Public schools are one of the many institutions affected by Governor Scott Walker’s proposed budget. As I’m sure you’ve heard, the proposal effectively cuts $127 million dollars from school budgets. The Whitefish Bay School District, where my kids go to school, responded by organizing a campaign called, “Invest in Our Kids First.” The schools encouraged parents to call state legislators and to display yard signs for the campaign.
I did both. And it made me feel good to see many signs all around Whitefish Bay. Now in the last gubernatorial election, my street divided between Democrats and Republicans. But on the issue of our schools I saw our families united; a whole bunch of signs proclaiming: Kids First.
Then one day I woke up to see my yard sign in tatters. I thought at first it must have been the wind, but then I saw all the “Kids First” signs up and down my street were torn apart. Who does that?
I get political and policy disagreements. But this was someone so threatened by yard signs they had to act out their anger. Childish really. Someone so convinced of their own position that they couldn’t even hear another’s. Ideological extremism. And yet it seemed so symbolic of what ails our society, an inability to form and sustain community.
I thought of this when reading Jesus’ comments in the Gospel of John. Jesus spoke to the disciples at the Last Supper about his understanding of community. “I am the vine and you are the branches.”
We can’t ignore the timing of this speech. It came between two traumatic moments. Earlier during the supper, Jesus spoke to the disciples about his love for them and the way they were to act. Symbolic of that love, he grabbed a towel and basin to begin washing their feet. Even while the feet of the disciples were still drying, Judas ran off to betray Jesus to the religious authorities.
Jesus headed out to the Garden of Gethsemane just after this speech; out to the garden where his friends would fall asleep when he needed them the most, the garden where the religious authorities arrested him. The speech on the vine and branches came surrounded by difficult moments of betrayal and desertion and of course the garden. No wonder Jesus spoke metaphorically about pruning and the master gardener.
Yet despite these difficulties, Jesus gave his disciples a beautiful image of community. “I am the vine and you are the branches.” It spoke of the bond and commitment and connection linking Jesus and the disciples. As if he said, “No matter what happens, I will be with you always.”
Some anonymous neighbor on my street couldn’t stand our “Kid’s First” signs; but Jesus calls us to a different kind of community, one in which we abide with each other. And when I think about it, this call to community goes against the grain of much of our culture.
We American’s care deeply and passionately about our autonomy. One of our first battle cries was, “Don’t tread on me.” And from that beginning, our culture embraced stories of the rugged individual. The frontier long ago closed but still we treasure our sense of individuality.
Much of what is best about our culture comes from our respect for the rights of individuals. We recognize the ability of people to decide for themselves what makes them happy and fulfilled, to do as they see fit. It’s the commitment to autonomy which created the cultural space for LGBT folks; and it’s what allows America to be such a religiously diverse society.
But our individuality often gets in the way of our deep need for community. The cost of autonomy comes out in surprising ways. Think about it: we define our lives as individuals, live our lives on our own terms, treasure our autonomy. Yet what do many of us fear the most: dying alone and forgotten. What we value in life we fear in death.
Or take the amazing popularity of selfies, the photos of oneself doing some activity and posted ubiquitously on social media. Just on the Google platform alone, 93 million selfies are taken each day. It’s a continuous effort to capture ourselves living our lives. Some are cute, some are awkward, but taken as a whole selfies represents a tremendous effort of people to document their lives, to say “I’m here” and “I matter.”
There are lots of internet collections of awkward selfies. One I saw was posted by a young man with the caption, “My girlfriend is always trying to sneak pics of me!” He looked like he was trying to block the picture with his hand; his expression, exasperation. But in the background, thanks to the reflective window of a car, you could see he was taking his own picture. We laugh, but the photo captures the other message of all those 93 million selfies, “I’m alone” and “I need to be seen.”
Our culture of autonomy, our “selfie society,” can make it hard to even imagine what Jesus meant when speaking of abiding in and with the disciples. I hear three specific challenges for us in Jesus’ comment, “I am the vine and you are the branches.”
First, Jesus challenges us to root our lives in the divine. Not only is Jesus the vine from which we grow, but God is the gardener who harvests what we produce. This suggests we keep two thoughts before us. When we begin something, to say, “I do this because of Jesus.” And when we finish something, “I did this for God.”
I know our choir and musicians think this way. Often when they share a particularly beautiful piece of music we are moved to clap. But to many of our singers and musicians this makes their offering feel like a performance instead of a prayer. They sang or played for God; they most deeply appreciate it when we say, “Amen.”
