Sunday, May 27, 2012

Day of Pentecost -- Gifting Sunday

The Sunday during Memorial Day weekend is sometimes referred to as Memorial Day Sunday. Some churches would include in their Sunday worship service specific tokens of honoring and remembering those who died in the service of our country.

I could have similarly promoted such tokens had it not been for this other important celebration that not only involves the citizenry of a particular country but also that of a "greater number of people" throughout the world.

We celebrate today Pentecost Sunday; the fiftieth day after the great event we call Easter Sunday. Today’s celebration, however, happens to fall on the same day as Memorial Day Sunday; thus, for obvious reasons, the emphasis is more on Pentecost.

There is, however, another way to remember both. These two celebrations, Memorial Day Sunday and Pentecost Sunday, both involve an act of gifting something precious to others. Memorial Day Sunday, on the one hand, calls to remembrance the “gifting of life” unselfishly offered by those who chose to fight in the service of their country and for what their country called them to do. Pentecost Sunday, on the other hand, alludes to the “gifting of the Holy Spirit” offered by the God who chose to continue the love that the Godhead has for humankind.

In line with my fondness of coining words or phrases, I’d like to call this Sunday “Gifting Sunday”; a special day of calling in remembrance the noble gifts once offered and continually being offered.

I’m sure you have your own reasons why Memorial Day could be quite appealing. And I don’t mean the fellowship around the grill accompanied by some libation as a tribute to the ensuing summer season. Memorial Day weekend could be that but I mean the real reason why people get emotional about it.

So for example, you may have members of your family who perished in the wars that America had been involved or continues to be involved in, while not being waged in our soil. I could trace my own interest in this special celebration through the loss of my uncle’s life at  the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army while fighting for the American Forces in the Philippines during World War II.

Those who have similar reasons for the fondness of this celebration are proud to claim that the lives of their loved ones and for that matter, those of the entire war heroes, were the greatest gifts that had been offered for their country. It was their “gifting of life” that continues to be called to remembrance each time this last weekend of May comes around.

That being said, a different kind of gifting is the reason why Pentecost Sunday is celebrated by a “greater number of people” called Christians. Pentecost Sunday is when Christians celebrate God’s “gifting of the Holy Spirit” to the disciples who were once gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost, a Jewish agricultural feast that has taken on a new meaning for Christians. Today we call to remembrance the Holy Spirit, God’s gift that is at work in Creation; both in a personal sense in individual followers of His Son, and in a collective way, in His Body, the Church.

Great gifts, indeed! Both are worth remembering but with a big difference.

For the obvious reason that the gifting of human life, once done, could never be repeated unless another human life is offered, this gifting, at its best, gets “memorialized” and worse, gets relegated to a country’s collective memory and only resurfaces on the last Monday in May of the following year.

And while acts of gifting lives or better yet, "sacrificing" lives are truly noble, it would be unwise for anyone to use it as justification for more offering of the same, even if done in the name of one’s country or in the name of their God.

This kind of gifting often gets imbedded in tragic turn of events and quite oddly, amidst somber moods, begins to form the birthing of hatred – thrown in revenge and disgust to the very country and people for which that very life was given. This is why, for others, Memorial Day has become a time of sadness.

On the other hand, God’s “gifting of the Holy Spirit” is a time of joy and gladness. It promises life even if it was once closely tied up to someone’s gruesome death on the cross. Today, as we celebrate Pentecost Sunday, we rejoice in that we all have become the benefactors of God’s continued “gifting of the Holy Spirit”.

And what a beautiful gift it is. The Holy Spirit – God’s Spirit is pure gift to us; although quite often we are less deserving of such gracious gift. God, however, pours it out for us and in us simply because He loves us and wants to be with us always. God’s Holy Spirit is the Advocate that today's gospel talks about. The Holy Spirit, the Holy Breath, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity is our Strength and our Guide. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that we are reborn, made new and transformed. 

And yet, as with all gifts of Divine Providence, the Holy Spirit is not forced upon us. The Holy Spirit comes to us freely and lovingly, as a gift beyond measure. And so part of what we could do today is to recommit ourselves to being open to this Gift, to welcome and receive it, not just once but every day of our lives. That takes faith and requires an open heart. That takes true hope in what is possible. God unfolds this gift for us to behold, and we are invited to receive it with a deep sense of gratitude.

