The Sweetest Grapes are Closest to the Vine

This spring when I planted my garden, I included some pumpkins for my husband.

Typically, I try to avoid plants with vines, because they tend to take over the entire garden.  I plant bush varieties of cucumbers and squash and beans to keep everything more compact.

But pumpkins don’t come in bush varieties 😉

I planted only four seeds… all together in one mound…

They were planted at the right depth, they were watered and weeded.  And the vines grew.

As the summer went on, the vines took over the garden with their broad leaves and bright yellow flowers.  Stretching the entire length of my garden were glorious vines and the beginning of fruits. The weather was perfect for vine production… maybe not so much for fruit… but definitely for vines. 

But there were some scattered ugly brown vines here and there.  

In the midst of all of the living, thriving vines, some were dying. 

Now… the pumpkins really did take over much of my garden.  And so I had to tread carefully through the chaos to trace those dying vines and find the source of the problem. 

All of them were connected to a single branch… a single shoot off of the main stalk that had been severed from the vine.  Perhaps it was a rabbit or a chipmunk.  Maybe a bug.  Maybe I stepped on it.  No matter what had happened, every vine that branched off from that point was dying because it was no longer connected to the roots and stem that gave it life. 


In our scripture this morning, we are reminded that we will die spiritually… that we are incapable of producing fruit when we are not attached to the vine, when we are not connected to the roots which nourish us.  

And our true vine is Christ… the Christ we meet in worship… the Christ we meet in God’s Word… the Christ we meet in fellowship and in the face of the stranger.


As I studied this scripture, I set aside my paltry knowledge of pumpkins and turned to the world of grapes.  

Did you know that the best and the sweetest grapes are found closest to the vine?  

Nancy Blakely reflects that this is because they are closer to the source, “where the nutrients are the most concentrated.”  In fact, this is why growers of grapes are so diligent about pruning their vines… because the farther away from the vine the grapes are, the bitterer and the smaller they will be.  

But close in, close to the heart of the vine, abiding near the heart, they find the nourishment they need and produce bountifully.  


As we have been exploring a life of discipleship, so far we have explored what it means to be people who worship and people who share in God’s hospitality towards others.

But we also need to be fed and nourished in our work.  As Jesus reminds us in the gospel of John:

“A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine.  Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me… without me, you can’t do anything.”


So today, we turn our attention towards our spiritual formation, or how we stay connected to the vine.    What it means to abide in God and to remain in Jesus.

Take out the half sheet of paper that describes those various levels of spiritual formation.  

Maybe you are a small bunch of grapes way out there on the edge of the vine.   Many of us in worship today want to know more about God and Jesus and you are curious and getting started.  And that is amazing.    

We have third graders who will be learning today with their bible partners after worship…  but even if you are older than a third grader, its not too late to start.  

All of us should be reading the bible… it is the number one way that we stay connected with Jesus.  And it is a whole lot easier when you are in a safe place where you can ask questions and learn together.

We have been trying to offer Sunday morning bible studies, and I, personally, have been disappointed that more of you have not signed up.  Maybe it’s not the right time… but bible study itself is something that this church really needs in order for us to grow spiritually.

In fact, this is so important to me, that starting in November, I’m going to be leading a bible study every Wednesday night, and I’d love for you to join me.  


Maybe you are a bunch of grapes that is a bit closer in to the vine.  Growing a bit sweeter and bigger and fuller.   Do you regularly spend time reading your bible?  Are you finding other ways to connect with God through prayer or contemplation?

Maybe then your next step is to go deeper with others.  Our life groups have been places where many have been formed and have grown in their faith as they connect with God or each other.  They have made prayer beads, and explored topics like forgiveness and stewardship.  Some of our in-depth scripture studies like Covenant or Disciple have really challenged people to take seriously the bible in a new way.  If you are ready to go deeper… we have resources – either within the church or through retreats like Walk to Emmaus to help you connect more fully to the one true vine.  


Maybe you are a strong bunch of grapes… ripe, sweet, and full… right up there tucked in close to the vine.  Are you in a place where get up every day, ready to connect with God?  Do you not simply wait for the church to offer something, but seek out opportunities to learn and to grow?  

Maybe your next step is to turn your life-giving energy towards others.  Whether it is a partner for our third graders, or a leader of a class or life group, or personally mentoring someone… in helping another person grow, you will grow in new ways yourself.


One limitation of our vine metaphor is that it makes us think we are fixed in and we are not.  

You are not limited by wherever it is you are on the vine.  

If you are a tiny, sour little bunch of grapes way out on the edge, you can take the next step and move a bit closer to God.  

If you are a bunch of grapes that is not yet ripe, but growing… you can take the next step and move a bit closer to God. 

And you can carry the vine itself with you wherever you might go.  This vine is not meant to be stuck in the ground at 2900 49th Street…. We are meant to move and be engaged in the world with Jesus.


