Homily – Sunday, April 28

We have many tools to help us navigate our spiritual journeys.  We have books, videos, classes, bible studies, prayer groups, and finally retreats.   The retreat is unique in that it takes us away from daily life to gain a new perspective on the journey itself.  Last weekend two friends and I drove to the Jesuit Retreat House near San Jose.  I was coming off of two stressful weeks at work and looking forward to seeing Fr. Greg Boyle the main speaker.  Getting to the retreat house was intentionally slow, two days of driving through coastal valleys filled with vineyards and farms, it was a time to decompress.  Today’s gospel uses the image of the grapevine to teach us how to stay in relationship with God.  I’d like to share 4 related insights gained on the way to, at the retreat, and after returning home.

Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.”  One of my fellow travelers knows a lot about wine and pointed out the east-to-west valley we were driving through, was perfect for growing pinot noir grapes.  This is due to the fact that the valley allows the coastal fog to move inland and cool the grapes at night and the sun has heated them up during the day.  These are facts that vine growers need to know to plant the right type of grapes to make the best wine.  My first insight is that God, as our spiritual vine grower, understands the climate of our individual lives, our skills and experiences, and works in each of OUR lives to help us bear the best fruit.  Sometimes that means sending us on retreats to plant new seeds…

When we finally arrived, I saw the 39-acre retreat property for the first time, set on a hill overlooking Silicon Valley.  It was clear our vine growing God was involved when the Jesuits bought this priceless land over a hundred years ago.  Complete with a Stations of the Cross-walking trail, this is some of the most fertile spiritual ground I have ever come across.

My 2nd insight comes from Fr Greg Boyle, the lead speaker at the retreat.  He is a Jesuit priest who has dedicated his life to gang intervention through personal relationships with those on the margin.  Fr. Boyle created “Homeboy Industries,” in the heart of South-Central LA, employing and serving over 650 former gang members.  Fr. Boyle’s success is a reflection on his ability to see GOD’s perspective of the gang members he works with.  God, the vine grower, sees all of us as a grandparent sees their grandchild with nothing but love, believing that each of us is perfect.   Fr Boyle says, “When we can accept God’s limitless love, we can learn to see others and love others in the same way.”  This is a somewhat difficult but powerful insight.

Two homies, as Fr Boyle calls them, came with him, Rebecca and Alfred, both in their early thirties, but with a lifetime of experiences.  They each told their stories of broken childhoods, abuse, and gang-related crime.  However, with the help of Father Greg their story has a happy ending.  They are married now, living with their children in LA and working as senior staff at Homeboy, evidence that the vine grower is at work even in the poorest, most violent part of LA.  I asked Alfred, how is it possible that rival gang members can work together and even become friends at Homeboy?  He said that Fr. G’s example of love is contagious and just spreads throughout the community.  He said the first time he came to Homeboy he could just feel it.  Our second reading says, “We should believe in the name of Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us.”  Homeboy Industries lives by this scripture every day.

The 3rd insight I brough home from the retreat was about Ignatian Spirituality.  I picked up a pamphlet called, “A Brief Description of Ignatian Spirituality,” written by Fr Kevin (Lee Ditch) Leidich, one of the local Jesuit priests that I had the opportunity to meet with.  I read about the story of St. Ignatius of Loyola, nearly killed by a cannonball during a battle in Northern Spain in the 1500s.  During his long recovery he experienced God through study and reflection and realized God was actively working in his daily life.  Ignatius was later ordained a priest and developed his spirituality into a process called “The Spiritual Exercises.”  “The Exercises” focus on developing an attentiveness to God, an openness to God, and ultimately a responsiveness to God in our lives.  As branches on the vine of Christ, it’s a way to develop our spiritual awareness, to find our joy, and to bare God’s fruit.

The Spiritual Exercises include “The Examen” of Conscience, a variation on the Examination of Conscience used for confession.  In the Examine, we reflect on how God is active in all aspects of our daily lives.  Fr (Lee Ditch) Leidich says, “The Examen is the result of GOD’s initiative, surfacing the experiences, encounters, and moments that God desires us to notice.  The Examen is customarily done at the end of each day and fosters a way of growing into an ever-closer relationship with God.”  It helps us, as Fr. Boyle says, “To appreciate the quiet immensity of His presence.”  The Examen allows God the Father to guide us as our vine grower.

My last insight came after I returned from the retreat, excited to try out my new spiritual tools from Ignatian Spirituality.  I was back at work, focusing on a proposal, sitting in for my boss who was on travel.  Soon, I found myself in a heated discussion with a co-worker on the east coast about one aspect of the proposal and the conflict really stressed me out. The boss is away, the deadline is looming, and our next five years of funding is on the line.  I prayed for help calming down and finding a solution.  Eventually, my co-worker agreed to follow my approach. 

You could say I won the argument, and I was relieved, but I also had this notion that I should say something to my co-worker.  I had been practicing the daily Examen every night, but here, in the middle of the day, I felt God nudging me to heal this relationship.  I finally sent a message, thanking her for her patience and understanding.  I also expressed my appreciation for her hard work in this highly stressful part of our business.  I wasn’t sure how this would be taken, but the next morning, a cheerful message was waiting for me, a sign that we were back on good terms.  I believe this was a fruit of my retreat, a new branch from the vine, a way of interacting with God, and seeing the world through a new lens. 

There are many opportunities for retreats and instruction on developing our spirituality and I encourage you to seek them out, to take your branch from the vine of Christ in new directions through God’s loving care.