Vine City USA

As you enter the town of Berwyn Heights where we live, you pass a sign that says: “Welcome to Berwyn Heights: a Tree City USA”

“Tree City USA” is a designation from the Arbor Day Foundation meaning that Berwyn Heights spends a certain amount of money each year on urban forestry efforts, has an administrative board specifically tasked with overseeing those efforts, and has passed ordinances that generally make it difficult to have a tree cut down.

Kristen and I have joked for years that a more accurate designation would be “Welcome to Berwyn Heights: A VINE CITY USA, because there are vines running amok all over the neighborhood – up and down our street, anyway. Our backyard is covered in vines that have crept over the fence from our neighbors’ yards, and we can look over into their yards and see vines creeping over their fences from their neighbors’ yards.

I’ve been battling one vine in particular that I’ve nicknamed “the Sarlacc” (after the tentacled monster in Return of the Jedi). We’ve been trying to get rid of this plant for five years. The first year we lived in our house we thought the Sarlacc was great. It covered the trellis just off our back patio and provided a nice, shady barrier in the summertime. Then, the second year it covered the trellis…and the flowerbeds and the patio and the tree and was going after pretty much everything within its spindly reach. Since then, we’ve drowned it in Round Up, and come at it with clippers and loppers and chainsaws. Last year, I hacked the two main trunks of the vine up out of the ground with my pickaxe and stood over the fallen, severed stumps like a Celtic warrior, screaming in triumph. Even so, we still find tendrils of this vine popping up in various parts of the yard to this day.

Just last weekend, I noticed that something had sprung up and was pushing its way through the boards of the fence on the south end of our backyard. I thought it was a sapling of some kind that had taken root and shot up over night, but when I went to take a closer look IT WAS THE SARLACC. I then spent the next half hour trying to unravel it from the fence posts and wrench it from the ground.

Needless to say, I’ve about had it with vines. So when I hear Jesus declare, “I am the vine, you are the branches” in John 15, I’m not too thrilled with the metaphor. I much prefer the comparison Christ offered in our Scripture reading for last week: I am the Good Shepherd. Why don’t we just stick with that? Isn’t that enough? Why would Jesus want us to think of Him and think of ourselves as something so pervasive and invasive, that covers everything within reach, that scales walls and pushes holes through fences, and is next to impossible to get rid of?

So I asked Him. In a terse prayer, I asked Jesus what the deal with the vine was. And you know what? Within the depths of my soul, I heard a small but clear voice answer:

“Because we live in a world divided by too many walls and too many fences that need to be covered over and punched through. If you’re going to be My disciple, that’s the kind of tenacious presence I am calling you to have, the kind of love I’m calling you to spread. I’m not calling you to be any ol’ vine; I’m calling you to be a particular kind of vine, My vine, a vine that bears fruit; a vine that provides shade and sustenance for the people of my world. Love and sustenance – these are the necessities of “the life that truly is life” – and that is what my world desperately needs.

“If you need proof, just look north. The inner city of Baltimore burned last week for the same reason the California countryside burned last summer: it’s dry. It’s more than a food desert. It’s a desert of humanity, and it’s an environment that’s completely man-made. The high fences and thick walls of that city keep out the things that nourish life, and so all it takes is a spark. If it seems like history is repeating itself, that it’s 1968 all over again, it’s because these are the same fences and walls that stood 45 years ago. They’re still there. They’re still standing tall, because instead of pulling them down, America decided it would be better to install some gates. Gates are a step in the right direction; but a gate is the same as a wall if you don’t have a key.

“It’s time for the walls to come down. It’s time for the fences to come down. That’s why I’m in the world,” the small, clear voice declared. “That’s why I’m in the world as a vine: to crack the mortar and pry apart the boards that suffocate life. And that’s why I’m calling you, My people, to be branches of this vine: to spread out into the world, to be leverage for this work, to bear fruit, to offer love.”

Was this the voice of the LORD? You can wonder with me. I do know these words within my soul are consistent with 1 John 4, the companion reading to John 15 in the Revised Common Lectionary. …[B]ecause love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God [and] whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love…. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. ….There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…. [Therefore] the commandment we have from Christ is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Love. That’s the fruit Christ calls us to bear. That’s the leverage He calls us to exert. And let’s be clear: the implications of the Gospel imperative to love are nothing short of cosmic. Because God loves us with deep and abiding love, we have the capacity to love one another with a deep and abiding love – and deep, abiding, divinely inspired love has the power to transform as well as save  the world.  The two actually go hand-in-hand.  Where there is love, there should also be transformation, because love by its very nature is transformative. If you are loved, you are changed. If you love, you are changed. So, if our love isn’t transforming the world, then we have to wonder whether it’s love we’re truly offering.  And if we aren’t transforming the world, can we really believe we’re saving it – even if a steady stream of folks “walk the aisle” on Sunday morning?

