A few weeks ago Ian and I spent a week in the Western Isles and, due to recommendations, went to visit the Harris distillery. There they make a rather nice gin where sugar kelp harvested from the sea is one of the botanics used to flavour the gin. In one of the places we visited they said the gin was being produced to give an income whilst the whisky matured – they wish to sell 10 year old whisky so all over Harris are barrels of whisky maturing nicely. Of course, it’s all very well making a drink that can’t be sold for 10 years but income is needed in the meantime – so they turned to making gin which doesn’t need to be aged. No one knows what the whisky is like yet but the gin is gaining quite a nice reputation. I certainly liked it!
The foresight of the owners of the Distillery in diversifying struck me as wise and something that other entrepreneurs can’t do so easily. Our Gospel reading today focuses on the image of Jesus as the fine with us as the branches.
The Bible is full of images of vines and vineyards. In the Old Testament Israel is often referred to as God’s vineyard. Interestingly young vines aren’t allowed to bear fruit for the first few years meaning a drastic pruning is needed each season so the plant can develop to its fullest. This is a huge investment on behalf of the vineyard owner; in planting new vines there will be no return on the crop for some years and these aren’t crops that can just be planted and forgotten about. The vines need to be watered, pruned and tended on a regular basis. Wages need to be paid for workers to do this long before any grapes are grown for sale. Vineyards are long term labour intensive investments – an interesting idea when considering that the Bible describes God’s people as being like vineyards – a long term labour intensive investment!
Left to their own devices vines are trailing plants that attach themselves to other things. They will grow like wildfire and, without, expert pruning and tending will grow into a huge mess. Vinedressers must cut away those branches which don’t bear fruit and also prune back fruitful branches in order to keep the grapes to the standard that is needed as the richest grapes come from nearest the vine.
Happily the vine isn’t sentient – I can’t imagine how it would feel if it was with all that pruning. At the time it wouldn’t see that it was to enable it to be more fruitful.
Back in 2001 I was working for my previous church in Manchester and we went through a dreadful period of conflict. Engineered by one person lots of people became very wound up and tried to resist the direction the rest of the church had taken. As is always the case with a church fight, some people left straight away, others mistook anger for activism and one or two folk were used as stooges for the person pulling all the strings. It took some months to sort out but part of that sorting things out meant that a lot of people left the church – numbers went to about half what they were (interestingly money held up) – and it was a grim time. Ian, being much better at this type of thing than me felt this was the best thing that had happened to the congregation as it meant we were being pruned. Being in the thick of it I felt the pruning hooks were rather sharp. Last week that congregation welcomed 13 new members and now regularly gets over 50 people a week with a reach far beyond it’s rather limited resources. Pruning is painful but necessary.
We know that the communities that John’s Gospel was written for was precarious and weak. Their choice to follow Jesus meant estrangement from family and friends. Those who were Jewish and wished to stay loyal to Judaism wouldn’t accept the radical claims of Rabbi Jesus. Those who were gentile wouldn’t accept the radical otherness required by rejecting the Imperial religious cult, the rejection of the ideas that underpinned the Roman Empire and the radical nature of the Gospel which united people across social classes. To be a follower of Jesus in the first Century meant being cast out of family, home and friendship group. It could mean social isolation and exclusion from economic life. Later it could mean persecution. Jesus’ words in today’s passage were to give encouragement to people in that situation.
Vineyard owners want to get the best yield from their vines and so need to cleanse and prune the vines. God wants the best from the Church – vines that yield fruit and so, from time to time, we also find ourselves cleansed and pruned. There is a deep mystery here as after pruning a vine can look dead and useless yet from this seemingly barren plant new rich fruit is brought forth. In my previous congregation a brutal period of pruning resulted in a rich plant which continues to yield fruit.
In different ways as a church we can think about experiences of pruning. The Church in these islands has undergone a period of pruning unprecedented in our previous existence. 54% of the Scottish population define as Christian yet just 8% here go to church regularly. That’s a huge amount of pruning – they say the number of folk going to church has halved over the last 30 years. The forces of secularism combined with more complex lives mean that church going isn’t as popular as it was. That can make us despondent.
Yet remember those seemingly bare pruned vines which yield rich fruit – there is hope. I think there are three sources for hope.
First, ultimately this is up to God. In the Reformed tradition we like to remind ourselves of God’s sovereignty. He is in charge. He knows what he is about. He continues to draw people to himself – our responsibility is not to get in the way! Are our lives attractive to those seeking God – do they see God shine out of us? Remember, God is at work we just need to attune ourselves to God and ensure we’re not in his way.
Second, stay close to the vine. Vines are kept short as the richest fruit comes from stems closest to the vine. I think this is what Jesus had in mind when he spoke the words we heard today. Staying close to Jesus involves prayer, sacrificial love and seeking to live our lives with reference to Jesus.
Third, remember the unexpected benefits of pruning. We have no idea what the Church of the future in these islands will look like; at the moment we may fear it will be useless and dead but remember from that seemingly dead vine comes rich fruit.
Will you pray with me?
Christ our vinedresser,
you tend the ground and all that grows,
to make space for fruit to flourish,
remind us of our growth in you.
Christ our vinedresser,
you prune, gather and burn,
cutting back dead wood
making room for growth,
keep us close to you.
Christ our vinedresser,
without you we cannot live,
because of you our life and love is true,
help us when we are despondent,
keep us faithful to you,
that we may show of your abundant life.