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Easter 5 April 29, 2018 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for April 29, 2018 | Easter
Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8
Let me introduce you to Michael LaFarge, a middle-aged man who lives in the east central region of France that is called Burgundy. Michael was trained at university to use modern agricultural techniques that rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides in order to control the land and manipulate the soil for quick and intense growth. His studies led him to believe, at least initially, that his purpose was to subdue the land, to see himself as over and against the land, against insects and infestation, against the myriad problems that can crop up – excuse the pun – in any agricultural condition. As a vintner – as a grower of grapes and a creator of wine among the ancient fields of Burgundy – LaFarge came to the conclusion that we live in a world marked by much fear, the kind of fear that can lead one to absorb a highly individualistic view of life – it’s me over and against my competitors – and a punitive view of life – get rid of anything that obstructs personal profit, even if that profit comes at the expense of others.
His actual work in the vineyards, a work undertaken with the guidance of his wise and benevolent grandparents, led him to recognizing his calling, his vocation as a Christian and as a parent, a father as it were to the living vines and the living soil that surround the family’s ancestral home. Close to a 1000 years ago, Cistercian monks were the first to plant vines, grow grapes, and create wines in Michael’s part of the world – all of this inspired by the many biblical images of the vineyard and the first sign performed by Jesus at the wedding feast in Cana: the transformation of water into wine. Rather than see himself as above and against the creation, the land, and the bugs, LaFarge began to recognize that he was within and part of the creation, a fellow citizen with the vines, the soil, the water, the sunlight, the insects, the many different and diverse plants that can strengthen the vines, the people who collect the grapes and those who labor to transform ordinary grapes into festive drink. What was it that sparked his conversion from punitive controller of the fields to partner and friend of the vineyard? Why it was his grandparents who would steal into the vineyard at all hours of the day and night and talk to the vines, gently feel the grapes, and learn what this living network of many interconnected vines, leaves, and fruit needed in order to flourish. What was it that sparked his conversion? Why, it was love, he said in an interview the left the French television reporter speechless. Yes, it was love rather than fear: the love he witnessed in his elderly grandparents and their friendship with the vines; their listening to and observing carefully as vines and grapes told them what they needed.
One then might imagine what LaFarge and his grandparents, all devout Catholics, might experience as they drink from the chalice at every daily and Sunday Mass. For while they, with us, would confess that we receive the very life of the One who transformed water into wine, Michael would assert that the great vinedresser, Jesus Christ, performed an equally marvelous sign – and that was transformation wrought in Michael’s soul and mind from antagonistic to friend of the vine and vineyard, a transformation effected not with the threat of punishment but with the far greater power of love: love as commitment to the wellbeing and welfare of another.
Yesterday, a good number of us stood around the altar at our diocesan cathedral – at that altar where ordinary wine becomes for us the life-giving blood of the great vinedresser who was crushed so that we might drink of his wounded and risen life 2000 years later. There we stood as friends of the five women and men who have been grafted into this part of Christ’s vineyard we call the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church – strengthened by prayer and the laying on of hands in the sacrament of confirmation and the ritual of reception.  I noticed how gently the bishop placed his hands on their heads as if he were feeling the leaves and grapes of the vineyard with loving care: no threat, no compulsion – only the invitation to grow with us, slowly and patiently. I thought of the toxic individualism that grips our national ego and how this act – being more deeply grafted into and nourished together, not alone but together, by the life and lifeblood of Jesus Christ – is so remarkably counter-cultural. I thought of the fear that has come to fill the airwaves and the voices that continue to call for punishment of those many and diverse plants that actually strengthen our common vineyard. For here – here in this place –we care for – at least we aspire to care for and defend the sacredness of all life, the sacredness of the earth created by God, the goodness of the soil and water and air without which there can be no life and certainly no joy. And I thought of you, dear people who inhabit this portion of the vineyard we call Christ Church, who have for generations tended this vineyard with love and only love. And I thought: how wonderful it is to sip, to drink, from the same cup with you, sharing with you the medicine that heals the wounded soul, the chalice that overflows with grace, the festive drink at the wedding of the lamb in which heaven is joined to earth and we share a foretaste of the feast to come. Amen, I say: the earth is filled with life of God. Let us now taste on our lips and see that the Lord is, indeed, good.