Thursday, April 26, 2007

a handful of raisins

A Handful of Raisins

One of my college professors went on sabbatical in the Holy Land and came back and told us this story. Donald Nicholl and John Thornton, both on sabbatical at Tantur Ecumenical Study Institute outside Jerusalem, went running together. The hills there are hot and dusty, and the paths are covered with that loose gritty dirt that slides under your feet. One morning Donald and John were running pretty fast when they came to a place where the path turned sharply and plunged quickly down a steep slope. They went pell-mell down the path, unable to stop, sliding on that loose soil. As they came precipitously down the hill they passed a group of men, day laborers, toiling up the hill on their way to work. There were three or four of them. John flashed past them, then Donald came through. As he passed the last man in the line, that man reached out his hand and clapped into Donald's palm a handful of raisins. "You look thirsty," he said.

Donald just couldn't stop telling the story. He was greatly impressed by what he saw as the spontaneity of the gesture.

What I am impressed with, as I recollect the story now, is - the man was ready. He was as prepared for that act of spontaneous generosity and sympathetic charity as the grapes are to be picked from the vine when their time is ripe. As the grapes grow on the branch and the branch abides in the vine, so his heart was prepared, making room for the charity of God through faithful and obedient love - which came to fruition when grapes, picked and dried, were passed from one man's hand to another: a handful of raisins for a thirsty stranger.

Consider the Appleseed

What does it mean to 'bear fruit, fruit that will last'? While I was puzzling that out, I picked up a book a friend had recommended, "The Botany of Desire". What I learned is that an apple never "comes true" from seed, that is, the seed never produces a perfect genetic copy of the parent tree-not even close. Grafts, yes, are copies, made by hand when a particular tree's fruit - the Delicious, the Jonathan - is found peculiarly desirable. But apple seedlings each carry their own unique code, and every generation produces millions of new possibilities. Every apple seed is full of surprises - it contains the genetic instructions for a completely new and different apple tree. If not for grafting, every apple in the world would be its own distinct variety. And so it is for each new generation of seedlings.

The botanical term for this variation is "heterozygosity" - and apples have got it, even more than we have. It is the apple's genetic variability, its inescapable wildness, that accounts for its ability to flourish in new climates and places. Wherever in the world apple seeds are planted, new varieties arise, possessing qualities among them that allow apple trees to bloom where they're planted and bear fruit across the world.

In this profligate variegation of fruits, this wildness, is the preservation of the world: each bearing branch and each fruit that grows uniquely embodies the gifts of its making, - just as each of us Christ-bearers brings a new combination of gifts and a new way of embodying the message of God to our own place in the world. The fruit we bear, each one, is a unique contribution to the whole, and carries in it millions of possibilities for the next generation. In combination with the gifts of others, the fruits of our love and obedience produce results beyond our mortal ken - in the kingdom that lasts, that is the reign of God.

Lesslie Newbigin, in his commentary on this gospel, explains that the fruit that lasts, the fruit that we - disciples, friends - are to bear is love manifested in obedience, and obedience manifested in love.

His command is this: "Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:12-13, NIV)

What that would look like we know in full through the death of Jesus on the cross. We know it also through his reflected image in the lives of the saints. Jonathan Daniels was a student at the seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts - his fieldwork parish was Saint Clement's off Broadway in New York City. When the call went out for volunteers to go to Selma to march with Martin Luther King for civil rights, he got on the bus. And he spent the summer in Alabama, working in a voter registration drive. He wrote back to Saint Clement's - I've seen the letter there - explaining what he felt he had to do and what he knew it might cost him: his life. In a small town he was arrested along with his comrades. When they were released on bail, four of them went to enter a local shop. A man with a shotgun met them at the door, and told them to leave or be shot. After a brief confrontation, he aimed the gun at a sixteen-year-old student, Ruby Sales. Jonathan pushed her out of the way and took the blast of the shotgun himself. He was killed instantly.

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

In 1998 Ruby Sales graduated from the Episcopal seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 2000 she launched SpiritHouse, a non-profit organization, which aims to achieve a non-violent and just world through exploring the legacy of American violence, racism and sexism.

Love manifested in obedience, and obedience manifested in love, the fruit that lasts, is simply the life of Jesus, the true vine, being made visible in the world. The disciple has only one task, to abide in the vine; the grower does the rest. And the fruit will come, in the fullness of time.

I see that ripeness, that readiness, made manifest in a handful of raisins that Donald Nicholl received on the trail. And I see that readiness in the story of Ruby Sales and Jonathan Daniels, when a more terrible, more final, gift was given. As Jesus in his obedience made manifest the profligate love of God in pouring out his life for the world, so his disciples show forth that love, obeying his command, loving one another, and reproducing that life poured out in the world.

Now may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the abundant love of God, and the fruitfulness of the Holy Spirit, abide with us all. Amen.


Jonathan Daniels & Ruby Sales:
Lesser Feast and Fasts (Church Publishing, 2003)

Donald Nicholl, recollections from a lecture in Cowell College, Santa Cruz, in the 1970s.

John Thornton, recollections of an interview at Trinity Church, San Francisco, in the 1980s.

Peter Kirkup, conversation, yesterday, about our teacher Donald Nicholl.

The Botany of Desire : A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan (Random House, 2001). [Thanks, Linda.]

The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel by Lesslie Newbigin (Eerdmans, 1982)

A sermon on the Sixth Sunday of Easter Year B RCL

Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

Trinity Cathedral, Sacramento. May 21, 2006
Holy Eucharist 12:45 p.m.

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