God the Gardener
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 29, 2018
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 8:26-40; John 15:1-8
Guinn and Janice Hollingshead, Kinney’s parents, were incredible gardeners. Honestly, I think they could have brought dead twigs back to life. When they retired, gardening became the task that drove them from sunrise to sunset. Rose gardens, flower gardens, an herb garden, a vegetable garden—everything was neat and tidy—hardly a weed in sight. They even had holding beds of plants that they would relocate at the perfect time to assure there was always something blooming on the front lawn for visitors to enjoy.
Gardening was Guinn and Janice’s passion. It is a passion of God’s as well. God the Gardener, God the Vinedresser—these are images of God that are woven throughout Hebrew Scripture. And Israel is often likened to God’s chosen vine. In a covenant made with Abraham, promises are made. God keeps them. Israel does not. God’s chosen vine repeatedly disobeys and disappoints—refusing to allow the Master Gardener to lead, guide, and direct. Judges warn of God’s pruning hand. Prophets offer reminders of what God requires: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”[i] But the people refuse to listen. All seems lost until, in God’s good time, a new vine is planted—Jesus. Jesus will not disappoint but will humbly bow to the will of his Abba Father’s hand. He will remain faithful to the Master Gardener to the end, which, of course, will be only the beginning.
Our Gospel reading for today gives us the last I AM statement Jesus makes to his disciples: “I AM the true vine, and my father is the vine grower…I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” As one commentator puts it, Jesus makes clear he is not God, but he is intimately connected to God. Without God, even Jesus recognizes, he has “no life, no ministry, and no mission.”[ii] God is the vine grower…Jesus is the vine…we are the branches. Herein, we are offered an invitation to examine our lives and consider whether we are abiding in Christ—for abiding is our one duty. If we obey, then the fruit will grow of its own accord.
But what does it mean to abide? It means to remain, to stay, to live, to dwell. In remaining close to Jesus, the vine, a kind of abiding in God occurs that results in shalom—peace, wholeness, health. As the church, by abiding in Jesus, we become woven into the texture of one another’s lives. Obviously, we come to the church as individuals. I haven’t had your life experiences. You haven’t had mine. Yet here we are, branches, learning day by day to live and grow together. Too often though, people approach the church with one question in mind, “What can this church do for me?” without ever asking the follow-up question, “And how might I contribute to this community?”
For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is all about community—a community characterized by living in love and bearing the fruit of love—a community characterized by interconnection and interdependence. In the words of an African proverb, “Because we are, I am.” Only by abiding in Jesus and growing together can we become a community that produces a bountiful harvest—a bountiful harvest for God, the Vine-grower. For in the end, it’s not about us. It’s about God. It’s about bringing glory to the Gardener as we abide in Jesus and grow more and more into his likeness.
While it is our work to abide, it is the vine grower’s job to prune; to cleanse; to cast off the dead wood. But the idea of being pruned, cut back, or made to grow in a direction not of our own choosing seems harsh. We don’t want to be cut back. We don’t want to be pruned.
Years ago, Kinney’s parents gave us two Rose of Sharon shrubs. Although they started out small, in time they began to bloom, profusely. The blossoms would appear in June and remain throughout most of the summer. One lovely fall day Kinney decided to prune the Rose of Sharon shrubs. I didn’t think much about it—but I should have. You know where this is going, don’t you? A little while later, I walked out the back door to find my two lovely Rose of Sharon shrubs cut nearly to the ground—the forsythia, too. Needless to say, Kinney does not “prune” much anymore. In fact, one year when we were making plans to vacation in Tennessee, our oldest son, Samuel, texted: “Mom, don’t worry. I am pruning the shrubbery before you arrive!”
But even when pruning is done correctly, the process often leaves vines, shrubs, or trees looking a bit forlorn. Yet those who know a lot about vineyards say that the sweetest fruit is found near the root of the plant, where the nutrients are most concentrated. Pruning focuses the growth of the vine to where it needs to be, close to its life-source. And while pruning is necessary for plant health, it’s necessary for our spiritual health, too. Jesus says to those who follow him, “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” Then he continues, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you.” The pruning tool of the Father-vine grower is the word. When this word shapes us, the result is a life that produces good fruit in abundance.[iii]
But notice, by the grace of God, we don’t bear fruit on our own. Kinney’s mom and dad’s vegetables didn’t plant themselves or make themselves grow. Neither can we make ourselves bear fruit. We are unable to muster up the energy and power alone. Instead, we are to remain close to Jesus and allow our Source of strength to bring forth fruit through us. This is how we, the branches, will bear fruit that will bless others, fruit that will show the world what a community built on love really looks like!
John’s Gospel begins with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him…” These words describe Jesus, who invites us to abide in him. Oh, the mystery of God’s love. Jesus calls us close. He calls us to be honest with him, with ourselves, and with one another. In the presence of Christ, we can learn to dwell—sharing our hopes and fears, our dreams and disappointments, our successes and failures. Jesus, the Son of God, reveals to us the deep love the Father has for this world. And because of his love and acceptance of us, we can love and accept one another, knowing that we are all imperfect and yet, beloved.
Jesus, the True Vine, calls us to abundant life that is made possible because of his obedient sacrifice. Remember his words on that last night in the Upper Room, “This is my blood, poured out for you.” At the Last Supper, the fruit of the vine became the drink poured out, representing the amazing bearing of fruit Jesus was about to accomplish. Still we gather around the table as branches to be nourished by this one True Vine. Indeed, as the church, we are a Eucharistic Community. Like Jesus, we are poured out for others. Like Jesus, we are nourished by God and equipped by the Spirit to produce a bountiful harvest.
I invite you to hear the words of Jesus once more, from Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message:
I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken. Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me. 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. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Micah 6:8.
[ii] Barbara J. Essex, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2.
[iii] Joyce Ann Zimmerman, ed. at http://liturgy.slu.edu/5EasterB050612/theword_working.html
*Cover Art “True Vine” © Stushie; used with subscription