“I am the Vine, You are the Branches”
Variation in the Vineyard
Sermon delivered by The Reverend Joseph C. Alsay
71st Annual Convention
the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma
Text: St. John 15:1-11; II Corinthians 4:1-10
Recently, I have been taking some vacation time to engage in a little rest and recreation. As part of the R& R, I was encouraged by one of my mentors to visit some of the wineries that have emerged in our state within the past five years. I don’t know if you are aware of it, but in Oklahoma “where the wind comes sweeping down the plains,” not California’s Napa Valley, boasts some fifty-five wineries occupying some five hundred acres. Now, you don’t have to be a gardener to know that grapes, raisins and wine come from grape vine that’s the easy part. But, as one whose early in life was transplanted as it were from the dark and loamy soil of South side Chicago to the sometimes thick clay-like dirt of Oklahoma. This is in addition to the fact that I was raised in a household with a mother who was an elementary school teacher and with a father who was a National Baptist minister.
So, the concept of strong drink was relegated to Welch’s sparkling grape juice, and needless to say the inner workings of a vineyard were foreign to me. So to assuage my thirst -- for knowledge and to do adequate preparation for this sermon, I decided to hunt out some of these vineyards.
The vineyards I visited ranged from two acres to ten. Some were unkempt with old and straggly tendrils running every which way; while, others had neatly manicured vines and straight paths. It was at one of these off the beaten path yet lush vineyards that new vistas of God’s grace would be opened in front of my very eyes. As I looked at this vineyard with its twenty-four rows each stretching 500 ft. in length scattered over five acres, I was told that here some twenty-four tons of grapes would manifest themselves in over ten varieties of wine, ranging from Syrah and Merlot to Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc. It was then that I asked, “What does the vine grower have to do to produce a plentiful and healthy harvest?”
He reminded me that first and foremost gardening is like faith—it is never an armchair activity. It’s a full-time job with few who are willing to do it. Oh, it’s easy to pick the fruit, but the thinning, spraying and pruning is laborious beyond belief. One day you may have grapes on the vine, the next day grape berry moths may suck all of the juice from the fruit reducing your crop to a big box of “Sun Raisins.”
A vine grower must posses not only a knowledge of botany, horticulture and chemistry, but he or she must have the tenacity of nails and the patience of Job. Each day as you walk into your vineyard beginning at one end and working your way down the rows, you check and see that the two woody trunks of each and every vine are securely tied to the stakes. You ask yourself, “Are the branches which extend from the cordons three feet to the right and left of the plant in need of pruning?”
The dead branches growing downward that are sucking away the life-giving force of the vine must be pruned. The branches that are just not strong enough to hold the weight of the fruit must be cut, lest breakage occurs. The branches that just don’t seem able to hold up to the early appearance of heat or the dryness of the season must be sheared. And some vines must be grafted to another more viable variety to make them stronger with the hope for the new fruit that will come.
It does not seem like an easy job to be a vine grower. You have to know what a healthy vine looks like and when to prune. You can’t prune in the spring or summer because pruning causes bleeding and weakens the vine. If you make a mistake and prune too late you know there is no cure for the sap bleeding that occurs. “What do you think? Could you do this job?”
It was later as I reflected upon this vineyard with its unique and varied products, I wondered if two-hundred and twenty four years ago that bold and courageous worker in God’s vineyard named Samuel Seabury—whom we commemorate today as being the first Episcopal bishop ordained for our shores—looked upon the vast vineyard of these Americas and had the audacity of hope and the prophetic insight, to foresee the fledgling yet vivified vine of the Episcopal Church. A church producing in abundance 7095 parishes in various vineyards that have 2,154,572 branches attached to the “True Vine”?
Could Bishop Seabury have envisioned a day when an African-American Lutheran minister would be preaching at a Diocesan Convention with the installation of a Canon to the Ordinary who is a Cuban-Irish-American?
Well, if he couldn’t see it, God did, and for that we give praise and glory! My brothers and sisters, we see unfolding before our very eyes “Unity in Diversity” and “Variation in the Vineyard”. But you ask, “What might all this mean for understanding the Gospel today?”
Our gospel picks up on Jesus at a low point in his ministry but, before he goes to mount the gibbet of the Cross, he takes the time to paint a vivid picture upon the easel of eternity for those disciples then and us today. In this passage from John’s gospel the image of a vinedresser and vineyard is utilized to describe the interdependent or symbiotic relationship between God-the-vine dresser, Jesus-the-Vine and believers-as-branches.
In fact, throughout Jewish history the Hebrew Scriptures contain a plethora of images portraying Israel as the vine or vineyard in God’s good creation.
When that great Jewish historian, Josephus described Herod’s temple in his Antiquities of the Jews he said, “Under the crown work was spread out a golden vine, with its branches hanging down from a great height, the largeness and the workmanship of which were an astonishing sight to the spectators.”
So when Jesus picks up on this all too familiar image and describes himself as “a Vine”—“the true, reliable, sturdy and dependable Vine”—all ears perk up. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. … Abide in me as I abide in you. … If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
Good news! Comforting and encouraging words! Jesus is the vine and we are the branches – what a powerful model for the Christian life. It sets things straight as to how we are to be and what we are to do. But is that all? So often this seems to be the sense of this lesson, indeed of the entire Gospel message and of Jesus. But there’s more to it than that. If we stop with the comforting words, we miss the message. This passage also includes the message of pruning. That is the part we often don’t hear, but yet as I found out, the pruning is so very important to the well-being of the vine.
My friends, that’s the challenge which is set before us today. Indeed, that’s the challenge that lies ahead of Jose. My brother, there are choices to be made. It is difficult work. But, the end result promises that we are not all headed for gloom, doom, destruction and judgment, but a more fruitful mission and ministry in the world.
For I am persuaded that just as the Apostle Paul reminded those followers in Corinth as recorded in the Epistle just read to us, so we pass on to you “We preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake.”
Jose, faint not in proclaiming Jesus “the Vine” who one day was planted high on the rocky hill of Golgotha—so that we might have the love of God planted deeply in our hearts.
Jose, faint not in proclaiming Jesus “the Vine” who was tied to the wooden stake of the Cross and had his strong arms stretched to the left and right—so that his reach might embrace all of humanity.
Jose, faint not in proclaiming Jesus “the Vine” whose sinless body was crushed in the winepress of the world until his blood gushed forth like red wine—so that all might be saved.
Jose, faint not in proclaiming Jesus” the Vine” who took on our humanity so that we could have the sucker branches of our old sinful self which weighs us down pruned off—and in so doing have the promise of fruitfulness and the assurance that just as Jesus abides in us, we abide in Jesus.
Jose, faint not in proclaiming Jesus “the Vine” who though once was dead, now lives again and continues to nourish us—his dependant branches—with the life-giving sap of his body and blood.
For it is in your proclaiming “Jesus the Vine,” that you will help us all proclaim the glorious mercy and grace that we “treasure in earthen vessels.” Amen.