Although I spent most of my childhood on dairy farms, during my last few years at home with my parents we had an orchard on a small farm north of Vernon. We had a variety of fruits, including a few grapevines. But mostly we had apples – MacIntosh. So my personal education with fruit-harvest came mostly by apple trees and apples, rather than with grape-vines and grapes as in Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel lesson.
Some of the specific details differ, but many of the principles are the same: you want the plant to bear fruit, so you care for it so as to maximize the crop. There are all kinds of things that a responsible orchardist will do to care for the orchard, or the vinedresser will do to care for the vineyard.
We had a variety of strategies and tools, including pruning, applying insecticides, and using boards to prop up apple-laden branches that might otherwise break with the weight of all that fruit.
But the most amazing factor was not a tool of our making; rather, it was the frost. Frost could come as early as mid-September in the North Okanagan. It had an astounding effect upon those apples that I came to think of as the “rogue apples” – the ones that stayed on the tree past the days of harvest, because the hired pickers couldn’t reach them. They became the reddest, sweetest apples you could imagine.
It was my job to pick those apples, each day when I came home from school. When my work was done, I would reward myself by eating one of those juicy treats. You can’t buy anything like them at the store or even at the fruit stand.
Frost has a stunning effect upon grapes, too. Every year at the liquor store, in the specialty wine section, you’ll see a few demi-bottles of ice wine. This is wine made from grapes that have actually frozen on the vine. It’s very expensive. I must say that I’m not crazy about it, because it’s too sweet for my palate. But it’s considered a delicacy, and the supply usually sells out very quickly.
Isn’t it amazing that frost, which we usually consider a killer of the harvest, actually produces choicer, richer fruit?
God wants us to bear fruit. So first of all, God grafts us like branches into Christ, who is the True Vine. We abide in him, and he abides in us. We get our life from the vine. Christ’s Spirit flows into us, gives us life, and produces in us the fruit which God desires. Like any vinedresser or orchardist, God works on us and all creation for the sake of the harvest.
Today I want to give you a few words connected to God’s work for the sake of this harvest.
The first word is trust – trust in the one who dresses the vine. God prunes every branch. God cuts away the growth that does not produce fruit. That part doesn’t surprise us. But Jesus tells us that his Heavenly Father prunes even the branches that do bear fruit in order to make them bear more fruit. That suggests something about God that we might not welcome on first consideration.
It suggests that God works through our suffering to produce the desired harvest. Even though our trials and sufferings may seem senseless, nevertheless there is a purpose for them which may well lie beyond our comprehension. God is the vine-grower. God intends good for you and for me and for all others who suffer. God is trustworthy.
We confess that we don’t always see it that way. Because of our imperfect vision, we can’t see God at work. Or perhaps we can, but we don’t like what we see. “End it, fix it, don’t let it happen again,” we say. But God says, “I love you in this way: I send my only beloved son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
God sends Jesus into the world to transform us into a new creation, even as we take up life in the old, broken creation. Look at the cross; there is God! The cross is God’s commitment to us, God’s signature upon our lives.
God is going to transform us into the people that God has always wanted. God is intent about change. And so we will suffer. We suffer God … because God just won’t quit breaking into this world, moving in on you and me, and recreating us as the creatures God has always wanted.
So my first word today is trust, trust in the redemptive purposes of God, on God’s terms. God tends the vineyard so as to produce trust.
My second word is empathy. Who hasn’t felt the edge of God’s pruning shears? And who hasn’t then been prepared by God to feel together with others their pain, suffering, and sorrow?
Sometimes the most empathetic thing to do is just listen – to calmly hear another’s pain, without giving advice or grasping at remote possibilities. Of course, then you suffer twice: in the first instance, you suffer together with the one who is experiencing pain; and then secondly you suffer by resisting the urge to leap in to try to fix things. There may indeed come time for action, but it will come through careful consideration. For, in the end, God must do it all.
What I’m talking about may include things like incurable disease, marital failure, financial challenges, loss of a loved one, aging, or family strife. Have you suffered in this way? Are you still suffering? Is it possible that through your experiences God has sweetened you for the sake of others? Has God opened your ear to listen, and placed Good News upon your lips to equip you to minister to others?
We are part of God’s harvest. God prepares us to serve one another as listeners, confidants, and empathizers – as the wonderfully rich fruit that God desires.
Trust. Empathy. Those are my first two words. My last word for today is courage, courage to take up life anew.
It was God’s will that Jesus usher in the kingdom by the forgiveness of sin. God does not want to reign among us by force, but by love. “Put your sword away,” said Jesus to his disciple when the mob came to get him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Hence the cross – the consequence of God coming among us persistently in love.
And because of love, God did not abandon the Only Beloved Son to the grave. Death could not hold him. The open and empty tomb is God’s vindication of divine saving grace in Jesus Christ. The resurrection of God’s own dear son is the First Fruit of the great resurrection-harvest which we are part of by divine promise.
That promise is oriented to the future: although already ours, it will be fulfilled only when Christ returns in glory to raise us and all the dead, and give us life everlasting. And for us strangers in this strange land, that changes everything here and now.
Through the cross and resurrection, God gives us courage:
- courage to face the mundane, repetitious, boring stuff of everyday life;
- courage to face the changes which surprise and unsettle us;
- and courage also to risk the extraordinary, to take up the challenges, to launch new ventures, to live new life.
Have you felt the edge of the vinedresser’s pruning shear? Jesus assures us that his Heavenly Father prunes even the branches that bear fruit in order to make them bear more fruit.
Have the frosts of life’s winters attacked the fruits that God has produced in you, so as to sweeten them and make them richer?
Do you understand God’s purpose in what you have suffered? In trust, do you see God’s redemptive action at work? Through empathy, can you see how God works through you for the sake of others? By courage, can you see how God’s way is manifested in your individual life, in our congregation, and in our communities?
“I am the vine,” Jesus says, “and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
May Jesus abide in all of us. May God grant us the grace to abide in Jesus. May God produce a rich harvest in us – the fruit of the vine, fruit that is sweet and good – for the sake of the world God loves so dearly.
Peace be with you all.