This past week, we welcomed our second group of refugees: 12 families from Central America who made the long journey to seek asylum in the US. Some of them traveled for up to a month or more, some with very young children, just to get here. We have been getting a little better and more organized about welcoming them each time we’ve done it. And the volunteers we’ve had helping out have just been awesome. If you’ve helped out with this group or the previous group or have donated anything, please raise your hands. Thank you all for what you’ve been doing. Even the littlest things can make a huge difference.
One of our volunteers shared a particularly touching story with me. She was serving as our “bathroom bouncer” while people were showering. She noticed a little boy waiting with his mother to take a shower and saw that he looked a little downcast. So she used a little of the Spanish she knows and asked him, “¿Triste?” – “Sad?” And she said he went, “Uh huh,” and then burst into tears! And then he poured out his whole life story to her, even though she could only pick up a few words here and there. And, you know, that volunteer may not have understood everything he said, but that little boy fully understood her compassion. And that is the kind of thing that speaks volumes. Kari and I have been fielding phone calls from family sponsors who have been calling to let us know that the folks we hosted have arrived safely, and every single one of them has been profusely grateful for the kindness we have shown them.
This ministry warms my heart. But it is really hard to watch people go, especially knowing that the majority of them probably won’t be allowed to stay. Most of them will probably end up being deported back to the violent and desperate circumstances from which they came – and knowing that leaves my heart aching. My heart hurts hearing all the increasingly bad news for refugees and immigrants coming out of the current administration. Just last week, it was announced that this administration is now seeking to deport thousands of Vietnamese refugees who have been here since the end of the Vietnam War. And this week, it announced its intention to seek criminal prosecution for every single adult who comes across the border, which will mean separating children from their parents. Everything about it just makes me want to scream all the time. I am exhausted from feeling so much rage all the time. I am tired from giving my all trying to fight injustice and feeling like it still isn’t even a drop in the bucket. I imagine many of you also know what it’s like to feel this way.
When I am feeling tired and worn down like this, I find the words that Jesus speaks in our gospel reading today to be deeply comforting: “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Just be present in me, rest in me, as I am present in you. Jesus reminds us that our strength and our life and our ability to persevere come from him – and that is some really good news. It is really good news on the days that we feel like we’ve given all that we have to give – to be reminded that it is God who is working through us, and that God will give us the rest and replenishment that we need to carry on. It is good news to be reminded that we are just one branch on a vine with many, many branches, all rooted in the same gospel of love and justice and peace. “I am the vine,” says Jesus, “abide in me as I abide in you.”
And this vine is no wild vine growing haphazardly all over the place; this vine and its branches are lovingly cared for by God, the vinegrower. God gives us the rich soil of word and sacrament to sink our roots into; God gives us the sun and the rain so that we may stretch out our leaves and grow. God carefully tends the vine – and, of course, we may not like the idea of pruning, but as the divine gardener, God knows that sometimes cutting us back a little can help us flourish and bear more fruit in the long run.
Reading this part of the gospel actually made me think back to gardening with my dad. When I was growing up, every year we would buy flowers like pansies and impatiens to plant in the flowerbeds around our house. They were so pretty, all different colors of purples and pinks and reds and whites. But when we went to plant them, Dad always made us pluck off all of the flowers, and I always hated that. I finally asked him one year why he made us do it, and he told me that it was so the plants would put their energy into their roots and establish themselves firmly in the soil. That way, they would produce even more flowers later on.
By pruning us sometimes – cleansing us – I think God is simply trying to help us let go of distractions and focus on rooting ourselves even more firmly in the vine, rooting ourselves in Christ. That way, we too will flourish, we will find rest for our souls, and we will be able to bring forth all kinds of fruit – and/or flowers, as the case may be. Apart from the vine, apart from Christ, we would not be able to do the ministry we do, at least not for very long. Without our rootedness in Christ, we have no source of life to continually renew us, and we risk becoming like the branches in the gospel reading that produce no fruit. That’s when we get burnt out.
It’s a very real danger in ministry – and Peace Lutheran does a lot of awesome ministry. This is my second sermon in a row talking about our refugee hospitality ministry, which is a very demanding ministry. And even today after worship, we will have an informational meeting about starting up our mobile food pantry with Roadrunner Food Bank again. There is so much to get involved in. And there is so much hunger, so much need in the world, and so little political will to do anything about it, that can be overwhelming. We can easily charge in with all our energy, only to quickly burn ourselves out. So I think this gospel lesson speaks a very timely word about staying rooted in the vine – abiding in Christ as he abides in us – and about letting our ministry grow up naturally out of a deep rootedness in God.
I want to leave you all with one last image about this idea of rooting our ministry in Christ – and for this, I brought in a little visual aid. Many of you probably recognize this loom from way back during our bilingual Lenten midweek services. As part of those services, instead of a reflection, we had several interactive prayer stations – and Pastor Jared built this loom so that we could write prayers on strips of fabric and weave them together into one big piece of cloth.
This image works on a couple of different levels. On the one hand, we might think about the loom and about the vertical white strings – the warp, for you weavers out there – as being kind of like Christ the vine. They are what give the whole thing its structure, what holds it all together and gives it shape and meaning. Any individual strip of fabric on its own isn’t going to be good for much, just like a branch that hasn’t rooted itself in the vine. And even a whole bunch of these strips of fabric are just a jumbled mess that aren’t good for much without the structure that holds them together and transforms them into something beautiful and useful.
The other beautiful thing about this image of the loom is that, if you get up close and look at it, you’ll notice that several of the most recent prayers, woven in at the top, have been written in Spanish. These are prayers written by some of the dozens of refugees we have hosted so far. This loom began as a prayer practice rooted in our worship and love of God and grew into a part of our ministry, bearing fruits of love and prayer and solidarity with our neighbors.
I invite you to come up and look at the loom and add your own prayers when you get a chance. And I invite you to be reminded by this image that, as we gather here to worship God every single week, we are being renewed and replenished as branches in the vine, given strength to continue doing ministry in God’s name. We are fed by Christ’s own body here at the table; and today, as we celebrate the baptism of a precious child of God, we are especially reminded that we have all been claimed and cleansed by God. So be nourished. Take strength for the journey. And abide in Christ as he abides in you. Amen.