Sunday, June 13, 2021

Salvation in a Cedar or a Shrub?


June 13, 2021 – The 3rd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 6B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon, which is substantially different from the text below, is available here. Video of the service can be seen here.

Where is your home? Where are you at home? Not necessarily the place you sleep at night, though for many of us that is our home. Where in this world do you belong in a way that no one could ever take that from you? As Robert Frost wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Where is that home for you?

Three years ago, when Elizabeth and I drove for the first time to Northwest Arkansas, we noticed how dramatically the land changed as we moved from the rice patties of the Mississippi Delta through the Arkansas River Valley and on into the Boston Mountains. We grew up in places where pine trees lined every interstate and highway so thick you can only see a few feet into the woods as you drive by. We were trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a place where the roads are dotted by cedars that are spread out far enough that you can see the undulations of the rocky ground between them. 

Last week, I had coffee with Jacob Adler, the former rabbi at Temple Shalom, and we spoke about the ways in which where you live and where you’re from shape the way you read the Bible. A while back, he told me, he had been asked to translate a series of novels set in the Ozarks into Hebrew. One problem he encountered was the word “cedar.” Around here, he explained, we all know what cedar trees are—those scrubby, evergreen trees on the side of the road that, if you try to hang Christmas ornaments on them, the branches bend down to the ground. To someone who lives in the Levant, however, a cedar tree is something quite different.

In fact, to a botanist or arborist, the cedars of Arkansas and the cedars of Lebanon have very little in common except their fragrant, reddish wood. Rabbi Jacob explained that our cedar trees aren’t really cedars at all. They’re a form of juniper (Juniperus virginiana), which have narrow trunks and reach heights of maybe 50 or 60 feet. The cedars of Lebanon (Cedrus libani), however, are, as the scriptures suggest, magnificent trees with massive trunks and branches that stretch upwards of 130 feet or more. When the prophet Ezekiel asks us to imagine a “noble cedar,” under which “every kind of bird will live” and in whose branches “winged creatures of every kind” will find shade, he isn’t asking us to picture the floppy cedars we know made cartoonishly large but the giant legends of the Levantine forest, big and strong enough to make a home for all of God’s people.

“I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar,” God declares, “I will set it out…I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.” The good news we hear in today’s reading from Ezekiel comes from the end of chapter 17, but that good news of a secure home for all people is actually the second half of a parable, which doesn’t begin so positively. At the beginning of the chapter, the prophet tells of a great and colorful eagle that came and snapped off the top of another cedar tree. That sprig, which represents King Jehoiakim of Judah, was taken off into exile by the eagle, who represents king of Babylon. When the sprig was planted in the city of merchants, a name for Babylonia, however, it died. That particular monarchical line was not to grow. 

In his place, we are told, the eagle-king of Babylon took another seed, Jehoiakim’s uncle, Zedekiah, and planted it back in Jerusalem as vassal king, allowing it to grow and prosper as long as he kept the peace and paid tribute to his master. But this seed, which had been planted by the Babylonian king, did not grow into a mighty cedar but into a vine more like a willow. At first, the vine showed promise for God’s people—a luscious, green, flowering vine that spread out beside the river. Soon, however, those shoots reached out toward a second eagle, this time representative of Egypt, with whom Zedekiah tried to establish a secret alliance that would lend military support for a rebellion against the Babylonian overlords. Yet, when the time for rebellion came, no help from Egypt was to be found. And, like the vine that he was, Zedekiah was pulled up from the ground with very little effort, and the city of Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, and God’s people were left without a home.

When the time comes, God declares, “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar…I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain…in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.” The parable of the cedar tree and the willow vine teaches us that our hope for salvation—our need for a secure home that is big enough to house all people and strong enough never to be shaken—is answered not by the kingdoms of this world but by the kingdom of God. The hope we wait for comes from God.

No matter how good our intentions are, we cannot vote for a candidate who will make God’s reign come to the earth. No matter how pure our motives are, we cannot support a legislative agenda that will establish God’s rule in our land. No matter how enlightened our dreams are, we cannot build a church that will bring the fullness of God’s kingdom to this community. Yes, our prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” should affect the way we use our vote and our voice as much as it affects the way we build our church. But, no matter how good it may feel to see our preferred candidate win an election, we cannot confuse the kingdoms of our own creation with the reign of God. 

