July 1, 2018 John 15: 1-17
We are continuing along in our summer series of Faithfulness and Fruitfulness… We started with tilling the ground of our old ways of measuring success. Then we planted the seeds of ways to be mutually accountable. We are moving today to consider how pruning is healthy and enables us to produce better fruit. We had a fascinating discussion on Friday morning around the question of “What do you need to prune in your life?” Some said my growing intolerance, my tone of voice, the clutter in my house. Some said my impatience or eliminating some battles that are not worth fighting. I am assuming we all have practices, habits, attitudes tangible items that could be pruned to make our lives healthier and more productive! It is never a bad practice to take stock of where we are and what might need pruning!
Our focus this morning is more on us as a congregation, as a family of Christ gathered in this particular place at this particular time. If we are going to be evaluating our fruitfulness as a family of Christ, are there activities that need pruning around here? Have we gotten burdened down by doing things just because we have always done them—tradition—or, on the flip side, just because someone has a great new idea and it sounds good? When do you tell your pastor, “No, that is too much, we can’t add anything else to our plates right now?” How do we decide which activities to prune and which activities need more space and attention to grow? Where do we set limits so that we can be as fruitful as possible?
I have learned something from the Baltimore Orchard Project, which is helping us with our mini orchard on the grounds out by our offices. It is the practice of thinning the fruit. If you look carefully at our fruit trees, you will see that sometimes there are multiple fruitlets growing right together. It looks productive, but none of them will be able to grow to maturity because the plant is not strong enough to support all of them. When they are small, we need to remove some of the fruitlets, leaving plenty of space for one of them to grow. It would not help to lop off the whole end of the branch. Each cluster needs to be looked at and reviewed, selecting the smallest fruits or ones that are diseased in some way to remove.
Thinning the fruit and pruning involves making educated decisions about what to cut and what to allow to grow. Jesus uses the image of a vinegrower who prunes the branches that do bear fruit and removes the branches with no fruit. From Jesus’ perspective, it is in the practice of fruit bearing that we are becoming his disciples. Today we heard about some of the fruit born through this congregation in the lives of 6 young people and 2 adults who have grown through the experience of being with other young people and adults who care about them at Massanetta this week. This is one example of a way we have been working on Christian formation, a key responsibility of any gathering of believers. This is not the only thing we do to help shape believers, but it is an important thing we work on each year. The impact of this experience is long lasting, and the ripple effect spills over into our life together as young people feel more and more comfortable with talking about their faith, serving others and being involved in the life of the church family. It is intentional, time consuming and not haphazard. It takes commitment on the parts of parents, youth, and church members. The fruits will continue to bear.
Without assessment, our activity is mostly pushed along by tradition and intuition. What are our objectives? It would be a good practice for any group planning an event or activity, serving others or supporting our own congregation, for our ministry teams, for our Session, even for groups that meet continuously—like our Tuesday Bible study or our choir or the weekly homework help in Rosemont or our Thursday Night Alive! or our Friday Dunkin Donuts ministry– to stop and ask ourselves, so what is our objective here? It goes back to the why question. But to learn, we must ask ourselves a follow up question–What have we done to meet those objectives? How do we learn from our failures so that we can be strengthened for the future? Sometimes we have to adjust our activities to better meet our objectives. Sometimes we have to adjust our objectives to better serve the kingdom of God.
As we look at the ways we cultivate Christian formation, we should be asking ourselves: What are we working toward? Is our objective to teach children and youth and adults to love God? to serve others? To understand the Bible? To think critically about their faith and how it impacts their day to day lives? Perhaps we have multiple objectives, and that is okay, as long as we are clear about them. Sometimes our work needs to be reduced in order to expand. Or some aspects of it need to end so there is room for something different to grow. We need a thoughtful process of assessment to decide those things. Experienced vinedressers or orchard keepers don’t prune willy nilly. You prune particular branches which are siphoning off the plant’s energy. You must be intentional about what you prune.
This morning I am going to give you homework! Between now and next Sunday, I invite you to consider one aspect of our church’s ministry with which you are familiar. Maybe it is worship, maybe it is Christian formation, maybe it is caregiving or service or sharing the good news. Take some time with a sheet of paper and a pen. Put the ministry or program or event at the top of the page. Think about what you understand as the objective of that program. If you are not sure, ask some others who are involved in that ministry what they think. You might get a variety of answers. Then list the ways we do or don’t go about meeting that objective. Then make a note of what we could learn from your assessment—what could we do differently? Is there anything about this activity that needs to be pruned for it to grow stronger? I would love to see your ideas, your assessment of our fruitfulness. If you can remember, bring your homework back next Sunday or send me a quick email during the week. I will share your ideas with the leaders of our ministry teams, and when the teams meet next month, perhaps each group can collectively look at the objectives for each program or event under their responsibility list. If we don’t know why we are doing something, it is a sign we really need to look closely and clarify our objectives.
The vinedresser prunes where necessary so that the vine will be healthy and produce good fruit. As we cultivate our ministry here at Hunting Ridge, we should not be afraid to prune as needed. It is a task best done together, not in isolation. It is a task that requires honest conversation and assessment. It is a task to be undertaken by all of us, not just some. For together we are cultivators of our ministry in the name of Jesus the Christ, the Vine Himself. Amen.