Viticulture in the Holy Land: a sermon for Eucharist on the 5th Sunday of Easter, preached on 2 May 2021 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes.
(Acts 8: 26 – 40 and John 15: 1 – 8)
If you have been to the Jordan Valley, you will know that it is much warmer and more humid than the countryside surrounding it. That is because it is some 750 feet below sea-level and can therefore, perhaps unexpectedly, support the growing of bananas. It was here, at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee, that I spent several months working on a collective fruit farm – one of the famed kibbutzim of Israel. This was not very recently, you understand, but in my youth – if your imaginations can cope with that concept. Each evening Hilka, who was in charge of us, would sidle up to our table at supper and say (as though this was extraordinary news), “Tomorrow, yes, bananot.”
This was quite simple work: you detached the huge bunch of bananas from each tree, and then cut the tree down with a sort of serrated knife, which sliced through the layers of what appeared to be corrugated cardboard that formed the trunk. It was a satisfactory process that required little skill and even less judgment.
But now and then, when Hilka sidled up, he would declare, “Tomorrow, yes, GRAPE.” That was quite a different matter. One had to get up well before dawn, because once the sun came up and shone on the grapes, it was impossible to tell which were already ripe, if some were to be picked. But, before that, it had been necessary to remove some of the grapes from the growing clusters, to give the rest room to expand and reach their potential size. This was a somewhat sad process, since the immediate result was to spoil the shapely young clusters and make them look tatty. But we knew that ultimately it was all for the best. Both these activities, pruning and picking, required a certain amount of judgment and technique.
I take it that, as native of Galilee, Jesus had some knowledge about these matters of viticulture. Each branch would obviously have to be fruit-bearing in the first place; then it would need pruning so that in the end the clusters could reach their maximum size and strength. And that needed the vine-dresser’s expertise and judgment.
This is presumably what he has in mind as he begins, “My Father is the vinegrower.” We need to look to Him in the first place, to be, at least potentially, fruit-bearing. That is why we are here today, to develop that relationship. Then both we and God use our judgment to discern what is really important in our lives and prune away the dross. So, as our lives are spiritually enriched, God makes them even more fruitful.
As you see, this is a two-way process. It requires us to keep in contact with the main stem of which we are branches, with “the true vine” – Jesus himself. This we do through regular prayer, thoughtful devotion, and constant awareness of God in our lives and in the world around us. Thus we may develop that quality of holiness and service which the Ethiopian ennuch (in our Acts reading) must have discerned in Philip as they spoke about Isaiah’s meaning. So may God be glorified in us, in our lives, and by who we are.
Jesus said: “Every branch that bears fruit God prunes to make it bear more fruit.”