How Does Your Garden Grow?
"Little Mary quite contrary/ How does your garden grow?" asks the poem. The poem answers "With sugar bells and cockle shells/ and pretty maids/ all in a row." Contrary Mary has a neat, beautiful garden. How about yours? Our text today leads us to that question, but what many people do is end up answering how does their branch grow. That's the wrong question. Let me show you why.
If you focus on the branch and not the garden in this text, you can only be disappointed or even frightened. What do you read about branches in our text? Unfruitful branches are cut off. Every branch that does not bear fruit is cut off. That's what our text says. All of you know this makes sense. All of you know this is the only right way to tend a garden, bush, or tree. Unfruitful branches must be cut off because they sap the strength of the plant. Water, sap and nutrients flow into it, but no fruit comes out. The unfruitful branch is worse than useless. It not only doesn't produce anything for the benefit of anyone, it robs fruitful branches of what they need.
Are you producing enough? You who claim to be a branch attached to Christ are you bearing fruit? Where is your love, joy, hope, peace? Where is your forgiving, giving, and forebearing heart? Where is the fruit that proves you are attached to Christ? Are fruitless branches kept? Do you let dead pecan limbs hang around? Are fruitless pear branches left to rob the tree? If you don't do that, what makes you think God does? Do you think you are wiser than God?
People here have no regard for pecan trees that don't produce pecans. Southwestern Bell has plotted the easement we sold them so as to save a pretty good size pecan tree. But when people heard that it doesn't produce pecans, they would just as soon Southwestern Bell cut it down. People show the same disgust for pecans that produce poorly. O they have fruit all right, but it's bitter, useless. You and I aren't satisfied with fruit that's only outwardly good. We would just as soon cut that sort of tree down, wouldn't we? Should we think God is any different? Should we think God is satisfied with our bitter love, our sad joy, our despairing hope, our disturbing peace? Is God satisfied with hearts that produce halfhearted forgiving, giving and forebearing? Not hardly. He cuts such branches off too.
Look at the branches. You won't find any comfort there. Unfruitful branches are cut off, but what about broken off branches? After a big wind comes through, you go out into your yard and pick up the branches that have broken off. You take those branches and save them with love and care, don't you? Why you have stacks and stack of branches that have been broken off over the years. You just can't bear to get rid of them, right? Not hardly. Once a branch is broken from the tree, bush, or plant. It's useless. If you could, you would burn it. But as it is, you can only haul it to the curb and let it be mulched up or taken away.
God is no different than we are. He says branches broken off from Christ the Vine are picked up and thrown into the fire. People who live outside of their Baptism, apart from the hearing of the Word, and without the Holy Communion have disconnected themselves from Christ the Vine. And we should quit fooling ourselves. No amount of believing can bridge the gap. The only connecting points to Christ we have are Baptism, the Word, and Holy Communion. Faith apart from these Means of Grace is like a branch broken off from the vine claiming to still be part of the vine because it believes itself to be.
But you are not unfruitful branches. You are not branches broken off from the Vine. You are connected to Christ by the Word I'm preaching. But still there is no comfort in focusing on you being a fruitful branch connected to Christ. The text tells us that even fruitful branches are pruned. You do that with your fruitful branches, don't you? You cut them back probably each year. Now if your branches could feel and talk, I would imagine you would hear that this is not a pleasant experience for them. They don't look forward to this each year. Neither do branches in Christ.
He prunes us by sending sickness, suffering, affliction into our lives in a variety of ways none of which are pleasant. You can feel and you can talk, and you most certainly don't look forward to this. No matter how fruitful, how faithful, how firmly you are connected to Christ the Vine the pruning comes. You get sick, despair attacks, affliction sets in. Outwardly it doesn't look you're much better off than the cut off or broken off branches. The same saw used to cut off the unfruitful branch is used to prune the fruitful ones. The same hands that grab the broken off branches are used to grab fruitful ones to be pruned. And this process will continue all throughout your Christian life. There is never going to be a year that we won't need pruning. Never a season where God will pass us by with the afflictions, hardships, tribulations that He uses to do the pruning.
You see? If we focus on the branches whether unfruitful, broken off, or fruitful there is no comfort in this text. So asking about how our branches grow is the wrong question. The real question to ask is the one asked of contrary Mary: How does your garden grow? This throws us back to the realization that it is not really our garden. We are just branches. According to the text who is the gardener? No, God isn't the right answer. The answer "God" is dark and mysterious. He sends too much rain or not enough. He sends winds that break branches off. He sends hail and lightening that damage them. No, if God is the gardener, there is no comfort there either.