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” Jesus said, “[The kingdom of God] is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of seeds on the earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

In every generation, God’s people wait and watch for God to come and establish his perfect reign on the earth. In order to help us see it, Jesus borrows from Ezekiel’s parable and adds new layers of understanding to it. Instead of following the prophetic pattern that God’s people expect, Jesus invites us to see that the kingdom of God sprouts forth from the earth in ways that transcend human understanding. Instead of a mighty cedar, which grows up from the sprig that God has planted, Jesus asks us to think of God’s reign as if it were a mustard plant—something that starts as small as the smallest seed on the earth yet still grows big enough for the birds of the air to nest in its branches.

Don’t you want a place to call home? Don’t you want to be secure in ways that carry you all the way through this life and even into the next? Don’t you want to belong in a way that is so deep and so true that nothing could ever take that away from you? That is God’s promise to us, in the kingdom that God establishes here on the earth. God’s reign is the one in which all the birds of the air—all the peoples of the earth—can build their nests in its protective shade. We find that place of belonging in the one who unites the peoples of the world through his own sacrificial love. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Cedar Trees and Mustard Seeds


This Sunday, regardless of whether your congregation is reading the RCL Track 2 lesson from Ezekiel, do yourself a favor and read all of Ezekiel 17 before you get to church on Sunday. I recommend that you read the CEB, which helps clarify some of the pronouns that get confusing. Here's a side-by-side comparison of the NRSV and CEB that you can read in 3-5 minutes.

It's the end of the chapter--verses 22-24--that are the reading for Sunday, but the rest of the chapter not only adds context to those verses but helps us understand what Jesus means when he talks about a mustard plant becoming big enough for birds of the air to nest in its shade. And, more than that, the first part of the chapter helps us understand why Jesus may have told the first parable in the gospel lesson--that of the farmer who scatters seed and does not know how it grows--and, perhaps most importantly, why Mark sandwiches the two parables together.

The first parable portrays the kingdom of God as something that comes up from the ground despite the farmer's lack of understanding. God is the one who gives the growth. The second parable portrays the kingdom of God as something that starts small yet becomes big enough to provide shelter for the birds of the air. And Ezekiel 17 portrays God's salvation as something that will not come through human intervention but through divine intervention--like a God-planted cedar sprig that will grow up into a mighty tree that is big enough for all the birds of the air to make nests in its branches.

In other words, not only is God's kingdom surprisingly big enough to shelter all, but it's also God's work, not ours. We don't make the kingdom happen. Our hope is in God. 

Read the bits in Ezekiel about the Jerusalem king who was taken off into Babylon, who made an oath with his captor yet sent ambassadors to Egypt to ask for help. His efforts are described by the prophet not as a mighty cedar but as a vine that can be plucked up without much effort. God is the one who plants the cedar. God is the one who provides real security. 

Sunday's parables give us glimpses of God's kingdom as Jesus understood it. Reading Ezekiel 17 helps us understand those glimpses even more fully. 

Monday, June 7, 2021

Trying to Stop God


June 6, 2021 – The 2nd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 5B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service is available here with the sermon beginning around 18:00.

If you got word that your grown-up child was in trouble, what kind of trouble would it be that would make you go and get that child to save them from themselves? Not what would make you want to go and rescue your child. Parents of children from 2 to 52 often feel that protective instinct. I mean what kind of trouble would it take for you to actually get up and go after your grown child in order to save them? Legal trouble? Marital trouble? Financial trouble? A trip to the hospital? A trip to jail?

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus’ family comes to save him from himself. Back at home in Nazareth, they’ve heard what kind of trouble he’d been getting up to. It started as a few whispers accompanied by concerned looks, but it quickly got worse. People were beginning to talk openly about that firebrand rabbi. “He’s lost his mind,” they said, “a good boy like that, causing all that trouble.” Friends with connections throughout the region had told Jesus’ family that he had been saying and doing some really controversial stuff. He had managed to enrage the local authorities more than once, and those friends had heard that they had even sent for the religious leaders down in Jerusalem. If they got ahold of him first, it might be too late. Mary and her family had better hurry down to Capernaum, where Jesus and his followers were camped out. If they went quickly, they might be able to stop him before it really got out of hand—before the real trouble started.

