A Vineyard Not Forsaken

Before this weekend I was connected to Buffalo by a single bottle of wine.  I have never been to this city before.  I have never visited nearby Niagara Falls.  Although I was brought up in New York, as far as I know I have never been to this part of the state before.  And the bottle of wine that connected me to Buffalo did not come from the nearby wine-producing region along the shores of Lake Erie.  It was a bottle of red, of un-identified (or at least un-memorable) variety.  It was consumed, at least in part, by me in the basement kitchen of your new bishop’s apartment at the General Seminary when he was my professor there.  I feel quite certain that part of the bottle of wine was consumed by him.

The wine was made by Bishop Franklin’s father-in-law, Carmela’s father, Joe, who had obviously imported some of his Old World ways to the New World.  I suspect the wine was made in his garage in North Buffalo.  It was, if memory serves me, a gallon bottle: the kind with a little round handle up at the neck, what can only be called a jug.  And without meaning to be at all unkind to Joe, I seem to recall that the quality of the wine – while not at all unpleasant – was appropriate to its container.  Let me put it this way: it had a screw-cap, back in the days when that told you everything you needed to know about a bottle of wine.

I do not know where the grapes for that wine came from.  Since I, too, live in a city with a thankfully large and noticeable Italian-American population, I understand that when it comes to things like sourcing grapes for wine that you are going to crush, ferment, and bottle in your own garage, there are ways…  Nevertheless, I can give you no details about the provenance of the grapes.  I only know that I drank a goodly portion of the wine with my professor, your bishop, and I believe we enjoyed every drop!

I have since learned that if you want to make good wine you must begin in the vineyard; this is where all good wine begins – where the vines are carefully trellised and pruned, and the rain and the sun dispense their gifts of moisture and warmth in just the right measure, and the vines yield luscious, ripe grapes that are ready at harvest time to be pressed, and fermented, and aged, and then bottled, in time.

Good wine begins in the vineyard.

The winery is a different matter.  It is here that the winemaker applies his art – in better vintages, to extract the glories of the grapes; and in lesser vintages to compensate for their shortcomings.  It’s in the winery that the must (the juice from the crushed grapes) is allowed to ferment, the barrels are chosen and prepared, where the maturing wine is monitored and adjusted, blended and finessed.  The wine will be dispensed into its bottles, the labels affixed, and the marketing plan for the wine begun in the winery, and lots of other good and important work.  But good wine is not really made in a winery.  Good wine is made in the vineyard, because it all begins in the vineyard.

Leaving the vineyard aside for just a moment, these days in the church we often feel beset by problems: by shrinking congregations, shrinking budgets, shrinking prestige, shrinking promise.  It is easy to feel as if something is slipping away from us; something that we have loved and thought that we could count on, but which has grown fragile and oddly sort of un-graspable.  I never imagined, when I was ordained fifteen years ago, that the church would look so different now, and that my ministry would look so different from what I thought I’d prepared for  in those lovely days back on Chelsea Square at the General Seminary.

But look in any direction in the church and you will find some difficulty, some challenge, some conflict, some problems.  These are not all you will find, but you will find them.  And it can be disquieting.  I am told that this may even be true in the Diocese of Western New York.

Sometimes the most disquieting of those difficulties, challenges, conflicts and problems are the headline grabbers: the break-away churches, the abuse scandals, the personal ordinariates, the so-called “covenants”.  I suppose in some places even the election of a bishop could be a bit disquieting.

And I want to suggest to you today that these are, by and large, winery problems.  They are not at all un-important or insignificant, but they are experienced and dealt with in the confines of the winery.  And when they are, it seems as though production comes to a halt, the bottling is shut down, and even the wine maturing in barrels seems imperiled.

And the hard part about being a bishop, if you ask me, is that you agree to take a job in the winery – where all this stuff plays out, and where every difficulty, challenge, conflict, and problem comes across your desk and invades your prayers.

Meanwhile, we parish priests know that our work is not in the winery, it is in the vineyard.  We walk every day among the vines of our little plots of land.  We’ve seen the vines flourish or wither.  We have baptized new vines and buried old, dead ones.  We have sometimes done some pruning, but mostly our vines are self-pruning, for better or worse.  We try our best to train the vines along a trellis – narrower for some, wider for others – but the vines are often unruly and unresponsive, insisting on their own way, but we love them anyway: what choice do we have?  Some of us have been working with the same vines for a long time, some of us have a long time yet to go in the same vineyard.  And we know that we will be working in the vineyard rain or shine, hurricane or hail, blight or bliss.  We love our annual visitation from the winery, mind you, but we suspect that our experience of the wine-making process is fundamentally different out in the vineyard than it is in the winery.

