Late summer and early fall mean muscadine grape-picking season in the South. Whenever I walk into the rows to pick grapes, it’s like a sermon in my head. The vineyard becomes a sanctuary. The limbs and leaves and fruit speak to me eloquently in the voice of Jesus and the prophets, Old Testament and New.
This was a discovery of my adult working life. I visited my first vineyard in 2008 while working as a reporter, when I interviewed the couple who had created the Strong Tower Vineyard & Winery in Spring Hill, Florida. On my commute to work, I had seen the sign and was intrigued by the biblical reference: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower. The righteous run into it and are safe” (Proverbs 18:10).
Strong Tower is among more than a dozen Florida farms that grow grapes and other fruits to make wine. They are a popular destination for people picking their own fruit as well as for weddings. As I visited the property and interviewed the owners, Terry and Janis McKnight, a third voice spoke to me in words inaudible yet loud and clear:
I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5 NIV).
The profound clarity of the words struck me, even though they never made it into my newspaper article. I had an epiphany years later, after I attended Florida A&M University’s annual Grape Harvest Festival in Tallahassee.
I was a newly minted journalism faculty member at FAMU. I paid my way in and took plastic bags to pick some grapes. The earth sloped downward before me, with the vines hung with deep purple and greenish-bronze scuppernongs and other grapes from the muscadine family.
As I reached in to pluck some grapes, a sermon erupted in my head. It seemed like a voice attached to a loudspeaker. The utterances were Bible verse after Bible verse; I could hear the words of Jesus Christ as if on Dolby Stereo in my mind.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
That verse is a statement of Jesus’ deity, and our daily dependence on him rang loud and clear. The vineyard is his, and so are we; he is the essence of both the fruit and the vine. He created both for his pleasure and our edification.
As I picked, I encountered old friends and was introduced to new ones along the rows and across the vines. I recognized them as fellow laborers, harvesting fruit that was not just for eating but for making jam and homemade wine.
Muscadines are native to the United States, and their range extends from Florida to New Jersey. Their thick skins and seeds make them both beloved and hated. In Florida, our vineyards bulge with ripe, juicy fruit by late August to early September. U-pick farms invite grape lovers to harvest at a price. Others sell the fruit already picked and bagged. The Florida Wine & Grape Growers Association recorded nearly 380,000 visitors to Sunshine State in 2017.
I imagine that each visitor, churched or unchurched, receives a sermonette in the act of tasting wine, picking grapes or getting married. Yes, vineyards are a popular and apt wedding destination; Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding, revealing “his glory” (John 2:11).
In the Old and New Testaments, the vineyard is a symbol of status, investment and wealth. After the flood, Noah, celebrating the earth’s renewal and his miraculous new start, “began farming and planted a vineyard” (Genesis 9:20 NASB).
They also offer lessons in other ways. In “Vineyard as an Organizational Metaphor,” Deloris S. Thomas writes that they offer a lesson because of their ability to “produce high quality performance in poor environments.”
Pruning and vine training allow nutrients to flow to selected vines for a higher yield, she writes. “The rich metaphor of the vineyard provides an opportunity for organizations to explore innovative strategies to adapt to changing and complex environments.”
The parable of the vineyard, Matthew 20:1-16, captures a workplace with employees dissatisfied with their earnings. It teaches lessons of individual responsibility and accountability. Each person gets what was previously agreed upon.
The biblical stories are also steeped in social commentary about Christian love and generosity toward the marginalized, people who are homeless and immigrants.
Leviticus 19:10 reminds us to not “strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner” (ESV).
Given the urban nature of our lives, many of us rarely get an opportunity to harvest deep purple, juicy grapes. We rarely get a chance to appreciate the source of such delight. When we pick our own, we touch the fruit at its origin. We are reminded of the link between the earth, the vine, the grape and, most importantly, us.
He is the vine; we are the branches. If he remains in us and we in him, we will bear much fruit; apart from him we can do nothing.
In the vineyard, we are both harvesting and the harvest. Our faithfulness at the former enhances where we stand in the latter. And so the fruit and the vine speak to us. We should listen.