Monday, May 7, 2012

How will they understand unless we explain . . .

     How can I understand unless someone explains it to me? -- You and I should hear those words reverberating in our minds as we go through our daily life and work.  Unless we explain it, how will people ever understand it.  No doubt the words make some of us here uncomfortable.  You want me to talk to my friends about my faith?  You expect me to share my beliefs with my co-workers?  But words are not always our best sermons.  As we so often remind ourselves, how you and I react to the blessings and vicissitudes of life can sometimes be the best sermons that we ever give.  But how do we live sermons effectively?

     Flash back to the Gospel lesson for
today.  I am the vine and you are the branches.  One of the interesting benefits of my ministry here over the past nearly six years is the knowledge that I have gained regarding wine-making.  As most of you know, we often go to Fr. Mel's in Iowa City to make wine twice a year.  Usually, we bottle between 110 and 165 gallons of wine each time.  Mel has been doing this for almost 35 years, so he can do some fancy blendings of different flavors to make some really good wines.  What is more amazing to me than Mel's knowledge of all things wine is the simple variety available.  I commented on it one day while bottling and got a lecture from one of our fellow helpers about how that variety is produced here in the United States.  Grapes are like any other plants.  Some varieties grow better in particular places than others.  Like Vidalia onions, which do not taste like Vidalia onions when grown far outside that area of Georgia for which they are named, and hatch peppers, which share a similar geographical limitation to northern Mexico and southwestern parts of the United States, certain grapes will not grow well in various locations.  At least until the process of grafting.

     Sometime during the 1800's vintners discovered that branches could be placed in existing vines and cultivated to bear fruit.  Better still, commercialism being one of those guiding forces, vintners discovered that the branches of one type of grape could be grafted into the vine of an entirely different vine.  Over time, a vintner could switch his vineyard from producing chardonnay to producing Muscat to producing pinot grigio, all from the same vine!  The reasons for doing this are varied.  Some root systems are tougher than others.  Others handle certain pests better.  I suppose weather even plays a role.  If one variety of wine is subject to fungus or disease, grafting it onto another vine may provide it with the protection necessary to grow and produce fruit.  It is not too surprising, when we consider what vintners have discovered the past few centuries, that Jesus would describe discipleship in such terms.

     In our Gospel passage today, Jesus describes Himself as the Vine and you and me as the branches.  As a result of our faith in His saving work, you and I are planted in His cuts (literally and figuratively).  Like the grafted branch in wine-making, you and I draw our nutrients, our water, our very life from Him, at least that is our Father’s plan.  When life’s blessings happen, you and I are called to give thanks.  When life give us pain and suffering, we are to patiently bear it, knowing that God will redeem whatever is going on in our lives, even if it leads to our death.  Better still, while we receive our nurturing from the Vine, you and I have a job to do.  It is our job, planted in His life giving vine, to bear fruit which glorifies the owner of the vineyard, the Father.  At times, our Father will, like a good vintner, prune us, that we might produce even more fruit.  We might like a particular ministry, but God may well choose to give us a new direction, that He might be more glorified through our lives.  And you and I are called to trust that He will “prune” us, “tie” us off, and let us grow and thrive, all to His glory.  It sounds like an amazing process, but how does it play out in life?  After all, none of us are placed along the side of the road encountering eunuchs on their way home to their queen, right?

     In the last couple months, I can think of three specific ways this grafting has played out in our lives.  Starting from the most recent, Ron Curtis approached me with some of Lilyan’s prosthetic bras.  Ron asked if I thought I could find some women in the community who might need them but could not afford them.  During the process of getting the word out about this wonderful gift, I learned some great lessons, most of which were very positive.  The dumbfounding negative lesson to me was the fact that prosthetic bras could not be sold by resale stores.  Since they were considered “medical equipment,” there were laws in place to prevent a place like the Discovery Shop (proceeds benefit cancer services) or Winnie’s Wishes from making a bit of money off the resale of such items.  By the way, men, if you have ever bought a nice bra for your wife, and then add “medical device” to that, and you get an idea of the cost and the burden, never mind the fact that this “medical device” stays outside the body.  So, word got out that we had some devices for those in need but lacking in resources.  This week, those words landed on the ears that needed to hear them.

     Unfortunately, from my perspective, Ron was not at church to reap the harvest he had sown.  Women who had been forced to live without a prosthetic bra, and with the accompanying self image, were in the building in tears, and they were not mad that I was making them share.  The idea that someone would think of their need and not charge them outrageously for it simply left them crying.  I think, had we had tons of these, I could have found a home for them all.  Each of them asked why.  I told them that Ron had lived with them and their hurt through his bride and her experiences.  Unlike many men, especially legislators apparently, Ron knew how badly these bras were needed.  God had given him eyes and a heart to understand.  He would have been less than a good steward had he not done what he had.  Ron was a branch, grafted in Christ’s vine, perfectly nurtured to produce fruit in these circumstances.  And God was glorified in that those ladies who had been created in His image before the disease and surgery marred them, felt like they had been embraced by God Himself!

