THE FRUITFUL LIFE
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
May 10, 2015, 6th Sunday in Easter, Year B
Genesis 4:1-12; John 15:9-17

“And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last”
John 15:16b

“And I appointed you to go and bear fruit,” says Jesus: “fruit that will last.”
It’s not a bad sermon text for Mother’s Day: not because Mom always wanted you to have those healthy snacks — the apple slices instead of the Oreos — but because Moms (and Dads as well) stand to be amazed at the fruit their love can produce.

I don’t think anyone’s ever ready to have a child. Not even adoptive parents, who often have a long time — years, in some cases — to prepare for their new role. Who could ever be ready for the sheer wonder of parenthood? As for the offspring themselves, if their home’s a normal one, they go through those early years blissfully unaware that they are walking, talking miracles.

There are some, of course, whose home life growing up was not typical — whose mothers were absent, physically or emotionally. There are many tales of courage out there — both of those who found parental figures in other loving and generous people, and of those who provided that nurture. Mother’s Day is their day, too.

*****

Some of you are gardeners, I know, and this is the time of year for putting in those gardens. It’s all such an act of faith. Who could imagine — were it not for the experience of past growing seasons — what those humble seeds, those fragile seedlings, will become in a few months? We gardeners may take credit for the fruit that emerges from our topsoil, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we know how little we have to do with it.

We gardeners can mulch, we can weed, we can fertilize, we can water, but at the heart of the whole operation is a miracle such as we can scarce conceive. Each green shoot is a wonder, each tasty fruit a revelation.

There’s never been a gardener yet, in all of human history, who can produce a thing in the absence of seeds. Those seeds — those little, God-given packages of life — are, like children, nothing less than a miracle.

I feel that way each year about my tomatoes, even though I don’t start them from seeds. I haven’t planted the tomato patch yet this season, but I’ll get around to it pretty soon.

I’ll try to find the best seedlings I can. I’ll try to make sure the soil is properly prepared. I’ll try to remember to water – just enough, not too much.

But, let’s be honest. Once I dig that little hole in the ground, drop in a trowel-full of manure, then ease that little green thing into place, filling in the gaps and mulching it all around, I know perfectly well that what happens next is not my doing.

*****

Turning to our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, we discover a man who tills the soil.

But he doesn’t look at things the same way. His name is Cain, and he brings an offering to the Lord.

Cain is proud of his offering, mighty proud. He’s just certain it’s the best offering ever.

But the Lord scorns Cain’s offering in favor of his brother Abel’s – Abel the herdsman, who brings not the fruit of the earth, but a perfect young animal.

Why does the Lord scorn Cain’s offering? Who knows? It’s really beside the point, though. You just have to accept God’s scorn as a given, a detail of the story that’s unexplained.

I wonder, though, if the fault lies in the way Cain brings his gift: the pride, the self-centeredness, that’s oozing from him as her performs his religious duty.

Do you suppose God really cares about a person coming up with the perfect bunch of grapes (or the most pure and spotless lamb, for that matter)?

God created all these things. God can surely create others that are wondrous in their perfection. God doesn’t need some dirt-scratching human farmer to produce them.

The story does contain an explanation of sorts, but it’s only the barest of hints: “If you do not do well,” God says to Cain, “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

There’s something inside of Cain himself that makes his offering unacceptable. It has less to do with vegetables than with the sinful heart of the gardener. It’s possible Cain wants to take too much credit for something the Lord has provided.

Cain — like so many of us — yearns to be successful. But the Lord doesn’t care about his success. What the Lord really wants Cain to do is be fruitful: to tend the vine, to prune it when needed, then to harvest the produce in gratitude and wonder.

*****

A good mother is like that (a good father, as well). Raising children is one of the most important tasks in the world, but mark this well: we raise our children, we don’t make them.

Too many parents today aren’t aware enough of that distinction. They believe their children are the products of their own finely-honed parenting expertise. (Maybe all those parenting how-to books have contributed to that conceit — and that anxiety.) When their kids don’t live up to their ideal — and they won’t —  they punish them.

Some kids never get over that kind of punishment, the punishment that comes not because of who they are, but who they could never be: that ideal child whose image is formed in their parents’ imagination. It’s a potent mix of disappointment from their own parents’ failings combined with their own unrealized hopes and dreams.

Children are not made to heal their parents’ disappointments. They are designed, in God’s providence, to grow free.

*****

When I plant my tomatoes in the garden, I use those metal cages to provide support. As the seedlings grow, there comes a time — several times, actually, during the summer — when you’ve got to go in there and readjust the branches of the tomato plants. That’s because, as the plant grows taller, some of the branches press up against the horizontal piece of wire that circles the cage.

You need to gently lift the branches up and over the barrier, or else the plant will be stunted. In time, the structure intended for support can become a kind of prison.

It reminds me of raising kids. The cage is the structure the parents, or guardians, or grandparents provide. Yet, there comes a time when that structure becomes less a benefit and more a burden. There comes time when you have to free the plant from its confines so it can grow free.

The most fruitful tomato plant is that one that outgrows its cage, that soars up and over, reaching for the sky.

*****

Claire and I received the news this past week that our daughter Ania —  who lives in far-off Colorado — got engaged. We knew it was going to happen. We’d been part of a little subterfuge to get the ring — a family heirloom — out there, so Ryan could present it to her as he popped the question. He gave us no hint of when he was planning to do that. I don’t think he was quite sure himself. For weeks, Claire and I were asking each other, “Any news yet?”

For me, this whole experience has been a lesson in the limits of parental authority: an experience of watching rather helplessly as others play their part.

