What is it like to be a grape? I don’t know. Are they curious or cynical? Deluded or daring? If you are a grape you are a grape in a cluster, you were once a flower, on a branch, on a vine, and now you are a fruit.
The cultivation of grapes goes back at least 5000 years in West Asia. In the Hebrew scriptures, a fruitful vineyard is a sign of peace and settledness and abundance. Because in times of bloody conflicts, which West Asia has seen an eternity of, vineyards are trampled and torched. The image of Israel being a vine and the vineyard being God’s own is old and complex. It casts a vision that we are fostered in hope as a gift for the world. That we are rooted in blessing but sent out to be a blessing.
To speak of God as the vineyard keeper is to speak of God as the infinite source of everything we are and everything we have yet to become. It is a marvelous blend we heard in today’s two new testament lessons. The first letter of John and a selection from the Gospel of John. It is broadly understood that these two texts are from a common community, but not from the same author. Same varietal, same company, different label, different season.
In the 1 John letter, we hear love love love over 25 times and abide more than 5 times (link to readings t the bottom). Even if you pay no attention at all you heard the commission: abide in love. This isn’t some sappy gnarly pop song version of love, but vivacious compelling gut-wrenching commitment of heart and soul and mind. The kind of Love that grows and endures in the community.
Following this letter we heard a classic parabolic ‘I am’ statement. In John we hear Jesus say, I am the gate, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Bread. Here he says ‘I am the true vine and God is the vineyard keeper’. Theologically and imaginatively Jesus offers a vision of blessing where God is the vineyard owner and protector, and in this text, the Greek is vineyard worker. God is present in his own vineyard. God abides with us deeply in the world, loves this vineyard wholeheartedly. Loving our possibilities and desiring change for our ‘pests’.
In the gospel this imagery goes one stage deeper, Jesus says he is the vine. He is the hope and the sustenance and the long commitment and the structure. Being one with Jesus is being in the living vine of the beloved vineyard. The vine gives us life and makes us one, it doesn’t care about your perfection or your past. And this oneness does not limit where we go or what we become.
My guess is something like 97% of ancient grapes were not grown to be table snacks. Most ancient grapes were fostered and harvested to be two things. Wine and raisins. Now, if you store grapes without refrigeration, what happens? They ferment. It is the way of the world. Grapes have about four possibilities: Eat them. Ferment them, or let that process keep going into vinegar, or raisins. The only way to store a grape in the ancient world was to transform it. Ancient common wines were much denser and foamier and of lower alcohol content than anything sold around here. They were everyday lifesaving nutrition. So of course, vineyards and wine were precious and praised.
When you dry a grape and make it a raisin, you make it incredibly storable and much more transportable that wine or vinegar. Raisins are storage food, and they are also journey food, trail mix. The church is at its best, fruit in a peaceful cluster, abiding with one another as God abides with us, and then offering that goodness to the neighborhood. The church at its best is fruit that is ready to be transformed, is ready to be changed so that it may be shared.
Wherever we all are a year from now I trust that we will be ready to love as we are loved. To trust the strangeness of new leaders and new neighbors, as part of our intention and our transformation. For all the earthy plantedness of this lovely vineyard, we know that our days to come include traveling songs. The work we have been doing over the last 2 years is like wine aging in the bottle And raisins in a pocket. We didn’t do this work and pursue this vision and dwell in a loving cluster to stay on the vine. Grapes left on the vine are bird food and deer snacks.
If I were a grape I might have a hard time trusting the process, there is so much long unknowingness in the life of a grape. The image Jesus offered is crucial to his answer to our questions. How do we grow together on the vine? Common prayer, fellowship, service. Why do we grow together? To go out and be a blessing. So I wonder. What does it mean for the reign of God and the redemption of the world that Jesus is the vine and you are the branch or the grape or the raisin?
Today we celebrate together with Morning Prayer; which is part of our connectivity and branches that go back deep into our Anglican life together. How could a weekday practice of communal morning or evening prayer, lay-led be a blessing here? What if a sign on the street said, come practice being the vineyard? Would an invitation to connect quietly to the true Vine be the answer to the question that someone in your neighborhood doesn’t even know they have?
In the baptismal font there are raisins, and also grapes, Because I realize not everyone likes raisins. I invite you to take a few with you. Eat them. Savor them. Consider three questions.
What does it mean for our life here and beyond, that Jesus is the vine?
Then if you are a grape, what does that mean?
And if you are a raisin, where will you go with that insight?
It might be nice to be a grape. No fundamentalisms or addictions. No grief to numb nor breaking news to tune into. Your rules are pretty simple. Live with your neighbors. Grow on structures that are built for your fruition. But you also trust that this moment is not the end of your story. May we know that we are fruit of good courage that we are watered in abiding love, and ready to go wherever God leads us. Amen.
April 29, 2018
St. Paul's, Walla Walla
Morning Prayer Homily
RCL Easter 5b