I think it was on a trip to Disney World that I first saw topiary, though nothing as fantastical as this image of Cinderella and Prince Charming. The art of grooming plants into a geometric or whimsical shape impressed me. It must require careful pruning.
I was a young woman, in my 20s, when my mother once said, “You could still use some pruning.” I’m trying to remember the tone of the conversation. I know my life was the subject of discussion, and I would certainly never make the case that I was conducting it brilliantly then, but rather than affirming anything in particular, she made reference to the general need for further improvement. You’re not so bad, but…
“You could still use some pruning.”
She was a gardener, and she knew the uses of pruning, but all I could hear was that she wanted less of me, to take away pieces of me.
All I could hear was that I was unsatisfactory and that some goal of perfection could be met if only I could match her vision for me.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. (John 15:1-2, NRSV)
I find these words from Jesus troubling, maybe not for the way Jesus meant them but for the way they can be used to remove other people from community. Perhaps this stems (no pun intended) from my own tendency to expect to be considered expendable, something I’ve been working through pretty much ever since my mother deemed me in need of further pruning. I have been ruthless with myself — unkind, really — and everything about this metaphor sounds so final. If Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, then unless we are fruitful, we are discarded. (See later verses for withering and being thrown on the fire, yikes!)
I won’t be preaching the vine, because I don’t like the limited metaphor we…I…hear. The other texts for tomorrow point to inclusion. And I know in my higher mind that even if Jesus was talking about discarding whole people here, he was talking about it in the context of a last evening in human form with his friends, and the knowledge that they would need to find their strength and courage and faithfulness in order to face what was coming and that anybody who couldn’t would likely leave their community.
So I know I’m guilty of limiting Jesus’ words and over-personalizing them when I hear the ghost of my mother suggesting that only if I’m cut into a particular shape will I meet with her approval. I’ll never know if she would accept the shape I am now as I eschew both the prince and the pruning shears.
I know I’m finally bearing fruit, and the flavor is love.
I have to believe Jesus would like that.