood to be a call to ministry. In many ways, my experience at the World Gathering of Young Friends is the reason that I am here at Berkeley Friends Church today.

It was that experience of God’s power in the midst of his people. It was that image of Jesus as the true vine, radically connected to us as we gather in him. It was the testimony of our elders at that gathering, especially – for me – our American elders, who had a word from the Lord for me, a message and a commission that they would give me. An anointing that they would pour out on me that would change the course of my life.

So our reading this morning, this was the theme of that gathering. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me.”

In this reading from John’s gospel, Jesus is in the middle of a long discourse. (John likes those.) He’s just told the disciples that he’ll be sending the Holy Spirit as a comforter and advocate, to guide them and sustain them in the work Jesus has to do. And just after this passage, Jesus speaks the words to the disciples that gave the Religious Society of Friends its name: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” And what does Jesus command us? To love one another.

In this particular slice of the scripture that we are reading this morning, Jesus leans very heavily into the metaphor of the vineyard. Jesus says that his father, God, is the vinegrower, and that Jesus is the true vine. He says that we who follow him are branches of this true vine, and that our purpose is to bear fruit. Jesus says that if we abide in him and his words abide in us, he will answer our prayers. He will provide us with what we ask for. The fruit that we are meant to bear through our lives, as branches of the true vine, will come into being and bless the world.

That all sounds pretty amazing. It’s an intimate image of connection with God through Jesus, of becoming organically united with God in Christ. It’s a message of hope, that we as followers of Jesus are part of something much greater than ourselves, and that this organic unity can provide a wholeness and purpose to our lives that the atomized individualism held up by our society simply can’t match. In Jesus, we are not alone. In Jesus, we and the Father are one; we are gathered together in a shared life with everyone who joins with him.

But there’s another side to this passage, and Jesus doesn’t hide the ball on this. He speaks about it early and often: There is a price to pay for this kind of unity. There’s a reason that we Americans are so fond of our individualism, in spite of everything it costs us: Being atomized individuals, we imagine that we won’t have to sacrifice our own desires to make room for a greater purpose. We dream of a life where all our options remain fully open. The American Dream is many things, but one thing that it represents is the idea that the world is full of endless opportunity, and every day could bring another, radically different adventure.

Jesus’ metaphor of pruning is a direct challenge to this myth of infinite choices and an open horizon. Jesus’ promise of unity, growth, and purpose as branches of the true vine comes with a cost: We can’t keep being whatever we want to be. If we want to be branches of the true vine, we have to be faithful. And what does a faithful branch do? It bears fruit.

For those who are familiar with viticulture – and I certainly am not – all of this is very common-sense. You can’t simply let a vine grow wild; it will not be very productive. In order to have a good harvest of grapes, you have to prune. You have to cut the vines back dramatically. You have to remove many vigorous, healthy shoots. I’m sure that, if the vine has any feelings about it, this pruning must feel brutal. “I had all these beautiful green shoots. I was so full of possibility! I could have grown anywhere, done anything. Why would you cut me off like this, vinegrower? Why would you trim me down to the nubs, leaving only a few select buds?”

Just like us, vines want to grow wild – to move every which way and spread tendrils across the whole earth. But also like us, vines don’t grow best this way. They don’t bear good fruit this way. Faithful vines bear good fruit because they have been focused. The skillful gardener knows better than the vines how they should grow. He limits their possibilities to teach them how to embrace the best path to fruitfulness.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t like being controlled. I don’t like being channeled into the path that someone else has laid out for me. I want to chart my own course, make my own decisions. And one of the really amazing things about God is that he lets us do that. God has all the power, but he relinquishes that power to give human beings room to make our own decisions. Jesus’ vinegrower does not prune branches without their consent.

But when we do give ourselves over to the vinegrower, when we do embrace our identity as branches of the true vine, when we do feel that sap of the Holy Spirit moving in us and Jesus’ words abide in us, then allowing God to prune us starts to make more sense. It is still going to hurt. It’s still going to surprise us and contradict some of the decisions that we might have made ourselves. It’s going to close doors and push us into a more focused path in life: A path that bears fruit.

