How many of you have ever seen grapevines growing in a vineyard?
Grapevines are beautiful to look at from a distance, as they stretch out in neat rows over rolling hills – whether in California’s Napa Valley or the Loire Valley in France. But if you get up close to mature vines, you see a gnarled, twisted, rough-barked trunk vines – hard-working, earthy vines that wear themselves out producing fruit. A grapevine, with proper care, can live and be fruitful for 50 to 100 years – kind of like a human being. But they can also be wiped out by a sudden disease or blight, cut off in the prime of their productive lives – also like human beings. They are both sturdy, and fragile – again, much like human beings.
Jesus said that he is the grapevine and his Father is the vinegrower. I was doing a bit of yardwork yesterday – happy to be out in the sunshine. As I was bent over with my trowel, digging a hole to plant a begonia outside our back door, I was quickly reminded that gardening is work – hard work – that doesn’t come easily to my back anymore. I also remembered that tending a garden requires patience. I always want to get through my yardwork as quickly as possible. I dig the minimal sized hole when I plant something, even though I know I should make it big, and loosen the soil around it. I’m not a patient man by nature, which may be why I’m not a very good gardener. I like to see results quickly.
But God is apparently a good gardener, and therefore I have to believe that God is patient. Grapevines require lots of patience. You don’t plant them one week and have grapes the next. It takes 3 years or so before a vine is strong and ready to produce fruit. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, “Pruning is important. Not only would vines run rampant without control, but canes will only produce fruit once. Prune annually when vines are dormant…. 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 graves you will have.”
In my life, I’ve found pruning is difficult, because it’s an emotional issue. Letting go of old books and papers – even ones we haven’t used in years – is hard. Giving away old clothes is a challenge. “Downsizing” is notoriously difficult for us acquisitive Americans, although most people who’ve done it say they are much happier afterwards.
And it’s not just our “stuff” that we have trouble pruning away. We also accumulate activities and commitments that wear us down. I see kids with activities every single day after school, and little time to just be, to play, to relax. And adults can do the same thing: program our lives so that we rarely just sit down and do nothing. We rarely just be, just think. Christianity has always promoted such time – meditation, contemplation, whatever you call it – even though it is considered “unproductive.” But actually it can be more fruitful than one more self-improvement course.
It’s true in the church too. Pruning is hard. The church is, by nature, a conservative institution. It conserves ancient writings, historical artifacts, and age-old rituals. It’s hard for us to change. And it’s hard to let go of something, even when it has ceased to bear much fruit. St. Dunstan’s kept its 8 a.m. communion service until only 2 people showed up. Why? Because we always had! We’ve tried to keep groups going when the interest has waned. We can hold more meetings than we need to, using up members’ free time. Pruning anything at church is difficult. Usually somebody will be disappointed if we stop doing something we’ve been doing for a long time. But if we can’t prune, we don’t have much energy available for doing new things – new projects and ministries that could bear much fruit.
In the end, it’s good to remember that we are just the branches of the grapevine, which is our Lord Jesus. We are only good and useful if we stay connected with him – if we abide in him. When we go off on our own, we lose the source of our lives, and we can bear no fruit.
And what about that fruit? Grapes are wonderful, and I certainly love wine. We use it as a symbol of life in the Eucharist. But the real fruit we are meant to bear is not grapes, it is love. That is the signature fruit of a Christian person, just as love is the signature quality of our God – so much so that scripture even tells us that God IS love. Love is the care and respect we give to our neighbors, to the good earth, and to ourselves. Love is the fruit of all our good works, works of mercy, of compassion, of friendship, of generosity. They all spring from love, and love springs from God.
Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. And God is the vinegrower. If we stay together, stay connected, we can bear so much fruit in the world – the good and godly fruit of love. AMEN.