The Rev. Melanie McCarley
One of the strange blessings of this pandemic era in which we live is that it has forced a good number of us to explore more of the outdoors. A while back, my mother and I were traversing a bit of western Massachusetts, and we lit upon the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge quite by accident. We pulled in, put on our masks and paid the admission fee. It’s a remarkable place, and well worth the visit. One of the sights which intrigued me most was the tree of forty fruits. Imagine, a tree that can produce plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, cherries and others, including many heirloom varieties of fruit we no longer see in stores. What a sight that must be to behold in springtime!
The feat is accomplished by grafting, and it works like this: You take a slice of branch of a fruit tree that includes buds and insert it into a matching incision in a host tree, one that’s been growing for at least three years. Then you wrap electrical tape around the spot to hold the pieces together. And now you wait. When it all goes well, the “veins” of the different trees flow into each other and they share a vascular system. That branch—even though it might be of an entirely different tree, when it is grafted well, it doesn’t simply exist on that tree, that tree enables it to thrive and bear fruit.
The Tree of Forty Fruits reminds me of today’s lesson from the Gospel of John. “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
That’s an image that makes sense to anyone familiar with vineyards and orchards. The life of a branch is inseparable from the life of the vine. This lesson, if you think about it, is about the importance of connecting—and the reality of being connected. It’s a theme that’s ripe for our time. Because one facet of human nature that this Covid era has highlighted is the profound importance of maintaining connections. I recently saw a video of an elderly woman who had been separated from her equally elderly husband for a year. Now that the two had been vaccinated, they could be together. Oh, I’m sure that over the course of that year they talked on the phone and tapped at each other through a window. But that’s nothing compared to reaching out and touching someone who has been a part of your life for over 70 years. As she reached out for her husband the wife kept repeating one phrase over and over: “Oh, thank God. Thank you God.” Connection—the physical placing of hands together, an embrace—this is a gift. Looking around here at St. Paul’s, and seeing people gathered on the lawn and seated in the pews—this is wondrous to behold. I hope to never cease looking at it with exquisite delight again.
Vincent Lloyd, a professor of Christian Ethics, writes: “Our secular age does not equip us to understand community rightly. Secularism offers a false copy of community, a belief that identity markers bring together self-contained individuals, a belief that we can “imagine” community and so create community. (but) religious visions of community differ. They are held together not by physical characteristics or individual preferences, not by collective imagination, but by a shared commitment to the transcendent.”
That’s something of a mouthful. Think of it this way. Many of us belong to affinity groups such as those who enjoy hiking, pickleball or watching movies. Others belong to teams such as a cheerleading squad, a soccer league or a basketball team. Some of us belong to professional associations or community activism groups; others are grouped together by their class in school or their age. But a community of faith—well, that incorporates all ages, all physical and mental abilities, every skin color, temperament and place of origin. In short, take a look at the Christian faith, and what you find is community that can provide a place for everyone—through a shared commitment to Jesus Christ. It’s like that tree of forty fruits—different branches, each deriving their life sustenance from the vine.
We are like that tree. I look at St. Paul’s and I see people born not simply in different cities; but in different countries. With the advent of technology, we have people worshipping with us this morning not only in our pews and on our lawn, but in different states! We are blessed with a multitude of gifts and perceptions. And we all share this in common: we all find our life together in Christ.
Now…about the fruit. The point of being part of the vine isn’t simply to exist, but to bear fruit. And not just some paltry parcel of plums or a handful of cherries—but an abundance. Bushels!
True enough, the fruit we humans produce doesn’t bear a resemblance to peaches or nectarines; but it’s important nonetheless. St. Paul tells us that the fruits of the Spirit are these: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—in short, all the things that have gotten us through this past year. Imagine how a bumper crop of this kind of fruit might continue to benefit the world in which we live!
However, the point of this reading is this; that the bearing of fruit depends—not upon independence, but upon dependence. It depends on connection. It depends on belonging. As soon as you cop to the illusion that you can produce anything from the basis of your own sovereignty, from your own efforts, from your own sense of independence, think about it—what kind of fruit would that be? What kind of fruit comes from a branch connected to—well….nothing? So the fruit we bear comes from being part of the vine to which we are all connected through Christ.
Now, you may be thinking that the tree of forty fruits is a strange horticultural innovation—but it has its antecedent in the Bible. In the twenty-second chapter of the Book of Revelation we find the description of the Tree of life, bearing twelve fruits, yielding its fruits every month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. In other words, I think there might be something to this grafting business after all.
Today we are reminded that not only the best life, but the finest fruit comes from being part of the vine. And Jesus tells us that he is that vine. That’s good news for us. It means that not only our lives, but also the gifts we share with the world come, ultimately, through Christ. Grafted into the vine, this is where we find our true home; it is where we are nourished; and in our time, it is the place from which we bear the finest fruit. In Jesus’ name. Alleluia, amen.