Vines

Jn. 15:1-8
5/10/09

Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

You and I live on the balance point between independence and dependence. While on the one hand we are often, through reason and choice, “our own person,” the fact of the matter is that each of us has roots, blood-lines, tribes, nationalities, families: all sorts of links, inter-relatedness and mutual indwelling.

Consider with me this fifth Sunday in Eastertide, this Mother’s Day, what it means to have a history. Think for a moment what it means to be interconnected, to have a mutual indwelling. Jesus tells us that our interconnectedness through faith is as real and dominant as our genetic or familial connectedness.

Jesus offers the image of the vine as a metaphor for reflection as to who we really are.

In the 1930s and ’40s, I lived in Illinois. We had a grape arbor, which was planted by our neighbor, Mr. Schustick, who had come to the US from Austria and who built our house. Some of the vines on the arbor yielded red grapes and some yielded white. My father pruned and shaped the vines, and they grew up and around the trellises and the frame of the arbor house. There were lattice walls and pew-like benches where mother and I would sit in the shade.

Initially, the structure supported the vines, but eventually the vines supported the structure; and it became difficult to distinguish the skeleton of the trellises, wrapped within the body of the growth of the vines.

As a child, I would climb on the vines, and even on the roof, which easily supported my weight, for the tentacles of the vines held it secure. I discovered that there was life in this arbor: bees and spiders, ants, all sorts of insects. There were birds and some blight. It was there that I met my first snake — sleek, multi-colored, and glistening.

On weekends my English Methodist grandmother, her sons and their kids, and my Swedish Lutheran aunts, and French Huguenot uncle would come down from Rockford. On Saturday they would pick the grapes and lug them into the cellar. There the grapes were washed and then put into flour sacks and boiled. On Sunday after church, my mother and father, aunts, and uncles would lift the steaming sacks, squeeze them, and drain the juice into scalded Ball and Mason jars. My teetotalling relatives made gallons of grape juice, preserves and jellies, sealed with paraffin and neatly labeled.

This canning ritual brought the family together and was the occasion of renewal and story telling. Like the grapevine on the arbor, the family had genealogies on both sides of the fence. The roots were from Sweden, England, France, Holland, Germany and America. My relatives had supported each other through childbirth, the depression, war, illness, and into old age.

After WWII my parents and I moved to New Canaan, Connecticut. The people who bought our house in Illinois tore down the grape arbor, pulled out the roots, and burned everything in order to make a fine, suburban lawn. For whatever reasons, my uncles and cousins on my father’s side stopped going to church, were nourished and cultivated less, and became wild off shoots. The Swedish aunts and French uncle did not come out to our new house. They were neglected, withered, starved, and eventually died alone.

We bought our grape juice in a Welch’s bottle and our grape jelly in a Kraft jar at the A& P.

Jesus was intentional when he chose the image of the grapevine. He knew about grapevines, their selection, nourishment, grafting and pruning. Israel, an agricultural nation, valued her crops. Agricultural metaphors were part of her language and thought. Jesus knew about families and tribes and genealogies  — how families grafted onto one another, producing new shoots and new yields, some fine and sweet, others wild and bitter.

Jesus had heard the image of the vine used by the prophets, like Amos, and by the psalmists to refer to Israel as a people. He was familiar with the phrase, “the root of Jesse.”

And so He used the metaphor of the vine to describe the reality of His relationship to God and the relationship between Himself and His disciples. Through God’s action in Jesus, whose lineage goes back to Abraham and David, Jesus has become the true vine. His followers, through faith and God’s action, are His branches. They also become, in effect, the true vine, the new people, the true nation. They are not simply grafted. Christ lives in them and they in Christ. Here is a new mutual indwelling and linkage, which supersedes your and my human biological, national, and social connections.

It is important that you and I know who we are — that we pay homage to our mothers and are aware of our families, genealogies, nationalities and races. It is also important that we understand that we are all branches of the family of man. That is well and good.

But it is more important that we hear the message of today’s Gospel that in Christ you and I are part of a more glorious and enduring relationship. We are branches of the vine, which is God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Through faith, baptism, the sacraments, and the Holy Spirit Jesus abides in us and we in Him. This is an eternal relationship of power and grace, which continues in eternity. It is a relationship brimming over with possibilities and with hope.

Our lives and faith (the fruit of the vine) can fill the structure of the Church — of this church — to the point where we become strong and support it, so that like the grape arbor of my youth, it is impossible to separate the vine from the framework, the people from the Church. You and I are called to feed upon Christ in the Eucharist, to nourish and to support each other through prayer and the stewardship of our time, talents, and money. We are called to resist the blight of complacency, the pests of cynicism and despair, and the marauding birds of doubt and unbelief, which peck away. You and I are called to stand firm on our apostolic faith, to be liberal in our love and outreach, to judiciously prune away the dead wood of lethargy, and contented moralism, to weed out the wild shoots of secularism and the slips of fashion, and to beware the snake of self-righteousness. You and I strengthen the vine and the branches when we constantly rededicate ourselves to Jesus Christ, when we build for tomorrow, and when we live out the full scope of our lives as part of the body, or vine, of Jesus Christ.

This Mother’s Day consider the image of the grapevine. Remember your roots and the full inter-connectedness you have with your family and others. Then through the eyes of faith, look at your life as part of Christ’s vine, as part of the Church. Consider where you need to be nourished and where you can nourish, where you need to be pruned and where you can prune, where you are weak and where you can strengthen.

In Christ you and I have an enduring life and lineage which goes all the way back through the Old Testament to Abraham and Sarah. This life and lineage in Jesus Christ reshapes our relationships with God and with each other. Jesus Christ abides in you and me and we in Him. What an incredible life you and I have individually and together, not only through out mothers but also through Christ Jesus!

Thanks be to God! Alleluia. Alleluia. Amen.

- Fr. Gage