But they didn’t make it in time. When the religious officials from the capital city arrived in Capernaum, they pronounced their official judgment upon Jesus: “He has Beelzelbul, and by the ruler of demons he cast out demons.” That’s a strong accusation—not merely that Jesus was making outlandish claims but that Satan himself was operating through this controversial rabbi. By the time a theological disputation devolves into calling one’s opponent an agent of Satan, there really isn’t much room left for dialogue. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had labeled him a prince of the devil, which meant that anything he did or said was automatically evil and that any claim he made about God was tantamount to blasphemy and worthy of execution by stoning. For most preachers in any tradition, that’s not a recipe for vocational advancement.

So what was it that Jesus did and said that got him in so much trouble? Why were the local and national religious leaders determined to sabotage his ministry? In the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus gets himself in trouble right from the very beginning. As soon as he was baptized, he was led by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness, where he was confronted by Satan. When he got back into town, he found that Satan was waiting for him there as well. After calling a few disciples, Jesus’ first two miracles were to cast out a demon in a synagogue on the sabbath and the next day heal a leper, daring to touch the man in order to make him clean. Quickly, the compassionate rabbi, who was willing to flaunt the established rules, made a name for himself throughout the region. 

Then, Jesus healed a paralytic man, but, before he did, he pronounced that the man’s sins had been forgiven—a claim that was likened by some to blasphemy. He followed that up by spending time eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners, which only made the religious community more upset. Then, at the beginning of Mark 3, Jesus again entered a synagogue on the sabbath, but this time the authorities were watching to see what he would do. When a man with a withered hand came to him in order to be healed, Jesus turned their own expectations back on them, asking, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath—to save life or kill?” But, when the authorities refused to answer his question, he was grieved at their hardness of heart and healed the man anyway. From that moment on, Mark tells us, the authorities went out and conspired to destroy him.

That’s more or less where today’s gospel lesson picks up—with reports of that meddlesome behavior reaching both his family and the religious leaders in Jerusalem, both of whom come to find him. One group comes to stop him before he gets into even more trouble, and the other comes to bring the full weight of that trouble upon him. And Mark sandwiches those two pursuits together into one episode to help us understand that, whether we’re coming to save Jesus from himself or coming to label him as an agent of Satan, we’re guilty of the same thing. We can’t stand in the way of the gospel’s work without standing in the way of God. A house divided against itself, Jesus tells us, cannot stand.

This isn’t easy work, but it’s important work. People who confront institutions of power are always vilified in the most extreme terms. When religious institutions are challenged, the challengers are called demonic. When economic institutions are challenged, they are called communist. When national institutions are challenged, they are called unpatriotic. When familial institutions are challenged, they are called traitorous. And labels like that make it hard to get anywhere in this world. It’s hard to get a job or a friend or a spouse or a loan or a or a pulpit if people who matter in this world have called you evil. 

And if my child was doing or saying something that brought heat like that upon them, I would want to get up and run after them and grab them by the shoulders and shake some sense into them. I’d want to pick them up and put them in the back seat of my car and race away from danger. Wouldn’t all of us want to restrain our loved one before something bad happened to them? But what happens if that person we love is under fire because they are standing on the side of justice? What is the right thing to do if that person we are so worried about has put their life on the line for the sake of the gospel?

Jesus came to love those whom the world knew to be unlovable. He told sinners that they were forgiven. He invited outcasts to sit at his table. He gave healing and wholeness to those whom the religious traditions had been unable to help. And, when he did all of that, the people who had been in charge of the religious rules for generations were furious. They were angry enough to conspire in order to have him killed. And all Mary and her family wanted to do was rescue him and take him away from all of that.

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” Jesus asked when told that his family was standing outside. “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus’ work was to make sure that everyone had a place in God’s family. And those of us who are committed to that work discover that our true home—our true family—is the one we have in Jesus Christ. 

