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Easter 5 B ~ "Lessons from the Vineyard" ~ Susan McGurgan, D.Min.


I remember

the first time I visited a vineyard,

and despite the many

references in scripture to vineyards,

vines,

branches—

references that offer vivid metaphors of discipleship—

and despite the deep and obvious connection

between the fruit of the vineyard

and Eucharist,

it was hard to see this glossy,

curated,

picture-perfect experience

as something,

well...Biblical.  

As something that related to my

messy,

sometimes chaotic,

always im-perfect life of discipleship.


It was hard to see it

as a metaphor,

speaking an important truth

about faith.  

 

The gleaming white villa,

constructed in a California-Mod

meets-18th Century-Romantic style

was surrounded by manicured lawns

and towering cypress

with neat,

undulating rows of grapevines

stretching out behind.

It looked more like an artist’s rendition

of a vineyard,

than an actual place

of labor and harvest.


The bottles lining the tasting room

glowed like rare rubies and garnets

and the clink of cut crystal

spoke of luxury and privilege--

an escape from reality

rather than immersion

into a life of mission.


What did this place have to teach

about discipleship?

Community?

God?

It felt light years away

and millennia removed

from the words we hear today:

“I am the vine,

you are the branches.

whoever remains in me and I in him

will bear much fruit.’

   

At least on the surface.

 

But I discovered,

when I left the tasting room

and walked the land with a grower,

that all vineyards,

ancient or modern,

gritty or Instagram-worthy,

have a story to tell—

a story of patience,

and commitment.

A story of changing seasons,

cycles of dormancy and harvest,

times of watchfulness and growth,

days of hardship and risk.  


Even the most manicured vineyard,

beneath the surface,

can tell a parable of discipleship.

 

Maintaining a vineyard is difficult.

The serenity of a destination vineyard

often hides the raw courage it takes

to embark on this work.

Vineyards are year-round,

labor intensive,

investments in patience,

vigilance,

and fierce single-minded love.

 

Attention must be given to the soil,

the sun,

the weeds,

the pruning,

the support.

 

Planting a vineyard is a promise

made to the future.

It is a deep-pocket commitment

that offers a slow and often precarious

return on investment.

In ancient times

and in our own,

growing a vineyard is a venture

for the bold and daring;

for someone who can afford to wait

and play a long game.   

 

The first few years,

the vigneron must water,

prune,

fertilize,

weed,

build supports,

fight insects

excise disease—

all the while knowing this labor will yield no crop.

 

Not for the first year.

Nor the second.

Not even the third.

 

 Not until years four and five

might the branches yield

enough grapes for a harvest. 

And even then,

it will be yet another year

to produce the first vintage.

The owner pours out effort today,

blindly trusting

in a harvest tomorrow.

 

Even more time is required

for the vineyard to become profitable,

and the yield to be steady--

perhaps as long as ten years.

So the vineyard is a place of great risk

as well as great beauty.

 

I think, over the years,

I have finally come to understand

this metaphor of vineyard and faith,

perhaps just a little.

It does speak to us of discipleship,

But not in terms of what we do,

but of what God chooses

to do for us.

 

God, the harvest master,

plays a long game;

a gambit filled with risk

and laid on a foundation of

perseverence and time.

We tend to long for the immediate—

the now—

the fastest return,

the quickest reward,

the low-hanging fruit.

But the way of the vineyard

is the way of patience.


On the path of discipleship,

it can be easy to mistake pruning

for pain,

supporting ties and trellises

for restrictions,

hedges and walls designed for our protection

as oppression,

a season of dormancy

for abandonment.   


Given our own way,

we might avoid pruning altogether.


But the way of the vineyard

teaches that pruning is necessary

to produce good fruit.  

Dead and dying vines,

branches that no longer carry nutrients

are pruned,

but so are seemingly healthy shoots

that grow in the wrong direction

or carry hidden disease.

Without pruning,

vegetation will grow at the expense

of the fruit.

Without pruning,

the vine will produce branches and leaves,

but no harvest.

 

“He takes away every branch in me

that does not bear fruit,

and every one that does,

he prunes,

so that it bears more fruit.”

 

On the path of discipleship,

seasons of dormancy,

rest,

times of expectant waiting,

so necessary for future growth,

might feel like isolation,

abandonment,

even death.

But the way of the vineyard

teaches that these times of rest

prepare us;

allow us to survive adverse conditions

conserving energy

for the next season of growth.

 

“I am the vine; you are the branches.

Whoever remains in me and I in them

will bear much fruit,

because without me you can do nothing.”

 

Each vineyard

tells the parable of discipleship.

In this cycle of planting,

watering,

pruning,

dormancy,

new growth,

and abundant harvest,

we can see a mirror

of God’s action in our lives.

 

Here is another truth

I learned in the vineyard:  

the further away from the main vine

a branch grows,

the harder it is

to receive nourishment.

The closer the branch is to the vine,

the healthier

and more productive it will be.

 

“Remain in me."

Remain near me.


So, what can a vineyard teach us

about God?


God pours into us,

year-round,

labor intensive,

risk-taking,

investments in patience,

vigilance,

and fierce single-minded love.  

God pays attention to everything

that concerns us:

nourishment,

structure and support,

that which needs pruning,

and what needs to be watered.

God knows that times of fallowness,

times of dormancy

are not abandonment--

they are times when God is particularly near,

preparing us for new growth and opportunity.

God's investment in us is a

promise

made to the future.

It is a deep-pocket commitment

that offers a slow and often precarious

return on investment.


And yet God abides.

God remains.

God waits in patient hope

for a rich harvest bearing the finest fruit.


God invites us to stay close.

"Remain in me,

as I remain in you.

I am the vine,

you are the branches.

For whoever remains in me

and I in him,

will bear much fruit."

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