Grace Presbyterian Church
May 2, 2021, Easter 5B
It’s What We Do
I have lived in two places, that I know of, with active, commercially viable wineries, businesses that produce and sell wine for consumption by the general public.
No, I have not lived in California’s Napa Valley, nor have I ever lived in upstate New York. And I haven’t even been to France, much less lived there.
Those two cities with wineries were Lawrence, Kansas, and Lubbock, Texas. I don’t know if the Lawrence winery is still in business since I left, but I did double-check and the Llano Estacado winery in Lubbock is still there. I remember them both because I bought wine from both (as gifts for others, since we don’t drink the stuff).
Kansas sounds unexpected enough, I’m sure, but let’s talk about Lubbock. We have a particular mental image of “wine country,” with lots of green and probably in a valley and all sorts of other stuff, and Lubbock, in most minds, isn’t that. That part of Texas, almost up in that state’s Panhandle, is flat and dry, mostly. Lubbock is actually a pretty pleasant city, or was in my experience, but it’s the type of place that might be accurately described as “in the middle of nowhere.” Amarillo is a couple of hours north, Midland and Odessa are further south, it’s a very long way to Dallas and Fort Worth to the east-southeast, and if you drive much farther to the west from Lubbock you’re in New Mexico. It is also a city with dust storms. I know because, again, I experienced one while there as a visiting instructor at Texas Tech many years ago. I dare say that’s still the most unique weather experience I’ve had.
None of these things, to be sure, suggests “wine country” to most folks.
Yet the Llano Estacado winery does business there and has been doing so for more than about forty-five years now. (It takes its name from the Spanish phrase for “staked plain,” a term for the region in general attributed to Spanish explorers in the region driving stakes into the ground to keep track of their route. Geologists will insist that the name really refers to particular geological features on the rim of the terrain, but don’t tell that to the locals.) So how exactly does wine growing and winemaking work in a region that doesn’t seem like a place where it would work?
Well, there are a lot of different ways it works, but they mostly come down to paying attention to the land where your grapes are being planted and grown, and not trying to do everything the exact same way they do it in Napa or Bordeaux. In some cases you get the best results by growing different grapes, ones more suited to the particulars of the local climate. In other cases you need to tend to the vines differently or root them in different conditions, or allow them longer or shorter growing periods. In short, it’s possible to do, and can be done quite successfully, but it requires being sensitive and responsive to the local conditions in which you’re doing your planting and growing.
There’s something to be said for this lesson in reading today’s scripture from the gospel of John.
It opens with Jesus’s assertion “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” This is hardly the first time the image of God as vinegrower has appeared in scripture; the book of the prophet Isaiah is particularly stocked with such imagery, of which today’s first reading is just one example. Notice how verse 3 of that reading describes the Lord’s care for that vineyard – constantly watering and guarding it against any harm. The “song of the vineyard” in Isaiah 5 takes a similar tone in its description of the vinegrower’s care for the vineyard, only to be disappointed when it produced sour grapes.
In short: God is the grower, Jesus is the vine, and as verse 5 in the gospel reading makes clear, we are the branches. In this setup our job is actually pretty straightforward: we live – or more particularly, we “abide” – in Jesus, and Jesus abides in us.
Here’s the thing: our vinegrower knows where we’re planted. To go back to the example of the Llano Estacado winery, our vinegrower knows we aren’t growing in Napa or Bordeaux. We’re in Gainesville, Florida, and God the vinegrower is tending to the branch of the vine that is us with particular regard to the fact that we are in Gainesville and not in Napa or Bordeaux, or Lubbock, Texas for that matter. To step back from the wine metaphor, God isn’t nurturing or tending or pruning this branch of the vine the way God would tend a church in New York or Orlando, or for that matter the way God would tend First Presbyterian or First United Methodist or Holy Trinity Episcopal church in this town either. God is tending and nurturing and maybe sometimes even pruning Grace Presbyterian Church to be the witness of Christ as Grace Presbyterian Church, not as a clone of some other church around here.
And our job as Grace Presbyterian Church, planted here in this particular corner of this particular town, put most simply, is to bear fruit, the fruit of the vine that is Jesus. A grapevine doesn’t bear plums or avocadoes or some other fruit; it bears grapes. A church abiding in Jesus doesn’t bear nationalism or hatred (or anything like the “thorns and briers” of Isaiah 27:4); it bears nothing but the fruit that bears witness to Jesus and only Jesus.
And here’s the wild part: in a way, the fruit we bear isn’t really up to us. That the work of Jesus the vine and God the vinegrower.
To borrow the words of Rev. Melissa Earley, a United Methodist pastor in Illinois writing in the Christian Century:
I had been hearing Jesus’ words as a threat. If we didn’t bear fruit, it meant that we had become disconnected from the vine and we would be tossed out and burned. But what his words are is a promise. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit.” The vine branch doesn’t put “make grapes” on its to-do list. It just makes them, because it’s part of the vine. And it never makes pears or avocados or olives—when we are connected to Jesus, we bear the fruit of Jesus. We may not bear the kind of fruit that’s brag-worthy at church conferences or that judicatory officials praise. But connected to Jesus, the fruit of our ministry will be good.
(Some of that is Methodist language – think of presbyteries or GA in our case).
If we abide in Christ – if we dwell deeply in the life and work and words and death and resurrection of Jesus – we bear fruit. It’s what we do. And it’s good fruit at that. It won’t look exactly like the fruit that any other church bears, because we’re not any other church.
Here’s the thing: this church bears fruit, and good fruit at that. Where there is need, we’re there to ask “how can we help?” We may not have the physical manpower to participate in some projects, but we’re there to give the support we can. We’re open to different ideas, as bears witness the art studios that dot our campus and draw in people of our community to take part in one of the greatest of divine gifts, the gift of creativity. Our membership has continued to support the maintenance and the mission of the church after more than a year of remote worship, and have frankly tolerated the weirdness of your pastor’s attempts to grapple with the technology of remote worship. We’ve been welcoming to those who come to those remote services perhaps without ever having heard of Grace Presbyterian Church before, or to those who haven’t been able to find a new home church since being part of Grace in years past. We bear fruit, and it is good fruit. It makes a good wine.
It’s easy for a church like ours to get caught up in what isn’t here. We don’t have a large number of children or youth in the fellowship. We don’t have a great big choir or band. We don’t have a photogenic pastor who gets to preach at big conferences or assemblies or write for the big church publications. We don’t have big numbers.
We do have willing, welcoming people. We do have the willingness to dig down deep and help. We have a fellowship that can take in people who can’t find their place in other churches, and they can not only survive but even thrive among us and find their places to give and serve in the life and mission of the church. We have the flexibility to be creative.
When we abide in Jesus, We. Bear. Fruit. It’s what we do.
In short, our job is to continue to abide in Jesus and let the fruit-bearing keep on happening. We’re not here to be First Presbyterian. We’re not here to be the megachurch in town. We’re here to bear fruit, the fruit of Jesus.
Bear fruit. Be disciples of Jesus. That’s the work. It’s what we do.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #240, Alleluia, Alleluia! Give Thanks; #526, Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