Who here likes wine? White or red or both? Or maybe grape juice?
We are spoiled here in California, and especially in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some of the finest wines, not only in the country, but in the world, are grown here. Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley may be the most famous wine growing regions, but then there are other first class growing regions: the Livermore Valley, the Sacramento Delta, and Lodi in the Central Valley.
All these areas have what it takes to grow excellent wines: the right soils, a climate with hot summer days and cool nights, and access to water. Wine is a very thirsty plant. 99% of all grapes that grow in the U.S. are produced here in California.
Now there is a reason why California has not only a lot of grapes and wine, but also high quality wine. There is a secret to it. Can you guess what it is? We actually find the clue in today’s gospel lesson: it is constant pruning. There are about 325,000 people who work in the vineyards here in California, and one of the reasons why so many vineyard workers are needed is the fact that vines require constant care.
For those of you who are into gardening: what is the purpose of pruning? To get rid of wild, unsightly shoots, and to help the plant put all its energy into the parts that count – that may be blossoms or, in a fruit producing plant, the fruit.
And that’s not any different in a vineyard. I did a little research and actually gained more respect for winegrowers: when you plant a new vine, this vine will not bear quality fruit until about 3-5 years after planting. Yes, there may be fruit before that, but it will be pruned, cut off, and discarded – because the vine is not supposed to put its energy and resources into the sub-par fruit, but in its root system. A vine has to grow deep roots first before it can bear fruit of any quality.
Once a vine produces quality fruit, what do you think is the most important care it receives? You guessed it, pruning! During a growth cycle and until the harvest, a vine is pruned up to 20 times. You want to make sure that leaves don’t cover the grapes, which need the sunlight to ripen. But then, again, clusters of fruit are snipped off and discarded. Field workers pay close attention to the size and the quality of the grapes; the weaker ones sap energy and resources from the stronger, healthier clusters of grape; quantity is sacrificed for the sake of quality.
And why am I telling you all this? Well, I think it gives us a better understanding of today’s gospel lesson from John. Here, Jesus picks up on the image of the vine. I am the vine – you are the branches, he says.
There were plenty of cultivated vineyards around in Palestine in Jesus’ days – the soil and the climate in the Mediterranean are very similar to the soil and climate here in California – and wine was one of the staples of the Mediterranean diet – as it still is today. People in Jesus’ days knew about wine, and they also knew about the proper care of vine and branches, just like wine producers in California do today.
So let’s talk about growing in faith, fruit bearing and pruning. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus makes clear: we are connected as branches are to the vine. Jesus Christ is our source and our root. I don’t know about you, but to me, this is a comforting thought. I am connected to Christ, the life-giving and forgiving force. And because Christ is strong and life-giving, full of grace and love, you and I have the potential to channel this strength, life force, grace and love. It comes from Christ and flows through us.
And I am saying ‘us’ for a reason. There is never just one branch connected to the vine. No, there are many. It is not just about a personal relationship to our Lord and Savior. As people of faith and followers of Christ, we are called into community. Together, we bear fruit – and, as branches that are intertwined, help each other bear the load.
And about that fruit: we don’t even have to try hard to bring good fruit. If we only let Christ and Christ’s love abide in us, dwell in us, and flow through us, the fruit comes automatically. After all, the fruit depends on the strength of the vine – the branches play a role, of course, but a branch alone withers and dies. And the fruit can be different things: compassion, work for justice and peace, prayer, the sharing of time and money, the sharing of musical gifts and talents, among many other things. What all these things have in common is that they are expressions of love.
But now let’s talk about a maybe more uncomfortable subject: pruning. Of course we could just say, oh, Jesus is talking about the bad guys, those who don’t bring good fruit and will be cut off and thrown in the eternal fires of hell. But I don’t think that Jesus is letting us off the hook that easily.
I think Jesus knows very well that we as human beings tend to be distracted by many things and grow many a wild shoot in our lives – we tend to start many things that lead us nowhere, really. There is so much stuff in our lives, quite literally, – I mean, have you looked into your closets or your garage lately? – but then there are also all those activities and distractions that demand so much of our time and energy. Maybe some pruning would be helpful to direct more energy and resources to the fruit we bring – a fruit that is love and grace and care for our neighbor and all God has created?
But of course it’s not only about stuff and activities. What keeps us from bringing the fruit of love for our neighbor, the kind of love we heard about in today’s lesson from 1st John, the kind of love that comes so abundantly from Christ and flows through us, the kind of love that shows that Christ is in us and we are in Christ, the kind of love we share for the glory of God and the good of our neighbor?
We started a Bible study on the Holy Spirit just a couple of weeks ago, and during the last session, we were discussing how, over and over in the prophetic books of the Old Testament, the prophecy of the coming of God’s Spirit is connected with the vision of the peaceable kingdom of God. In short, God sends the Holy Spirit upon all people, and the world is restored to Paradise. This is what many of the prophets of the OT talk about.
But, as the participants in the group pointed out, even though the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples on Pentecost Day and has been given to all the baptized ever since, we are far from Paradise. The kingdom of peace remains a mere vision. How come?
That may have something to do with all those wild shoots we grow and put so much energy into and prune only reluctantly, if at all – like pride, gossip, anger, greed, resentment, envy, gloating, and arrogance. Now these are things that deserve being thrown into the fire to be obliterated for good. But, heck, we live in a day and age when all these things even are worn as badges of honor. No wonder the world is in its current state and God’s kingdom of peace seems unattainable. Too much energy is put into the things that keep us from bringing the fruit of love.
I hope we are open to learning a lesson from Christ – and the way wine is still grown today here in California and all over the world. Pruning is essential for good and healthy fruit. Does pruning hurt? Probably. Is there a chance we feel exposed and vulnerable when stuff and emotions are cut away from us? Certainly. But, as paradox as it may seem, the more vulnerable we are, and the more we rely on each other, the stronger we become as branches, connected to Christ, the vine, without whom we can do nothing and who provides us with more than we need – definitely enough to bring fruits of love, enough to share.
Photo by Nacho Dominguez Argenta on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German