Now, there is another category of people who are not listed on this sheet, but who come up in our scripture:  The spiritually wilted and dying.  

Maybe you were closely connected to the vine at some point, but that day has come and gone.  

You know, none of us are perfect.

All of us let things besides God into the center of our lives at one time or another.

Just like my vines were cut off by critters or bugs or clumsy feet, maybe you were disconnected by work or family responsibility, disappointment or doubt.

The troubling part of this scripture for me is always the part about the pruning.  It appears like God the vinedresser simply snips off those dead and wilted branches from the vine, throws them in the fire or compost pile, and forgets about them… just like I did with my pumpkin vines this summer.  

So is there any hope for those of us who aren’t as connected as we would like?


No matter who you are or where you are in your relationship with God, there is always a chance to take a next step and be formed spiritually.

Even if you have broken away from the vine.

You see… the same God who talks about pruning also talks about grafting.

Grafting is a process where a branch can be attached to the trunk and roots of another tree – in many cases, different types of trees and plants are connected together for hybridization and for strength and growth.

In the scriptures, Paul talks not about vines, but about trees… the family tree of God.  The gentiles were grafted on to that tree… brought into the family after some of the faithful branches broke off.  

In Romans, chapter 11, he talks about those branches were broken off because of their own unbelief.

But if God could take us… gentiles who didn’t belong… and graft us on to the tree… then God has the power to reattach the broken branches, too.  

Even the branches that appear to be dead and dying have the ability to be restored by God’s grace.  

This morning, the bread and juice from this table will go to our homebound members who are not able to be physically present with us today, so too do we need to take the vine with us to those who are in danger of being cut off.

You are the hands and feet, the branches and leaves of Christ in this world.  And maybe you are the reconnection point for someone you know.  Maybe it is your own son or daughter. Or a friend. It might be a neighbor who hasn’t opened a bible or door to a church in a very long time.

With God’s grace and strength flowing through you, let the love of God that abides in you overflow into your love for them.

This World Communion Sunday reminds us that we don’t do faith all by ourselves.  Every part of the Body of Christ across this globe is a branch of the one true vine.  And parts of this world are broken and hurting, full of anger, pain, and grief.  

But as Kate Huey puts it, “Here, up close to the vine, immersed in [God’s love and peace], we find not only nourishment but also hope and joy, and we let God’s word ‘find a home in us through faithful devotion… ‘ When we remain that close to Jesus, we attuned to him and he to us, the remarkable result is that what we want will be what God wants, and it will surely come to pass.”

And it will take all of us, living together in love, growing deeper in our love and knowledge of God, to truly transform this world into what God desires.  But we aren’t alone. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

My Book of Resolutions

Resolution 2013.1

WHEREAS, my change in job has caused some stress in my family life

WHEREAS, stability is sometimes more important than flexibility

WHEREAS, I need to remember this job is a marathon, not a sprint

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that I will prayerfully (and with consulatation from my husband) discern my schedule in the future – especially planned time away

LET IT FUTHER BE RESOLVED, that I will ask for help when I need it, delegate where I can, and remember that giving 100% to this work is often about empowering other people to serve as well.


Resolution 2013.2

WHEREAS, being on the road has meant less time for self care

WHEREAS, I need to serve God with mind, soul and BODY

WHEREAS, health requires sleep and exercise and good food.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that I am giving up fast food.

LET IT BE FURTHER RESOLVED, that I will exercise 4x/week.


Resolution 2013.3

WHEREAS, in extension ministry I am without a church home

WHEREAS, I took opportunities this fall to travel on weekends and rest from the Sunday routine in one particular church

WHEREAS, the discipline kind of requires that I find a church

WHEREAS, it is good for my soul to worship with others on a regular basis and not just sporadically with different folks

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that I will find a church home by the end of January.


Resolution 2013.4

WHEREAS, I have lost my weekly bible study group in Marengo.

WHEREAS, I am not preaching every Sunday and therefore not doing regular textual study, either.

WHEREAS, regular time with the scriptures is good for my mind and my spiritual life.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that I will have coffee every week with a good friend of mine and the Bible

Who is God?

I realized today how theologically illiterate my congregation is.

That may seem like a slam, or a critique, but it is a simple reality.

And it is a reality that is not their fault.

As we began our discussion of Max Ludado’s Outlive Your Life we focused for a bit on a very simple question:  If someone who didn’t know much about the Bible and was not a Christian asked you to describe what God is like, what would be your answer?

The room went silent.

They all stared at me… or their navels… for a few seconds.

And then someone confessed it was a really hard question.