As with all who had been gifted with all sorts of presents and gifts, recipients often get overwhelmed with such lavish tokens of love. And so do we on this Pentecost Sunday. But that’s just part of what today is all about. Today is not only about being thankful and being grateful for receiving the gift of God’s Spirit, but it is also about the giving away of this very same gift, passing it along, “unleashing” it on the world, and “re-gifting” it to others.

Each of us, today, is offered a personal invitation to become a participant in the “re-gifting of the Holy Spirit” for others. In fact, it is for this reason that I chose the name “Gifting Sunday”; so we can see our part in this whole process of gifting tokens of love and care. I would like to propose that the re-gifting part should be highlighted even more, seeing and knowing that it is the more important piece – the true evidence that God’s Spirit is alive and well in each of us and in His Body, the Church.

The reason for its importance lies in the fact that if the transforming love of the Holy Spirit were to have no effect on our daily living, then we cannot really say that this great gift has made a difference in us,  nor can we claim that we’ve truly received the grace offered, in spite of our claim that we are truly committed to being Jesus’ disciples.

And that becomes the challenge for us, to not regard today as simply a day of remembrance; remembering something that happened long ago. Rather, we are to see it as a re-commitment to someone of something that we ourselves believe is happening day-in and day-out, in this time and place and in this faith community. It is a gifting that can be re-done; that can be offered to others, so the original Gift-Giver is truly memorialized in ages past and those yet to come.

The Holy Spirit who dwells in each of us the same Spirit that hovered over Chaos at Creation. It was the same Spirit who brought life to Adam and Eve. The same Spirit who guided Noah during the Great Flood. The same spirit that led Moses in their great exodus from Egypt. It is the same Holy Spirit that was with Jesus and the same Spirit who came to those first disciples on that first Day of Pentecost, transforming them into a community of believers full of wisdom, courage, and understanding.

As I was trying to wrap up writing my sermon yesterday and aware that I’d be talking about “gifting” and gifts, I remembered a gifting practice that my son Andrew and his work mates would do at Christmas. They’d do what they refer to as “White Elephant Gift Exchange”. I know what “white elephant” usually refers to and I wanted to find out if it’s the same reason behind his group’s gifting practice. Apparently, it is not.

And so I told him what the usual meaning of it is and that, first of all, its should not to be confused with the phrase “white elephant in the room” because it should only be “elephant” and not “white elephant” and second that it is used to refer when you “re-gift” something which you were given before but somehow found it useless and could give better justice to it if it gets “re-gifted”.

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I have used the “gifting and re-gifting” phrase in allusion to how the Holy Spirit has been “gifted” to us and that we should “re-gift” it to others. The Holy Spirit who dwells within us is no “white elephant”, for by definition, as I told Andrew, “white elephant” is something that we have no use for, that has little or no value, and that we wish we never would have received in the first place.  A true white elephant is basically of no use to anyone. In this regard, the Holy Spirit is the complete opposite. This gift has the power to do nothing less than change the world.

It sounds incredible, and it really is. God wants to change the world and wants that to turn to reality through us – through our willingness to change, through our actions, through our openness to His grace, and through our trust and courage to carry out this mission.

Unlike the “gifting of life” that Memorial Day reminds us of, in which the gifting is done and gone as soon as that precious life is given away, the “gifting of the Holy Spirit” doesn’t stop or disappear.

Unlike Memorial Day’s “gifting of life” that easily withers away in the nation’s history, today’s “gifting of the Holy Spirit” not only allows us to remember the past but also moves us towards the future; ours and the church we belong to. The more we give it away, the more we shower others with the Spirit of God that dwells within us, the more that same Spirit grows and strengthens and comes even more alive within us. The Holy Spirit will never be spent out. We can always depend on God’s Spirit to provide us with all that we need to faithfully carry out whatever it is that God is asking of us.

And so, maybe this year we should pray more than simply, “Veni Sancte Spiritus”. “Come. Holy Spirit!  Come!”  Instead, let’s proclaim and gladly shout, “Go Holy Spirit! Go!” and bid it go from within us and through us into the hearts, minds, and lives of all those we meet in days to come. It is, indeed, time to re-gift.

