I had the opportunity this week to preach and talk about preaching at Upper New York's Local Pastors Licensing School. I really enjoyed thinking about my preaching process and figuring out what I would most have wanted to know about and ask about as a new preacher.
My grandfather was a gardener. He had a huge garden in his backyard, and in the garden is one of the easiest places for me to picture him, in his jeans and denim shirt, with a red handkerchief to wipe his forehead, and his garden hoe in hand, carefully tending his rows of vegetables, even on the hottest of days. As soon as I was old enough, my grandfather gave me a little corner of the garden for my own, where I would plant a mix of flowers, like my grandmothers, and a patch of vegetables, like him. And my garden always did well. It wasn’t until I reached adulthood, and had pretty consistent failure with my own gardening attempts that I realized how much work on my little plot my grandfather had done. No doubt, he was tending and weeding and carefully cultivating while I wasn’t paying attention.
For several years, I’ve tried to have a successful small garden, but I have a tendency to be eager at first, and then forgetful, or I wait too long to plant, or too long to transplant, or I forget to let newly-outdoors seedlings harden before giving them too much sun, or I let one setback make me give up the whole project. This year, I’ve kind of done a combination of all of those things. But what’s surprised me is that, despite my apparent best efforts to destroy my plants, they are remarkably resilient once they’ve got strong roots and a strong stem. I’ve lost some where a stem has snapped altogether. But if I’ve just lost some leaves, wilted and withered, the plant, eventually, with some sun and rain, will produce new leaves. It sooo wants to be a strong and healthy fruit bearing plant. A couple of years ago, I was given a Christmas cactus by a thoughtful parishioner who didn’t realize my bad tracker record with plants. I kept it in my office for about two years, not really close to a window, and remembering to water it once a month. It didn’t exactly bloom, but it didn’t quite die either. Finally, I brought it home, and it has grown new leaves – segments – whatever you call them – at nearly every possible juncture. Like it was just waiting for a little care, and now it can’t stop growing. And as it grows, near the base of the plant, the segments of cactus get more and more like a tree trunk, closer to bark, stronger and stronger, as they support more and more segments.
I’ve had all this on my mind as I’ve mulled over this text from John 15. This passage features one of Jesus’ many “I Am” statements in John. This is one of my favorites. Jesus tells us that he is the vine – the true vine – and God is the vine-grower. In that role, God removes from the vine branches that don’t bear fruit. And God prunes healthy branches. Then, says Jesus, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” He tells us that when we keep God’s commandments and bear much fruit, we abide in his love. We’re commanded, in fact, to love one another, as Jesus loves us, with this deep, abiding love. And Jesus tells us that he shares all this so that his joy may be in us and so that our joy may be complete.
We don’t use the word “abide” very much in our everyday conversations – but it appears over and over in this chapter. It means literally “to remain at home” or “to stay at home,” “to wait at home.” It’s like we’re being told by Jesus to make ourselves at home, and to understand that God expects to be at home within us. It’s an extremely intimate verb. Although we might tell guests to “make themselves at home” when they visit us – we don’t often mean it. We don’t want them to stay too long or get into our things too much or see the messes that we didn’t quite get to clean up yet. And when we’re visiting someone, even if they tell us, “make yourself at home,” in most situations we still want to be a good guest – making sure we leave nothing out of place, not opening cupboards or helping ourselves without asking, careful not to break or damage, not relaxing completely. To really feel at home someplace, to be comfortable enough to act at a host’s house the way you would act in your own house? To really make yourself at home somewhere, or mean it when you ask your guests to make themselves at home? It suggests the closest of relationships. Family. Our closest, dearest family. Best friends. And that’s pretty much it, I think. And that’s the level of intimacy of relationship between the vine-grower and the vine, between the vine and the branches, that Jesus wants us to aim for, to be so close we can say, “you’re at home” to Jesus and mean it. To hear God saying, “Make yourself at home,” and to believe it.
Jesus uses this language – being at home – to describe, of all things, the relationship between vine-grower and vine and branches in the vineyard that is the kingdom of God. Thankfully, God is an infinitely better gardener than am I. And thankfully, in this garden, in God’s garden, we can’t damage the vine. But, friends, just like in my garden, the vine Jesus describes doesn’t rely on the branches the same way the branches need the vine. The branches grow from the vine, not the other way around. The leaves are so delicate. Fruit is so susceptible to damage, to attack, to going bad. New leaves that grow strong and healthy can replace leaves that are shriveled and more fruit can grow to replace what’s been lost. God the vine-grower is going to grow a vineyard with Jesus the vine. And God longs for us – longs for us – to be a part of the vineyard. To be intricately, irreversibly, completely woven into the vine. But God will work with us – or without us, if we’re not able to make ourselves at home with God, to make God at home within us.
I think for pastors, it can be so tempting to forget what role we play in the vineyard. God is calling forth leaders – but we are never going to be the vine. We can’t be our own vine. What we’re called to do is to be like the vine – as like the vine as we can. We can aim to be those parts of the plant that get so strong that it almost seems like they’re becoming part of the trunk. That’s a good aim. But the part of the vine is already taken, and we don’t need to do that. Just this week I was talking with a colleague in ministry who reminded me that it wasn’t my role to provide the entirety of spiritual life for the whole community. We agreed to continually remind each other of this. There’s one vine, and it isn’t me. It isn’t you. Be relieved and be thankful!
We’re also tempted to try our hands at pruning. We can see the branches that need to be cut away, trimmed off, that we deem beyond repair. We see the bad fruit – not us, of course. And if we were given the opportunity, we could really fix things up. Only we’re not the vine-grower either. Branches aren’t in charge of other branches. Leaves aren’t responsible for other leaves, for any fruit but that which we produce ourselves. Branches never have the job of cutting off other branches. Only the vine-grower knows what will produce the best fruit, no matter how many names pop into your head when you think about bad fruit and weak branches! But branches that are worrying about the fruit produced by other branches are diverting energy that should go into their own good fruit. And there’s only one vine-grower, and it isn’t me. It isn’t you. Be relieved and be thankful!
So what is our task? Actually, this part is simple. First, we give thanks: God wants us on the vine! God is growing things with us or without us – but God has made it crystal clear that the preference, the deep-longing of the heart of God is to grow with us. With that going for us, we’re off to the best of starts. And then, we seek to be as much like the vine as is possible. And Jesus told us the not-so-secret secret to that. We love like Jesus loves, and make ourselves at home in God’s heart. When we do that, we won’t be able to help but to produce beautifully good fruit. When we do that, Jesus promises, his joy is in us, and our joy is complete. Amen.