Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Vine and the Branches and My Ash Tree

John 15:1-8

I had to have my ash tree taken down last summer.

It's just a guess, of course, but it likely stood on that spot for more than a century.  This means it would have pre-dated my house and all the other houses up and down my street. It would have taken root and grown long before Meadow Lane and Edward Street were paved. Its branches towered high above the families that call my neighborhood home. My arms would not reach around it. In fact, once it had been removed it was evident that it was more than six feet in diameter. It was a big tree.

Only a little bug called an emerald ash borer got the best of it. Or likely more than one of those insects managed to take the life out of it.

Now I'm no biologist, but here is how I understand it. This insidious insect digs its way under the bark of the ash tree and essentially cuts off the nutrients which would otherwise make their way to the tree's branches and limbs. Indeed, I suspected something was terribly wrong in the spring when I looked up to see that while there was still growth, the canopy of the tree was not leafing out. My sister Martha, who does no more about these matters than I do, was here on a visit and confirmed it. Shaking her head she said it would need to come down.

Once I knew this, I found myself anxious every time it stormed. The houses sit pretty close together in my neighborhood. A strong wind could put both lives and property in danger should it be taken down by wind or lightning. So I asked for suggestions and started calling around. It turned out it would not be so simple. For you see, a couple of those whose business it is to take down trees would have nothing to do with the job. Though surprised, I could understand their refusal. This giant tree stood in my back yard between a shed and a garage behind a fence with power lines all around it. Finally, I got someone to place a bid. He quoted me $4,000, less if I paid cash. We set a date and on a sunny afternoon in June they came in with a crane, a tree chipper, a couple of trucks, a handful of workers and one especially brave man who had, apparently done this hundreds of times before. To tell you the truth, he looked more than a little worse for wear, but seemed to take it in stride as he harnessed up and put his life in the hands of
the crane operator. Up he went, again and again, roping himself to the tree, and cutting off limbs which were comparable in size to a whole lot of trees I've seen. Again and again those limbs came down and were cut down to size and carted off or chipped for mulch. These guys worked all afternoon and were done by nightfall. And a tree which had stood for a hundred years was only a memory. (As the day wore on, you can just imagine the show it turned out to be for all of my neighbors! Indeed, almost a year later, some are still talking about it.) 

For most of us, one does not have to look far to find every day examples which help deepen our understanding of what Jesus is getting at when he compares himself to the vine and you and me to the branches. It almost goes without saying that once a branch is cut off from its life source, it is simply not going to live long, not to mention be at the end of its fruit bearing potential. This year, at least, I find myself remembering that beautiful old tree. And yes, I find myself thinking of that tiny emerald ash borer and its friends which could not be seen from the outside, but whose damage was deadly. And I wonder at what things get under my 'bark', under my skin, into my mind and heart which threaten to cut off that which feeds my spirit or our spirits together as communities which are called to abide in Jesus, this One who gives us life.

Oh, it is so that it would be easy to turn these marvelous words of Jesus into pure 'law.' Perhaps this is because one does not have to look very far to come up with a list of do's and don'ts, should's and should not's which when accomplished could well help us to continue to abide in Jesus. Indeed, I'm told that with proper maintenance, I probably could have done something to keep those emerald ash borers from taking up residence in my tree. On its own the tree could not prevent this deadly invasion, but as its keeper, I surely could have. Perhaps it is the same for you and for me. We cannot do this on our own. But Jesus can. And in the end, isn't that really the point of the image Jesus offers us today?

Indeed, it may be nigh unto impossible for us to fend off the host of things which threaten to interfere with our staying alive in Jesus. Think with me of all that would make up that list. Temptations and trials, unrealistic hopes and ungrounded fears, undeserved wealth and unjust poverty, talent as well as neglected potential. Any and all of these and a thousand more left on their own can easily cut me off from the only source of life that really matters. And they could do so in a way that I don't even notice at first... until I start to realize that around the edges I am simply dying.  Like my tree.

So yes, I suppose these words of Jesus are warning us that we are to stay close, to allow ourselves to be nurtured as automatically and as easily as a branch takes in the nourishment of the vine. And yes, there may be things we need to be vigilant about so that we don't come to believe they could actually take the place of the Vine. For oh, don't we know in our hearts and minds and souls that nothing can stand in its stead? More than that, though? It seems to me that Jesus is offering us an amazing gift in these words. We have been handed the source of life itself. Why in the world would I allow anything to get in the way of my receiving it? All we have to do is stay attached.

