If you right now, like me, have had enough of lockdown, but are feeling a new sense of hope that life might just be starting to open up again; if you are looking for new energy and joy in your life, today’s Gospel comes as a real gift. As I prayed with the passage, two words, two verbs, leapt off the page, and seem to be offering us the promise of new life. The first verb is ‘to prune’: ‘Every branch that bears fruit the Father prunes to make it bear more fruit.’ The second verb is to ‘abide’: ‘Abide in me and I in you.’
The first word then, ‘to prune’. I was ordained in the south west of England in the diocese of Salisbury My first job was in Weymouth and Portland. I had a little house with a fantastic view over Portland Harbour, which is the place from which the ships sailed across to France on D Day. But the loveliest thing about my house was the garden. It was beautiful, and full of roses. They loved the soil and the southern English climate: damp and never extremely hot or extremely cold. I still remember especially in the evenings, the sweet scent of the roses mixed with the salty sea air, was incredible. But what my roses really loved was Harry. He was an elderly member of my church who loved gardening, and helped me in mine. I remember him saying to me, if you want your roses to thrive, get your worst enemy to prune them, because he will be ruthless, and cut them right down, which is what Harry did. And the following year they produced these fantastic flowers. Jesus said, ‘My father prunes every branch to make it bear more fruit.’ And of course, we are the vine, or the rose bush, that God wants to prune. As I look back over this past year of pandemic, I think my life has become a bit like a rambling rose that hasn’t been pruned. Perhaps you know something of that in your own life. Lockdown is a disorienting experience. Things we long to do and which give us huge satisfaction, people we long to visit and hug, many of our hopes and dreams, have not been possible. So, it’s easy to lose direction and to feel lost, or to head off in ways which are not life giving, or develop habits to soothe or numb us, but which ultimately make us feel worse. Like an unkept rose, we might feel like we have branches going off in every direction, but not really heading anywhere. When that happens with roses, the energy, the life force has been so dissipated, that when it comes to flowering season the fruit, the flowers, are small and stunted. We too can feel tired and listless, and unhappy. And if we are honest, not bearing much fruit.
Acts 8: 26 – 40
Psalm 22: 24 – 30
1 John 4: 7 – 21|
John 15: 1 – 8
I think that it is safe to say that the further we get from our agrarian past, or even just from the practice of having a small vegetable garden in the back yard, the more foreign some parts of Scripture will be for us. Much in Scripture, and certainly in the Gospels, assumes a familiarity with different aspects of agriculture. But what was once common knowledge, even if it wasn’t firsthand knowledge, now must be learnt, not from experience, but from books or podcasts.
My mother delighted in telling me a story when I was visiting her a number of years ago, about my then, 6 year old niece Callie. Callie was helping Mum, whom she called Oma, make lunch one day, and in the midst of the preparations Mum instructed Callie to go out into the backyard garden and pull a few carrots from the vegetable patch for them to have with their lunch. Wide-eyed Callie put her hands on her hips and shook her head. Oh, Oma, Callie said very seriously, carrots don’t come from gardens, carrots come from grocery stores. Clearly, poor old foolish Oma didn’t know anything about carrots, and certainly not where you could get them if you wanted to have some with your lunch.
If we no longer know where carrots come from, as obviously some people in this world don’t (and here I don’t mean poor old foolish Oma!); if we have forgotten our agrarian past; if there is no longer any dirt under our finger nails; if our only experience of food production is what we find in shops; what are we to make of a text such as we have today from John’s Gospel that assumes a degree of knowledge of viniculture, or even just basic gardening.
It’s been a long winter. We still have snow on the ground at Emery House but it seems that spring has come, at last. Things are late however. Two years ago the snowdrops bloomed on March 8 and the squill ten days later. As yet snowdrops are just up, and bloomed for the first time today. The garlic and onions I planted last fall are beginning to poke their heads out of the ground and the chickens are getting incredibly restless. Whereas a couple of weeks ago they would not even emerge from the coop, now they can’t wait to get out in the morning.
Since moving back to Emery House I have learned a lot: about chickens and ducks and geese; about garlic and onions and leeks; about tractors and mowers and bees (and that some mowers and bees don’t mix!). But I probably only know just enough to be dangerous, and not enough yet, to be a good farmer. I am certain there is a great deal more to learn, and I am sure I will learn some of it this year.
A week ago was our annual Pruning Weekend at Emery House. Volunteers helped us brothers and interns prune apple, pear and cherry trees on the meadow. We used ladders and the more adventurous climbed among the branches. With pruning shears in hand, we looked for four things.
First and most obvious, we looked for water sprouts: new, young growth often shooting out all over the trunk and major branches. Much of it is short and easy to see. Some is taller, but it’s noticeable by growing straight up rather than angling out. Second, we looked for branches touching or crossing each other. Third, we looked for anything growing backward toward the trunk instead of out. Fourth, we looked for branches that were actually dead. In all this, we cleared the center trunk, encouraging outward angled growth with space for each branch to grow.