Vines and branches
A few years ago, I got myself organized well enough to get a photo on the cover of the bulletin. I wasn’t quite that organized this week. The earlier bulletin cover was a flower bed, in my neighborhood, which had been knocked down by a strong wind. Do any of you remember that? What some of you are sure to remember is that I went on-and-on in my sermon about this bed of “Day-lilies”, while at least a dozen gardeners and horticulture types were looking at the photo and thinking, “Who is going to tell Pastor Chris that these are NOT day lilies?” The photo was of Tiger Lilies; or I think Jean got even more specific and told me were Oriental Lilies.
It was a very helpful photo – the impact of which got lost in my lack of knowledge.
Never one to learn from my mistakes, I am going to try it again today. The lack of an actual photo support might be a draw-back; or it might allow (this time) my image to serve its purpose.
Also in my neighborhood, on the path taken when I go for walk, are four very well cared for and aged grape vines. They are in the yard of Joe Allen – he taught Chemistry at CU, and his wife established Allen’s Creations. Trent still runs that family business.
Joe does what you are supposed to do with grape vines – he prunes them. And when you prune as you ought, what you get is a very well established vine, and only a few runners which are following the wires of the trellis.
I always admire Joe’s little vineyard. When I realized I would be preaching on John 15, I took a little extra time to look at those vines, and to learn from them what Jesus is trying to say to us when he calls himself the vine, and his Father the vine-grower, and us the branches.
Have any of the rest of you kept up a vineyard? Or paid attention to one? Feel free to point out errors as I go along. But, do me the opposite favor and if anything I say matches your experience, you could offer an audible, “Yes,” or the more traditional church refrain of “Amen.”
So, back to Joe’s little vineyard and the reason that I wish I had photos. When Joe prunes, the vine looks pretty pitiful. It was only a few days or weeks earlier when the trellis is hidden by the leaves and fruit. There are sometimes birds hiding in there – big birds – eating their fill. On more than one occasion, a deer was there, unnoticed Laura’s dog startled and the deer ran away. The vine looks so huge. And then, Joe cuts all that away. And one would be inclined to ask, “Why?”
The answer is that leaves thick cover don’t produce fruit. Only strong and vigorous branches.
When Jesus says that the vine-grower is coming, with pruning shears in hand, I think about Joe’s grapevines. And as much as I hate to think of the removal of thick green leaves, I know that when God prunes it strengthens the harvest. It may look a bit weird or counter-productive to push aside and even discard what is pleasing to the eye and so easily mistaken for indications of a plenty. But this is what God does. The vine-grower knows the end toward which we need to move. And while the steps needed to get to that end might not seem good to us – they do, in the wisdom of the one who has carefully tended to the vine and the branches.
Sometimes the Church and its ministries become too attached to the leaves and the overgrowth. In too many instances, we shy away from the pruning which will make the next season’s harvest rich and lush and flavorful.
There may be times when the pain of pruning so overwhelms our senses that we fail to share in God’s celebration of the harvest which this pruning makes possible.
That’s the first thing I want to draw from this text for this congregation, today. We may see Farewell as painful – and it can be. But it is also a Godspeed. And Godspeed is what joins our gaze to that of our Father (the vine-grower) who is able to see how this separation allows the good news to move from one location to many, many others.
Here is the second thing I observed about Joe’s grape vines. And, I want to be careful. I realize that this observation may not sit well with a number of God’s precious children.
That vine, growing out of the ground, isn’t very straight. It is really crooked. And while few things ever grow perfectly straight, at least part of the reason a grape vine bends from side to side is because of the tugging of the branches. The branches, when they get going, pull mightily on the vine. And the force they exert does affect the vine.
As an image, not as some divine revelation, this encourages me to remember how responsive the vine (and the vine-grower) are to the efforts of the branches.
Jesus establishes his Church; and then he entrusts it Peter, and James, and John, and the rest of his followers. God and Jesus may never change, but the way they live in the midst of the Church does (possibly) change.
We waste too much time trying to return to an earlier mindset or construct of doctrinal affirmations. The ancient creeds of the Church will also be foundational and essential to our life as Christians. But, from the image of the vine and its branches draw the awareness that over the years and through the seasons what happens in the life of the branches exerts influence and bends the vine.
In preparing for next season’s growth, the vine-grower will take note if the vine is being pulled too far in one direction or another. And the pruning shears will address the problem.
Do not be afraid or shy away from the ways in which you, as a precious branch on the vine is tugging and pulling. Even when you realize that the vine is being moved.
Among the things most important for any preacher to communicate is the depth of God’s love for us and the assurance that God interacts with us. To be a person of faith is to live in the presence of God and to know that God is living among us. Branches are not dead, impassionate objects. They are living and growing and changing and producing.
The last image I would attempt to share with you from Joe’s vineyard, is how the vines and the branches have utterly destroyed the trellis. The power and strength of those little bitty branches have snapped 4X4’s in half. Joe has patched it up, with some new boards and stakes, but it is a losing battle. The vines and the branches are going to do what they are going to do. And the structure imposed by a mere mortal ain’t going to get in the way.
Keep that in mind. Like others, I have come to think that the Church is going through a time of transition every bit as significant as the one experienced in 1517ff. The vine, the branches are likely to crush more than a few of the structures so carefully crafted by decision makers and policy setters. That is okay. Don’t fret. Trust the vine and the vine-grower.
If you haven’t observed a vineyard, I hope you will find a chance to do so. The images of the bible drew on what people experienced in their daily lives. Our lives are so distanced from an agrarian culture it may be difficult for us to comprehend the image. That is one of the reasons why so many new writers are retelling the ancient stories in differing ways. Their images and style may surprise or shock us – shock us because we fail to realize how shocking the twists Jesus put on the agrarian were in the stories he told.
1. Don’t be afraid of the pruning
2. As a branch – tug with all your might in order to correct the previous misalignment of the vine
3. And when structures and institutions come crashing down – do not be afraid. The vine and the branches are much stronger than frames erected to hold them.