Simple Botany

5th Sunday of Easter

John 15:5

The seed is in the ground.
Now may we rest in hope
While darkness does its work.

Words of that agrarian poet, Wendell Berry…profound words reminiscent of another poet who said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.”
 I’ve often said it is a great gift to grow up on a farm or in small town rural America, because the lessons of seedtime and harvest, of life and death, and the passing of the seasons are all woven so deeply into a person’s being. You learn early on what you can and should be doing. You also learn early and well what is entirely out of your hands.Many a preacher who has never learned the lessons of simple botany comes at Jesus’ words here in this text and turns them upside down. He reads Jesus’ words, “By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit,” and he sets to haranguing his listeners weekly about doing just that—bearing fruit. “Get out there and bear more fruit! Get going. Hop to it!”

But…this approach is about as helpful as a farmer going out to harangue his cornfield every morning about growing faster and fuller. Ain’t gonna happen that way! Simple botany.

Jesus is mighty clear about where the good fruit comes from. “I am the Vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” “Apart from Me you can do nothing”…nothing, that is, which is truly good…as God defines “good.”

Many of us who are here today, are here because we had mothers and fathers who first brought us for Holy Baptism. We can remember how they kept the promise they made when we were baptized. As they promised, they brought us to the services of God’s house. They taught us the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. They told us Bible stories and when we were older they placed into our hands the Holy Scriptures. As they promised, they provided for our further instruction in the Christian faith by Sunday School and Confirmation.

Because of a mother or father, because of a grandfather or grandmother, because of a godparent, and often because of all of them, we learned that in Holy Baptism we were made branches of the True Vine, Jesus Christ. They showed us by their lives what it means to be grafted into Him, and that His life flows in us.
No…not everyone has that kind of Christian upbringing. Some have only gotten connected to Jesus as an adult. And yet, because of this background, these folks do have a vital sense of what it means to be connected to the True Vine, because they know the difference between before and after Jesus.

But either way, as a child or adult, the simple botany of this matter is that getting connected to Jesus through Holy Baptism is God’s good and gracious will for every single person on this earth. There is only one True Vine, and He is Jesus Christ.

Now…to remain as branches of that True Vine…ah…this is so much more than the clichés about a “personal relationship” with Jesus. The whole problem with this “relationship” language is that it’s always more about me than it is about Him! And it so easily turns into motivational seductions. But in truth, staying connected to Jesus, “abiding in Him” as Jesus calls it, is not about my relationship with Jesus…it’s about Him reaching to me. It’s about Him who speaks to us through the Word of God preached and taught in a congregation. It’s about Him whose life flows to us in the bread and cup of the Holy Supper.

Martin Luther once quipped that we do no one any favor by baptizing them. For as soon as a person is baptized, grafted into the life of Christ, that person becomes embroiled in the ages old struggle between the Jesus of whom God speaks, and some kind of Jesus which a person creates in his own mind.

Like so many of the people in the Gospels, we too can easily make Jesus into “my Jesus” …a Jesus who only says nice things, a Jesus who doesn’t really care how I live and what I do, a Jesus who never judges me but who would certainly judge those other people I don’t like very much. A Jesus who likes to do what I like to do, who listens to my kind of music, who affirms my prejudices. A Jesus…who is pretty much exactly like me!

But if my experience of God and my ideas about who Jesus is are not regularly and frequently pruned by God, the Vinedresser who speaks to me from outside myself by the preaching of the Holy Scriptures, well, I’ll just end up with a Jesus of my own creation, which is basically me myself as both branch and vine…separated from Jesus…withering…dying…lost.

Authentic Christian faith, Vine-and-branches Christian faith, is like, to change the metaphor, an old-fashioned bucket brigade. The faith is handed from generation to generation. Which is great IF what’s in the bucket is the faith once delivered to the saints. But these days…ewww!…what is being passed in some of those buckets looks and smells more like what we on the farm used to haul out and spread in the fields!

So Christian faithfulness frequently checks that bucket to ensure that it contains the real thing! Oh yes, each generation of Lutherans groans a bit when it gets handed that bucket containing Luther’s Small Catechism to memorize. But in this case, groaning is a good thing! Because the history of the Lutheran Church is mighty clear. Whenever a congregation departs from that Catechism, things get real stinky real fast, no matter how many people rave about the new aroma!

It’s simple botany. We plant the good seed and we nurture it from preschool to today’s confirmation class, and beyond. We preach the Vine, and teach it and study it and ponder it and listen some more…because these are things we can and should do.

But…it is Christ the Vine who brings forth the good fruit in us by His Word to which we listen, by the Sacrament we eat and drink. It is the divine Father who prunes our withered limbs to bear greater fruit, the Spirit who sends the life of Christ pulsing through our veins restoring souls that grow weary in the struggles of faith.

That’s why we come here, eager to eat and to drink again, eager to listen again and inwardly digest the life of the Vine into whom we have been grafted, so that His immortal sap may flow in us, producing in us that good fruit which He desires, in the ways in which He desires. Simple botany. Simple…and beautiful!

Wendell Berry writes: I went away only / a few hundred steps / up the hill, and turned / and started home. / And then I saw / the pasture green under / the trees… All around, the woods / that had been stark / in the harsh air / of March, had turned / soft with new leaves…. In its time and great patience / beauty had come upon us, / greater than I had imagined. Standing on the hillside of this Divine Service, we too can look back over our lives and see…not our handiwork, but His…so fruitful…so beautiful! From the vantage point of this place of Word and Sacrament, looking back over the past and looking ahead to the future, we can grasp the simple botany of Jesus’ words, “I am the Vine; you are the branches.”