Christianity and the Perfect Tomato

My good friend George Dimidjian used to tell me that in America it was impossible to find a delicious tomato.  George was from Aleppo Syria where the agreeable climate effortlessly grew tomatoes kissed by the sun and fire truck red.  When he described them my mouth watered.  I wanted to grab one in my hands fresh off the vine and bite it like an apple, not caring if a cascading waterfall of seeds and juice went dribbling down my chin.

George was right too: it is hard to get a decent tomato in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  If you are like me then you buy your produce in the large grocery box stores.  The tomatoes you find there are picked while still green from fields far away from here.  They are then sent to ripening warehouses where they spend long days bathing in Ethylene gas.  Ethylene is a hydrocarbon gas produced by many fruits that acts as the molecular cue to begin the ripening process. Tomatoes ripened in this way tend to keep longer, but have poorer flavor and a mealier, starchier texture than tomatoes ripened on the plant.  You can usually tell the gas ripened tomatoes–they are pinkish or more orange than their vine ripened deep red cousins.

Because of customer dissatisfaction with tomatoes that have their culinary value somewhere between cardboard and sawdust many grocery box stores started offering  their version of ‘vine ripened tomatoes.’  But don’t let the name fool you.  If you have romantic notions of an overalls wearing farmer marching out in the dew soaked cool morning to the sound of a crowing rooster, ready to clip that cluster of tomatoes just for you then you could not be more wrong.  Box store ‘vine ripened tomatoes’ never ripen on a plant either.  They too spend their time soaking up the ethylene in the big produce warehouses.  The only difference is that they come neatly tied together with a bit of their stems(i.e. the vine).  The stem does help the tomatoes ripen red, and some say there’s a boost in flavor.  But George wasn’t buying it, and I’m not either.

You can’t fool me.  Every year of my youth my parents had a garden.  I know what a good tomato tastes like.  Maybe not a tomato from Aleppo Syria, but the best that a sweet Maine summer can offer, and that’s pretty darn good.

I had a love/hate relationship with my parent’s garden.  I loved eating from it; I hated working in it.  My greatest hate was for weeding; my greatest love was the delicious tomatoes.   The grocery box stores don’t even come close.  It’s a swing and a miss.  A big miss!  Where tomatoes are concerned, I don’t even think the box stores are taking their cuts in the right ball park.

So every spring my wife and I embark on a mission.  I select the best looking transplants I can find, she turns the soil by hand, and we carefully fill our 8′ X 16′ garden plot that we squeezed out of our size-challenged backyard with as many tomato plants as we can fit.  I’m a sucker for the large Beefsteak variety; the wife prefers the smaller Romas.

Unfortunately Shannon and I do not have a great success rate when it comes to tomato growing.  As I remember it, we’ve had one great year–one out of thirteen–but boy was it great!  That year I had the best sandwich I have ever eaten.  It was on homemade honey whole wheat bread (we had a bread maker), and between the slices were piled thick garden fresh sweet onion, warm cucumber, and generous slices of bright red beefsteak tomato picked earlier that morning and seasoned with a touch of mayo,salt and pepper and garnished with a thick square of American cheese.  I cried when that sandwich was finished.  The tomato was perfect (it was one of many in that exceptional season).

The rest of our tomato growing years have not been stellar.  We start well, but the growing season is long (especially for the large beefsteak variety which take half a century to reach maturity), and who really has time for gardening these days.  I’ll admit that along with the time crunch I still have my love/hate relationship with the garden: give me your delectables, but don’t make me weed.  Soon our garden resembles, in both plant density and species diversity, a wild patch of the Amazon Rain Forest.  Then come the bugs, and in some years the blight.  My hopes of the second perfect sandwich are dashed and I nod my head in agreement with George–in America it is impossible to find a delicious tomato.

Jesus uses a lot of interesting metaphors to describe his relationship with his disciples in the gospel of John: the bread of life for those that hunger, the shepherd to the sheep, the door for those who need entrance.  All of them are helpful in their own way.  Perhaps the most memorable, however, is his statement, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.”  Jesus wasn’t talking about tomatoes.  He had grapes in mind.  But the idea is the same.  If you want to bear sweet fruit, the kind that make perfect sandwiches, the kind that will rival anything grown even in Aleppo Syria, then stick with me and ripen on the vine, kissed by the sun and fire truck red.

The word Jesus used for ‘stick with me’ is ‘abide.’  Abide in the vine.  Abide is not a word we readily warm up to.  We all have twitching knees and nervous stares.  If we are staying still we are going backwards.  Frenetic life is the rule, not the exception.  Deep, quiet, soulful abiding on the vine, letting the morning dew evaporate in the tepid noon sun is a luxury few of us can afford, or are allowed to indulge in.  Instead we get picked green, sent to warehouses, and drenched in ethylene gas.  You’re ready, they say.  A bit pinkish, and orange around the collar, but ready.  Nobody asked you if you were ready.

Have you ever felt used by the forces that push you along?  Do you get the stinking suspicion that you’re a consumable product about to be served in up as a fixin’ in a limp ham sandwich.  You’ll be a disappointment for sure–like something posing for the right thing–but they got to keep the shelves stocked in the large box stores of life.  Everyone wants their pick of tomatoes.  Just throw another dab of fatty mayo on the bread, and an extra shake or two of the high blood pressure salt seasoning and you’ll taste alright–not perfect, but alright.  Honey whole wheat homemade bread?  You’re kidding, right?  Who has the time?  Just relax, this pull at your stem won’t hurt a bit, there’s no need to stay on the vine.  This isn’t Aleppo, and it’s certainly not Jerusalem or Galilee.  This is Long Island.  We eat on the run.

