A sermon based on Psalm 22:25-31 and John 15:1-8 preached on May 3rd, 2015.
Since Easter, it seems like we’ve spent a lot of time in worship meditating on passages filled with gardening and agriculture references.
The Gospel of John is filled with images that bring us back to the land and plant our faith in Jesus deeply into the soil of the earth. If we ever had an idea that being a Christian and putting our hope in Jesus was all about preparing ourselves for lift-off—away from this life and into an otherworldly place where we will find life eternal for the first time, then John is here to bring us back down to earth again—to plant our faith in the hopes that exist now as God has invited us into eternal life starting right here, where we are—our feet firmly rooted in the terra firma of the earth.
John is trying to tell us that our hope in heaven isn’t in a ticket that gets punched at the end of our earthly existence. Rather, our hope in heaven starts now as we realize that the promises of heaven and earth are one—that no matter where we find ourselves (in this life or the next), we remain a branch in God’s vineyard, with Jesus as the vine who keeps and feeds us.
All of this garden talk makes me want to start a garden of my own. I know nothing about planting anything, but gardening does seem like a really attractive idea to me. Maybe one of these springs I’ll put some old jeans on and start digging in the backyard, and see if I’m any good at it.
Digging in the dirt sounds peaceful. It also sounds simple and elemental. In our overly loud and complex lives, growing squash or tomatoes doesn’t require anything but a small amount of seed, some quiet time settling into the soil, the work of our hands tangled up in the earth, time, and patience, and a little bit of faith.
I’m attracted to that kind of simplicity. So much about our lives is more complicated than that, but at the same time, gives us nothing in return for our hard work and attention; yet with a few seeds, a bit of sunlight, and few drops of rain, the ground rewards us with food—something real and nourishing.
I read this week in the Herald-Dispatch (or maybe it was on Facebook) that long-time Barboursville Mayor, Paul Turman, will retire and has conceded his campaign to Chris Tatum.
I’m not huge into politics, and don’t speak about it from the pulpit, but I am glad to hear that Chris Tatum is interested in creating a Community Gardens here in Barboursville. I’m not quite sure what that might look like, but wouldn’t it be great to gather together as a community—anyone who wants to, could own their little garden plot, and grow food and flowers alongside their neighbors.
Organic community starts at ground level, and tilling the soil of a community garden together—side by side—one plot of soil next to another—that sounds like ministry to me. Maybe some of the food we grow in this future community garden can feed people at the Greater Barboursville Community Outreach meal or be donated to food pantries in our area.
There nothing more organic than that, except maybe what we’re doing right here: gathering together as a faith community to worship God. Have you ever thought of worshipping God as organic? I think it is.
We are creatures made to worship our Creator. We have been given our voices so we can sing out and speak of our praise to God. The answer to the very first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism is this:
What is the chief end of humanity?
The chief end of humanity is to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.
That is not only why, but how we are made. Everything we do sounds and looks like worship to God. There’s nothing more organic than when we as creatures live our entire lives as an expression of worship to God the Creator. Every breath is a prayer raised to God. Every word we think or say, something that glorifies God. Every hurt we have, God feels and knows and takes on for us. Every joy we proclaim—even those that stay within the chambers of our hearts—sounds like praise to the One who created us—to the Master Gardener who planted us here.
I’m excited about the idea of community garden because it feels right to plant in community—to sow seeds together and to harvest our crops together. There’s so much more joy when we share in these things with one another and watch what spring forth. I assure you, a community garden will yield more than produce and flowers—it will yield stronger relationships in our community.
Our passage for today—this allegory that Jesus plants into our imaginations—is about us—all of us together—as one interconnected, living, organic, organism: a vine and its branches.
God is the Master Gardener. Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. Everything is connected.
There are two things that Jesus asks us to do in this passage:
First: Remain in him. Just as a branch remains connected to its vine, stay connected to me, he says. Stay close. And second: be fruitful people, because God is glorified when our faith produces good fruit. We prove ourselves as faithful disciples when our lives bear good fruit.
About 2 weeks ago, I was visiting my parents who have recently moved to Ruckersville, VA, about 20 miles north of Charlottesville, and we visited a couple wineries while I was there.
It was my first time at a winery. The whole wine culture has always seemed a bit stuffy and snooty to me. But we had a great time staring out at the rolling hills covered in grapevines, taking in the views, and pretending to be fancy.
I asked the guy pouring our wine if he ever considered stepping out from behind the bar to work on the other side of the things—out in the field, tilling the ground, tending the vines. He said no. He had zero interest in doing any of that. He mentioned 12-14 hour days out in the fields in the summertime—non-stop picking. He talked about the yearlong prep work: tending to the vines as they begin growing, making sure each branch grew the right way. Making sure that each branch of each vine, across acres and acres of rolling hills, was carefully nurtured so that it could grow the best grape it could.
The art of winemaking is this: make sure everything is connected—the leaves of each branch in contact with the sun’s rays, the branches well-connected to their vine, the vine well-connected to the earth. It’s the careful work of connection that ensures the fruitfulness or each grape.
God is the Gardener. Jesus is the vine. We are the branches.
The challenge, the task, and the invitation is to remain in Jesus—to abide in Him. To stay grafted into the Great I Am by practicing connection to community.
All the You’s in today’s passage are plural. It’s We, together, who are to abide with each other and joined together in Christ, just like a branch abides on a vine. It’s the nourishment of faithful community that grows the best crop and yields the best fruit, and it is we as a community of faith who nourish one another, so that we grow to the point where it’s hard to tell the branches from the vine, because in sacred community, we seek to reflect the thoughts and actions of Jesus, and in time we will grow together in our shared faith so that every one of our thoughts and actions reflects His will and serves His purpose. Then, we the branches will more perfectly reflect the shape and nature of the vine we grow upon. That’s the hope of joining ourselves to Jesus. And we do all of that in and through community.
English-born writer G.K. Chesterton once said it this way:
A person can no more possess a private religion than he or she can possess a private sun or moon.
We live on the vine. There is no going it alone. There is no individual faith. There may be individual devotion to our faith—in fact, I hope there is!—but there is no such thing as an individual Christian faith. A branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides on the vine. Growing in Christian faith is not a DIY project.
We are offered a lot of things that can serve as substitutes for relationship and community. We have a tendency to expect more from our individual pursuits than we do out of gathering together in community. That’s the culture we live in—hyper-individualized. We even have our own personal screens to get lost inside of. There’s this hyphenated word folks are using the describe their experiences when they’re with friends and family these days: Alone-together.
More and more of us are discovering that when we gather, we still feel alone. We expect more from our little screens than we do from each other.
There’s a difference between wire and vine. God wants us connected in real ways. Joined to Jesus—organically. Joined in faith to each other—organically.
Real relationship happens when we gather together as one people, as we till the ground of our community, as we plant the seeds of our faith in one another, and as you tend to my growing in faith just as I tend to yours. That’s practicing connection. That’s being joined to Jesus—each and every one of us growing upon the same vine, tended by the Master Gardener.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!