We belong to a God who loves us not because we’re good enough, religious enough, or holy enough. We belong to a God who loves us just because. Believing that—believing that all people matter to God not because of what they have or think or say or do, where they’re from, or who they love—is threatening to those people and institutions that for generations have been in control of who gets a seat at the table. To some, it is even so threatening that they would respond by trying to kill those who talk about God and the world like that. What will we do in the face of a threat like that? Will we try to restrain the ones we love who face such danger? Or will we ask God to give us the strength to lend our voice and our bodies and our lives to stand with them?

Monday, May 24, 2021

Can These Bones Live?


May 23, 2021 – The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday, Year B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service is available here with the sermon starting around 19:10.

Can these bones live? Can these dry bones, the scattered remains of God’s people, the symbol of their abandoned hopes and unfulfilled dreams, come back to life?

The hand of the Lord came upon the prophet Ezekiel and brought him to the middle of a valley that was full of bones. God led him up and down that valley among all those bones—an exhausting tour of death and destruction. And the voice of God said to the prophet, “Mortal, can these bones live?” And the prophet replied, “O Lord God, you are the one who knows.”

These bones were very dry. Not the bones of those killed these last few weeks in Palestine or even the bones of those tortured and murdered in Syria over the last several years. These bones had been dead so long that there was no tissue still clinging to them. These were the kind of bones you find in unmarked graves in Tulsa or Elaine. These were the scattered, abandoned bones of those whose lives had been forgotten and whose deaths hardly anyone remembered. Life had long ago deserted these bones, and now the prophet was asked to imagine whether they might live again: “Mortal, can these bones live?” And the prophet replied, “O Lord God, you are the one who knows.”

In the time of the prophet Ezekiel, God’s people had suffered great loss. Their nation had been defeated. Their cities had been destroyed. Their homes had been demolished. Their people had been carted off in exile. Their God, as far as anyone could tell, had abandoned them and forsaken their name. There was no life in them. Their future was as good as dead. Could these bones live?

God said to the prophet, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live.” 

And when the prophet opened his mouth and proclaimed what God had told him, there came a noise—a rustling and rattling—as the bones came together, bone to its bone. What a terrifying sound that must have been! As the prophet looked on, sinews came upon them, holding the bones together, and then muscle tissue and then skin. A multitude—a legion—of Israel standing there, reembodied but breathless until the prophet prophesied to the breath that came from the four corners of the earth and blew new life into those once-dead bodies. What an incredible and terrifying sight that must have been!

Standing there, looking out at the great multitude of God’s resuscitated people, the prophet heard the Lord explain that those dry bones were the whole house of Israel—all of God’s people—who had suffered so long that their “bones were dried up, and [their] hope was lost; [they were] cut off completely.” That’s all they knew. That’s all they could see. They were as hopeless as skeletal remains in a hastily dug mass grave. But not to God. God was not through with them yet. In God, their dry, lifeless hopes found new breath, new life. God was going to do something exciting and terrifying and totally unexpected. God was going to bring them back to life.

God’s Spirit is the breath that breathes life into old, dry bones. And Pentecost is the day when we celebrate that breath coming to breathe God’s new life into the broken, dry bones of this world not just in a moment two thousand years ago but each and every day. 

The Spirit’s work in our own day is the same as it was back then. On the night he was arrested, Jesus promised his disciples in John 16, that he would send the Holy Spirit or Advocate, as he called it, to come and prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. That’s a fancy way of saying that the work of the Holy Spirit is to turn the world’s expectations about Jesus and his ministry and God’s plan for the world on their head. The powers of this world thought that they could defeat the one who came to rescue the lost and lift up the downtrodden by nailing him to a cross. They thought that by killing him in that shameful way they would prove his ministry had run its course. But they were wrong.

At Easter, God reversed their judgment, and at Pentecost God reverses it yet again. The powers of this world think that they have won whenever they convince the brokenhearted and despondent that the world will always be this way—that their hopes and dreams are as lifeless as a valley full of dry bones. But they are the ones in whom God’s Spirit breathes new life—not only at Pentecost but ever since. 

