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The Great Storyteller of the Great Story
The Rev. Margaret B. Gunness

Gospel: John 15: 1-8

Jesus was a master storyteller, and the story about a vine and its branches is just such a story. It's a part of what later came to be known in the Gospel of John as Jesus' Farewell Discourse, told to his disciples shortly before his death. I believe that he was intentionally using it to prepare them, and perhaps himself, for all that lay before them — For Jesus knew that he was soon going to die, and he knew that he would have to leave his work, his precious work, in the hands of his disciples. So through this very familiar image of a vine and its branches, he was giving them a way to remember him and a way to understand that he would continue to be a presence and a source of strength for them, even after he was gone.

And in this little story, he does those three things which identify him as a master story-teller. First, Jesus takes the common image of a grape vine, an image that would have been intimately familiar to the people of that region. But secondly, and this is something our modern hearing often misses, Jesus had also chosen an image with profound historical implications as well for the Jewish people of that time. For, you see, the Jewish nation had long understood itself to be the vine which God had planted in the fertile soil of the new and promised land of Israel. For example, in the book of Isaiah it is written, as if to honor God as the owner of the land,

(Come,) Let me sing for my beloved
a love song concerning his vineyard:
(for) my beloved has a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.

And then also the 80th Psalm traces some of the history of the people of Israel with this same image when it says:

(O God) You have brought a vine out of Egypt;
you cast out the nations and planted it.
You prepared the ground for it;
it took root and filled the land.

Why have you broken down its wall,
so that all who pass by pluck off its grapes?

Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven;
behold and tend this vine;
preserve what your right hand has planted.
So will we never turn away from you;
give us life, that we may call upon your name.

Surely the people gathered round Jesus would have known these images. They would have had this self-understanding, and would grasp in the very depths of their being the meaning of what Jesus was trying to say to them when he said, "I am the vine, and you are the branches. Abide in me. For if you stray from me or deny me, surely you will wither and die."

Then he also meets the third criterion for a good storyteller, which is that, as he talks, he creates an image which gives hope to his listeners and provides us with a sense of identity and purpose that can carry us forward into the uncertainties of the future. In this instance, he does it by using an image which makes evident the organic nature of our relationship with Christ and the inseparability which exists between us. And then he concludes his story with the invitation, "Come and abide in me," he says. "Come and make your dwelling place in me, that you might bear much fruit and belong to me forever. With this promise, Jesus commits himself to all who will follow him throughout all time.

So all of this history and identity and encouragement is given us through the simplicity of a story told about common things but speaking to the wordless depths of the human soul.

You and I, my friends, are a people of the story. And it is God's continuing story that holds us together as one, God's unfolding story that calls us into the courage of being partakers in Christ. It is God's story that nurtures us and sends us out into the world to love and serve others in his name. So let's become storytellers ourselves and tell God's story at every opportunity we get. But more importantly, let's live that story as if the whole world depends on it. Because, you see, in fact, it does.

Copyright 1999 Calvary Episcopal Church

Gospel: John 15: 1-8
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples." (NRSV)

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Excerpted from a sermon delivered at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee, May 9, 1999.


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