Monday, May 22, 2006

a calling into the world (john 15)

Kristen Johnson Ingram is a writer and teacher of writing who lives in Oregon. Her avocation there is winemaking, and in an essay she reflected on a memorable experience. Kristen had a group of ten friends over for a tasting party, to sample her homemade wines, including some made from cherries and plums. After they had tasted several, including her masterpiece, a pinot noir---she was very serious about this----her thirteen year old son entered the room and said, “I made some wine”.

She and her friends looked at each other with indulgent smiles. How nice? Her son went out to the feed shed, where he had stored the wine made from wild blackberries. He didn’t know much about winemaking, and really had no equipment, and therefore the project was all contained in a pickle jar, that was also filled with leaves and thorns.

His mother thought, “we’ll just sip a little”. She also thought about avoiding the twigs and the seeds. We don’t want to hurt his feelings”.

Then Kristen tasted the wine and she immediately thought: this is the best wine I have ever tasted. Her son had closed the jar before the fermentation process was finished, so it actually crackled like champagne. Years later, if she went back to the moment, she could still taste the delicious, dark liquid.

Her son stood there, proudly. I saved the best wine for last”, he said. Like in the Bible. And like the Bible says, the whole world is my vineyard.”

Kristen listened to her son. I don’t remember that in the Bible. About the world being the vineyard”, she said, as she ran her tongue around the rim of the empty glass, hoping for one more miraculous drop.

Well, it sort of does”, her son replied. And his mother had to agree: It sort of does. (from Weavings, September/October, 2001).

We’ve been working through a series of three sermons within one chapter from the gospels, the 15th chapter of John. It begins with the rich imagery of the vine and the branches, an image that would have been obvious to those who labored in vineyards and enjoyed the fruit of the vine.

We began with the core conviction that a friendship with Jesus is foundational. I am the vine, you are the branches”, he teaches his disciples. We draw our strength, our life, from him: I am the vine you are the branches and apart from me”, he says, you can do nothing”.

Next, we reflected on his command and invitation that we should “love one another”. To make the point negatively, we cannot love Jesus, whom we have never seen, if we do not love our brother or sister, whom we have seen. Said positively, we experience the love of God through God’s people. Christianity is always incarnational---it takes on human flesh.

Now we conclude with a necessary implication. We are connected with God, and we are in communion with each other for a larger purpose: a calling in the world. You did not choose me”, Jesus says, “I chose you”. I appointed you to go and bear fruit”.

What does it mean to bear fruit? We can go back to those who heard this teaching for the first time, the disciples of Jesus. They would have heard these words and placed them in their Mediterranean context. The fruit of the vine produces figs, grapes, olives. These finally become food, oils, wine. But vineyards are primarily for the purpose of making wine. I am not an authority on wine, but Pam and I have close friends who are winemakers, who have reminded us of the old question, “how do you make a little money in the wine business? You start with a lot of money.”

It is not accidental that the scriptures are filled with the imagery of vineyards and wine, with the cycles of planting and nurturing and harvesting, with celebrations where wine is freely poured and enjoyed. When those who listened to Jesus heard his references to vineyards and wine, they would have immediately made the connections: the labor, the cultivation, the pruning, the growth, the fruit, the abundance, the feast. In a vineyard one experiences life in all of its fullness.

And so Jesus makes the claim, of himself, that he is the vine. I have come that you may have life and have it in abundance, he had announced to them. To abide in Jesus is to remain connected to him. When we lose that connection, when the branch is severed from the vine, there is no life, no growth, no fruit. I want you to abide in me”, he is saying. I want you to remain connected to me”. Why does he say this?

The reasons go deeper than mystical experience and personal piety. We remain connected to the vine because that is the way we bear fruit. And here the inward spiritual grace becomes an outward and visible sign. The natural consequence of a healthy root taking in nutrients is that it produces something wonderful. It bears fruit.

Jesus had been with the disciples for some time----a significant amount of time with just a few people, hidden mostly from the crowds, investing all of this time in twelve people. He was teaching them about friendship with God. He was instructing them in prayer. He was opening the scriptures to them. There were good days and bad days. Sometimes they got it, and sometimes they did not. He also sensed that there were dynamics going on between them. There were struggles over who would sit in the places of power, over whose voice would be heard most clearly, struggles, by the way, that continue to be with the church. And so he gave them a command and an invitation: love one another.

