May 3, 2015
“Cultivating a Healthy Vineyard”
I’m glad to be with you this morning. We’re going to be looking today at John 15:1-8. Let’s open up our hearts and minds as we read the scriptures.
Throughout my time in college at Davidson and for a year after I graduated, I worked as a staff person in the youth ministry of Davidson UMC. I loved my time at that church and have a lot of great memories. Like Christ Church, DUMC is a large church with a large youth program. And, like Christ Church, missions was an important component of the youth program. During the latter half of my time there, we began a new annual mission trip with our Middle School youth. We started going to Recreation Experiences, a missions program just north of Asheville in the booming metropolis of Weaverville, NC. Recreation is similar to ASP and the SCMT here at Christ Church in that you break up into teams and each team spends the week working on one site, improving or repairing someone’s home who, because of health of financial difficulties, is unable to do it themselves. You spend the week working hard and developing a relationship with the family. It was always a tremendous experience. I remember one year in particular. We were working on a house--repairing siding, I believe--but we had more workers than work. Now, a bunch of bored middle schoolers on a job site is a recipe for disaster, so we created new jobs. There was this big pile of trash and old, rotten building supplies next to the house. So, we started digging through this pile and throwing stuff in dumpster that was on the site. Now, this pile was at the edge of the yard up against a nearly impenetrable wall of dense brush. But, as we began to clear away the pile of trash, a path through the brush emerged. It probably wasn’t the best idea, but we crawled through the path in the wall of brush and, after about five feet, emerged in this small clearing where someone had planted a vineyard. No one had touched it in years. It was overgrown and obviously not producing many grapes, but you could see where, long ago, someone had built trellises and carefully cultivated the vines so that they grew along the trellises, equally spaced, and fully exposed to sun. Now, with years of neglect, vines were growing wild, surrounding trees and bushes were creating too much shade, and the trellises were beginning to fall apart. But, you could see how much dilligence and effort had gone into creating something that would produce fruit.
You know, it’s really amazing the energy and the attention to detail that it takes to grow even a small vineyard. The weekend that Kate and I got engaged, we went and toured a handful of the wonderful vineyards in the Yadkin Valley area of our state. We went to places like Raffaldini, where there are acres upon acres of grapevines surrounding the main building, which looks like an old Italian villa. We went to McRitchie, which is a much smaller operation with limited vines, but a lot of expertise. It was fascinating to talk with the owners about the sheer effort and knowledge that it takes to cultivate a healthy vineyard. It’s much more involved than growing a vegetable garden in your backyard. Tomatoes are far more forgiving that grapes. And so, it’s interesting that Jesus picks grapevines as his image for describing what it means to be his disciples. Grapes were critical to the economy and culture of Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Throughout scripture, there are countless references to vineyards, grapes, and wine. It was a basic crop for a people heavily reliant upon agriculture. And so, his audience would be intimately familiar with the intricacies of cultivating a vineyard. Far more so than many of us.
Now, often when we read this passage, we start drawing lines. We setup this distinction between people that are connected to the vine that is Jesus and people that are disconnected. There’s a danger with this distinction, because it doesn’t really fit into the agricultural framework that shaped the lives of Jesus’ audience. To really get at the heart of this passage, you have to think like someone who knows what it means to cultivate a healthy vineyard. Now, that person is not me, which is why I turned to the Farmer’s Almanac for a little wisdom on growing grapes. Here’s what I learned:
When you’re planting your vines, you need to build a trellis or arbor to support them. You can’t simply plant them and hope they’ll figure it out, they need some sort of foundational structure in order to flourish.
When you’re planting, you have to pay careful attention to the quality of your soil, spacing, the amount of moisture, the exposure to sun, and the weather of the region. If everything isn’t just right, you have to adjust things. If you don’t, your vines won’t thrive.
Now, here’s where it got interesting. In the first couple of years, the vine should not be allowed to produce fruit. It needs to strengthen its root system before it can support the extra weight of fruit.
And, pruning is critical. Not only would vines run rampant without control, but canes will only produce fruit once. Don't be afraid to remove at least 90 percent of the previous season's growth. This will ensure a higher quality product. Remember, the more you prune, the more grapes you will have.
That’s incredible. It takes a few years before you can even sustain fruit and, the more you prune, the more fruit you grow. Now, as we think about how growing a vineyard relates to being the church, a few principles emerge.
First, you need an effective structure and environment in order to support the production of fruit. Sometimes, we read this passage and it feels like it’s simply about following God in order to produce fruit. Well, it is. But, as we dig deeper into this imagery, we learn that you have to develop a structure and environment in order to be ready to follow God and produce fruit. You have to lay the groundwork in order to support that growth by constantly making sure that your structure is adequate.
Second, producing fruit the right way takes time. It’s amazing to me that it takes a minimum of three years before you’re ready for grapes. This goes completely against the grain of our desire for instant gratification. It takes patience and diligence. In the church, this can be a struggle. We love things that are exciting. We love things where we can see an immediate return. But, that’s not what discipleship is all about. Discipleship is a lifelong journey and it takes time and consistency to see great fruit. Producing a good crop of grapes is the culmination of an impossible number of mundane tasks. Being the church, too, takes time and consistency. We become more committed followers of Jesus when we work at it through small acts that, over time, produce fruit.
