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A productive vine.

We think we know what a productive vine looks like—healthy growth, uniformly green and without blemishes, luscious fruit that is pleasing to the eye and delicious to taste, a delight for the senses.  A healthy vine should produce healthy fruit, and the fruit validates the existence of the vine, right?  What’s the point of a vine that produces nothing of value? 


Isn’t that why Jesus would compare himself to a vine, and the rest of us are branches attached to that vine?  God prunes the branches that deplete the vine so that the vine can bear fruit, can be productive. 


Who actually gets to define what “productive” means?  And check again what Jesus said: who does the pruning?  Branches don’t get to prune other branches.  Branches don’t determine productivity.  That’s the job of God alone.  The only thing a branch can do is abide, stay connected to the vine.  There’s no hoarding of resources.  When we abide in Christ, when we remain connected, we all get the nourishment we need. 


The trouble comes when we try to do God’s job.  We’ll act like we’re doing God a favor, establishing quality control for the branches on the vine, but who gets to decide what’s productive?  Who is even wise enough for such a task?  God alone has the wisdom to create every human in God’s image, each of us unique individuals with our gifts and skills and desires and preferences and sensory profiles…and are we going to turn around and tell God which parts of God’s own creation are inferior or damaged or un-productive? 


Are we going to diminish God’s creation by diagnosing a disorder?  Are we going to define productivity by “majority rules?”  Is that how the vineyard of God’s reign is meant to work—the majority makes the decisions?  Do we believe the vineyard of God’s creation is judged by its uniformity and sameness and some kind of quality standard that we think we understand? 


It kinda starts to sound like arrogance, doesn’t it? 


April is Autism Acceptance Month, and the United States’ Center for Disease Control and Prevention has information about Autism Spectrum Disorder, with helpful resources for people and families affected by autism.[1]  This year they named their theme “Celebrate Differences.”  Imagine if we, as a society, really did celebrate differences.  Instead, we typically establish values around things like communication, and then use that value system as a basis to determine which humans have the proper skills and what productivity is. 


Claire Williams, a theologian and researcher, questions values and assumptions like these in her book Peculiar Discipleship: An Autistic Liberation Theology.  Williams was diagnosed with autism as an adult, and her background in theology led her to study neurodiversity in terms of faith in God.  Neurodiversity refers to brain orientations like dyslexia or bipolar brains or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).  Some medical professionals and advocates are adjusting their understanding around these so-called disorders.  I’ve read about ADHD being referred to as Variable Attention Stimulus Trait, removing the word “disorder,” because what if these types of neurodiverse brains are not afflicted by disorders or medical problems that need to be fixed?[2] 


Williams read research papers that suggested autistic people could not be Christians because they were incapable of knowing God,[3] though she immediately knew that could not be true.  She writes, “I had always had a very real and strong sense of the presence of God, of the salvation of Jesus Christ, and the life of the Spirit given to me.”  She works with a liberation theology that is not about curing or treating autism, but liberating all of us from our assumptions that people with autism—or other aspects of neurodiversity or other disabilities—have little or nothing to contribute to the world. 


Williams explains that autism is a spectrum and can be expressed in many different ways, usually noticeable in the way autistic people communicate.  An autistic person’s communication, or lack of communication, does not correlate to that person’s worthiness.  An autistic person’s communication ability does not mean that God loves them any less.  You wouldn’t think that needs to be said, but we live in a society that is not created for the flourishing of neurodiverse brains.  People with autism deserve freedom and welcome as much as anyone else. 


Part of what’s challenging with autism is the lack of understanding, the fear that creates, and the problems with communicating.  How do we know what people are thinking if they can’t tell us?  Well what if we learn different ways to receive communication, and what if we learn to listen?  Claire Williams has challenged my own understandings of human communication, how we understand time in terms of past/present/future, how the world is experienced through human senses and how these senses can be overwhelmed.  We tend to notice the struggles of autistic people and forget to appreciate their unique gifts. 


Some Christians worry about whether a person can be saved by God in eternity if they can’t make a confession of faith.  Lutherans don’t usually get sidetracked by this, but we may still wonder about it.  Our senses may not perceive who abides in God, but I am certain that God knows very well.  The rest of us may need to learn to listen differently. 


Claire Williams includes in her book’s introduction a spiritual story by her friend J, “who writes as a non-speaking autistic man, who finger spells to communicate.”[4]  So listen to these words from a man who doesn’t speak:


“I’d like to start with my earliest memory of church.  I was in the womb and heard hymns and I knew that God was present.  I knew from that time that my life belonged to God.  I also knew that my life would be unusual, though I didn’t know how.  As a baby I understood language easily but soon learned that I couldn’t produce it as others could.  This was horrible but God made himself known to me. He impressed his presence on me in ways I can’t describe with words.  Perhaps if I were an artist I could paint or make music to express this experience. I can only say it has been real and profound. I wonder if the great mystics had a similar theophany; I will never know until we all dance before the Lamb.


