Fifth Sunday of Easter B – 3 May 2015
“Prune the Branches. Forget the Nuts!”
The sign on the front of the Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City reads, “God Wants Spiritual Fruits Not Religious Nuts!” Senior Pastor Susan Sparks explains: “Our church is a place that welcomes all people; a place that is safe from the shame and judgement of religious nuts and therefore a rich ground to bear spiritual fruit.”
Today’s gospel according to John says that God prunes branches so they will bear good fruit; God throws away every branch that does not. It also says those who are moved into action by God’s Word are already pruned. We do not read about what God does with religious nuts.
The Greek root for the word prune means cleanse. In the Old Testament the grapevine is a metaphor for Israel. The word prune might refer to the Jewish ritual acts of foot washing. It is possible that the Christian community understood this passage as an act of humility and love toward one another.
For us the word prune could mean a cleansing of our hearts, minds and bodies to make room for the Spirit of God. We recall how parishioner Jessica Burns was symbolically cleansed in the waters of baptism at Easter. She called it a celebration of the transformations going on in her life.
The gospel of John stresses the divinity of Jesus. This was an alienating thought that created conflicts between the Christian community and the Jewish authorities. The interpretation of how God is at work in our lives today can divide people.
If God wants spiritual fruits and not religious nuts; if the church like ours, or any religious group, is to be a rich ground to bear spiritual fruit; if pruning means a cleansing of our lives to focus more on the presence of God; what does this pruning or cleansing have to do with the challenges that face us in the world, our country and our church?
The tensions in this country over same sex marriage, income inequality and racial profiling, to name three issues, are polarizing us. That we are at odds on so many life related issues is not helpful.
Many commentators, for example, link the trouble in Baltimore Maryland to poverty but not everybody agrees on what causes poverty. The Washington Post reported that some people said their city churches are all too often absent from the front lines of poverty, that there is a feeling that institutional religion has often failed disenfranchised people.
On the other hand, during the riots and protests clergy were seen locking arms with gang members, praying with them on their knees for peace, and opening their churches for every kind of gathering. That’s Baltimore, we say. But what about domestic violence and the gang related killings in our own communities? What about the number of hungry children living in poverty right here in the greater Capital District?
These are not easy issues to discuss at family gatherings or on a summer like Sunday in church. Thinking of remote calamities overwhelms us especially in light of our own responsibilities at home, work and school. However, these problems are the concerns for people who want to be nourished by good fruit and who want to make it possible for others to share in the abundance. It is a concern for any church that wants to be fertile ground where spiritual fruit can grow.
We think of our liturgical eucharist as spiritual fruit. What we do in here, in this church, gains new significance if it is understood in terms of what we do out there. What possible meaning does sacred food and drink on our holy table here have for us if we are not working for peace and justice for ourselves and others out there?
Meg Bassinson, who also became a member of our church this past Easter, loaned me two books on preaching. In one of the books, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor offered an optimistic note regarding troubles in the world. She wrote, those who continue to practice a religion and believe that God is still working among us can turn things around.
To find solutions for the problems in Baltimore or in this Capital District requires more than doing business as usual. When we prune away the old attitudes regarding poverty and race relations we just might discover something new never thought of before.
I suspect we have to do some cleansing ourselves to allow more good fruit to grow. It is not something that God can do alone.