Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Grafted, Pruned, and Fed

Sometimes when I'm doing sermon preparation, my research takes me off in strange directions.  This week is one of those times.  During last night's Bible study we were looking at John 15:1-17 where Jesus talks about "I am the vine and you are the branches" and identifies God as the "vinedresser."  It was really interesting because we had a couple of folks in the Bible study who had actually helped to care for grapes when they visited grandparents as children.

I learned that getting a grapevine to where it produces grapes is a lengthy process that includes, among other things, often pruning it back so that the nurture coming to the vine from the ground can get to a limited number of branches (or canes) resulting in larger grapes.

We talked about how our interpretation of this parable changes depending on whether we see the words "you are the branches" as a plural comment to the disciples and from there to the church at large....or to us as individuals.  Both, I think, are reasonable interpretations that have a lot to tell us.

Later that evening my mind went to Paul's words when he talked in Romans about the Gentiles being "grafted" onto the olive tree that was Israel.  I know that grafting is often used in grape vineyards, so I started thinking about that in terms of the "I am the vine, you are the branches" discussion.  So I looked up grafting and grape vines.

I found this really interesting discussion of what is called "cleft grafting."  This is when you cut a cleft in the vine and insert a  couple of  scions (twig to the rest of us) into that cut.  The result looks like this:

Image result for grafting grapevines in the bible

It was the language in the article though that really got my head spinning (you can find the article here if you are interested

" Grafting involves wounding your vines, and working with open wounds on both the trunk and scion."  And " In grafting, the injured tissue of one vine heals to the injured tissue of another. However, just putting two cut vines together does not guarantee a graft. The healing only takes place if the cambium layers of both the trunk and the scion are in permanent contact with each other. The cambium layer is the layer of green living tissue that lies between the bark and the wood. Therefore, the incision you make on your trunk, and the shape you cut your scion must be tailored to allow as much of the cambium tissue on both pieces to contact each other."

My head began to spin.  Think about it....What if the only way I can be grafted to Jesus is to take the "open wounds" of my life and lay them in the "open wounds" of Jesus?  

God, made vulnerable in God's incarnation in Jesus' life and death on the cross.  These together are the "wound" that opens a place for us to be in that grafted relationship as "scion" grafted into Jesus.  But for that to be successful, I have to bring my own open wound.  I can't just stick a twig down in that cut in the vine.  I need to become vulnerable. "The shape you cut your scion must be tailored to allow as much of the cambium tissue on both pieces to contact each other" so that "the injured tissue of one vine heals to the injured tissue of another."  This brings new meaning for me to the passage in Isaiah 53:5 that says, "But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed."

To put this in plain words, I will never be what I am meant to be, I will never become part of the "vine" that is Jesus, until I put my woundedness into His.  This is a deeply intimate, personal, often painful process.  My greed, my rage, my pain, my childhood wounds...and all the ways I have tried to heal them on my own-my attempts to sooth my pain by myself (we often call that addiction)....all of these have to be exposed and laid in the open wounds of Jesus.

But there is more.  This is true of us as churches, and communities, and nations.  We will not heal the divisions in this country until we take the open wound of our racism and expose it to the wounds of the Christ who was lynched by the Roman Empire.

Only then, when we personally and corporately have done the painful, risky work of grafting, can the work of growth and pruning begin.  The end result of "bearing fruit" begins with that letting our wounds heal to the wounds of Jesus.  But on this Worldwide Communion Sunday we are promised that "I am the bread of life" and "those who come to me I will in nowise cast out." (John 6)  In grafting a grape vine there is no guarantee that the graft will take.  But Jesus promises that when we place our wounds into His, the graft will always be successful.  Which means that the only way to be "branches that don't bear fruit and are thrown into the fire" is to refuse to expose our woundedness.

On this Worldwide Communion Sunday, when all over the world Christians are sharing the Euchrist,  I pray that individuals, as a nation, as a world can hear the promise of the New Covenant sealed with Christ blood, the result of the wound that opens for our healing, and risk the brutal honesty that will allow us to place our wounds next to His and heal into the wounds of Christ.  

Monday, September 25, 2017

Reflections On Worldwide Communion Sunday

Once again a poem by my friend Maren Tirabassi has triggered some writing of my own.  She wrote a wonderful poem about Worldwide Communion Sunday (coming up on October 1)  that you can find here:

Her poem got my mind to spinning; and the result was these:


"I tell you," Jesus said,
"They'll come from everywhere
"to sit down at the table in the Kingdom."
The only way, it seems,
to not get fed,
Is to refuse to sit down.
"You can't put me next to her!"
"I won't sit at the same table as him!"
May be the cry of the self damning
as they push away from the table.

