The image of vine and branches is one that brings me comfort. It also inspires and challenges me.
My father loved nothing more than to have his hands in the soil. He had a rather large garden on the side lot of our property. He also planted a grape arbor as well as an apple and pear tree in our yard.
He fed the trees a mixture of his own compost which I vaguely remember including coffee grounds, eggshells and fruit rind and vegetable peels along with some manure. He would explain that it was important to feed the roots as a prelude to one of his favorite sayings about the nature of creation and the nature of individuals and families: “A tree with strong roots laughs at storms.”
He was talking about the tree, of course, but he was also using the image of the tree and branches in the same way we hear Jesus use it in today’s gospel reading. Jesus say, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” There is great comfort in knowing that we are the branches of the True Vine of Jesus which, by the gift of the Holy Spirit at our baptism, is rooted firmly in and connected to God.
The first letter of John amplifies this message by assuring us that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” And, “We love because he first loved us.”
Which is comforting and reassuring. However God does not rest there. This is not just about “me and Jesus” or “you and God.” Remember, there is a root and there is a vine, but there are branches. Plural. That means that ours is not an individualistic faith. No, our faith tosses us directly into community.
It is no surprise, then, that John continues, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (emphasis on "commandment" and ‘must love’ mine).
If you find yourself slightly uncomfortable and beginning to squirm in your seat, you would not be alone. Generations of people before us have felt the same way. Indeed, church has probably been the worst offender. I don’t know one church – no, not one – that doesn’t like to describe itself as “warm and welcoming”. More recently, we Episcopalians love to champion the fact that we embrace “diversity” and are “inclusive.” And, for the most part, we are. Or, try, anyway.
I think it must be going on 20 years or so now, when the term “inclusive” really started to gain traction in Episcopal Church circles. I’m remembering a particular reaction from one of my brother priests, Juan Cabrero-Oliver, who had had just about enough of being “included”.
We were at some meeting or
another when I remember that he practically roared, “Included? INCLUDED? Do you
not know that I am baptized? I am already included. Jesus has ‘included’ me by
my baptism. "
And then he asked the real stopper of a question: "Whose house do you think this is, anyway?”
Well, that set a few people in the room back on their heels. Including, I confess, me. I have learned a few lessons since then about honoring the branches which come from the same root of God’s love.
I want to tell you a story which involves another of my clergy colleagues, Laurie, who is one of the best priests I’ve ever known in The Episcopal Church.
I first met Laurie after she
had just graduated from Princeton Theological School with a Master’s degree in Divinity and had just moved with her spouse to Hoboken, NJ. She was
sure she was called to ministry, but she didn’t know what kind, actually. She
thought she might be called to ordained ministry but the idea terrified her.
She wasn’t sure she was ready for the institutional church – or, if the
institutional church was quite ready for her. (It was not. Still isn't. Which is wonderful.)
She was discussing her quandary with her rector, Geoffrey, another stellar priest in the church, who listened carefully and then said, “You know, what? I think you’d make a brilliant Missioner to the West End of Hoboken.”
Now, some of you may know that Hoboken, NJ, is the birthplace of baseball as well as the hometown of Old Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra. You may not know that it is one mile in each direction, north to south and east to west. If you walk or drive down the main street – which is Washington St – Hoboken looks for all the world like a yuppy/buppy city whose residents mostly take the ferry across the Hudson River every day to work on Wall Street or in the Fashion District or high-powered law offices.
The West End of Hoboken is designated for the Section 8 Housing. That’s government code for “where the poor people live”. Which is also code for “where people of color live”. In their own little corner. Tucked neatly out of sight. On top of each other in tall apartment buildings.
“What do you want me to do?” asked Laurie.
“Be a missioner,” answered Geoff.
“But, what does a missioner do?” she asked.
“Listen to the people,” said Geoff, “they’ll tell you.”
So, for the first two weeks or so, Laurie wandered around the West End of Hoboken, listening to the sounds, paying attention to the rhythms, taking in the sights. One day she found herself asking someone, “So, if I wanted to talk to someone in charge, who would that be?” It didn’t take that person half a second to respond with one name. “Rosie.”
Laurie found her way to Rosie’s apartment. It was not hard. It was the one with the door open and people coming in and out. Rosie was sitting at her kitchen table in front of her sewing machine, while yelling at someone to stir the soup and then pulling a kid out from under the table.
Laurie sat down and introduced
herself and talked about why she was there. She explained that she was from the
church and wondered if there was any way the church could help.
