This reflection is for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Cycle B, 4/29/2018.
In today’s Gospel, taken from John chapter 15, Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. ” (vs. 2) Growing up in the Central Valley, it is easy to understand the image of pruning both vines, as we have many grapes, and tree branches, as we are blessed with an abundance of fruit-producing trees. I grew up earning money each Christmas vacation at veterinarian Gary Daily’s property, picking up tree prunings from the ground and gathering them together into a large pile to be burned. When Jesus tells his disciples that His Father, the vine grower, takes away every branch that does not bear fruit, and prunes the others so that they bear more, we need to appreciate exactly what that means and why that occurs.
I planted fruit trees in my back yard when I lived in Salinas, and the first three years are particularly important for pruning, as this is when the tree is shaped and the lasting structure of the tree is formed. In other words, in the first three years there isn’t a lot of fruit being produced, but the pruning is important because it is formative. The tree is in the process of “formation” so that the tree can ultimately support the crop load in the coming years. And the same is true in our Christian life–formation is key.
Right now I am going through the discernment process for becoming a deacon in the Catholic Church. The program is rightfully called a “formation” program. The process seeks to shape the deacon as a prayerful Christian minister, who loves God and neighbor with his whole heart. A big part of this formation period is removing all the distractions possible! I have been asked to “prune” away some ministerial activities that I enjoy very much, such as preaching at a friend’s church, leading youth retreats, and giving adult lectures, missions, and retreats. I hate to give those things up, and it pains me to do so, but it is very important that I do. And here’s why: I enjoy and am good at “talking,” but to be a well-balanced minister I need to get out of my “head” and into my heart. I need to have a meaningful prayer life and a life of service to the poor, the marginalized, and those most in need. I am quite imbalanced that way, actually. Instead of praying, it’s very easy for me to study and write. Instead of serving the poor, it’s very easy for me to preach and to teach those who are already in the Christian community. I am much more comfortable teaching Christians than getting my hands dirty with the poor, and I often skip prayer in order to study!
But God needs a prayer warrior who serves and teaches by his love, and not just the guy who preaches the Good News. If I were a tree I’d fall over! A full two-thirds of my balanced Christian life is underdeveloped! Here I am writing now! Each of us must be thoughtful about whether or not we are a “well-balanced” Christian. God wants to use us to provide a great variety of fruit in the coming years, but if we develop only one aspect of our Christian life at the expense of other areas, we run the risk of producing limited fruit, or ultimately, damaging the tree (that’s us).
Sister Wanda, my formation director, asked me to hold off on some areas of ministry so that I might grow more in prayer and service. What about you? How is your prayer life? Do you have one? What is your level of commitment to serving the poor and marginalized in our communities? Do you do any intellectual work at all? What Christian book are you reading? Which theologian are you studying? Is there any at all? Do you work with homeless shelters, foster youth programs, support women’s shelters, or provide food or clothing for the homeless? Do you assist at or visit elderly care facilities? There is so much work to be done! So many need to experience the healing hands of Jesus Christ through us! Have we gotten comfortable with what we’re naturally good at but have become imbalanced?
Beyond formation, fruit trees are pruned every year to improve fruit quality. Horticulturalist, Bill Hanlin, says that pruning trees is a “necessary chore that improves sunlight penetration” and “increases air movement through the tree.” That’s also true of our Christian life. First, know that it is a necessary CHORE. Pruning is neither fun nor easy. I’m quite sure the trees aren’t standing around thinking, “I can’t wait to have my limbs chopped off!” Nor is the farmer looking forward to getting out there and doing it! But the farmer does do it, and the tree does goes through it, and they’re both the better for it.
The first step in the pruning is to remove any diseased or damaged branches, as diseased limbs will carry the disease into the upcoming season causing bacteria growth and can spread to other branches. Damaged limbs are more susceptible to disease and insect infestation that can further damage the tree. In our spiritual life, God wants us to be healthy, happy, and whole. God’s desire is not that we carry our brokenness around with us. When life damages our hearts or when people break our spirit with injustice, parts of ourselves become broken. When we carry around anger, bitterness, despair, sadness, and pain, like that fruit tree, these “broken limbs” open us up to disease that is contagious! God wants to remove these branches from our life. He wants to remove this bacteria that weakens us and threatens others. When we carry around bitterness and pain, we become dark and unloving. Our disease contaminates our most important relationships. We pray less often, we are short tempered with our spouse, our children, our coworkers, and customers. Instead of producing fruit for a hungry world, we instead spread destruction and disease. We need to be healed. We need to be pruned.
