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.

WWJD?

Yesterday, I went in search of this meme that I remembered seeing on Facebook some months ago.

WWJD Temple MemeJohn’s account of Jesus “cleansing” the Temple” is the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday. Not only is this spin on WWJD? hilarious, it prompts us to reconsider the tame, saccharine image of Jesus so often portrayed in popular culture. This Jesus challenges systems in direct, uncomfortable ways.  Funny captions that spark serious questions are how social media memes function at their best.

My Google image search also revealed this meme, which I had never seen before.

no_dinner_for_obama_croppedI clicked on it to make sure I was reading the thumbnail correctly. Sadly, I was.

This meme appears to have circulated on social media in 2012 in an attempt to persuade Cardinal Timothy Nolan to uninvite President Obama from the annual Alfred E. Smith Dinner, where the President and Mitt Romney were scheduled to speak. Presumably, the meme’s creators disagree with various aspects of the President’s politics and felt the Cardinal’s invitation amounted to a blessing of his policies (never mind the dinner’s long-standing tradition as a forum for both Presidential candidates in election years).

Whatever the partisan politics of the moment might have been, this meme is as abhorrent as the WWJD meme is provocative. The idea that faithful Christians don’t eat or otherwise associate with those who aren’t also faithful Christians is about as Christian as Obama is Muslim. (Jesus had a slightly different take on the subject). It flows from a mindset that says: if you believe differently from us (or we think you believe differently from us), then you are the enemy. You must be isolated and ultimately defeated.

Such rationale is nothing new. It is the basic syllogism of fundamentalists in every religious, ideological, and political camp. Southern Baptists succumbed to it in the 1980s and -90s. The poles of both the Republican and Democratic Parties are rife with it today. Theofascist groups such as ISIS and the Taliban embody its most extreme forms.

Tragically, it is also a mindset now infecting elements of the US criminal justice system. The Justice Department’s investigative report on the August shooting death of Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson has confirmed the infection many have long suspected. Like a parasitic worm, a fundamentalist rationale has wrapped itself around the entrails of the Ferguson police department as well as local courts. The report’s findings include:

“Blacks make up 67 percent of the population in Ferguson. But they make up 85 percent of people subject to vehicle stops and 93 percent of those arrested. Blacks are twice as likely to be searched as whites, but less likely to have drugs or weapons. 88 percent of times in which Ferguson police used force it was against blacks and all 14 cases of police dog bites involved blacks.”

“Blacks were 68 percent less likely to have cases dismissed by Ferguson municipal judges and disproportionately likely to be subject to arrest warrants. From October 2012 to October 2014, 96 percent of people arrested in traffic stops solely for an outstanding warrant were black.

“Blacks accounted for 95 percent of jaywalking charges, 94 percent of failure-to-comply charges and 92 percent of all disturbing-the-peace charges.”

The Justice Department also uncovered damning emails from within the Ferguson police department. Again, the mindset is the same as the Alfred Smith Dinner protest meme, but the content too extreme to be circulated in the media.

One [email] says Obama will not be president for long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.” Another says a black woman in New Orleans was admitted to a hospital to end her pregnancy and then got a check two weeks later from ‘Crime Stoppers.’ “

These are the patterns and communications of a system that believes African-Americans are the enemy, and they must be isolated and defeated.

Reading the Ferguson report is nauseating, but we need to recognize the infection for what it is and take this twisted system on – head on.  Awareness of such a fundamentalist mindset is the first step in treating the parasite and reversing its effects. Healing will take time, and require a medicinal cocktail of procedural overhauls, training improvements, and changes of heart. This last piece of the prescription will be the most difficult. Ironically, the Alfred E. Smith protest meme provides a path for affecting such changes of heart – not unlike a spiritual form of penicillin.

We need to break bread with those who are different from us.

To break bread with someone is to invite them into relationship with you. When we eat together, we talk. When we talk, we get to know one another. The space around a table is intimate space, and sharing food is an essential component of hospitality.

Jesus understood that, which is why it’s really not the least bit surprising to find a Table at the center of the Christian faith narrative. He may have overturned some tables in the Temple, but Jesus gathered His disciples around a Table on the night He was betrayed. He offered them bread and wine. In so doing, He offered His very Self. That simple meal constituted a new covenant with each of them – different though they were. Even His betrayer was included. Re-enacting this meal, sharing in the bread and the cup together, is still how Christians of different races, ages, sexes, economic backgrounds, education levels, and theological persuasions find (and demonstrate) unity with each other in Christ.

In Bishopville, SC, another kind of meal is specifically bringing black and white football players together across a deep gulf of historic racial division. Click here to read the article from the Washington Post.

Southern Football and Race Relations in the SouthBishopville is no racial utopia; many of its problems and issues are identical with those in Ferguson and elsewhere.  But Bishopville’s mindset is the antithesis of Ferguson. This small southern town is making strides through consistent effort and intentional practice that is as simple as having boys from different backgrounds who share a common interest in football sit down and share a common table as well.

As we continue to digest the Ferguson report and grapple with its findings and implications, may Bishopville serve as an example – not only that things can be different, but how.

WWJD?

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