By Matthew Syrdal
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you… My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. John 15:1-8
The invitation is clear, the summons real, in this mashal, this rabbinical parable today as it was then. May we let it sink deeply into the soil of the world in our hearts.
Bear fruit. Remain in the vine. This is the only “I am” saying of Jesus that includes a partner, and my Father is the Vinedresser. It signals a return to the beginning and lodges this text in the mythos of the tree of Life, and its particular place, the primordial Garden. This is a parable about place, intimacy, intention, and purpose. There are no absentee landowners mentioned here. In fact, one might pick up on Jesus’ comparison of the Father to a vinedresser, a local farmer or a migrant worker today. The problems of land ownership, fair wages, ecological impact of soil erosion from the harvesting of lumber from the terraces and damaged retaining walls, are not addressed directly, but indirectly through the mysterious question intimacy of place and purpose, of roots and branches. It is hard to hear this parable, steeped as we are, in the voices of western dualism and our own estrangement from the land itself. Our unexamined theologies, policies, even our models of advocacy are hijacked in this paradigm of placelessness, or uprootedness from the natural world. Most of our approaches to stewardship and even conservation are uprooted from a more original intimacy and vital kinship with place.
The Ute Indians moved into kinship with the land and settled deeply into the southern and western ancestral Rocky Mountains. The foothills of the Front Range stretching east is a parceled land beneath what now sits as the greater Denver metro area originally belonged to the Arapaho as laid out in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Colorado is one of the fastest growing states for many reasons. People from all over own second homes, the visitation of state and national parks greatly increases every year. The state’s population is estimated to grow by three million people by 2050. Since the early 1980’s 35% of the region’s ranchlands and farmlands have disappeared. More land is being purchased to develop subdivisions, requiring more water to be diverted to Front Range cities. This insidious modern myth of dominion and consumption, one which glorifies land ownership and controlling the bio-mineral wealth of natural resources began long before the Fort Laramie Treaties and continues to have incalculable effect not only on the natural ecosystems but also on traditional lifestyles, the precious vistas whose alluring textures carve wonder in the human soul. The accrued effect of the diminishment of cultivated land and uncultivated wilderness is that we have lost our sense of place.
Intimacy. Jesus’ parable is an enchanting song that reaches back into the preexilic period of Isaiah 5, and its language reminiscent of the erotic poetry of Song of Solomon. The lover sings for the beloved vinedresser who loves his vineyard. Isaiah 5: I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard. My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.
“What more could I have done?” The vineyard is the primary allegory for Israel in the Old Testament who over and over again, refuses her flowering. Jeremiah 2:20-22 and Ezekiel 19:12-14 paint a portrait, sing a lament, over a people who have resisted their place and purpose in the deeper mythos of the be-coming of God through the ripening of the Creation.
But the vine was uprooted in fury
and thrown down to the ground.
The desert wind dried up its fruit
and tore off its strong branches,
so that it withered
and was destroyed by fire.
Now the vine is transplanted to the wilderness,
where the ground is hard and dry.
A fire has burst out from its branches
and devoured its fruit.
Its remaining limbs are not strong enough
to be a ruler’s scepter.
“This is a funeral song, and it will be used in a funeral.”
Bear fruit. I imagine the rough, soiled migrant farmer’s hands intimately running through the leaves in the cool of the day, thumbing the clusters of grapes and deftly moving his clippers as he trims and clears away dead branches, leaves and debris. Jesus’ words do the same. The poet plays with potent possibilities using the Greek terms airei and kathairei, meaning to take away, to clear away, to cut clear, to cleanse. Jesus the Vine speaks to his branches, you are already cut clean because of the word I have spoken to you. This pruning and clearing away of the dead debris is a kind of profound catharsis. It is a call to clarify our true place and purpose, our eco-spiritual niche. This is what Mary Oliver calls our “one wild and precious life,” our true life beyond all others, our soul — and to cut clean anything that gets in the way. This is how we abide, how we deeply settle into the True Vine.
Remain in the Vine. I believe intimacy with the sacred land, humility to work together in community and the dignity of all of life are hallmarks of indigenous wisdom. A wisdom we need to cultivate those wildly alive and soulful “places” of abundance and belonging, not just for marginalized peoples alone, but also for diverse and indigenous species to fulfill their unique purpose.
The secret is that the True Vine grows hidden in the midst of our land and our cities—owned, parceled, exploited and consumed. The roots of the True Vine reach down through the soils of our common and historical suffering, through the deep memory of our ancestors, through language, story and mythos, right down into the Soul of the World where the Tree of Life still flourishes. Jesus, the Wild Vine, exhorts his disciples today to dwell, to settle deeply into, this Reality. For it is only This Reality that has the deep power to bridge worlds. It is only abiding in this Reality where we receive the “stereoscopic” vision we so desperately need to re-member the other world in this world. This is the deep sense of place that we need to give voice to (vocare) and to learn how to cultivate in our western theological tradition and ecclesiology. It is much more than a contemplative transcendent sense of abiding, which takes us beyond the wild diversity and delightful particularities of our world. It is, what Thomas Berry calls, an inscendent sense of our own unique eco-spiritual “place” and “purpose” in the world itself.
Rev. Matthew Syrdal, is a PC(USA) pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, founder and lead guide of WilderSoul and Church of Lost Walls. Matt is a speaker, artist and writer who has offered workshops around the country and retreats in the front range mountains of Colorado. Matt has studied ancient Rites of Christian Initiation, Celtic spirituality, world religions & mythology, ecojustice, and a trained nature-based human development guide through Animas Valley Institute. Matt has spent several years developing Celtic and indigenous Christian practices oriented towards nature-based wholeness, leadership and ecojustice through retreats, and group immersions, for the cultivation of greater healing, vision and action.
Wild Lectionary, a weekly reflection on land, creation and environmental justice themes in the texts of the revised common lectionary, is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territories.