Last week, my family drove to Southern California down Highway 5. It’s a long drive, about seven hours. So I spent a lot of time looking out the window. A lot of that land is agricultural land… and we saw farms that grew almonds, avocados, kiwis, olives, and all sorts of things. Several times, I saw entire orchards that were dead. Rows upon rows of trees, all uprooted and lying on their sides. Hundreds and hundreds of tree carcasses. These trees, apparently, were the victims of drought and water shortages. But that was not the only seeming devastation… In that area of the state, there are also lots of vineyards and I saw acres and acres of what looked like sticks.
Finally, I figured out that that big bunch of wobbly, short nubs or stumps were not more victims of water shortages but actually grape vines. They look like someone has come along and mowed them down—and it looked like nothing will ever grow there again. It made me a little fearful about the state of the wine and grape juice markets.
I started to do some reading. It turns out that grape growers, as part of the process of caring for the vineyard, cut away 90 percent of the branches on the grapevine. It ensures that the plants very strong and will yield a lot of fruit. Even more, it increases the quality of the fruit.
After the pruning, the vines may have only one or two vines buds so that all the energy and nutrients that the roots have to offer can focus on making those two vines particularly healthy. If the grape growers left too many branches on the vine, it would sap all the strength of the plant and the vine would be weak and sickly—no good for growing grapes. Further, the pruning is done based upon the great wisdom of the grower. They study the vine and know when branches should be cut to make sure that the ones left get the most nourishment and light.
Seeing those grapevines growing really brought this reading into focus. Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. God is the vine grower. We abide in Jesus and he will abide in us. That sounds so peaceful and comforting until you get to all the hacking, chopping, and burning of branches. That sounds pretty ominous. In fact, it sound downright painful!
So what does it mean to us to be pruned? We really need to think about that… So let me ask you this: When you were younger, did you have a teddy bear when you were a kid? Or some other comforting object that went everywhere with you?
Now, I know it might seem like teddy bears and grapevines have absolutely nothing in common, but really they do. When I was three years old, I got a stuffed St. Bernard dog and I named him Duke. He made me feel happy when I felt sad. And he helped me fall asleep at night, and I told him all my secrets. He stayed with me all the time.
Little kids who have a blanket or a stuffed animal, though, eventually start to grow up—maybe they start leaving their teddy bear in a safe place when they go out. Or maybe they let another little kid who needs it more borrow it. Eventually maybe, whatever it is stays on the bed or in the closet most of the time—only getting dragged out during an emotional crisis or for the sake of remembering the “good old days.”
That’s what happened with me and Duke. Sometimes, when i went to a friend’s house, Duke stayed on my bed…and when I went to college, I only saw him when I came home for visits. Much, much later, when i was an adult, my brand new Golden Retriever puppy Arden chewed his face off… and it made me sad to lose something that had once been so important to me. At the same time, I understood that Duke was something that had helped me in the past.
All of us evolve and change. It’s part of being human. And all of us hang on to stuff that no longer serves a purpose. That’s true of our external lives, but it’s also true of our spiritual lives. All of us, as human beings, are likely to have something that we feel like we need to have to feel safe, powerful, successful or whatever. It might be a certain way of behaving or relating to other people.
It might be feeling like we need to strive to have the right sort of car, the perfect job, the best house or whatever helps us feel like things are going well. It might be a certain way of thinking about ourselves, other people, or even God. It might be a certain ministry within the church or a habit, or hobby, or way of being. It may be how we spend our time or use our talents or spend our money. It may even be how we respond to the things that happen in our lives or with the people we meet.
These are the dead wood in our lives—these are the branches that need to be tossed into the fire. These are the teddy bears that need to be banished to the closet. These are the things that once helped us to feel safe, but now are just taking up space. As people walking a path with Christ, we need to decide what to trim away, what to let go of so that we have room to grow.
There was once a little girl named Jenny. She was five years old. One day, waiting with her mother at the checkout stand, she saw a circle of glistening white pearls in a pink foil box. Immediately, she knew that they had to be hers. “Oh please, Mommy. Can I have them?” she pleaded.
The mother checked the back of the little foil box and then looked back into the pleading blue eyes. “A dollar ninety-five. That’s almost $2.00. If you really want them, I’ll think of some extra chores for you and in no time you can save enough money to buy them for yourself. Your birthday’s only a week away and you might get another dollar bill from Grandma.”
As soon as Jenny got home, she emptied her penny bank and counted out 17 pennies. After dinner, she did more than her share of chores and she went to the neighbor and asked Mrs. McJames if she could pick dandelions for ten cents. On her birthday, Grandma did give her another new dollar bill and at last she had enough money to buy the necklace.
Jenny loved her pearls. They made her feel dressed up and grown up. She wore them everywhere-Sunday school, kindergarten, even to bed. The only time she took them off was when she went swimming or had a bubble bath. Mother said if they got wet, they might turn her neck green.
One night, Jenny’s daddy, who loved her very much, came upstairs to read her a story. When he was done, he asked Jenny to do a very hard thing. He asked her to give him her pearls. She couldn’t even imagine it. She offered her favorite white princess pony instead.
A week later, he asked again… She offered her brand new baby doll that she had gotten for her birthday. He just smiled and shook his head. Finally, after wrestling with the idea for a long time, she decided that her father must have a very great need if he was asking for her pearls. So she gave them to him. It was hard… but she knew it was right.
Without a word, Jenny’s daddy took the little dime-store necklace out of her had and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a blue velvet case with a strand of genuine pearls and gave them to Jenny. He had them all the time. He was just waiting for her to give up the dime-store stuff so he could give her genuine treasure.
When God asks us to give something up in our lives its because there is something better waiting for us and we need to make room. When we get beyond the pruning, there is assurance that fruit will grow. When we get beyond needing what we’ve gathered to ourselves to feel safe and comfortable, we can step into being really alive, and know with a deep understanding of the radical love that we have received.
There is finally room for the real puppies. We can, like the eunuch in the Acts of the Apostles, to hear and respond to the Good News that we encounter in our lives and respond immediately and with an open heart. We are able evolve and grow to be the best version of who God has created us to be.
So what’s your dead wood? What’s your teddy bear? What are your dime-store pearls? What are you hanging on to? Let it go and see what shows up to fill the empty space.
Preached by the Rev. Hailey McKeefry Delmas, at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, San Carlos, CA.