St. Augustine’s Episcopal Parish, August 30, 2015
This is a big Sunday in the life of our church! Today is our Ministry Kick Off for the fall of 2015. Our Christian Formation ministries begin today for every age, from our infants in the Nursery to our most mature adults. After the Sunday services we have a wonderful event planned with food for everyone, whether you brought something to share or not, a water carnival for the kids, an open house where you’ll have a chance to visit our Godly Play Room, our Nursery, the Youth Room, and the brand new Campus Ministry Center. You’ll also have a chance to find the perfect place to get involved, whether that means you join the Altar Guild, learn to be a Liturgical Minister during the Sunday services, or even go forth as Lay Eucharistic Ministers who bring Holy Communion to those who cannot make it to church. Tables will be set up in the Parish Hall for you to learn more about and sign up to engage these and a host of other ministries like the Music Guild, Hospitality, and work groups for our facilities and grounds. It will be a wonderful time to encounter all that’s going on in our parish with fresh eyes, and I encourage you to do so with open ears to hear God’s call for your ministry in our midst. You are the ministers who do the ministry of the Church in this place, and I can’t wait to see how your lives, called out and brought together in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit bear God’s good fruit here at St. Augustine’s.
In addition to kicking off, and celebrating, and plugging in, this Sunday provides us with a perfect opportunity to reflect upon the big questions of vision and mission: what is it that we’re really doing here and why are we doing it? And to help us do that, we could not have been gifted with a better Collect for the Day than the collect appointed for this, the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17:
Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.
This collect was adapted by Thomas Cranmer and included in the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, but it even predates Cranmer, and came to him by way of the medieval Roman Sarum Rite from which Cranmer drew so heavily. The collect frames beautifully the process of communal spiritual formation in organic and agricultural terms drawn from the biblical tradition. It requests that God tend to the Church like a vinedresser tends to a vineyard: grafting, nourishing, bringing forth, increasing. The collect is asking God to do these very specific things in the life of the Church, and I’d like to examine them to see what kind of light they shed on our ministry as a congregation here at St. A’s.
“Graft in our hearts the love of your Name.” This first request really sets the stage. We see here an image of God as the hands-on caretaker of the crop. Such imagery from agricultural life is all over the Scriptures, which were composed by people attuned to the rhythms of the earth, to seasonal changes and their agricultural implications. Listen again to the poetry we heard in our reading from the Song of Solomon this morning:
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.
Grafting is part and parcel of the agricultural life of the ancient Near East. The process of grafting is one whereby a cut shoot from one plant is inserted into an opening in another plant growing on its own root system. The result is a composite organism functioning as a single plant. Grafting allowed for the domestication of woody plants, which do not grow true to type from seed, plants such as olive trees, fig trees, grape vines, and pomegranate trees, all of which are an integral part of the biblical world. Grafting is what allowed for, and continues to allow for, the planting of the same crops in a variety of soils. When the root is expertly adapted to thrive in a given kind of soil, the grafted shoot that bears the best-tasting fruit can thrive in a wide range of locations. 1
So what might it mean to ask God to graft in our hearts the love of God’s Name? Given what we’ve just learned about the grafting process, I wonder if it means that our hearts are the root system, expertly adapted to the soil in which we live, and the love of God’s Name is the cut shoot that bears the time-tested and best-tasting fruit?
So what is it about this particular shoot, the love of God’s Name, that’s so special? Well, what’s in a name? A name is that by which someone is known. It’s a word that represents for us our individual and collective experience of a person’s way of being in the world. Caesar. Jesus. Mohammed. Trump. Hillary. Bernie. Names wield real power, and God’s Name is no different. God’s Name represents for us all that we have experienced God to be, collectively in the grand expanse of time, and individually in our daily lives. What it means for the love of God’s Name to grow out of the root system of our hearts, is that the resources we draw from the soil of our life are joyfully delivered into the service of God’s way of being in the world.
Looking at it from a different angle, this grafting metaphor implies that God cannot be who God is in the places we inhabit without us. We, and only we, can bear God into our world. But it also implies that our life in our world is no longer in the service of only our life, but of God’s life, of God’s way of being. This is a profound re-imagining of our selfhood, of what it means to be human.
The second request in our collect builds upon this agricultural metaphor: “increase in us true religion.” It asks God, in other words, to increase the yield of the new plant, of the composite organism that has resulted from grafting the love of God’s Name in our hearts. But what is this fruit we’re asking God to increase, this “true religion?” Our reading from the letter of St. James this morning offers us a pretty succinct and poignant definition. Listen again:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God . . . is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
The love of God’s Name grafted in our hearts yields the fruit of true religion, which is to perceive and care for the needs of the most vulnerable human beings and to be a force of resistance against the dominant cultural forces that overlook and exploit them. Bringing about justice for the poor and the oppressed is a central aspect of God’s way of being in the world, and it is the path of life taught by the prophets and demonstrated by Jesus.
Understood in this way, the fourth request, “bring forth in us the fruit of good works,” is simply a more straightforward reiteration of the second request, to “increase in us true religion.” As we will learn from St. James over the next weeks, separating our faith from our actions on behalf of the vulnerable is to make a mockery of our faith. It is to be what Jesus calls the Pharisees in today’s Gospel: hypocrites, mere actors who perform for an audience but never internalize the meaning or realize the implications of their actions.
If we are going to pray with the words, “Graft in our hearts the love of your Name, increase in us true religion” and “bring forth in us the fruit of good works,” and if we’re looking to these words to inform our ministry as a church that is more than just another group of self-satisfied hypocrites going through the motions, we are going to need a lot of help. This is where the remaining request in the collect, “nourish us with all goodness,” comes in.
Nourishment is utterly essential in any agricultural scenario. Without the proper nourishment of a crop, there is no chance of achieving the desired yield. The quality of the shoot, the root system, and the graft is irrelevant if that plant is not nourished with the goodness it needs.
When Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites, which is just the Greek word for “actor,” he’s not criticizing the nature of their religious observances as much as the source of their nourishment. The Pharisees, like most folks in formal associations of any kind, quite honestly, found their nourishment from being seen and regarded as observant members of an elite community rather than from the abundant goodness of God. To be nourished by the polluted waters of self-importance and the artificial light of human praise results in a sickly and distorted plant that bears bitter and unappealing fruit. If the plant that is this congregation of St. Augustine’s is to flourish and bear God’s good fruit, we must seek nourishment from the pure water and clear sunshine of God’s gracious goodness.
So I return to those big questions that this Ministry Kick Off gives us the occasion to ask: what is it that we’re really doing here and why are we doing it? Today’s collect has offered us a rich metaphor from which I’ve pulled several ideas for answering those questions. We’ve explored how grafting the love of God’s name in our hearts brings God into circumstances God would not otherwise be able to inhabit and puts our lives in the service of God’s way of being in the world. We’ve unpacked how the increase in us of true religion is really the fruit of good works, which, according to the letter of James, is to perceive and care for the needs of the most vulnerable among us and to resist and undo the structures that exploit and oppress them. And we’ve observed that in order to bear that good fruit, we need to be nourished from the goodness that comes from God alone rather than from human praise and self-importance.
What are we really doing? We’re making a place here at St. Augustine’s for God’s way of being in the world, a way of being that transforms the people and institutions it engages from bearing the bitter fruit of selfishness, oppression, and pride into those that bear God’s good fruit of service, solidarity, and humility. Why are we doing it? Because we long and work for a world that has learned to love God’s way of being and is thus a healing, peaceful, and joyous home for all of God’s creatures. And because there’s no better place from which to work for that world than the place where we’ve been planted.