Pentecost Sunday is “Gifting Sunday”.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Read the Instructions

I wonder if you have noticed that just when there seems to be a great deal of intentionality put on in bringing in important measures for communities and the society at large that somehow an important piece gets left out.

As an example, I recall this story that allegedly took place in India. This was back when that country’s growth of population began to alarm not only her leadership but also the whole world in general. Their leadership believed that only by “birth control measures” could they cut the alarming upsurge of their country's birth rate. So they launched this program.

Volunteers were called by their Social Work Department and were sent out into the country and especially in remote villages that had the highest birth rate. These volunteers went to every house and gave them a “package” that was believed to control a couple’s inclination to get engaged in procreation.

The volunteers took notice of the time the package was left and told the couples that they’d be back in a year’s time to check how things are. So they left and came back a year later and were dismayed at the result. There were more babies that were born; more women were conceiving and the birth rate continued to soar high. The result was just so contrary to the projected outcome. They could not believe what happened and so they interviewed the couples and asked them if they used the package and they all said they did. One couple said: “See, the package is up there in the altar among the gods and we prayed to it not to have anymore babies. Why it failed, we do not know.”

You know the reason why? A very important piece got left out and the real reason for the failure of the program was that they were not told to read the instructions. They simply were not told how to use it and so, as customary in their community, and being a religious people, they prayed to it.

That may be the last thing you want to hear today but if you can just withhold your judgment for now, you’ll see its relevance in the reflection I am about to share with you this morning.

Last Sunday, I tried to develop the idea about how we could get to be the “faithful lovers” whom God would want us to be. I pointed out that not only are we to be “faithful lovers” to God who is the ultimate “Faithful Lover” but also to become the same for each other, for everyone. We were even given the command to do such; to abide and remain in Him and to love one another, just as He has loved us.

“Be Faithful Lovers”. This is the virtual “package” that has been left to us with the hope that the “world” will be a better place to live in; that God’s justice and mercy will “flow like a river” and that there will be no more dissensions between and among the peoples of the earth.

I could imagine this yearning for a better world to be a possible solution in restraining the growth of greed and envy, the two common motivators for those who add to and aggravate our world’s brokenness.

Our Lord Jesus figuratively gave this “package” to us but some have fallen to deaf or indifferent ears; at times, claiming that it’s simply difficult to follow or perhaps, laying it aside for now and it’ll be attended in due time. Fortunately, there are more of those who, early enough in their faith journeys, were able to “read the instructions”, the accompanying words of how our being “faithful lovers” could turn into reality, helping to transform our part of God’ Creation into becoming the Beloved Community.

Talking about the virtual instructions, Jesus included a good number of those in the Holy Bible, particularly through the words written down by the gospel writers. All of the canonical gospels contain sayings attributed to Jesus that are part of these virtual instructions I am referring to.

Our gospel lesson for this 7th Sunday of Easter is part of what is commonly referred to as the ‘High Priestly Prayer’ of Jesus. The 17th chapter of John contains a kind of ‘litany’ of prayers that Jesus supposedly said that evening when they had the Last Supper.

The verses in today’s gospel lesson talk about Jesus’ prayers for his own disciples. They were prayers for those whom he loved and cared. He prayed about their unity, about them not being taken out of this “world” and about them being sanctified in the truth. And then, towards the end of the gospel lesson, Jesus declares: "As you sent me into the world, so have I sent them into the world" (John 17:18 CEB). This particular verse is John’s way of saying that Jesus’ disciples were being sent out to the real world where they could become God’s “hands and feet”, instruments for the furtherance of God’s mission in the world.

We also find affinity to this scriptural passage. By our having become God’s children and having affirmed this commitment at our baptism, we are now given the instruction that we are to do mission in the outside community thereby enabling us to fulfill our calling as “faithful lovers” for others as well.

If we could just use some imagination here, imagine that you have in front of you this “package” labeled “Be Faithful Lovers” and you are encouraged to use it for the very purpose it was designed. If you read the “instructions” carefully, you will notice that it says “Not Just For Personal Use" but it also says: “To Be Used For Others” and you’d notice that at the end of the word “others” there is an asterisk (*) and further down it tells you who those others are.

