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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Twenty-five years ago when I was doing my pastoral internship at Mount Olive Lutheran Church, people joked about a sermon that I had titled, “The Vicar’s Advice for Good Christian Growth.” It was a thoughtful meditation based on the Parable of the Sower and the Seed, and on the proper balance of sun and rain, and humus needed for the maturing of the seed planted in the earth. It was intended to be a two part sermon, unfortunately I wasn’t scheduled to preach the following Sunday, so some twenty years later when I was invited to preach again at Mount Olive, I used the opportunity to complete the second half of the sermon, now titled, “The Reverend Doctor’s Sound Pastoral Advice for the Use of Weed and Feed,” or simply said, “Let it Be- The Last Roundup.” Today’s sermon has a bit of that dirt under the fingernails whimsy. I am calling it, “Sun Ripe Grapes and Prunes” or “Abide With Me, the Secret to Grape Growing in Minnesota.”
Grapes and vines have always been an integral part of our teaching and culture. Since the time of Aesop’s Fairy Tales, children have been taught the story of the Fox and the Grapes. One afternoon a fox was walking through the forest and spotted a bunch of grapes hanging from over a lofty branch. “Just the thing to quench my thirst,” he thought. Taking a few steps back, the fox jumped and just missed the hanging grapes. Again the fox took a few paces back and tried to reach them but still failed. Finally, giving up, the fox turned up his nose and said, “They’re probably sour anyway,” and proceeded to walk away. The moral of the story is simple, and every child remembers it well, “It’s easy to despise what you cannot have.”
Grape vines have a nobility and permanence that is easy to embrace. And of course, they can do produce fruit for generations. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the oldest grape producing vine is found in Maribor, Slovenia. The vine is over 400 years old. Today the wine from the grapes is sold as souvenirs and gifts. A slightly younger vine, found in England, has reached the sprightly age of 240 years. It is 120 feet long and 4 feet around at the base. The vine is located in the Hampton Court Palace Gardens. It takes the vine keeper three weeks to harvest the 500 to 700 bunches of grapes that weigh between 500 to 700 pounds. Although the grapes were once used for the royal household, today they are sold to palace visitors.
It should be no surprise then, that Jesus himself, a teacher in the ancient world would compare himself to a vine. After all, if he could call himself the light of the world, the way the truth, and the life, and the Good Shepherd, he could certainly find a way of using yet another metaphor to explain himself to his disciples. In Jewish mysticism, there were many references to grapes. Some believe that it was actually a grape, and not an apple that Eve ate in the Garden of Eden. The first fruit that Noah planted after the flood was the vine. Later, Moses sent a dozen spies into Canaan, and they came back holding a cluster of grapes so huge that it took two men to lift it. Grapes were always associated with bounty and abundance. But there is something unique and different about Jesus’ use of the metaphor vine and branches. It is not simply about the wonder and majesty of God’s creation, but it is about the relationship of the disciples to their master. Jesus teaches them that they are dependent upon one another. Yes, they are intimately and organically woven together to their master- even the good folks here at Lake of the Isles.
That should come as good news for you and for me. You see, according the University of Minnesota Extension Service, grapes can grow in almost any part of Minnesota- if varieties adapted to our cold, dry winters and short growing season are chosen. Mind you, I am not an expert in horticulture or specifically viticulture, but that tells me that branches connected to the vine, can be fruitful wherever they are planted- even in the land of God’s frozen people. Not all grapes, however, need to be used for the finest wines. There are many other uses as well.
The Extension Service begins by offering sage advice on planting. “Grapes need full sunlight and high temperatures to ripen, so plant on southern slopes, the south side of windbreaks, or the south sides of buildings.” Grapevines need sunlight, and the fruit needs to be “sun ripe.’ As a Christian community, we need to be “Son Ripe” as well. We need to focus on God’s son Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, it is easy to be distracted. We busy ourselves with activities- even in the church. We often lose sight of what is truly essential for life and faith. I often joke that more church members are lost to the color of the carpeting in the lounge or the mislabeled recipe in the church cook book, than to bad preaching. We get caught up in taste and personal preference. Worship can be perceived as nothing more than feelings. To be “son ripe,” we need to meditate on God’s word, to listen to him in prayer, and to enjoy his goodness at the Lord’s Supper. Jesus tells us that we must abide in him. Abide is a wonderful word. It simply means that we are to rest in him, and to find solace and strength in him in his teaching and in his word. Yes, we become “sun ripe” by abiding in God’s son light.
