Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes
Did you know that in 1990 the winery industry in British Columbia had 1, 476 acres of vineyards. At the end of 2014, in just 25 years the production has grown to 10, 260 acres of vineyards. There are 252 licensed grape wine wineries in BC with just over 60 more other fruit wineries. There are five designated viticultural areas, obviously the Okanagan, as well as Similkameen and Faser valleys, Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. And then there are four emerging regions Shuswap, North Okanagan, Thompson Nicola and West Kootenays. There are over 80 grape varietals produced in this province with Pinot Gris being the top white variety and Merlot the top red variety. I know for some of you this is not appealing at all, and maybe a bit concerning, but I couldn’t help researching these statistics while studying the gospel passage. I discovered that this year is the 25th anniversary of VQA in British Columbia. Like CVPC it is a young industry compared to its counterparts around the world, that’s right I just compared our church to a winery, but despite its young age the wine industry is a booming in BC. It is a $225.9 million dollar enterprise.
But growing grapes is actually a fairly complicated and lengthy process. For the first couple of years, the vine should not be allowed to produce fruit as it needs to strengthen its root system before it can support the extra weight of fruit. Although this is never overtly referenced it seems to me to be a great metaphor for the church and perhaps those of you who have been a part of this congregation since the early days can remember what it was like setting roots down before attempting to grow outward. Pruning is also of the utmost importance to growing grapes. If a vine is not pruned not only will it run rampant but the canes will only produce fruit once. Most vineyard guides say to remove at least %90 of the previous season’s growth. It seems like a lot but I like this image as it refers to our journeys of faith. That we need to remind ourselves to take times where we cut back on our responsibilities and take time for spiritual growth. That we have moments in which we need to focus on being rooted so that we have the strength to carry the fruit. Of all the metaphors and parables that Jesus uses throughout the Gospels the image of the vine and and the vine grower is likely the one that remains most relevant to our context. We aren’t all shepherds or prodigal sons, we aren’t all tax collectors or Samaritans but all it takes is one short drive up Anderton or along the 19A to find a vineyard.
The allegory in John 15 proceeds in a straightforward way. Jesus is the vine, the Father the vine grower, and the community the branches. The vine grower lops off any branch that does not produce and prunes any branch that does. The image of a grape vine is an image that is borrowed and adapted from Old Testament imagery for Israel. Psalm 80 actually says, “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.” Referring to the exodus story for the early Hebrew people. In Isaiah 5 there is an entire song entitled, the Lament of the Unfruitful Vineyard in which the prophet warns, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” Isaiah in his capacity as a prophet is warning the people that they have broken covenant and one of the consequences of this break in the relationship is exile. When Jesus says, “I am the vine” he is stating that he is the new covenant, the new relationship between God and God’s people.
The synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, called as such because they have similar stories, also use the imagery of a vine and vineyard but it should be noted that those stories reflect violence and greed. Whereas John’s image focuses more on love, fruitfulness and relationship. In the synoptic parable the absentee landlord sends his son to the tenants, which is more appropriately translated as vine growers, these tenants had previously beaten and killed the earlier emissaries and the son is also killed. But in John’s version, God is the vine grower, who prunes the branches for abundant fruitfulness. John’s theme of light is also prevalent in this passage. Grapevines do need pruning; grapes need sun but not too much. So in this image the Father does that precision tending for the perfect balance of light and shade.
There is a major focus on fruitfulness throughout this passage. In these eight short verses the words “bear fruit” appears six times. Now, Jesus used this metaphor before there were all kinds of manipulations that could occur in growing grapes. I’m not up on wine-making history but I suspect, that in Jesus’ time there weren’t too many hybrid varietals, maybe not even all the grafting on stocks that happens today. Rather it was a simple process that happened truly organically. If the vine was true and the gardener good, if the pruning is done correctly and carefully then bearing fruit is not something that the branches do by force but rather something that the vine grower controls. Jesus goes on to say that the branches do, however, choose whether to abide or not.
The verb to abide, like bearing fruit, appears over and over, eight times in four verses in this section and it will come up again next week, as it often does in John. Like light, abiding is a major theme in this Gospel. It is how John speaks of love and how God’s love is known. The branches must abide because without the vine, they are fruitless; they can do nothing. Jesus as the vine motivates growth but it is God who ultimately sets the conditions.
So what happens when it seems our works are fruitless? The Rev. Dr. Meda Stamper, a New Testament scholar says, “If you want the fruit of this vine, this is where you get it, by abiding here. But just as there is no fruitfulness in not abiding, so there is no real future in focusing on those fruitless branches. In the first place, we’re all just branches ourselves, not vines, and certainly not in charge of the vine. We don’t even make ourselves fruitful. We cannot possibly discern what is happening with the rest of the vine. For all we know, what looks like removal is actually pruning for abundant fruitfulness. Whatever is going on with the other branches is in any case the work of the vine grower. Our sole responsibility to the rest of the branches is love. It is perhaps also worth keeping in mind that branches don’t live off their own fruit. The fruit is for someone else.” This feeds into our interpretation of love which the passage next week will focus on. What Stamper means is that in some ways, we can not compare ourselves to other branches, and we should not attempt to be something we’re not.
Stamper’s words and this passage has been particularly relevant to me this week as I chaired the commission to look into the dissolution of Knox, Port Alberni. Presbyterians have had the longest continuous presence in that valley of all the Western religious traditions and so it is extra hard to see this congregation come to a close. But as this congregation closes its doors there are new possibilities taking shape. Perhaps with the sale of the building there will be new funds available to do a mission or ministry there that has yet to bear fruit because it needs to grow new roots. Sometimes we don’t understand the pruning, sometimes we don’t understand why once fertile ground is all dried up but we are not the gardener. Perhaps it is just merely a crop rotation.
Jesus says, just as the branch is part of the vine and cannot live apart from the vine, so we abide in Jesus, the true vine. Note, this is not an individual piety but a community. We are the branches, not I am the branch. We can only bear fruit when we work together as branches and when we are extensions of the vine. Of course God wants us to produce fruit and to be drawn into a unified relationship between Father and Son. But just as God’s love and presence are gifts so too is God’s pruning. Amen