Based on Isaiah 5:1-7, Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2, Luke 12:49-56
In my pursuit of this sermon I began to wonder what it means to “cultivate?” Turns out that Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary has a number of different definitions of the word. The most common understanding, especially in rural areas, is to prepare and use the ground for growing crops. Cultivate can also be used to mean to “foster the growth of” things like oysters for pearls; or “improve by labor, care or study” things like our minds and our spiritual selves. We can also cultivate friendships and communal programs like the arts, schools and social services. Thus, cultivation is an act or set of activities which seeks to improve ourselves and the world around us.
Humans have been in the cultivation business for about 10,000 years; more specifically for today’s scripture passages, scientists tell us that wine grapes were first cultivated in the area of southeastern Anatolia (what is now Turkey) between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago. People have been involved in this form of agriculture and wine production continuously ever since – and today wine grapes are being grown in most areas of the world. In the U.S., the number of wineries has grown five-fold between 1998 and 2015; there are now more than 300 wineries just in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Amazingly, the average adult in America consumes almost 4 gallons of wine each year! The cultivation of Vitis vinifera, the wine grape, and subsequent production of wine is a booming business indeed!
Our scriptures today speak to us about cultivation – especially the definition of “improve by labor, care or study”. God created the Promised Land for God’s people and cultivated them during the wilderness time to prepare them to be fruitful. The reading from Hebrews lists numerous heroes from the Bible who serve as role models for us. Jesus notes that his ministry is divisive and that only those who are cultivated to be able to understand his teachings will thrive in the new age. Let us go to God now in prayer that we might be cultivated by God through the Holy Spirit to be truly fruitful.
Jesus’ teaching today seems harsh. Jesus is under a lot of stress (as indicated in verse 50) and he knows that His time on earth is rapidly coming to a finish. He needs the people who are following Him to get the message that they need to repent and join Him if they want to find salvation. Following Him will necessitate leaving behind friends and family because not all persons will choose the discipline it takes to follow Jesus. He points out that He has brought he kingdom of heaven near, but the people know more about how to read the weather than they do about things of the Spirit. They are divided in their minds between things of the world and things divine.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews is completing a fairly robust enumeration of the heroes of the Jewish faith. The writer is making the point about how all of these persons led the chosen of God to the culmination of God’s cultivation in Jesus – the first fruit. The writer exhorts those who heard or later read his words to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…” As with the teaching of Jesus, the writer of Hebrews is reminding the faithful of all that has come before them that has led them to this moment of belief in Jesus. He is reminding them that God has been cultivating them for generations to prepare them to bear good fruit through the new covenant.
The prophet Isaiah relates a song of God to God’s people. It is a mournful song of lament, full of missed opportunities and frustration from God who cultivated both a people and a Promised Land in which the chosen should have been fruitful. God worked so that the best wine could be produced from the land, but instead of wine grapes, the vines bore wild grapes. There is nothing left for God to do except to take away God’s protection and allow the vineyard to be destroyed. The cultivation of the people of the Northern Kingdom had failed and God would focus instead on the people of Judah.
These scripture readings teach us that being disciples of Jesus is a life-long process of cultivation of our minds, bodies and spirits towards an understanding and choosing of things divine over things worldly. God created us with all that is necessary for us to be fruitful and to fill the world with the things of God. Yet, like our spiritual ancestors the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, we choose to forsake the things of God and grow instead like wild grapes. Some of you may know what wild grapes look like. They are not at all like the neat and tidy plants that you see as you travel Wolftown-Hood road. They are vines that grow wherever they like, up to nine feet tall – covering trees and anything else in their paths. The fruit that they produce is small, unevenly distributed and quite unpleasant to eat or to ferment. Wild grapes are more like a weed and need to be uprooted and thrown away…which is exactly what God decides to do with the Northern kingdom of Israel; but not without some grief over how things turned out.
In contrast, the varietals that are grown to make wine are plants that are pruned to yield the best fruit. Grapes grow in large clusters that contain a high amount of sugar and juice. They spread on arbors and grow best on well drained hillsides where they can get full sunlight and good airflow. These grapes have been cultivated to produce fruit of a certain style and flavor – yielding wines that are highly drinkable and quite valuable. These vines are not left to their own devices but are carefully and lovingly tended so that they can grow the way that their genetics intends.
Humans have free will and have thus been able to choose to grow wild or to choose the peace promised by Jesus. Since the mid-1960’s the overwhelming choice has been to grow wild and uninhibited – there are currently fewer and fewer spiritual people being cultivated. Culture has switched from a communal focus to a focus on the needs of individuals. There is less philanthropy and people are not joining churches or other organizations like they did 70 years ago. People are growing wild, seeking self-centered experiences instead of putting those resources into what is best for the community as a whole. People follow internet “influencers” who travel around the world seeking the next great thrill or hedonistic pleasure. Influencers exhort followers to let go and come to “wherever” to participate in “whatever”. However, the influencer then moves to the next thing and the next and the next in a never-ending life of worship of the idols of worldly life. Following these influencers, literally or figuratively, will lead only to an empty life filled with longing for the next adventure but never finding a place to root and to grow as God intends. This is the division that Jesus is teaching about in the Gospel according to Luke.
This is why our Bishop reminds us that our role as disciples of Jesus is to be life-long learners who influence others to serve. Cultivating our minds, bodies and spirits to be disciplined in our approach to following Jesus. Not running wildly to the next tele-evangelist or local preacher who promises that their interpretation of the Bible leads the way to salvation or to prosperity. Rather it is the slow and steady growth (the writer of Hebrew’s race of perseverance) of being in bible study, Sunday school, church committees and activities which allows us to be able to understand the times that we are living in and how to respond in an undivided way to the things that bombard and try to distract us. Jesus reminds us today that His message is divisive, requiring a conscious choice – that it is something that many will not choose, even within their own family.
All this begs the question then, who are we as a people of God? Have we turned into wild grape vines following whatever whim strikes us, or are we cultivated by the Word of God made flesh which yields the best fruit? Are we constantly being improved by our labor, care and study to yield a harvest that will please God and bring God’s peace to the world – even though it divides us from that world? Are we doing whatever we want to do, or are we doing what we were created to do – what we have been cultivated to do? These are the most important questions that we have to answer as children of God, so that we can continue to be cultivated to produce world-changing fruit and not wild grapes. Amen!