My heart is saddened this day. I watched with the rest of us as teenagers, young people literally did all they could to tear apart Baltimore city – the city I love. I watched looting of stores established by people who may never recover no matter how good their insurance is. I watched fires ignite, both literal and figurative, with what began as a peaceful set of protests over a justice issue concerning the death of a young man. I watched total disregard for authority sensationalized by the media. I watched evil take the upper hand.
Many of you did as well. Many of you prayed overnight while evil spread and seemed to win the fight. Many of you called loved ones with concern for their well being. Many of you cheered on a mother who took it upon herself to pull her son away from the rioting acts he was committing as she sent a clear message to him – your actions are wrong and you will be held accountable. Many of you realize as I do that Baltimore may never recover.
Then we turn to the scripture for today and take a pause. We hear a promise from Jesus that we are the branches connected to him as the vine – our life force. We find perhaps a bit of resolve as we watched our Islamic brothers stand between the rioters and the store fronts. We heard a message of a call for peace while approximately 100 clergy set to the street and knelt in prayer before a police barricade. We were not seeing our differences of denomination or status or religion – we saw unity in God. We saw a belief that what holds us together is stronger that what tears us apart. While others were screaming ‘Purge’ our actions as followers of God whispered hope.
I have been following the television show “A.D.” This show is depicting the life of the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven. Notably, the script writers are holding true to scripture, particularly the book of Acts. What I find interesting is that when we talk about the massive and sudden growth of the church at this time, we neglect or gloss over the huge, seemingly insurmountable obstacles the disciples had to face. The continued Roman occupation meant brutality for anyone who stepped out of line. We cannot fully understand the fact that people were starving in order to pay their taxes to Rome. Any unrest in the region similar to what we witnessed by rioters in Baltimore would have been met with death and destruction by the authorities.
If any of you have a Bible that includes a group of books known as the Apocrypha, you may want to read about the Maccabees. This group is responsible for a revolt against Rome that resulted in the outright massacre of everyone involved. That was Roman justice – squash any uprising as soon as it surfaced.
On the other side of the table we have the corrupt church. The religious leaders of the church held an agreement with Rome to assist with keeping the peace. As long as taxes were paid and order was maintained, the religious leaders were given a bit of freedom to extort additional funds from the poor if they so chose. They were also allowed their places of honor within the community. The comfortable living of church leaders was borne on the backs of the poor Jews attempting to follow God’s law handed down to Moses.
In the midst of these two institutions of corruption and greed, we find a group of ordinary laborers so changed by Jesus the resurrected Christ, they risk everything to share the gospel message. In spite of beatings, warnings, death threats, and hardship of every kind, the disciples could not keep Jesus’ message quiet. Their message of peace and hope in troubled times resonated with the thousands who flocked to the disciples’ ministry like fans to a winning team. Peter was gifted with the power of healing so strong, that people would line up their sick in the streets so that Peter’s shadow could pass over them and provide healing. The presence of Jesus turned hurting masses into disciples on fire for God, sharing all they had with one another so that no one went hungry or in need.
Today, church, we are hurting. Today we are grieving the loss of life in a country called Nepal that is so far away many of us do not even know its location. Over 10,000 people lost their lives to a massive earthquake last week. Today we are grieving the loss of dignity and security for store and homeowners in Baltimore who saw their dreams vanish in one night of evil. Today we are shocked and appalled at the aftermath following the funeral of a young man whose family was pleading for an end to the violence and destruction. Today we are a bit broken in spirit.
Many have decided to disconnect from the true vine. Many have decided the church has no place in their hearts, agendas, or schedules. Many have decided following Jesus’ teachings of love and peace is simply not worth the hassle. Yet only when we remain a part of the true vine can we know real peace. Only when we remain a part of Jesus can we see the ultimate victory – a time of no more sorrow, no more tears, no more heartache, no more death and destruction. Interestingly enough, the Bible begins in a garden, and it ends in a city – a city with Jesus as the light. Perhaps these images painted in scripture are no accident.
Jesus said, “I am the true vine, you are the branches.” Branches are designed to bear fruit. Branches that are firmly connected to the vine can withstand the storms of criticism, hatred, prejudice, indifference, greed, selfishness, worry. Branches firmly connected to the vine can feel the love of Jesus pulsing through our very souls as we face harsh winds and violent storms. Only when the winds challenge the branches do we know how strong our connection to the vine truly is.
I wanted to share with you this video of a Casting Crowns song called, “I will praise you in this storm.” [play video] In times of trouble the one we can count on is Jesus, the true vine. Amen.