As a religion student, as a seminary student, as someone who has prepared intensely for ordination examinations… it was an easy question to answer for me.  I had taken some time to think about it. I’ve wrestled with what I want to say.  And depending on who I am talking to, I can talk about what God is like in a variety of ways.  I talk about incarnation… about God taking flesh.  I talk about love.  I talk about grace and mercy.  I talk about a God who blesses us with a way, a path, a rule of community to follow.

I don’t have to sit and think for thirty minutes about what I might say.  It’s right there.

But it is because I have taken the time, already, to think about the answer.

That room full of people had not.

Throughout their religious life, they had learned to read the bible.  They have found comfort in the words of scripture and strength for tribulations.  Devotional texts inspire them for daily living. Sermons have given them morsels to chew on. Some of them may have memorized catechisms… although many probably don’t remember them. They have been given some very excellent tools for theological reflection… but they have not been taught how to use them FOR theological reflection.

There was a critical step missing.
In the realm of reading we might call it comprehension or application.  You move past the ability to read the words on the page and learn how to apply them, how to expand upon them, how to use them in different contexts.
My congregation has learned to read and study and listen… but they have not yet learned a theological language.
I’m not talking about big and fancy words.  As our book points out – Peter and John spoke very effectively about their faith while at the same time coming across as “unschooled, ordinary men.” (Acts 4:13)  We don’t have to have an storehouse of knowledge… we just need to know how to apply and consolidate and process all it is that we have been learning.
Theology at its root is simply words about God.  How do I teach my congregation to speak in words about God?  How can I teach them to answer a simple question like, “who is God?”

I don’t want to give them “answers.”  I think that our movement away from memorized catechisms and wrote learning can empower us to think for ourselves, to develop the skills necessary to learn even more complex things.

But how do you begin to teach critical theological thinking?  How do you begin to encourage congregation members to draw conclusions, to speak out loud words from their hearts about God?

My first step is to simply have this conversation.  To point out that this is tough work, but that as Christians, we are called to be able to articulate what we believe.  We need to do the work.

My second step is to stop providing answers all the time.  I was asked point blank how I would answer by someone in the course of our discussion. At that point, I realized any answer by myself would limit their ability to begin down this path of wrestling.

But I also turn to you, blogging world.  What has helped your congregations to develop this kind of language?  Do we simply have to wait for the Holy Spirit to show up when we open our mouths?  Can it be taught?  Where do you begin?

s “I” n

Another Wednesday morning conversation with local pastors on the lectionary. I really enjoy this time to meet with my colleagues and talk about how to translate the gospel into plain language and a word that our congregation can make a part of their lives. The scriptures are tricky. They are written in ancient languages, in ancient contexts, and they use ideas and concepts that really just don’t translate to our world today.

This morning in particular, we talked about the first healing in the gospel of Mark. I hadn’t thought about this before, but there isn’t a whole lot of demonic activity in the Old Testament. And there isn’t a whole lot of demonic activity after Jesus either. At least not in the same sense that we see in these scriptures. As I talked with a friend about it today, we talked about how the “powers” might work in our world today.

In all honesty he said, if evil works through manipulation – then in people who are superstitious and believe in spirits – then working through evil spirits and demons makes sense. But in our modern scientific culture, we don’t buy the whole “spirits” thing. What if the devil is simply working through other means – through means by which we can be manipulated – reason, science, false theology, etc.

I hadn’t ever thought of that before – and it really made sense. I think that throughout history God reaches out to us in different ways – so why not the evil powers of the world as well?

After that, i headed to the church for our weekly bible study. This group basically reads through a book or section of the bible and we try to understand it, but mostly, it is to get a feel for the whole story. Right now we are in Numbers, and I found myself stopping the group after every paragraph to explain a few important pieces. We were reading in particular the section where it talks about what a man should do if he is jealous and suspects his wife of cheating. There is all of this talk of bitter water and the priest and fallen thighs and it made no sense. So I translated. “If a guy is jealous, he takes his wife to the priest, who then administers this bitter water solution… if she is pregnant (presumably by another man) it will cause a miscarriage. If she is not pregnant, either she has not been cheating and is cleared, or doesn’t get caught… but it’s likely that she won’t do it again. All guys are in the clear and won’t get in trouble for their actions.”

Comments ranged from “that’s not fair” to “why would they do that?” I explained that one reason is that women were viewed much differently – as property, as the belonging of the husband in this time. But also, that the law actually provided a way for a woman to prove her innocence – so in that sense, it was protective.

We also talked about the vow of the Nazarite. And I noticed in particular a different understanding of what sin might be within these passages. The Nazarite is not allowed to touch a corpse, but if someone dies right next to that person, and so they are unwillfully put in contact with the corpse, they have still sinned. There is a process for cleansing and setting things right in relationship to God and their vows.

We think about sin and law as an act that ‘I’ have done that breaks a law. It carries a sense of guilt and punishment. But when we think about law as order, as a process, as a way of being – then sin is simply when that order gets out of balance. What is required is not punishment, but restoration.