The text doesn't say God is the gardener, but the Father. The Father who so loved His garden that He gave up His only beloved Son to save and provide for it is the Gardener. Imagine a gardener who loved his garden so much that he watered the plants in it with the blood of his only Son and fertilized them with his body. We can't imagine such a loving gardener as that, can we? In fact, such love seems insane, foolish, even diabolical. But the Father's love for fallen man is that unreasonable, incomprehensible. No illustration we can think of can illustrate the depths of His love.
The Father is the Gardener in another parable who can't bear to cut down the plant that has been unfruitful for years. He says, "Leave it alone. Let me fertilize it for yet another year." What gardener ever has shown such loving patience? But the loving Father of Christ not only doesn't go around pitching broken branches into the fire, Isaiah tells us He pulls burning branches out of the flames. O the foolishness of such love! What point could there possibly be in burning His hands to save cut off branches from the flames? We would never do such a foolish, painful thing, but we are not the Gardener the loving heavenly Father is.
And neither are we the plants, the trees, the vine. We are just branches. Christ is the Vine. Think hard on this point. Don't pass over it as if Christ's words are a simple child-like description. What really bears fruit branches or vines, limbs or trees? It's not branches and limbs, is it? No branch, no limb ever bore anything apart from a vine or tree, did it? In fact, you can take a branch that has been cut off, which means it is in effect dead, and graft it on to a vine or tree and it will produce won't it? Isn't that a miracle?
That's what our Father, the Gardener has done with us. The weight of our sinfulness had broken us off from Christ the Vine. There we lay unfruitful, dying, lost for all eternity. The flames of hell were licking at us. The Father tenderly picked us up. He baptized us into Christ. He spoke His forgiving Word to us and made us live again even as He made the dead to live again just by His Words. And the He bodied and blooded us to Christ in Communion.
Now then when you take a branch and graft it to a vine, what happens? All the energy, all the sap, all the nutrients that flow up from the roots of the vine belong to the branch. Because of the graft what belongs to the Vine now belongs to the branch. Being grafted into Christ by His baptism, by His forgiving Word, or by His giving you His Body and Blood, everything that belongs to Christ now belongs to you.
Think of a grafted pecan branch, pear branch, peach branch or grape branch. It is grafted to a good tree or vine. One that never fails to produce. One that has a good, deep root system. One that is planted in the best of soil. Would you worry about the grafted branch producing? If the branch could think and talk, would it be worried about whether it would produce good enough fruit? Of course not. How could it? Grafted to the good vine or tree it can't help but produce.
Friend, if you focus on yourself, a branch, you can only have worries and fears about what you produce. But if you focus on Christ the Vine, you cannot have any worries or fears whatsoever. Did Christ ever fail to produce love, peace, joy, hope? Was Christ ever, even once, unforgiving, un-giving, or un-forebearing? Can such a Vine be made so by the sinfulness of us branches? No, we don't contribute anything to the fruit. To the Vine belong the water, nutrients, and life. Branches are merely where the fruit of the Vine hangs.
How does your garden grow? Take heart; it's not your garden but your always loving, always merciful heavenly Father's. Take heart; you are not the Vine; Christ is. You, however, are a cleansed branch belonging to Him.
Did you catch this in the text? Maybe not because of the translation. Jesus says that "every branch that does bear fruit is pruned." The word in Greek is not pruned but cleansed. Now, to take any doubt away from your heart about being a fruitful branch, to take away any fear about being "pruned," Jesus says to you plainly, "You are already clean, already pruned, because of the Word I have spoken to you." Now remember when Jesus first spoke these words. He was in the upper room. It was the night He was betrayed. The night He told them they would all fall away from Him, all desert Him. Yet, He says such weak, sinful disciples have been cleansed by His Word.
I certainly, then, can says such weak, sinful disciples as you have been cleansed by the Word of Christ. Surely, if Christ's Word was able to clean those in the upper room, it is capable of cleaning you. The Word of Christ poured on you in baptism has cleansed you from all sin. The Word of Christ I spoke to you in the Absolution has sent your sins away leaving you clean. The Word of Christ I am about to speak to you, "Take eat; take drink. This is My Body, this is My Blood given and shed for you," certainly cleans you so that you can never be dirty again in His eyes.
You are branches of the Vine grafted, attached, and cleansed by the Word Christ spoke, poured on, or fed to you. "As a branch of Mine," says Christ in our text, "it is your high privilege to ask whatever you wish and it will be given you." The Father cannot turn down Christ the Vine nor any of the branches attached to Him. What do branches ask of Gardeners? "Feed me; care for me; make me fruitful." And the Gardener does so without fail.
How does my garden grow? My garden never grows because I am a terrible gardener. But the Father's grows wonderfully because He starts with a perfect Vine. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Easter V (5-21-00) John 15: 1-8