These are the last days, Peter tells us, when God’s Spirit is poured out upon all flesh—male and female, young and old, slave and free. In his own vision of God’s saving work, the prophet Joel imagined a day when God’s Spirit would flow so freely that no one would be excluded from its power, and Peter understood that day to have been ushered in at Pentecost. That was two thousand years ago, yet we still live in those last days. God’s work of bringing new life to the broken world is still unfolding. God’s rejection of those who would rob others of hope continues. 

The arrival of God’s Spirit was not simply a moment in the past but the inauguration of a new era of God’s ongoing activity in the world. And, as recipients of that Holy Spirit, we are the ones who bear the good news of that new life and new hope to the world. We are the ones empowered for that sacred work. Those who are baptized into this community of faith are those whom God calls and equips to carry the good news of salvation to the ends of the earth.

Whose bones lie scattered in the valleys of today—sometimes even literally? Whose lives have become so hopeless that they cannot see beyond the death and destruction piled around them? What is God’s Spirit saying to them? What are we saying on God’s behalf?

This is the work of the Holy Spirit—to give hope to the hopeless, direction to the lost, and strength to the weary. Even more than that, God’s Spirit is what brings new life to the dead. The Spirit is what brings the promise of resurrection to the ends of the earth. It is the power of God which stands in direct opposition to the powers of this world. It is more than tongues of fire and spontaneous translation. Those strange phenomena must have been exciting to behold, but they were merely signs of this new thing that God is doing. God is breathing new life into long-dead, long-forgotten, long-ignored people and places and institutions. What signs of new life will God show the world through us? Can these dry bones live? God is the one who knows, and we are the ones who are called to make it known.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Impossible Choice


May 16, 2021 – Easter 7B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon will be available soon. A video of the service is available here with the sermon beginning around 12:50.

Perhaps the most important tool in my pastoral counseling toolbox is a coin. Heads or tails—which will it be?

People don’t come to me for advice all that often, but, when they do, I find that the most important thing I can give them is the confidence of knowing that they can’t make a wrong decision. Or, to say that another way, if you can see a situation from all sides and still don’t know the right thing to do, what would happen if you flipped a coin and let chance decide? Does the idea of letting a monumental decision rest on the flip of a coin free you up to make the decision you’re struggling to make?

Today’s story from the Acts of the Apostles is one of my favorites. The eleven apostles have gathered with the other believers in Jerusalem. They have seen the risen Jesus ascend into heaven, and now they wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But before God’s Spirit can breathe through them, empowering them to carry the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth, the symbolic community of the apostles needs to be reconstituted. 

When Judas “turned aside to go to his own place,” as Peter put it, the twelve lost one of their founding members. One of the disciples whom Jesus chose had betrayed him and, in gruesome fashion, had met his own demise. For a few reasons, the remaining disciples, who now understood themselves to be apostles or “sent ones” because of the commission the risen Jesus had given them, recognized the need to put the twelve back together. 

Partly, that’s because twelve is an important symbolic number in Judaism, and an early Christian tradition held that the twelve disciples were representative of the twelve tribes of Israel. But it was also because the remaining disciples were desperate for healing. They had been wounded from within their own fellowship. One of their own had betrayed their master and everything he stood for. Even though the empty tomb had pushed aside any argument that a real messiah would have known better than to pick a traitor as one of his closest confidants, the remaining eleven and the other believers must have been eager for a way to move past those doubts. Choosing another apostle from among the community of believers who had been with them from the beginning was an important way to do that.

When it was time to make their choice, the apostles got together, held a televised debate among the leading candidates and, after a series of primary elections, used a secret ballot to ensure that the right person was chosen to take Judas’ place. No, that’s not what they did. Faced with the biggest decision that the way of Jesus had known, the eleven came together, identified two people who were qualified, prayed to God for guidance, and cast lots to determine who the twelfth apostle would be. 

