The Great Harvest
"The Great Harvest"
Rev. Robert Woodruff
May 3, 2015
Part of Jesus’ pedagogy involved using common images of his contemporary Mediterranean world as metaphors. In the gospel according to John, Jesus uses seven different “I am” statements in which he identifies himself metaphorically as various types of images. I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the door. I am the good shepherd. I am the resurrection and the life. I am the way, the truth, and the life. And today, as Jeannie and I read: “I am the true vine, and my father is the vine grower…[and] you are the branches.” And identifying us with the branch metaphor, Jesus gives us a specific task. We are called to bear fruit. According to the New Interpreters Bible Commentary, “‘bearing fruit’ emerges as another way to speak about the works of love that are required as Jesus’ followers,” (Pg. 757).
Vineyard imagery is found in both of the Old and New Testaments. And it remains a relevant image with the current ubiquity of wine production on our planet. So how do we bear fruit? How do we bear it as individuals? And as or more important, how do we bear it as a community of faith? How does the vine/branch metaphor speak to our realities? Who we are and how we act, which of course are interrelated, cannot be programmed in as if we were computers. We cannot flip a switch in our brains that will lead us to love and we cannot simply create church programs and assume the church that will automatically engage in the works of love that Jesus requires of us. Let us explore Jesus’ notion that who we are and how we function, and the fruit that we bear, is a result of none other than cultivation.
Let us pray: We seek to grow deep not tall O Lord. Plant within us your love and nourish us with your Word and Spirit, so that we may bear fruit worthy of your calling. And now, may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Preacher John Ortberg writes, “A little while ago, my wife kidnapped me and took me to Napa Valley for a romantic, overnight getaway for just the two of us. I had never been to Napa Valley before. It's lovely. What struck me as I was going past the vineyards was all of the thought and action that went into the rows of vines. A fruitful, productive vineyard is a thing of beauty. But here's the thing about vineyards: they don't just happen by themselves. Vineyards don't just spring up by accident. Someone is behind them.
The writer of Proverbs 24:30–34 says: I was going past a vineyard, and it was a mess. There were thorns all over the place, the grounds were covered with weeds, and the walls were falling down.
To understand the angst behind this proverb … you have to understand that in the ancient Middle East, a piece of land capable of growing crops was one of the most valuable things in the world. To be the owner of a vineyard was to be blessed with the opportunity of a lifetime.”
We are certainly given grand opportunities in this life to help cultivate and maintain vineyards. We can apply the metaphor to our church, families, friends, and any other network we are a part of. And we know in our hearts, that helping something to grow, flourish, and produce life is ultimately satisfying. It is not easy and requires patience, but it leads to a sense of meaning that cannot be found in short-term pursuits. In fact, I would go as far as saying that that living a life dedicated to cultivating that which is important, is the essence of human life. It is what we were created to be and do.
A couple of weeks ago, I went on a journey with my clergy group—you may know some of the suspects: Seth Finch, Trey Hammond, Tom Hart, Drew Henry, Matt Miller, and Guillermo Yela. Together, we sat down for a few mornings with Old Testament scholar Ted Hiebert at McCormick Seminary in Chicago—Rev. Quinones’ alma mater. Dr. Hiebert helped translate the book of Genesis from Hebrew to English for the Common English Bible translation and knows a lot about the Old Testament. He had some interesting insights about cultivation. Even though our New Testament passage indentifies three particular agents involved in cultivating a vine, we can take in to account two others that the early hearers of the text may have already assumed. You will recall that the passage mentions the gardener, the vine and the branches as essential to the production of the fruit. What is not mentioned but perhaps understood by at least by Jesus followers with a Jewish background is the importance of the atmosphere and the soil.
In his work, Dr. Hiebert discovered that the Hebrew word ruach which is translated breath, wind and spirit, is also the most common Hebrew term for atmosphere. The early Hebrew culture that lived during the time of the writing of the two creation stories in Genesis had a strong understanding of how people are a product of their atmosphere. They knew that ethically and spiritually, we breathe in what is around us and in a sense, become what we are breathing. He uses this to advance arguments about a biblical perspective of taking care of our planet and the air we breathe. And the notion of atmosphere is certainly applicable to the life of a vineyard. Is it orderly? Is the cultivation executed with faith and dedication. Like Ortberg said, “vineyards just don’t spring up by accident. There is someone behind them.” Remember, in the Garden of Eden, it was human disobedience and disregard for the rules of the garden that had them banished. The atmosphere, the spirit of the vineyard will impact the quality of the fruit. The fruit becomes a product of the atmosphere it breathes in.
Then there is the soil. The early Israelite culture did not have a distinction between matter and spirit. God was in the earth and in creation. We are created in the image of God. The flesh/spirit dichotomy that Paul references in the New Testament is nowhere to be found in the early Hebrew way of looking at life. Recall in the second creation story, we are made of soil. Geness 2: 4b-8, “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.” You remember what clergy say on Ash Wednesday when applying ashes to your head? “You are from dust and to dust you shall return.” You will remember Jesus’ parable about the different types of soil? The word only grows in the good soil.
Listen to the conclusion of the second creation story when Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden. The serpent is cursed, enmity is put man and woman, woman is given the pains in childbirth, and then, the soil is cursed. Genesis 3: 17b-19: “‘Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’” In a sense, we have to work our way out of that curse. The earth from which humans came from is cursed, and thus so are we.
There is a popular term in the vineyard world: terroir. Mind you, I have no expertise in knowledge of vineyards and cultivation but let’s just say I heard about this through the grape vine. Terroir is a word that describes the characteristics of the geography, geology and climate that impact the quality of the grapes grown. It is close to the word terre in French which means earth, or tierra in Spanish. It is said that you can taste the terroir in a wine—you can taste the environment, the land, and essence of the place in which it was grown.
So the Old Testament offers a profound sense of organic understanding for our metaphor of vine and branches. The teachings that would have been familiar to Jesus’ contemporaries are accessible to us. As we are called to bear fruit in this world, to love as Jesus loved. We are called to thoughtfully manipulate the conditions that we are growing in to allow the fruit to grow robustly. What is the quality of the soil or the earth that we are growing in? What is in the atmosphere that we breathe every day? Is the terroir that shapes us one that leads us to the love of Christ to grow within us? Or is it constricting? Is the dirt we are growing in metaphorically cursed—unhealthy, low in nutrients, and like the vineyard in Proverbs, strewn with thorns and covered with weeds?
Plants can grow in a lot of place. Grass can grow in cracks in pavement. But the conditions have to be good. Ortberg would add, “Work the land that is your land—your body, your life, your relationships, your work—because that vineyard is all you have. If it's ever going to be different, it won't be because the vineyard fairy comes and sprinkles fairy dust on it. It will be because you asked God to help you. It will be because you've asked him, "What's the next step that you want me to take?"
The beauty is that God helps us grow. Jesus is the vine, we are the branches. God does not task us to grow, but to take the earth that we have, care for it, and cultivate it so God can do the miracle of growth.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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