By Dr. Keith Wagner
While hiking in the Smokey Mountains one fall we came upon a huge vine. It was 6-8 inches in diameter. Imagine if it could talk. It could tell you of the civil war, the revolutionary war, and countless stories of people who had passed by on the trail. I was truly impressed by its enormous size and the fact that it had withstood hundreds of years of harsh winters and hot summers, storms and all sorts of conditions. Many animals have no doubt climbed up and down it and millions of insects have crawled upon it. Although it was just a vine, it had profound meaning for me since it had withstood the age of time.
Jesus said to the disciples, “I am the vine.” He is like that vine who has withstood centuries of persecution, observed all sorts of atrocities by we humans and continues to be with us in spite of the lack of respect he has been given. In ancient Palestine the growing of grapes was a primary resource for the people. So when Jesus referred to himself as the vine, they understood what he was talking about. In this area our primary source of income is through manufacturing and agriculture. You could say that here, Jesus would refer to himself as the factory or the field. Our lives are dependent on them for survival and if we disconnect we lose our primary source of income.
Jesus also told the disciples that they could not bear fruit unless they remain connected. When we disconnect from the Jesus, we lose focus. We are lost. We are cut off from the life giving resource of God’s sustaining love. Our faith becomes weak and consequently we lose hope.
Many people these days are lost. They are trying to find answers and a sense of belonging, so they seek out all sorts of endeavors for security. They cling to vines that are false or short term. They reach out for vines made of plastic or ones that simply exist in their imagination. They fill their lives with all these alternative vines but still come up empty and bewildered.
I worked for a company one time that overbuilt and was too liberal in its credit practices. Management treated employees unfairly and overstocked in inventory. They eventually folded. I have observed that whenever any organization disconnects from an ethic of love it eventually loses its vitality. Manufacturing or farming or anything that ceases to bear fruit will wither and die. Notice that Jesus also says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” He didn’t say “you could check in and out whenever you feel like it.”
On one hand we have those who are completely separated from the vine doing their own thing. Without a connection to the vine they will not survive. On the other hand, there are those whose faith is totally private. These are the folks who make no mention of their church connection or never get involved in the life of the church. They keep their faith in secret. You can’t be connected and be invisible.
Our faith is not something we talk about. The weather, sports and politics dominate our conversations, while matters of faith rarely appear at all. Yet, Jesus said we are to be bearers of fruit. Each of you is a branch. You who are connected to the one true vine, represent the church wherever you go. And when you are faithful it is contagious.
One time I served a church that was hidden in an obscure corner of a suburb. The people of that congregation never thought highly of themselves. One time we took a survey and discovered that our presence had a profound affect on the life of the people who lived there. They noticed when the bushes were pruned, the parking lot was full or that remodeling was taking place. Just as the church is a visible presence of God’s abiding love, each of you is a visible presence in the community.
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I believe our society is doing us a tremendous injustice. We are conditioned to believe that we can go it alone. We are taught to be independent, but staying connected and relying on each other makes life easier and also brings us great joy. If you have watched the people in a town where there has been a tragedy, like in the west where fires have ravaged the countryside, you have witnessed their togetherness and their cooperation and teamwork. Faith is not private. It is social. It is corporate. By being together, by staying connected our faith is made strong.
I saw other vines in the mountains too. They had fallen to the ground and were dying. Perhaps they had been struck by lightening or some human took an ax to them. Since they were disconnected from their life source, they would eventually wither and die. Ezekiel said (ch. l5), that “a vine that cannot produce grapes is only good for burning.” And Jesus told the disciples that they needed to “bear fruit”.
Last spring my son and I topped the tree in our front yard. It was suffering from a disease. It was suggested that by pruning it the tree might have a chance to survive. We could put it out of its misery by chopping it down, or we could give it another chance by cutting away the dead wood. Pruning helped for awhile, but eventually we had to chop it down. Every year the dead wood needs to be cut away. We need to prune away the dead parts, so that the young parts can have a chance.
The city of Sidney currently has an aggressive sidewalk program. That is a good thing since it will enable our people to walk freely in every neighborhood, without fear of being on roadways. Its a good program unless you are one of the unfortunate homeowners who is required to install sidewalks in your yard. On one stretch of road a sidewalk was installed but it was too close to a row of trees. Sadly, all the trees are dying because their root system has been cut off.
Cutting away the dead parts gives us new life, but destroying our roots disconnects us from the one true source of life. Our faith is in jeopardy of dying unless we remain connected to the Church, the Word of God and Jesus Christ. Branching out is part of our responsibility but without maintaining an adequate root system, we too will perish.