There is something poetic, mysterious, and magical in a vineyard before the harvest on an early morn with the dew on the vine and the first light of a just-rising sun glistening upon the fruit. But, if you are like me, you probably do not have any experience in the vineyards except perhaps as a visitor.
The vineyard does not just happen by itself. There is a complex dance between the vine, the branches and the vine grower. For example, did you know that a single grape vine can produce as much as 13 feet of new branch growth in one growing season. What happens if all that new growth remains un-pruned? It would not be unusual for that un-pruned vine to have as many as 300 fruit producing buds. While that might sound great, that’s way too many buds for the plant to support. You might have lots of produce, but it will be incredibly low quality, and good for nothing. It would probably just end up as fuel for the fire. You would have to remove as much as 75% of the buds and the associated vegetative growth so the plant can properly develop and ripen the fruit it produces. The goal is always good fruit.
And it is not just the buds that need to be pruned in the growing season. In the late winter, some of last year’s branches need to be cut off. A branch that is more than two years old will no longer produce fruit – and so you cut it off to leave capacity for the new growth to flourish and produce fruit.
Our lives are like the vineyard. We grow, and our life accumulates things. I remember going to my first duty station in the Navy. Everything fit in the car. Soon the move required a trailer towed behind the car. Then there was the car, the trailer, and a friend with a cargo van. The years past and then one day you realize there is no room in the garage for the car, it is full of boxes and stuff – the stuff that wouldn’t fit in the rented storage unit. It is time to cut out, prune back, and give away. And you wonder… is this the good fruit I was supposed to produce or is it more like the dead wood that needs to be cut away.?
Life accumulates more than physical things – there is the normal emotional wear and tear of life lived in the real world. Friends move away, grandparents pass away, tragedy befalls someone too young, harsh words linger, grudges grow, love becomes indifferent, life takes unexpected turns, dreams fade, and there is never enough time. There are mistakes, miscues, and sin. The years past and then one day you realize you have been carrying all of this baggage and burden – to what end? All this is more like the wild grapes of life, not the good fruit. These things need to be pruned so that the good things can grow.
Of course there is good fruit in the bins, buckets, and backyards of our lives. And like the vineyard it does not just happen all by itself. There is a complex dance between the vine, the branches and the vine grower that is described in today’s gospel. We have to ask ourselves how has the good fruit blossomed right alongside the dead wood and the wild grapes? Why hasn’t the vine grower cut and pruned… or better yet why do we resist the cutting and pruning? Have we cut ourselves off from the vine? We know the dead wood and wild grapes drain away the energy and the life, and yet we hesitate to allow the hand of the grower to do what is needed.
All metaphors are imperfect. Yet there is something powerful in this metaphor of the Vine and the Branches in today’s gospel. To me it speaks of belonging and where I have put down my roots so that I might flourish and produce good fruit and in abundance. I am rooted in Jesus Christ. He is the vine that nourishes me, this small branch among the many branches. It is to Christ that I belong. It is in Christ that I am nourished and fed in prayer, at the table of the Eucharist, and in this community gathered. It is in Christ that I am pruned in the Sacrament of Confession. It is in this community that I am called to serve the needs of others. There have been many seasons in my life and the harvest of each season has been uneven. The barren seasons are the ones when I remove myself – at least to some degree – from the nourishment of the vine; when my needs outweigh the needs of the community. And yet, by the grace of God, there have been more seasons when the fruit has been plentiful. Those were, and continue to be, the seasons when I allow the grace of the vine grower to empty my garages and storage units, help me lay down the baggage and burdens, and move away from the paths of sin.
We are called to belong in Jesus’ word to us: “Remain in me, as I remain in you.” This is more than good advice or an invitation. This is a promise, that no matter what, Jesus will hold onto us as surely as the vine holds dear the branches. No matter what has been accumulated that is burdensome, troublesome, onerous, worrying, or unsettling, God is committed to nourish life and hope from the very places that seem most devoid of goodness. It is a promise that God in Jesus will bring all things to a good end.
How committed? So committed that His only Son Jesus chose not to sit back in heaven, removed from the messiness of life, but planted himself as the true vine right in the middle of our days and nights, our joys and sorrow, and all the frailties and faults of our life in this world – so that we would know of God’s unending promise to us. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was not the instrument that made it possible for God to love us, it is evidence and testimony to just how much God already loved us and God’s promise to be with us through all things. The true vine is planted, the branches grow and bloom. The vine grower is ready to prune and shape if we are willing. If we are willing.
One day there will be something poetic, mysterious, and blessed in the vineyards before the great and final harvest. On that early morn, the dew of salvation will lay upon the vine and the just-rising glory of the Son of God will glisten upon the good fruit. In this the Father is glorified.
May you bear much good fruit.