October 2, 2011
I spent several days recently in a small hotel in Cape Town. My hosts in that diocese chose the Palm House, which is much beloved by visitors. It’s a lovely old house set on a piece of land large enough to have some garden space for banquets and weddings. It’s not fancy, but it is comfortable. As we arrived a helpful man rushed up and insisted on lugging my bags to my room. I discovered later that he is the owner. He lives in England, and this was his annual visit to check up on his establishment. I saw him frequently, working with the other employees, setting up tables and chairs for special events, unwrapping new mattresses and hauling them off to replace old ones. He was always friendly and often sweaty, working hard to make his establishment a home away from home for travelers. I found the same kind of welcoming, helpful attitudes from the other employees, early in the morning and late at night, and I have little doubt that their approach to visitors is the same even when he is long gone and far away.
Let me contrast that with another reality just north of South Africa. In Zimbabwe, the Anglican church is vibrant and growing, but it’s worshiping under tents, in public schools, and in gardens a lot like the grounds of the Palm House. The dioceses in Zimbabwe, especially in the capital of Harare, are well endowed with beautiful churches, schools, orphanages, and hospitals, but most of their occupants have been tossed out, with the help of the police. A former bishop, Nolbert Kunonga, has taken over many buildings and installed his own people to hold onto them. He often puts a priest and his family and all their domestic goods into a church building, to set up housekeeping and camp in the sanctuary. Almost no one still worships in those buildings. Kunonga has said that his goal is to take possession of the church’s properties in Zimbabwe, as well as in Zambia, Botswana, and Malawi – the whole province of Central Africa. He and his thugs have beaten people coming to worship, locked the gates against them, evicted children from orphanages, and prevented Anglicans from going on pilgrimage to the burial sites of local saints. The violence has no evident foundation in theological controversy – he simply wants to control the assets of the church, and he has the support of the government of Zimbabwe. The Anglicans in that country have not been reluctant to criticize that dictatorial government, in spite of what they are suffering.
Which vineyard is producing fruit for the owner? Which vineyard is producing any fruit at all?
Perhaps the more important question is, how is the vineyard around here? We have our own challenges, and I don’t think they are primarily about who is in control of which buildings. I think the vineyard owner is likely to be more concerned about whether the harvest is feeding the hungry, or bringing joy and comfort to the despairing. I know there is good and faithful vineyard work going on in your congregations, and God’s blessing be upon you – you are bringing in the harvest in your local communities.
What about the larger vineyard? How is the harvest in the city of Peoria and the state of Illinois? We all share a responsibility as tenants of the vineyard called these United States, and the vineyard called planet earth. How are the tenants doing? We can’t ignore the wider vineyard, as its health is intimately connected with the smaller and more local ones.
A friend shared a powerful story with me on Friday in an article titled “Cruel America.” 1 It is a pretty horrifying statement about public attitudes in this nation – when people celebrate executions, our willingness to hold increasing numbers of prisoners in extreme isolation, and the sheer percentage of our citizens in jail (higher than any other developed nation), as well as our failure to care for the poorest and most vulnerable among us. Disappearing hope connects those issues, and it doesn’t yield an abundant harvest.
A week from tomorrow most of the United States marks Columbus Day. It was first instituted to commemorate the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. In recent decades many people have become much more aware of what the coming of Europeans meant for the people already living in the Americas. At our last General Convention this church repudiated an essential underpinning of the occupation of the Americas by Europeans. It’s called the Doctrine of Discovery, and had its origins in 15th century papal pronouncements and orders from European monarchs that permitted explorers to take and colonize lands that weren’t already occupied by Christians, both in the Americas and in Africa. The United States Supreme Court recognized that principle in 1823, giving title to land to the colonizers and denying property rights to the original inhabitants. Our church is beginning a significant period of study about how we have used this vineyard in North America. I would encourage you to learn more – there’s a significant set of resources on our churchwide website www.episcopalchurch.org [not the national church website – we are a church of many nations, including the Navajo, Oneida, Cree, Lakota, as well as Ecuador, Haiti, and others.] We are all merely tenants of this vineyard, and our elder siblings have suffered much from the work of more recent arrivals.
There’s another vineyard we’re all responsible for – this planet. Most of us are beginning to recognize that the way we use fuel, particularly our addiction to oil, is having a major impact on the globe. The extreme weather we’ve had this summer – hurricanes and floods across the east coast and drought and wildfires across Texas – are signs of what we can expect as the planet continues to warm. Thousands of people have been displaced, many hundreds of homes have been damaged or lost, yet this nation still has a reasonable capacity to respond and help the suffering – even though some of our neighbors want to cut the federal budget for disaster relief. It is always the poorest who suffer the most in disasters like these – think about Katrina. Those with resources left New Orleans. The poor were the ones who drowned and died, or were shot trying to move to safety. The same thing is happening across the global vineyard. It’s getting harder to grow food in sub-Saharan Africa, the desert is expanding, and so are the areas subject to malaria. Those who don’t have resources can’t easily move to find water or arable land, and they can’t readily protect themselves from disease. We have a responsibility for how our brothers and sisters across the globe are faring, particularly because we contribute far more to the warming of the atmosphere than they do. The landowner is asking for a share of the harvest, and we don’t have very good fruit to offer.
Harvest time is coming – even right here. I’ve heard a bit about the produce of your garden here at St. Paul’s – and crops that have been shared with the landowner. The same kind of hope that prompted that garden is needed in the larger vineyards. We can, together, bring hope to the people of this nation, and other nations. The people of Haiti have a greater expectation for the harvest because of your labors here – you have offered hope.
Our job as tenants and stewards of this global garden is to be fruitful, and to see that the harvest is shared in such a way that no one goes hungry. The guideposts of our faith (like the 10 commandments) are meant to keep us focused on that shared harvest. Be fruitful, and not for yourself alone, but for the world which God created and loves so intensely. Be fruitful. Be fruitful and multiply the garden’s blessing for God’s whole creation.