Rev. Dr. David D. M. King, OSL
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
I’ve never been much of a gardener. It’s a bit of a shame to my mother. In the house where I grew up the first twelve years of my life, on five acres up in the hills outside of Banks, my parents had a vegetable garden that was bigger than the entire lot of any house I’ve lived in since. And that doesn’t count the fruit trees, or the roses, of the cedars, or any of the other plants. We had ducks, complete with their own pen and pond. It wasn’t because we used the eggs or anything. The ducks were there for one purpose and one purpose only: when they were let out into the garden, they would eat the slugs that threatened my mother’s plants.
When I was twelve, our family moved to town for the first time ever. Now instead of five acres to work with, Mom had to make do with a mere third of an acre. But in the thirty years since we moved to Salem, she has transformed that yard. It’s gone through a several cycles now. There was the year that she grew more than two hundred hanging fuchsia baskets. There was the year she grew seventy different varieties of tomatoes. Did you know there are purple tomatoes? There are. There was the experiment in square-foot gardening: in which each square foot is planted with something different, and each square keeps changing throughout the season.
Over the last several years, she has moved increasingly to growing edibles. Virtually everything that she plants now, from the trees to the ground cover to the windbreak, can be eaten. And a good portion of what she grows goes to her local food bank. She is a certified Master Gardener. She’s a member of the fuchsia society. She volunteers at the Oregon Garden. She’s a seed saver.
So, like I said, I think it’s a bit of a disappointment that the most gardening her son seems to be able to do is to mow the lawn, and even that, not often enough. I’ve never really gotten into it. I was always pretty good at driving the little John Deere tractor with the tiller on the back, but I never really got interested in the plants.
And yet, even someone as horticulturally challenged as me can understand the gardening metaphor that Jesus uses to describe himself in the Gospel of John this morning. “I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire.”
It doesn’t take much gardening sense to know that a branch that has been removed from its tree, from its vine, from its root, will not last very long. Even if all I know about gardening is mowing the lawn, I can understand that. Once that grass is severed from its root, it’s going to die, dry up, and decay.
And so, it makes sense that we, as spiritual beings, can experience the same thing. If our connection to God is severed, we are going to die, dry up, and decay. Spiritual decay may not be as obvious as the physical decay of a severed branch, but it can be just as devastating.
As Christians, we experience our connection to God through Jesus Christ. Jesus is our vine, the conduit through which we receive what we need to be spiritually alive and healthy. Jesus is what connects us to the root.
Plants use roots to gather up moisture and nutrients. And then that water and those nutrients travel through the plant’s structures, through the trunk or vine, into all of the branches of the plant. Plants need that water, need those minerals, in order to survive. That’s why a branch that is cut away will die: it’s no longer connected to its source of life.
So what are the nutrients that we receive through Jesus? What is the water that flows to us through the Christ? Well, if we’re talking about water, then we have to talk about baptism. Baptism is how we are brought into God’s family. Baptism is how we are adopted as God’s children. And it is through that relationship with God, that relationship of parent to child with the all-present sovereign of our universe, that we receive grace, forgiveness, mission, vocation. Through the water of baptism we receive identity. Through the water we receive community, community with God, but also community with our sisters and brothers, who are all created in God’s image. Community, ultimately, with all created beings, in this interconnected and interdependent web of life that is our world, that is our galaxy, that is our universe. That is the deep water that we tap into through our relationship with Christ Jesus.
We are spiritual beings, after all, though we sometimes forget it. We are made to be in relationship with God, in relationship with each other, and in relationship with all the world. We are meant to share spiritual communion with all that God has made.
But we can’t do it on our own. We need that ongoing connection through Jesus to God, a connection that comes in the form of spiritual practice. It’s through singing the songs of faith. It’s through struggling with the message of scripture, through sharing in the common meal. It’s through giving thanks in our times of joy, through crying out in our times of grief. It’s through prayer and meditation, and spiritual conversations with our neighbors. It’s through recognizing the signs of God’s handiwork in the marvelous creation all around us. This is how we stay connected to God. This is how we nurture our spirits.
It can be hard in our modern world. In an age of science, too often we forget about the spiritual. And even when we do remember that we’re supposed to connect with God, sometimes we don’t really know how. United Methodists aren’t usually very good at sharing faith with someone else, at least, not in this part of the world. We may have grown up all our lives in church and never really been taught how to pray, or how to use the scriptures in our own devotions, or how to have an honest, open spiritual conversation with another human being. We may know a lot about the faith, but sometimes we have a hard time experiencing it. And, of course, all of this has been made more difficult because we haven’t been able to get together in person. That does make things more challenging. It doesn’t have to be impossible. And the wisdom we need we can find right here in this community, as we connect with one another across the distance. As more people get vaccinated, we’ll have greater freedom on connecting with one another. Tapping into our spiritual roots is something we need to continue to work at, and I look forward to us finding new and meaningful ways for us to do just that in the not too distant future. Because we know that if we are separated from our spiritual source, we cannot thrive.
But what if we are well-connected to spiritual roots? What then? What is it all for? Is it just so that we can feel good about ourselves, so that we can feel self-actualized?
No. God isn’t growing a show garden. It’s not just about looking pretty, or happy, or holy. No, God is growing a production garden. It’s all about the fruit.
And that’s what Jesus says about it too. God is constantly pruning the plant that is the church. It’s not being pruned in order to make it more beautiful. God isn’t in the business of making topiary. It’s being pruned in order to make it more fruitful.
So, what kind of fruit is God trying to grow? Well, put most simply, it’s love of our neighbors. And love for neighbor can take many forms. It could be something as simple as kindness in our everyday dealings with people, in giving others the benefit of the doubt, in seeking forgiveness and reconciliation when we have done wrong. It could be working actively to bring about God’s kingdom in the world, by growing food for the hungry, by seeking an end to preventable diseases, by offering a helping hand to those who have experienced loss or devastation. It could be working for justice, not simply justice in individual cases of injustice, but working for a change to systems that perpetuate injustice, bigotry, and oppression. These are the fruits that God is cultivating in us. This is the produce of a life rooted in faith.
There are two parts. There is the staying rooted in God through Jesus, that brings us the sustenance to grow and thrive. But then there is the producing of fruit. We’re not always good at doing them both, but we need them both. If we try to do good in the world without developing our spiritual selves, then we won’t be able to sustain our work. We will shrivel and die. But if we spend all our time in prayer and devotion but are never led into ministry in the world, then we are an awful waste of resources.
It is by bridging the two that we become true disciples. It’s by bridging God and the world, by bridging personal holiness and social holiness, by bridging spirituality and mission that we become what God wants us to be. Because, while we can’t thrive in the world without a connection to God, God can’t act in the world without a connection to us. God has no hands but our hands. When we are deeply connected to God in Jesus Christ, and when God prunes us into fruitfulness in the world, then we live our purpose and identity, then we are Christ’s body, the church in the world. Thanks be to God.