Perhaps hunger will bring them back.
I hope so.
But I know how stubborn I am,
And how quickly I'll claim that
"I'm on a diet,"
Rather than pass the bread to an enemy.

O Gracious God
Who sets the Table in this life
and the Next
Make us so hungry for You
That we edge our way
out of the shadows of our own sin
To gather around the Only Table there is


Black mother weeping for a slain son
The Body of Christ, broken for you

Torch carrying neo nazi drowning in hate
The Body of Christ, broken for you

Rescue worker sifting through the rubble
The Body of Christ, broken for you

Battered wife, abused child
The Body of Christ, broken for you

Dark web computer pedophile
The Body of Christ, broken for you.

First responder, police on the line
The Body of Christ, broken for you

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un
The Body of Christ, broken for you

Transgendered teen and angry father
The Body of Christ, broken for you

Whoever you are, whatever you've done
Or not done
Crowing in victory, or bloody in defeat
The Body of Christ, broken for you

How can you do that?
How dare you do that?
Offering these estranged ones
Food from the same Table
Who do you think you are?

I can do it
Because I'm told to.
It's not my Bread, it's not my Wine.
The Table doesn't belong to me.
I'm just a waiter here.

Passing out the Bread
While the giver of the feast
Raises His cup in toast to say,
"This Cup is the new Covenant.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Dressed In Hope

Sometimes a lot of things come together in my head and produce a kind of "thick theological reflection."  This week has been one of those times.  I'd like to try to tease the bits of this tapestry apart a bit and share them with you before stepping back and showing the whole weaving.

Some week's ago I picked the scriptures for this week's worship.  They are the story in Genesis 3 of Adam and Eve leaving the Garden; with a particular emphasis  on Genesis 3:21: "And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife Garments of skins, and clothed them."  And Galatians 3:27-28, "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." My thoughts about these passages have been heavily influenced by Lauren Winner's Wearing God, and I am grateful to her for her writing.  Where I wind up is, of course, my own responsibility.

Recently, I agreed to do a workshop in October on suicide for the Annual Meeting of the DC Baptist Convention.  In preparation for that I began reviewing clinical writing and talking to friends of mine at the Hyattsville Community Crisis Services who deal with this issue daily through the Hotline and other contacts. Thank you Jamie Brill, Bill Leary, and Tim Jansen for all taking the time to talk (over really good meals by the way) about this.

Frighteningly there is approximately 1 suicide attempt every 38 seconds and 121 successful suicides every day.  High on the list for these attempts and deaths are veterans who have significant issues such as homelessness or less than honorable discharges; LGBT youth; those with untreated depression; and persons who have had childhood trauma. 9 out of 10 are linked to mental illness with a very high correlation to bi-polar disorders.  What these all seem to have in common is a sense of being overwhelmed and a feeling of hopelessness.  

Adam and Eve must have felt that way.  There they are, they've been living in this blissful place, and suddenly they realize that they are "naked."  That word, by the way, is used to refer to a city without fortifications.  It is vulnerable.  They were suddenly aware of their vulnerability in a way they were not equipped to handle.  Things could hurt you!  Bees could sting, animals that you frolicked with yesterday have teeth and claws, the river you splashed in could drown you, and plants could be poison.

Anyone who has ever known or worked with victims of childhood trauma will see reflections of this.

God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good.
Even the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Then why can't they eat?
Because it's not time
It's too soon
You're not ready
One day
God would have spread a picnic under that tree
And sliced the fruit for them God's Own Self

But instead...

Who told you that you were naked? That you were vulnerable, that you could not trust the providence and loving protection of God?

The moment they ate
Their eyes flew open
Suddenly, they KNEW
Their tongues burned with the taste
of Good and Evil
The slashing agony of torture
the bitter tang of racism
the dark emptiness of hunger
the ripped openness of physical and sexual abuse
The stinging salt of lonely tears
The KNEW the fear, the terror
of experience and understanding
gained too soon.
And in their anxious, terrified state
The grabbed what they could
To hide their vulnerability.

To keep them from the Tree of Life
Might have been an act of compassion, lest they spend eternity in this terrified state.

Knowing that they must leave, God stayed up all night, hunched over God's sewing machine, making them clothes of skins to protect them in the world that they had to go out into.  The agony and pathos of this moment is palpable; as is the tenderness of the moment when God gave them these gifts, wrapping these frightened, overwhelmed, hopeless feeling, childlike creatures in the product of God's labor of love.

To a later world struggling with it's feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness, Paul will say, "You have put on Christ like a warm coat" (my paraphrase).  "See in this care and this love a reason to find Hope."

