Friday, August 25, 2006

Of Gardens and Weeds

Voice 1:

Almost 30 years ago, the whole UTS community—those who believed in what the “school of the prophets” stood for—rose up and resisted the planned merger of the seminary and PCU. Dr. Levi Oracion cautioned that the merger cannot vouchsafe the kind of autonomy and integrity that UTS has enjoyed since 1907. He added: “The administration, the faculty, the staff, and the entire student body of UTS are opposed to the merger.” Unfortunately, their collective voices were set aside.

Within ten years of the merger’s implementation, the graduating class of Union Theological Seminary held, what I would like to call, a commencement exercise of protest. They marched with placards, streamers, and a coffin, and with their black armbands, they mourned the death of theological education.

In December 12, 2002, seminarians, staff, faculty, and administrators challenged church leaders to remember that “God gave UTS stewardship of this land. This covenant constrains us to be faithful caretakers of this land. In the name of Christian unity, justice, and sanctity of theological education and ministry, we request and pray the return of the land to its rightful steward.”

Today, UTS continues to be trapped within a system that has robbed it of control over the land and other resources it was entrusted to use for ministry, a system that has turned it into a colony, subject to the whims and caprices of the powers-that-be based in Manila, a system that operates with utmost disregard for transparency and basic decency, a system that has turned it into a willing accomplice to a host of unjust and oppressive labor practices.

The merger did not work then. It does not work now.

If the once great UTS died with the implementation of the merger in 1978, what do we have now? A ghost of the past? PCU’s divinity school or department of religion? Or an executed seminary being raised back to life?

Voice 2:

Gaius Plinius Secundus (or more popularly known as Pliny the Elder) in his Natural History 19.170-171 wrote that “mustard [sinapi kokkos] …grows entirely wild… and when it is sown, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”

The mustard in the parable was a wild weed shrub that grew to about five feet or even higher. Even in their domesticated form they were a lot to handle. Mustard in a well-kept garden not only spread beyond expectations but also attracted birds of all forms thus disturbing the natural balance of a well-manicured garden, with the birds’ unpredictable feeding habits, and worse, their droppings. St. Francis of Assisi, who, as legend has it, was very close to wild creatures, and who, as the story goes, would not even hurt a fly, was also against the pulling out of weeds.

Gardeners, of course, did not want weeds in their gardens. They did not want wild mustard at all cost. They spend time creating the perfect balance in their gardens: putting in the best, throwing out the worst. A well-manicured garden has no room for wild mustard so they cut mustard young and at the roots. The mustard weed though have a way of coming back. They always do.

The parable likens God’s reign, God’s empire to a weed. It grows where it is not wanted and eventually takes over the place.

Voice 1:

Jesus, who advocated an alternative culture of radical egalitarianism, an open commensality of free healing and eating, of miracle and meal among the peasant and marginalized communities of Galilee was executed at age 30 when his vision clashed with that of the urban religious and political structures of power in Jerusalem.

The wild mustard that sprung in the domesticated garden of Judea, that attracted all kinds of birds gardeners despised, was swiftly cut down. Do not forget this—The God we worship is an executed God. He was executed by the empire for the life he lived in solidarity with the poor and the stories of compassion he told.

Many scholars of first century Palestine now agree, enemies of Rome who were executed by crucifixion had their naked bodies left hanging on crosses for the vultures and wild dogs to feast on, thrown into mass graves, or hastily buried in borrowed tombs.

Nobody really knows where lie the bodies of scores of students, church workers, comrades who disappeared during the Marcos Regime. And the countless more who have disappeared during the Aquino, Ramos, Estrada, and especially the Arroyo regimes. Philippine soil from the Cordilleras to Mount Apo is nourished by the blood of fallen sisters and brothers in unmarked, mass, shallow graves. Just like Andres Bonifacio who at 34 was shot with his brother and whose bodies were robbed of garments and then thrown naked into a hastily dug grave.

All were wild mustard that had to be cut down lest they disturb the domesticity of the gardens tended by the rich, the powerful, and the religious the majority of whom take pride in calling themselves, their institutions, and their structures “Christian.”

Voice 2:

But Jesus’s vision lives on. And those of the others live on—Noli Capulong, Eden Marcellana, Joel Baclao, Raul Domingo, Edison Lapuz, and countless others—in the collective experience of communities who struggle and strive in the everyday living out God’s empire of compassion and solidarity.

And weeds have a way of coming back when you least expect them. Ask any gardener. You can never completely eradicate wild weeds like mustard. They have a way of sprouting in places where they disturb the status quo.

If UTS’s vision died when the merger was effected in 1978, what and whose vision sustains it now as it nears its 100th birthday? Is it a new vision from God, the wild weed returneth? Or a vision from PCU’s Board of Gardeners—or rather Trustees? Or even a vision from the master development planners who want to transform the Dasmarinas campus into a profit-generating enterprise?

Of course, a vision from God can get you killed and fast like a weed, but better a short life lived in solidarity with others ensuring immortality in humanity’s collective memory than a long life of greed that eventually sends one into oblivion even before one is dead.

Do not forget—wild mustard have a way of coming back.

Voice 2: The empire killed Jesus.

Voice 1: But within three days God raised Jesus up from the dead.

Voice 2: The merger buried UTS in a tomb. UTS has been in that tomb for almost three decades.

Voice 1: The Day of Resurrection is at hand.

People say that Union Theological Seminary is a seedbed: a seedbed of what—garden variety plants or wild mustard?

[This entry is based on the sermon I co-preached with Melinda Grace Aoanan, Program Secretary of the NCCP's Christian Education and Nurture Unit, my spouse, at Union Theological Seminary, 20 July 2006.]