Sermon on John 15:1-17, Preached at the Church at Ponce and Highland on April 29, 2018
Jesus was a true artist. He used his words as a brush to create vivid, awe-inspiring and captivating images those around him could understand, drawing from the everyday life around them to transform a mundane lesson into a masterpiece. We know Jesus’ imagery well- the potter and the clay, the seed and the sower, the fish and the fisher-of-people, the vine and the branches. He used sheep, lambs, worms, snakes and hens to stones, bread, grapes, salt, wheat and wine. On and on the list goes, the original Bob Ross with a happy little cloud here and a happy little tree there.
Our text today is rich with imagery of the vine and it’s branches. Of God as “Vine-grower” or “Farmer” and of us as the vine rich with fruit or grapes. This imagery was very powerful for his audience who would have been very familiar with the growing of grapes. And this imagery is still relevant to many of us, but as an artist I want to invite you to see this text a little differently today. The beauty of scripture, is God’s intention for it to be a living, breathing entity taking on new forms when placed in the hands of true artists, visionaries, prophetic voices that can humbly breath new life into this already sacred and holy text.
In my job as Children’s Minister and more importantly in my job as Mom, I am constantly finding new ways to say the “same-old-things” so that my words and images are more relatable to my audience. And you all use this all the time, not only with kids, but with coworkers and… sometimes even spouses. So mini-lesson inside today's sermon, don’t fear new images and new ways of thinking through scripture. That creativity is of God, it too is God-breathed into us and should be spoken and used to keep these century old words alive and relevant.
My dad is my hero. He is definitely a “Jack of all trades” and has certainly shaped me into the “Jill of all trades” I’m discovering that I am. One of his many self-taught passions is the art of Bonsai. I like to envision him out in his greenhouse (which I helped him build ONE WEEK of spring break a few years ago, he has also taught me carpentry), but I envision him out in his greenhouse like Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid (go with me here, I’m a child of the 80’s.) Like the scene in Karate Kid Part III (oh yes, I’m going deep into the weeds with Karate Kid) where Daniel-son risks his own life to get a bonsai from the side of a steep cliff only to drop the bonsai into the salty ocean water below surely damaging the roots and killing the beautiful tree. But Daniel takes the bonsai to Mr. Miyagi who nurses it back to life and health. Then he teaches Daniel a very important lesson not only about the strength of roots but about the holistic nurturing of the tree. And of course, Mr. Miyagi taps Daniel on the chest to remind him of the strength inside. I often see my dad in his greenhouse as the Bonsai Master eager and ready to teach me some truth about the strength inside me as he gazes over his collection of precious Bonsai trees.
As funny as it sounds, everytime I read these verses from John in preparation for today’s sermon, all I can envision are my dad’s Bonsai trees and the careful and meticulous ways in which he cares for them. This relationship between the Bonsai sculptor or Bonsai artist and the tree is as powerful of a metaphor as the vine and branches Jesus used to teach his audience.
In the passage, Jesus speaks about pruning and the cutting off of branches not bearing fruit- the “dead wood” as many texts translate it. I’ve listened to this text taught dozens of times and it seems each time, maybe it’s just me, but the vine-grower becomes more violent and harsh- tearing away at the vine, ripping off the dead wood, throwing it to the ground and burning the old branches in hopes that the now newly shaped vines will bear more fruit. I feel like the folks teaching these verses usually settle more on the imagery of people as ugly, twisted vine needing to be broken and cleansed of all that is wrong or whatever it is that “keeps them from bearing more fruit” rather than another image I see that’s far more inspiring, uplifting, beautiful and so true. I see the image of a plant, a vine, a tree already beautiful and magnificent in its creation, simply needing to be nurtured and shaped and formed by the loving hands of a gardener in order to become something even greater.
Bonsai is an artform dating back to the 6th Century, oddly enough with its roots in religion- Zen Buddhist monks in monasteries taught the artform and shared it with other monks from Japan and China. Bonsai is an artform using special cultivating techniques to produce small trees in containers sculpted to mimic the shape and size of full size, mature trees. Sounds pretty simple, right? It is far from simple… these trees take years to cultivate and sculpt and the end-concept can be ever changing. There are bonsai trees said to be around 500 years old- they’ve outlived many of their Sculptors.
We are the trees and Jesus is the Sculptor. When pruning Bonsai, the sculptor is already envisioning the future of the tree. This is a concept called “shin” where the tree-grower looks upon a young spindly tree, steps backs in order to get a larger, clearer vision of how and where and why this tree may grow and then develops and puts into motion a plan to shape and improve the tree-- taking it from a young, thin tree and over a long period of time forming it into something stronger and more beautiful, something more mature and inspiring. And the tree-grower doesn’t snip haphazardly at the tree with sheers. Quite the opposite occurs, with the Bonsai sculptor carefully viewing the tree from all sides, then trimming it with great precision and care. Sometimes, the tree even has to have branches removed by being pinched off by the sculptor’s hand- carefully cradling a small branch between two fingers and gently pulling it from the delicate trunk so as to leave the smallest scar. This is how the verse in John speaks to me. God looking upon God’s creation with this concept of “shin” in mind- stepping back to see the how and where and why we have become who we are and gently helping us grow in a new direction, sometimes shaping us by hand so that we grow stronger, more mature and live our truth as we stand firm upon strong roots.
The Bonsai sculptor also carries with her the truth that the tree, itself, has the ability to change the concept of itself along it’s journey of growth. The sculptor knows she can design, train and shape a long-term design but the overall outcome comes from the tree itself. God has given each of us the power and choice to become whomever we are called to be- sometimes we will need to be reshaped or redirected with guidance even, but we hold within ourselves to transform into something stronger, wiser, more beautiful, humble, compassionate, empathetic and loving. And isn’t something our world could stand a little more of right now?
I think my favorite verses in today’s text is the final two when Jesus says, “You didn’t choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won’t spoil. As fruit bearers, whatever you ask [God] in relation to me, [God] gives you. But remember the root command: Love one another.” If there is one thing being a mother, a parent, has taught me is that my children didn’t choose me… but I chose them. I chose to have them, keep them, and to raise and shape and mold them. I choose them everyday… I will continue to choose them everyday because there is nothing they can do to make me love them more and there is nothing they can do to cause me to love them less. They are mine- in the most humble, beautiful, loving way. These two verses are like God’s greatest love note and promise to us as God’s children. We are and forever will be God’s children whether we choose God or not. It’s contrary to what we are taught, contrary to what many children, unfortunately, experience from their biological parents, and even seems to clash with other verses in scripture, but the message is clear. God put each of us in this world as beautiful creations, not something that would need to be changed or pruned into something beautiful, but something already beautiful. God designed us to do great things and with help and wisdom and guidance… we can do wonderful, life-changing things. You are not broken… you are being transformed. You are not stagnant… you are constantly in God’s “Shin,” God’s got a wider view on your life than you. You do have deadwood that needs to be lashed off… God’s hands are gently molding and shaping you. You are not ugly and misshapen… you are beautiful. You are not alone… you are always and will always be God’s child.
Some texts challenge us to go into the world and flip the script on it’s head, to challenge social norms, feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, touch the untouchables, love the unlovable. And some texts, like todays, are messages just for us… because sometimes each of us need to hear that we are loved by God and will always be loved God, no matter our condition, because God chose us and continues to choose each of us, every single day.
Go from this place knowing you belong, you are beautiful and there is a greater purpose in your life than you can envision. Amen.