Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Remember this hat? I can hear some of you groan even through cyberspace. Years ago, I wore this hat at the Easter Vigil and for all the Sundays of Easter. People say it makes me look like the apple in fruit-of the loom commercials. This fez-style hat is hand-made. It was a gift from Cantor Scott Wiedler. Scott brought it from Ethiopia in 2007. The processional cross on the altar today, and other things like the colorful umbrella we use at the Vigil, and a few liturgical dance moves we learned, also come from Scott.
Today is Easter in the Orthodox church. This hat would be worn by priests as a festival garment. The Ethiopian church traces its origin to the story of Phillip and the eunuch whom we read about today. It is among the oldest Christian traditions on the continent of Africa –or on any continent for that matter.
Not five blocks from here, worshippers, including my son Mehari, celebrated the resurrection at St. Mary’s Eritrean Orthodox church. If you visit there, as I have, you would not recognize the order of service, or understand the language, or any of the hymns, yet you would know with an overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude, that we are connected by faith in Christ. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5a). We are joined together in mystical communion to the One Vine giving life to all.
By all outward appearances, a vine is a tangled mess, an interwoven web. From one end to the other, it is not clear how one branch ends, and another begins. Like a vine, the church stretches across the world and throughout time. Connections made long ago, are forgotten, hidden behind the veil of history, visible now, only to God. What connects us is faith. The common denominator is the courage to trust in the holy spirit. The Ethiopian trusts Phillip to teach him and to baptize him. Phillip trusts the grace of God to set aside everything he had internalized as a child that would exclude foreigners, outsiders, especially sexually non-conforming people and embraces him as a brother, a beloved child of God. The communal life envisioned in the Vine of Christ raises a strong challenge to contemporary Western models of individual autonomy and privatism. The community God intends for us makes no distinction among race, gender, social status, or place of origin.
How much do you know about vines? The prophet Hosea described Israel as a “luxuriant vine” (Hosea 10:1). During the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 A.D., that ended with the death of the last hold outs on the rocky fortress called Masada in 73 A.D., the national symbol affixed to coins and emblazoned upon flags was the image of a vine. Our ancestors knew about vines. Jesus pointed to this familiar religious image and filled it with new spiritual wine. “I am the true vine,” Jesus said. (John 15:1).
The little I know comes from tour guides. The vineyards of Baja, Mexico run for miles along river valleys that gently rise inland from the coast into the shallow hills. The soil is hard and brown. The heat is uncomfortable and intense during the day. But at night, the cool winds off the water bring fingers of fog up the valleys. They cover the vineyards like a cool, moist blanket.
Row upon row of vines stretch across the valley, turning the normally brown dusty soil into carpets of green. I was told, however, that once the growing season ends, the verdant branches are pruned back to almost nothing and the land returns to brown. The vines are reduced to mere stumps that look as if they will never again produce anything. But every year, as they have for hundreds of years, the growth is returns –branches, leaves, and grapes that almost pull the branches to the ground with the weight of juice in them.
Sometimes we count our loses and not our blessings and lose perspective at how much potential for growth God has stored up in us. I read this week the average human life span doubled, from 41 to 80 years, just since 1920. For most of human history, the average lifespan was even shorter, just 35 years. I wonder, would our ancestors want to know, what shall we do with the two, wild, lifetimes that we have been given? Might we somehow close the gap in lifespan between those in Streeterville, who live on average to 90, and their neighbors nine miles south in Englewood who only live on average to 60? God’s garden is big. God’s people are connected. We all do better when we all live better.
In our gospel today, the disciples and the budding Christian community are about to be pruned. They don’t know it yet, but Jesus will be taken from them. It will feel like their heart is being cut out. Everything they worked and dreamed about is done. Their hope will seem lost. But in three days, after the resurrection, the young community will rise again. They will grow back, larger, stronger, and better than before—the first fruits from the new body of Christ. Alleluia. Christ is risen! (R)
Of course, what seems like no big deal to do to plants is another thing entirely when it is done to us. We certainly have been pruned this past year—and the process of reducing and holding back is not quite finished yet. Our hopes for re-opening and mingled with our prayers for brothers and sisters in India, and South America, throughout the world, and in nearby hospitals coping with the full force of Covid-19. We are connected.
I do not say the pandemic is God’s will. Yet I draw hope and inspiration from the fact that God can bring fine wine from flinty soil. God can coax blessing out from the most tragic of events. God breathes new vitality into tired lives. We draw sustenance from the source of life that is in Christ Jesus.
St. Mary’s is quiet this morning. The doors are locked. Everyone has gone home to their bed. Easter worship began last night at sundown and finished up at about 3:00 o’clock this morning. The peaceful exhaustion that follows Holy Week has just now begun. We know what they’re feeling. We recognize the pattern because Christ’s church is a community connected to the living Word through water and wine. We are nourished by God through faith in Christ. We are called into being in the world for the world. As Jesus broke bread, so we are broken and pruned for others; as Jesus poured out the fruit of the vine, so we are poured out for the benefit of all. As Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them, so we welcome one another and people throughout the world whom Jesus has made one with us as part of the One Vine.