Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22: 24-30;1 John 4: 7-21; John 15: 1-8
The Rev. James M.L. Grace
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN
Sometime over a year ago I presided a funeral at the VA cemetery in North Houston. After the funeral, I drove my car to a nearby gas station to fill up my tank. When I pulled up into the station, I noticed a woman standing near her car and she was very upset – crying. After talking to this woman, I learned that she was just in a car accident and the person in the other car had driven away.
Meanwhile another customer at the gas station joined me and together we offered this woman what comfort we could, punched out the remaining chunks of glass left in her shattered car window, swept up the glass on the concrete, threw it away, and remained with the woman until she felt comfortable to get back into her car.
After the woman drove away, the other customer at the gas station with me and this woman talked for a while. I explained to her that I was a priest, that I worked at this church, and that was it. This was about a year ago.
Last Tuesday I got an email from this other customer, a young woman who I assume to be in her 20s. She said, “I was the person at the gas station, do you remember cleaning up all the glass,” and I said, “yes of course,” and then she indicated that the reason for her writing was because of all these questions of faith she was having. It was standard stuff – she had grown up Christian, but began wrestling with deeper questions of faith, including – what does God think of all the other religions outside of Christianity, does God work through those, too, which religion is right – all that kind of stuff. Because of these questions she felt that she wasn’t a good Christian (her words) and I replied to her saying that the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is fear.
The questions this young woman is asking are all the right questions, and I explained to her that I have struggled with all those questions myself, and still struggle with them, and that the fact she is thinking that way does not mean she is far away from God. In my experience when I am asking those kinds of serious, deep questions of my own faith, I have found it to mean that I am closer to God than I probably realize.
When I read this woman’s email, I understood that she was in a process of re-evaluating her faith – something we all need to do to keep our faith alive and vibrant. Eventually the old models of faith no longer work for us, and we need to discard them when they become a hindrance, rather than helpful, in our relationship with God. This woman, I assume, was doing just that. Questioning the validity of things she had been taught as a child about God, and testing them – do they still hold water? She is pruning her faith, removing the dead branches of old beliefs and practices that no longer serve her in her journey with God.
Jesus says “"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” I am not a really a “plant person,” so when Jesus pulls out this agricultural stuff, it’s hard for me to connect. But I will try you an example. We have a Crape Myrtle tree in our front yard. For about a year or so, we didn’t really cut any branches on it. You can imagine what happened, right – the branches grew and grew to the point where they became so long they started drooping, which was a problem because they drooped over the sidewalk that leads to our front door. It got so bad that for a time if you were coming to our house, you would have to limbo thing to get under the branches to get to our front door.
For that tree to be useful, we needed to cut the branches back, we needed to prune it. And we have, and now if you come to our house it’s a straight shot to our front door – no limbo necessary. That is what Jesus is saying – for a vine, or a person, to be healthy, sometimes you need to cut away the unnecessary branches, so that the energy of the vine (or the tree or the person) can be better applied to growing more fruit. That’s what I believe this woman was doing by asking me these questions of faith – I believe she was examining her own spiritual landscape, and saying through these questions, what is worth keeping, and what does she need to cut off and do away with.
This is important work, according to Jesus, because Jesus says that vine that does not have to be concerned with unproductive branches will produce the best fruit. The question that should uncomfortably challenge every person who hears this Gospel is this: are we (you and I) – producing our best fruit? And by “fruit” I mean the quality of our actions and our lives – because they both are intimately tied to our relationship with God. If you are like me, your vine has a lot of branches that have become unruly, and no longer serve a purpose. They need to be pruned, cut off because they no longer serve my primary interest, which is closeness and peace with my God.
Healthy churches do this consistently – evaluating the ministries that produce fruit, while cutting off the ones that no longer serve their intended purpose. It can be painful. But pain is a necessary prerequisite for healthy growth.
In a few weeks I am going on a three-month sabbatical – hopefully that is not news for you - I’ve written about it, you can read about on our website, I am handing Carissa the reigns, she will be working full-time during my absence, and you all will be in her excellent care. The only thing I want to say about my upcoming sabbatical, which begins four Sundays from now (not that I’m counting) is that it will be a time I use that time to think, pray, and consider what I need to prune in my life – meaning what are the things I am doing that no longer serve to deepen my relationship with God. That takes time, but I believe an unexamined life is not worth living.
So – don’t be afraid to use the garden sheers on your faith and your spirituality. It when we courageously let go off old habits and patterns of our faith where our true faith journey begins. True life always begins outside your comfort zone. AMEN.