Sunday, May 10, 2009

Easter 5B

Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-40; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.  Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit... I am the vine, you are the branches.”

I know that many things are grown in the rich soil of the Mississippi Delta... Are vines planted here?  In and around Jackson, the only vines or other creeping plants I see are certain ivies and roses and honeysuckles, phlox and other groundcovers, and the one that grows in our yard, wisteria.  I’ve never seen grapes or even wild muscadines growing, but of course in and around Jerusalem, at the time of Jesus, vineyards were as ubiquitous as roadside kudzu is here.  

I am the true vine, my Father is the vinegrower, you are the branches... It might easily have been that as Jesus was searching for ways to explain the intimate and life-giving relationship between God and himself and us, that he was looking out the window of the house where he was eating dinner with his friends and saw a vineyard.  It’s like that, he might have said thoughtfully, his eyes searching row upon row of dark curling tendrils and green leaves and ripe clusters of fruit.  Look there, it’s like that.  I am the vine, my Father is the vinegrower, you are the branches.

And as they, too, looked out the window, they would have considered all that they knew and had heard about growing grapes.  How the vine, rooted deep in the earth, becomes lost in the twining of its branches.  How the vinegrower, rooted deep in the knowledge of the art of bearing fruit, tends the vines, carefully pruning back branches in order to make room for tender new growth.

It’s like that, Jesus might have said, turning back to his disciples around the table.  You have already been pruned, already been cleansed, by the word that I have spoken to you - the word of God, who loves you and tends you carefully like a shepherd, carefully like a vinegrower.  I am the vine, you are the branches...

I am the shepherd, you are the sheep, we heard Jesus say last week, as perhaps he gazed across a broad field where lambs grazed on sweet grass.  It was then as commonplace a sight as a vineyard, and those who were with him would have immediately understood something of the relationship between themselves and Jesus because they understood about the relationship between sheep and a shepherd.  How the shepherd protects the sheep from danger and leads the sheep to good pasture.  How the shepherd knows and cares for all the sheep in the flock, and how the sheep know and trust the shepherd’s voice.

There aren’t many shepherds in our part of the world, but somehow the image still resonates all these years and miles away from the pastures Jesus knew.  We’ve seen enough pastoral paintings of shepherds and sheep, we’ve held little figurines of a shepherd with a lamb draped over his shoulders - my son even has a little stuffed sheep with a music box inside that plays “Jesus loves me, this I know...”  I am the Good Shepherd, Jesus says, and we are grateful that we are his sheep.    

Are we as grateful to be branches?  I am the vine, you are the...kudzu?  It sounds, at first, anyway, so much less personal, so much less intimate than a shepherd tending his sheep.  Surely shearing is, for the sheep that trusts its shepherd, a much less painful process than pruning is for a vine.  And being a sheep sounds like much less work than being a branch; sheep are simply led from pasture to stream to shelter, but branches have to weather storms in the wide open, they have to endure heat and drought, they have to grow, and they have to bear fruit.  We might much rather be sheep, quietly munching on grass and humming “Yes, Jesus loves me” as he gently prods us on.  

But if we look out the window, with Jesus, at vineyards stretching far as the eye can see, if we muster all that we know about vines and branches and fruitfulness, then perhaps we will find ourselves closer still to the one who promises not only to hold us as a shepherd holds a sheep but to be as united to us as branches to a vine so that his life truly abides in us and we in him.

If Jesus were sitting at the dinner table at my house and he looked out the window he would see not grapes but that wisteria that grows along the fence in our backyard.  It must have started in a corner and slowly spread across the back, now a wild wall of green and red and purple when it is in bloom in the early spring.  I wanted to encourage it, and so the first year we were in our house, I didn’t prune it at all but rather threaded the new shoots through the fence to encourage its growth in the direction of the opposite corner.  I tried to trace the long curling branches back to their source, but in the thick growth couldn’t see where the branches were joined.  This spring, as the leaves sprouted and the buds bloomed, I noticed that the vine had indeed been encouraged to grow, especially since I had never discouraged it with a pair of pruning shears, and in fact was so large and heavy with branches it was sagging to the ground.  In fact, the branches were now spreading across the ground in all directions in a biblical effort to, as the psalmist says, reach all the ends of the earth and all the families of the nations


I am the vine, you are the branches.  What an intricate and intimate relationship we have with Jesus, so wound together with one another and so bound to him that it is nearly impossible to tell where the vine ends and the branches begin.  Rooted in the ancient loam of God’s love, the vine began growing in a corner of the world and slowly spread among those who were hungry for its fruit.  Some feared its growth, though, and violently cut it down to a lifeless stump.  

They weren’t vinegrowers, I guess.  They didn’t know what life would burst forth when the first Easter morning dawned three days later.  They didn’t know that not only would life return but that it would increase as the vine put forth branches infused with the same ability to reach out into the world and feed it and fill it with flowers and flourish.  As long as the branches remain on the vine, Jesus tells us, the life of the vine remains in the branches, and together they bear fruit, which is to say, love.  The branches don’t do it alone - indeed, as the writer of First John reminds us, God sent God’s only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, in this is fruitfulness, not that we loved God but that God loved us.

I’m not much of a vinegrower, either, but for a different reason, I think.  I haven’t cut my wisteria vine back to its stump (I don’t know where the stump is, for one thing).  I haven’t pruned it at all.  And it’s suffering, and taking the rest of the yard with it.  The branches are getting thin, and the ones growing along the ground don’t flower.

So it is with us.  Especially as we measure ourselves by the successes we have achieved, as we measure worth by what we have accomplished, as we measure growth by the ground we are able to cover.  We stretch so far from the vine that very little of its life-force reaches us.  We find ourselves competing for survival with other things growing all around us, choked by weeds and brambles.  It is time to prune, but for fear of losing all that we have gained, we cut away cautiously, careful to remove just enough so that we can take on something else in its place and claim that thing as fruit. 

Another pastor tells the story of watching out his office window as an elderly parishioner tended to the church garden.  The gentleman took his shears to a large bush that had been dense with flowers all summer and pruned it nearly to the ground.  The pastor came outside and asked why this had to be done, and the parishioner replied, “It drives the life back into the roots.  If you don’t cut it back, all the life comes out and it will die.”

I am the vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.  Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.  Instead of looking out a window, today Jesus is looking in at our lives and inviting us to see those places where we are stretched too far from the vine, where we are choked by weeds and brambles, where fruit has ceased to grow.  Jesus asks us also to consider that the places in us that do bear fruit may need pruning as well, in order to force life down deep inside ourselves and make room for new growth, new life, new love.

I am the vine, you are the branches.  We do not bear fruit alone.  The vine is the source of our life, the vinegrower carefully tends our growth, and together we branches reach out into the world, curling and twisting in our own ways and yet we are intertwined.  Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God.  If we love one another, God lives in us and flows through us, as the life of a vine flows through its branches, and God’s fruit, God’s love, is perfected in us for a world that is hungry.  Amen.

1 comment:

Julie Nolte Owen said...

beautiful words and photos