This can be really hard. Because often I just want to grow and sprawl and explore. I want to be free to do whatever seems best to me at any given moment. But as a branch on the true vine, as part of this organic unity in Jesus, that’s no longer the way life works for me. I don’t get to do just anything I want. Some doors are closed. 

The pruning continues. Sometimes, doors that I thought were open get closed, while others unexpectedly open. I get pruned again, and again. There are many seasons in life, and many prunings!

Have you been pruned? I certainly have. I’ve had a lot of options taken away from me. I’ve been called to make choices that opened one door, and closed a thousand others. I’ve been pruned, as the Spirit has led me into the work that God has particularly called me to.

I’ve been pruned in unexpected directions, sometimes in ways that were truly devastating. Like the time that God pruned our ministry in Washington, DC. This is not what I believed God wanted, this is not what I believed was the right path for me. But I can see now that God was preparing me and our family to turn to the ministry that we are now doing at Berkeley Friends Church. Even more importantly, I can see now that God was pruning my spirit, teaching me not to lean on my own understanding and not to trust in my own strength.

God was pruning me, so that I would be still and know that he is God. The Spirit was cleansing me, shaping me, molding me, so that I would become a more useful, fruitful, life-filled vine that could bless the world.

It’s easier when I can look back and say, “oh, I see why God pruned that part of me, or limited me in this or that area of my life.” It’s comforting when I can see in retrospect that God was keeping me from things that would be damaging or just a waste of time. But as I said, I’ve seen God prune things in my life that I believe were objectively good and life-giving. That’s a lot harder. I have to remind myself that the vinegrower often has to cut back healthy, vigorous vines in order to make room for that which is truly vital.

I think that we often assume that it’s the bad things that need attention. It makes sense to us that bad things need correction. The bad branches need to be burned.

But Jesus’ focus is on what is good in us. His focus is on those who are gathering in him, joining with him, growing with him. We need to be transformed. We need to be cleansed – pruned – so that we can become the people that God has created us to be.

The Spirit of God is flowing through us. We are full of the life that God has given us. Each of us has gifts to bring. We have gifts because God has created each one of us unique. We have gifts because God has created us to bless others, to bless the world.

It’s precisely because God has created us and called us “good”, because we have been grafted into the true vine and are being filled with all the goodness of the Spirit of Jesus, that Jesus here in the Gospel of John tells us that we can expect to be cut back. We can expect to be cleansed. We can expect to be pruned.

Pruning is what happens to good vines. Because without pruning, good vines only bear a little fruit. But with the master vinegrower on the scene, we have the opportunity to grow much more beautifully, to bear much more fruit.

From the perspective of our American individualism, this seems like a hard pill to swallow, but it is in fact good news. The truth is, apart from Jesus, we can do nothing. All those various branches that God is cutting off from our lives – those were dead ends anyway. Those branches didn’t lead to the fullness of life that God wants for us. Some of them led to distraction, stagnation, and death. Others merely led to lesser goods, a good that falls short of the glory that God wants to work through us, the good fruit that God intends for us to bear.

The key message in all of this is that Jesus loves us, and that through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are becoming like Jesus: Sons and daughters of God. The key question for us is, what fruit will we bear? How will we grow, and how will we allow ourselves to be pruned so that we may bear much fruit, bless the world, and let ourselves be filled with the unlimited life that we find in Jesus, our true vine?

Jesus’ message here is truly radical. You, me, all of us can become like Jesus. We can be filled with his life, led by his Spirit. We can become sons and daughters of God. But a part of this process of becoming like Jesus is getting pruned. Jesus got pruned more than any person who ever lived. The Lord disciplines those whom he loves (Hebrews 12:5-6). How can we imagine that we’re above it? We’ve got to be, each one of us, pruned so that we can be the branches and bear the fruit that God created us to bear.

What does this look like in your life? What are the wild shoots that God wants to prune in you? What is the good fruit that you are growing to bear?

He is the vine, we are the branches. What fruit will we bear?