     Another way this grafting has played out was in the Ministry of Presence.  Sue had asked to take ashes this past Ash Wednesday.  While out there, she was approached by a man who was hurting so badly that he did not even think himself worth having ashes imposed, let alone prayer or communion.  I will commend the tale to you and encourage you to ask Sue about this, but the gist of the story is the hurt.  This man, in a bit of a drunken fight with his girlfriend, was dealing with the guilt that he had killed her.  Truthfully, she had climbed into the truck, grabbed his gun, and shot herself, but he blamed himself and his words during a drunken fight.  Now he found himself on Ash Wednesday perceiving himself to be so guilty that God could never forgive him, let alone remind him of his mortality.

     As Sue and Robin and Charlie and Jane and I all talked with Sue later and among ourselves, a remarkable back story appeared.  While each of us no doubt could have ministered to this trucker, Sue had been more directly affected by suicide in her past.  Where to us God’s words and God’s comfort might be accurate, her understanding of the man’s condition gave her an empathy and expertise which we, despite all our well-meaning, would have lacked.  Yet, here Sue was.  This man, with this particular guilt, happened to be passing through the truck stop at that particular time, with Sue just thinking to take ashes “just in case.”  Talk about a God incident!  Talk about a eunuch passing by and wondering what he was reading!  She had been nurtured in Christ’s vine, knew the guilt and the healing offered.  And she was position to minister.
     My favorite story played out among someone whom I would consider not very active.  They are more than “in orbit” but far less than actively involved in our ministry, though they meet the canonical requirements to be considered active.  I was at his place of business, however, when he had a bit of a problem.  When he finally got back to me, he gave me a bit off my bill, by way of apology.  Naturally, having used the extra time to talk and watch, I was not particularly grumpy about the delay.  When I suggested that he not worry about it, he was very insistent.  I would treat any customer this way, Father.  Unfortunately, as we were settling up, his friends heard the exchange.  One, in particular, was very loud in his protestations.
     I won’t recount the entire conversation as it was earthy.  Suffice it to say that, once the friend realized I was a priest, he was suitably embarrassed.  But then he turned on “ours.”  It’s really your fault since you started with the language.  I would have never talked like that around one of your customers had I known he was a priest.  This parishioner looked at me before I could tell him it was not a big deal and asked you care if I handle this, Father.  What followed was a layman’s account of Christ’s ministry that his friend needed to hear.
     With whom did Jesus hang out? was the first question.  When the friend answered with apostles, saints, and martyrs the parishioner responded that normal human beings were changed into saints and apostles and martyrs.  What were they before He started working with them?  The friend correctly answered fishermen, prostitutes and tax collectors (they fought over what would be the equivalent today with card players or enforcers dominating the conversation).  Our brother asked the friend if he ever paid attention to the language used by those professions.  This prompted a lot of laughter on the part of all those there.  But then the friend reminded all those there that Jesus was the Son of God, that He never would have allowed those around him to talk like the parishioner had around me.
     Excitedly, my parishioner told his friend how wrong he was.  Jesus met everyone where they were.  He never left them there, they were usually changed by encounters with Him, but He never left them there.  He proceeded to explain the use of “earthy” language in many of the stories and parables.  This parishioner, who has been in church for fewer than 2 dozen services in my nearly six years here, became suddenly fluent in Greek and Hebrew and an accurate critic of some modern translations (the KJV, in particular).  He proceeded to explain in detail some of the images that Jesus uses to describe us and then, like a world class evangelist, refused to leave his friend in his guilt.  What followed was the rest of the stories which demonstrated God’s wish to save all and the Empty Tomb’s testimony that He had the power to accomplish all that He purposed!
     When he finished, he looked back at me and asked Was that pretty accurate?  Having heard a couple connections in his testimony that I had never made in Scripture, I simply shook my head affirmatively and said “yes, I believe so.”  The friend was obviously shaken.  Though they had been friends for some time, they had never talked about their faith.  In a space of about five minutes, he heard the weirdest rendering of the Gospel he had ever heard.  He look at me, gestured to him, and asked Is he right?  I nodded again.  You guys have a weird understanding of Jesus and God, he stated matter of factly.  How so, I asked.  Well, the idea that Jesus talked with fishermen and prostitutes, for example.  Did he, I asked.  Ya, but come on, him, pointing at his friend, I mean, if you knew him, you’d know that he has a colorful and earthy past.  I asked how long they had known each other.  He shared.  I asked if he had ever heard his friend talk like this.  Of course not.  I asked him what accounted for his friend’s testimony that evening, given all the years they knew each other.  He had no answer.  I asked if maybe God’s grace explained it.  He admitted that something sure had changed in his friend.  I offered that maybe it was the peace that had come when he learned that Christ had died for him and all his faults and commissioned him to seek the least and the lost in His name.  Maybe, but who on earth is ever going to listen to him, pointing at his friend, when he goes all religious.  “You did, for starters.”  I pointed out.  Maybe all of this was just so God might reach into your life again.  Where and when do you guys meet?

     Brothers and sisters, that is what is meant by being grafted.  That is what is meant by abiding in His life giving vine.  That is what meant by fruit that glorifies our Father in heaven!  As I have shared these stories, I realize that so many of you have your own.  Each of you have “rough edges” where Christ’s saving embrace has changed your life.  Maybe it’s in an adoption, maybe it is in a place of employment, maybe it’s a relationship.  Whatever you have experienced has uniquely prepared you to meet someone else on the road of salvation and explain to them those stories that are the reminders of hope and the promise of glory!  So, who in life is passing by you wandering, how can I know unless someone explain it?  Why not take a chance, answer the questions, and see what fruit is born in your branch . . . 

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