April 23, 2011 The first thing I noticed were the grapes. Fat, full bunches of deep purple grapes, tinged with blue. They hung from abundant vines that twisted around a trellis on the porch. A slight woman with a weathered face stood framed by the vines.
She spread her arms wide, gesturing to the door. “Bienvenido a nuestra casa nueva.” she said. “Welcome to our new home.” We moved from the trellis-covered porch into a small structure. Inside, her two small boys played on a sofa at one end of the room. We stood around the kitchen counter at the other end, listening to her story, told in Spanish, translated into English by Elena Huegel, our United Church of Christ mission partner in Chile.
“Until the earthquake,” Carolina explained, “we lived in an adobe house.” She went on: “When I felt the earth shaking that day, I knew we had to get out fast. I grabbed my two boys and we ran. Just as we got out of the door, the roof collapsed behind us.”
“Were you hurt?” someone asked. “Only my husband. He had a cut on his head--not from the house, from the trellis holding our grape vine. But he was okay.”
Carolina’s house was our second stop on a tour of Villa Prat, a village in Chile that had been hit hard by the massive earthquake of February 2010. Villa Prat is about an hour north of Curico, where the headquarters of the Pentecostal Church of Chile is located. After the earthquake, the large portico at the headquarters had been turned into a construction site. Volunteers from nearby congregations came together to build “Casitas de Bendicion”--Blessing Cabins-- to provide emergency housing. Because of our decades-long partnership with the Pentecostal Church of Chile, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ was able to be part of this project--raising funds to pay for the cost of materials. Through a special offering, a craft sale, and our leadership of a benefit concert, Edwards Church provided the funds for three homes.
My visit to Carolina’s home in Villa Prat was part of my recent trip to Chile with the Brookfield Institute. That particular day, Brother Luis, who had been in charge of the construction and distribution of the emergency housing, took us to see three of the blessing cabins. The cabins are about the size of a typical Framingham living room, so they were intended as temporary housing. But the cabins are so well-built that they have become permanent homes. Families are living in them as they build additional rooms onto them.
Carolina proudly showed us the addition her husband was building onto their blessing cabin, and she pointed to the wires church members had installed to add electricity. “I really love this house,” she exclaimed. “I want to have it forever.” She told us how much the church helped her through the crisis, and how she found strength in her faith. “My husband,” she admitted, “is not a believer.” She smiled and went on, “But lately something’s been happening. Last Sunday he came to church--and suddenly he was dancing in the spirit. A few more times, and I think he will find faith.”
Carolina asked us to bless her family and her home. After our prayer, as we walked out, Carolina pulled down a bunch of grapes for us to taste. That was our blessing--the sweet taste of hope.
I keep thinking about those grapes. Grapevines grow four or five years before they begin to produce fruit. These vines must have survived the earthquake. The best I can imagine is that when Carolina’s family cleared away the rubble from the old house, they found the vines alive beneath the debris. When the blessing cabin arrived, I imagine, they built a new trellis on the porch and wove the vines in and out of the beams.
Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit.
Some 2600 years ago, the prophet Jeremiah offered his beleaguered people a vision of hope--homes rebuilt, merrymakers dancing, vineyards yielding fruit. The source of that hope, for Jeremiah, was the promise of God’s faithfulness: I have loved you with an everlasting love.
2600 years later, in a village in Chile, we saw Jeremiah’s vision fulfilled: brothers and sisters building blessing cabins, a skeptic dancing in the spirit, God’s creation restored as vines emerge out of rubble to bear abundant fruit. God’s everlasting love revealed.
The story we tell every Easter--an empty tomb and hope reborn--offers, for Christians, the ultimate expression of God’s everlasting love. This everlasting love is more powerful than hatred, more powerful than death. This everlasting love can turn despair into hope, fear into courage.
The message is a cosmic one--hope for our world. The gospel according to John also makes it deeply personal, with a story of an intimate encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen Jesus. The encounter begins with mistaken identity, moves to a tender awakening, and concludes with a sending forth.
