Given on the occasion of the Installation of Rev. Burnetta Barton Armour
John 15”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide 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. 5I 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. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
I met my husband while working in the horticulture and landscaping department of what used to be SeaWorld Cleveland. I started at that job when I was 17 and grew to love my job and my coworkers. Although I am not a huge morning person, I soon grew to also love the quietness of the world when you are watering great big hanging baskets of petunias at 7 in the morning. Being with the flowers as they greeted the sun and the quickly warming morning taught me an awful lot about the ministry of presence and simply being. One of the other benefits of the job was that it, quite literally, taught me about plants and their care. The gentleman who hired me, Bill Paxson, was a teacher at heart, and he loved to teach us about the growing habits of plants. He was more of a trees and shrub man, but he was a fount of information on annuals and perennials as well. This passage energizes my horticultural tendencies in a way that would make Bill proud.
There are three ways in which an understanding of plants can inform us as we approach this passage today. 1) What is grafting? 2) What do we need to know about transplanting living plants? And 3) What is needed to bear fruit? The answer to these questions are earthy and practical; they tell us a lot about our Creator and the design of Creation. They also tell us about our relationship with creation and Creator.
What is Grafting?
Grafting is a method of plant propagation widely used in agriculture and horticulture where the tissues of one plant are encouraged to fuse with those of another.
This grafting is done to meld the characteristics of two plants so that each is better and stronger for sharing its space with the other. Having met with your Pastor Nominating Committee (PNC) mid-process and encouraging them in the good work they were doing, I noticed that grafting might be an image that Millersburg First and Clark Community could understand quite well. You each have distinct flavors, strengths, and characteristics. Together, you allow each other to grow in strength and bloom with abandon.
Grafting is not a natural process. There may be an extremely rare case of it happening without human intervention, but for the most part, grafting is done by humans. So, you might ask, what does grafting have to say about God and the world: it means that we participate in God’s design for the world. We trust that the characteristics of each plant that God made will continue to grow and reproduce. Grafting shows trust in God and participation in Creation.
What do we need to know about transplanting living plants?
In agriculture and gardening, transplanting or replanting is the technique of moving a plant from one location to another.
You have a new minister who is new in her ministry. She is being transplanted into your midst. There are a few things we know about plants that may be helpful in this situation.
“Different species and varieties react differently to transplanting. In all cases, avoiding transplant shock—the stress or damage received in the process—is the principal concern. The stage of growth at which transplanting takes place, the weather conditions during transplanting, and treatment immediately after transplanting are other important factors.”
Every plant reacts a little differently to being transplanted. Generally speaking, plants need time, sun, and food to adjust to a new environment. Some plants need a little more water, others need a little more space, while others need a lot of attention. I won’t be so bold as to say which plant Burnetta and James are, but I will say that they will need some nurturing as they settle into this new soil.
Wikipedia noted that “Plants raised in protected conditions usually need a period of acclimatization, known as hardening off.” Well, if that doesn’t speak to one of your biggest adjustments, I don’t know what will! I’m sorry to be the bearer of difficult news, Burnetta, but winters here are cold. Some of us love it; some of us grin and bear it. It is beautiful, cold, and slippery. Take your time getting used to it. And take breaks from the cold, when you need.
A final observation about transplanting: “root disturbance should be minimized.” This comment brings us back to where we began in John 15. Abide in the Lord as the Lord abides in you. All of us have been transplanted at some time or other, whether it was when we got married, when we went to school, or started a new job. That transplanting means change and change can bring anxiety. So long as we keep out roots in the Lord, no change will be able to take us where we would not wish to go. Burnetta, as you begin your ministry and care for the branches of God’s vine in this place, remember to also tend to the roots of your faith. For, as you strengthen and grow in your faith, the branches around you will grow and flourish as well.
What is needed to bear fruit?
The Christian life is supposed to be one that bears fruit and makes other branches that also bear fruit. This is how creation is designed, in terms of plants, and it is how we as Christians are designed as well. We are supposed to grow in health and strength and to bloom, flower, and fruit. Jesus does not just trust us to know this about plants or trust the in-born process within us, he tells explicitly in our passage what is required in order to bear fruit.
Abide in me. Become my disciples. You cannot bear fruit unless you allow yourselves to be transformed by your relationship with Christ. “the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me (v. 4).” Abide in Christ, and let Christ dwell in you.
Abide in my love. As the Father loves Christ, Christ loves us. In the second section of our passage, Jesus tells the disciples (and us!), “You are my friends.” What Christ has done for us is not simply transactional, he did this and so we must do that. Rather, Christ’s actions and words are relational. He cares for us, and as we allow that care to penetrate and permeate our beings, it transforms our lives and the way we live them.
Love one another. Jesus has already said that the branch cannot bear fruit alone, so we know that we need to keep ourselves connected and rooted in Christ. But we also need each other – for the same reasons that Jesus calls us friends. We are to care for each other and to allow ourselves to be shaped by those we call friends in Christ. We are no longer servants, but equals with Jesus, chosen by him so that we might love one another.
A great tagline for this passage might be, “Go, be a fruit and bear fruit, for Jesus.” As you continue to grow grafted together in Christ, transplanted in a new environment, may you thrive and flourish and bear much fruit, joyfully, in the Lord’s name.