Vinedressers at work
Here is the sermon I preached this morning to fill in for our pastor who was on vacation:
Sermon – John 15:1-8 – “All We Have To Do Is Stay”
Today is the Fifth Sunday of Easter. The gospel text recommended by the Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday of this church year comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 15, verses 1-8, which is on page ___ in your pew Bibles. It’s a familiar passage – some people here will know it as the one about “the vine and the branches.” It’s one of Jesus’ seven “I AM” sayings in John’s gospel, which are the subject of the windows in this sanctuary, so we even have this text illustrated in stained glass in the window directly behind this (center left) section of the sanctuary …
The text is a surprising choice for the Easter season, though, maybe, because it is a little out of order in time. It is actually a speech that Jesus gives to his close disciples before Easter – in fact, on the evening of the last supper, so before everything that makes the Easter season the Easter season, before Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, death, … and then, as we know on the fifth Sunday of Easter, but as they did not, his resurrection. I stress all that because it seems important to keep in mind, this morning, that we know things that the first disciples did not, just as they knew things that we do not, and these different things that we know and they know may affect how we hear these words of Jesus to his would-be disciples.
So let’s listen for the Word of God to us in John 15:1-8:
(1) I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. (2) He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. (3) You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. (4) Abide 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. (5) I 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. (6) Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (7) If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you. (8) My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
[The Word of God for the people of God // thanks be to God.]
What do we understand in this lovely image Jesus uses, of the vine, and the branches, and the vinedresser?
Because one of the interesting things about human beings is that we are naturals when it comes to images, to metaphors – we “get” symbolic thinking, metaphors are literally what humans do. So when Jesus says he’s the vine, we know he doesn’t mean he’s got grape DNA, we know he means … something deeper, something spiritual … that the image of the vine represents and helps us visualize.
For instance, I expect we all assume that when Jesus says “my Father” he is talking about God. I admit, I didn’t even notice for a long time that Jesus never actually uses the word “God” in this speech, he only uses the word Father, because as soon as I hear Jesus say “my Father” I automatically translate it as “God,” and I suspect I’m not the only Christian Bible reader who does that. I am not even going to suggest that we shouldn’t do that, either, at least not this morning. In a different context, on a different Sunday morning, it would be worth talking about other excellent ways to think about God, other names we could use for God, and the reasons it’s a good idea to use those different names from time to time … but for now, I only bring this up because … I want to make sure that we are all on the same page when it comes to assuming Jesus is talking “God” when he says “my Father.”
That seems to be the general consensus of the experts who talk and think and write about this scripture.
The disciples probably knew this, too – or at least had an inkling of it. The other gospels tell us that Peter had already blurted out that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, one day when Jesus came right out and quizzed them on who they thought he was. John doesn’t tell that story, but does remember Jesus’ friend Martha as having worked out that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, back in chapter 11. So when Jesus starts talking about being the vine and his Father being the vinegrower, we are probably right there with the disciples in knowing that Jesus is not just talking about grapes, and whatever he means by it, it involves God.
But to really understand what he’s saying , it would definitely help to know something about vines …
because what a metaphor communicates depends a lot on what people know about the literal thing the person is talking about, so they can use something they know about to understand the intangible thing they know less about. It’s pretty important to be on the same page as the person using the metaphor.
The image of the vine and the branches and the vinedresser would have made immediate sense to those first disciples, since they lived in a place where vineyards were commonplace, they would have known all about the vinedressers who worked in them and the seasonal rhythms of their work, and their equipment, and all of that.
And with a few exceptions … because I know there are a few of us who do actually grow grapes, and are probably thinking about them right now … most of the people in this room know more about soybeans and corn, or tomatoes and zucchini, than we do about grapes.
I thought I could say I am one of the exceptions … because I admit, I was attracted to this text because it was about grape vines, and reminded me of my father and his brothers in California, because they grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of California and did a lot of work on vines, and it reminded me of growing up in California and taking trips with my dad to visit his family in Kingsburg, and seeing orchards and vineyards and passing the sign for Selma – raisin capital of the world, and listening to dad tell stories about pruning vines and turning trays for raisins and visiting my uncle George who worked for a vine and orchard grower, and my uncle Pete who used to work for SunMaid, and loading up the trunk of the car with fruit and feeling that we lived in a good and beautiful place.