We have the power, and we have the commission from Christ our Lord to change the world. The question is: do we have the will? Put another way, “How ‘viney’ are we willing to be?” The answer to that question is a mosaic of answers to other questions. Some of them are big questions: questions of public policy, and national and community priorities. Are we willing to engage those debates? Are we willing to demand better for our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors, even our enemies – all of the people Christ bids us to love? Others are small questions, in terms of scale if not ease. Will I choose to live out of generosity or fear? Will I go about my day with my eyes open or shut? Will I allow love to spur me to action, or will I hold back and wait for someone else to take the risk first?

Those are the kinds of questions love asks, and the answers to those kinds of questions will transform the world….or won’t.

And so, brothers and sisters, whatever you’ll be doing after you read this, resolve to do it with the love of Christ. Whether it’s difficult or easy, simple or complex, resolve to do it with the love of Christ. For He is the vine, and we are the branches. As He is in the world, so we are called to be in the world. We shouldn’t wait for the world to come to us, anymore than a vine waits for the trellis to come to it. There is mortar to be cracked, there are boards to be bent. There is life to let in.

May abundant life pour in like waters, and swell like a mighty stream through the cracks we make. Amen.

Affirmative Action

This post originated as a sermon intended for Sunday, February 22, 2015 at First Baptist Church of Hyattsville. It wasn’t preached (at least, in full) due to snow.  It is based on Genesis 9.8-17 and Mark 1. 9-15.

Today is my birthday. It’s a special day to be sure, but I must confess that I don’t welcome birthdays as much as I used to, now that I’ve crossed the threshold of 40. My 76-year-old mother assures me that the time will come when I will once again look forward to my birthday – in relief if not exuberance.

One nice thing about birthdays at any age is the well wishes. I find I look forward to the cards more than the presents nowadays (though that is no excuse not to get me a present, mind you). While I’m not terribly excited about turning 41, it is thrilling to see my Facebook page fill up with celebratory posts.

I need those affirmations from time to time. We all need them, and we know we need them. Science has demonstrated that all of us need a certain level of affirmation to thrive as human beings. If we don’t receive it, there are mental and emotional consequences.

Research shows that one of the reasons poorer children lag behind more affluent children in school is that their cognitive development is stunted long before they even reach school by something called “The Word Gap.” Children from more affluent families, on average, will have heard something in the neighborhood of 30 million more words than poorer children by age three. And not only that, children from stable families will have heard some 440,000 more positive comments from their parents than children from dysfunctional families by the same age. This gap has a huge impact on both the cognitive and emotional development of these kids.

And this need for affirmation doesn’t subside once we’re grown. Lovett Weems of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Seminary has written that one of the limitations of the feedback we so often receive on our jobs is that traditional feedback systems tend to accentuate the negative. Few would dispute that feedback is necessary for growth, but evaluation processes often leave us more discouraged than energized to improve. Why? Because we tend to remember the criticism from reviews, while it is praise that truly motivates us to change.

So, affirmation isn’t just about positive feelings, it yields positive results. We need it to become all that we can be.

Why is it, then, that so many of us (especially adults) receive precious little affirmation unless we achieve something exceptional or do something especially kind – or we live to see another year? Why do our systems and impulses tend to gravitate toward critique and criticism?

Perhaps it is because criticism of others, rather than affirmation, comes with the added bonus of helping us feel superior: another basic desire we’ve had at least as far back as Eden. We may be God’s children, but we’re the Serpent’s groupies – emulating his style, attitude, and mannerisms.

We’ve come to think criticism and contention will get us what we really want, and help us to be who we really want to be. And so, just like Adam and Eve (the founders of the Serpent’s fan club), we’re still hiding from God and still pointing fingers at one another. That bite of forbidden fruit may not have made Adam better than God; but if Adam could lay blame at Eve’s feet, well then at least he could say he’s better than her. All these generations later we’re still following Adam’s pattern and his train of thought. Fear-fired critique is still our baseline response to the other.

We should note, however, that God’s baseline response to Adam and Eve is different – and He, too, continues to follow suit. God was angry with them, of course; but the more I read the story of “the Fall” the more I hear undertones of grief in God’s angry voice. He punishes Adam and Eve for their disobedience, which is God’s prerogative as Creator and Lord of all; but while they are cowering behind the bushes, ashamed of their nakedness, He also provides them with their first set of clothes (Genesis 3.21). God puts them out of the Garden, but He does so not so much to deprive them as to protect them: to prevent them from also eating of the Tree of Life and living forever in their fallen state.

God does something else, too. He continues to walk with Adam and Eve and their children east of Eden. He claims their children as His children. With His presence, God affirms humanity as creatures made in His image.

When Cain kills Abel, for example, God places a mark of protection (not shame!) on Cain’s forehead. Even though Cain has committed a heinous act and God is sending Him away, God still affirms him as one of His own. Later, when God wipes most of humanity  off the face the earth in the flood of Genesis 6, He also places the rainbow in the sky for Noah in Genesis 9. Noah himself has done nothing wrong, but he has endured a wild and crazy ride with God. God places the rainbow in the sky for Noah as an affirmation of the promise God makes to never again destroy the earth with water. The next time it rains, Noah won’t have to wonder, “Oh no! – could this be…?”

