The analogy Jesus uses in our gospel lesson is fairly straightforward and easy to understand: God is the vinegrower. Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. If we remain connected to the vine, all is well and good. Jesus tells us we will bear much fruit. However, if this connection is severed, we are going to be incinerated. I don’t know how you feel about this detail in our gospel lesson, but I find it just a little bit disturbing!
It makes me want to check my connection to Jesus frequently, if not obsessively, to make sure it’s strong and secure. It makes me want to ask lots of questions, such as “What if I’ve had a really bad day and feel disconnected to Jesus? Is it okay if I slack off a bit with all of this “abiding”? Is Jesus like AT&T monitoring our connection every single moment of the day to make sure it’s strong and secure? And if it’s not, does he send out a repair person to fix it, or do we go straight to the burn pile?”
You might think I’m joking, but, really, I’m not. I suspect I’m not alone in asking these questions. I suspect most followers of Jesus, have a hard time reconciling the Jesus who welcomes outcasts to dine with him, with the God who gathers dead branches and adds them to the bonfire.
To make matters worse, Jesus says that even if we remain connected to the vine, pruning is going to be involved. Ouch! I don’t like the sound of that! Does that mean a little snip here and there, or is the Almighty getting out the chainsaw for some serious amputation? Again, more questions!
And the answers to these questions depend on our view of God. Is God more like Asplundh, whom I refer to to as the “tree terrorists,” or is God more like a master gardener? If you have no earthly idea what I’m talking about, then I need to tell you a story.
Several years ago, I arrived one morning at the church to discover that Asplundh had massacred at least a dozen poplar trees that once stood between our property and Cool Mountain Construction. These trees weren’t neatly trimmed to make sure they didn’t interfere with the power lines. They were annihilated, cut to the ground, with all their tree parts scattered everywhere.
Needless to say, I was furious. I not only called Asplundh but I also called a County Commissioner to see if this was even legal. Long story short, it was legal. But I did get a visit from a very apologetic supervisor who admitted they had failed to let us know this was going to happen. But an apology does not replace a dozen fully mature, healthy poplar trees. To honor their sacrifice, I asked Ray Wright to make the candle holders we use in our windows during Advent through Lent. It was the least I could do!
The reason why I share this story with you is that I think some people have this view of Jesus. I think they seem him as Asplundh, the tree terrorist. This is not the Jesus who walks with me and talks with me, and tells me I am his own. (Bonus points if you get the reference!) This is the Jesus who acts more like the Almighty in Isaiah’s vision of what happens to a vineyard that yields wild grapes:
“My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns. I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting. He expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” [Is 5:1-7]
Seeing God as a tree terrorist, the destroyer of vineyards, the one who gathers dead branches and burns them with fire, is a view some Christians hold. They see God primarily as a God of judgment, and there are certainly plenty of scriptures that back up their point of view. Therefore, when they hear our gospel lesson, they understand it as a word of judgment rather than a word of grace. They focus on the incineration of the dead branches, instead of the life-giving relationship between the branches and the vine.
Even Lutherans, who are saved by grace through faith, slip into this kind of understanding of God. It happens when we don’t think we’re good enough to receive God’s love. It happens when we make a colossal mistake and doubt that Jesus can ever forgive us. It happens when we become enslaved by the letter of the law, instead of being freed by its life-giving spirit.
Friends in Christ, we’ve all struggled with this judgmental view of God. Some of us may still be struggling with it today. If you feel like a dead branch that’s about to become fuel for the fire, I’ve got some good news for you! There is another way we can understand our gospel lesson. It involves seeing God as a master gardener rather than a tree terrorist. Scripture overwhelmingly supports this viewpoint.
We see it in Psalm 80 where the psalmist prays: “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches.” [vs 7-10]
Here we see God as the vinegrower who tends the vine with tender care. God does not leave the vine to tend itself. God creates an environment where the vine can thrive and the branches can grow strong and produce much fruit.
We also see God as master gardener in the parable of the Fig Tree in the Vineyard, where a man planted a fig tree but it didn’t bear fruit for three years. He said to the gardener, “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” The gardener replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
This master gardener is the same figure as the vinegrower in our gospel lesson. We can clearly see that while others call for judgment, the gardener is a patient soul who wants the tree thrive, who errs on the side of grace, nurturing it until it is able to bear fruit.
A final example of God’s gardening skills is the well-known parable of the Sower and the Seeds. At first it might seem like the Sower is reckless as she casts seed on the path, rocky ground, and among thorns. However, she knows some of the seeds will fall on good soil and will produce an amazing harvest. The secret to her success is that we don’t always know the location of the good soil. Therefore, seeds are sown gracefully, with overflowing abundance, to ensure a great harvest. She is not going to give up on the garden, no matter how rocky and thorny it may be, because, that’s how God works in the soil of our lives.
I would like you to take these images of God as a master gardener, and place them on top of our gospel lesson. When we do this, I think we see that God is the kind of gardener who is more interesting in creating life rather than destroying it. God is the kind of gardener who knows the places in our lives that need a little extra pruning so that we might bear more fruit. God is NOT an Asplundh tree terrorist who cuts things to the ground and asks questions later. This is the good news of our gospel. It is the good news of Jesus Christ.
As a final thought, the most beautiful word in our gospel lesson is “abide” which means in the original Greek “to remain, dwell, continue, stay, or be present.” The English word chosen to represent it means “to remain or stay somewhere.” That doesn’t sound so hard, does it? Good As New paraphrases Jesus’ sense of abiding as follows: “You’ve just been pruned by the things I’ve said to you. We need to stay attached to one another.”
And so, my dear friends in Christ, let us stay “attached” to Jesus. Let us trust that God is not a tree terrorist but is a master gardener who wants us to produce the most beautiful off fruits in our lives and in the lives of others. AMEN
Copyright ©2018 David Eck