Interestingly enough, the next line does away with divisions that are/were often marked by clothing: male and female; slave and free; Jew and Gentile.  They do not exist for Christians any more because, clothed in Christ Jesus, we are all wearing the "school uniform" of the Way, the Kingdom, of Jesus' family.

Roll back up to look at the things that raise suicidal risk.  What if we took that list and now said, "We have put on Christ Jesus.  Dressed in that love we not longer see a division between sane and mentally ill, between straight and LGBT, between traumatized and "normal", for we are all wrapped together in the warm blanket of God's love for us in Christ Jesus."

The third step in this picture is, of course, that you and I are called to be the Body of Christ.  We are that warm blanket.  Clothed in Christ, we are called to "cloth the naked" in whatever form that takes.

I don't remember whether I read it, or one of my friends said it to me this past week, but I was struck by the comment that "a caring person is the first line of referral."  The first line of defense against suicide is our personal empathy for those who hurt, who feel overwhelmed, who feel that all hope is gone.  We are called to embody that hope.

Another friend marked the end of Suicide Prevention week by thanking the friend who found them when they had cut their wrist and gotten them help.  47 years ago this person helped my friend.  This friend helped me when my life was doing a crash and burn.  It is as though we are passing around the blanket of God's love so that in it's warmth we may all find Hope and Trust to move forward.

If you read this, and are thinking of hurting yourself, please don't.  We need you.  There is Hope.  There is help.  And by continuing to live, you, like my friend, may one day save the life of another.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Insanity, Sin, And The Repeal Of DACA

I am generally reluctant to say, "Thus Says The Lord."  I am more likely to say, "this is how I read scripture, what do you think?" and to add, if we disagree, "We're Baptists, we can do that."  But today, I don't think I can do that.

Today, the Trump Administration did away with DACA in a way that demonstrated an extreme level of cowardice and cruelty.  But beyond that, and this IS The Word of the Lord, in a manner that is sinful. Sinful and in "If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn't do it, it is sin for them" (James 4:17) sinful.

I would like to point to just a couple of passages and then tell a Bible story.  I want to tell that story because it is a warning; and it's a warning we need to hear, because if we let this decision go by without the Church taking a stand alongside these "Dreamers," these oppressed ones, we become complacent in the sin.

Let me begin with Deuteronomy 24 where we find a set of laws governing the treatment of the "widow, the orphan, and the alien."  Among them this (vs. 14-15) You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns  You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. (emphasis mine)

One of the easily overlooked comments that Attorney General Sessions made today was that Dreamers were allowed to participate in Social Security.  That means that these folks, many of whom have been working for years, have been contributing to Social Security.  What will happen to their money?  Will they be eligible to draw SS in whatever country they are living when they reach the eligible age?  Will that money be returned to them in a lump sum upon deportation?  Watch this closely over the next weeks and months.  Raise this question every chance you get.  Because to fail to make provision for those funds is to steal the wages of the worker.

In my opinion (and I break now for a "me" comment...if Paul could do that, so can I), Lawsuits should begin NOW to seek to ensure either the guaranteed payment of those funds upon eligibility or their immediate return to the Dreamers who have put into Social Security.  Tie up the Courts with this and get Orders blocking the deportation of any Dreamer who has put anything into Social Security until the issue is resolved as a Class Action.  
And do not fall for the "we're only going after "outlaws" line.  Because this Administration and ICE have demonstrated that, in their mind, being an "illegal/undocumented" alien fits their definition of a crime and equals "outlaw."  Think Jim Crow and the definitions of "loitering" and "vagrancy" that filled Southern chain gangs with Black, rentable, virtual slave labor and you'll see what I mean.  If you read this and have any capacity to help those suits begin, PLEASE go to work.  If you don't have, share the idea with someone who does.

Now back to the Scriptures.

Few of us need to be reminded that Jesus said, with absolutely no ambiguity at all, that "If you do it to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did to me." (Matthew 25:40)  The consequence of failing to care for these oppressed, marginalized folks was horrific.  But it has a basis in other Scriptures.  And so now to the Bible story with a brief digression to Ezekiel that lays the groundwork for the story I want to tell.  In Ezekiel 17 the Lord says that He will plant a tender shoot on the mountain height of Israel

"in order that it may produce boughs and
         bear fruit,
   and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
   in the shade of its branches will nest
   winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
  that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
  I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
  and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
   I will accomplish this." (Ezekiel 17:23b-24)

God's people are told that they will, even after exile, become this great nation which is to become home and shelter for all kinds of people.  Because God does what God wishes...and this is what God wishes.