God takes affirmations seriously because He takes His children seriously. And so for generations and generations after the flood, God continues to be present. God continues to affirm His people as His people; He continues to affirm the promises and covenants He has made with them; He continues to offer forgiveness for their transgressions; He continues to speak to them and engage them through prophets and poets – and He has continued all this even though God’s people repeatedly have responded to His words and affirmations with hardened hearts, grumbling lips, and serpentine strategies.

Whatever else stunts (or has stunted) our spiritual growth, we cannot claim that our relationship with God suffers from a Word Gap. There’s a big difference between parents not speaking and children not listening when they do.

The truth is we’re still charmed by the Serpent’s rhymes and rhythms, even though they’re rather dated at this point. Most days, we’d still rather listen to them than listen to (or for) God’s still, small voice. The Serpent is a master at telling us what we want to hear.

The Serpent’s lingering appeal is one reason why Jesus came to show us a better way, to demonstrate what is possible when we who are both flesh and spirit, dust and light, walk in solidarity with God. When we pay attention to what God is saying, when we set our priorities by God’s priorities – that’s how we discover the healing, the belonging, the LIFE we have been seeking for eons. And this process of discovery begins with affirmation.

God the Father and God the Son model this process for us in Mark 1. At the outset of Christ’s earthly ministry, the Father affirms Jesus’ identity as His Son before Jesus has done anything remarkable: before He has healed a single person, cast out a single demon, or uttered a single proverb. All Jesus has done at this point in the narrative is show up and offer Himself. Yet, God sees Him and says, “You are my Son, the Beloved. In You, I am well pleased.”

Jesus took these words of love and affirmation with Him into the wilderness. We have no way of knowing for sure, but I believe these words helped sustain Him during those forty days in the desert, as Satan tempted this new Adam with the same opportune, enticing, and eloquent guile he used to lead the original Adam astray. And I believe that because Christ was flesh and blood as I am flesh and blood – and words of affirmation certainly sustain me.

As disciples and would be disciples, we need to take this example set by God the Father and God the Son seriously. If affirmation is a defining feature of the Trinity’s mission, affirmation should be a prominent feature of our shared pilgrimage as the people of Jesus. We need to dedicate ourselves to the work of building each other up (to use Paul’s words), and repent of tearing each other down.

That doesn’t mean we let just anything slide, or allow others to use us as doormats or dust mops. We’re called to be disciples, not peons. But discipleship entails picking up our crosses and following Jesus, emulating His example and obeying His commandments. Jesus warns us not to judge one another for much the same reason God expelled our ancestors from Eden: as much to protect us as to protect those whom we are all-too-eager to sentence. Firstly, judgment is God’s prerogative, not ours. Secondly, it’s hard to shoulder our crosses while banging our gavels. Thirdly, the standards we use when we critique, criticize, and otherwise pass judgment are typically our own, not the Lord’s. When we use our standards, we don’t judge to help others stand taller; we do it to help ourselves look taller while standing next to them.

The Apostle Paul, likewise, denounces laying blame because finger pointing fractures the unity of the Body of Christ and undermines our faith witness.

“These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. 8 But now you must get rid of all such things— anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.

12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”  – Colossians 3

Our fallen world is brutal enough as it is. If we want to be beaten down, there is no shortage of opportunities available. Church should defy the fractured and fracturing realities of our age, not conform to them. That’s why we refer to our worship spaces as sanctuaries. They are (or should be) oases of peace, love, and renewal in the midst of life’s often-arid and turbulent climate.

Just as we need affirmation to grow and become healthy human beings, we need support and companionship to sustain us and nourish us on our faith journeys, too. When we follow Jesus, we necessarily embark on a wilderness experience – and not just during Lent. As new creations in Christ, we follow Jesus into a wonderful but strange new world, where the logic of our former lives no longer applies: a world where the last shall be first; where leaders must become servants; where we bless those who persecute us; where we offer our left cheek to those who strike us on the right. It’s the same path the first disciples walked, and the journey can be as bewildering as it is beautiful – especially because Jesus is the one who is turning everything upside down and inside out for us.

So, let’s not wait until our birthdays to affirm one another and wish each other well. Let’s walk with one another, building each other up, and leave the judging up to God. The Father and the Son have set an example of affirmation for us that we need, and the world needs from us. When we focus on seeing each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, as men and women made in the image of God; when we see the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, strange, and imprisoned inhabitants of the world as Jesus Himself, it’s difficult for the siren song of the Serpent to sway us, and the strife Paul decries to gain traction. Affirmation is what sustains us in the face of trials and motivates us to aim higher and go deeper in our faith. And affirmation is also one of the simplest, most direct ways we can help bridge and back-fill the gaps that divide our world and its people.

May we allow Christ to clothe us with love, not to cover our shame, but to bind us together in perfect harmony. Amen.

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