15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed[b] by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become[c] my disciples.

John 15:1-8

Aaron Klinefelter is a good friend.  We met a number of years ago at Fuller Seminary.  Aaron is also someone who I believe knows everyone in Cincinnati when he lived here.  He’s a networker and connector.  Together, we have been a part of a lot of gatherings and initiatives.  He’s also been a key encourager of getting Oasis started in Cincinnati.   

Something else about Aaron.  Just like he cultivates relationships, he also cultivates gardens.  He’s a master gardener and has lovely expressions springing up all around his house.  

Aaron’s full time gig was the young adult and family director at Redeemer Episcopal Church.  When he announced a call to become an Episcopal priest,  the Bishop here in Cincy said that he needed to go to an Episcopal seminary to get his Masters in Divinity, even though he has a theological degree from a reformed seminary.  Aaron embraced that decision and sold his house, but the new owner could not move in for a while.  So, he and his wife, kids, and dog moved in with us for several weeks before they moved to Berkley, CA.

It was a bit crowded, but we have the space.  And, it was a great season.  Aaron loved working in our garden and even rebuilding it.  Plus, Debbie and I love community and love having friends stay with us.  We had some hurdles, but we grew together as families in the process.  We continued to cultivate, if you will, deep friendships.  Deep friendships that are bound together because we abided with one another and God abided with us.  

In our passage this morning, the imagery of God as a master gardener speaks to us as a beautiful metaphor.  God has given us life and cultivates us to be the best versions of ourselves, beautiful creations.  God even plants God’s self into humanity.  Jesus, Immanuel, God with us.  Jesus is often called the “seed” of humanity, and that seed grows or works it’s way throughout humanity, producing much good and beauty in each of us. 

The metaphor of Jesus being the vine, the connection, the bridge if you will between humanity and God…really, is in Jesus’ entire being.  Jesus is the “word” that’s been given to us as mentioned in this passage, the expression of God.  The one that we are called to follow.  The one who’s vine we are the branches.

The master gardener prunes, works on us, takes away the things that make us dead.  Sometimes that pruning, or the literal Greek in this text is “taking away”, can hurt.  We don’t like it when we are told that we need to change, that we need to grow.  We create habits for getting by that may get us through the day, or even years, but really aren’t healthy or helpful to others around us.  We have pride, we have insecurities.   

That’s not only true of each of us, but it’s also true of us collectively as a community and as a church.  When I read or hear some of the things on Next Door Finneytown, or talk to other faith leaders across our neighborhood and the city, or listen to business owners or civic leaders, I hear a lot.  Sometimes, honestly,  there can be some who play something like middle school politics, but it’s more “grown up”.  I also see it within our churches and families.  We often get into places relationally with each other that simply don’t move us or others forward towards growth. 

We need to be loved on by a master gardener, and that love means pruning some of the things away that are ugly in order for us to see within ourselves, others, the church, and our neighbors that true beauty that we are.

It’s been pretty obvious for us as a church, community, country, and world, that this pandemic has been a time of pruning, even lament, yet it is producing growth.  

How do we cultivate this way of life where we can see the growth?  By remaining in Christ, connected to the vine.  This passage is an imperative in the Greek in verse 4.  Jesus is stating emphatically to remain in him.  Then he says that he will remain in us.  This is not a cause and effect statement, or a transactional statement.  Jesus is saying that he will remain in us, period.  His presence with us is not conditional.  He does say though to us, to remain in him.  To be connected, to be willing to grow and be beautiful for yourself and for others.   

If we remain in Jesus, if we follow the trajectory of his words and his life, we see a radical inclusion of all of our stuff inside of us and outside of us.  A radical inclusion that means that we are loved unconditionally, and those around us, no matter where they are in life, are also to be included. 

That can be messy.  You have seen it in our relationships, and if you haven’t, you will some day!!  I am a fairly solid and mostly competent pastor to Fleming Road UCC (most days), but I also make mistakes, and I certainly don’t have all of the answers.  And, our church has made tons of mistakes over the centuries of our mutual existence in the three churches merged into one.   None of us have all of the answers, that’s why it’s imperative that we remain in Christ, and remain connected to him and conversely with each other, we can be pruned, we can own our mistakes and lean in on grace, and grow together into a beautiful part of the vineyard here in Cincinnati.   

And, we will bear much fruit in the process…we already have!  Live into that, live into God, as God lives in you!!!   

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