Taste and See

Easter 5B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Along the coast of Baja, California, row upon row of vines run across the valleys, turning the brown dusty soil into vast carpets of green.  Once the growing season is over, the verdant branches are pruned.  The land returns to brown. The vines are cut back almost to nothing.  Huge plants are reduced to mere stumps which look as though they will never produce anything again. But every year, as some vines have done for a hundred years, the growth returns –first the branches, then the leaves, followed by the fruit.  Incredible, full bunches of grapes pull the vines nearly to the ground with their weight.

Grapevines are a metaphor about our life together in Christ as well as our faith life as individuals. By all outward appearances, a vine is a tangled mess, an interwoven web. “I am the true vine,” Jesus said. (John 15:1). From one end to the other, it is not clear where one branch ends, and another begins. In the church egos are subsumed into the whole.

The prophet Hosea described Israel as a “luxuriant vine” (Hosea 10:1).  During the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 A.D., that ended on the rocky cliff top fortress of Masada in 73 A.D., the national symbol affixed to coins and emblazoned upon flags was the image of a vine. Like branches of a vine stretching across the world and throughout time we are joined together in Christ the vine, each in our own season.

“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus said (John 15:5a). Joined to this ancient root, tearing, breaking, chopping, and pruning each branch stimulates their growth. Cut from that root, they immediately wither and die. In today’s gospel, the small band of Jesus people are about to be pruned. They don’t know it yet, but Jesus will be taken from them. It will feel like their heart is being cut out. Everything they worked for and dreamed of is about to end. Hope will seem all but lost.  But in three days, after the resurrection, they will rise again. Filled with new wine, the life-giving sap of the Holy Spirit, they will be changed. They will become stronger, and more verdant than before. Alleluia.  Christ is risen! (R)

The French Jesuit, Catholic priest, scientist, paleontologist, theologian, philosopher, and teacher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, the first duty of every Christian, like the branches of a vine, is to grow to the fullest extent possible. You must take every opportunity to develop your talents and to fully be your unique yourself. Paradoxically, the pursuit of your own advance ripens into maximum fruitfulness only through full communion with the root, the ancient of days, which we come to realize is a greater myself (p. 89). This yes to God is not a one-time event but an ongoing practice. Each of us must learn to hold open our ‘yes’ on a moment-to-moment basis just as branches abide in the vine.

Philip mysteriously encountered a wealthy Ethiopian official seated in a fabulous chariot in the middle of the desert, reading aloud from a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, in the noonday sun. That official oversaw the treasury for the whole Ethiopian kingdom. He was very powerful. He was black, and he was a eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). Philip would have known that Jewish purity codes excluded a eunuch from entering the temple.  In fact, no one would be allowed to talk with him, or have a meal with him, or even to touch him, no matter how rich, and powerful he was (Deuteronomy 23:1).  (Clarice J. Martin “A Chamberlain’s Journey, and the Challenge of Interpretation for Liberation)

According to the religious teaching Philip had grown up with, this eunuch was a “dead branch,” someone outside God’s reign and revelation. And yet, God had other plans. Abiding in the true vine, Philip held himself open to God’s yes. Provoked and inspired by Philip’s teaching about Jesus, the Ethiopian exclaims: “Look, here is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?  Can I, who was humiliated at the temple in Jerusalem be grafted into the true vine, the living body of Christ?

Notice, Philip did not convene a blue-ribbon panel to study the question. In this brief encounter, we find the first real test of the inclusive vision of the early church to be open to the mysteries of growth that God brings. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7).

The true vine flourishes in pruning the hearts of the faithful within us. Likewise, in order for the true vine to flourish we must be ready to root out and remove the things which threaten and choke it from without. The Ethiopian eunuch would ask us, their Christians siblings in Christ, ‘Why is property generally worth less money if it’s owned by a Black American?’ Just look at the numbers. 150 years of assessment data, underpins points to persistent inequality.

“Black Americans’ properties have been undervalued by home appraisers and overvalued by tax assessors. That double punch has left Black homeowners more prone to falling behind on their taxes and, ultimately, to dispossession. “…In 1961 Evelina Jenkins, a Black woman living in South Carolina, lost 66 acres of prime coastal real estate that she owned after a white man she had entrusted deliberately failed to deliver her $26 tax bill to the county treasurer and then promptly snatched her land at the county tax sale. Today, houses on Horse Island in South Carolina sell for upward of $2.5 million. Jenkins died penniless.” (Adeel Hassan, “The damage the ‘Black tax’ inflicted on generations of African Americans,” NYT, 4/26/24)

Another Black landowner in North Carolina lost his land in 1920. That loss affected the family line across generations, and his great-great grandson, George Floyd, was murdered by a police officer after a phone call to the authorities in Minneapolis about a counterfeit $20 bill one century later. (Hassan) “By the most conservative estimates, racialized patterns of over-assessment forced every Black person in America to pay an annual extra $100 (in 2024 dollars) for the past 150 years. That adds up to nearly $300 billion.” (Hassan)

Who are the eunuchs and the Philips of our day who would lead us into the Way of Christ the vine? What must be pruned? What among us must be cut away for all people to flourish? As Jesus broke bread, so we are broken; as Jesus poured out the new wine of the Spirit, so we are poured out. As Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them, so we welcome one another us as living parts of the one true vine. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their siblings, are liars; for those who do not love a sibling whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:7 & 20). See! Love is the fruit God brings to life in us. Whatever tastes of love is of God. Whatever does not taste of love is not of God. Taste and see the Lord is good.