For me, personally, the term “To be used for others” simply means our being “sent into the world” in a manner akin to what Jesus told the disciples in his “High Priestly Prayer”. “To be used for others” is a phrase that alludes to our involvement with those other than ourselves. This phrase connotes “commitment” which is a necessary ingredient if we are to uphold the welfare of others. This ingredient was very much present in Jesus’ relationship with his disciples.

We learn from Holy Scriptures that Jesus was totally committed to the welfare of his disciples and through them, the welfare of others. For example, Jesus had miraculous powers but he used these powers more to help others than to help himself. There was also the time when people were hungry in a deserted place so Jesus multiplied bread to feed them, but when he himself got hungry in the desert he would not turn stones into bread to feed himself. And there was that occasion when Jesus was tired and needed some rest so He took off in a boat to a place of retreat but on arriving there found that the people had arrived before him looking for him. Seeing how these people looked like sheep without a shepherd, he immediately deferred his planned rest and began to minister to them. Concern for others was the hallmark of his life and ministry. His ministry was, indeed, premised by the instruction “To be used for others”.

The imageries of being “faithful lovers” and “To be used for others” have actually taken some concrete form. It is dominant among those who believe that for this to come true, Christians should be actively concerned for the material and spiritual well-being of the less fortunate of the world. Their interpretation of  “To be used for others” has given rise to what is called “social gospel”.

There are churches that are involved in efforts to eradicate poverty and disease wherever they’re found and, undeniably, they are in abundance, and in doing their ministry, they reflect the spirit of compassion and selfless interest for others that they see in Jesus. They have truly put the phrase “To be used for others” into action especially in communities that lack material comforts.

Back again to our virtual instruction imagery, the common tendency is to get attracted to what the fine line says and in the example given above, that's what the asterisk is all about. In so doing, the first instruction could very well get ignored. And, what is the first one? It says: “Not just for personal use”. Ah, so there is the personal aspect in being “faithful lover”.

In other words, it’s not all for others’ use but also for our personal use. Notice the last verse in today’s gospel lesson. "I made myself holy on their behalf so that they also would be made holy in the truth.”  Jesus, in his prayer, affirms that being made holy or personal sanctification is also an essential element in the whole business of being a Christian.

While some churches do nothing else but social ministries, there are, fortunately, many that give importance to the “personal” part. And it’s good because it counterbalances the first inclination. Salvation is not just about bread, not just about educational and health programs and definitely, more than just liberation theology. Jesus was always there for other people, yet he did not forget to sanctify himself. And we should learn from that delicate balance in order that we avoid taking the ‘either or’ stance.

A common tragedy in presenting the Good News with the ‘either or’ stance is in presenting it, either, on the one hand, as purely social gospel or, on the other, as something purely personal. The truth is that there are people who are so involved in helping others that they forget their own inner life with God. They subscribe to the social gospel alone. They see only the “To Be Used For Others” part of the virtual instructions and or misread the “Not Just For Personal Use”

Too much of either one could be detrimental in our calling as “faithful lovers”. And so perhaps, we can learn from today’s gospel lesson. It means that when we talk gospel talk, we engage our proclamation of the gospel observing that delicate balance; social gospel and personal gospel and not social gospel or personal gospel. The whole instruction says: “Not Just For Personal Use” and “To Be Used For Others*”.

This has been our stance, by the way. The Episcopal Church is famous for the term ‘Via Media’ which is Latin for ‘Middle Road’ or more appropriately ‘Middle Way’. The Episcopal Church likes to balance things. We know for a fact that we operate like on a three-legged stool wherein Scripture, Reason and Tradition each plays an important part.

And so, my dear brothers and sisters in the Lord, as we continue to live out the promises we made in our baptismal covenant, may we be reminded of Christ’s words in his ‘High Priestly Prayer’ and keep a good balance of our concerns both for the sake of others and for ours as well.

C’mon, read the instructions very carefully.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Faithful Lovers

For several Sundays now, you might have noticed that the appointed gospel readings contain references to ordinary and common imageries. They also give you the impression that Jesus was indeed fond of using these ordinary imageries as tools in his teaching ministry.