Our visit to Carolina’s grape-bedecked home was on a Monday. The day before, our group had been in the copper-mining city of Rancagua. I had been asked to lead a Bible Study for the brothers and sisters of the Rancagua church. As we explored the text, I asked them to share their own experiences. The Bible Study was based on a passage from Isaiah, but the stories they told could easily have been inspired by our reading from John’s gospel.
A frail-looking elderly man was the first to speak up. When he was a young boy, Carlos told us, he had a job at a copper mine in the mountains. Each day, along with a friend, he rode his bicycle to work along a dirt road. This friendship was unusual, for the two boys were very different. Young Carlos had a strong faith and was extremely involved in his church. His friend was known for his irreverence and his disdain of all things religious. His reputation had earned him the nickname “Diablo”--devil.
One day, as they were on their way home from the mine, a terrible storm erupted. The rain came down in sheets. The wind whipped around the boys. The dirt road was washed out by flood waters cascading down the mountain. Carlos and his friend were trapped.
Carlos grew despondent. He was chilled to the bone, soaking wet, covered in mud and unable to see a way out. He just wanted to curl up and die. He told his friend he was giving up.
Diablo’s response surprised him: “No. You can’t give up. You have to go to church tonight. They’re expecting you.” And then Diablo put Carlos on his own bicycle and pushed him through the mud, all the way back to town. Diablo brought Carlos straight to the church, in time for the evening service, and then he left.
Carlos had thought he was traveling with the devil. Mary had thought she was talking to the gardener. Both discovered that the risen Christ was with them, calling them--even pushing them-- to hope.
After Carlos’ story, a young woman spoke up. “I always thought God would protect my family,” Margarita began. “But then my brother died. How could God let that happen? God had failed to keep the promise.” Margarita fell into despair: she had lost her brother, and she feared she was losing God as well--or losing the comfort of faith in God.
Around that time, a group from UCC churches in Massachusetts had come down to Chile bearing a suitcase full of prayer shawls. They gave them to Elena, our mission partner, to distribute. Margarita received the very first of those prayer shawls.
Margarita was struggling to trust God’s faithfulness and experience God’s comfort. The gift from brothers and sisters from a far-away church offered a tangible reminder that God cared. The shawl itself was a physical expression of God’s comfort. The gift was the start of a gradual process of learning to trust God in a new, deeper way.
Margarita wept for her beloved brother. Mary wept for her beloved teacher. In the depths of their grief, Christ appeared to them--a presumed gardener, a friend bearing a gift.
My journal from my trip to Chile is filled with Easter stories--stories of new life emerging out of loss, stories of the risen Christ appearing in unexpected times and places. Sometime it’s easier to recognize the Easter stories when they happen thousands of miles from home.
I don’t keep a journal of my day-to-day life here in Framingham. But if I did, it too would be filled with Easter stories. Right here in Framingham, vines emerge from rubble and yield abundant fruit: like the person who has struggled for years with addiction and now walks with others working for sobriety; like the cancer survivor who changed her doctor’s mind about the healing power of prayer; like the dyslexic teacher who instilled a love of reading in her students. The fruit that emerges from the rubble of our lives-- reconciliation, healing, hope-- is as sweet as the grapes from Carolina’s porch.
The risen Christ appears all the time in Framingham--making beads of courage, walking beside us as we seek cures for cancer and sanfilippo syndrome and hunger, singing in nursing homes, urging us to risk loving, awakening us to hope.
We all have Easter stories to tell--stories of hope from the rubble, stories of the risen Christ appearing in unexpected moments. Jesus’ gospel challenge to Mary Magdalene is a challenge to each one of us: tell your Easter story. The disciples need to hear it; the world needs to hear it.
We all have places in our lives where we are waiting for Easter hope to emerge. Jeremiah’s promise to his people is a promise to us: God’s love is everlasting. Out of the rubble of our lives, vines of possibility will emerge and they will bear fruit. You will taste the sweet taste of hope.