Galileo is supposed to have said that “wine is sunlight held together by water.” [i] Besides being merely poetic, I’m sure that he was referring to the way that grapes grow on vines that are reaching for sunlight, and how careful management of the vines and their access to the sun is what yields the best fruit to make the best wines. Grape vines need to be managed if they are going to produce good fruit. The vines need to be pruned in order to control access to sunlight – getting a lot when they need it, but not too much when they don’t. And the fruit that comes from well-managed vines gives you what Galileo called sunlight held together by water – that sounds like the type of gift that would come from God!
When Jesus says. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower…. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit,” I assume that the people around him already knew what he was talking about. They had probably done some day labor in the vineyards. They understood the way grapes grow, vines must be pruned, fruit is produced. This was not a mystery to them – Jesus was the mystery.
It’s not so different for us – Jesus is still the mystery, and he is still the true vine. Which means that you and I are still the branches: and bearing fruit depends on us. We are the branches of a mystery, nonetheless called to bear much fruit. And remember what the fruit is for – it’s for making wine. We are not talking about seedless red table grapes here, we are not talking about plump green bunches that go into lunch boxes, we are talking about fruit that will have extracted from it the sunlight held together by water.
You can’t make much wine, though, from a raisin in the sun: dried up, festered, and sore, to borrow the language from Langston Hughes. In the vineyard, that’s called bad vine management. In poetry it’s called “a dream deferred,” where it sags like a heavy load, unless it explodes first.[ii]
The poet spelled all that out – including the danger of explosion - more than 60 years ago. But we are still surprised, appalled, perplexed when the streets of a city like Baltimore explode. Too many dreams deferred; too many raisins in the sun; not enough sunlight; not enough water.
I wonder if Jesus knew we would have such a hard time allowing other branches to reach for the sunlight, if he knew how greedy we’d be to have it all for ourselves, (as if we could), and to crowd out the other branches, deprive them of sunlight, (as if there isn’t enough to go around). I suppose if Langston Hughes knew it, Jesus probably does too.
And I wonder why God has allowed us to be self-pruning branches, who look over at each other, at the grapes growing in thick clusters along the vine, and resent one another for the color of one’s skin. Or worse than resentment. Why hasn’t God done more pruning himself? Do red grapes really believe that no good wine can come from green? Do the green grapes really see no potential in the red? Must it always be blanc de blancs, or blanc de noirs, when the best sparkling wines are made from both, without regard to color? Don’t we even know a good metaphor when we see one? Or is it too facile to hope this way? Is it too much to look at my neighbor, even if her skin is a different color than mine, and to see in her someone who is on the way to becoming sunlight held together by water? How could I wish to damage such a marvelous thing?
A few days ago, thousands of people marched past this church trying to express both hope and fear.[iii] They were, I think, branches straining to reach the sunlight, but afraid that the other branches will strangle them first. And they are not without a good basis for that fear.
I don’t really need to spend much time evaluating their signs, or their chants, or the motivation of the marchers, which I’m sure would be frustrating. I already see, at our little school in North Philadelphia, how hard it is for young black kids, for young poor kids, to reach the sunlight. I see how easily they are strangled. By the time they come to us at the age of ten or so, many have already given up – or never even knew there was sunlight intended for them in the first place. Raisins in the sun.
Pastors, preachers, politicians, and pundits have all spent time diagnosing the problems, and making prescriptions, for decades now. But I have neither diagnosis nor prescription to offer this morning.
I have only Jesus, and only his Gospel of love. Only Jesus knows the recipe for sunlight held together by water. Maybe that’s a good description of wine. And maybe it’s a good description of a faithful people: branches of the vine who are called to be fruitful. Maybe we are all meant to be just that: transformed like wine, sunlight held together by the water of baptism.
I don’t know the recipe for that: only Jesus does. And even his love remains so much a mystery to me, though I am certain of it.
I only know the two main ingredients: sunlight and water. And if he is the true vine, and I want to be a faithful branch, then I suppose it is only good and right to do my best to see that all my neighbors, blancs et noirs, have access to both sunlight and water. And leave the pruning to God.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
3 May 2015
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] In some places this quotation is attributed to Louis Pasteur. I haven’t the foggiest idea what the original source of the line is.
[ii]Langston Hughes, “Harlem”
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
[iii] This was the Philly is Baltimore march in response to the death-in-custody of Freddie Grey.