I look at it coming from a world which always asks “How much.” How much do I have to pay for this? How much do I have to work to get paid? How much money do I have to make to be successful? How thin do I have to be to be pretty? How much attention do I have to be to be popular? How much good do I have to do to be an ok person?
So now I look at the Gospel lesson, and it appears that God cuts off all the branches that don’t bear fruit, and throws them into the fire. Those are us. Jesus says “I am the vine, you are the branches.” So now if I don’t bear fruit, I’m going to the flames. Jesus says in the verses after the Gospel lesson for today that bearing fruit has to do with loving.
So immediately the question arises in my mind: How much fruit do I have to bear to keep from being cut off and thrown into the flames? How much do I have to love?
Is it enough that I am a good friend and citizen? Do I have to be a father, or uncle or husband or wife? Do I have to be a big brother or big sister? Contribute to World Hunger Appeal? Do I need to be one of the heroes of Christian love, like Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King Jr.
You see the problem here. Already I’ve stopped bearing fruit. Already, I have stopped wondering how I can bless the world, and started worry about how I can save my own sorry hide. How much is the wrong question.
Jesus says “If you abide in me, and I in you, then you will bear much fruit.” If you are a part of my life and I am a part of your life, you will bear much fruit. So how do we abide in Jesus? That’s a much more interesting question.
For example, I’ve been watching the news this week regarding the events that took place in Baltimore. If all we can do is ask “How much?” How much will it take to solve all these problems, it gets overwhelming.
One is tempted to take one of two points of view. We could either say, “Well, those inner city communities of color just need to get their acts together. Just need to straighten up and fly right, then everything would be okay. Or we could say, “Well, those police departments just need to get their acts together. Just need to straighten up and fly right.
I would submit for your consideration that both approaches are spiritually lazy. It is spiritually lazy to say, “Well, those people over there are the ones causing the problem. Those people over there are the ones who have to change.
Spiritually lazy because when we do that, we don’t have to feel overwhelmed, feel like we’re not in control, like we don’t know everything, like we’re not God. We don’t have to place ourselves in anybody else’s shoes. We can maintain our illusion of comfort, of power, of righteousness. We don’t have to hurt with them, and we don’t have to care.
I do not know what it is like to be a a police officer. Some of you do. But from where I am standing, it would seem difficult to go out to the same address again and again to answer a call for a domestic dispute, knowing you are risking your life. Domestic disputes are a dangerous kind of call. Which would not be so bad if you thought something might actually change. Answer a call on a murder on a street you’ve visited for the same reason before, knowing it’s a dangerous street, knowing you risk your life. Wouldn’t seem so bad if you hadn’t been there so many times before, and wouldn’t be there probably in a month, or even a week. If you thought something might change.
What’s that like? Would it not be awfully easy to conclude that there is no real hope. That the possibilities for human caring in this situation are shriveled up, like a dead stick poking up out of the ground.
Or, if you live in an inner city neighborhood, a young African American person under difficult circumstances, judged as if your schools were as good as other people’s schools, when they’re not. Judged as if you could ride a bike down your street, that it’s as safe as other streets, when it’s not; judged as if your parents had the same advantages other parents had, when sometimes they don’t, judged as if food and shelter were reliable, when they aren’t. And on top of it all, this drumbeat, not always loud , but almost always present. “black man, black woman, black man, black woman.”
What’s that like? Would it not be awfully easy to conclude that there is no real hope? That the only power at hand is that of brute force, and that the possibilities for human caring are shriveled up, like a dead stick poking up out of the ground.
I have never been a police officer. I have read a little and listened to some folks, and I’d love to have more conversation like that. But I am not going to pretend to know what to do.
I am not an African American man from difficult circumstances in the city. I have read a little and listened to some folks. And I’d love to have more conversation. But I am not going to pretend to know what to do.
I am, however, a pastor. We are the church. Our job is to preach the Gospel, so here goes.
There is something bigger in this world than disadvantage. There is something bigger than brutality and drugs and knives and guns and clubs and violence and spiritual laziness and hate. That something is not just some nice fuzzy idea off in the clouds somewhere. It moves on the streets. It moves in our souls.
It his hard and terrifying and challenging and unutterably beautiful, and it has a name.
In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus says “I Am the vine.” A grapevine starts out in winter, looking like a shriveled root, a dead stick poking out of the ground. And then comes spring, and these little shoots spring up, with tiny delicate leaves, so fragile you can knock them off with a flick of your finger. But before long, these shoots and runners have popped out in all directions, twisting themselves around anything taller than a treestump. Working their way into chinks and cracks to brick walls till they bring them down. By mid summer you have these bunches of hard, ripening fruit.
This is the promise Jesus makes. Not that we will fix everything. Not that we will have all the answers, but rather that we will bear fruit. We will be a part of God’s love, God’s beauty, God’s life. We will be a part of God making a difference in the world.
So, I am not going to claim to know the answers. But we do claim to know the questions. Here is one of them: where is Jesus abiding? Where is Jesus abiding, how is Jesus moving in the police department in Louisville. Because he is there. I want to know where Jesus is moving in distressed communities in Louisville. Because he is there.
We come to church to find out what Jesus is like here. We see him challenging and crashing over boundaries and demanding that people grow beyond their comfort zones. We learn what he looks like here. Now, where do you see him out there? How can we abide with him, how can we participate with his work that he is already doing among the police and on the streets of Louisville?
That’s what I want to know. How can we be a part of what Jesus is doing in the world?
I am the vine, your are the branches, says Jesus. Us and Jesus together, that is how we bear much fruit.