At one time, not too long after the resurrection event and while "showing" himself to some of the disciples, Jesus asked for fish. Of all things he could have asked for, he asked for fish. Then we heard of Jesus' claim as the Good Shepherd and our being likened as sheep. Last Sunday, we heard of his claim as the True Vine and our being referred to as branches.

Fish, sheep and shepherd; branches and vine. How much more ordinary can you get? Today's imagery, however, is different. The imagery that comes to mind while listening to the gospel for today is our being alluded to as “faithful lovers”.

Be aware, however, that I'm not bringing this up as if these were actual words of Jesus. They're not. There's no known biblical passage where Jesus refers to himself as 'The Faithful Lover'. I wish John in his gospel had added in his 'I am' sayings something like Jesus claiming, "I am the Faithful Lover". But there is none nor is there one where He calls his disciples as such. And yet I feel encouraged to use the term "faithful lovers" for some obvious reasons.

"Faithful lovers"! That's different. It is so evocative of our yearning to love and be loved; so reflective of something ordinary yet profound.  That's partly the reason why I chose the term. To use such a seemingly "secular or mundane" description and apply it to members of faith communities might indeed raise some eyebrows. My hope is that when this reflection is over that you will have a better understanding of the reason for my use of the term.

Are you in love? Notice the tense of the verb; how I use it. “Are you in love?” It’s in the present tense, meaning I’m really interested to find out whether you, at this moment in time, are in love. So, I’ll ask it again and you don’t have to be shy. Who among you here are in love?

Now, for those of you who think you are no longer in love, my question for you is: “Have you been in love?"  Again, take note of the tense. I'm now interested in the past. "Was there a time in your life when your heart would throb fast each time you were around this special someone?” If you say yes, would you boldly say it now that “Yes! I had been in love but not anymore"?  To those who think they’re no longer in love, this one’s for you.

On those occasions when adults are asked whether they are in love or not, the common tendency is for them to use as their benchmarks the usual indicators of love as fashioned by society and worded in human terms. If they don't measure close enough to the set parameters, they’d then consider themselves on the proverbial "other side of the fence".

So for those who have lost their spouse or significant other and had been widowed or divorced; their claim that they’re no longer in love is easy to understand. I mean, that’s no brainer. If you lost your spouse, your partner or your significant other, because they passed on or you lost him or her through some other reason you alone know, then you have all the right to say you’re no longer in love.

But then not all those who claim they're no longer in love could attribute their state of being to those two reasons alone. That is just half of the picture why. And who do you think the rest are?

Well, for those who had been or still are in a relationship and who used to hear sweet endearments from their significant other; or who used to receive little tokens such as flowers or Hallmark cards; or who spend quality time cuddling while watching a television show or movie or being offered help while she vacuums the house; or used to get sweet kisses and hugs but no longer do, these are the ones who also claim they’re no longer in love.

And that’s documented by the way.

There is a book authored by a Christian counselor named Dr. Gary Chapman, entitled “The Five Love Languages”. Dr. Chapman believes that everyone has a unique "affection lingo" and describes the different ways a person gets "warm fuzzies" as in "fuzzy feeling." He categorizes these love languages into five areas.

Words of Affirmation. People with this love language like to frequently hear that they're important, that they're needed. They're the ones who need to be constantly reassured that you love them. They are the ones who long to hear the words "I Love You". 24/7

Receiving Gifts. Some people feel loved when they receive little trinkets or other tokens of affection. These gifts don't have to be expensive, but they have to reflect something unique about the recipient.

Quality Time. These people feel loved when their friends and family members spend dedicated, focused time with them. This means more than just hanging out. There can be no distractions during the time they spend together.

Acts of Service. These people feel loved when others help them. Don't mistake them for the dependent or lazy ones. They're the ones who just love being with their valiant knights in shining armor.

Physical Touch. These are the huggers. They like to give and receive appropriate signs of affection, such as hugging, shaking hands, pat on the back, kisses on the cheek and warm embraces.

When a "partner" operates in one or more of the above-named "love language" and the other partner responds to it, then that person is most likely to feel loved. When this begins to happen, whispering "I love you" or offering a dozen of roses is equated with love just as preparing breakfast on weekends would spell l-o-v-e.  You get the picture?

