I am not a good resource for the proper way to grow and care for grapevines. And, what I know about grapes, other than I like them, will be of little help in this sermon. However, I did grow up in a fruit valley near the Rocky Mountains in Western Colorado. In this area known as the “palisades”, farmers grew apples, pears, peaches, cherries and other fruit that does well in warm summer climate and cool Autumn weather.
Our Gospel reading this morning is from the Gospel of John. We begin with these words: “Jesus says: I am the vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bares no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes to make it bear more fruit. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples”. (John 15:1-2)
From my early years as a young teenager, I worked in the fruit orchards during the summer months, and for a few weeks until the end of harvest, before and after school. The children of farmers and many students were allowed a couple weeks extension from school to finish the harvest season. In the fall we would prune back the branches of the fruit trees, and at the same time get rid of all the dead branches. It’s important to do that because the tree size determines how many limbs the tree can support. If there are too many branches, and if they are not cutback, the fruit will perhaps be dense, but small. Good pruning ensures a good crop of fruit the tree can support.
This parable points us to the reality that we are in Christ. Christ is the vine, and we could say the parent-figure is God is the vine-grower. Dead branches point to things in our lives that get in the way of a good harvest. Some things must be thrown out for us to grow and be fruitful. And, some things must be cut away. I like to think that the Holy Spirit takes more time and is more accurate than I was in pruning the fruit branches. This is a picture that points to the Holy Spirit doing a work of sanctification in our lives, a transformational change, a change that is a work in progress. Sometimes the transformational process is painful, and sometimes joyful, but a work of bringing our lives in closer communion with God.
Most of my work was in peach and pear trees, but cherries and apples are grown in the same time periods. In the mid-spring we would thin out the fruit. We would thin the low branches first, and then work on the higher branches. Most of us walked on stilts to do this. Some people used ladders, but the stilt walkers worked faster. I was never a great stilt walker, but I knew enough to hang onto the branches as I walked around the trees.
There are references in the Bible of how we are called to care for one another, and we are all blessed with differing gifts and talents. As a rector sometimes, my role is teaching. I have faith that when I teach from the Written Word, the Living Word works in those who take time to listen. Let’s look again at this passage from John: “Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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”. (John 15:3-4)
Our tools for thinning included a long bamboo pole with a lot of spring action. On the tip of the pole we would mount a tennis ball, or perhaps a pool ball that has been drilled out to fit onto the end of the pole or other rounded piece that could thin out clusters of fruit with the swing of the bamboo pole. Thinning out the fruit is essential for a good harvest. Just as the tree can only support a certain quality of good branches, so the branches can only support so much fruit. If the fruit is not thinned, the harvest will diminish because of the stunted growth of the fruit. If pears or peaches are too small, they will be downgraded for juice only. Juice only fruit is not near as profitable as the larger sized fruit.
Sometimes my work as a Rector includes pastoral care. Pastoral care includes caring for each person in the church, the sick, the healthy, the elderly, the young and all those in between. And, this is not just a pastors’ job. This is all our responsibility, to care for one another, and to care for them just as Christ cares for us. Sometimes that will be in the form of encouragement, but sometimes it will be correction. I love the proverbs that talk about friends correcting friends. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses”. (Proverbs 27:6) The pruning will hurt, but it’s the kind of hurt that brings a fruitful harvest, and an improvement in our spiritual lives. Another proverb that confirms this activity is one of my favorites “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another”. (Proverbs 27:17)
In the early spring, my older brother and I would work on the weekends, cleaning out the water ditches of dirt, rocks, and debris build up. This had to be done every year. We would ensure that channels were made so the fruit trees and had access to irrigation ditches. Taking care of the soil and feeding the trees with fertilizer kept us busy before the time the fruit was to be harvested. Fruit trees require water, and water needs clean channels to flow. I like to call them ‘channels of blessings’. I’m reminded of that old spiritual song that I would sing in the churches of my youth “There shall be showers of blessing: This is the promise of love; There shall be seasons refreshing, Sent from the Savior above”. And just as the fruit trees access channels for water must be cleaned out repeatedly, so we are called to allow the Spirit to clean out the dirt and debris in our lives, so the channels of blessing, the water of the Spirit has access to our hearts, to refresh us anew, again and again.
Just about any fruit trees that shed their leaves annually can be grown in Colorado (apples, pears, apricots, cherries, peaches, nectarines and plums). All of these can handle minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit winter temperatures …It is odd that certain fruit, including pears, peaches and apples, do well in climates that get cold in the fall, but when the weather gets down below freezing in the early fall, before it is normal to freeze, the entire fruit harvest is in danger. There are times when the entire crop is lost due to early freezing. I remember many nights I was called out by the farmer I worked for to help light fires and smokers, to cover the trees and work the night, hoping that the fruit would not freeze. It’s ironic, but the very weather that can destroy fruit, is essential to make the fruit firm and ripe. Cold weather is necessary to bring color and ready the sturdy apple, peach and pear to be ready for harvest.
Jesus says: “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”. Jesus does not promise that we will not go through hard times, times of loss. We do, and we will. But, He does say that He is the vine, and we are the branches. We are secure in this promise. He says, “I will never leave you or forsake you”. You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and that seal will carry you through this life and on into the other side.
Then comes the harvest. That’s the fun part. My first choice was always picking pears. Apples were too hard to pick without bruising them, and peaches left you so fuzzy at night, that even a shower or bath could not take away the itching. Pears are the easiest to pick. They are picked while green, and they ripen afterwards. They do not bruise that easily, so you can pick them faster without as much care as with apples or peaches. And, I could pick faster and make more money picking pears.
One of my favorite times in the orchards was when I was 14. It was that year that I had the job of driving a Ford Model T, made into a flatbed truck for hauling boxes of fruit. I would go down the rows between the trees, pick up the loaded boxes and head across the fields to the warehouse to unload. The truck just had a lever for forward and backward. I controlled the speed by a different hand-held lever on one side of the steering wheel. Wouldn’t you have liked a job like that as a 14-year-old?
This passage leaves us with the following promise: “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples”. (John 15:8) I am reminded of one of the Psalms of Ascent:
“When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, The Lord hath done great things for them. The Lord hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad. Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the south. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him”. (Psalm 126, KJV)
The Reverend Dr. David Madsen