It is interesting that Jesus would call himself the true vine. He obviously knew something about horticulture- not bad for a carpenter’s son. According to University Extension Service, “although vines often are allowed to grow at random, sprawling over the ground during the first season, it’s best to train the stronger of the two canes that develop from the plant to a strong stake.” It takes a discerning vinedresser to know the stronger true vine. The other vines or stringers will never produce fruit, but they will take all the plant’s energy. Good growth in faith, like cultivating grapes, must be trained to the true vine.
Let us turn now to the grapes. The University Extension Services provides a list of 24 different varieties of grapes that will grow in Minnesota based on their winter hardiness. They have clever names such as Edelweiss and Swensons Red and St. Pepin. The grapes vary in classification from Tender needing protection in winter, to Very Hearty, needing no protection at all. Frankly, that seems to match the composition of our own congregation. There are some members who thrive on their own, and others who need steady care. There is nothing lesser or greater about these members. They all produce good grapes. They are just different.
It is a common phrase among pastors and youth workers in rural Minnesota. They invite their followers to bloom and thrive where they’re planted. You and I could learn something from these men and women. We are often so caught up in what we believe we need and want, that we overlook where we have been planted and what we have been created to be. In those moments when you feel that your faith is struggling, it would be good to ask yourself a few practical questions. How clear am I about my purpose, why I’m here? Am I in the right and best place for me to bring my gifts? Are the people around me the best people to support my purpose? Do the structures around me allow me to thrive? Is there anything that needs to shift, begin or end? Am I being fruitful? Different varieties of grapes thrive in Minnesota, but they need do need varying degrees of attention.
The most important question is simply: Am I truly connected to the vine? It’s an interesting phenomena, but the wooden vine itself doesn’t produce fruit. The branches connected to the vine produce this fruit. In this way, Jesus is actually placing the joy and wonder of the harvest on the work of the disciples. You are the branches and you produce the fruit. Yes, you make all the difference.
Now, what about the prunes? According to the Extension Service pruning is essential to growing grapes. “When pruning, keep in mind that fruit is produced on the current season’s growth, that in turn grows from last season’s wood. Heavy pruning provides the best fruit. Light pruning result in large yields of poor-quality fruit.”
It’s easy to read St. John’s passage on pruning, and cutting and burning as one of judgment. But I believe the passage is actually one of promise. Jesus said these words to his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. He knew what was going to happen to him and to his disciples. They would be cut down by his crucifixion, but he was assuring them that would not be a senseless purging and cutting. It would allow them to thrive and even flourish. They would be cast out from the community and driven from the synagogue, but they would survive. Pruning was not a punishment for failing God, but it was intended to foster a more abundant fruitful life.
We all experience moments of “pruning” that challenge our ways and beliefs. Perhaps it feels like you’re being cut down by life’s tragedies great or small, or being cut down by disappointment and despair, or being cut down by circumstances beyond your control and you feel you have been left to wither and die. And yet there is promise in Jesus’ word, “If you abide in me, I will abide in you.” It is Jesus’ promise to you, that no matter what happens, God will bring all things to a good end. That is not to say, that everything happens for a reason. Rather, it is Jesus’ promise that no matter what happens, God will work all things for good, for those who abide in him.
There is a wonderful line spoken by the young Indian hotel owner in the movie the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ” that is worth repeating. Life was not falling into place for a senior guest as she had hoped, and so the young owner said innocently and prophetically, “Everything will be all right in the end… if it’s not all right then it’s not yet the end.” Interestingly that is true of grapes in Minnesota as well. The Extension Services writes about harvesting: “Grapes change color long before they are fully mature, so if berry color alone is used as a guide. It’s possible to pick the clusters before they have reached their peak in flavor, size, and sweetness. For the best fruit, taste the grapes first to see if they are ripe. If they aren’t, wait for optimum quality to develop.”
My friends, Christ is the true vine and you are the branches. Do not be impatient, or dismiss the fruit of life as the fox in Aesop’s Fable as merely sour grape. Abide in him, in his word and in his teaching, even in the time or pruning, and be assured that the best is yet to come. “Yes, in Jesus’ hands, everything will be all right in the end… and if it’s not all right then it’s not yet the end.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep you hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.