Holding that thought, look at Daniel 4.  I will let you read it for yourself.  But the story goes that Nebuchadnezzar had a dream.  It was a dream that terrified him.  This dream was about a great tree that was home to all these birds and animals and then it was cut down.  Daniel interpreted the dream saying, "that tree is you."  He went on to tell Nebuchadnezzar that he would go insane and eat grass like the cattle, "until you have learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals, and gives it to whom he will."

Nebuchadnezzar's arrogance has condemned him.  He will be judged by God for his oppressive behaviors that he believes he is entitled to enact.  Daniel does something incredibly courageous and says to Nebuchadnezzar, "Therefore, O king, may my counsel be acceptable to you: atone for your sins with righteousness and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged."

Nebuchadnezzar, of course, does not do any of this.  And within a year he goes insane.  He stays insane until he acknowledges that God is the source of all power and goodness.

This story is not a "one and done."  We are in this story.  We are seeing this story reenacted before us right now.  The insanity has begun.  Yet, there is still time to repent.  Trump could fix his Executive Order repealing DACA. He could direct that a way be found to fix the Program.  Congress can make decisions about this repeal that can protect those Dreamers who will be harmed by this decision.

We, as Christians, in partnership and fellowship of other people of faith can help to force this issue.  We can write blogs.  We can write Congress.  We can march.  We can suggest and support Court actions.  We can pray.  We can be islands of Shalom in the ocean of insanity.

 Make no mistake.  The insanity is just beginning.  It is bad, but it will get worse.  Unless "sins are atoned for with righteousness" and "iniquities with mercy to the oppressed," we will see the insanity increase.

I'm not talking about God punishing with hurricanes, etc. (we've heard that before).  I am talking about the realities that God's commandments and Jesus' teachings about Justice and Mercy are either followed, or there are consequences that come in the wake of that sinfulness.  One need only look at the history of oppressive regimes to see this.  And when we add, as people of faith, our belief that when the oppressed cry out, God hears and comes, we can see where our tasks lie.  We need to do our work for Justice and labor for Mercy.  We need to be on the lookout for what God is doing, and is going to do, and join ourselves to it.

As Galatians tells us, "Don't be deceived, God won't be mocked."  Believing that you can live in injustice, denying mercy to the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the alien is the way to madness.

The Word of the Lord

Saturday, September 2, 2017

A Response To The "Nashville Statement"

Sometimes it is necessary to write or speak, not because you're going to say anything particularly wise or important, or even new, but because to fail to speak would be immoral.  This writing is such a moment.

I have been impressed lately in terms of responding to a number of social situations, by the words of Martin Luther King Jr. that "In the end , we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."  This is a time when we are bombarded by so many situations that cry out for Christians to respond, that it is easily to be overwhelmed and say, "it's okay, there are enough people speaking out, I don't need to say anything."

This past week the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood released a document titled the The Nashville Statement. This document focused on sexuality as a (perhaps the) primary sign of Christian faith.  It was signed by over 150 evangelical leaders.  It represents a heresy that has gained a lot of play and done incredible damage to both the Christian faith and to LGBTQ persons who love Jesus and seek to follow Him.

Some of the best responses to this document can be found here:

and here:

But, as a  person of faith and a Christian Pastor, I need to add my voice to those who are expressing their difficulty with this statement.  

I stated above that the statement represents a heresy.  "Heresy" is defined as a "belief or opinion contrary to orthodox belief" or to "revealed truth."  As noted in the first article above, the conservative evangelicals who signed on to this document appear to be redefining what the Christian faith's primary behaviors and beliefs are.  They appear to be no longer "I was hungry and you gave me food, naked and you clothed me..." but to define the requirements of Christianity by speaking about a subject that, frankly, Jesus never mentioned.  So though they claim they are representing "traditional" belief, they are not.

A second problem that I find with the document is that I can find no support for the idea that Jesus would say to anyone that they were unwelcome to follow Him.  I just can't find it.  Jesus was gathering the wounded and the hurt to Him, not pushing them away.  As one who has a very Christo-centric faith, the first place I look for guidance is the life of Jesus.  I do not see this exclusion reflected there.

All of these problems are addressed much better than I can address them by others who have spoken and written this past week.  But that is not an excuse for silence in the face of those who are claiming to speak exclusion on behalf of Jesus and the Christian Church at large.

So, let me simply be clear.  Though I pray for their hearts to be opened to love and welcome their Christian brothers and sisters who are gay, lesbian, and trans....I am very clear that those who signed on to the Nashville Statement do not speak for me, they do not speak for many in the Christian Church, and I sure as hell do not believe that they speak for Jesus.