There is a red- magenta flowered Bougainvillea tree (or bush) in front of our house. My neighbor planted it as a gift about five years ago. It was a small plant when it started and it took a long time to flower beyond a few blooms. With hope and patience, we cut and pruned it’s scraggily, long, thorny and uneven branches hoping for something beautiful to appear. We have the marks to prove that it did not like being pruned. We first began to notice that at Christmas it bloomed beautifully and added to our Christmas joy. Then, by the fourth or fifth year it burst forth with blooms everywhere lasting all year. It still needs occasional pruning, sometimes long asymmetric bloomless shoots dart forth. We cut them off and enjoy the abundant and magnificent color all year. The cut-off shoots wither and die quickly.
There are banana trees in our rear yard that also need pruning. When they are not cut properly no fruit is formed just big green leaves. Our friends from St. Lucia showed us how, when and where to cut them down or back. When pruned carefully clusters of bananas grow into maturity. This is nothing short of miraculous to one from the inner city of New York.
I remember climbing in the back yard grape vines of my Italian neighbors when I was a child. We were delighted when we found sweet edible grapes. Sometimes we bit into bitter sour grapes and we had no idea why some were sweet and some were sour and some had no fruit.
Jesus likened himself to the vine and his precious followers to branches of the vine. We are organically connected to Christ, one with Christ, as long as we practice what we have been taught-to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors-all of them-everywhere- as ourselves. On the Vine we are also organically connected to one another. The Epistle of First John (3:18-24) tells us that we cannot pay mere lip-service to love, we must live it, love is an action word. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said “My vocation is to love. Love is not words it is action”. I am so thankful for all of the volunteers and members who love and serve one another in our Good Shepherd church and for the other churches, individuals and groups that freely and generously give so that our people may be housed and fed, clothed and sheltered and receive the benefits of education and learning enrichment.
So to remain on the vine we must ask ourselves-what are we DOING to live love and justice? What are we doing with and for the outcast of all types, the poor and the different, “the least of these our brothers and sisters?” What are we doing in the face of injustice toward people of difference-toward the LGBTQ community? Toward those with mental illness, mental challenges and AIDS and other horrible diseases? Toward those who experience licensed brutality of law authorities and to all of those who experience random violence from one another as well as from the Law? We all know about the death of Freddie Gray in Maryland and the response of some of the youth in the community. Rather than sit and condemn can we understand how it is to BE them and face police authority whether justly or unjustly apprehended. Here in SW Florida in Cape Coral, a young white man was unjustly apprehended and beaten badly by police authorities last year. There are protests here too. Here, as elsewhere, it is as much about class as race though the double whammy of both doubles the jeopardy of discrimination and pre-judging. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed when he allied himself with poor whites and others as well as blacks. Christ lives in the ghetto and in the hearts and hopes of all who are lowest income as well as the well to do. Where are we, the so-called followers of Christ? Have we followed him to where the rocks are flying and the guns are killing and the people are frightened? Can we also understand how it is to BE law authority when random violence is directed at them for doing their very difficult jobs? Can we understand how it all has gone wrong-toward hate and not love. How lawlessness and violence are signs that love is dying on the vine. Jesus is saying that if we do nothing but talk our faith we are not abiding in him, in his teaching, and we are bearing no fruit. We will become dead wood, dead branches, no longer connected to Love and Life. Roger Karban once said-if we merely worship Christ and do not LIVE what Christ said and did we do not “get it”. And if we do not get it, our communities suffer and die as well. Some die in conflagration. Some die in self-indulgence. Dying is dying-the question is how can the church be relevant to the death all around us if we too are dying on the vine?
To take it one step farther, the church itself is dying on the vine when it conveys lack of acceptance and injustice to any of our brothers and sisters in our communities and in our church. To refuse anyone at the Table of Christ is unloving and unjust. To refuse anyone baptism or last rites, or burial in ‘hallowed ground’ is the opposite of Christ-like. To refuse Holy Orders to anyone called by God and prepared is unloving and unjust. To attempt to cut ordained women and openly gay or married priests off from the sacrament of Holy Communion, use of faculties and Christian burial is vengeful, unloving and unjust. It is also impossible as no one can undo our baptisms or our calls or sever us from the love of Christ. No one. We recall with Sunday’s reading from Acts (9:26-31) that the Apostle Paul was initially maligned and rejected by the disciples in Jerusalem and that Barnabas took charge and mediated for him, introducing him to the disciples. Today we are thankful that there are those like Barnabas who do this for women priests and others rejected by the church authorities. So, it is not we who are ultimately cut off, nor have we cut ourselves off or died on the vine. It is the church itself that is being pruned by the God who loves it so that it can bear good fruit. Not the fruit of self righteous traditionalism, paternalism, or misogyny, or heterosexism, or class entitlement and greed but the true fruit of love, inclusion and connection to the Vine forever.
The Greek word for “prune” in the scriptures (kathairo) is also the word for “cleanse”. Even as Jesus cleansed the Temple of cultic blood sacrifice, mercenary pursuits, excessive and unending legalisms, and hypocritical posturing, today Christ prunes the church of its adherence to traditions that exclude, vilify, and actually promote hate instead of love. For those who “get it” we are thankful to God. For those who respond with hateful vindictive words and ugly actions, we are praying for you.
This Sunday the Gospel text, John 15:1-8, is the seventh and final I AM statement of Jesus. Each statement reveals another unique and divine aspect of who Jesus is and how we are connected to him: Bread of life (Jn 6:35), Light (Jn8:12), door of the sheep (Jn 10:7,9), good shepherd (Jn:10-11,14), The Resurrection and the Life (Jn 11:25) the Way (Jn14:6) and finally the Vine (Jn15:1,5). In Aramaic this also allies Jesus, the Christ, with ‘true religion’. Religion that is hateful and vengeful toward any of God’s people is not true. What is true is what is loving. What is true is living love. This last claim and offering of himself to his followers as the Vine takes place shortly before he is betrayed by Judas and arrested. Jesus is assuring them and us that we are an organic part of him and of one another, and as we continue to follow/act on his words of love and justice we remain both connected and fruitful, come what may.
Thanks be to God!
With love and prayers,
Rev. Dr. Judy Lee, RCWP
Co-Pastor The Good Shepherd Inclusive Catholic Community of Fort Myers