Do we work for affirmations or amens? Do we produce for ourselves or for the glory of God? Do we know that it’s not all about us?
Secondly, Jesus challenges us to live lives marked by mutuality and interdependence. As I’ve already said, this is perhaps his biggest challenge to us as Americans. And particularly as Americans at this point in time.
Earlier this week I attended a conversation hosted by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation on violence in our city. We’ve all heard the depressing statistics: the dramatic rise in homicides this year, not to mention non-fatal shootings. Mallory O’Brien from the Homicide Review Commission laid out the data for our group. Milwaukee’s homicide rate is 3 times the national average; and for African-Americans our city is almost 6 times more deadly than the national average. But then O’Brien broke down the homicides by neighborhoods. In five years there’s only been one murder in the neighborhood of church, an employee at the old George Webb’s on Oakland. And during that same time 502 murders took place elsewhere, with the overwhelming majority taking place in our poorest neighborhoods.
Thinking of our church neighborhood and other neighborhoods in our city reminded me of Baltimore. A resident of that city spoke of the two Baltimore’s - one a dynamic, growing city of young, well-educated professionals with jobs and plenty of trendy restaurants to try. The other Baltimore is a place where people struggle to find work, violence is common, and hope a rarity. The description of Baltimore could have been given for Milwaukee.
The facilitator of the conversation at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation handed out a list of suggestions from a previous community meeting. They were the same kinds of suggestions on our minds. We picked up and debated the ideas. But then the facilitator explained: the list came from a 1959 conversation hosted by then Mayor Frank Zeidler in response to violence in the city.
We’ve struggled with this issue for a long time. And I think an idea from that era is what we need still, Martin Luther King’s idea that “I can never be who I ought to be until you are who you ought to be and you can never be who you ought to be until I am who I ought to be.”
We can’t move forward as a city or as a region until we see ourselves as one community. I’ve never raised grapes, but I know my blackberry branches grow wildly thick together. We need to nurture within ourselves a similar interdependence: to know that what happens on 11th and Atkinson affects us in Shorewood and Wauwatosa and the Eastside too; to know that we abide in each other. To begin to live our lives marked by mutuality and interdependence,
And lastly, we can’t accept either of these two challenges of Jesus without tackling what he says about pruning. To our individualized ears his comments seems overly judgmental. “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” In our autonomy we want to know, “Who is God to judge us?”
As often as I’ve heard this line in the Gospel, I’ve reacted to its judgemental tone. But this year I listened to it thinking of my own garden, thinking of the blackberries which only bear fruit on new growth. Cutting the plant stimulates new growth.
I once saw this play out. My older brother didn’t like to doing chores, most especially cutting the grass. My folks had a riding lawnmower because it was a large lot. My brother “accidentally” rode over the bed of pachysandra, leaving just the sad, raggedly little stumps of the plants behind. But the next year the bed of pachysandra came back like never before, a profusion of growth.
What’s true of plants works for us too: we need pruning in order to experience growth. We need to cut back things in our lives in order to make room for something new. We need to trim in order to concentrate. I’ve learned over the years not to trust someone’s yes until I know what they say no to. Because it’s actually in the no’s that we create the ability to authentically say yes.
I think we particularly need to become comfortable with pruning if we are truly going to grow as a community marked by diversity, going to become a community out of both Milwaukees. It comes down to learning to compromise.
Our political culture doesn’t reward compromise. No one is elected by promising to be a better compromiser. It’s why Texas columnist Jim Hightower, in one of my favorite political sayings, said, “In the middle of the road there’s nothing but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” And what’s true of our politics and politicians is increasingly true of ourselves. We’re self-selecting into more and more homogeneous neighborhoods and circles of friends. Our individualism and desire for autonomy fuels a “my way” mentality which makes compromise seem like a lack of conviction. My neighbor who tore up “Kid’s First” signs couldn’t even stomach different views but instead wanted his uncompromising way to dominate.
But really, compromise - the trimming of our personal desires and pruning of our personal wants - is what makes community possible. I think it’s only with compromises born of careful pruning that we’ll be able to make our different Milwaukees into one stronger community.
We need to hear what Jesus told his disciples. “I am the vine and you are the branches.” It can be hard to appreciate this wisdom in our individual, autonomous, selfie society. Yet it’s the wisdom necessary to build community: work for God instead of ourselves, realize our mutuality, and prune when necessary to promote growth in ourselves and others. Alleluia and Amen.