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Reach out. Stay rooted.

wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse

Fifth Sunday of Easter

April 28, 2024

Acts 8:26-40

1 John 4:7-21

John 15:1-8

Every summer, a group of university students in my neighborhood head west for tree-planting. They travel to Alberta to live in a tent in the wilderness. Each day, they take their seedlings and bend down into the soil and plant them – they are paid per seedling. And to get paid, they have to do it rain or shine, or, as is happening too often now, even if the air is filled with smoke from wildfires. Planting trees helps grow back our forests. But it is hard work. The young people who last the season come back a little tougher, a little more resilient. They have endured. It’s a job that prunes you – cuts you down, so that you may build up again.

I have had jobs like this all my life. My brief and terrible stint catching chickens. The backbreaking work shovelling gravel from the corners of the lakers in Welland. Working as the chaplain at Centracare, the oldest psychiatric hospital in North America, where I saw consequences of human trauma and abuse. These were jobs that pruned me – they stripped down my expectations, my body, and my perceptions so that I might grow back stronger.

This is the metaphor of our gospel this morning: ‘I am the vine,” Jesus tells us. “You are the branches.” Those who grow rooted in the gospel bear much fruit. Indeed, we may be pruned by God to bear more fruit.

And what is the act of pruning, but the holding back of that natural growth that may stall the productivity of the rest of the vine? As any gardener knows, pruning is an act of care, to help the plant grow to its full potential, a cutting away of the edges so that the center may grow stronger. Sometimes, nearly the entire plant is cut down, and yet it returns the next spring stronger than ever.

We may not feel that way when it is happening. When I was shoveling gravel, I didn’t think: “Wow, the lessons I will learn!” And yet, now I know it taught me the experience of hard labour. By the time I got to Centercare, I went much more quickly from pruning to awareness.

But often we come to understand these difficult times – whatever they are for each of us – as more than time we survived. But as time where we grew back better, wiser, stronger.

However, we know that there are parts in us that also deserve to be pruned away – the parts that judge too quickly, act too harshly, forgive too slowly, and help too little. But God shows us how to prune those parts back, even though they are constantly growing, so that we can have restraint, so that we can be better, so that we might stretch even beyond ourselves and bear the fruit of the gospel.

Sometimes we may look for an answer from God and fail to hear it: it is given to us this morning in our second lesson: we are given love in its purest form by the God we trust. And, if we can accept that truth -- that we have value -- then we might also love more perfectly. We are told that when we love others – our brothers and our sisters – God lives in us. So, when we ask, “How can we be closer to God?” we are told how: by loving those around us. By loving ourselves. And where is the love, we ask? It’s ours to create. And not with fear and judgement, for that is not love.

The truth is, unlike the tree that stands stoically for its pruning, we do not like it. We complain about it; we fight it. We want life to be easy and ever the same. Being pruned asks much of us. To see the upside of bad experiences, to savour the hard tests in life, to accept our mistakes so that we might learn from them. If God prunes out branches, then it is in us, in our decision to love and trust, in God and one another, that allows us to grow into branches on the vine.

And what is the role of those branches, when rooted in the gospel? We become strong enough to stretch where love seems not to exist and take it there ourselves. That is how God comes to us. Not when we sit idly by, but when we find ourselves, as the second lesson tells us, doing acts of love for our brothers and sisters.

I suspect we all know someone who we think is different or weird. Who we don’t like. Who we’d rather not bother us. But it’s this very thinking that God tries to prune away. So that our lives are not only about the fruit that grows easily, but also about the kind we need to cultivate.

We can’t know the future or change the past. All we can do is consider the ways that our decisions affect others, how our society’s laws and values make outsiders of some, and what individual power we might have to change that. Down the road, we also need to ask ourselves what happened, and what might have been done to stop that. Perhaps as we ask, we will look around, and we will see, for the first time clearly, a lost sheep. And maybe we will reach out.


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