Reflecting on all this, some time ago I tried to eliminate a word from my vocabulary.  That word is “success.”  It can be hard to decide that we don’t want to be successful.  But search the New Testament for it and you will have a hard time finding the word there.  Success is not a New Testament idea.

Fruitfulness, on the other hand, is very much a New Testament idea.  And I contend that fruitfulness will not always look like success.  Indeed the suffering, death, and even the resurrection of Jesus did not look very much like success to the first disciples.  But it was fruitful.  And fruitfulness is what Jesus calls us to, and fruitfulness always brings us back to the vineyard.

It is my joy to celebrate with you the consecration and what used to be called the “enthronement” of your new bishop, because I know what a good laborer he has been in the vineyard – from long before he was ordained or ever dreamt of it, to the days he came to work with me in the vineyard I work in, in Philadelphia, just a few months ago.  And I expect that you know this about Bill, too.  That you have seen his sensitivity, his care and concern, his delight in walking and talking and just being among the vines of the vineyard.  I expect you noticed how fruitful his ministry has been as both a lay person and a priest, and this observation, encouraged by the Holy Spirit, led you to elect him to be your bishop.  And as Bill takes up this new ministry, it comes as no surprise to him, I am sure, to hear a reminder from me that good wine is made in the vineyard, where it always begins.

The rest of us need to remember this, too.  Because although it is true that tending the vines has become a harder job than it once was, as conditions have become more challenging and the soil always seems to be rocky, we are reminded that the best wines often come from vineyards where the vines have learned to struggle and have sunk their roots deep into the ground to find water and nutrients that are hard to reach.

And as we work to be fruitful in the vineyards, and we are assaulted with all kinds of disquieting news, much of which comes to us from the winery, and is being handled in the winery, worried about in the winery, we have a secret that we must not forget.  We know that when things get rough in the winery and production seems imperiled, that we can always push a wheelbarrow or two of grapes up the hill and into our garage, where we can crush the grapes and put the must into an old barrel or two, and let God do whatever it is that God does to turn that crushed grape juice into wine.  We can even make pretty good wine out there in the garage because we have good vines, and good wine is made in the vineyard.

But the best wine is made when vineyard and winery are working together to be fruitful in a happy synergy, grateful for the gifts available in each place, eager to encourage one another to do the best we can because what we hope to end up with, after all, is the best wine we can make.

It is surprising to me that in the Episcopal church, where we have been blessed with a large network of parishes, the challenging conditions of the past decades have sometimes left us scratching our heads wondering what to do about all these old churches, all these old vineyards, that sometimes are in disrepair, sometimes have become overgrown, sometimes many of the vines have withered and died.  It is as though we cannot imagine any longer that vines could flourish in these vineyards; that wine could be made from their grapes.

And I can tell you this about your new bishop: he is not confused about this, perhaps because of what he learned from his father-in-law, in his garage in North Buffalo, I don’t know.  He knows that there are vineyards that need work, repair, that in some places new vines need to be brought in and planted, that vineyard workers need to be taught what to do out there among the rows of vines.  He knows that the vines need to be cared for and loved.  Because he knows that when you have been given vineyards, you have been given a great gift, because the vineyard is what you need to make wine. Good wine always begins in the vineyard.

God has never stopped calling us to be fruitful, never stopped calling us to toil in the vineyards he has planted.  God has never deprived his people of what we need to make wine – and to make good wine.  Even when his children had been driven out of their own vineyards, their own holy city, he called them back from their exile, as we are being called now, with a call that would serve well as a watchword for the ministry of a new bishop:

Go through, go through the gates,

prepare the way for the people;

build up, build up the highway,

clear it of stones,

lift up an ensign over the people…

… they shall be called, “The Holy People,

the Redeemed of the Lord.”

And you shall be called, “Sought Out,

A Vineyard Not Forsaken.”

Has the highway to your vineyard been obstructed by stones that leave you stumbling?

Has the ensign of your hope been torn down?

Do you wonder if anyone will ever seek you out?

Are you afraid that you have been forsaken?

Do you wonder if there is any more wine to be made from your vineyard?

Are you wondering if your new bishop knows that good wine is made in the vineyard – must begin in the vineyard?

If any of these questions ring true, then join with me in calling with all confidence on your bishop, our brother, Bill:

Go through, go through the gates with us… 

Build up, build up the highway, clear it of stones!

Lift up the ensign of God’s love and hope over your people – over the laborers in the vineyard…

…so that together you may make good wine from the grapes you grow on the vines you tend.

Because you shall be called the Holy People,

the Redeemed of the Lord!

And you shall be called “Sought Out!”

And you shall be a Vineyard Not Forsaken!

Thanks be to God!


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

at the enthronement of The Rt. Rev. R. William Franklin,

XI Bishop of Western New York

at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Buffalo

Posted on May 2, 2011 .