When we hear the Scriptures, we hear them with ears that are very different than those who heard Jesus speak these words. We don’t have the same lives and we have different experiences than 1st Century Palestinians did. We may be an agricultural community but we farm much differently than they did. Sometimes, we need to hear the Scriptures with the knowledge of a 1st Century agrarian community. When hearing these words of Jesus, the Palestinians would have known about dressing vines. They would know the basics of growing grapes and harvesting a vineyard.
This morning I’d like to share with you some basic knowledge of a vinedresser. I did call a vineyard to see if I could go into a vineyard with a vinedresser but they never called me back. So, I got a book called The Vinedresser’s Notebook written by a nun who spent her years of service dressing vines in the vineyard at the convent. Her commentary includes spiritual insights he gleaned from vine dressing.
I want to share with you this art because it will help us understand what it means for God to be the vine dresser of the vine which is Jesus Christ and tending us, the branches. With the full knowledge of vine dressing, we can reflect on how God has been nurturing the branches, cultivating the vineyard and harvesting the grapes around us.
Each vine in a vineyard is unique. There are new vines but the vines in a mature vineyard are very old. They will have been grown long before the current vinedresser and live well past the life of the vinedresser. The trunk of the vine is like a gnarled old thick little tree. A vine, like a tree, is marked by the years of its growth. It has marks and knots from the weather of previous growing seasons and has rings inside showing its age.
When a new plant is started, it will grow little shoots called canes. A new vine is pretty with all its canes, but it only has enough energy to nourish a few canes. If all the canes are given the opportunity to grow, none will survive because the plant can’t sustain all the canes. The vinedresser much decide which canes to allow to live attached to the vine and which ones should be cut off. This will allow the vine to concentrate its energy on only a few canes. “To grow a vine, to establish a vineyard, you always have to make strategic choices.”
There is no easy decision in choosing which canes to allow to grow and which ones to cut off. The vinedresser must decide to make cuts to balance out the vine allowing canes to grow on each side evenly. In the first years of a new vine, most of the canes are cut off so the vine’s trunk can gain strength and grow. This allows the roots to burrow deep into the ground. The vine has to have a strong root system to survive. A deep root system will allow the vine to draw up nutrients from below the surface when surface conditions aren’t well enough to nourish the vine.
When choosing which canes to keep and which to cut off, the vine dresser must be planning for the current season and the future. Some canes are chosen to bear fruit this year; others are chosen to bear fruit in future seasons. The dresser also needs to leave new growth at the bottom of the vine for future canes to develop. The vinedresser must have a vision of the vine’s future in order to know which canes to choose and which canes to cut.
When old canes get too thick, they stop bearing fruit. But, new canes can grow from old canes. Once new canes form, the thick old canes can be cut off. The natural shape of the vine can help the vinedresser decide how to help its shape develop. The vinedresser must think carefully before cutting. Canes cannot be reattached once they are cut off. It’s easier to cut off old dead branches, but very hard to sacrifice ones that look perfectly healthy and have the same chance at bearing fruit as the others.
Canes must be trimmed too. Fruit grows closest to the vine. The canes cannot be allowed to branch off too far and grow haphazardly down the trellis. Canes need to focus its energy close to the vine where it can bear fruit. All the leafy ends of the canes are pretty but don’t produce a good harvest.
The vine need a support system. It doesn’t need much at first. Just a little to make sure the vine doesn’t fall over. When you see a vineyard, you will notice neat straight rows with trellis and wires. The trellis and wires restrict the freedom of the vine. Without structure, the vine will be a haphazard mess. A support system helps the vine grow up and gives the canes something to trail along. It also supports the weight of the fruit.
New canes reach out like little fingers grabbing onto anything it can reach. The vinedresser must help the cane grow in a direction. Once the tendril of the cane grabs ahold of something, it begins to wrap itself around it. The vinedresser must continually care for the vine to make sure to guide the growth of the canes to grow in the desired direction. The canes must be uncurled and recurled while they are young and malleable helping it find a firm place to be supported. It is important to not let canes begin to wrap around one another when growing too closely together. The tendrils will use whatever it is attached to to help it grow upward.
Vines require cutting and recutting. A mile of branches won’t produce anymore fruit than a good branch close to the vine. It is important to get rid of branches that don’t bear fruit. Wild vines can produce wild fruit. But for the sweet juicy grapes we like, they must be grown in a vineyard under the care of an expert vinedresser.
Every aspect of the vine’s life is important, even the leaves. The leaves provide protection from the sun. Some of the leaves may have to go if they are mature and blocking the sun. It is about finding a good balance between light and shelter. Farmers know the importance of rain during the growing season. The right amount of rainfall spread out through the growing season is important. There needs to be a good balance of sun and rain.
In due time, the branch will produce fruit. It is important for the vinedresser to recognize when the fruit is mature. The grapes will start off green and develop into whatever shade of its final color. Grapes can look ready to pick before they are actually ready. Less ripe grapes are opaque while ripe grapes are transparent. You can tell if a grape is ready by holding it up to the sun. The final color may come before the juice has filled out the grape.
The work of the vinedresser isn’t done after the harvest has been collected. Life waits in the vine to bring forth fruit in the next season. The vine must be tended over the winter if it will bear a good harvest next year. Plants know the cycles of life and survive winter living quietly waiting for the sun and rain of Spring. The plants will know when winter has ended and when its time to start growing again.
The vinedresser in her notebook summed up all her knowledge to this: “In early Spring, plant new vines and trim old ones down to a few canes. In later Spring, clear the weeds and guide the branches. Hope for sun and rain in right measure. In Summer, watch the fruit develop. Keep checking and trimming. In Fall, enjoy the harvest but prepare for winter. Remember that in every cycle, almost everything needs to be cut but the trunk and the roots.”
“Vineyards and orchards are very different from fields of corn, beans, and wheat. Vines and trees have a sustained life that does not require a fresh start every year. They must be regarded from the perspective of past, present, and future.” Vines don’t start as seeds every year. They come for a deep origin. It will bear the same type of grape every year, but all will always have the some basic heritage.
You are a branch that has been chosen to produce fruit. Others have been cut off, but you remained. You showed promise for growing fruit for the harvest. Your ends may have been trimmed back so you don’t grow wild. You’ve been kept short and close to the vine where you will produce fruit. Leaves have been strategically allowed to grow or been cut off to protect you and allow you light. You receive plenty of sun and rain to help you grow. You are given periods of rest. You’ve been tended in the Spring, watched in the Summer, and harvested in the Fall.
You are a branch that has been chosen to produce fruit. You may be cared for by a vinedresser, but it is also your responsibility to give yourself over to the cycles of seasons. You have an innate knowledge to grow and thrive. You know you need nutrients. You know you need to grow upward. You know you need to wrap yourself around something for support.
You are a branch that has been chosen to produce fruit. You know how to produce fruit because it is in your DNA. Though, it is not easy to make grapes. You need to stay close to the vine with other branches that have been chosen as well. You need the nourishment of fellowship, prayer, worship, and the Bible. You need the rest of the Sabbath and the light of the Son. You need to wrap yourself around the support system of the church.
Every year, with proper care and nutrients, you will produce fruit, because you have been chosen.