… but honestly, when it comes right down to it, it was my dad who knew all about vines and grapes, I don’t know anything at all about growing grapes, or what it takes to take care of them, or branches, or any of that. So to try to get closer to the same page as the disciples, I turned to the internet … and I learned a new word, Viticulture, which is the science and art of growing grapes; a viticulturist, a vinedresser or vinegrower, is the practitioner of this science and art. It’s a highfalutin’ word, and it’s not the word Jesus used, Jesus used a homelier term that basically means “farmer” or “earth-worker,”
Anyway, what this crash course in viticulture taught me is that when Jesus mentioned the vinedresser, the disciples would probably have thought right away of someone who, at that time of the year – in the springtime, when the vines that had been pruned in the fall after the harvest are waking up from their dormancy – would be walking up and down the vinerows, pinching off many of the little shoots of the vines that are just starting to bud, to keep them from having too many leaves and not enough fruit. How much fruit is enough would depend on what the grapes were being grown for, because wine makers and raisin makers seem to have different ideals when it comes to fruit; someone growing table grapes that are going to be made into raisins, pretty clearly wants lots of fruit; but someone who’s going to make wine, may want a balance between quantity and quality, because fewer clusters of grapes make for more intense flavor and better wine down the road.
In other words, when Jesus says his Father – God – is the vinedresser or vinegrower, the disciples would have thought of someone very VERY active, and highly skilled, doing the work and actively making the decisions involved in tending this vine.
But mainly, what it has taught me is that there is A LOT to know about grapes, and that I know almost none of it, certainly not from personal experience, so I am really not on the same page as the first disciples at all.
We may not know much about grapes, but we do know something about plants. And I expect we can all agree that plants: don’t move around a lot.
OK … They do move sometimes – in 1861, for instance, a nobleman from Hungary, Agoston Haraszthy, who is known as the “Father of California Viticulture,” brought 100,000 wine grape cuttings from all over Europe to California. Several years later, an English immigrant named William Thompson, who had travelled west with his family in two wagons and set up a little farm a few miles from Yuba City, mail-ordered some cuttings from a New York nursery, including a variety called “Lady de Coverly,” which was supposed to have come from Constantinople. Unfortunately, after he had grafted these cuttings into his existing stock, two were destroyed by flooding and the third seemed to have been overpruned and didn’t produce any fruit, when it finally did produce it turned out to be almost miraculously perfect for making raisins, and now all the raisins we buy came from these Thompson seedless grapes. So plants can move … but not usually on their own.
So when Jesus tells the disciples to “abide” in him – that is, to remain in him, to stay in him, to live in him the way we live in Corydon or live in our homes – it seems a little redundant, because abiding, staying, is just what plants ordinarily do.
Staying is just business as usual for “the branches” – which is a good thing for them, since that’s what keeps the branches alive, is their connection to the vine, with its root system. As long as nothing catastrophic happens – like a hail storm, an earthquake, a plague of locusts – the branches are going to keep growing out of the vine they are growing out of. They don’t actually have to do anything out of the ordinary to keep doing that, to “abide”; they’d actually have to do something not to abide, they’d have to … to disconnect, to get separated. [Kind of like that song by Taylor Swift, for those of you who listen to pop radio – all they have to do is stay.]
So Jesus is telling the disciples – the branches – not to do something that, if they really were branches, they wouldn’t even think about doing, namely, getting detached from the vine.
Granted, if a branch did think of doing that, it would be a bad idea, since a branch needs to be connected to the vine, the source of its life, to stay alive. We don’t have to be viticulturists to see that.
And we don’t have to be theologians to understand what that means spiritually – that, just as the physical life of a branch comes from this connection to the main plant, the source of its life, the spiritual life of the disciples comes from their connection to Jesus, to the Christ, who is the source of their spiritual life.
But the disciples know their connection with Jesus is life-giving, and that they’re not thinking about ending it, I think we know they’re assuming will continue, tomorrow and the next day and the day after that …
But at that last supper Jesus knows, and we know, that tomorrow and next day and the day after that is not going to be business as usual; it is going to feel like a catastrophe, like a hail storm or an earthquake … the disciples could know this, too, because Jesus has told them bunches of times, but they don’t seem to have gotten that message.