But it was always about more than an individual’s spiritual life, or a group of people and their love for each other. He wanted the disciples to bear fruit, he wanted their lives to make a difference.

What does it mean to bear fruit, for a winemaker? A winemaker would want to make enough bottles of wine for her own enjoyment, and maybe to share with others, and maybe for profit. Bearing fruit would mean a number of bottles of wine, a number that we would count. But bearing fruit also has to do with what is inside the bottles. We could make a large number of bottles of wine, but what is inside them could be mediocre. Or, at the other extreme, we could spend all of our time making a very few bottles of wine that are exceptional, but only a few people would enjoy them.

Which is bearing fruit? I want to suggest that bearing fruit is making wonderful wine that can be shared at feasts and celebrations but also in everyday life, at common meals. To bear fruit is to be sustained through the highs and lows, the ups and downs, the amazing and the ordinary.

And for this reason it is sometimes difficult to measure our fruitfulness. I love the insight of Oswald Chambers:

Our spiritual life cannot be measured by success as the world measures it, but only by what God pours through us—and we cannot measure that at all.

“What God pours through us”… I like that.

When I hear Jesus say that “ I appointed you to go and bear fruit”, a word occurs to me: accountability. We are accountable to Jesus, for the life we have received from him. Sometimes accountability can be measured, and sometimes it cannot be measured. What is important is that we allow the grace of God to be poured out through us. We allow the inward and spiritual grace to become an outward and visible sign. The wine is to be shared, following the example of Jesus, who said, at the Passover feast, this is my body, given for you, this is my blood, poured out for you”.

He wanted the disciples to bear fruit, he wanted their lives to mean something. He did recognize that the world was a vineyard. Catherine of Sienna was a 14th century Italian spiritual guide, who wrote a series of dialogues or visions. In one of them she reflected on the meaning of the blood of Christ, poured out for her, and the responsibility we have in receiving that gift. In her vision God hires workers to labor in the vineyard of the church---we think of Matthew 20 here---each worker has a vineyard, a soul, in which some things are pruned and uprooted, and other things are nurtured. The vines within each person are all engrafted into the One Vine. But then she says, “everyone is joined to your neighbor’s vineyards without any dividing lines. They are so joined together, in fact, that you cannot do good or evil for yourself without doing the same for your neighbors (from Weavings, September/October, 2001).

How are our vines joined together, and what does that have to do with bearing fruit?

Many, many people in this congregation are developing a friendship with Jesus. Prayers are being said. The scriptures are studied. And many, many people express their love for one another. There are calls of concern in sickness, and there are occasions of celebration in health. There is play and there is deep sharing of life. There is a connection and there is a communion.

There is also a calling, and this flows naturally from all that happens here. To be honest, I prefer not to be the judge of whether we are bearing fruit. God will take care of that. There are some things we can measure: How many are served through Room in The Inn? 300 homeless men and women. How many are served through the weekday school? Almost 300 children. How many are served on a typical day at the medical clinic at Cap Haitian, Haiti? About 250. How many persons in recovery meet here on a given Monday or Friday evening? 200. How many people of all ages come on a Sunday morning to study the scriptures in a classroom? More than 500. How many people gather to worship God here on a given Sunday? Sometimes 600, sometimes 700, sometimes 800 and sometimes 900. How many people of all ages sing or play an instrument as an offering in worship? All told, about 300.

Sometimes we can measure the fruitfulness. But sometimes we cannot measure it. A homebound member is visited, and there is prayer and communion. A young child from an at-risk family is tutored. A struggling family is able to keep their electricity on. A man with a chronic illness is supported by his Sunday School class. A couple struggle with alcoholism within their family. A young adult discovers a purpose for her life. A couple feel supported as their son is in Iraq. A woman reflects on the joy of knowing that God has led her family to this church. If we look closely enough, we do recognize that the whole world is our vineyard.

My inclination is to want to measure the fruitfulness, because I am caught up in the American way of wanting to quantify everything. There is a discipline to that, a discipline that makes us more efficient, perhaps even better stewards. But the harvest, finally, is God’s to judge. He will measure our fruitfulness. He simply calls us bear fruit.

I invite you to discover, or rediscover, the abundance of the Christian life: It is a connection with God. It is a communion with each other. And it is a calling to bear fruit in the world.


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