Jesus’ teachings are often centered around green and growing things. Sowers, soil and seeds; fig trees that need compost, and little more time; other fig trees that deserve to wither suddenly under a curse; giant, invasive, bird-sheltering mustard bushes; weeds that grow entangled with the wheat (argh those weeds!). Then there is today’s picture of what it looks like to abide: a grapevine. My garden includes several fruits—strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, apples—but I’ve never dealt with grapes. So I studied up a little bit. Browsing through images of vineyards, looking for the bulletin cover, I noticed some things. There is one main stem for each grape plant. That stem sends out the numerous curling branches and glossy, fan-like leaves which growers then support with long horizontal trellises. I observed that many of those stems look quite old; they are impressively thick, with gnarled layers of wood and bark. I began to wonder how long grape plants live.
In an article in Globe and Mail, Beppi Crosariol writes:
It’s a myth that all wines get better with time. . . . If there’s beauty in age where wine is concerned, I’d submit that you’re more likely to find it in old vines, not wines. [When grapevines are] Beyond 40 [years old], the accountants start breathing down your neck because there is dwindling return on your investment. . . . But exacting winemakers like to push limits (and their accountants). They know that old is gold, and the secret is in the plant’s metabolism. Young vines, though productive, deliver variable quality from year to year. When the sun shines, they explode with foliage, which can produce bitter grapes. When it rains, they bloat with water. You’ve got to prune like the dickens to curb vigour and encourage ripening. By contrast, old vines are constant, their reduced sap flows naturally yielding smaller berries with a higher ratio of solids to liquid. Deep roots are a big asset too. They tap moisture in drought conditions and guard against bloating when it pours from above. Old vines also tend to ripen earlier, a boon to growers in cooler climates, where falling autumn temperatures abbreviate the growing season. Bottom line: It’s a difference you can taste. Old-vine wines deliver textural richness and layered flavours that build rather than trail off after the up-front fruit fades away.
Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” “Abide” means: stay put. Remain where you are. Be fully present, deeply at home, loyally connected. Be like the branches that spring from an old vine. Draw life from deep roots that bring a steady flow of water and nutrients, no matter the conditions. Thrive in all kinds of weather, all seasons. Bear rich, complex, multi-layered fruits.
“Abide in me as I abide in you.”
Abiding is a mutual activity. It is God dwelling in us even as we dwell in God. Abiding is really hard. And it is the only thing that really matters. It is the way we receive the gift of life itself. I was reminded of that this just this morning …
Neither of our Sunday babysitters could make it today. So I was a little extra stressed, rushing to get Eliza and Alice out of the house and over to my spouse’s church, Hope Lutheran. We arrived there, and they were slow getting out of the car. I got a bit ornery with them. When I came back to the car, I saw what they had been up to. Just a little note scribbled on scrap paper, dropped into my seat. It had simple pen drawings of our family, and the words “Happy Mother’s Day.” I’m going to keep that note, and let it bring me back to what matters, which is abiding, which is being here now, fully present, deeply at home, loyally connected.
Abide. Abide. Abide.
It’s not easy to abide. We are constantly in the past, or the future, solving problems, making lists, rehashing arguments dreaming, worrying, coping with big emotions. In centering prayer, a practice I am working on, abiding is the only goal. As thoughts come up—words, bodily sensations, noises in the background, feelings—you let them go. Releasing all thoughts, and the sense of identity they construct, just for a time, is what enables us to abide in God. No attachments, no agenda, just an open mind and receptive heart.
“Abide in me as I abide in you.”
It sounds so inviting. But then Jesus gets provocative. He starts to talk about pruning. “God removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit God prunes to make it bear more fruit.” “Apart from me you can do nothing.” “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” These are difficult verses, I know. We hear a God of judgment and exclusion, a God who throws people away. And we want no part of this God.
In the Farmer’s Almanac, I read the following advice for getting grapevines off to a good start:
In the first couple of years, the vine should not be allowed to produce fruit. It needs to strengthen its root system before it can support the extra weight of fruit. Pruning is important. Not only would vines run rampant without control, but canes will only produce fruit once. Prune annually when vines are dormant, in March or April. This is before the buds start to swell, but when winter damage is apparent. Don’t be afraid to remove at least 90 percent of the previous season’s growth. This will ensure a higher quality product. Remember, the more you prune, the more grapes you will have.
The exclusionary tone of today’s passage likely arises out of the lived experience of John’s community, which was that of a minority group enduring severe persecution. Today, Christianity is wrestling instead with a legacy of cultural dominance. So in our context, we must read texts like this one carefully. That said, what I hear in the almanac’s grape-growing instructions is that pruning is good. It is never a destructive activity. It is, in fact, essential for the health and vitality of the whole vine; it is what allows for the plant to live a long and fruitful life. So, if, in the tending of vines, pruning is good, can we take a leap of faith and assume that the process Jesus is describing in his teaching is also good for us? It might help to read the text communally, to assume that these words are addressed to the church as a whole, not so much to isolated individuals.
Professor Osvaldo Vena says: “Only attachment to Jesus’ words, his message, the gospel, as understood in community, will ensure that the church produces fruits.” Our vine-grower God removes what is unproductive in our life together. God cleans up the unhealthy patterns of relationship that prevent us from being a vital, thriving community. God prompts us to wonder what we should stop doing. And to ask, of everything we are doing, how does this fulfill God’s desires, God’s purposes?
The vine does not live off the fruit that it produces. Its roots draw nutrients and water from soil. The sun bathes its leaves with energy. The vine has all that it needs; the grapes it offers as a gift to others. Similarly, when we, as a church, abide in the word and the way of Christ, then we bear fruit that feeds the world. First Church, our fruit is a culture of generous hospitality, made visible this week when the tables in Pilgrim Hall were crowded with students studying and whispering and munching on sandwiches. Our fruit is a series of small steps that we’ve taken recently that which have big potential: a survey about caregiving; a few meetings; a grant application; a vision dawning for a congregational care team that can build a network of concrete mutual support. Our fruit is a sense of restless unease with the way things are. Our fruit is the changed view of ourselves and the world that is born out of soul-searching conversations about white privilege. Our fruit is the way this changed view changes how we live our lives and engage in our ministries. These are just a few fruits I see this community bearing. We could name many more.
Friends in Christ,
Let us abide in the nourishment of the old, weathered vine.
Let us welcome the pruning of our Vine-Grower God.
Then we will bear the rich, complex, multi-layered fruits of wisdom and action, compassion and justice. Amen.