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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.
The Bible is full of delightful and whimsical references to wine and grapes: After the great flood, when Noah departed the ark, he plants the first vineyard. When the two spies, Joshua and Caleb return from the Promised Land, they cut down a cluster of ripe grapes which was so large that the two men carried it between them, hanging from a staff. In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon praises the attributes of wine. In the New Testament, St. Paul recommends red wine to his young disciple Timothy for the sake of stomach, and of course, we read in St. John’ gospel that Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine. Yes, throughout scripture wine is a sign of God’s abundance and joy.
Those lessons, however, never taught in the Lutheran Sunday School of my youth. Instead, we were sheltered from such passages of vice. We could joke about grapes, such as, “What did the grape say when the elephant sat on it? Nothing. It just gave out a little whine.” Or “Why aren’t grapes ever lonely? Because they come in bunches.” But we good never talk about their positive attributes. On more than one occasion, our Sunday School Superintendent Marion Knutson, may she rest in peace, told us all that when she arrived in heaven, the first thing she was going to ask Jesus was why he turned water into wine.
Needless to say, she would have been equally shocked by Jesus’ words, “I am the vine, and my Father is the vine grower.” Perhaps, even more surprising is the knowledge that these were the words spoken on the same night he was betrayed in a portion of St. John’s gospel known as Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse.” They were the same teachings from the night in which he had washed the feet of his disciples, commanded them to love one another, led them through a final meal, and would walk with them to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he would later he would be arrested. By the time the sun found its way to mid-day, the next day Jesus would be on the cross crucified and dying. The disciples themselves would be buried in confusion and despair. So why would Jesus choose to use such an unusual and frivolous metaphor as a vine grower to portray God on such a painful night.
Truthfully, I don’t think that this passage has anything to do about wine at all, but I do believe it is all about the care, activity and nurture of God the vine grower who desires that you and I should be fruitful. That is what I would like to share with you this morning.
Living here in Minnesota, I can’t imagine that many of us have regular contact with a vine grower in our neighborhood or more specifically a vine dresser. But when I was a pastor in Bratislava, Slovakia, I had three close acquaintances who were vine dressers from whom. I learned a lot about St. John’s gospel from them. The first was a member of the congregation. His family vineyard was just outside the city. The second was the brother-in-law of a colleague in Austria, Their vineyard has been in the family’s ownership and care since the 16th century. And the third was the Lutheran bishop who Slovenia who proudly gave wine to the city of Wittenberg for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
The vine dresser or wine grower is actually the most important worker in the vineyard. This is the specialist involved in the daily pruning and cultivation of grapevines. As with any agricultural worker, vinedressers toil nearly year-round to help ensure the vineyard has a successful harvest. Having only grown up with Concord grapes for jam I didn’t understand the importance of the vine dresser. I once foolishly asked a vine dresser whether winter was the best time to take their vacation away, like Minnesota snow birds. The vine dress looked shocked. Winter was actually was the busiest time of the year.
Apparently for the vine dresser, winter is the time of quiet preparation for future growth and that means pruning. Surprisingly, pruning is the most important tasks of a vinedresser. Pruning removes dead, diseased or stunted fruits to make room for new growth, ultimately leading to a healthy and productive vine. In the winter, dormant stage of life, the wine grower will actually remove 80% of the old vine and branches to make for the new. Cutting away the old, he throws it to the ground for kindling to be burned. He cuts back the branches to the spot where buds can be seen, and then he chooses the most promising branches and ties them to the trellises for growth. The trellises themselves may need to be rebuilt to hold the growing branches and grapes. After the vines have been trimmed, they look more like stumps than vines, but the vine dresser knows the possibilities of the vine and branches. The vine dresser also knows that if he doesn’t prune the vine and branches, new growth will be stunted because the energy will be wasted on branches that will never produce fruit. It is not a once in a lifetime work. The vine dress does this every year.
Now it’s easy to read St. John’s passage on pruning, and cutting and burning as one of judgment. But having known vine dressers, 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.
Of course, 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 a 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.
It was a common phrase among pastors and youth workers in rural Minnesota. They would 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? The vine dresser alone knows the potential of the vine and branches. The most important question, however, 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, the true vine 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.
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 particular 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.”
My friends, Christ is the true vine and you are the branches. Do not be impatient. Abide in him, in his word and in his teaching, even in the dormant, winter time or pruning, when you are wondering whether there will ever be fruitful days again, or what God’s purpose is for you and your life, be assured that the best is yet to come. “Yes, in Jesus’ hands, every thing 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.