Was it chance? Was it luck? Was it magic? Was it faith? What did the apostles understand about the nature of lots, of God, and of themselves to lead them to effectively draw straws to decide who would join them as one of the most important leaders of the church? In the Jewish tradition, casting lots had long been an acceptable way to determine an outcome. In Leviticus 16, we read that, on the Day of Atonement, two goats were to be brought before the Lord and lots were to be cast to determine which one would be sacrificed and which one would be sent out into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people as a scapegoat. When it was time to divide up the land of Canaan among the tribes of Israel (Numbers 26:55), the divisions were made by casting lots. When determining which soldiers would go into battle (Judges 20:9) and which priests would go into the sanctuary to offer the appointed sacrifices (Luke 1:9), God’s people relied on lots. But all of those decisions were moments when the outcome clearly didn’t depend on a careful evaluation of the options. We wouldn’t say the same thing about choosing the twelfth apostle, would we?

Another thing to remember is that while the Jewish tradition accepted the casting of lots as a faithful way to make a decision, God’s people did not understand that process to be magic. This was not a séance or a mystical way to divine God’s will. With the strange and notable exception of the Urim and Thummim, the sacred objects that were kept in the high priest’s ephod and which had long since stopped being used to determine God’s will, the superstitious practice of conjuring up the right answer through an incantation or spiritual medium was outlawed. When Peter prayed and asked God to show them which of the two candidates should join in their ministry and apostleship, he wasn’t asking God to reach down and manipulate the dice as they were cast, yet, at the same time, he was expressing a confidence that, whatever the outcome would be, God and God’s will would be revealed through it.

What does it mean to believe in God like that? This isn’t a passage about primitive models for decision making or a primitive faith that understands God’s will to be most fully revealed at the roulette wheel. This is a story about believing that God’s loving plan for us is bigger than any decisions we would make. It’s a story about trusting that we can’t choose ourselves outside of God’s providential care. It’s a lesson about believing that God’s presence and will can be discerned no matter what direction our lives take. It’s a reminder that we are to seek a deeper understanding of that truth in all of the decisions we face. That’s the kind of faith I need to get me through every day.

When we elect a vestry, we don’t cast lots to determine who should serve, but, if we did, our church wouldn’t fall apart. And, even if it did fall apart, God’s reign on the earth wouldn’t unravel because of it. God’s plan is bigger than that. God’s love for the world is bigger than that. Believing in God does not require us to let go of our intellect—to discard the brains that God has given us—but it does require us to accept that, even when we make a catastrophically bad decision, God’s love for us will not be defeated. We are supposed to think carefully before making big decisions, and it is good practice to put smart, thoughtful people in positions of leadership, but no matter how carefully we think our way through a situation, we still might mess things up. And that’s ok because we can’t mess them up so badly that God can’t work through our mistakes to bring all things to their perfection. 

No matter how bad our choices are, we can’t choose our way beyond the limits of God’s loving care. When it comes down to it, we might as well flip a coin. That isn’t a belief in chance or luck or fate. It’s confidence in the God who loves us.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Back to the Basics, Forward with God


May 9, 2021 – Easter 5B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here with the gospel lesson and sermon beginning around 15:15. 

Whose conversion do we celebrate in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles—Cornelius and the other Gentiles or Peter and the circumcised believers?

The authors of the lectionary know that our attention span is too short to read all of Acts 10 in church, but it seems that they are counting on you to know the rest of the story because this conclusion, all by itself, fails to convey the real power of this episode. When the Holy Spirit fell upon those who were listening to Peter’s words, God did something truly remarkable, but what happened to those Gentiles is only part of the story.

Rewind back to the beginning of Acts 10. We start in the house of Cornelius, the Roman Centurion who had earned the respect of his Jewish neighbors as a God-fearer. Despite his allegiance to the Empire, he was known as a generous and faithful man. One afternoon, while he was praying, an angel stood before him and told him to send messengers to the city of Joppa and to ask after a man named Simon Peter and to request that Peter come and visit him. Faithful to the vision, Cornelius did just that.

The next day, as those messengers were approaching the house where Peter was staying, Peter was up on the roof praying. There, he had his own vision—this one of a great sheet being lowered down from heaven, full of four-footed animals, reptiles, and birds. A voice told Peter to get up, kill, and eat what was before him, but Peter knew right away that that was impossible. These animals were unclean—not kosher—and he had never once tasted what the law forbade. “By no means, Lord!” he objected. But the voice said to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And the sheet was taken back up into heaven. 

