Somewhere around the time that services were first held here at St. Matthew’s, the oldest documented Zinfandel vineyard in California, was planted in the Sierra Foothills. It is a vineyard that has survived the natural perils of disease and weather, along with the human trials of change of ownership and fluctuations of demand in the wine market.
As the vineyard approaches the 150 year mark, Terri Harvey, the current owner, personally tends to the property and she has remarked “You have to respect the vines, I get out here and think about how long they’ve been alive. I do all the pruning myself, out of respect. Each one of these old guys has arms going every which way. You gotta study each one and figure out which way to prune it.” A neighboring vintner added [Gur-Arieh] “These grapes that she has, they’re phenomenal,…her grapes have complexity and elegance. I don’t know if it’s the age or the terroir [climate], but they’re wonderful.”
This morning we heard the Gospel writer John recount how Jesus draws upon the imagery of a vine and vineyard to describe his relationship with God and his followers. I am the true vine says Jesus, and my Father is the vine grower. This statement immediately establishes a relationship between Jesus and his Heavenly Father, and then the discussion quickly advances to talking about the branches of the vine–the conversation advances so quickly in fact that we could miss an important layer of meaning–miss a part of the richness of the vineyard imagery. By the time of the first century there was already a rich and long tradition of referring to Israel as a vine planted by God. It is an image that not only implies growth and bearing fruit, but one that also evokes a sense of the vine taking root and establishing itself deeply in a soil selected by God.
This morning we have an interesting compliment of lessons; for in the Epistle, the first Letter of John, we have a discourse on Love. It is a passage that ranges from the simple declaration that God is Love–to a discussion about how God’s love may be perfected in us. As a prelude then–to this whole discussion is the notion that–when Jesus declares himself to be the true vine, He is laying claim to a rich history, a root system that reaches deep into the past, a history that has been nurtured and fed by God’s abiding love from the very beginning.
At a time of despair for the people of Israel, the prophet Isaiah reminded the people of God’s Love with these words (Isaiah 54.10)
For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.
When the Law was first established with the people of Israel, God reminded followers that love was to extend beyond the bounds of family and friends. Early on, in the book of Deuteronomy (10.19) this principle was established: You shall also love the stranger, for you were (once) strangers in the land of Egypt. And The manifestation of God’s love–is so beautifully captured in a passage from Micah (6.8)…and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? In fact the whole history of the people of God is deeply rooted and sustained by God’s steadfast love. And so in John’s Gospel this morning with the proclamation that Jesus in the true vine–we pick up the imagery of the branches and the notion that somehow–We–through Jesus, are grafted into that love.
Love is a word, that Perhaps like no other word, has the potential for endless abstraction and reflection attempting to extract and assign new relevance to the word. And yet about love, it was Earnest Hemingway who simply wrote (Death in the Afternoon, Chapter 11) All people talk of it, but those who have it[–]are marked by it….
These two passages, one from the first letter and the other from the Gospel of John–in a way speak for the whole of the New Testament in that they remind us that above all Jesus was marked by the love that he embodied and that he shared. And in his ministry, first traveling between the villages of the region of Galilee, Jesus highlighted one of the essential qualities of love–and that is that it is not a scarce commodity to be hoarded or guarded–to be only sparingly given out to a select few, rather Jesus demonstrated quite the opposite, that love and compassion for others is a quality not only meant to be shared, but that it is a commodity that when shared actually multiplies. This is a fact that his followers found to be true and it is why images of abundance abound in the Gospels.
The parable of the sower where the Word (read Love) of God is dispersed with abundance and wild abandon is a wonderful example. The story of the feeding of 5000 is at its heart a narrative that attempts to capture the power of sharing with others, and the way that love and compassion expand to replace the fear of scarcity with the joy of abundance. In the New Testament the life that we are grafted into is the vigorous growth of the branches, supported by the vine–a body with roots that are grounded in the abiding and steadfast Love of God.
The challenge of this morning’s lessons it seems to me–is our natural inclination is to attempt to hold on to love, that when one finds a source of love, our first impulse is to hold on to it–and to even hoard it–lest it depart from us or slip through our fingers. Our attempts to secure love for ourselves could be rather like venturing to save and hold on to a fine and rare bottle of wine. And yet this is contrary to the way that Jesus lived. Jesus risked sharing a love for the world widely, with abandon and abundance.
It is an example of a vineyard, ancient in its origins, capable of yielding an exquisite vintage with a very simple formula for success. God is the vine grower, Jesus is the vine, and you are the branches: branches intended to yield a vintage of Joy, Abundance and Love.
Sermon preached by The Reverend Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California, on 6 May 2012, The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B. Lessons: Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8.