Rev. Martha Jacobs
“Being Cared for by the Divine Vinegrower”
Psalm 22:25-31, John 15:1-8
Sunday, April 29, 2018
“Abide in me as I abide in you.” Or, as translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, “Make your home in me just as I do in you.” “Make your home in me just as I do in you.” This particular image resonated with me when I was working on my sermon. I could not move away from it. It took a bit of discerning to understand why, but I finally made the connection – and I want to share that with you today. As I was working on this sermon, I realized that I had not shared much with you about my conversion to Christianity from Judaism; this reading has brought that to the fore today.
When I was 16, I started singing solos in my high school Drama teachers’ church. Mr. Laird, to whom I am still close, was the organist in his church and invited me sing there. My parents, who had no idea what even happened in a church, were okay with it, since it would provide exposure for me as a performer. At the time, I was focused on becoming a musical comedy actor. So, they reasoned that singing in public was good practice for me and it was broadcast locally on the radio, so perhaps I’d get some exposure beyond the church walls.
What neither my parents, nor I, nor even Mr. Laird anticipated, was that I was going to start hearing about a different kind of God than the one I had grown up knowing. Actually, “knowing” is a misnomer, because I really didn’t know God as a Jewish child. God was the God of the Jewish people – not my own personal God. I would never have thought to pray to God if I had a problem. That was not the kind of God I had been exposed to. So, hearing about, actually listening to, stories about a God who had walked on this earth, and had bestowed upon people God’s Spirit, so that God’s Spirit abided within people, was a totally new experience of God for me.
What I heard at the age of 16, was that God was not only out there somewhere; God was inside of me, too. Initially, that was a scary and odd concept. But, once I opened myself up to that idea, I began to experience something within me that lightened my heart in a way that I could not explain. I also felt a closeness to God that I had never before felt. For the first time in my young life, I felt like I was cared for in a very deep way by something much greater than I. I also felt a connection to the people in the church in a very different way. It was like something in me connected to something in them.
When I went forward during an altar call to accept Jesus as my savior, I felt a part of a great cloud of witnesses. A spark had ignited inside me and it didn’t go out. It was then that I realized just how inter-twined I was in that community because we were connected with each other and with God. Further, a peace descended on me unlike anything I had ever experienced.
That is why I love Eugene Peterson’s translation of this passage – “Make your home in me just as I do in you.” Because that is what it felt like – I had come home. Of course, as a 17 year old, that feeling of peace didn’t last too long. But, that feeling of being home with God remained. It comes into my heart more and more, the more I serve God. And, not surprisingly, the more I interconnect with and am intertwined with all of you, the more God feels at home with me and I with God.
Another aspect of this reading that ties in to my conversion is the feeling I came to embrace of the intertwined relationship between God and us. Jesus chose to talk about vines and pruning because the disciples and his other followers were very familiar with the way that vines work. The people knew that vines, left to themselves, grow uncontrollably and result in one tangled mess. What Jesus does is takes this ordinary image of a vine and transforms it into a symbol of community, love and working together.
Jesus will care for us as the vinegrower cares for the vineyard – carefully, tenderly, cutting away those things that keep us from drawing closer to the source of our light and love and nurturing us so that we can reach out and serve beyond our own vineyard. Our life force flows from that vine, and we need to stay close to it so that we can grow and move beyond ourselves to help others who are in need.
Vines are such a great metaphor because they intertwine in such intricate ways that they can’t be separated, or at least not easily. That was the feeling I experienced at Immanuel Baptist Church in Wilmington Delaware so many years ago and I can still vividly feel that intertwining, that interconnectedness I had with them and with the other young people that I came to hang out with and get to know, even as I got to know God and Jesus better. That feeling has continued as I have grown with you and drawn closer to you and have come to an even deeper home with God.
When we are intertwined, we are accountable to each other. And, we need each other to grow and to blossom and to stay humble. Working together at the Barn Sale is definitely one way to grow, to blossom and to stay humble. When I look at all of the merchandise that we have been given to sell, it truly humbles me. When I talk with people while sorting, folding, pricing and eating together, I blossom and grow both in my faith and in my sense of my call to serve with you.
Cutting away some of the unproductive growth sounds scary to me. But, as I have learned from working in our garden at home, sometimes one needs to cut away a blossom that looks beautiful, but it is not enabling other blossoms to grow. We do that with our tomato plants. If one is getting too big, we cut it back so that the nutrients move in a more concentrated way than trying to spread to branches that are not going to hold the tomatoes that will grow on them. Apparently, fruit, such as grapes, and perhaps tomatoes, too, are sweeter and larger the closer they are to the center of the vine where the nutrients are most concentrated.
One of the other concepts that was new to me when I was worshipping at Immanuel Baptist Church, was the way we prayed. The idea of praying to God and to Jesus for things that I needed or was having a hard time with was new to me. And, praying directly to God and Jesus for others, sometimes for people I knew in the congregation and sometimes for strangers, was a scary idea, but eventually became a rewarding experience. It emphasized the interconnectedness of all of us and how intertwined our lives are.
Surprisingly, or not really surprisingly, praying for a stranger came up on Friday afternoon, as I was working on this sermon. I received an email from Barbara Cardone. It read as follows: “I have been emailing a Barn Sale customer about a pickup and she mentioned that she had been spending a lot of time at doctor’s offices recently. Her son, Robert Constable, is 2.5 years old and has health issues. I don’t know what the issues are, but I told her that we would add him and her family to our prayer list.”
That is one of the things I love about our community and the intertwining of our hearts and spirits together. Offering to pray for someone we don’t even know is nurturing for that person and for us. For example, we prayed for Jo Lunetta’s husband, Don, before most of us even knew either of them. Now Jo is intertwined in our community of faith. Our divine vinegrower has been busy at work, pruning, nurturing, growing and supporting this community of faith.
For a member of this church to offer, as Barbara did, that we would pray for the child of someone who was donating to our Barn Sale, is so deeply touching to me. It brings new meaning to “Make your home in me just as I do in you.” For when we reach out, we are welcoming others into our home, into our life with Jesus and with God.
The Rev. Lindsay Armstrong points out that we are both reassured as well as challenged by the pruning and harvesting of our faith. She believes that the writer of the Gospel of John has Jesus telling us “that we branches will be cared for by the divine vinegrower who knows just how to develop us, exactly when to prune, when to wait, and when to harvest.” I can’t imagine being cared for by anyone other than our Divine Vinegrower. Remember, Jesus said, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” This is not a one-way relationship. Jesus promises to be with us, even as we are with him.
That spark that I felt when I was 16 was Jesus – making his home in me, because I had opened my heart to him and was making my home in him. And, as I serve with you, as I said earlier, I grow closer and closer to God and to each of you. I have so much for which to be grateful. God has been faithful to me since that day when I was 16. That spark continues to burn brightly in me and enables me to love others in ways I never imagined possible. God’s love flows deep within us as we open our hearts and minds to make our home in Jesus just as Jesus makes his home in us.
 Lindsay Anderson, Feasting on the Gospels: John, Vol. 2, “Pastoral Perspective”.