When I was about 8 years old, we lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. My great-aunt and great-uncle lived in San Jose and, in a sense, became like surrogate grandparents to me and my sister. Uncle Frank was Italian and he had the greenest thumb of anyone I know. Rumor has it he fed the whole block out of his victory garden during World War II. But one of Frank’s passions was grafting fruit trees. I remember going to visit one day and he took me and my sister out to his backyard, pointed to a tree and asked, “Hey, have you ever seen a tree like that?” We both nodded, thinking it looked like any other tree. But he said, “Noooo you haven’t! Take a closer look.” We walked up under the tree, looked up into the branches and saw … peaches … and plums … and nectarines … and apricots. I know we must have looked pretty confused because Uncle Frank started laughing. He came over and showed us what he did – he’d grafted all those different fruit trees together onto a peach tree root stock. “Anything with pit grafts to anything with a pit. Anything with a seed grafts to anything with a seed … and all the citrus go together.” Sure enough, he had an apple tree that grew several kinds of apples and pears, an orange tree that grew oranges, tangerines and grapefruit, and a lemon tree that had both lemons and limes growing on it. It was the first time I’d seen grafting up close.
Grafting is such an ancient agricultural technique that nobody really knows how far back it goes. Ancient Greek texts which predate the life of Christ give detailed instructions on the art of grafting. And it is the image of grafting Jesus is using in today’s gospel reading. “I am the vine, you are the branches … apart from me you can do nothing.” In our baptism, we are grafted into Christ and apart from Christ and his Body we know as the Church, we can do nothing. But when we are grafted into Christ, we are capable of far greater things than we can imagine.
I have been thinking about what this means in light of the terrible tragedy which occurred last Thursday at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Most of you have heard by now that Douglas Jones, a homeless man, shot and killed Brenda Brewington, the parish administrator, and shot the co-rector, the Rev. Dr. Mary-Marguerite Kohn inside St. Peter’s Church before turning the gun on himself. I did not know about this until just before the opening of our Diocesan Convention on Friday morning and neither did many of our delegates. What does it mean to abide in Christ and have Christ abide in us when such tragic and senseless violence can enter even the places where we should feel safe?
For me, it meant gathering with the people of God in that convention hall. Abiding in Christ meant talking with our sisters and brothers about our feelings of anger, betrayal, fear, grief, loss, numbness, vulnerability and shedding tears in a safe space knowing we were surrounded by friends who care. Christ abiding in us meant reaching out in support to our diocesan staff who ministered to the victims and their families. Christ abiding in us meant praying the litany at the time of death together for Mary-Marguerite+, who was being kept alive on life support so her family could make plans to donate her organs and give life to others in the face of death. Christ abiding in us allowed us to gather for Eucharist and offer thanksgiving for the lives of Brenda and Mary-Marguerite+ and all who minister to the suffering in all of our churches. Christ abiding in us meant we could pray our forgiveness towards Douglas whose reasons for doing this we could not understand and offer up prayers for the repose of his soul just as we did for Brenda and Mary-Marguerite+. Christ abiding in us made it possible for two Episcopal Churches to reach out to Douglas’ family and offer their churches for his burial service.
But Christ abiding in us and we in him also leads us to name and confront the root cause of this violence which has beset us. We live in a culture of violence where guns are too readily accessible and proper mental health care is not. Our culture has raised individualism and autonomy to an idolatrous status and neglects to offer appropriate care for those suffering from mental illness who need support. In May 2005, PBS’s Frontline did a story called “The New Asylum.” They cite the following:
"Fewer than 55,000 Americans currently receive treatment in psychiatric hospitals. Meanwhile, almost 10 times that number – nearly 500,000 – mentally ill men and women are serving time in U.S. jails and prisons. As sheriffs and prison wardens become the unexpected and often ill-equipped caretakers of this burgeoning population, they raise a troubling new concern: Have America’s jails and prisons become its new asylums?"
I’m afraid the answer to that question is “yes.” We have become a society where those with severe mental illness or addiction are deemed disposable: locked in prisons where we don’t have to deal with them, or who, like Douglas Jones, live in the woods under tarps and in tents. You see, the mentally ill and addicted have the right to autonomy – to live their lives as they see fit, even if they do not necessarily have the capacity to make grounded judgments about treatment options which can improve their quality of life and ability to integrate into society. Access to proper mental health care is difficult for those who have supportive families and insurance: it is impossible for those who lack both.
Living as members of the Body of Christ and grafted into him, we are called not only to pray and console but also to act on behalf of the most vulnerable members of our society. Already there are people questioning why St. Peter’s had an outreach to the homeless in the first place and saying the church shouldn’t do this kind of work. Really? Well, if that’s so, who will reach out to the forgotten ones? Who? That’s right … if we as the Church don’t, nobody else will. And Jesus told us plainly: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” Abiding in Christ and he in us means we must continue to have the courage to carry out the gospel in both our words and actions.
“Abide in me as I abide in you.” Apart from Christ, we can do nothing for we would be paralyzed in our fear. But grafted into Christ, we can do whatever God asks of us – and it is always more than what we can imagine.