This Sunday, 2nd May, our Priest in Charge, Susan Carter, reminded us what it means to be a part of the true vine, rooted in Jesus
Easter V - Year B
Acts 8: 26-40
1 John 4:7-21
My mother was a wonderful gardener.
At the first blush of spring, she would sort through her seed packets, reading the backs of each, deciding which ones to start inside, on the windowsill in the kitchen, facing south.
There were nasturtiums and daisies, Black-eyed Susans and sweet peas. The bulbs – she had planted those in the fall.
And in a succession there were snow drops and crocuses, daffodils and tulips.
Sometime in the summer, tiger lilies would make an appearance on the east side of the house, carefully gathered from alongside the county roads in southwestern Michigan.
She could grow roses and rhododendrons, asters, alyssum, and azaleas. Little did not yield to her large, strong hands.
She tenderly transplanted and patiently watered, granting each plant the attention it needed so that it would be nourished and grow.
Evenings in the summer, she would spend what seemed like hours tending to, and watering, her garden. It was a time of peace and contemplation for her as she surveyed the rewards of God’s creation.
I am convinced that this gift skips generations, though I have gotten better recently. Occasionally I was dragooned, sometimes willingly, into helping out with weeding and watering duties.
That ended pretty abruptly one summer when I inadvertently mistook a prized poppy – not yet in bloom – for a weed and yanked it out, tossing it on the compost heap.
Mother knew how to trim and to prune to achieve the greatest yield.
I was sometimes aghast at the severity with which she cut back roses and lilacs and apple trees.
But she knowingly cut for growth, understanding that unproductive branches did not nourish the rest of the plant.
How wonderful that – as we approach Mother’s Day here in France at the end of May, and next Sunday in the U.S. – there is the image of the gardener that comes to us in the gospel of John.
Jesus tells us that he is the true vine and that his father, our Father, is the vine grower.
In this springtime that is lush with new growth given our recent rains, Jesus gives us images drawn from the richness of the world around us.
Just as the images spoke to people two-thousand years ago, they resonate in us today.
My mother didn’t grow grapes, yet she understood that trimming needed to take place if new growth was to follow. It was a necessary and important thing to do – trim for growth, for the health of the whole plant.
What then about the vine? What is Jesus telling us when he calls himself the vine?
Jesus provides us with a look at the whole structure for growing the fruit.
It’s not just the branch, nor the stem. It’s the complete plant, from leaves and fruit to branches.
Examined in its entirety, it is the full community. We are given in today’s gospel Jesus the vine, God, the gardener, and us – God’s people – as the branches.
This is not a hierarchical structure with people at all levels and ranks, some better or more important than others.
Jesus continually lets us know that is not how God’s kingdom operates.
The image offered here is of a vine and branches -- an integrated one with anonymity and no distinguishing features.
There are no Pharisees placed above the prostitutes on this vine. There are no CEOs made superior to custodians.
As we step back from this vine and its branches – and take a full and long look at it – the plant is a unit, a cohesive and solitary configuration.
In it, we become community with inter-relationships and mutuality and in-dwelling.
We are intertwined and virtually impossible to tell apart. It is this community – the branches that we are – that is connected and grows from the vine that is Jesus.
The illustration of a vine and branches is a good one for us. When properly tended, the branches on a vine can really flourish and yield great fruit. But it’s a delicate proposition.
The branches that grow grapes, for example, prosper with proper tending and limitations.
The soil must be right, the temperatures appropriate, the rain not overwhelming, and the sunshine abundant.
Even then, the hazards of fungus can overcome – it’s a dangerous world if you’re a branch.
As many of you know, in some vineyards in France, rose bushes are planted at the end of each row.
Peter Mayle explained in his book French Lessons that “[b]ugs and ailments attack roses before they attack vines so the vigneron – the vine grower – has a chance to see the problem before any serious damage is done to the grapes.”
God, the vine keeper, removes every branch that is diseased or doesn’t bear fruit.
This talk of cutting and pruning may seem harsh, and at one level it is. Jesus is helping us to understand that there is – there will be God’s judgment.
There is also love and nurturing and growth as a branch on Jesus’ vine.
That happens when we – the branches – abide in Jesus and let Jesus abide in us. If we are in relationship with Jesus and let him be in us, if we are in what Dr. David Jeremiah calls an “unbroken connection” and not just the irregular and occasional encounter.
When we fall out of community, when we cut ourselves off, we run the risk of being judged and being cut away.
When we set ourselves apart, we are separated from the love of God.
No longer are we part of the integrated whole. We have lost our place as branches attached to the vine.
As I look back now to my mother the gardener, I have a deeper appreciation of the wisdom she used in constructing her garden.
She was, in a very real sense, tending God’s creation and helping to nurture the branches so that they would bear fruit.
What no longer bore fruit, or nourished the plant, she trimmed.
We are attached to Jesus our vine, the true vine, and grow best there. It is there, as branches, that we can bear much fruit.
Hacked off the vine, withering, away from the community of God’s love, we can do nothing.
It is by abiding in Jesus that we can be fruitful and grow further in God’s love and embrace.