Vines and Branches, Roots and Soil
July 30, 2017
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana
Soil, roots, vines, branches, fruit. Orchardists have long understood that if you want good fruit, it starts with good soil and good roots. My father, for whom growing fruit trees is a passion, would start by digging a hole three feet square and three feet deep. Into this hole would go a mix of compost, slow release fertilizer and finally a skinny little stick of a tree. Frequently this stick would have a bump somewhere in the middle – the mark from where the nursery had grafted a shoot from one tree onto the roots of another. Not all trees that bear good fruit have strong roots. Not all trees with strong roots bear good fruit. So growers carefully insert the shoot of one into the roots of another – a process called grafting. In relatively short order the two trees become one.
Lately my father has begun doing his own grafting – pruning out some of the branches of his more mature trees and carefully inserting shoots from new varieties into slits he cuts into the existing trunk. Using grafting, one tree can produce multiple varieties of fruit – and at my father’s seventy plus odd years, grafting trees together seems easier than digging holes.
As that little stick grows, my father carefully shapes and prunes it, ensuring that the branches have plenty of air circulation and are strong enough to support the fruit. After all this labor, and years of waiting, the fruit – when it comes, is a treat – sweet, juicy, carrying with it the flavors of soil and root, shoot and leaves, rain and bees. All of God’s goodness, all of God’s creation, wrapped up on one precious package.
Its no wonder that in scripture trees and fruit, vines and branches serve as an ongoing metaphor for the spiritual life and the kingdom of God. During Advent we read the words of Isaiah, as he describes the Messiah as a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and John the Baptist who tells us that God’’s ax lies at the root of the trees. I am the true vine, Jesus tells his disciples in the gospel of John. And my father is the vine grower. The true vine is the one that would grow deep, healthy and provide bountiful fruit. It would be the vine whose cuttings and shoots would be used to populate an entire vineyard. Grafted on to the true vine, the disciples form the branches. As the graft heals, they grow together, they abide together, they become one – one vine, with one root, with many branches, tended by the vine grower to produce fruit characteristic of the true vine.
I am the vine, Jesus tells his disciples. You are the branches. You abide in me and I abide in you and the fruit we produce is love. For the orchardist, at the end of the day all that matters is the fruit. The work planting, the work tending, the work pruning and spraying and chasing birds away, is all for the fruit. If a tree in my father’s orchard stops producing fruit, its gone by summer’s end so a new tree can be planted in its place.
“You will know them by their fruits,” Jesus says of the religious leaders of his day as he challenges them to focus less on outward piety and right words and more on the results of their words and their actions. The apostle Paul picks up Jesus’ language about the Jewish leaders and applies it to those in the church. A holy root, he writes to the Romans, results in holy branches. And holy branches, he tells the Galatians, produce holy fruit – the famous fruits of the spirit – joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control – all varieties of that greater fruit – deep, holy and abiding love. You live in me, Jesus says. I live in you. Together we produce the fruit of love.
Or, as the song puts it:
Jesus is the vine and we are the branches
And the banner over us is love
On Tuesday I was at a lunch catered in part by our guests a few weeks ago – Steve and Mel Montgomery of Lamppost Farms. One bite of their pulled chicken – no sauce, no spices, just chicken – made me wonder whether all that other chicken I eat even comes from a real bird. In a similar way my time a few weeks ago on retreat made me wonder what was at the root of much of our discourse today – whether from our national leaders or what we say to each other on Facebook or even on the street.
I need to clarify, first of all, that I wasn’t technically on retreat a few weeks ago. I was taking a class – but I was at a retreat center and my world was blessedly free from televisions and newspapers. I further decided to stay off Facebook and fill my days with prayer, walks, reading for my class, evening games of ping pong and conversations with my classmates. In many ways the week was neither easy nor relaxing. The coursework was hard and the relationships among our small but diverse group were occasionally tense. But overall we sought to be peaceable toward each other and gentle with one another. We sought out moments of joy, displayed kindness and generosity in our relationships and strove to be faithful to our God, our diverse traditions and the traditions of our hosts. A refreshing change from the spirits of enmity, idolatry, licentiousness, jealousy, anger, dissensions, quarrels and factions that seem to govern so many relationships these days – a change made all the more stark by a week when most of our national leadership seemed utterly devoid of the respectability, dignity and responsibility that should accompany their offices.
But the swamp isn’t just in Washington. When a small town Facebook conversation about a banal real estate deal can devolve into name calling; when local local council meetings become partisan battlefields it seems that at a minimum we have a crisis of communication. I’m afraid, however, the crisis runs much deeper for the fruit’s become rotten, spoiled, so devoid of flavor it leaves a bitter taste in our mouths.
And if the fruit is bad, how about the branch? And if the branch is bad, how about the vine? And if the vine is bad, how about the root? And if the root is bad, how about the soil?
On Wednesday night I was at the Way Station celebrating their community garden. One of Eric’s classmates, Caden, was there. He and his mom have been working with a mentor, learning how to develop rich soil, cultivate deep roots, grow healthy plants and harvest bountiful vegetables. Caden proudly showed off his early harvest and excitedly anticipated the harvest to come. He loved that garden, for it was a place of good fruit – a place of cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and greens; but also a place of joy, gentleness, kindness, generosity, patience, peace and faithfulness. It was a place of love.
Another contrast made all the move vivid by the toxicity around us.
As Christians living in this toxic environment we must be careful. In its own way the toxicity can be gratifying, addictive, sweet to the tongue like antifreeze to a cat, enticing like a flame to a moth. We must be vigilant in the cultivation of good soil and the strengthening of our roots. We must graft ourselves onto Christ so that there is no separation between us. We must consciously strive to bear good fruit and allow God to prune from us that which despoils. In the face of toxicity we must seek to constantly plant healthy gardens, gardens of good soil, with strong plants that will bear positive fruit. Gardens of gentleness – even in Facebook comments. Gardens of patience – even with those who disagree. Gardens of generosity – even to those we may not think are worthy. Gardens of peace – even when we feel victimized. Gardens of faithfulness – even when everyone around us has become faithless.
As Christians we’re called to a new way of living, a way of being rooted in our oneness with Jesus Christ. Never has that been needed – in our families, in our community, in our nation, more than now.