The Atlanta Botanical Garden is full of life, wonder, and insight.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
As creation slowly comes back to life for spring, and as often happens with Jesus, we are back to talking about things that grow, namely: “I am the vine, and you are the branches.”
The Atlanta Botanical Garden is one of my favorite features of my favorite city. The Garden is located in Midtown, next to Piedmont Park, the so-called “Central Park of the South.” With the midtown Atlanta skyline close in your frame of vision, you can walk along the treetops on a high boardwalk, in an enclosed conservatory garden with several climates from around the world, or among various themed gardens.
One of my favorite such gardens is found in a relatively small corner: the “edible garden.” It isn’t because it’s a particularly tasty experience; the signs in this garden ask you to please not touch the foods, because everything that is harvested goes to the Atlanta food bank. But as you walk among the plants, you’ll see several different kinds of seasonal produce. Finally, towards the end of the walk, there is a wall dedicated to herbs. The herbs are planted directly into holes in the wall. They are watered by a system wherein recycled rainwater is sent down rivets and into the roots of the plants. In a little splash of decoration, water is also sent through rivets on the side that faces visitors, creating a beautiful piece of art that’s accompanied by the gentle sound of falling water.
Just past the wall, the archway that leads you out of the garden is this Henry Ward Beecher quote very appropriate for early spring in New England, especially this day: “Truths are first clouds, then rain, then harvest and food.”
The truth, as they say, will make you free, but not before it’s done with you.
There is one truth that I’m intent on living and sharing: despite what we think, God is not as petty as we are. There’s that saying, “You know that you have created God in your own image when that God hates all the same people you do.” Still true. See also: when that God is as petty as you are. When God expects something in return for everything given.
But this truth is first clouds, then rain. It’s not easy to believe.
This is because we live in a quid pro quo world. You must earn what you make. You must pay for what you consume. Even among friends, the quid pro quo system remains vaguely in place. Even when there is no expectation of repayment for a favor, we feel a tug to find something to say thank you, even if it’s just a card or a treat of some kind.
I think we assume at the core of our being that God is the same way. Oh sure, we all pay lip service to grace and salvation by faith alone. But press most Christians, even most Lutherans, and they’ll eventually start telling you what you have to do to really be part of God’s family.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this system exactly: it makes good citizens out of all of us. If we feel like God is watching our every move and expecting good behavior, we behave better.
The problem, of course, is that we never behave perfectly, and that we can’t even all decide on exactly what good behavior even looks like. And this is how just about everyone who’s gotten hurt by the church gets hurt by the church.
Besides that obvious problem, focusing on how well we behave makes us not just into the proverbial Pharisees, but also into the prototype of the dumb disciple: we miss big things in Jesus’ teachings. This is how focused we are on earning things: Jesus is talking about all of us being part of a vine, and yet we often focus on how we can “abide” — as if any branch or bud growing outside chose its own plant or earned its right to grow there.
What if we were to read this the way I think it was intended: Jesus isn’t giving moral instruction, as he often isn’t in John. Jesus is describing the way things are when he says.
“I am the vine, and you are the branches.”
You trying to earn your way into God’s favor is like the branches trying to earn their way onto the vine. They never could have and they don’t need to — the very notion is silly. They just grew there, and there they are.
Yes, Jesus says abide in me, and that is what we are called to do: stay. Abide. Be content. Branches still don’t earn their places.
Yes, Jesus talks about a cleansing. Then he says “you’ve already been cleansed,” as the disciples were by their ordeal, and as we all are by life and circumstances.
“Truths are first clouds, then rain, then harvest and food.”
I do think there is instruction to be found here. “Abide in me” is clearly a directive. I think he’s calling us to stick together.
You see, the last time I preached on this text was two cycles ago, in 2012, as a pastor in her first full year of ministry in my little United Methodist church in Alabama. Then as now, it was an election year: then the presidential, this year the midterms.
What I said then, in a politically different congregation in a different place, still seems relevant here, today:
“Living together is what we are called to do as the church. And that can be unfortunate at times, because sometimes our vast differences — in personality or nationality or opinion — tear us apart, and make us hurt one another.
“Jesus is calling us to stick together when he says ‘abide in me.’ And you see, you can’t abide in the vine without sometimes getting tangled in the other branches.
Sometimes we hurt each other. Sometimes we can’t get anything done. Sometimes we cause pain to others, whether we mean to or not. But every now and then, every now and then, we manage to get things done. Every now and then, we can work together to do more than we could ever have done alone. By sticking together, we accomplish — and are — much more. That doesn’t mean it’s easy.”
Yes. Still relevant.
That’s the price we pay for being in relationship with other humans: humans, no matter the time or place or politics, are imperfect, messy, sometimes selfish, sometimes petty. When we are in relationship with one another, even in the unlikely event that we treat each other flawlessly with mutual respect, at the end, we all die.
There is no relationship without pain.
Still, of course, we pursue love of all kinds, knowing that it will eventually hurt us. Because relationships with other people are where we learn, where we become our best selves, live our best lives, and bear the most fruit.
“Truths are first clouds, then rain, then harvest and food.”
This is true in life as in, more specifically, church. We do not choose to be a part of the vine. We don’t earn our place here. Jesus isn’t describing how you should be, but how you are: you are part of the vine. Because you feel and keep feeling compelled to show up at church and not somewhere else — you do not have to worry about being worthy to be part of the vine. You already are a part of us, growing alongside all of us. You are part of this community, whether you come only occasionally or all the time, you are part of us, and we are blessed and changed by your presence among us.
We would not be the same vine, growing here in South Hadley, without you.
No, God is not as petty as we are. We really don’t have to prove anything or earn anything. We just are: part of the vine, loved, part of a worldwide family. That’s the kind of truth that we build community around: being fed, bearing fruit.
Every time we gather, we gather at the table, sharing love, sharing harvest, sharing food, sharing words of hope. That’s the kind of truth that gives us hope: that no matter how dark the clouds or how heavy the rain, in here, there is always, always, harvest and food. Amen.