“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Those are Mother Theresa’s words. They are the words I couldn’t get out of my head this week as Baltimore raged and burned, as people offered reason and interpretation, as they determined and assigned blame.
We have forgotten, I thought. We have forgotten that we belong to each other.
A black man dies in police custody. A protestor grasps whatever he can hold in his hand to hurl at an officer in riot gear. A window shatters, a store is looted, a building burns, and another…and another. People on 24-hour news coverage condemn the rioters, and then others condemn those who have condemned. Social media blazes – with postings of a mother reprimanding her son for joining the throng, with people’s own reasoning behind all that is taking place and what we ought to do about it.
We have forgotten. And right now peace seems far, far away.
Jesus reminds us in today’s gospel of who we are, of who he is, of who God is: “I am the vine, and my father is the vine grower,” Jesus says. “God removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit….I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”
It’s not a comfortable thing, pruning. Our family lived for a long time in Oregon’s wine country before we came here for seminary. I remember the pruning season – happening within these past several weeks. My friends who worked the vineyards talked about the vines needing to be stressed. They would cut the branches and vines back to the point of almost too much, have them go without added water, without enriching the soil with extra nutrients. That’s what happens in pruning. And the stressing, that “almost-too-much-ness” brings forth abundant fruit on the vine.
Mark and Dottie Dunnam, our new friends and our hosts during the time we were in Florence after Easter, took us to lunch one day in the village of Lamolé. It’s on a hilltop in Tuscany, in the heart of the Chianti region. (I say that not just to marvel at the fact that it actually happened, but also because I didn’t realize Chianti was a region – I just thought it was a nice kind of wine to enjoy with Italian food…). As we got closer there were vineyards across every hillside of the drive. And the pruning had just happened. “Those branches and vines look like little sticks,” Dottie said, of the grapes that had been so severely cut back. And they did. “It’s hard to look at them now and believe that they’ll be lush and filled with grapes in a couple of months.” And they will. And they will bear better fruit because of the very starkness and severity that we were noticing on that drive.
Nothing of what Jesus says in today’s gospel points toward our comfort. Those things that are not life-giving will be cut away and destroyed. And those things that are beneficial will be cut back just as severely as the vines we saw on a hillside a couple weeks ago. (Ouch.) I hold that knowledge, and the image of those vines, together with Mother Theresa’s words: “We have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
Please hear me now when I say that I don’t for a second believe that God has brought about the suffering in Baltimore in recent days, or in the devastation in Nepal, or in any of our own individual lives. None of those things is a lesson to chasten or challenge or teach us to become better Christians. I believe God weeps with those who mourn Freddie Gray and Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and with every officer who is attacked while trying to protect and serve.
And if we belong to each other, if God abides in us and we abide in God as today’s scripture says, I also believe that right now this is a moment for us to listen. This is a moment for us to pay attention in our own lives and in our shared life as branches of the same true vine. This is a moment for us to ask: What needs to be removed so that together we will bear good fruit? It’s a moment for us to pause and remember who we are, remember that we belong to one another.
Looting and violence were not the only thing that took place in Baltimore this week. Lots of people marched their protest peacefully – most of them, my guess. Clergy leaders and members of their communities stood in the streets as witnesses to their faith. On Tuesday morning, people helped each other clean up the mess that the rioters left behind. They boarded up windows that had been broken, they helped get the shells of burned cars towed away. Nail by nail, garbage bag by garbage bag, they remembered who they are by the things that they did: actions showing that they know we belong to each other, actions that will bear good fruit.
Those vines, pruned and cut at the start of the season of growth, don’t look much like what they will become. They’re stressed, and thirsty…and before too long, they will be green. Soon they will flower and the fruit will set and grow and ripen. “Those who abide in me and I in them,” Jesus says, “They will bear much fruit.”
My prayer is that we will. My prayer is that we will listen, and we will remember who we are, we will remember that we belong to each other.
My prayer is that, together, we will abide.