And when it comes right down to it, people are not really that much like plants, unlike plants, people do get ideas, people do make decisions, people do take action and leap to conclusions, etc. When things don’t go as expected, people do think they might have made a big mistake, do wonder whether they just wasted the last three years of their lives following after a Messiah who ended up being crucified by the Romans and looking like an abject failure …
– so upon reflection it makes a whole lot of sense that on this night of the last supper Jesus would keep talking about “abiding,” would try to give these disciples a vision of themselves as branches of a life-giving vine, as having a kind of life that is integrally connected to and sustained by his remarkable life, and constantly in a position to flourish … a vision that can support the confidence to continue to trust Jesus through the thing that is about to happen that will shake their faith in him so much … trying to get them to understand that, the way a branch has a living connection to a vine, so whatever happens they do have a live connection to Christ … they’ll need to understand it as something that’s real, here, now, not as something that’s over and done with, that’s lost
Considering what’s about to happen, it makes a whole lot of sense that Jesus would give them this vision of a vine … rooted in eternity, if you will, in an eternal kind of vineyard, where “my Father is the vinedresser” … a good and beautiful place where all they have to do to experience this flourishing life is stay – stay faithful to Jesus, stay true to his message of the Kingdom of God, stay committed to his way of presenting God’s way as the day to day practice of love in the service of the neighbor as oneself.
All they have to do is stay.
And because they are not plants, but people, they don’t do that all that well … spoiler alert … later in the gospel Jesus has to show up, after the resurrection, and call them back into his service.
And I expect that the reason the RCL has this flashback on the fifth Sunday of Easter is that we don’t always “stay” very well either – we get antsy, we want some action, we get to thinking about what kind of fruit we ought to be producing, what we think would look good on us, what kind of pruning or training we ought to be getting, we get to worrying about what we need to be doing …
But in this eternal kind of vineyard, who is doing all of the work? The One Jesus calls Father. Who is making all of the decisions, about branches that have good fruit potential, and whether to go for quantity or quality and be thinking about wine or table grapes? The One Jesus calls Father. Who is the practitioner of the science and the art of growing grapes? Who is the viticulturist or the earth-worker here? The One Jesus calls Father. And we know very well – I think we established that a long time ago – that Jesus is talking about God here. Jesus does not tell the disciples to do God’s job. Jesus tells them – and us – to think like plants, in a good and beautiful place, and just live in it. And trust that God is actively taking care of the skilled labor part of this enterprise.
Now, I hope before all us “Martha” types get lost in the mental objections and the “yes, buts …” – we all know that we are not really plants, we are people, and because we are people, we do need to do things.
In a really important way, what we do when we “abide in Christ” looks rather commonplace, looks a lot like ordinary daily life.
And I think an example, literally, would be something like the salad luncheon that just happened on Friday … which is, when we come to think of it, part of the ongoing life of our community – also of our church – also of a number of families and individuals in this church – it comes around … it is part of what we do – we cook, we learn and try new things and repeat wonderful traditional things – we invite people in, we prepare for doing that, sometimes that is a LOT of work, as some people know very well and all of us are aware – we plan, we prepare, we contribute, we get together, we coordinate, we sign up, we show up, we bring, we dish, we tend, we eat, we tidy up, we mop, we put away, we share ourselves and our skills and our friendship and our welcome, we create an event that gives people an opportunity to renew old acquaintances and live as part of a community – friends, that is exactly what it means to abide … that is exactly what it means to live here … and when we show up on a Sunday morning; and when we go to our local grocery store and do Shop a Lot and take the groceries over to HCCS which is where Kym works and Sam works and people volunteer, that is exactly what it means to live here … to abide in Christ … and when we read Scripture and think about it and struggle to apply it to our lives; and when we choose to say something kind rather than something critical about someone we barely know; all of that is exactly what it means to abide – to dwell – to reside – to live here, in the Body of Christ, as Christ abides in us.
Sometimes “abiding” – staying in Christ – even means, humanly speaking, moving – into a new house, or a new job, or a new state, because we can tell that’s where our lives seem to be … budding and getting ready to blossom.
Maybe the page Jesus wants us to be on is the one that has a picture of a vineyard, like the kind we would see as we come up over the mountains of the coast range on the way to Morrow Bay, or as we would see if we stood on a hilltop in Galilee, stretching out across the hillside and the valley just yonder, rows of leafy vines neatly arranged, and spreading out their leaves … they are really a thing of beauty … a glorious, beautiful sight … a work of art, and also of science, of wisdom … looking at a vineyard like that we can sense the skilled hand of an artist and an immense work behind it …
The One Jesus calls Father is the vinegrower, the one who knows how to plant and tend a vineyard, from earth into a work of art …
The one who made the nature that makes what the vine and the branches do just what they naturally do …
Jesus, the Christ, is the vine, the source of new life, of real life.
We have the easy part. We’re the branches, the extension and expression of that glorious life.
All we have to do is be part of it. All we have to do is stay.