Three times he saw and heard the same thing. And, while he was standing there, pondering what that vision might mean, there was a knock at the door. Before he even knew who was standing outside, the Spirit told Peter that he should go with those men. Cornelius wasn’t the only one who needed a vision to get where this story ends up. Peter needed one of his own. As he himself declared when he arrived at Cornelius’ house, “It is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” God had shown him. God had revealed to Peter that God was about to do something the world had never seen. God was going to tear down the most fundamental barrier in human civilization and show Peter and the other circumcised believers that religious identity—that belonging to God—didn’t depend on who you were or where you were from.

Two thousand years later, those of us who hear each week that “whoever you are and wherever you are on your pilgrimage of faith, you are welcome in this place and at God’s table” might take that for granted. But Peter and his circumcised companions most certainly did not. When they saw that the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on those Gentiles, they were astounded. Peter’s question was not a rhetorical device. It was genuine. “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” he asked, querying himself as much as those around him. 

We get a glimpse at the magnitude of this theological and ecclesiological stretch in the next chapter, Acts 11, when Peter was called upon to defend himself by the other apostles and circumcised believers. “Why did you go into the home of uncircumcised men and eat with them?” they asked incredulously. Peter had to explain all over again the vision that he had seen three times and how it corresponded with Cornelius’ own vision and how the Holy Spirit had come upon those Gentiles just as it had come upon the apostles at the beginning of their ministry. Peter hadn’t been looking to break the rules or shatter the ethnic distinctions that he and his people had known for the two thousand years since Father Abraham had answered God’s call. But God had used Peter’s faithfulness—his prayerful devotion—to break open his heart in order that he might become a vessel for this new thing that God was doing. And because God had met him in that place of faithfulness, Peter was able to accept it with obedience.

God is doing something new in this moment. God is breaking down new barriers and teaching us new ways of recognizing what is holy. God is showing us new things that surprise us. But we won’t recognize them if we aren’t pursuing the familiar life of faithfulness. I think we vastly underestimate old patterns of holy living—things like praying morning, noon, and night, reading and studying the bible, memorizing scripture, singing psalms and hymns around the dinner table, fasting, and giving alms—the same things that Peter and Cornelius were doing before God brought them together.

Sometimes it feels like religion stands in the way of progress. For some, a rejection of the traditional religious framework is the only path to enlightenment. For those who have been wounded by religion itself, that is understandable. But there are others of us who come from within the community of faith who are eager to see God overturn the institutions that stand in the way of God’s reign being fully manifest in this world. We are the ones who pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” and mean it with our whole heart. For us, the road to progress begins with the practice of our faith. We want to burst through those barriers that attempt to shackle God’s infinite, unconditional love, but we won’t get there by leaving God behind. We can only name as holy and sacred those things that the others would call unclean and profane if God takes us there.

In the end, it is our own conversion that we gather to celebrate this day—not simply our conversion to Christianity—to the way of Jesus—but our conversion to the possibility that God will do something new within us. Being open to that possibility is fundamental to the way of Jesus. To believe in the crucified and resurrected one is to believe that out of our own inadequacies God will bring new and abundant life. We are here today to pray like Peter and Cornelius and to ask the Holy Spirit to inspire us for whatever lies ahead. This thing that God is doing is too great and too wonderful even for our imaginations. We will not figure it out on our own. But God will use our faithfulness to open us up to whatever new possibilities God has in store for the world. 

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Stay Connected Now, Bear Fruit Later


May 2, 2021 – Easter 5B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

“Try hard to relax.” It’s a pretty silly thing to say, isn’t it? You should work harder to not work so much. Since doing nothing doesn’t come naturally to you, you should practice it more. Sayings like those are basically non-sensical.

In a way, that’s what Jesus tells his disciples to do. In these final instructions before he leaves them, Jesus says, “Abide in me.” I think most modern translations use the word “abide” because it sounds more official and significant than “remain” or “stay,” but the word Jesus uses—the thing he tells his disciples to do—really is as simple as that. Stay put. Remain here. Dwell in me. If you abide in me, you will bear fruit, and, if you don’t, you won’t. It’s really that simple. If you want to be my disciple, all you have to do is stay put in me. But I wonder if the disciples knew how hard that would be.