And this much is so. Jesus is a whole lot more attentive to you and me than I was to my poor ash tree. As I only allow myself to stand still in his care? That is enough to fend off all that would threaten to take my life. Indeed, that will always be enough.

  • The example that lives in my memory and imagination now is that of my dying ash tree. Look out your window. What do you see which like the branches, once cut off from the vine, would lose their very source of life?
  • The emerald ash borer is insidious. The untrained eye will not even know it is at work until the damage is irreversible. What are those things in your life which, left unchecked, could try to stand in the place of Jesus? What would it look like to eradicate them now?
  • What does it mean to you to abide in Jesus? How is this the very source of life for you?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Listening for the Shepherd's Voice

John 10:11-18

As I was listening for the voice of the Shepherd this week, I found myself remembering other voices which have so shaped me. I am grateful to say that those which stay with me have been life-giving ones.  In fact, some of those voices have been resounding especially clear in these last days.
This is why:

I spent some time sorting through books this week. It was no easy task, but I saw that our local library was 'recycling' them and it pushed me to do what I've needed to do for some time.

For as you can imagine, I have far too many books. If you are not like me, perhaps you know someone who is. Books are friends. They hold memories. Indeed, some of the books on my shelf date back to when I was in High School. A number of them were college text books which so shaped my way of seeing the world, I can't bear to let them go.  And some of them? They were gifts, gleaned from the libraries of others. Many of these still have the original owners' names inscribed in them.

Let me especially tell you about those.

When I was in my last month of seminary, my adviser was preparing to retire. Like me, he was a lover of books, but without his office shelves, he needed to get rid of a whole lot of them. So he let me have my pick. Now to be sure, he had already boxed up what he wanted for himself. What remained were the leftovers. Even so, I managed to walk away with a box of them myself. A number of them still sit on my shelf. Paul died of cancer not long after that, so all I have left of him are those books with his handwritten name inside and a handful of letters he sent me while I was on internship. Truth be told, I've never even read most of those books, but I feel as though I still hear his voice of confidence in me whenever I run my fingers along their spines.

And then there was another Paul. This old retired pastor had moved into assisted living not long before I came to serve the congregation where he was a member. He had only one room to call his own, but he managed to fit in a small book-case which held his most treasured books. By the time I knew him, he was losing his sight and so he gave them to this then young pastor to add to her library. Some of them I have since passed along to others, but I have not been able to dispose of the worn out Bible which was clearly so dearly loved and used. Nor have I let go of the old black Occasional Services Book which held words which had, no doubt, comforted thousands as he spoke them.

And there was this. As I sat on the floor one last time pulling books off the shelf and setting them in boxes, I flipped through one to find an old letter from my dad. Written on a piece of legal paper, it is now faded from yellow to green, but his handwriting is still clear. He had mailed it to me just a year before he died. It holds his reflections on all the news of the day including his deeper thoughts about family and church and growing older. He ended it with:
"We are very proud of you. Dad."
I regret now that I did not have the foresight to keep many of his letters. What a gift it was to come upon this one so unexpectedly.

Oh yes, I look at all of these and I can almost hear the voices of those who gave them to me. Even though I have grieved their passing and celebrated their ultimate reunions with our Good Shepherd, I can almost hear them still.

So it is that this week as we listen again for the Shepherd's Voice, we may find ourselves thinking first of others who spoke in the Shepherd's behalf to us. Those who encouraged and challenged and taught us. Oh yes, each of these and so many more whose voices I trust today are always only reflecting first the voice of the Shepherd. Who laid down his life for the sheep and in ways that are real and true call us to do the same. Who knows us fully and completely. And yes, as we are told today, will be recognized by so many whom we have not yet met and perhaps cannot even imagine being part of the same fold with us.

To be sure, all those I name above and so many others were those who listened for the Shepherd's Voice and in their doing so taught me to do the same. They were, indeed, powerful voices of encouragement and challenge and hope. More than anything they were, in their own ways, shepherds who followed our Shepherd Jesus and in doing so, taught me how to be and do the same.

  • Who are those whose trusted voices showed you what it is to listen for and reflect the Shepherd's Voice? What messages did they offer which stay with you still?
  • How is the Voice of Jesus like or different from other voices which influence you?
  • In your life, what does it mean to listen for the Shepherd's voice? What is it that you hear as you listen now?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

On Jesus and Reunions and Forgiveness of Sins

Luke 24:36-49

A tornado hit my hometown last Thursday night.

