Pruning and Grafting

April 28, 2024

Series: April 2024

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon


"Pruning and Grafting"


Acts 8:26-40
26Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
     “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
          and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
               so he does not open his mouth.
33  In his humiliation justice was denied him.
          Who can describe his generation?
               For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” [37And Phillip said,“If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

John 15:1-8
1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide 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. 5I 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. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

Grafting and Pruning

         This is a picture a colleague shared when presenting on the passage of Jesus talking about being the vine and his followers the branches. It’s of a flowering vine outside his house just after pruning.  Maybe for the experienced gardeners in the room, this is nothing noteworthy, pruning promotes fruit production, flowering; it encourages good growth, but to the rest of us, pruning is madness!  What a leap of faith!  Cut in hope.

         Pruning as a metaphor is a leap of faith especially for those of us who live in a culture with a strong bias toward constant expansion. Everything must grow.  That’s how you measure success.  We must accumulate more and more.  An economist will look at you sidewise if you question a model based on growth.  Take it to my field.  Every profile form you will ever see of a church looking for a pastor will articulate a desire to grow.  If you asked them what they want to cut, you’d likely be greeted by silence. If you asked how much they want to grow, they would be hard-pressed to answer because it’s never enough growth.  Enough to pay the bills would be the most honest answer, and I get it, but of course growth brings in cost as well as revenue.  Grow grow grow, bigger bigger bigger.  It’s the answer for everything, but it takes real faith and discipline to learn the art of what to add and what to trim or pair back, to bear the fruit not just that we want but what is truly good and nourishes.

         Jesus, then, offers us an image that challenges us.  He says if you want bear good fruit, you also have to learn how to prune.  Those of you who have gone through decluttering in your home or life may know the fruits of pairing back.  If you take 80% of the toys out of a cluttered room for a child and rotate them through in small quantities over a period of time, you will find the child enjoys each toy far more.  If you have a toxic relationship, then finally take the step to excise it from your life, after other attempts at correction have failed, you will feel liberated.  If you have been in an office situation where an employee leaves and then everyone grasps how much they dragged everything down or made everything tense, the relief is palpable.  Jesus instructs his disciples to wipe the dust from their feet of the town that will not receive the gifts they have brought to offer (Mt. 10:14).  He uses the brash image of not throwing pearls to swine (Mt. 7:6).  Pruning is about learning what to keep and what to trim.

         Jesus teaches us to decide what to cut and what to keep based on how it connects us to God or Spirit or Source, in other words how likely that connection is to bear real fruit.  This doesn’t mean you will have the luxury of having every task, every job, every interaction be like living at a spa or spiritual retreat.  We have to do the laundry.  We have to pay the bills.  We have to and really should interact with those who are not desirable.  Jesus did this all the time.  That’s where he brought and poured God’s love and light. As we do even these things, however, we remain mindful how we are staying connected, to God, our loving purpose etc.  Use a business analogy.  You have a mission and a purpose, you decide you activity on the basis of what will most effectively fulfills them.  That’s it. A good, clear, well-integrated mission should drive every activity, decision, and relationship.  Are you in touch with your purpose?

         We have spoken of the spiritual practice of pruning. Elsewhere in scripture, Paul talks about the image of grafting (Rom. 11:24-25).  I’ll never forget the time we went to pick cherries.  All these rich producing cherry trees were grafted on to trunks of trees with stronger root systems.  The sacred family is one that is chosen, constructed with intention.  The New Testament vision is of a chosen community, family.  Jesus talks provocatively about hating one’s parents (Lk. 14:26) defining kinship not by blood but by this deeper connection and connection to God (Mt. 12:48-50).  That’s pruning.  Paul makes it his life mission to graft on to the vine branches from the outside, welcoming then into this chosen fellowship.   

         For a number of years I was in a preaching group somewhat clunkily named, “By the Vine,” because we liked the emphasis of staying connected to God.  Today we will ordain and install elders and deacons to be special kinds of leaders in the church, and they will have many tasks to perform, but what I want to say to them is their job is really to stay connected to Source and collaborating with the Spirit to keep us all connected in a way that bears meaningful fruit.  Lord knows there are enough vines in this world bearing rotten fruit.

         When we take seriously our responsibility to prune, we make room for connections, new branches to graft.  Good growth does come.  Look at that Acts passage.  There is a place for the Ethiopian eunuch, a quintessential non member of the movement, an ethnic other, and one unable to produce offspring and extend the bloodline. He is grafted on knowing he will be able to bear a different kind of fruit.  This is about mutuality not charity.  He brings a whole set of experiences and a whole set of other connection points that others from Jerusalem or Nazareth may never have had. No one is to say this one, the other, isn’t also connected to God.

         Christianity is about inclusion, but it’s inclusion with intention and attention to purpose.  The Ethiopian Eunuch wanted to be about the movement, about the gospel.  Return to the idea of a clear mission.  Part of the reason we spent a lot of time discerning and articulating a statement of Our Christian Identity at the church is to put to words our understanding of who we are as a people dedicated to staying connected to God in Christ.  We print this statement many if not most weeks in the bulletin as a reminder.  As such, we remember how and to whom we are and choose to be connected.  We welcome everyone, but we don’t welcome and affirm every position.  Churches are so desperate for members that they sometimes make the mistake of thinking the highest good is to remain neutral.  Jesus was inclusive.  Jesus wasn’t neutral.   

         The life of faith calls for wisdom about what to support, and what to work against, what to propel and what to hold back.  There was an interesting moment in the service last week, and no I’m not talking about the sermon.  I’m talking about the children’s time that Ben led.  He challenged and defeated a child in a race to the back of the sanctuary (something you might want to do during some sermons).  Then, he challenged the group of children to work together to ensure the child won the race a second time around.  What did the kids do?  They wrapped themselves around his legs.  Notice they didn’t tackle him outright.  They didn’t hit him or injure him, thanks be to God.  In that sense, their response was nonviolent, but powerful and effective. They merely held him back.  In a culture of growth and expansion, we sometimes think the only form of working together is lifting up, but sometimes working together in a holy way means holding back something or someone that is harmful.  There are times in the scriptures where people are silenced, in part so they can listen and learn.

         Another image - I was also taken last week by how many comments there were, particularly during the prayer time at the 8:30 service, about Earth Day, poignant at this moment of planetary fragility at least for our own thriving.  The movement toward a more sustainable way of living on the planet is nothing if not an exercise in learning what to cut back on and in what to invest or graft on, all based on what will lead to life and fruit.

         It will be of no surprise to you that the outcome of the pruning I previously showed you is this bush…(show picture 2), and I presume this isn’t even nearly as grand as it will grow. If you want a more dramatic picture, perhaps you have seen and recall this image of a woman, having turned 100, posing with a rhododendron planted by her father (show picture 3).  I don’t know the extent to which you prune rhododendron, but you can grasp the power of the image.  Jesus often taught in botanical images.  The kingdom of God, the reign of heaven, is like a mustard seed and a vine.  Tended properly, with discernment about what to cut and what to graft can lead to something like this or even more glorious in your or our life together.