Acts 8: 26 – 40
Psalm 22: 24 – 30
1 John 4: 7 – 21|
John 15: 1 – 8
I think that it is safe to say that the further we get from our agrarian past, or even just from the practice of having a small vegetable garden in the back yard, the more foreign some parts of Scripture will be for us. Much in Scripture, and certainly in the Gospels, assumes a familiarity with different aspects of agriculture. But what was once common knowledge, even if it wasn’t firsthand knowledge, now must be learnt, not from experience, but from books or podcasts.
My mother delighted in telling me a story when I was visiting her a number of years ago, about my then, 6 year old niece Callie. Callie was helping Mum, whom she called Oma, make lunch one day, and in the midst of the preparations Mum instructed Callie to go out into the backyard garden and pull a few carrots from the vegetable patch for them to have with their lunch. Wide-eyed Callie put her hands on her hips and shook her head. Oh, Oma, Callie said very seriously, carrots don’t come from gardens, carrots come from grocery stores. Clearly, poor old foolish Oma didn’t know anything about carrots, and certainly not where you could get them if you wanted to have some with your lunch.
If we no longer know where carrots come from, as obviously some people in this world don’t (and here I don’t mean poor old foolish Oma!); if we have forgotten our agrarian past; if there is no longer any dirt under our finger nails; if our only experience of food production is what we find in shops; what are we to make of a text such as we have today from John’s Gospel that assumes a degree of knowledge of viniculture, or even just basic gardening.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been [pruned] by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
We have here, in a few verses, things that certainly any grape grower would recognize as common sense instructions, and most people who have grown fruits or vegetables would nod their heads in understanding.
Now I have never grown grapes, but I have grown raspberries, and was quite proud of the raspberry patch at Emery House. We picked many, many pounds of raspberries each year, but it took a lot of work. Each year the canes would need to be pruned and cut back, which would force the raspberry plant to grow from the bottom, so that they didn’t simply become a tangled mass of spikey branches. Over the years I discovered that you could be quite drastic when pruning, and while that might slow the plant down a little, they responded by sending up even more new, green shoots. In addition, the old, dead canes which had produced berries the previous year would need to be cut out, and the beds weeded, mulched, and watered. Even with help, and I had a lot of help, that process seemed to take forever, but the results were magnificent, especially when I was able to turn the fruits of all that labour into pies in the middle of the winter! One year I gave instructions to a guest about cutting them back and taking out the old canes and either I wasn’t clear, or they didn’t understand my instructions, but when I returned, every single raspberry plant had been cut back to the ground. I wondered what would happen to my raspberry patch, but the next year it came back more vigorous than before. What I learned was not to be too worried about being timid when pruning, raspberries at least! But the other significant thing I learnt was about burning, not the raspberry patch, but the old canes. I kept being told to burn what I removed, especially the old, dead canes, and I wondered why. So I finally asked someone. You burn the old, dead canes, partly because it takes forever for them to break down and compost, but mostly because they are what will attract various kinds of pests which might infest and infect the healthy, new growth.
I tell you all this, not because I think you should all plant raspberries in your back yard, although if truth be told, I think you should, but because it was by growing raspberries that I began to understand what Jesus was going on about in today’s gospel.
Ahhhh, you prune to force new, vigorous growth. You thin to provide air circulation. You dig deeply to loosen the soil around the roots by breaking down impacted soil in order to allow moisture and nutrients to penetrate below the surface where the roots will be able to access them. You mulch, not only to provide more nutrients, but also to aid in weed suppression, moisture retention and, curiously enough, shade for the roots from the hot sun. And you burn the old to prevent disease. Suddenly it all makes sense.
So is what we have in John’s gospel a grower’s manual for raspberries or grapes? Or are they instructions for the spiritual life?
The farmers in Jesus’ audience would have immediately recognized the practical wisdom in what he said, because it is what they did with their crops. I can imagine that the next time they were out in the fields, digging, toiling, sweating away, they reflected on what they had heard Jesus say. And they began to wonder.
They wondered what in their life needed to be cut back, cut out, reshaped, or refocused. They began to wonder what in their life was no longer bearing fruit. They began to wonder what in their life was dead, diseased, or cut off from their family, from their friends, from their community, even from God. They began to wonder what it meant for them, never mind the plants they were tending, to be rooted deeply, to be grafted onto, to abide in something larger than themselves. They began to wonder what in them needed to be nourished, to be gathered and thrown away, even to be rooted out, to be burned, to be destroyed.
These farmers worked incredibly hard in their fields to produce the crops which supported their families and they saw the fruits of their labours, literally, at the harvest. But as they looked at the baskets of ripe grapes, or the bowls of juicy raspberries, did they wonder about the fruits of their own lives? Did they wonder what it was that was growing deep within their hearts and souls? That was the invitation Jesus gave them as he spoke about vines and vinegrowers, pruning and gathering, abiding and burning. He was inviting them to look at their life, as they looked at their crops, and to see the fruit which they themselves bore, and how they might bear that fruit more abundantly.
Such is the invitation for us today. It’s not that Jesus is giving us a grower’s manual for something we can plant in our back yards, or on our balconies, or on our windowsills, but rather in our hearts. What is growing in your heart today? Or what would you like to grow there? What needs to be cut out, cut down, and burned? How does the soil of your heart need to be tilled, loosened, nourished, so that you may bear fruit? What do you need to do to become more loving, more gentle, more Christ-like, so that you may participate more deeply in the divine nature of God?
Jesus gathered around himself quite ordinary people: fishermen, farmers, homemakers, and used images of fishing expeditions, fieldwork, and routine household tasksto invite people into the new life of the reign of God which he proclaimed. And that is the same invitation which he extends to us this morning. We don’t need to grow grapes in order to enter the kingdom of God. We don’t even need to grow raspberries to enter that kingdom. Rather we need to examine our hearts, and tend them with the same care that I tended those raspberry bushes at Emery House, and as those vinegrowers who first heard Jesus speak, being careful to prune, and cut, and even to burn so that we too may yield in our lives a harvest worthy of the Risen Life to which Jesus calls us.
John 15: 1 – 6
2 Peter 1: 4
Luke 5: 1ff etc.
Matthew 3: 13ff etc.
Matthew 13: 33ff; Luke 15: 8ff etc.
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.