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.