Lance Pape describes it as our growing sense of impermanence.  I found his helpful suggestions on preaching John 15 when I was compiling material for this week’s sermon.  In an article he wrote for Homiletics he illustrates our failing sense of permanence by telling this autobiographical story: “At an after-school tutoring program, I made the mistake of asking where one of the students ‘lives,'” writes Lance, “and received a blank stare for a response. When these kids ask one another about such things, they say ‘Where do you stay?’ The difference is more than semantic. Human disposability has so shaped their thinking that they are asking a different and less permanent question.”

In some ways I know what that’s like.  I moved around a lot as a kid.  My present stretch on Long Island is the longest I have ever lived in one place.  But in other ways I know nothing of the hard lives many lead with no sense of permanence.  I always had my parents as primary caregivers, always.  I moved with them.  We abided.  Jesus always came too, or maybe he led the way.  Perhaps sometimes he led and sometimes he didn’t.  It didn’t matter.   Whether he led or my parents led he was always at the new place.  He promised he would be there.  If you read John 15 carefully you note that abiding is a two way street.  “Abide in me” Jesus commands–stay on the vine–yet he adds, “as I abide in you.”  It is a two direction relational posture.  It is a reciprocal communion.  Jesus was better at it than I was.  Wherever I went Jesus went, that was his promise to me.

It wasn’t (and it isn’t) always easy.  Jesus does daring things with his own metaphor.  He talks about some branches that were cut away by the vinedresser because they were fruitless–they had ceased abiding, ceased taking nutrients from the source of life, and were dead on the vine.  Then he mentions some branches that stubbornly refused to meet their potential, and those branches were pruned.  That’s scary stuff.

Which reminds me–you better prune your tomatoes plants too.  Left on their own the fast growing plants become too large for their own stems.  You know how it is.  Bigger is better, they say.  Grow, grow, grow, they think.  Top heavy, the over-burdened plants lay over on their sides which increases their tendency to branch out.  Branch after branch after branch.  The solar powered sugar factories suck up nutrients only to produce an over abundance of inedible green leaves.  Without pruning, a vigorous indeterminate tomato plant can flop all about your garden with as many as 10 stems, each 3 to 5 feet long.   It’s an impressive feat of frenetic growth, to be sure.  But come harvest it will be an unsightly, impenetrable, disease-wracked tangle.  I know–it happens in my garden all the time.

When we see the clippers coming many of us would rather grow, become fat, and lay on our sides all day in a tangled mess.  God will have none of it.  He’s after the sun kissed, fire truck red fruit, not the tangle of aimless branches.  Which is to say that God has an end in mind.  There is a focus to life when one abides in the vine and receives pruning.  A focus to life.  Did you hear that?  Did it sound good?  Are you laying on your side right now, sprawled out in one great horticultural embarrassment?  What if you were a branch with focus?  Would life be different?

Still, the idea of pruning is counter-intuitive.  We want this church bursting at the seams.  If you read the journals they say the key to church growth is parking, not pruning.  Folks wont react well to this talk of clippers and trimming down.  Walter Wink gets to the heart of our fear in an article he wrote for the Christian Century, “There are times when the words ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love’ do not come as unmitigated comfort. Look at how God loved Jesus! From baptism to crucifixion, Jesus kept abiding, and the Powers maintained their menace.  Did Jesus have to undergo pruning?  Is that what the Temptation was all about? And Gethsemane? And how much more we never hear about?”  Walter Wink knows our deep concern.  Facing the master’s clippers we wonder if plants cry out when they’re ripped limb from limb.  We cry out.  I know we do.

For some of you, however, this is a tired refrain.  God prunes us so we can produce more fruit.  Good for God.  Bad for me.  Sometimes well meaning, but ill-advised friends, might suggest that this is the source of all our suffering.  It is just God, they say, making a person out of you, trying to get a succulent tomato for the perfect sandwich.  I prefer the idea of Elaine V. Emeth.  When she thinks of the great cosmic gardener going about his business, she imagines God as a plant lover who grieves while watching a violent storm rip through his beautiful utopian creation. Afterward, the gardener tenderly prunes the injured plants in order to guarantee survival and to restore beauty and harmony.  Without the pruning, the whole garden would die.  The gardener takes up his clippers to bring order out of chaos, and because you were never meant to be pinkish and orange and boring as sawdust.  You were meant to be sun kissed and fire-truck red.  Pruning is not to be confused with the tragedies that overtake us; it has more to do with clearing away the debris they leave behind.

I wish it was that way with my garden and my quest for the perfect tomato.  My lack of tending leaves the whole plot a helpless and hapless jungle after its storm of neglect.  God is not like me, however.  He knows the secret tricks to plump fresh produce.  For us then it is a matter of faith.  Will we abide as he prunes us for the ideal season?  I hope so, because our maturity in the spirit and our works of mercy in the kingdom, and a couple slices of honey whole wheat bread make for a delicious meal a starving world can ne’er do without.

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