The third reason form pruning, beyond formation and to remove dead and diseased limbs, is because of what farmers call “vigorous upright growth from the previous season.” Limbs shoot up vertically from the branches (called water sprouts) that will not bear fruit and can create excessive shading on the interior of the tree. Vigorous upright growth sounds really good! It’s vigorous and it’s upright! It’s fast growing directly to the sun…except it doesn’t produce fruit! Instead it only uses up the tree’s resources that should be dedicated to fruit-producing branches. Although farmers usually prune in December, and citizens of the world in anticipation of the New Year do the same, Christians do this pruning primarily during the season of Lent. Lent is when we take a good hard look at the areas of growth that are not producing fruit in our life. I mean, sure, we’re busy, but too often we become busy with things that are not helpful for our Christian life.
For example, in solidarity with coworkers, we decide to start going to staff get-togethers weekly at a local bar or restaurant. It’s good enough and is causing vigorous upright growth, but as we evaluate our year, we can see that although it’s good for the work environment and relationships, it’s using precious resources such as money and time, that should be used on family and those in need. This is always that hardest part of pruning. Cutting off dead and diseased branches is easy and obvious. The more difficult task is to ask, “What ‘good’ am I doing that is keeping me from doing the ‘great’ that God desires of me?”
Sometimes we spread ourselves too thin. We do a lot of good in a whole lot of places, only to realize that we haven’t done much total good at all-nor have we advanced God’s kingdom. Jesus tells his disciples, “You are already pruned because of the word I spoke to you,” but he also says that the vine grower, “takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.” We are pruned and are producing fruit, but we need to continue to cut out areas of our life so that the ones that remain produce fruit in greater abundance.
The fruit of the Spirit-filled life, St. Paul tells the Galatians, is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (5:22-23). When we are formed well, when we are pruned to remove brokenness and disease, and when we remove areas of growth that undermine production of fruit, we are better able to love others. We are a more joyful person. When conflict arises, not only are we NOT the source of that conflict, but we might even be an instrument of peace in it. We are more able to be patient when tempers flair of when long suffering strikes. In a world with so much need, anger, and selfishness, we can remain kind and generous to others who are in need. We are people of faith in a world of darkness–gentle and kind, and never out of control!
As we said above, a good pruning removes the darkness from within the tree. It allows sunlight to enter into the core of the tree and allows fresh are to blow though it’s branches, and so it is with us. God wants us to create fruit for a hungry world. If we’re going to produce that fruit, we need to allow God to prune that darkness from our life.
Finally, when we have been properly pruned and formed, and the dead, diseased, non-fruit producing branches removed; when light fills our hearts and the Spirit moves freely about, the final step is to remove the pruned wood from around the tree. It must be picked up and burned. If these branches are left near the tree they can be a source of disease and pest infestation in the upcoming season. After all this transformation of the interior of our life occurs, the last thing we want is to ruin our upcoming season by clinging to vines and growth that has been pruned away. Sometimes we just need to clean house. Give it away, dispose of it, or burn it–just get it out of the garden! What does God want to prune from your life this season that you might produce fruit in abundance? Some unhealthy relationships, maybe? Some unhealthy activities? Some addictions to entertainment, social media, sports, alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling? These “branches” are the unhealthy, diseased, broken, and otherwise non-fruit producing branches that the Vine Grower seeks to remove. Isn’t it time to allow the Holy Spirit to do It’s work in your life?
God’s desire is that we produce ever more fruit from season to season. His desire is that as each year passes we are more able to provide spiritual fruit for those who are hungry. Each year we should love Him more and love our neighbor more. It’s not too late to start pruning. Amen?
Easter Blessings, Stephen