This is the story of why Ian and I no longer have a garden. We used to have one. Soon after we moved into our current house, we spent one grueling afternoon tilling a small patch of land in our backyard. We dug out the grass and filled the small plot of land with compost and claybreaker. We planted tomatoes and cucumbers and zucchini. Our green beans never really took off, but our peppers were delicious.
And then a dear friend of ours thought we might like to plant some mint.
Many of you know a lot more about gardening than I do, and you would have told me that mint spreads like a wildfire and takes over the whole yard, and that we should plant it in a pot, not in the ground. But we were novices and were excited about our mint.
Well, that was the beginning of the end of our garden.
We sprayed that mint with all sorts of chemicals. It came back. We dug it out, attempting to pull every single tendril from the clumped red clay. It came back. We dug it out again. It came back again. Finally, we planted grass in our “garden” in an attempt to suffocate it. I am not happy to report, however, that I’ve recently spotted about four sprigs of mint poking up around our patio. Here we go again.
Yes, this is the story of why Ian and I no longer have a garden. But it’s also the story of why you and I have one another.
It starts, of course with Jesus, who said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” I know he wasn’t talking about mint, and that biologically mint is probably nowhere close to being a vine, but it sure did remind me of one as I tried to dig it out. All that I pulled from the ground was part of one big plant, horizontal runners connecting the whole thing.
“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus says, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me, you can do nothing.” This is a sentence about care and concern. Jesus cares enough about us to want to us grow and flourish like the mint in our garden and he connects us to himself in order that make that happen. Jesus as the vine is the source of our nutrition. And, of course, we meet Jesus here. This is where we are watered and fertilized. The font is the water; this table is our fertilizer. Bread and wine and water give us the nutrients necessary for growth.
Being connectected to the vine, however, necessarily means that we are connected to one another. Every sprig of mint, every tendril, is intertwined. The sprig of mint that pops up over there is directly connected to the mint that’s right here. Each aromatic leaf gets its nutrients from the same source. That water and this table connect us not only to Jesus the vine to but one another–other branches.
Here’s another way I think it works. Oliver has been in a toddler swim class now for a little over a year. One of the activities during his swim class involves a large float made out a piece of dense foam about an inch and a half thick. The parents, who are in the water with the children, plop their kids up on this piece of foam. We rotate them around while singing a song before they jump into the water. Every time a child gets on or off the float, everyone else moves just a little bit. One person affects the whole group.
That’s how I think it works, being branches of the vine. We’re sensitive to one another and we’re always exploring how our actions affect other branches or how what happens to other branches affects us. It means that when one of us is sick, we visit or send a card. When one of us shares good news, we rejoice and congratulate. When one of needs help, we reach out and ask or we do what we can to help. But it goes beyond the walls of Holy Trinity, too. It means that we pay attention to our brothers and sisters at Little Rock AME Zion and to their needs and concerns and we pay attention to our brothers and sisters at the Inclusive Peace Congregation in Costa Rica and their needs and concerns. And it means that they’re looking out for us, too. We are bound together–intertwined–in incredible ways and precisely because we are connected to the vine, who is Jesus.
There’s one part of this passage that requires extra careful attention. In addition to giving us the vine and branches metaphor, Jesus also says this: “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
This sentence sounds harsh is often used to scare people into coming to church, Which, by the way, is never really a good way to convince someone to come to church. But this is not a statement about a lack of righteousness. Jesus is not saying, “If you don’t come to church, if you don’t give your money, if you don’t serve on a ministry team, then you’re going to be cut off and burned in the fire.” No, this is the Gospel of John where Jesus promises abundant life and this sentence is a statement about the consequences of being disconnected from the vine and, as a result, the other branches.
And researches actually know this to be true. One person studied a group of middle-aged people in order to determine the strongest predictor for how long you live. Contrary to what you might think, the greatest predictor was not blood pressure, exercise, or weight. The greatest predictor had to do with your social relationships–and specifically how socially integrated you are. The more people you talk to and interact with throughout your day in a positive, caring manner, the longer you’re likely to live. That’s amazing, if you think about it, for that means that we really do need one another. And Jesus, as the vine, seemed to know that, for he intentionally connected us with this metaphor. We are gifts to one another.
Finally, Jesus also says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” It’s a sentence that also needs careful interpretation. What this does not mean is that you can ask for a million dollars to fall from the sky and that it will happen. If your prayers work like this, then I want to talk to you. What he seems to be implying, however, is that when you’re connected to the vine and, as a result, to other branches, it’s okay to ask for help and to find support and that’s a tremendous freedom and relief.
This is the story of why Ian and I no longer have a garden. If you’re ever at our house while we’re mowing the grass, let me tell you, it smells lovely–very minty. But it is also the story of you and me and the tie that binds us together. Being connected to the vine means we don’t live in a vacuum, isolated from one another. We are gifts to one another; we need one another. What a good God we have, who knows this and connects us, always watering and fertilizing the branches that we are. Be fed and nourished and find life in this vine and with these branches.