They called him Little Thad, and like many 9 year old boys, he was never excited about sitting quietly through a full day of synagogue school. It was hard for him to listen to the old Pharisees drone on about this text or that scroll, and today was no exception. As soon as the teacher pulled out the scroll of Isaiah and started talking about the prophet’s parable of the vineyard, Little Thad was somewhere else.
Little Thad immediately began to daydream about the months that he had spent with his uncle while his parents were on a journey. His uncle was a vinegrower, and it fascinated Thad the way that he thoughtfully cared for each vine, checking the branches early in the season, even though they had yet to produce fruit. He was astonished when his uncle chopped off seemingly good parts of the branch, and he cried out in protest. But his uncle explained, “I’m not cutting it away. I’m cutting it back. We have to prune the vines so that they will grow stronger.” Thad thought for a minute and responded, “But how do you know the difference?” His uncle explained, “You have to watch the vine. The farther that a vine gets away from its branch, the harder the plant has to work to give it nutrients. We want the vine to be close to the branch and receive its strength. Cutting the vine back keeps it strong.”
Out of his daydream, Little Thad told the teacher and the class his story, and the old Pharisee got a gleam in his eye, one of those gleams that teachers get when there is a chance for a light bulb to go on. He explained, “The prophet says this is exactly how God tends to our community. Those who fail to do justice are like those branches that fail to bear fruit:
• Those who care only for their own houses and not for making sure that everyone has a place to live.
• Those who abuse the land and fail to steward it wisely.
• Those who care more about their own lavish food and drink than making sure all are fed.
“Injustice angers God. And the prophet explained that God’s anger would burn against those who failed to do justice for those in the community. Caring for one another is the fruit that God expects.”
It was a lesson that Little Thad carried with him the rest of his life. But it was one he always struggled with, especially that question: “How do you know?” Some twenty years later, he found himself in the company of another teacher, still wrestling with that question. “How do you know who is good news is meant for?” he asked the teacher. “Is it just for us…God’s chosen people? Or is it meant for someone else?”
And the teacher got that gleam in his eye that teachers get when they see an opportunity for the light bulb to come on. “I am the vine and you are the branches.” Immediately, Thaddeus’ the daydreamer was transported back to synagogue school, back to his uncle’s vineyard, back to Isaiah’s parable. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower,” The teacher spoke. “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”
And now, perhaps for the first time, he really understood.
He understood that in order to bear fruit, one had to be close to the vine, to receive the nutrients and strength that the vine provided. The more that the vine rambled away from its source, the more it wasted the strength of the plant. And the more likely that it needed to be cut back.
Pruned. Cleaned. Strengthening them and the plant as a whole. And for the first time, he understood. He understood why the Teacher had taught them how to treat one another, how to pray, how to heal, how to care for the least and the lowest, how to show mercy and do justice. He was acting like the vine, giving spiritual nutrients to his branches. And when he corrected them, reprimanded them, told them not to love money, not to love revenge, not to love power, he was pruning: cutting back the attitudes and sins and selfishness that failed to produce fruit.
Not cut away. The teacher never seemed to send anyone away. The rich young ruler left on his own accord. The Pharisees and Saducees scuttled off to their conspiracies. Even Judas, who had left in a huff a few minutes earlier, was not rejected by the teacher. When the teacher had knelt to wash everyone’s feet, he washed Judas’ feet as well. It was clear to Thad that the Teacher never wanted anyone to be cut away. Just cut back.
Judge Thad took his unofficial assigned seat in the pews at First Church. They sang the songs and shook the hands and prayed the prayers, and he finally settled in to hear the preacher preach. His mind wandered, as minds tend to do. As the preacher spoke about the Vine and the Branches in John 15, his mind started to think about the to-do list in his own garden. Time to start pinching back the mums, deadheading the annuals, and prune the roses. As he looked around the sanctuary, he noticed a few dead branches that could be cut away.
The single mom who seemed to drain more from the church than she did give back to it. Always asking for money…always needing help from the church.
The interracial couple who always seemed to be whining about how hard it was to face prejudice and discrimination. He thought of them when he shared that Facebook post last week titled “Just get over it.”
The grumpy, old Facilities chair who always micromanaged every piece of the building. He was such a drain on the pastor, it’s a wonder she could get anything done.
“This church could use some cutting away,” he thought, as the choir finished the anthem.
But as soon as the preacher stood up to preach, Judge Thad began to wonder if she was preaching directly to him.
“Is yours a theology of cutting away or cutting back?” she began.
“Would you rather cut away: simply avoid the difficult conversations and troubling relationships in your life, cutting them away altogether? Getting rid of the people who make life hard for you? Or are you ready to do the hard work of cutting back – pruning, deadheading the parts of our lives and our sins that must be removed?”
Are you ready for God to cut back your selfishness?
Are you ready for God to cut back your racism? Or your sexism? (Thad shifted in his seat a little on that one.)
Are you ready for God to cut back your smug sense of self-righteousness?
Are you ready for God to cut back your sarcastic apathy, choosing to numb or distract instead of engage with God and one another in whole-hearted ways?
If not, the passage makes it clear that God will cut us away, but that is never the goal. The goal is for that which is broken and sinful in our lives to be cut away, pruned, deadheaded, for the sake of growth and health and bearing fruit.
And there in that pew, Thad had what could only be called an epiphany. He looked around the pews at those who he had tended to complain about, tended to correct, tended to judge, and he stopped seeing them as branches to be cut out, but as fellow branches that needed to share in the pruning that God offers all.
He saw with new eyes the single mom who was facing almost insurmountable debt. No longer was she a drain on the system whose bad choices got her exactly what she deserved. But he saw her as a branch in the family of faith, struggling to make ends meet after a life of hard choices that were not always her fault.
He saw with new eyes the interracial couple who sat in the back. No longer were they whiny victims, but a branch in the family of faith. He saw their struggle and the inequity and the raised eyebrows that they faced every day, even in their church. Even from Thad himself.
He saw with new eyes the grumpy old trustee who always complained about the way that people use the building. No longer was he a poisoned and toxic grump with power issues. He saw him as a branch in the family of faith, once a proud leader in the church, he saw his power and influence slipping away and all he wanted to do was to make a difference.
And he saw with new eyes…himself. He saw that which in his life needed to be pruned, to be cut away, to be deadheaded….
He saw that God the gardener was working to create in him a healthier branch that bore healthier fruit.
And as the preacher ended her sermon, he heard words that stuck with him ever since that day. “You have to watch the vine. You have to stick close to the one who teaches us to love and serve. If we are to care for one another as branches in the family of faith, it is by the power of the Vine that we will.”