I am the vine, you are the branches. Lovely poetry, that. This passage is often used as part of the funeral service, as it brings comfort to those who mourn. It is a glorious theology, the bedrock of Christian community. What does it mean to believe in these words -- to live out these words in our lives of faith? Like words about love, we hear them so often, and use them so freely, they can lose their meaning. Sometimes, it takes a tragedy to shock us into understanding.
This week, a 15 year-old girl was beaten to death in Newark, on the corner of Market and Broad Street - not far from the Police City Station. Her name was Sakia Gunn, a young African-American woman who lived in Newark. It was very late and she had just returned from Manhattan with her girlfriends. She was approached by a couple of young men who found her attractive. She rebuffed them several times, finally telling them the truth which she thought would turn them away. "Hey, I'm a lesbian," she said. But, the boys did not turn away. Instead, they turned on her and beat her until her body, broken and bloody, finally gave up its spirit.
I am the vine, you are the branches. What are we to make of these words of Jesus this week? What words of comfort do they bring to Sakia's family as they mourn? What words of hope do they bring to the city of Newark as it weeps with grief and anger and shame? Hate crimes are only supposed to happen in Wyoming and Florida. They are not supposed to happen just 10-15 miles away in Newark. In what way does that event impact our lives here in Chatham? More importantly, what will we tell the children?
I hope those of you who have children or grandchildren that age talk about this event. It is important to have these discussions with our children - the branches of our branch. Human tragedies like this are senseless and cruel in the main, but they can rapidly mutate into an evil virus which, if not confronted, can begin to infect the very heart of our lives.
What are the lessons to be learned? That 15 year old girls should not be allowed to go into Manhattan at that hour? Perhaps. But, 15 year old boys and girls have been doing that for generations. Why wasn't there greater parental supervision? Perhaps there was. I confess that, when I was 16 and my parentâ^À^Ùs wouldnâ^À^Ùt let me go to a Beach Boys Concert, I fabricated a huge story about a slumber party with one of my girlfriends. Instead, we took the bus into Boston and went to the concert. To this day, my mother doesnâ^À^Ùt know. I suspect many of you in this room have similar stories. It all seems so innocent now, but it was every bit as dangerous.
Apparently, Sakia, in her youthful reasoning, thought that her sexuality was a protection from sexual assault. If she wasn't desirable to a person of the opposite sex, then she was safe from hassle. Free from fearing an attack. But, what Sakia didn't understand, didn't plan for, is that prejudice, like the rest of the human condition, is also connected. Xenophobia is the vine; racism, sexism and homophobia are the branches. Bias which is based on age, class, educational status and physical and mental ability are off-shoots.
The starting point for those Newark boys was sexism - the often unstated and unchallenged notion that boys are superior and girls exist for their pleasure. Now, where in God's name would they ever get an idea like that? You and I both know the answer to that question: the bible. And, if not from the bible, from hearing the bible preached in church. It's part of God's created order, you see. Genesis 2:18. "God created woman to be a helper for man". It's part of God's command after the Fall in Eden, don't you know. Genesis 3:16, "To the woman (God) said, `yet your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.'"
The bible is often abused to justify the abuse of others. It's been done from generation to generation. People of color. Women. Left handed people. Lepers. People with Epilepsy. Sakia had three strikes against her: she was female, she was Black and she was gay. The most deadly blow to kill Sakia was a 1-2-3-below-the-belt punch of ignorance, arrogance and prejudice.
Let me disabuse you of a notion that may begin to appear to you as insight. Fundamentalist biblical teaching is not limited to poor, inner city churches. Not long ago I introduced myself to one of the new four year old male students at our Day Care, Sprout House. First, he took great umbrage at the fact that I introduced myself as "the priest" here. "Girls can't be priests!" this little four year old boy snickered at me. "Well, maybe not at your church, but in this church, I'm a priest." "Does that mean you're the boss of this place?" he asked. "Well," I said, "I suppose that's one way to put it." "Na-uh!" he said, getting very agitated. "Girls can NOT be the boss. My daddy said so." For weeks later, whenever he saw me in the hall he would point his finger at me and say, as much a threat and a warning as a reminder, "You are NOT the boss of me."
Just last week, I spent some time with a brother priest whose daughter, a freshman at a local, prestigious college, was a victim of date rape. The next day I spent an hour talking with a parishioner who is emotionally devastated by the blatant racism and sexism which fuels the mistreatment of one of her employees in her upscale corporate office. And, all this week, Iâ^À^Ùve been in close touch with a colleague whose 15 year old daughter is being stalked by one of her male classmates in an excellent school system nearby. Hate crimes don't happen only in Wyoming or Florida or Newark. Prejudice, bigotry, bias and low level hate crimes are going on right under our very noses. Lest we forget, it was just a little over a year ago that we had nails in our driveway because of our hospitality to a Jewish congregation.
I am the vine, you are the branches. Today, we begin the re-planting of the Diversity Garden - the one here in the front of the church as well as the community garden at the train station. It's the same one we began last year in response to hatred, intolerance, bigotry and prejudice in our own community. As we do the hard work of pulling up the weeds, clearing the debris, and preparing the flowerbed for planting, I urge us to remember the hard, continual work of justice. I urge us to remember Sakia Gunn. I ask you to consider the source as well as the interconnection of human prejudice. I ask you to say a prayer for her life, that her murders may be brought to justice, and her family may find consolation in their grief.
More importantly, I ask you to consider the goodness of the human enterprise, the connection of our humanity in the world. I urge you to have conversations with your children and grandchildren about all these things - the good and the bad - so that they may grow strong in their faith and belief. The seeds of knowledge and hope which you plant now will abide in them, and the fruit that they bear will be abundant. Teach them, by word and example, to abide in the Lord of Life, who is Love Incarnate. Show them the flowers in the Diversity Garden and tell them that we plant it because we rejoice in the variety and vicissitude of ALL of God's creation - plant, animal and humankind. Tell them that we plant it in the sure and certain hope that prejudice and hatred and bigotry will end if we love and respect one another. Tell them that God is love, and if we love one another, God lives in us, and God's love is perfected in us.
And, if you can't remember all that, just remember this: Jesus said, I am the vine, you are the branches. Amen.
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