Pruning Our Ministry
John 15: 1-8
God, you are the vine grower. We are the branches. May we abide in your true vine, Jesus the Christ, so that we bear much fruit. May we faithfully proclaim the good news until all are welcomed into the new life you so generously give. Amen.
I have a Korean dwarf lilac in my garden. I love it because it brings back memories of
. At this time of the year, usually early in
May, the lilacs are in full bloom in my home country. The flowers are beautiful. More than anything else, their strong
fragrance is heavenly. Some villages and
small towns are saturated with the fragrance for weeks. Korea
My lilac has already burst its leaves and flower buds in abundance. I am looking forward to full bloom this year. I was disappointed last year because it did not bloom well. Examining the branches without bloom, I found that most of them were the ones I had pruned the year before. It was obvious that I had not pruned it correctly. I am still learning about gardening, often through my mistakes. So, I pruned it very carefully last year, as taught by an experienced friend. This correct pruning must have made the difference in the abundance of this year’s flower buds.
The passage from John we read a short while ago teaches us about gardening, especially about how and why the grape vine is to be pruned properly. John’s gospel contains many passages that begin with the words, “I am.” These verses are expressive metaphors to help us understand the person and work of Jesus the Christ. Several of them come in the section of John called the “farewell discourse” (John 14: 1 - 16: 3). In these speeches, Jesus teaches the disciples about his identity and ministry. Jesus says, “I am the true vine.” The vine is a familiar image in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the biblical lands, vineyards were important to
agricultural life. Extensive work was needed to prepare the ground for the
planting of the vines. Strong walls and a watchtower were built to protect the
vines from marauding people and animals. Most of the grapes were used to make
A productive vineyard was seen as a sign of God’s favour – a vine-grower could expect a bountiful harvest when obeying God’s commands. The prophets made use of this image, describing the people of
as the vine and God as the one who tends it (see
Isaiah 5: 1-7). The fruit of this vine is justice but ruin comes upon the
vineyard where injustice flourishes. Israel
Jesus calls himself “the true vine,” identifying his followers, then and now, as the branches. The Christian community is one body with many members, one vine with many branches that nourish its growth. The branches are only strong when they are connected with the stem. Jesus calls those who follow to abide, that is, to remain in him. Without Jesus the Christ, we “can do nothing (v.5).”
The vine lives out in the open air, exposed to the elements. Vines must be pruned – the dead branches cut away – in order to produce the best fruit. In verse 2, the Greek word translated as “prune” also means “cleanse.” Pruning does not hurt a healthy plant; it stimulates new growth.
Last Tuesday night, our Transition Committee had a wonderful conversation with a guest speaker, Jim McKibbin, the East End Mission Developer. Jim was hired last year by the Toronto Southeast Presbytery as a staff person whose mandate is to work with the eleven
congregations in order to explore the possibilities of common mission in this
area. I have been privileged to work
with him as a member of his support team since his appointment. I have been impressed with his energy and
enthusiasm for his work. When I asked
him to come and share with us his vision of church mission, he graciously said
I wonder if that night Jim presented to us how ministries in this area should be pruned or cleansed. This morning, I would like to share with you a few of the points he made in his presentation. First of all, he pointed out that most congregations in this area saw themselves as islands. They have no desire to work with their neighbouring
congregations. Their Sunday attendance
is low, between 30 to 50, but many of them have survived financially by renting
out their buildings or selling property.
They do not see any value of collaborative effort with other United
congregations in this area. United Church
As a result, initiatives for collaborative work among the
congregations are hard to organize and are seen as disruptive to their
routines. For example, Jim mentioned an
initiative, what he called ‘an Information Night on Glen Rhodes Food
Bank.’ Ours is the only Food Bank programme
in this area, so the East End congregations
could gather around it and work together for a common mission of Jesus
Christ. Last month, Jane and he worked
intensely on this initiative, making detailed suggestions like inviting at
least two lay people from each congregation downstairs one night, providing
them with a sample Community Dinner, introducing them to our programmes and encouraging
them to become involved. Jim took this
proposed initiative to the first East End
ministers’ gathering early last month, which I also attended. To our disappointment, this proposal was not
well received by the majority of ministers.
They said their congregations were already too busy. When exploring a
common mission in this area, he argued that lay leaders should become more
proactive. His argument was supported by
some of our leaders who have been involved in similar initiatives in the past.
Speaking of lay leaders’ proactive engagement, we have a little piece of good news. As Jane mentioned last Sunday, flanked by both Fred and Donna, she went to Cosburn United a couple of weeks ago and spoke to the congregation about our Food Bank and Community Dinner programmes. The response was very encouraging. The small congregation is made up mainly of older people. So, we cannot expect many of them will be able to come and volunteer, but they have already provided us with food items they collected during the Lenten season and with monetary and book donations. It is a good example of how we can be proactive about working together with other congregations.
In addition, Jim talked about the importance of advocacy work related to food security. In recent years, the living conditions of the poor in our neighbourhood have deteriorated, due to the ongoing major service cuts or frozen budgets by the federal, provincial and municipal governments. You have probably noticed that poverty issues have not been a priority during all recent elections. It is time for faith communities to work together to raise our voices around food security, especially for those who do not have their voices.
According to John, Jesus is “the true vine.” We are the branches. The Christian community is one body with many members, one vine with many branches. The eleven
Church congregations are branches
closely growing together in the East End
area. However, many of them do not see
it this way. The connectedness to each other
through the one vine is often ignored.
Many of us here remember that our ministry did better when we worked
together as a member of the Delta Group many years back. I wonder if it isn’t time to begin a
conversation about how to work together to contribute to the life of the
community. Our Food Bank and Community
Dinner Programmes could be catalysts to that conversation.
The vines need pruning. What aspects of our ministries need to be cut away or redirected to spur a productive harvest? As branches connected to the true vine, Jesus the Christ, we are called to find ways to work together with other branches - our neighbouring faith communities - to produce much fruit to share with all our neighbours.
Abiding in God, may we all work together to share the fruit of justice and love in the world today and in the days ahead. Amen.