The flip side of that then is that when that “love language” is ignored or rarely used or not practiced, all that the individual feels is that she or he is “ignored, abandoned or hurt”.  All she or he gets are little "pricks". Don't get me wrong. I don't mean that. I mean the tiny, irritating and hurting pokes that could have serious and damaging effects.

Lest we get carried somewhere with these 'affection lingo', let me ask you now this.

Do you think there is a particular “affection lingo” that we can apply to God; something that would give him the “warm fuzzy” feeling and would induce him to claim, “I’m in love”? Is there one that will win back God’s “heart” and therefore prevent the Godhead from getting the unrelenting “pricks” from a hurting and broken world?

I realize that my own finiteness, my being just a mere speck in God’s Grand Design ought to convince me that such a question is so remotely answerable, if at all possible. And yet, I cannot help but ask: “So what is God's language of love? When does he feel most loved?”

Maybe there is none, after all God is Love! God is absolute and does not need anything else to complete its being. But perhaps, come to think of it, there might be one. I believe there is a way for us to know the answer to these questions, a way for us to understand the depth of our love for God and his, for us.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus alludes to these very things. Listen once more to part of today's gospel.

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete’”. (NRSV John 15: 9-11)

The key words in this passage are “abide and keep” or as in other versions “remain and keep”. The proper thing to do then in so far as our relationship with God is concerned is for us to “abide and remain” to the True Vine, the Good Shepherd, the Light of the world, the Son of God, Christ Jesus.

To “abide” means to be “faithful” to all that God has asked of us. And to be "faithful" means to be "obedient". It looks then that the “affection lingo” that we can offer to God is “obedience” which is what “abide and faithfulness” would entail. In other words, with God’s creation becoming “obedient” to its Creator, God would get that “warm fuzzy” feeling.

Now, is that too far fetched of an idea? Before you say in chorus that it is, listen to this. Those who had been or are still in the workforce would know by now that there are situations when employees would "obey" their boss, out of sheer obligation. You follow what the boss tells you otherwise you’d get axed and relegated to the wilderness of unemployment. They are also the one who are often lacking in any form of joviality. They’re grumpy and they generally do a poor job. But then there are also those who “obey” the commands of the office gods but do it without feeling like they're selling their soul every time they do it. They are the “obedience driven” people who do it because they feel that what they're doing, in spite of the aggravated circumstances, still has meaning and purpose.

There is indeed a way to rise beyond “burdened obedience” and it is with this mindset that we take a second look at our relationship with God. When we do, we will notice that obedience is closely linked to love as though love and obedience are synonymous.

And in this context, it is. That's exactly how Jesus showed his love for God: in loving faithfulness. Even though he was equal with God in every respect, he voluntarily submitted himself to God's will. By that very act, Jesus sets a model for us. Obedience that stems from love always results in joy. When we obey out of love, we end up having joy in what we do.

Of course, that doesn't mean obeying God will exclude or prevent us from earthly losses that bring us sadness and grief. But even underneath the pain, there is a sense of fulfillment and peace that tells us that God is in control.

So Jesus tells his disciples to obey God out of love so that their joy may be complete. Jesus also gives them a commandment that demands obedience. Jesus says: “Love each other as I have loved you”.

And do you think it is an easy command to follow? I wonder about that. I think it is in this area where we often fail. We even willfully resist it and in so doing give God a barrage of those little “pricks" I referred to earlier. It's one commandment that many have difficulty obeying.

The truth is that there are people who are simply difficult to love. They can be rude, obnoxious, demanding, controlling, domineering, abusive or simply inarguably unlikable. Did I omit anything? Help me out in this. Disgusting, maybe? You can add your beef to the list. You get the picture?

Yet, God’s command is plain and simple: Love them anyway. Love them in spite of. When we do, when we obey this command, when we do it out of love, then we win back God’s heart and give Him the “warm fuzzies” that He even shares back with us, undeservedly at times. And thus, God’s joy becomes complete and so is ours.