Third, the more you prune, the more you produce. It’s kind of counterintuitive, but it’s that principle of creative destruction that the video touched on earlier in the service. You have to prune in order to produce. Sometimes, you have to destroy in order to create. This is where we can begin to understand what Jesus is saying in this passage. He says that God has already done the pruning. It’s not our job to prune, it’s God’s job. It’s our job to recognize what God has pruned and where God is actively producing fruit. So, abiding in Christ means having the type of relationship with Christ such that you recognize when something has run its course and when something new is about to happen. In the church, we are often very slow to recognize when God has pruned. And so, we end up clinging to dead branches and missing out on some new harvest that God is bringing forth. I found it fascinating that the Farmer’s Almanac recommended pruning at least 90% of the previous season’s growth. How often in the church do we prune at a rate of 90%!? Now, I’m not advocating that we turnover 90% of our ministries each year, but it does make us wonder if God isn’t pruning at a much greater rate than we realize. And, again, this is where we might misunderstand the passage. The pruned branches aren’t somehow bad. They have produced fruit. But, they have run their course and now they must be pruned to make room for new growth. It’s that whole life cycle that is so fundamental to a heavily agricultural society. And so, abiding in Christ means embracing that cycle within the work of the church and being attuned to where God is pruning and where God is creating.
Earlier, I mentioned that overgrown vineyard that we discovered behind that home in Weaverville. You could see the signs of what had once been a healthy, thriving vineyard, but that years of neglect had left it barren. Too often, the church becomes like an overgrown vineyard, there are traces of what was once carefully cultivated and abundant in fruit. But, over time, lack of attention to those principles of cultivation have left it far less productive. And so, an important question for any church is how well are we attending to those principles.
Where have we developed an effective structure and environment for growth? Where do we need to improve upon that structure and environment in order to encourage future growth?
Where are we being patient and diligent, knowing that producing fruit takes time and is the culmination of regular attention to best practices? Where do we need to be more patient and attentive to best practices?
Where are we effectively recognizing God’s pruning, so that we might make room for new harvests? Where do we need to be more attentive to where God is pruning, so that we don’t cling to dead branches?
Friends, this passage isn’t simply about the church community, it’s about our individual discipleship journeys. How are you, in your private life, creating an environment that helps you to walk with God? How are you patiently engaging in regular habits that, in time, produce great fruit? How are you being attentive to where God is pruning in your life and where God is creating something new? These are the questions we must ask ourselves on a regular basis.
When I was between eighth and ninth grade, my family moved from Atlanta to a farm outside of Athens, GA. They were worried about me learning to drive in Atlanta, where people drive 85 miles per hour, bumper to bumper, and they wanted to raise us in a different environment from suburban Atlanta. Our closest neighbors at the farm were the Savages. The Savages were an older couple that had lived out in rural Georgia I believe their entire lives. They are the sweetest, most generous people that you’ve ever met. Mr Savage spent his days doing two things, training his dog, Lucky, and working in his garden. Now, when I say he spent a lot of time training his dog, I’m not joking. Lucky knew something like one hundred different commands. Whenever we’d go visit, Mr. Savage would spend half an hour putting on a show with Lucky. Equally incredible was his garden. Mr. Savage spent hours cultivating this incredible garden of okra, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, corn, green beans, etc. And every time we’d go visit, he’d load us down with produce from his garden. And when I say he’d load us down, I mean like two paper grocery bags full. Stuff that would cost you a fortune at the farmer’s market, and he gave it to us in abundance. It was an incredible lesson in generosity for my sisters and me.
I mentioned that vineyards are common imagery within scripture. Let me share one of those passages with you. Isaiah 27:6 says, “In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit.” Brothers and sisters, this is the call of the church. We are called to faithfully and effectively participate in the cultivation of God’s vineyard, so that the harvest might be abundant and so that we might be able to share the fruit with the world. This passage is all about abiding in Christ so that we might produce fruit. That fruit isn’t ours to keep, it is God’s fruit and it is meant to be shared, so that the love of God might be known everywhere. The charge we have to care for the church isn’t about us. Mr. Savage and his wife ate from his garden, but his greatest joy was in sharing the fruits of his labors with the kids next door. We might use these buildings, but our greatest joy is when we can share them with others. We might benefit from the ministries of this church, but our greatest joy is when they benefit people outside this church. We care for the members of this community, but our greatest joy is when we can care for people outside this community. We labor in this vineyard out of a love for and commitment to Christ. We don’t labor for our benefit, but for the glory of God for the sake of others. And so, let us be diligent and faithful in our labors, so that all people might know the fruit that is the love and justice of the God we encounter in Christ.
- In thinking about how the cultivation of a vineyard applies to the cultivation of the church community, what struck you as most interesting?
- Where, as the church, do we do a good job of providing an effective structure and environment for the production of fruit?
- Where could we do a better job?
- Where, as the church, do we patiently and diligently work at the small acts that, eventually, produce great fruit?
- Where do we need to be more patient and diligent?
- Where, as the church, are we attentive to God’s pruning, so that we are ready to participate in new growth? Where do we cling to dead branches?
- How do these principles apply to your personal discipleship journey? Where are you effectively cultivating and letting God cultivate your spiritual life? Where is there room for growth?