SERMON: Lovingly Pruned

SERMON: Lovingly Pruned

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Clare Hayns on 28th April 2024

‘Lovingly Pruned’

Acts 8. 26-end
1 John 4. 7-end
John 15. 1-8

I’ve been looking forward to many, many things as we anticipated the move to serve at St Mary’s, and one of the things is when we move into the Rectory at the end of June is having a wonderful garden to enjoy over the summer.

I’m sure there are many proficient gardeners amongst you.

I love a garden, and I enjoy the beauty of a well-tended garden, I love sitting and enjoying a well-tended bed of flowers, and love nothing more than eating fruit and veg that have been home grown.

However, I confess I’m a sporadic gardener. I love it when I do it, but I’m not very consistent. I garden in spurts. I have great burst of enthusiasm in the Spring which then diminishes as the year goes on. I’m determined to do better once we move to the Rectory.

As many of you will testify, gardening isn’t just wafting through a glade smelling the roses. There is digging, mowing, cutting back, manuring, pruning. My mother is an excellent gardener – she puts in the work – and we always had a beautiful bed of roses. But as a child I remember her having arms covered in scars from rose bush thorns from some vigorous pruning and I remember thinking as a child, ‘gardening is dangerous’!

The thing I did love though, which I’ve missed whilst living in Central Oxford, is having a garden where every now and then we can build a bonfire. I love a good burn! 

Jesus says, ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower’.

This image of the Father as the gardener tending his vine is an evocative, and a quite unsettling one. There is the production of fruit, but there is also pruning, the cutting down of dead wood, and a great big bonfire.

And at first glance it can seem a bit threatening:

‘Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned’. John 15.6

This might raise some questions for us.

What are the unnecessary branches? Does Jesus mean certain people who don’t bear fruit are to be discarded? Does he mean certain churches which don’t bear fruit are of no value? How do we know if we are a withered branch or whether we have been fruitful enough? Are our fruits decent, or are they shrivelled and bitter? How are we meant to know?

But these words of Jesus aren’t intended to be alarming, but are actually encouraging.

We know that for plants to flourish, the dead wood has to be cut back. My basic gardening knowledge tells me that pruning a rose will stop it from wasting its energy on producing too many mediocre flowers to make sure it can produce a few fabulous ones. You cut the branches that are growing inwards and away from the light, to make space for the branches that are growing outwards, towards the light.

The same is true of the vine. The best quality grapes will come from a vine that is pruned back so the light can get to it. You prune a rose or a vine, in other words, to enable the rose or the vine to be its true self. To be at its very best. This surely is the same for us as individuals, but also for us as a church.

I don’t mean pruning away actual people here (don’t worry, the new vicar isn’t saying some of you need to be pruned from the church!), but perhaps there are things we can let go of – it will be different for each of us – things we carry with us that we don’t need anymore (we are about to move house so are getting rid of a whole loud of things that we no longer need), letting go of thoughts or behaviours that obstruct the light – fearfulness, prejudice, excess busyness, resentments, all things that can get in the way of God.

First words and final words are important. I’ve been very aware of that as I prepare to speak today for the first time. Final words hold great significance and over the next three weeks we have readings from John’s gospel and they all come from among Jesus’ final words to his disciples before he goes up to Jerusalem to his death. These are the final moments of teaching Jesus has with his disciples.

Jesus would have carefully considered what image to leave his disciples with. He would soon be taken from them. They would be scattered, terrified, fearing for their own lives. What do these people need to know at this moment?

And he chooses to leave them with this image of the vineyard, and a word repeated over and over again – abide – seven times in this excerpt but 10 times in first 10 verses of chapter 15.  

The image of the vineyard would have resonated with the disciples. The prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel spoke about Israel, God’s people, as God’s vine, a vine that went astray time and again, and stopped bearing fruit. The Old Testament is full of times where God stepped in with the secateurs, as it were, to bring it back to a healthy state. [1]

Jesus’s image here of himself as the vine and the father as the vine-grower is important – instead of Israel being God’s vine, Jesus describes himself as the vine. All those who abide in him will be part of God’s family, and will belong to God.

This would have been encouraging to the disciples as they faced Jesus being physically taken from them. They aren’t separated at all; they will be part of him, and he will be part of them.

Jesus doesn’t just say I am the vine, but adds you are the branches (5).

The good news Jesus leaves them with is a reminder they are connected. The branches are no good on their own separated from the vine. But also, the vine can’t bear fruit unless it has branches. They need to know that they belong, they are not cut off and abandoned. That Jesus lives within them. That they can be fruitful even when he’s not physically present.

This image would have been encouraging, rather than frightening for Jesus’ disciples.

And so, for us?

As we begin this new phase in the life of St Mary’s Church, I wonder what God might be saying to us, right here, right now.

I believe that God wants us to flourish and be fruitful. That can mean all sorts of things and may, not necessarily (but perhaps it might!) meaning numerical growth. But being fruitful also means bearing the fruits of the spirit which are  ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (Galatians 5.22-23).

Are we willing to trust that God wants the best for us, and trust that any loving pruning is to make way for something new and good, and to produce the very best in us for the sake of our world.

If we are willing to trust, then all that’s needed is for us to abide, which mean to rest in, or hold on to, God’s love.

‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them’.

In our second reading ‘love’ is mentioned a whopping 29 times.

I love the poetry of Malcolm Guite, and his sonnet on this passage is beautiful:[2]

How might it feel to be part of the vine?

Not just to see the vineyard from afar

Or even pluck the clusters, press the wine,

But to be grafted in, to feel the stir

Of inward sap that rises from our root,

Himself deep planted in the ground of Love,

To feel a leaf unfold a tender shoot,

As tendrils curled unfurl, as branches give

A little to the swelling of the grape,

In gradual perfection, round and full,

To bear within oneself the joy and hope

Of God’s good vintage, till it’s ripe and whole.

What might it mean to bide and to abide

In such rich love as makes the poor heart glad?

So, let us trust that God the vine-grower wants the very best for us. He isn’t a sporadic gardener like me, but is patient, lovingly pruning when we need it, so we can be the best we can be.

Let us be ‘grafted in’ to Jesus the vine – as Guite says, ‘to feel the stir/ Of inward sap that rises from our root/ Himself deep planted in the ground of Love’. How can we be grafted in? We can do this by taking time to pray, reading scripture, coming to the Eucharist. When we are grafted in to Jesus the good fruits will just flow through us.

And let us then share these good fruits with our neighbours and within our community, particularly with those who feel cut off, or who don’t know they belong. One of my friends wrote to me to say how welcoming she found St Mary’s when she came on Thursday, but she also wanted to know what the red wine was after the service as she said it was delicious[3]! We are already producing and sharing good fruit!

I will end with words again from 1 John 4.16:

‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them’.


[1] See Jeremiah 2.21 and Ezekiel 17


[3] Apparently it was The Guv’nor from Majestic if you’re interested