Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2, 2021 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Acts 8:26-40+Psalm 22:24-30+1 John 4:7-21+John 15:1-8

Back in 1980, long before the drinking of fine wine was something anyone could do and not just the wealthy and supposedly cultured, my former brother-in-law, Harry, purchased a parcel of land in the rolling hills of the Willamette Valley south of Portland, Oregon. At the time, only 800 acres or so of land in that area were devoted to vineyards. Now, there are almost 20,000 acres. California was wine-growing country in the U.S., but Harry had a dream and bought the land, and two years later, along with his wife and two small children, he planted his first grapes. It took another three years for a harvest and five more before his first winery was founded.

Winemaking is more than just planting grapes, though. A good vintner has to know a little geology, a little meteorology, topography, soil, terrain, and, when it comes to making the wine, a lot of chemistry. You also have to know agriculture because to grow grapes is to be a farmer. It takes years to get the vines to where they reliably produce the kind of fruit you are looking for. After each growing season, up to 90% of new growth is pruned back to strengthen the vine and encourage grapes that produce the best vintage. After forty years, Harry, along with his wine-making daughter Wynne, has produced some of the most sought-after and highly-rated wines coming out of Oregon – smooth Pinot Noir, refreshing Riesling, versatile Pinot Gris. It is a labor of love for them that takes hard work, expertise, and a deep belief in the wine they produce.

When I read the part of John’s gospel we read this morning, it is this image that comes to mind, of the hard work and persistence and single-mindedness that Harry brought to his vineyard.

Jesus says that God “removes every branch in me that bears no fruit,” that “every branch that bears fruit” is pruned to make it bear more fruit. Once these branches are pruned – separated from the vine – they wither. They’re worth nothing and are burned in the fire.  But the branches that stay connected thrive, producing an abundance. It is the way of vines and branches.

But why is Jesus talking about this in his farewell discourse? We are in that part of John’s gospel where Jesus has already washed the feet of the disciples and spends the next few chapters giving them some last words, final instructions, before his arrest which he knows is coming. “I am the vine” is the last of his ego eimi statements, the “I am” statements that are an echo of God’s words to Moses from the burning bush – I am who I am. All of these “I am” statements – bread of life, the gate, the Good Shepherd, the way, the truth, the life, and now the vine – are about relationship. Jesus’s relationship with God, with us, and our relationships with each other. But this last one – “I am the vine” – is saying something unique. Jesus is telling his followers that they will not survive what is to come if they don’t abide, don’t stay connected, as branches to the vine.

“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says (15:4). When this word appears in the gospels, it generally means “to stay” or “to remain.” When Jesus tells Zacchaeus the tax collector that he’s coming to his house, he says “I must stay/abide at your house today” (Luke 19:5), and when the two on the road to Emmaus invite Jesus to stay with them, “he entered to abide with them” and was revealed as the risen Lord when he broke the bread (Luke 24:29). There is an intimacy, a familiarity, in this abiding. Last week, when we heard about the Good Shepherd who knows the sheep and the sheep know the shepherd, there is, again, an intimacy in the relationship. It is relationship nurtured by spending time together, listening, intuiting, understanding.

If Jesus abides in us and we in him, then we take on his character, his characteristics. Just as in the winemaking industry there is a concept of terroir, of being able to tell a wine’s origin by its characteristics – the air and soil and climate that create the conditions for that particular kind of wine – so we are known by our terroir. In what do we abide? Are we connected to the vine? If we are known by our fruits and are rooted in that vine, then others will know who and whose we are. And what does such abiding look like for us? Coming together in whatever ways we can to worship God, to pray together, to study scripture, and to live out our faith in the world through service and justice-making. When we abide in God, we invite God to change the way we go about the business of living, to prune us and shape us into the people God would have us be.

In the reading from Acts, Philip, one of those who had been recruited by the apostles to care for the poor and widows who had grown too numerous for the twelve to manage, baptized the Ethiopian eunuch into the body of Christ in a pool of water. We, too, are grafted onto the vine in our baptism, receiving spiritual nourishment from the one true vine. This is how we are known. This is how Christ abides in us and with us. We must bear good fruit in this world that needs the kind of love and compassion and relationship that Jesus is offering. Through this sharing of Good News, we, like Philip, invite those we encounter into a life-transforming relationship with God and each other, grafted into the household of faith.

Harry spent years cultivating what became Chehalem Winery and now Ribbon Ridge Winery. Some years it did not go so well, and others, the wine exceeded all expectations. It is slow and painstaking work, and now Wynne will continue that and maybe even her baby Julian after her. Our work is equally slow and painstaking. We may be the branches of the vine, but we have our own vineyard in which we labor. And it is slow work, building and planting and pruning, and, every now and then, getting a glimpse of God’s reign. Stay connected, drink deeply from the source of our strength, and continue in this work of making real God’s promises to all people.

ASEPSermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2, 2021 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas