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Many thanks to Martha Bess DeWitt for preaching today!
21st Sunday after Pentecost
October 17, 2021
"Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…" John 15:5
Today's Bible Readings:
Isaiah 5:1-7 [NRSV]
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vine;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
5 And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
7 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!
John 15:1-12  [NIV]
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become[c] my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
In the verses we read together this morning from John’s gospel, Jesus and his disciples have gathered together for supper. He has very little time left with these men. So, after the meal, after Jesus has washed their feet and Judas has gone out of the room and into the darkness of night, Jesus speaks to them “as though,” theologian Frederick Buechner writes, “he is trying to say everything one more time and say it carefully and say it so they won’t forget it when he isn’t around to say it to them anymore.”1 He speaks words of comfort. He tells them not to be troubled. He tells them that he will not leave them alone, that the Holy Spirit will come to them to be their advocate and their guide; and then he says, “I am the true vine.”
I don’t know what your experience with vines is, but I grew up on a tiny farm in the southern Appalachian mountains of East Tennessee, and our vines were grapevines. But they were not the orderly vineyards we pass more and more frequently as more and more wineries spring up across America. They were wild grapevines of the woods. I thought they were so beautiful. And they were fun because these vines, as they wound, made graceful, dipping loops that created wonderful swings. My brother and I would search out the perfect loops and sit in them, loving the creaking sound they made all the way up into the trees as we made them move. They didn’t go high, like playground swings on chains. In fact sometimes they were so heavy they barely moved. They groaned with our weight and made it possible for us to pretend we were deep in a jungle. They were great for pretending. But if they were left to grow, they were a mess and a hazard. Left to grow, they developed large stems and wound themselves into the tallest trees, clinging to trunks and branches, damaging timber by breaking tops and limbs, twisting and bending the tree bole, shading the hardwood leaves, and adding unsupported crown mass that makes the tree susceptible to wind, and ice, and uprooting damage. They will eventually kill a tree. I remember my grandfather and my father going into the woods with their axes, chopping these wild vines just above the roots and leaving them to die. I do remember feeling sad. But, even though we thought they were fun, I knew they were a hazard even as a child, and I had trouble with Jesus when he said, I am the vine. I needed a new image. I needed a wider experience of grapevines.
Those disciples who sat listening to Jesus after they had shared a meal, after they had experienced his washing their feet, after he had said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” knew exactly what Jesus was talking about. Vineyards were their history. Throughout the Hebrew scripture, Israel is referred to as a vineyard or vine. We read that passage from Isaiah this morning in which God, the beloved, planted and tended a vineyard, expecting delicious red grapes. But that vineyard produced those wild grapes that had to be destroyed. That vineyard was a metaphor for God’s chosen people from whom God had expected good things. But when they became wild, ignoring God’s expectations of them, they were destroyed.
Jesus, talking to those closest to him, once more tried to explain the relationship between God and God’s people by using imagery that was familiar to them. Eric has helped us explore many of these great “I Am” passages. Over the past several weeks we heard Jesus say, “I am the Door,” “I am the Bread,” “I am the Truth,” and now, “I am the Vine.”
The vineyard Jesus describes is again a metaphor for the new community he hopes his followers will build. This vineyard, unlike the one Isaiah talked about, is orderly and produces much good fruit. This vineyard has a constant gardener who is God. God has planted and tended this vineyard, cutting the branches that don’t bear fruit, pruning the ones that do so that they can bear even more. Jesus, the true vine. God, the grower, and we are the branches bearing fruit. If this is a metaphor for the community of faithful people who follow Jesus, the church, then we are the branches. What does that actually mean? What are we supposed to DO if we are the branches?
The text offers two very helpful insights. Jesus says we are to abide in him. Seven times in this short passage he says “abide”. Eric shared with us last week that when Jesus says something we listen. When he says it twice, we know it is really important. Three times should stop us in our tracks! Seven times Jesus uses the word “abide.” The Greek root for “abide” carries a range of meanings— “staying in place,” “enduring,” holding out”. In his paraphrase of this text, The Message, Eugene Peterson uses the words, “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.’ The notion of making a home, of finding the heart’s true home in Jesus, brings a settled peace to the turmoil that often characterizes our lives.2  I am sure you have all heard the story that as the great ship, the Titanic, was sinking, those left onboard, including the band, played and sang the beautiful old hymn, Abide with Me.
“When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”
We have been offered a secure, trustworthy place to be…in Christ…securely attached, in life and in death, as branches of the vine that never dies. We abide in Christ through prayer, daily, active and contemplative prayer; through the study of God’s word, daily Bible reading but also coming together to share insights and listening with thoughtful minds to the Word proclaimed in worship; through bearing fruit together. We live in a culture in which the individual is valued over the community. “I did it my way” is something to brag about. In our culture my personal freedom has become more important than the well being of the community. No one who abides in Christ even considers going it alone. It is in the community, the fellowship of kindred souls, all bound to the one true vine that supports us, in good times and in bad, that we are reminded that we belong to God, together.
And what is our work as those who live, who abide, in Christ? Like those well-tended vines in the vineyard, we bear fruit. Six times in these brief verses Jesus uses these words. A key to bearing fruit is remaining attached to the true vine, abiding in Christ, but it also puts confidence in the work of the gardener who tends the vines. That gardener cuts away the dead branches that bear no fruit, tossing them into the burn pile. But the gardener also prunes the healthy vines so they can be even more productive. “In a vineyard, the best grapes are produced closest to the central vine. Understandably that is where the nutrients are most concentrated. Thus the lateral branches are not allowed to ramble all over the arbor. They are pruned and kept short.”3 The gardener prunes away those ideas such as, “What can I do? I am only one person, one tendril of the vine.” Or “We are only a small vine. There aren’t enough branches to make much difference.” The gardener prunes away the lure of the culture to “do it my way,” go out on our own, leave the vine and find another way to live that might be more exciting, more personally rewarding. The gardener prunes away remnants of our pioneer spirits that have been watered with the attitude of self-sufficiency. It is the gardener who reminds us that we belong to the vine and that we are stronger together. Together we bear more fruit, better fruit.
And what is the fruit that we bear? John answered that question very clearly in the final verse we read today. “…love one another as I have loved you.” (v. 12) Abide in one another, as I abide in you. Care for one another as I care for you. Feed one another, clothe one another, offer a home to the alien within our land, weep together, laugh together, shine the light of my love into the dark places of the world together. Use the variety of gifts I have given you as planted, tended, pruned, healthy vines to spread the good news of the gospel and to serve even the least of these, my children.
The great contemporary Scottish hymn writers, John Bell and Graham Maule, who are part of the Iona Community, composed a hymn called, “I Am the Vine.” I wish it were in our hymnal so we could sing it. But I close with their insight into this text.
I am the Vine and you are the branches,
Pruned and prepared for all to see;
Chosen to bear the fruit of heaven
If you remain and trust in me.
For on your own, what can you dare?
Left to yourself no sap you share:
Branches that serve their own desire
Find themselves broken as fuel for fire.
I am the Vine and you are the branches,
Pruned and prepared for all to see;
Chosen to bear the fruit of heaven
If you remain and trust in me.
1 Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), p. 92.
2 Blakely, Nancy. Article from Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Lectionary, Year B, Vol 2, p. 475.
3 Ibid. p. 474.
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