I had never heard of a 'wedge' tornado before, but now I'll never forget it. A wedge tornado is wider than it is tall. I heard tell of one woman who was looking right at it and didn't see it for she could not discern the edges of it. It just looked like one massive storm cloud to her.

To be safe, we spent some time in our basement, but the storm missed us by miles. Others were not so fortunate.  Reports are that thirty lost their homes in Rochelle--- the town where I grew up.  And fully half the town of Fairdale which is north and west of us, is gone. Two have died. Countless climbed out of their basements to find their worlds in shambles.

It has been said that this storm was one of the best covered in history. And it is so that even while we still sat in the basement I was calling up pictures of this massive tornado on Facebook. I could not look at it, cannot look at it without my stomach churning. (That kind of immediate social media coverage has continued, as you can imagine.)

On Friday morning I headed out early. I had seen the call for toiletries at the church where I grew up so I hit the store when it opened and stocked up on toothpaste and toothbrushes and started driving west. A small thing, yes, but in the wake of tragedy one wants to do something.

I stopped at the church first where a handful of volunteers were organizing the gifts people were dropping off.  I have known Linda since I was in high school for those many years ago I babysat her then young boys. She hugged me and shook her head and said, "Life is fragile."  And oh, isn't it!?

I stood with the pastor a while. Her house had been damaged, yes, but when they stepped outside after the storm had passed she and her family were devastated to see that their neighbors' homes were gone.  Just gone. Her husband pulled out his phone and began to show me pictures of driveways to nowhere.

I tried to get close to where the tornado went through --- not just out of curiosity, but because my mother owns a lot out there. There are no structures on it so I know there can be no damage, but she was worried there might be debris. The road was closed, of course. On my way I got in a traffic jam in Flagg Center.  Local friends will know how amazing that is. When I got close enough I realized that all the news trucks were parked at that intersection. People like me couldn't help but pause to stare. I circled back and headed towards town. I drove by all the houses I had called home and they appeared untouched by the storm. With nothing else to do, I drove on home. Ever since I haven't gotten too far from the news though...

And here is one thing that has caught my attention. People have been faithful about 'spreading the
word.' My news feed is inundated with photographs and videos and suggestions about how to help and stories of loss and stories of survival and stories of courage and stories of hope. And again and again people have posted pictures of lost pets. Sometimes the messages have gotten a little confused, though, as it has been hard to tell if the picture shared is of a recent reunion or just an old memory. One touched me so much, though, that I shared it, too. It is of the local sheriff and his dog. Apparently, when the tornado went through, the dog was the only one home. Unlike other animals who fled in their confusion and fear, this one stayed put. When the family returned, there she was in the rubble waiting for them. Their reunion is pictured here:

Now I know that I am using this forum to 'work out' a story which I need to tell and will probably need to keep telling for some time. Thank you for bearing with me. At the same time, it is so that whenever we experience or encounter loss and hope, devastation and unexpected life, we get a window into what the disciples must have experienced that first Easter so long ago. No, of course, it would not be fair to compare them to family pets who in their terror fled for their lives even while that is exactly what they did on that fateful Friday. At the same time, before long they came to their senses and gathered together --- even those two who had made their way all the way to Emmaus realized the importance of being with the rest back in Jerusalem, especially after their encounter with Jesus over a meal. I don't know what would have become of them if Jesus had not made his presence known when he did. Indeed, perhaps if he had not told them to stay put for the time being they would have gone back to whatever their lives had been before they were called away from their fishing boats and other places of business three years before.

  •  But Jesus did stand among them.
  •  He reminded them his coming was for peace.
  •  He invited them to see for themselves that it was him.
  •  He ate a meal with them, proving he was not just a ghost.
  •  He spent some time teaching, one more time.
  •  He reminded them of all they had heard and seen and that though he would not be among them in the way that he had been, their work was just beginning.
  • And before he left, he told them to stay put and wait. Wait for the power that was yet to come.
So here is what I am wondering now.

