In our hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, my wife, Missy, and I bought our first house. Married about five years by that time, we cashed (with penalty) the very modest retirement fund we had accrued, and with every other red cent of our savings we cobbled together a down payment of…$8,500, less than 10% the total purchase price of $109,000. Though not so long ago, those days before The Great Recession were a different age: we Allens had absolutely no business receiving a mortgage, even if – thanks be to God – that agreement ultimately worked out well both for us for our lending institution.
Like many first-time homeowners, we filled our evenings and weekends with home-improvement projects, real-life versions of those eager people with their orange buckets in The Home Depot commercials. Our house was stylistically akin to those here in Austin’s Hyde Park. Located near Saint Vincent Mall, we visited that shopping center’s Sears & Roebuck on most Saturday mornings. Back then, “our” Sears (as we referred to it) had a large outdoor market of plants and gardening supplies that Missy enjoyed surveying, and I enjoyed studying the prices of the returned, scratch-and-dent small-engine equipment, bargaining for the tools our next project might require.
Our street was on a hill, with our eastern neighbor’s yard significantly higher than ours, and our property higher than our western neighbor’s. Over the years, the difference in elevations between our yard and that higher lot rounded the property line into a hill that, in every rain, washed mud onto our driveway. The mess made me crazy, and I finally undertook construction of a retaining wall, fifty-feet long and, at its highest point, about three-feet high. Among my proudest projects, I over-engineered the structure with treated 2” x 12” beams running its length, supported by 4” x 4” posts every three feet, or so. For the posts, I carved into the hill and dug holes at least equal to their exposed height, and then concreted them into place. When attaching the beams, I drill-tapped every hole for every bolt to avoid splitting the wood, and I trimmed the tops of each post at a commonly oriented 45-degree angle so that water would not collect and rot them from the top, down.
When we now visit family in Shreveport and drive our children by that house to show them where we brought Michael home after his birth, truth be told, I’m there to confirm nobody’s messed with my wall…that enduring monument to a special season of our life.
Among our less enduring projects, we cleared around a chain-link fence – along the same property line as that retaining wall – between ours and our neighbor’s backyard. In some long-ago time, there had been a flowerbed on their side, but, left entirely untended, its weeds had become vines that climbed that cyclone fence, scaled the utility wires between our two homes, wrapped around our gutters, and seemed to pour out from the top of what may remain the tallest and messiest gumball tree in all of creation.
Because the vines grew from the neighbor’s side of the fence, I did not assume permission to chop them down at their origin…as much as I wanted to do that. Even so, I sought to remove as much of the source as I could. I first strategized to pull at the lengths of vine from our yard: I rationalized that as long as I stayed on our side of the fence, I was good and honorable, whatever the impact across the property line. So I would wind the vines around my gloved fists and tug, but the newer shoots – though no thicker than a drinking straw– they proved pliable and tough, like green lengths of rope. I could see that pulling on these only tightened the mass’s grip on the cablevision, telephone, and electrical lines above me, but, after getting frustrated at the tangle’s audacity to refuse my intentions, I did what any sweaty twenty-something would do when working in the wet heat of a Louisiana’s summer sun: I pulled harder…and nearly yanked the neighbor’s gutter from his house.
On second thought, then, I took a pair of loppers and clipped the vines on a vertical parallel more or less even with the fence line. They snipped easily, and then I could work to unravel the mess. Though I would try to clip them in an efficient order, the way they were interwoven led me to mistake which vine was which, sometimes clipping two ends of a single length in pieces as short as a few inches. Therefore, progress was halting and slow.
In addition to the new, green shoots, there were aged brown stretches of the vine, as big around as my forearm. These had wound themselves around the fence posts and had become brittle enough that I could snap them off in long chunks from their holds. While gnarled on their exposed side, the inside of these eldest runs of vine were smoothed from the metal poles around which they had grown.
Despite all of this good and careful labor – and lemme tell you: along with that beautiful retaining wall, that side of our yard looked like a million bucks…or at least more than eighty-five hundred – despite our work, our clearing of the fence did not keep. Anyone driving by today would need convincing that it once was well-tended, for a jungle has returned.
In the opening of this morning’s Gospel, Jesus announces, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.”[i] The lone detail of “true” distinguishes Jesus from other teachers and traditions, reinforcing the unique and essential nature of the community he convenes. As the vinegrower, God the Father prunes this planting, “remov[ing] every branch…that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear [even] more…”[ii] See, unlike that unkempt tangle in my Louisiana backyard, this vine serves a purpose, filling baskets and bowls with grapes and berries and melons. Therefore, while I served as the vine vanquisher in my backyard, God serves as the grower, strengthening the vine so that it might climb and crawl as grand and as fruitful as possible.
After that opening “I am” couplet – “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower” – Jesus sets up the reader for what we anticipate will be a repetition, starting again, “I am the vine…” However, in a rhetorical twist, Jesus adds instead, “you are the branches”…I am the vine, and you are the branches. With this pivot, Jesus focuses on the community he assembles, rather than the God who inspires him. Without getting too lost in the horticulture of the metaphor, as branches of the true vine, this community’s members will be strong – strong as green rope – weaving in and around one another. Further, this vineyard community will prove enduring and difficult to clear, for each of its shoots will grow with purpose, into and through the setting where it has been planted, so that when forces tug on its growth, the vine will pull even more tightly together.
During this season of Easter, we have readied ourselves for Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s visit next Saturday, and we have focused our preparation on the idea of “discipleship.” Let us distinguish “discipleship” from “membership:” while membership depends upon association, discipleship depends upon action…while membership depends upon association, discipleship depends upon action. In Jesus’ imagery from this morning, we are all branches of the same vine – members of the same community – but membership alone is not enough. No, we must be active as disciples and bear faithful fruit.
Now, on the one hand, as encouraging as I find our identity as branches of Jesus’ true vine, on the other hand, the threats of being withered, thrown away, and burned, effectively lure my anxieties…I’m a sucker for the scary parts. Therefore, I seek to remember, as well, that “There is no fear in love, [for] perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and…we love because [God] first loved us.”[iii] See, this Gospel teaching intends to imagine the love with which God imbues and attends the community Jesus inaugurates, casting out fear of punishment. Those gnarled lengths of browned vine had not been judged by God, but, by their own stubborn smoothing themselves on those fence posts, they left the more vital tangle, growing thick, but frail – mature, but weak – until they could easily be pulled apart.
Today we celebrate with twenty-five of our parish children and their families, all of whom have spent time together this spring learning about our celebrations of the Eucharist. Akin to my experience in the Roman Catholic church, this morning some of these young people will receive Communion for the first time, while others will receive the bread and wine with a renewed appreciation for its significance. To every one of you children, I remind you that you are branches of God’s true vine! Please allow me to join with your whole church community and to give thanks for the fruits you have borne and will bear, the curiosities and commitments you have made this Easter season [and I have even heard that after church we have fancy donuts on the Gilbert Street playground to celebrate with you].
See, friends, rather than only checking memberships and affirming our associations on Sunday mornings, in the Eucharist we Episcopalians practice our discipleship, for these actions – of blessing and breaking, of sharing and receiving – these are the first fruits of our vineyard community. Empowered by our true vine, we branches share them with one another to practice our sharing them with the whole world: God’s love, for us and for all.[iv]