Fellow “faithful lovers”, at one time or another, we have erred and have gone into paths that might have distanced ourselves from God. We had been in those situations when we have rejected the same “cornerstone” that St. Paul once talked about. But we can go back to the course once set for us at our baptism, can’t we? Even if we have trodden a different path and even if we had failed to follow God’s commands, it’s not yet late to begin renewing our relationship with God. It’s never late to fall back to God’s loving arms.

Brothers and Sisters in the Lord, today, we celebrate Mother’s Day, the day when we honor that special breed of people who have demonstrated to each of their offspring and before the world, their willingness to respond to any and all that love languages have demanded of them. If being loved is the customary end in view, for them, for the Mothers we love so dear, giving and offering love is their end in view. My prayer is that they become worthy exemplars of our very own calling as “faithful lovers” to God and to the Beloved Community.

So how are we doing so far, faithful lovers?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

How fruitful a branch are you?

In last week’s gospel lesson, we were likened to “sheep” and now, we’re the “branches”. Guess what we will be likened to next Sunday. We’re going to be referred to as “fruitful lovers”. But you need to be here next week to learn more about it. Of course. For now, let me ask this: “So, how are things with you, fellow branches? Anybody getting pruned, yet? Anybody cut off for good? I truly hope nobody.”

Some people find the figures of speech Jesus used in his teaching ministry to be at times, quiet annoying. The reason for their saying this lies on their observation that the objects Jesus compares his listeners to are often plain and ordinary and, if I can coin a word, are “flawful” - meaning laden with flaws and defects, void of the perfections others often claim they have.

In my reflection last week concerning sheep-imagery, I mentioned in passing about the deficiency in getting compared to such. Today’s imagery is among the ones I think could fall into that category of “annoying” metaphors. Branches. Branches of the vine! Before I go any further, let me first share a few background materials.

Jesus, soon after his baptism at the river Jordan by his cousin John the Baptist, spent about three years doing his earthly ministry. He attracted quite a following and from among them, he chose a cadre of his inner circle, referred to usually as the twelve apostles, who constantly went with him as he preached a radically different understanding from what Israel has been previously taught and learned.

They were the same group who saw Jesus performed miracles of healing and restoration. It was also the same group that seemed to have not grasped the gradual revelation of God’s purpose towards the fulfillment of Man’s redemption, in spite of their constantly being in the company of Jesus. This misunderstanding started to translate in an attitude of disbelief, particularly when Jesus began to tell them that he had to die but that on the third day he will rise.

In what biblical scholars refer to as Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse”, Jesus began to say his ‘last words’ to those who were closest to him and John’s version of the Gospel lists what is known as the “I Am Sayings”. Today’s gospel lesson is one of those sayings. “I am the true vine”, Jesus said.

Anticipating some signs of weakness, should the pain and terror of his impending death caught up his disciples, Jesus reassured his disciples that their faithful relationship with him and with each other should be maintained and he did this by calling to his disciples’ attention something which was familiar to them and that was through reminding them about ‘vine and branches and fruits and pruning’; images which Israel know by heart.

Listen once more to the words Jesus said.
"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.”

My first exposure to vine and branches and grapes was from my first visit to Vallejo, California back in 1991, and, when my brother, now deceased, took me to Napa Valley. I thoroughly enjoyed our picnic style lunch on the grounds of Sattui Winery with wine and cheese and sweet smelling loaf of bread. I also remember noticing rows and rows of well-cared vines with branches teeming with grapes and I wondered how much time and effort and love were poured onto them.

What I noticed about this sculptured landscape of grapevines is that row after row, there was a distinct trunk, the vine and then a thick tangled mass of branches at about shoulder height. The branches were so profuse and tangled and heavily leaf clad that without careful scrutiny, it was hard to tell one branch from another and almost impossible to tell where one ends and the next one begins.

“I am the vine and you are the branches,” says Jesus. Well, if you stand on the road side of one those vineyards looking over the fence while contemplating the meaning of that statement, the first thing you will realize is that it is as though Jesus is telling you that you will not stand out from the pack in some special way, or receive any great fame or recognition. It is an alarming reminder that as branches, you are really nothing but a branch among other branches.