  • What does it mean to stay put and wait as Jesus told his followers to do so long ago? I wonder how it is they spent those days and weeks. And I wonder when it is that you and I are just to stay put and wait. Like that beautiful and loyal dog did as it sat in the rubble, trusting her family would return. And I wonder how it is we are called to use such waiting time.
  • In his last words to them, Jesus tells them that when the time is right they will be proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins to all the world. And isn't repentance and forgiveness of sins always about reparation that makes true reunion possible? It has been heartwarming to see so many do what they can to make sure beloved pets are reunited with their families. I wonder if I have taken nearly seriously enough Jesus' call to be about this for all the people of this world --- that their reunions with God and with each other might be complete. And I wonder what it would look like if I would take that more seriously. Even knowing that our relationships with one another tend to be far more complex than those we share with our pets, still I wonder.
  • And I wonder this, too. Take another look at the photograph of the sheriff and his dog which I shared above. What might it look like if I were even half as trusting as that beautiful animal? How might we live our lives differently if we did so knowing that one day --- and in some way --- every day even now, Jesus holds our faces in his hands just like that?

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Giving Blood and the Blood of Jesus

1 John 1:1-2:5

"And the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin..." (1 John 1:7)

I have been a sporadic blood donor over the years.

Back when I was younger I would give every eight weeks. Then I moved to a town where blood drives in church basements were virtually unheard of.  It became inconvenient and I never seemed to get around to it. Then I was traveling a lot and my schedule was unpredictable and by then I had just fallen out of the habit. Lately though, I've been trying to be better about it. I do know what a difference it makes. More than that even, since my type is O-Negative, I know what a gift a pint of my blood is. So in this last year I've been trying to get into a more regular routine with it. It really demands so little of me and what a difference it can make!

The last time I was in to give blood I got into a conversation with the phlebotomist.  I asked her then if there was more that I could be doing. She stepped away to look at my records. When she came back she told me that I am CMV- Negative.  Apparently I have never been exposed to the cytomegalovirus. (I know. I'd never heard of it either.) This means that all the blood I donate will be designated for infants who are especially vulnerable. Since my blood type is so rare she told me that this is all they will ever use my blood for.

Now I have to say that I walked away feeling unreasonably proud of myself that day. To think I had this doubly rare blood type which is in such high demand. And all it takes is an hour of my time every couple of months and I can be saving a life --- and not just any life, but that of a little one newly born.  I say 'unreasonably proud,' of course, for in no way can I take credit for any of this. I was born with this blood type. And as for my exposure or not to a particular virus? Well, how can I possibly take credit for that?  Even so, it just made me so happy that a pint of my blood could help save the life of a baby.

In today's reading from 1 John, we hear the disciple trying to make sense of all that happened on that first Easter and in the events which preceded the discovery of the empty tomb. Indeed, in this letter John easily speaks of what I still struggle to understand sometimes -- how this dying, this death, this very blood could somehow make clean that which is so not clean in me and in all the rest of the world, for that matter. Even, so John says it so beautifully, doesn't he?

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life ---
This is the message --- that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.
If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
And he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world...

And yet, in some ways it does seem rather primitive, this business of blood being shed in our behalf, doesn't it? I'm still trying to sort out just how that is so and even more than that, how it is you and I are to speak of it in a world which knows little of the sort of ritual sacrifice which would have been so familiar to those who first heard and shared the story of Jesus. At the same time?  For all I can't completely understand, this much is surely true: This blood shed was for all. For all the world.

Indeed, entirely unlike me, Jesus took no pride in the particularity of who his blood was shed for. One specific type of person in need of it was of no more concern and no less concern to him than any other. My blood, a pint at a time, is good for babies. Jesus' blood, and in his case all of it, brought life, brings life to all sorts of people. Those who deserve it and those who don't. Especially those who don't. Like the criminal hanging next to him on the cross. Like all those who looked on, who mocked, ridiculed, and humiliated him. Like those who called for his crucifixion and yes those who crucify him still. Like those disciples still huddled together in their unrelenting fear in the upper room today, a full week after they have seen Jesus alive face to face. And more than all of these, of course, for John's testimony has the blood of Jesus covering what needs to be covered in the 'whole world.' People of all races and hues and persuasions and ages. All of us and all of them and them and us together.

No indeed, this much we know. Jesus doesn't think in terms of 'not just any life' but always in terms of every life. That is the profound gift we celebrate in these Easter days. That is what compels us to share this word of hope and joy with all the world.

  • Giving blood and the Blood of Jesus are, of course, so very different and yet, at least in my mind, there are some similarities. Does this comparison work for you? Why or why not?
  • What does it mean to you that Jesus is "the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world?" (1 John 2:2) When we say 'the whole world,' what does that mean? Who or what does that include?
  • If it is, in fact (and it is) for the whole world, what does that mean for us? For our shared mission?