Who could have imagined that the little girl who ran up and down the aisles of this church in frilly dresses and patent-leather shoes, who hid behind my pulpit robe while I was preaching (some of you remember that), would decide to go clear across the country to Southern California for college?

Who could have imagined that she would take up with a few other young women in an off-campus rental, one of whom was dating a young man from Texas, who had a friend, also from Texas, who just happened to be coming west for a semester’s internship?

Who could have imagined that, sometime after those events ensued, he and Ania would fall in love?

And who could have predicted that, after going back to the University of Texas and graduating, Ryan would take a software-engineering job in Boulder, Colorado, and Ania – the girl who swore she would never live anyplace where she couldn’t wear flip-flops year round — would move there too, a mile high in the snowy Rockies, to be near him?

Looking back on all that human drama, I realize there was a chain of unpredictable events that had to happen in perfect sequence.

What if Ania had chosen that college in New England instead?

What if she had never taken up with that group of roommates?

What if her one friend had broken up with the boyfriend from Texas, so Ryan never came out for that semester, or what if he’d majored in accounting instead of software engineering?

Claire and I are so very happy they’ve found each other, but we never could have made for Ania the life she wants, the life she’s now living.

There comes a time, as a parent, when you just have to step back and marvel, marvel at the wild, extravagant growth that, after a while, has so very little to do with you. The older my kids grow, the less I’m inclined to try to take credit for the people they’ve become, and are becoming.

It calls to mind a sentimental little poem, by a poet named Linda Pastan. It’s called “To a Daughter Leaving Home”:

When I taught you

at eight to ride

a bicycle, loping along

beside you

as you wobbled away

on two round wheels,

my own mouth rounding

in surprise when you pulled

ahead down the curved

path of the park,

I kept waiting

for the thud

of your crash as I

sprinted to catch up,

while you grew

smaller, more breakable

with distance,

pumping, pumping

for your life, screaming

with laughter,

the hair flapping

behind you like a

handkerchief waving

goodbye.[1]

*****

It’s kind of like that stage of the garden, mid- to late-summer, when the tomato plants have long since overtopped the cages, when they’ve grown so big as to overshadow the weeds. They’re really on their own, then. As long as it rains every few days, you don’t even have to water. All you have to do is watch — as one fruit after another turns from green to red, and eventually grows so large you’ve got to pick it, before it falls of its own accord.

By that time of the summer you’re no longer a gardener. You’re just a grateful recipient. The garden plot has taken on a certain momentum of its own. There’s no stopping it.

Mothers come to that stage, too. Fathers, also.

So many things that spring from our lives are not things we create at all, but rather things we nurture for a time, then let go of.

*****

That was Cain’s mistake. He imagined the offering was his, the product of his own success, rather than something he merely had stewardship of, for a season.

At its most basic level, it was all God’s to begin with, and God’s it remained.

Whenever you and I bring offerings to the Lord, we’re not doing God a favor — for we didn’t produce them. We received them, cared for them for a time, then offered them up, in gratitude.

Jesus teaches much the same thing in John, chapter 15: “You 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.”

Earlier on in that chapter, just before the portion we read this morning, Jesus says “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.”

The way he looks at it, we’re all branches that come off him. As disciples, we’re connected to our Lord in a very special way.

The word Jesus uses to describe that connection is “to abide” — “Abide in me,” he says, “as I abide in you.”

Abiding is a marvelous word. It captures that late summer role of the tomato-grower, when the nights are warm and humid, and the plants are huge and leafy, and all striving ceases — and you just stand back and marvel at what the Lord has wrought.

That’s what abiding means. It’s not doing. It’s being.

It’s not success. It’s grateful wonder.

And what is the fruit we are supposed to bear, the fruit that will last?

Jesus has an answer for that one as well. It’s there in verse 17: “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

At the end of the day, that’s all we’ve got. Love is the fruit. We don’t create it. We receive it. We nurture it for a time, then set it free: let it go, let it grow.

In the end, love is all that really matters. There will come a time when achievements fall away: when the diploma on the wall, the box of well-used tools, the ability to lead, or teach, or make music, or keep accounts — even, Lord knows, the ability to preach the gospel — all these will no longer matter.

All that will matter, then, is that, at the end of our days, we abide in him, as we did at the first. For he is the true vine. Along the length of that vine, at the heart of the branches, there is a flow — a ceaseless exchange of nutrients, moisture that nourishes the fruit. Along those channels, intricate networks of tiny capillaries connect him to us, and to others on down the line. Through that channel, there flows — as it always has — the greatest of all spiritual gifts, this thing called love.

In chapter 8 of Romans, Paul says he’s convinced “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

As mothers, as fathers, as grandparents — in anything worth doing in this life — God’s not looking to us to be successful.

God’s looking to us to be fruitful.

There’s a difference, and the difference is this: the secret of bearing fruit in this life is abiding, abiding in him who is the true and only vine.

Let us pray:

Lord, so often we get caught up — even trapped —

in life’s particularities.

Sometimes, we admit, we only have an eye for the weeds,

missing the marvel of growth.

Sometimes we fail to see the big picture,

that reveals how truly blessed we are

to have this opportunity to abide in you,

to participate in the ebb and flow of life itself.

For our mothers we thank you.

They did not always do their work perfectly,

but they tended the garden for a time.

They passed on the life that was entrusted to them,

this matchless gift that originates with you.

May we, for our part,

in whatever holy labors come to hand,

tend the garden faithfully and well:

and, when harvest-time comes,

may we be truly grateful. Amen.

[1]Linda Pastan, from The Imperfect Paradise. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Copyright © 2015 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.