I’m not sure about yours, but my lawn is actually looking half-decent; the grass is relatively green considering the hot and dry weather we’ve had lately. Now that I’m a home-owner for the very first time, I really want my yard to look good, so I fertilized my lawn in the early spring and then again in the late spring with a special product that’s supposed to maximize water retention for the hot summer months – and it seems to have worked quite well. But I confess that this success has filled me with some vainglory and is now occasionally causing me to look with a bit of scorn and judgment at other lawns in the neighbourhood with their brown, withering dry patches.
Friends, today we continue our summer sermon series with its organizing theme of gardening. As we tend to our lawns and gardens this summer, the Church calendar encourages us to do the same for our hearts and lives. In our first reading today from Genesis, we are reminded that the LORD God formed humanity from the ground; and so, in some ways, we are like the earth and the plants that grow from it.
That’s why Jesus (and the authors of the New Testament) often used agricultural imagery in their teaching about what it means for us to live and flourish in Christ.
One of the great examples of this is found in John chapter 15, where Jesus says to us, “I am the vine, and you are the branches (15:4). Every branch in me that does not bear fruit [God the vinedresser] takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (15:2)
We’re currently in a seven-week stretch in this series focused on this very subject of pruning. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll have to admit that there are many things in our hearts and lives that prevent us from loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbour as ourselves. We are rooted and grounded in God’s love by faith, but to what extent does this love actually grow and blossom in our lives? We know we have bad attitudes and behaviours that hinder this progress. These are mis-directed growths that sap the energy needed for health and vitality. They must be pruned away for us to grow and flourish and bear the fruits of the Spirit: the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22).
So what are we pruning today?
In a word, ‘vainglory’ - that is:
Truth be told my lawn has more than a few dry patches, ant hills and weeds. But I’m more likely to notice them across the street than in my own.
In our Gospel today, Jesus says to us, Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? In other words, we magnify the blemishes we see in others, while minimizing, hiding or denying our own. We see the speck in others, but do not notice the log in our own eye - it’s the difference between noticing a toothpick and ignoring a telephone pole.
Jesus exaggerates here because we so grossly underestimate our own sins and shortcomings, especially in comparison to others. Our Lord’s point is that we, who are so critical of others, reveal how little we know of our own faults. We, who can be so unforgiving, reveal how little we sense our own need for forgiveness.
So Jesus says, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned.”
Judge not. The word used in the Greek is the root of our word “critical” - and it is that critical spirit that Jesus calls us to prune away. There is a fault-finding attitude in us. I recognize and confess it in myself – and of course, my judgment of others’ lawns is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s an almost constant stream of judgmental thoughts in my head - and Jesus would have us give this up completely, forever.
Then He tells us to turn from condemning others. Judge not. Condemn not. We must prune away our habits of judgment and condemnation if we are grow in Christ and bear the fruit of the Spirit.
Next Jesus says: Forgive and Give. Notice how He gives us two negative commands (Judge not and Condemn not) and then two positive commands (Forgive and Give). These are not accidental pairs. Rather, judgment and condemnation are the very opposite of forgiveness and giving. Forgiveness and generosity will grow where judgment and condemnation are pruned away.
The opposite of judging is forgiving; and the opposite of condemning is giving, a generosity of spirit. Our lives are filled with countless situations, both small and large, in which we must choose between these. Our natural reaction is usually to judge and condemn, but you see, that condemns us to a life without mercy and generosity. Mercy forgives and gives with grace and abundance.
As you’re probably feeling, Jesus is calling us here to a very high standard indeed. This is, after all, the same guy who said: Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). Judge not; condemn not; forgive and give. At least in my case, this will require some extensive pruning. How can we possibly achieve this?
This forgiveness can only be ours if we have first received it from God. This kind of generosity of heart and a life of loving and abundant living will only be ours if we have first known and received it from God. Jesus calls us to forgive and give as those who have first been forgiven and have received. Jesus calls us to love as we have been loved.
In other words, this is not something we can summon from our own strength. It must be drawn from the sap of the Spirit, which is ours through having been grafted into Christ the true vine, rooted and grounded in the love of God.
Our second reading from Romans gives us a glimpse of how this will be manifested within us – a little bit like a gardening book or a seed catalogue, where we get a preview of what our plants will look like in the future when they blossom in all their glory.
To be sure, the pruning or suffering required to reach that end goal is unpleasant, but it is not worth comparing with the glory that shall be revealed to us.
Friends, the good news today is that we are not condemned to the prison of our vainglory forever. We are indeed destined for glory – the glory that God alone can bring about at the resurrection on the last day in the new creation. The problem is that in the meantime, we seek our own glory instead; and in doing so, we end up closing-in on ourselves like flowers that won’t open towards the sun.
But God allows us to go our own way and seek our own glory in order for us to experience the futility of this endeavour and turn back to Him. As His branches, He allows us to feel the resulting stress and drought - and wither a bit - so that can we long to be more deeply connected to our nourishing vine and root. We must experience the vanity of our purposes and the weakness of our power so that we can be made willing to be redeemed and made a new creation in Christ. Yes, we groan, we are oppressed and weighed down by our sins, but this groaning is a yearning to be made new.
Friends, this morning, the light of God’s Word shines in our closed-off, self-imposed darkness - and the darkness cannot overcome it. God opens us to Himself - and outside ourselves we find a new light – a light that shows us who we are, but more so, who we shall become.
And that transforming light is Christ Jesus Himself. He reveals to us who we are, where we need to be pruned, and how we shall then blossom and bear fruit for His glory.
And Christ is also our true vine and we are His branches, which means that He and His Spirit provide the sap, food and grounding needed to achieve this growth. For that, thanks be to God. Amen.