“As a child I was loved in the church but didn’t fit in.  I couldn’t talk and play.  I couldn’t do sports or join clubs. I needed a friend and Jesus was that for me.  He talked to me and we shared jokes and insights.  He is really kind and funny and warm.  Yes, I heard words and he heard mine.  My autism was not a barrier with him.  He is my best friend as well as my Lord and King.


“Now that I can communicate through spelling, I want to tell the story of his goodness to me.  He is real and present in our lives even though most don’t see him as I have.  He continues to meet me directly, especially in the nave of our church.  I somehow see him in light and glory.  He tells me he loves us and wants me to proclaim his name.  He meets me in dreams and tells me he will give me all that I need.  I have learned that he seeks out the broken-hearted and waits for our silence to speak.  I don’t know why I am so lucky to know him so directly.  I hope my story is encouraging to others.


“My experience in the church has been largely positive.  I always knew I was loved; this is a great gift and foundation.  However, there have been problems too.  For example, I think it is a problem when the church segregates people with disabilities into a separate group called ‘special needs.’  I am wanting to connect with all people, not to be segregated.  Our needs are not ‘special’; they are needs all humans have: belonging, being loved, connecting, laughter, friendship.


“What is needed is for the church to be intentional about including and valuing people who are different.  This takes effort and patience, a slowing of time.  You cannot listen without waiting and silence.  I’d love it if the parish would slow down and wait for us to speak and move and be ourselves.  We sometimes do not feel valued because people talk over us.  Does the church really honor the deaf and dumb and weak and poor in spirit?  Too often the church looks for beauty and status and ‘social skills.’  Perhaps we are too conformed to the world.


“I’d love it if my peers showed an interest in me. I think they are so involved in their own lives they don’t notice me.  I hope God works in their lives so they can look beyond themselves and care for people who are not cool.  It is hard being so weird.  I am glad that God values the weird.  I am hoping that my story will not elicit pity or guilt, but rather that God’s people will see autistics in a new way.  Amen.”[5]


God knows who abides in love.  People who are autistic or neurodiverse may struggle to communicate with other humans and they may be denied opportunities to connect in community, but be assured: God knows very well these children of God’s own creation.  The faith testimony of J, his experience of Jesus’s presence—what a tremendous gift!  J cannot speak or communicate in the way we’re used to listening.  Thank God for all those people who persisted in discovering a way that his voice can be heard, that God’s love is affirmed.  A person who is mute may truly have a lot to say. 


Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  My Father removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.  Every branch that bears fruit my Father prunes to make it bear more fruit.  You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.”[6]


What is Jesus talking about, pruning and cleaning?  Karoline Lewis says in the Working Preacher podcast that the Greek word “prunes” is the same as the word for “cleanse”—all of this that Jesus is saying is during his last supper with his disciples, where he washes their feet.  Jesus prunes and he cleanses so that we can bear fruit, so that things can be better, not so that people can be cut out of the community.[7] 


Think about tasks like pruning and cleansing—on this side of eternity, who usually does these kind of tasks?  Servants.  If you were really wealthy or had a position of really powerful leadership, you wouldn’t even be expected to do these things.  Everyone would expect you’d pay someone else to do the house-cleaning or the yardwork, so you could conserve your mental energy for more important tasks like leading and visioning and delegating and stuff like that.  Pruning and cleaning are servant-oriented tasks, and that’s Jesus’s point.  In this kind of vine, servant tasks are what leadership looks like.  We’re all connected, we’re together, we’re all serving each other. 


Togetherness and service are what we’re practicing today with a potluck.  The members of the church council are hosting, which means they set up the space with tables and chairs, made sure we have utensils and plates and cups and beverages, and they’re picking up fried chicken (probably right this moment, actually).  But they’re not alone in serving: we are sharing the task.  Everyone else brings side dishes and desserts and whatever else to contribute to the meal.  And you’re not kicked out or uninvited if you didn’t happen to bring anything today—we’re sharing out of our abundance, as a sign of our connectedness. 


There’s enough for everybody, every skill level, every ability.   By including everyone, we glorify God.  By love for one another, we abide in God, and God abides in us, as we read in the lesson from the first letter of John.  It sounds repetitive, and it is.  In Bible study this week, we counted the repetitions.  In those few verses, the word “love” is mentioned 27 times, and the name of God comes up 29 times. 


It doesn’t hurt to keep repeating the stuff that really matters.  Maybe with time, maybe if we slow down enough, we’ll actually hear it and learn it.  As J wrote, “I am glad God values the weird.”  By God’s grace, may our own values align with God’s love. 


 Pastor Cheryl


[2] Claire Williams, Peculiar Discipleship: An Autistic Liberation Theology, SCM Press: London, 2023, Page 5-6.

[3] Page 4.

[4] Page 13.

[5] Page 13-14.

[6] John 15:1-3


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