 “My father is the vine grower,” Jesus says. You can ask wine growers if they have a favorite branch in their vineyard and they’ll tell you they’ve none. There are only two types of branches - ones that produce fruit and ones that don’t and the latter get cut off. The ones you see in those well-cared rows of vines are actually good branches. Of those branches, however, not one stands out as any more important than the others; in fact, they’re just all co-existing, as it were, all tangled up and producing fruit.

As an illustration for the church, this imagery is way too different than the ways we’re familiar with. We’d be more familiar with something like “I am the building and you are the staircase,” so that we could set about determining where in the staircase we fit. Are you on the higher rung or are you a bottom step or somewhere in between? But this is so radically different.

“I am the vine and you are the branches, and my Father is the vine grower.” If that really is the way God regards us in the ‘Beloved Community’- the Church, then we do not have any right to measure ourselves off against one another. There’s no reason for us to even think that we could allow ourselves to engage in some kind of competition, like those we see in reality shows. ‘You’re safe or you’re in the bottom three.’

Our being ‘a branch among other branches’ suggests that we should not even dare ask the question who is more useful, or more important, or more significant church member. A ‘branch among other branches’ means that the church should not regard membership in the ‘Beloved Community’ on the basis of skin color, or the size of pocketbooks.

“I am the vine and you are the branches, and my Father is the vine grower.” As branches whose reason for existence is to bear fruits, we then should only entertain whether we are able to reflect the fruits of God’s mercy and love, his justice and peace, in the very lives we live.

The Church, the ‘Beloved Community,’ should only be concerned whether justice prevails or whether God’s love permeates the lives of all her members. We are, after all, either abiding in Jesus, the Vine, or we’re not. If we are, we will be fruitful and if we’re not we’ll be like a branch that’s been detached from the vine, rootless and rapidly drying out!

Fruitfulness is the natural end result of developing a healthy relationship with Christ. Our Lord Jesus Christ says, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” He does not say “Those who work their guts out at being fruitful, at being loving, just, peaceful, gentle, self-controlled, patient etc. will, by doing so, find themselves related to me.” The equation runs the other way around. He’s telling us that we should first strengthen our connection to him, to graft ourselves firmly on to the vine, to draw deeply on the sap that is God’s Spirit and then we will be fruitful.

We are all created by God to be a fruitful branch firmly connected to Jesus, the Vine, and by becoming just that, we will bring joy to the heart of God. I say it again; we can only and truly become a fruitful branch by being firmly connected to Jesus, the Vine.

That statement could be readily dismissed as too far detached from reality! Such comment should not surprise us at all because we live in a culture that tells us constantly that if we want to be worthwhile and productive people we must strive for independence and stand on our own feet. America is best known for holding up and even revering the image of rugged individualism. 

But from what Jesus is saying, we thereby learn that fruitfulness is not based on our independence but on our interdependence. We are dependent on Jesus, the Vine for a healthy root system that will ensure our continuing fruitfulness. It is by our relationship to Jesus that we have the capacity for fruitfulness, and by the development of that relationship our fruitfulness will grow.

God the Vinedresser will do his part; this much we believe. But we also know that if God were to carry out what He intends to do, things could get scary. Sometimes we won’t even like it. As the passage makes it clear, even the fruitful branches need some pruning, We also know very well that ‘going under the knife’ is never a pleasant experience, even when you know it’s for your own good. Pruning hurts but it hurts for the better. You will bear much more fruit.

Brothers and sisters in the Lord, at the start of this reflection I made mention that at times the figures of speech Jesus has used could be a bit annoying. I could relate to that in the sense that I have observed others to be so full of pride and arrogance. It is in this area where their being compared to branches could get annoying. Some questions that would float around are the following. “How dare Jesus compare me to just an ordinary branch? How dare him compare me to be needing to get “pruned” to bear much more fruit? Are my gifts to the community and to the church not enough? How dare him compare me to a dead branch that could get “thrown into the fire and burned”?

My good friends in Christ, if and in the event any of you think along this line, my prayer is for you to listen with all your heart to what the Lord is telling you. He is saying all this to remind you of your calling of “bearing fruit”. A healthy branch, indeed, bears fruit and if we, by God’s grace, would bear much more fruit, would that not be great? After all, shouldn’t the Vinegrower enjoy the fruits of His labor?

So, my fellow branches: “How fruitful a branch are you?”