When I visited here the last time, I got to see several remarkable ministries. I am frequently reminded of one of them – an afterschool tutoring program that worked with Sudanese immigrants. I was given a small piece of art, painted by one of these students. It shows a brilliant blue sky and rolling brown sand dunes. It’s intriguing because I don’t know if it’s meant to reflect Sudan or San Diego. And it’s an icon of what this gathering is about and what this diocese is for.
Those young people and their families first came to this part of the world as a result of war. Having been forced out of their homes, they fled across Sudan and into camps in neighboring countries. Often they spent years in those camps before they found refuge here. Many were formed as Christians in the Episcopal Church of Sudan; some were baptized in those refugee camps. Like biblical wanderers, they came looking for a land of promise and a life of peace in a new home. They knew they would find God present and at work here, even in vastly different cultural surroundings.
Somebody here responded to the yearning of these sojourners. These new residents were welcomed and helped to resettle, move into apartments, learn new lifeways like riding escalators and operating electric stoves, find schools and learn new job skills. San Diegans moved out of their comfort zones to hear about the causes of war, long treks through the bush, and how to aid a very challenging peace process. Sudanese found new friends and signs of home on the other side of the globe. Everyone learned about connections – in a global oil economy, in religious and ethnic prejudice, and violence as a frequent consequence. As relationships were built, lives were transformed – until that image of blue sky and sandy dunes became a shared vision of home.
When awareness of shared connections begins to dawn, and when it’s translated into outward action, it becomes sacramental – an outward and visible sign of the grace we know in God’s love. The vine Jesus talks about begins to bear sweet fruit that can become both wine and the life-blood of a reconciled world. The feast we know at this table gathers us into one community that begins to understand its connection to all communities, and then indeed there is rejoicing on heaven and earth. That’s what Isaiah is talking about – if you’re thirsty, poor, or hungry, turn in here and join the banquet that includes and transforms the whole world.
That’s the task – to build a serving church, a community of interconnectedness with all creation, to help the world become a life-giving home for all. We’ve been created for life in that sort of garden, and we pray continually that its heavenly peace and justice may become reality on earth as God intended in creation. We are here to be God’s partners in re-creating that kind of all-encompassing community. The task begins with a dream, a vision of where we’re going and what we seek – a home of peace for all. Going there happens in small steps and sometimes amazing leaps, as we co-operate as branches of that one vine, rooted in the love of God. Nurturing the connections with the vine is essential – and that’s part of what a serving church addresses.
Think about that grape vine – the connections between the trunk and its branches are created and maintained in processes we can’t see, at the level of cells and molecules. In order for the whole plant to flourish, the water taken up by the roots has to reach all parts of the plant, the carbon dioxide absorbed by leaves in the sunlight has to be fixed into sugars that move through the branches to nourish the vine and tendrils and roots. Our own connectedness to the body of Christ nourishes us to serve the whole vine. The health and liveliness of the whole vine depends on the vigor of each part. If one part of the vine is ailing, the whole vine suffers. It takes regular attention and action to keep our roots deep in the good news about that dream of a home for all in God’s presence. It takes conscious attention to continue turning toward the light, for we encounter darkness pretty regularly. We can learn where to find water and breath and nourishment, but we have to keep remembering to search for those sources of life and recognize them in unfamiliar forms. That sort of attentiveness is what Jesus means by abiding – keep showing up, pay attention, tell the truth about what you discover, and then expect that God will produce results – and perhaps unexpected ones.
Staying connected to the vine means discovering connections everywhere. Sudan is much in the prayers of this Church right now, as South Sudan continues to experience a resurgence of violence and conflict. Desperately poor people have been pushed out of their homes, many have been murdered and tortured, and the tragedy continues. And people of faith manage to stay connected to the vine. The question is how we will abide.
Not long ago a friend said to me, “evangelism in Africa is different; it begins with meeting the needs of the poor.” I don’t think it’s different in Africa, although it may be raw and bare and transparent in ways that can be harder to see here. We live in a society that is prone to covering up pain and hiding distress and sanitizing death – Jesus called it whitewashing tombs. What is evangelism but food for the hungry, rest for the weary, water for the thirsty, and shelter for those under threat? Good news of God’s love for all comes from staying connected to that vine, suffering in solidarity with those in want and rejoicing in times of abundance.
Yesterday’s celebration at the Church Center is a remarkable example – good news and abundant life are flowing out of walking alongside the homeless. The new life in this diocese has something to do with walking through the pain and anger of divisiveness of recent years and insisting there is room and life here for all. It hasn’t been 40 years in the wilderness, but you have indeed discovered a new and promised land of abundant life. Stand in solidarity with Sudanese brothers and sisters who grieve, that together we might find some solace, and the strength to hope a world into being where all can find a home.
Abiding can do amazing things. During the civil war in Liberia, a band of poor women who sold crops and small items in the market to try to support their children finally gathered together to say, “we’ve had enough.” As the warlords gathered for the umpteenth time for peace talks without any progress, these market-women, who looked like their mothers and grandmothers, marched over to the meeting and sat down around the building and said, “we’re not leaving until you sort this out.” And they abided there until the posturing abated, defenses were lowered, and peace was made. The Civil Rights marches in this country had a very similar character.
The Episcopal Church Center is creating a community of abiding – for all God’s children, homeless and housed. Across the parking lot is a house with a sign that says “God hates noise.” Actually I think it’s true, yet God hears the noisy clamor of people who hunger and wander in the wilderness, even the ones who are lonely and angry. The noise is a call to action that is intended to bring peace. Who is going to abide with that neighbor long enough to discover what he’s most hungry for?