Little Johnny was getting ready for his first day of school and was a little bit nervous. Of course his parents were nervous too – their little boy, all grown up.
Johnny’s mother and father both went to pick him up at school, eager to find out how his first day of school was.
“So Johnny, how was your first day of school?” his father asked. “What did you learn?”
Johnny responded. “Not enough. Because apparently I have to go back tomorrow!”
Let’s talk wine! As many of you know, I’ve started making my own wine. As some of you know… it ain’t all bad. Now, I don’t do the Lucille Ball thing of stomping out my own grape juice, that part is already prepared, but I do mix in the yeast, oak chips, and other vintner secret ingredients. It’s just fun to take the time putting it all together, watching it ferment and then waiting to see how things work out. There is a good bit of science behind the making of the wine, but there is also a good bit of science in growing the grape.
Here’s a bit of trivia for you (and it really depends on the region, type, etc. and who you ask), but how many average size grapes does it take to make a glass of wine? Answer: 75-100, which is about the number of grapes on each cluster of grapes on a vine. Given that each vine produces about 40 clusters means that a single vine can produce about 10 bottles of wine, which tells us that a lot goes into producing all the wine that is consumed worldwide on an annual basis. How much wine would that be? About 40 billion bottles a year. Given that there are only 7.8 billion people on the planet tells me that some of you are doing more than your fair share of consumption! It takes a lot of land, people and other resources in order to keep up with such demand, and a great deal of care must be given to the vine: acidity of soil, amount of moisture, sunlight, etc. Growing takes the longest amount of time, but second to that and perhaps the most labor intensive part is the pruning of the vine, which must be done each year for optimal production and flavorful grape.
There are many different parts of the actual vine, but it is only the branches that are one year old that produce grapes, so if not properly pruned, the vine just gets bigger, but produces little to no fruit. As it is a vine, it will continue to grow, but will become much more thin, fragile and susceptible to disease. At that point, all the energy is going into producing vine and little is left for producing grapes. And, if there are too many branches and too many leaves, then the sunlight can’t reach the grapes that do manage to mature, preventing them from ripening.
The bottom line is that there is a very fine balancing act that is taking place so that the vine is able to be the most productive. Left to its own, it becomes wild and unmanageable, producing little and what it does manage to produce is low quality. Pruned improperly, cutting off too much, and there is nothing that remains in order to grow the fruit. Done properly with expert skill, and it does seem counterintuitive, but the pruning—up to 90% of the vine—will actually produce a healthier more productive vine than when left to its own. Therefore, for his or her part, the vinegrower, the one who prunes, must know the plants very well. Where are they in their production? How and where were they pruned the previous year? What diseases are they susceptible to? What type of fertilizer is required? All this and so much more the vinegrower must know in order to properly care for the vines.
At this point, you may be thinking I’ve spent a great deal of time this morning talking about wine and winemaking, but the truth is, we haven’t really been talking about wine at all and you know that.
For the most part, during the time of Jesus, Israel was a very agrarian culture and grapes—wine—were a staple. It was safer to drink the wine than it was the water, so wine was livelihood and life. Therefore, Jesus speaking about vines and pruning would have made perfect sense to the disciples. When Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit,” the disciples would have clearly understood the imagery that Jesus was using. We just had to do a bit of homework in order for it to me made more clear for us.
It is through Jesus that we have life and it is through the care given by the vinegrower, the Father, that we are given those things and tended in such a way that allow for and cause fruitful lives. Jesus, as the vine, provides us with the nourishment we need through word and sacrament, and the Father oversees it all.
In this image, we are the branches that come from the vine and it is the branch that produces the fruit. So what is the fruit? Jesus actually tells us in the very next verses that were not included in this week’s Gospel lesson: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” And a few verses on, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” St. John reiterated this point in our Epistle lesson this morning: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” The fruit that we are to produce begins with the relationships we have with God and with one another. Everything else is a product of those relationships, that love. As John states, it is not enough to say, “I love God,” because you must also be able to say, “I love my enemy.” Have you reached that level of perfection in your life?
There are many things that prevent us from progressing towards this, but at the heart of it all is our pride. Our need to be right or to get even or to simply hold a grudge. Before we can make progress in love, we must allow God to prune away the pride that holds us back, so that we make room for new and fruitful growth.
I’ve been reading Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. When an uncle found himself angry with his nephew for not following through in a job, the uncle found peace. Marquez writes, the uncle “allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” Jesus said, that we must be “born again… of water and spirit.” Perhaps Little Johnny said it the simplest when asked what he learned at school: “Not enough. Because apparently I have to go back tomorrow!”
If we have not learned to love God, our neighbor, and our enemies, then we apparently have to go back to school again tomorrow and be pruned a bit. Fortunately, I do not believe that the God who created us will completely prune us out of the vine as long as we are ever striving to fulfill his commandments, however, we must learn to allow God to prune out those parts that prevent us from producing good fruit. It is then that we can make progress in our relationship with God and with one another.
Let us pray: Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.