Vines and Roots

Luis asked me to preach today, and when I saw the Gospel reading I thought really?  The parish wine expert is not going to tackle “I am the true vine?”

I have learned a lot in my time so far as an Assistant at St. John’s…important life skills like: good wine does not come in a box, or from Trader Joe’s, but I can’t pretend to know much yet about wine.  I’ll leave the fruit of the vine to the experts for now.

Instead I want to talk about roots.

Where are your roots?  I ask the question because of a word that appears in our reading from John’s Gospel and in the Letter from John : abide…abide.  Jesus says, “Abide in me.”  In the midst of this very agricultural imagery about the vine and the branches, I think it’s fair to the greek of the Gospel to play with our translation a bit, to translate “meinein,” Jesus’ word, not simply as abide in me, or remain in me, but “be rooted in me.”

Where are your roots?

My parents still live in the house where I grew up.  Some of my earliest memories of that place are of the two big blue spruce trees out front.  They were tall when we arrived, and they were still growing pretty rapidly.  We used to hang Christmas lights on them each year.  I remember when I was little, my dad used to do this with a neighbor.  With a ladder and a broom stick they were able to get the lights to the top of the tree.

Unfortunately, by the time I was big enough to help decorate, the trees had gotten much taller.  My father, who subscribes to the life philosophy that “anything can be solved with bailing wire and duct tape” had cobbled together an extension of the broom handle involving several lengths of PVC pipe.  When I was big enough I had to hoist the whole contraption up into the air.  We were able to get the lights up there, but I remember sitting in school the following day, my upper body so sore I couldn’t lift my arms above my shoulders.  By the time I went to college, my dad had given up on putting lights up on the Blue Spruce.  He moved on to hanging lights on a much smaller tree in the front yard.

This winter, my mom sent me some really disturbing pictures over email.  Colorado had very little snow this season, but they did experience powerful wind storms.  Both of those huge Spruce trees came down.  Luckily they both landed on our driveway.  They could have done some serious damage to the house.  We came to find out that the trees toppled because of the way they were planted.   Whoever put in those trees never  removed the plastic sheeting around their roots.  The trees grew up, but their roots did not grow out.  They were so top heavy that they were just waiting to fall.

Roots are important.  Roots are critical.

Where are your roots?

Often when we talk about “roots” we talk about family.  Maybe for some of you, “getting back to you roots” still means returning to the family home whether that is in Bethesda or central Texas.

For others of us, “getting back to your roots” is more complicated.  Some of us have become rooted not so much in particular piece of family real estate, but in the geography of collected friendships.  I suspect that many of us are grounded as much by our friendships as by family.  When I go home to Colorado in a few weeks, I’ll spend at least as much time with my friends from high school as I do with my parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  Those friends know me better than just about anyone, visiting with them grounds me, it brings me back to my roots.

Roots are important to cultivate and nurture.  Relationships take time and care.  Having a friendship, or a romantic relationship, that you can sink roots into, draw nourishment from, takes hard work and regular watering.  For my friends that watering is almost literal.  It usually takes the form of great conversations over beers.  And I need to be sure to tend to those friendships to keep the roots viable.

But these friendships and family bonds are not the only roots we grow.  We root ourselves in our careers, in our hobbies.  How many of us think of ourselves as “lawyers” or as “tennis players?” When you’ve spent time developing your skills, you can draw in a great deal of meaning from your work or your play.

We live in a society that hopes to develop other roots in us as well.  Some of us are rooted Apple users or Chevy drivers.  Companies spend a lot of money hoping we sink our roots into their products, identify with a brand.  This is not all bad.

Healthy vines have a whole root system.  If you’ve ever transplanted a living plant, you’ve seen how many different tendrils stretch out under the earth.  We need a lot of roots to keep us healthy.  We need checks and balances.  If we try to draw too much out of one root, even the big ones like a career, a marriage partner, or a best friend, we can find ourselves and our relationships feeling a little drained.  I know that has been my experience.

I say that if we draw from one root, we will be drained.  There is one exception.  I think that exception is what the Gospel today is all about.  Abide in me Jesus says, be rooted in me.  Draw your sustenance, your sense of meaning and purpose.  Draw your capacity to love and receive love from me.  Be rooted in me, be rooted in my words.

These words from John’s Gospel come from the 15th chapter, toward the end of the story.  This is a part of a long section we call the “Farewell Dialogue.”  Jesus speaks with his followers about life after he is gone.  “Abide in me” is not just nice advice, it is a survival strategy.  John’s Gospel was written as the first persecutions against the Christian community are arising.  Christians are being removed from synagogues and are suspected of treason by the Romans.

Abide in me.  Be rooted in me.  Have you ever heard of a taproot?  If you’ve ever eaten a carrot, you’ve seen a taproot.  A plant that grows a taproot develops a root system, but the system is based in one single huge deep root.  Have you ever pulled up carrots?  Have you ever tried to yank out dandelions?  Taproots are strong.

You have a taproot. Our faith teaches us that we are made in the image and likeness of the one who creates us.  Jesus says “Abide in me, as I abide in you.”  Jesus already abides.  We are already, all of us, rooted in God.  Jesus’ words, “abide in me, remain in me, be rooted in me” tell us to draw on the nutrients of that taproot.  Draw your sustenance from me, Jesus says.  In a world that seeks to define you based on wealth and status, receive your sense of value from Jesus.  In a world that judges you based on image and intelligence, draw your sense of self from me, Jesus says.

Roots grow stronger when they are used, when they are drawn on.  How do you draw on Jesus, on God?  Maybe participating in the Eucharist connects you to your rootedness in Christ.  Maybe a walk out in God’s creation helps.  Perhaps you find yourself aware of God’s presence when you are out working for justice, or helping your neighbor.  Maybe you draw on the love of God when you are at a dinner surrounded by family and friends.  How do you draw on that taproot?

All those years we spent decorating the visible branches of our spruce trees, we had no idea about the health of their roots.  It strikes me that the health of those trees depended so much on things we couldn’t see.  We spent so much time and effort caring for what was above ground, but the health of trees, like our health, depends on caring for the roots, caring for the things unseen.  So I leave you with a question:

How do you nurture and deepen your roots?

How do you root yourself more and more deeply in the love of God?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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