Rosie never looked up, never stopped working at her sewing machine. “You know,” continued Laurie, “maybe start an after school program? Maybe a computer skills lab? Oh, how about a basketball court?”
Rosie kept her head down and kept working. Just when Laurie thought she couldn’t stand the silence any longer and should probably leave, Rosie said, “You wanna help? Okay, here’s what you can do to help. For one night – just one night – gimme your church.”
Laurie shifted uncomfortably
in her seat. “The church? You want the church?”
Rosie steadied her gaze and nodded her head.
“SooOOoo, what will you do with the church," asked Laurie, "because, you know, I’ll have to tell Geoff, the rector, the priest, you know, the Padre.”
Rosie leaned back in her chair and smiled, “Tell your Padre that we want the church for one night so we can have a fashion show.”
Laurie heard herself gulp. “A fashion show? Of course. A fashion show. Sure. Let me tell … er.. Padre . . . Geoff and then I’ll get right back to you. Thank you.”
Geoff was out in front of the church when Laurie walked by and greeted her with, “Hey, how’s it going?” Laurie figured that once she told him what Rosie wanted she’d be fired so she took a deep breath and said, “Fashion show. They want a fashion show.”
Laurie was stunned when she heard Geoff say, “A fashion show? That’s great. Let’s get a date on the calendar! Let’s do this!”
The next month was a bee-hive of activity. Geoff had long ago removed the ancient, uncomfortable pews and replaced them with comfortable, movable pew-chairs. Some of the men from the West End came in and built a runway which came from the front step at the altar and extended itself down the center aisle. The side altar was converted into a waiting area and make up room.
The women of the West End were also busy, making beautiful gowns and outfits for their daughters and shirts and ties for their sons. The local florist, who lived in the West End, donated the flowers. The church’s sound system was adapted to be able to play some soft Hispanic background music.
There was a rehearsal, of course. As the girls and their escorts practiced walking down the runway, Rosie described the outfit she would be wearing that night. Suddenly, she stopped and stood in front of the girls.
“Why are you walking like this?” she demanded as she mimicked their heads down and stooped shoulders.
“I want you to walk like this,” she said as she held her head high and her shoulders back, “like your mama walked in front of your papa when she wanted him to notice her.”
The evening of the West End Fashion Show arrived and the air was electric with nervous anticipation and excitement. Laurie had bitten down every last nail and was now gnawing on her fingertips. No one could have anticipated the many small miracles that were about to happen.
Each young girl emerged from the side chapel looking resplendent in her new gown or outfit that had been made especially for her. The young man who escorted her did so as if the Princess of Puerto Rico was on his arm, as if she were the most beautiful girl in the whole world.
That was enough of a miracle, but the best was yet to come. Out from the darkened back of the church, a man stepped out and stood at the end of the runway. The young girl gasped. “Daddy,” she whispered as tears began to well in her eyes. Her father, whom she had not seen since her parents split up, held up a single rose which he gave to her when she arrived at the end of the runway.
This happened to each girl. One after another, escorted like a beautiful princess down the runway on the arm of handsome young man, to be greeted by her father and given a beautiful long-stem rose.
I am telling you, there was not a dry eye in the house.
And, if one of the girl’s fathers was not able to be there because of immigration or work or death or incarceration, an uncle or a neighbor stood in for him. Each young girl and each young boy was treated with respect and dignity and love.
All of this took place at a fashion show. In front of God and everybody. In the church. And, it was church – in the best sense of what church means and can be.
Transformation happened. Those kids were changed. They began to see and understand themselves in new ways. They began to see and understand their connections to each other and their neighborhood and the world.
At the end of the evening,
Rosie came up to Laurie and they each fell into each other’s arms, crying tears
Laurie had moved beyond mere inclusion and straight on into Gospel love. She had been changed and transformed and began to trust God's call to her.
Rosie had provided an opportunity to live into the words of scripture, “those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” Rosie was also transformed as she began to trust the institutional church.
Our baptism connects us as
siblings, places us in relationship and community with each other, and makes us
the branches of the True Vine. And that relationship changes and transforms u.
The branches of those who take the risks of the gospel yield the fruit of miracles.
We are strengthened – strengthened, not weakened – by honoring the unity of our diversity because we honor the source of our strength which is God.
And, God our Creator is love. Jesus, who is Incarnate Love, is the root of our lives of faith. And the fruit of our faith is Love. Trust. Respect. Dignity. Community. Equality. Equity. Justice.
I can hear my father saying, “A tree with strong roots laughs at storms.”
And Jesus said, “I am
the vine, you are the branches.”