Matthew 9:14-17 , John 5:15 October 23, 2022
Jesus said, “I am the vine, and you are the branches, abide in me, and I will abide in you.” He also said, “You don’t put new wine in old skins, or they will burst. New Wine goes in new skins.” In other words, we are God’s vineyard. Each row of pews is like a row of grapes on the Tuscan hillside. If you choose to be a part of it and bear fruit, God will produce a rich vintage. When Jesus took the cup and said, “Take and drink in remembrance of me,” he offered more than a new idea. Faith is an opportunity to be a part of something greater than yourself, a living branch in the universal vineyard. But to be clear, the fermentation process is transformative and may not always fit what you planned.
Let’s reflect on the process of making wine. Anyone can squeeze grapes, add yeast, set them aside to ferment, and eventually, you get wine. Making great wine is an art. While many latitudes grow great grapes – Napa Valley, Spain, Italy, Chile, and Australia – France still has the reputation for the best wines. The French will tell you it is not just the sunlight in Bordeaux or the soil in Burgundy that makes the perfect grape. It is also a philosophy called terroir, which loosely translates as “a sense of place.” Wine is a product of multiple factors; locality, climate, soil type and drainage, the topography of hillsides, elevation, and other plants in the vicinity- all exude a sense of place that comes alive in a great wine. Mass-produced wines have a bland sameness that doesn’t match the complexity of a great Bordeaux. The role of a winemaker is to bring out the terroir by carefully selecting the right grape for the micro-climate of the vineyard; decisions about pruning, irrigation, and the best time to harvest all bring out certain elements of the taste. We saw vineyards in Italy with rose bushes planted at the end of each row. Legend has it that monks would go from field to field, tasting the dirt to analyze its qualities properly. That’s terroir. That’s the passion that separates Barefoot wine from Bordeaux.
I am the vine, and you are the branches. Abide in me, and I will abide in you. Jesus is saying God will take all the factors of your life; your life in Maine, whether you are short or tall, your knitting or sailing, your good marriage or your divorce, all your dreams, all your mistakes, all the terrior that makes you, and create a wonderfully delicious vintage. Some of you will be crisp, some of you will be fruity, some will be complex, and others may even have bubbles. You will all do good works to be stored in God’s cellar. But it won’t always be easy. The truth will set you free, but first, it will upset you, frustrate you, and even make you angry. Good wine takes patience and time.
Growing good grapes is fragile. The French wine industry is now under threat, not only from global competition but from global climate change. No amount of terroir will protect your grapes from too much blazing sun. The latitude of the wine belt is shifting north into Northern Germany, southern England, from Napa Valley, California to Oregon, and soon we may get the best grapes from British Columbia, Canada. One researcher predicts that roughly 80 percent of Napa Valley will no longer be able to produce wine by the end of the century. Vineyards will have to adapt or die. Of course, we will have bigger problems than finding a good Cabernet when this comes to pass.
Climate change and its effect on vineyards is an apt metaphor for the struggle of mainline Protestantism in the 21st century. Like the vineyards of Southern France, congregations like ours face new challenges as church attendance declines in our society. There are multiple explanations for this decline, but it all adds to our social climate changing as fast as the weather.
How can we still bring out the terroir of the Gospel, the living spirit of Jesus, in our unique soil? Here is what we control – we adapt and change or cling too tightly to the past and put ourselves on the endangered species list. This is the question for our species right now – are we going to adapt and cooperate, or are we going to live for the moment, selfishly exploiting our resources and fighting over the chance to cut down the last tree before we go the way of the condor?
A good friend of mine said this week, “Do you know any pastors who are not struggling, whose churches have recovered to where they were pre-Covid?” We both know numerous clergy, and we had no examples. Old wineskins illustrate how we feel; stretched to the breaking point, and the pressure is mounting. I wonder if it is because we are trying to maintain the church of the past, and it is exhausting us. We won’t let go of what is comforting but increasingly irrelevant, so there is no energy left for something new. If churches persist, we will serve only a generation now retired, and the skins will eventually burst.
At Monday’s Bible Study, we explored what prompted Jesus to talk about new wine in new wineskins. John the Baptist’s disciples ask Jesus why he does not fast as they and the Pharisees do. John, you may remember, dressed in camel skins and ate locusts and wild honey. He’s an ascetic who abstains from life’s comforts as a spiritual practice. Fasting in the Old Testament goes with repentance and mourning and is an annual duty on the Day of Atonement. Kings call for a fast if crops fail or times for national repentance. Prophets fast on behalf of the nation for the sins of all the people. I had to fast this week to prepare for a colonoscopy. I’m not a fan. I woke up irritable, hungry, and with no coffee from whence came my help. When I tried to meditate, I could only think of all my flaws and inadequacies, remembering regrets and rejections back in high school. I wonder if fasting creates a repentant and remorseful attitude because it makes you miserable.
Remember that Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism, so he is not saying fasting is terrible. So, what is the problem? In several Gospel stories, the Pharisees mention fasting as a crucial pious act. Jesus tells a story in Luke 18 about a Pharisee claiming to be righteous, “I thank God I am not like others, rogues, thieves, and tax collectors. I tithe a tenth of my income and fast twice a week.”
Jesus is not impressed and says it is the lowly tax collector who prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” whom God hears. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “When you fast, don’t go around looking mournful, so everyone knows you are fasting. Wash your face and comb your hair. Act normal.
The problem is engaging in spiritual practice to make yourself appear righteous, feel spiritual, or even superior. But that is not the point of spirituality. We can go to church, take communion, meditate, do yoga, be a church officer and sing in the choir, preach sermons, and barely remember that God is in the mix. Faith is not something we will get by checking off all the boxes and completing our to-do lists.
A poem on a gravestone in a Boston graveyard says:
Here lies the grave of Effie
For her, Hell held no terrors
Born a virgin, died one too.
No runs, no hits, no errors.
The poem reminds us that faith is not about playing it safe, so we never make mistakes. If religion is about compassion, love, justice, and truth, it will always involve risk, struggle, and uncertainty. Our best will never be perfect, and we will fall and get back up many times. Our faith rituals guide and strengthen us for this journey, not protect us from its challenges or pain. This is what Jesus is trying to get across to John’s followers. Fasting won’t make you holy. The point is to open towards God so the transformative work can begin.
This is what I like to call soul work. Soul work is the process of deep self-examination and discovery to bring ourselves more in alignment with the energies of God. It involves shedding the layers between us and the living God who dwells around and within us. It can be challenging but also brings great joy. If we do this, we will produce new wine and care enough about it that we will find new wineskins to contain it.
You will notice this sermon does not contain a to-do list of what you need to change. I’m in the same boat with you and I don’t have the answers. I’m treading lightly because we need to work together to find our own terroir and create our vintage here in Maine. This congregation is unlike where I served in Poughkeepsie or Northampton so we will find something new. In those churches, we did our soul work until an unexpected opportunity came, and we found the courage to seize the moment.
Here is the best guidance I can offer. Pay attention to all the details of life here on the peninsula, but try to look at it with new eyes, to see as God might see it. Let that reality seep into your soul and create the new terrior. Jesus said, “Abide in me and I will abide in you.” And new wine will flow.