“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
My favorite tree is in the front yard of my parents’ home. It was grown from a sapling of the Wye Oak. As a young tree, it was covered by a blizzard, and run over by a lawnmower. But it persisted. It flourished. As it grew taller, one year, my dad decided that it needed to be pruned. I was devastated. To me, pruning the tree was killing a portion of it. I began to cry as the branches were cut off. My dad explained to me that pruning allows the tree to grow taller and better. I didn’t realize or understand that pruning happens naturally in nature—the deer and other animals eat the lower branches of the trees, doing what we have to do with saws in our yards. I could only see destruction and devastation with pruning, but pruning brings hope. It brings hope for a better tomorrow because you are helping the tree to grow, last, endure.
Today’s Scripture places us firmly in the “I am” passages—I am the Good Shepherd, I am the vine. Jesus says, “I am the true vine” “He removes every branch IN ME that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to bear more fruit. What struck me this week, was that this passage isn’t negative or talking about your neighbor. This is all about you. There are branches in you that bear good fruit, and branches in you that need pruning. Each of us has good and bad in us. Every situation has good and bad in it too.
This week has been a pruning week for Baltimore. We have bad branches that need to be pruned and cut off so that all of Baltimore can grow and flourish. This week’s riots, protests, and problems aren’t new. This has been brewing under the surface in Baltimore for generations. And it isn’t all about race either. It’s about class—the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. We know about the riots in ’68. We know about the differences in neighborhoods. We know that most of the police here in Baltimore don’t come from here and don’t understand the culture. We know that a young man named Freddie Gray was illegally taken into custody, and while in custody suffered injuries that ultimately led to his death. We know that not all cops are bad. We know all of these things and more. But we also know that there’s always at least 2 sides to every story. And that’s what I’ve come here to tell you today. The other side of the story. The story that the media won’t show. The story that is the human part.
This week, I saw branches that were bearing good fruit and they were flourishing. Last Sunday, I posted the prayer we used in worship on our church blog, and it has received 750 views as of last night. Clergy as far away as Michigan, seeking to find words to use have requested permission to use this prayer. People want to help, they want to pray, but they don’t know what to say or do—so I am trying to help them find their place to reach out and serve; to give them the words.
As all this has transpired this week, I’ve had the words from a song Mark Miller wrote in 2009, called “Draw the Circle Wide.” It starts like this: “Draw the circle wide, draw it wider still. No one stands alone, we stand side by side. Draw the circle wide.” I’ve been thinking about this—how can I stand side by side with our brothers and sisters 5 minutes from here—less than 2 miles away? How can I draw the circle wide to bring others in?
I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. On Tuesday, after the riots Monday night, the schools were closed. The Bishop asked churches to open up as safe places for kids to gather—draw the circle wide. I went to John Wesley UMC, but no one came because they were too afraid to leave their homes. So we went to Metropolitan UMC where there was a large feeding effort under way. Again, folks wouldn’t come out because they were too afraid. So we took the food to them—draw the circle wide. We drove around with cars full of food, and gave out over 500 meals to people who were unable to get to the store—the neighborhood stores were looted, burned, and otherwise unavailable. Public transportation was shut down. They had basic needs, and we as United Methodists rallied—standing side by side.
One of the most touching stories of this week for me came when I was standing outside of Metropolitan UMC. I was helping to unload the train of cars that kept pulling up to donate food, and began talking with two small children—7 and 9 years old. As we were chatting and laughing, an ambulance went by on the cross street. The children heard the siren and froze, then began to freak out. The sirens reminded them of the terrors the night before. Another volunteer and I grabbed them, and held them, reminding them, “You are safe here.” Draw the circle wide, standing side by side.
Later on Tuesday, I was in Sandtown, at Penn and North, walking and praying with the community. Complete strangers saw me in my collar and asked me to pray with them. So we prayed. We prayed for the foot of a young girl who was hit by plastic bullets. We prayed for her friend who was killed by them. We prayed for an elderly woman in a wheelchair who couldn’t get to her prescriptions. We prayed, and we prayed; drawing that circle wide. We stopped to pray for a pastor in the neighborhood who has been working day and night to bring God’s peace to his neighborhood. And as we gathered around him in prayer, a man asked if he could join our circle. We invited him in. Then 2 women came…and some folks in a car. More people gathered. A reporter asked to join in too. Draw the circle wide—draw it wider still.
That evening, as most of the area clergy gathered at a church in the county to plan and organize and avoid the curfew in the City; a contingent of 50+ United Methodist Clergy gathered and walked together through the streets of West Baltimore as a presence and a witness to the turmoil there. We didn’t have magic words to say. We were simply a ministry of presence. And we joined a praise party in the streets—a video is posted on our website. We watched as two competing drum corps and dance teams played together. We had gang members from rival gangs protecting us and thanking us for being there. All of us together, in the street like a fair—draw the circle wide—standing side by side.
On Wednesday as the children went back to school, the streets were deserted and peaceful. Only a few folks remained on a stoop. Prayer calls and prayer vigils sprung up. We began having conversations with our after school kids about the events and how they can change this City. Hope began to spring forth. Draw the circle wide.
Yesterday I was back in Sandtown, helping to hand out food, toiletries, diapers, and other basic necessities to residents who were running out of supplies. Folks were so grateful. I met some amazing people and built relationships I pray will last beyond when the cameras are turned off. Plans for the future with hope were being made. And God was being served as we stood side by side with our brothers and sisters.
I’m telling you these short stories—of which I have many more—because I want you to understand that out of our pruning time comes hope and good fruit. We are drawing closer together and closer to God through this. And there is a place for you to serve too.
This week, I took to Social Media to help show others what was really going on—things the media wouldn’t show. And a man I went to college with contacted me and said that he really respected what I was doing in and for the City. He said that he was a jerk in college, and apologized. He was glad that people of faith were taking action to bring about change, and that my actions were encouraging him. He turned to faith because of what we did this week. What we do makes a difference in this world. People see our action or our inaction, and it makes a difference.
So I’m calling on you, brothers and sisters, to prune away the dead branches IN YOU this week. Prune away the fear, the insecurity, the nastiness, the indifference, the racial issues, the class issues, the neighborhood issues. Prune it all away. Let the good branches IN YOU bear fruit. I’m calling on you to reach out, to draw the circle wide, to stand side by side with our neighbors just 2 miles from here, and let them know that God cares. Let them know that God has not abandoned nor forsaken them. Let them know that you are there. Find someone who is different than you. Reach across the aisle of politics, race, class, age, gender, anything that separates you from another person—someone you view as “the other.” Reach across that aisle and draw the circle wide. Stand side by side. Because if Baltimore is ever going to grow and bear good fruit, it must start with us—one by one; united we stand. We are all Baltimore. Amen.