I have found that my congregation really tends to think of the law as this harsh thing that condemns and convicts – the law needs to be laid down – God is always telling us how we are supposed to act and we are faithful if we follow all those laws to a “T”. I’m really trying to get them to have a more graceful understanding of the law. God’s Word should rule our lives, and God’s grace is what saves us and the law is still a good thing that helps us to live more in line with God’s will. But it is also in many places used to describe a way of being that is not in line with our culture, and we have to use God’s grace to interpret the laws we read in Numbers.


This Wednesday morning, like almost every Wednesday morning, I headed over to the local cafe for breakfast with other area pastors. Normally it is me and the LCMS pastor and the DCE from his church and it’s quite an odd combination. But we get along really well and have some fantastic conversations.

Occasionally we are joined by one or another pastor from town… this morning it was the Presbyterian pastor. If the ELCA Lutheran pastor comes, then I’m not the only female, but I haven’t seen her for a while.

I’m pretty routine about what I order. A cup of earl grey tea and a pancake. Sometimes a side of bacon. It depends on how much I want to clog my arteries that particular morning.

After breakfast with the lectionary group, I head back to church to study the bible with a small group of parishoners. They like to read through whole books at a time, so when I arrived last January, they were in the middle of Isaiah. They got through the prophets and decided to start at the beginning, with Genesis. We started Numbers today and I am always amazed at the repetition of so many passages in the bible. So and So’s family number forty thousand two hundred and fifty men, over the age of twenty, who were able to serve the lord. So and so’s family numbered…. you get the picture. We skipped some of the repetition this morning =)

It is so hard to imagine that the numbers describe in Numbers are possible. That over a million people would have been moving nomadically together through the wilderness. As we listened to each other describe each clan’s task in the movement and protection of the tabernacle, I got to thinking about a book I read recently, Water for Elephants. It describes the journey of a young man who joins a circus train, and I got to thinking about how the whole circus comes to town and how the big tent and everything gets unloaded and put up seemingly in a moment. And when the circus is ready to move, everything gets torn down again in the blink of an eye. It seems like as close of a paralell as anything else I can imagine for what it must have been like to travel with the tabernacle of God.

I spent the rest of my day at work finishing my candidacy continuance interview forms. In our church, you are commissioned first and then must be continued for the next two years, and then finally you can apply for ordination (complete with about 50 pages of papers and lessons and sermons). I’m grateful in the busyness of this year that I didn’t have to write all of those papers. But even getting the short questions I had to answer done seemed like a chore. So many copies to be made, so many envelopes to be addressed. I’m looking forward to my conversation with my interview team in March. There are more people on my team now, I think only two of them are the same as my previous two teams, so it’s exciting to talk with them about my ministry and where I can grow and what resources they might have for me.

lusting whores in Ezekiel…

Well. I’ve been going to a bible study that meets at the church… not necessarily a bible study really… they gather to read the bible together, out loud, and have snacks.

Yesterday morning, Ezekiel 23 happened to be where we were (they are reading straight through… I think they might have started with Jeremiah)… and holy cow! I have never read that chapter before… and I don’t think that any of them had either! The chapter talks about two sisters who are whores… an analogy for the cities of Jerusalem and Samaria… but if you aren’t reading with a careful enough eye or a critical enough spirit, you don’t quite get that right away. I’m not quite sure how they would have preceeded through that chapter without me! And while I tried really hard this morning to keep quiet… mostly so I could observe what normally happens in this group… this chapter was just too difficult!

One thing that I have learned from this group however… well, from the church members in general… is that I need to learn how to love the Bible. I think there is a book by Peter Gomes – The Good Book – and I’m going to try to read it sometime soon. I realized that when I go to the bible to read it, I’m looking for the themes, I’m looking for the historical connections, I’m looking at it academically and critically, thinking of it most of the time as a message for people a long time ago and hoping that with the Holy Spirit’s help that something might apply to my life today. The people I have met in my congregation just love to read the bible. One homebound member actually said that she doesn’t really understand the bible, it gets all confusing, she just loves to read the words. She said – all of that figuring the message out – that’s not for us lay people. And that mindset really confuses me! There is a sort of simpleness too it and part of me wants to challenge them and teach them to learn from the depths of the text. That kind of simple-minded reading of the bible leads to a lot of proof-texting and quoting verses without paying attention to the context. On the otherhand, this group is so passionate about reading the word of God, whether they understand it or not, that they gather each week to read it aloud to one another.

As I thought about it today, I wonder if a lectio divina method would work well with this group. I think that it might add just a little bit of structure to their reading and allow them to focus on smaller isolate chunks and really absorb them deeply. It would give them a chance to lift up phrases that speak to them and help them to look more closely at what is going on.