Just hours after Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, he was arrested. He was tortured. He was executed. His crucified body was put on display as a warning to any of his followers that, if they dared challenge the authority of the Empire, they, too, would meet a ghastly end. And where were the disciples? Hiding in the shadows. Scattered to the wind. Nowhere to be found. “All you have to do is remain in me,” Jesus said, but that wasn’t easy at all.

In the early church—actually by the time John’s gospel account was written—the principal test for Christian disciples was not how much they knew about Jesus but whether they were willing to be counted among his followers in the face of persecution. Martyrs were the witnesses who sacrificed their homes and possessions, their relationships with family and friends, and even their own lives rather than renounce their faith in Jesus. Abiding in him would enable them to bear much fruit, but the seeds for that fruit, as Tertullian (sort of) wrote, would be their own blood. 

Still, although more challenging in practice than in theory, being a disciple really does start with abiding in Jesus. If we abide in him, even in the face of opposition and struggle, we will bear the fruit of discipleship. Jesus does not say to his disciples, “Go out and bear much fruit in order than you might remain connected with me.” Instead, he tells them to stay where they are—connected and rooted in the vine—in order that, in him, they might bear much fruit. No matter how hard we try to get that backwards, our first calling as disciples of Jesus is simply to remain in him. Bearing fruit always comes later.

What has abiding in Christ looked like for you during the pandemic? How have you stayed connected to the vine? On the one hand, being a Christian really is as simple as staying connected with Jesus, but doing that during a time when all of us are cut off from one another and the usual vehicles for spiritual growth are unavailable to us is hard. Collectively, we are the body of Christ. We are nourished as the body of Christ when we assemble and receive the body of Christ, but, for many of us, that most basic of Christian practices—coming together for Holy Communion—is not possible right now. Sure, we say our prayers and read the Bible and share our bounty with those in need, but doing those things in isolation rather than as part of the community of faith makes it hard for us to recognize them as practices that keep us connected with Jesus. It feels like what we really need is to return to normal—to go back to the way things were before we had to wear masks and stay home and keep six feet of distance from one another.

But isn’t there a peculiar holiness to this challenging chapter of our lives? Isn’t there a sense in which what we are going through is analogous to God’s pruning of the branches that bear fruit in order that they might bear more fruit? Aren’t we learning new ways of staying connected with Jesus and, through him, with one another? Aren’t we learning all over again why those familiar practices, which we have had to set aside for a time, are important and valuable in the first place? Aren’t we called to return to them not as if nothing has changed but with full recognition that everything is new and different?

“Abide in me as I abide in you.” Though it takes considerable effort and intention on our parts, those who abide in Jesus will bear much fruit and for no other reason than the fact that that’s where they remain, where they dwell. What does it mean to be fruitful in the years ahead? How will church be different when all of us are able to come back together again? We don’t know. We can’t know. And that’s ok. Our calling is not to bear that fruit in order that we might be worthy of Christ. Our calling is to remain in the vine so that in us Christ might bear whatever fruit God will bring to bear. 

In this time of pruning, when branches that bear fruit are cut back in order that they might be more fruitful and when branches that no longer bear fruit are removed to give room for new growth, our calling is clear. We must remain in Christ. That is always the definition of faithfulness, but it is clearer than usual in this pandemic time. Now more than ever, our prayers matter. They matter because they hold us together and hold us together in Christ. We must remain rooted in the vine even and especially when it is hardest to do so. It isn’t easy to stay connected with Jesus during this time when we are forced to stay apart. And our desire to be fruitful—our tendency to measure the success of our faith in output instead of identity—often gets in the way of what really matters.

Abide in Christ. Remain in Christ. Dwell in Christ. You belong to Christ not because you bear fruit but in order that Christ might bear fruit in you. In this time of our collective struggle, don’t lose sight of what really matters. Don’t be discouraged because bearing fruit is hard or looks different during the pandemic. Christ is the vine, and you are the branches. Our job, our calling, is merely to be what God has made us to be—a branch that remains connected to the vine no matter what wind and rain and last frost comes. Stay put. Abide. Remain in the vine and wait until that vine bears fruit in us once more.