Saturday, March 21, 2015

Vines...

"I am the true vine, you are the branches..." These are the words of Jesus from John 15, and one of the "I Am" statements of Jesus which we are exploring during the Lenten season at St. Paul's UMC in 2015. Vines and branches...what do I really know about them? Hmmm.

When I was a kid, our family moved into a new house. The former owners had a grape arbor in the back yard, and I remember it looking like a straggly vine hunched over a wooden lattice, with a few green leaves but bunches and bunches of grapes. The former occupants made wine from the grapes. The Sterlings were not wine people at that time, and even if we were, we had no interest in nor expertise about making wine. Since these grapes were "wine grapes," they didn't taste great right off of the vine. My dad apparently thought the same thing about the sad looking vines as I did, and the next growing season, he applied some of the "horse sense" gardening which he knew, and the vines perked up, the branches multiplied, and verdant leaves just covered the trellis. But no grapes. Common sense said that if the plant was healthy, there would be fruit. Didn't happen. Maybe this is why Jesus used this illustration.

Apparently--and believe me, I'm STILL no expert about viticulture--when you are trying to create a large yield of grapes from a vine, you need to know things like: What kind of soil does this particular variety of grape grow best in? What and when do you prune? (And I think you really have to do a LOT of pruning!) How do you "train" the vines to handle the burden of the fruit? There are more questions than these, but these are some of the most important ones.

When you do the right things to culture the grape vines, you get the large, "straggly" brown vines, far less leaves, and bunches and bunches of lush grapes. If you do the "horse sense" stuff, all of the energy of the plant goes into creating leaves and branches--no fruit. Now, if we pull this dangerous little bit of viticultural knowledge back into the spiritual illustration that Jesus intended, what can we learn?

Jesus is the true vine. The vine will always be central to getting nourishment into the buds, which become fruit. The branches are the conduits through which the "power" flows to the buds and eventually the grapes. Branches need to be pruned so their aren't more than the vine needs to produce the fruit. If WE are the branches, we should understand this principle of being conduits of what the vine provides. You don't grow grape fines to produce perfect-looking and multitudinous branches. It seems that many of our "church growth" strategies are aimed at doing just this. Instead, Mr. Wesley believed in accountability, hard work, sacrifice, whatever it took to take God's grace and redemptive love from the vine to the "fruit," which were the people we aim to reach and help. This vine/branch metaphor is about mission and outreach, not nurture for the "church people." In fact, the text says that we--"the branches"--will be pruned if we don't make fruit. Hmmm.

Productive "branches" (Christian disciples) in our United Methodist tradition do their best to fulfill the membership vows to support the ministry of our churches with "our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness." If we purpose to do these things, the rich nutrients flow from the vine THROUGH the branches, and fruit is produced--others' lives are touched with the message of the Gospel and their needs are met. They might even become branches of the True Vine!

Are too many of our churches putting all of their energies into the branches? Are too many of us "branches" wanting all of the attention of our church? Wanting to be what people see when they look toward our proverbial grape vine? Or are we willing to become conduits of the "good stuff" the True Vine has for the world? For our neighbors? Our enemies? Challenging questions aren't they? Hmmm.

As we near Holy Week and Eastertide, it's time to review our priorities, make sure our spiritual connection to the True Vine is up and running, and be ready to produce fruit for the Vinedresser. Oh, and we church leaders have the responsibility to build the support network to uphold and support the branches while they do their duty, and make sure that it is strong enough to support the burgeoning fruit that will result if the Vine's nourishment gets to its ultimate destination!

Jesus said: "I am the True Vine, you are the branches..." Them's marching orders, not a statement of comfort, Dear Ones. Shalom!

What's Next?

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