Easter 5B – Unlikely and Wholly Unbelievable

Readings:

  • Acts 8:26-40
  • Psalm 22:25-31
  • 1 John 4:7-21
  • John 15:1-8

This is the first year of living outside of my parent’s home that I have my own garden. It’s not very big – my backyard is rather small when compared to others, but it is mine. This past few weeks I have been working in the garden, getting it ready for planting, thinking about what I want to plant, thinking about what kinds of plants might thrive rather than perish. I collected up dead leaves and twigs, dug through the dirt to stir it up, felt with my hands to see what the soil was like, collected rocks and stones and moved them under the tree. At the end of my garden, where my fence meets my neighbour’s fence, sits this tree. Not a very tall tree by tree standards, but an overgrown and wide tree, that spreads it branches in chaos into spaces where people might want to walk unhindered to the back gate. It has twisted trunks in and through itself and stretched its branches up the neighbour’s fence and, discontent to stay put, has started to grow over into their space. It is so full that new branches have rocketed upward, straight as can be, three to four feet through the canopy to reach some light. I have no idea what kind of a tree it is. Rather than chop it down and start with a new tree that I do know in that corner, I decided to prune it back and see what might happen with a little care. Because I like it.

So, in I went with pruning shears and clip, clip, clip, things began to come away. Dead branches were the first to go; then branches that had doubled back on themselves or were in triplicate went next, then the branches that just didn’t look like they were a part of what I thought the tree was trying to be. And in the midst of this work I was thinking about the kinds of gardens that I have seen in my life: my father and mother’s gardens in each of the places we have lived, my sister’s garden of raised beds in her backyard, gardens in places around the world that I have travelled, various friends’ and neighbours’ places and the variety that each of them brings to the idea of a garden. Not to mention the complete stranger’s gardens that I happen upon as I walk or drive through the city and countryside. All wonderful examples of growth and tender care. I think all gardens carry beauty with them, but none impress me more than the gardens of the pastoralist people in Ethiopia. These gardens are grown through the Afar region of Ethiopia. These very real Eden-gardens have sprung up in the middle of dry and arid desert where the area is better described as a moonscape.

These gardens have been created with the empowering and encouraging support of an organization called the Support for Sustainable Development. Their story is incredible, and so much bigger than what I will tell you today, so I would recommend that you visit their website (www.ssdethiopia.org) to learn more and see a little bit of what I and my classmates were there to see with our own eyes in 2010. These seemingly impossible gardens contained produce, grain, grasses for cattle, trees for fruit, flowers, and seed: such abundance of life and food security. There were lessons on plant care, propagation, and breeding. Water for irrigation, diverted in small amounts from mother rivers into channels that had been dug by the people, for the people, and now flowed as far as 5 kilometres to be directed by stick and spade to the appropriate trench so that each plant would get enough to help it thrive. All in all, an amazing example of gardeners in the midst of God’s creation, tending to new life and living lives as stewards. I can’t help but be reminded of God the gardener in our Gospel reading. But I also feel that this story of gardens in the desert makes me think of the story of Philip and the Ethiopian treasurer: an incredible example of how the Spirit guides us to places where we are invited to become part of God’s good news.

The pastoralists living out in this Afar desert are of a Muslim faith. The founder and manager of the SSD is Gebreyes Haile is an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. He also used to work for the Lutheran World Federation. When he retired he felt sent to continue to work in his own country, on a problem that seemed without solution for a people that had not been helped by other forms of development. The SSD works with the community and tribal leaders to educate and train within the community so that they can become sustainable. This organization of 60 or 70 staff support, educate, and train on issues of pastoralist livelihood; education support; water, sanitation, and hygiene; women’s economic empowerment; natural resource management; community capacity building; emergency response; and disaster, risk reduction and management. While we were in the area we discovered Canada Foodgrains Bank sacks in use as bridges and containers. The grain that was in those sacks was used to compensate people for the work they did in developing the water channels for their future gardens. And we visited a particular community that had a direct connection to a Canadian farming community – their grain and their people came to help and provide. Gebreyes told us that his commitment to the SSD comes from his commitment to his Christian heritage and history. And Ethiopian tradition of sharing and teaching. A religious history that traces itself back to men like the Ethiopian eunuch.

One of the things that Gebreyes did for our group was insist that we would tour the country and visit the historical sites that are key to understanding the country, the religion, and the people. He wanted us to do this before we went out to the desert, so that we might best understand not just what it is that he and his teams do, but also why. From the tablets of the Ten Commandments, to the Queen of Sheba, to the hospitality extended to the prophet Muhammad and his family during their time of suffering, to the global impact through Portuguese and Italian occupation, to its own civil war history, to having the largest, or second largest, actively growing Lutheran church in the world, our eyes were opened as we were guided around the country to see what has shaped the people in front of us. This Ethiopian tree, with Jesus as its vine, and God to tend it, has produced tens of thousands of branches, abiding in God and reaching upward to God, bursting with the fruit that they were created to be.

This miracle of abiding, of shared knowledge, and the nudge of the Spirit, is captured in this wholly unbelievable story in Acts where we discover that God’s grace has an unfathomable reach. God’s inclusiveness and invitation extends far beyond whatever it is that we could think up. God’s Church has branches that have moved out to the ends of the earth, and still, it continues to reach out and grow and provide fruit that it was created to bear, and this small story in Acts helps us see the hope of a Church that extends far beyond what Jesus’ disciples might have expected. Philip is told to go and do something, and he runs.

But this Ethiopian man, a eunuch, an official, a treasurer for a queen, educated enough to be able to read and perhaps read something not in his own language, wealthy enough to be in a chariot and not on foot, devoted to God, humble or wise enough to know that he does not entirely comprehend what it is that he is reading[1], and not one to suffer motion sickness captivates my attention. We know so little about this person, what he was thinking, or what, if anything, was compelling him in this interaction. In looking over the text, one will discover that a lot of the action is directed by the Holy Spirit. As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it: “Phillip and the Eunuch only asked each other questions. The only command came from God and the command was go and join. Go and join the other. What we don’t know is if the Spirit also gave the Eunuch a command to invite. Invite this nice Jewish boy—representative of all that clings to the law and rejects you from God’s house. Invite him to sit by you. Go…join…invite…ask questions.”[2] Go… abide with each other.

Abide.

Remain. Persist. Survive. Last. Stay. Live on. Do all of this with God, as God has done, and continues to do, with each and every one of us. These two fellows, one a apostle, one a eunuch, encounter God in the text that the Ethiopian is discerning, in each other, and in the very midst of the dusty road that they travel. Unlikely, and wholly unbelievable. A miracle of God’s doing. I have come to know that there are unlikely and wholly unbelievable apostles everywhere. This Ethiopian man, who discovers Christ in his conversation with Philip in a dusty chariot, on a dusty desert roadway, seeks understanding. After some discussion, fellowship, questions, and Philip’s explanation of Christ – some pruning and tending, if you will – the Ethiopian man sees some water and wonders what prevents him from being baptized.

I have no doubt that this seemingly simple question is a loaded one. The reality of this official from Ethiopia in the time of this story would be one of mistrust, limitation, and exclusion. But these two fellows that been spending time abiding in Christ together as they’ve travelled. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” The good news that is Christ Jesus is utter inclusion. The good news is for all: barriers broken down as all are invited to share in this incredible life and creation with God and with each other.[3] The Ethiopian man’s query about baptism is a faith response.

It may be that this story was documented as a way of inspiring hope. Hope that the good news that is Christ Jesus is spreading, growing, reaching outward into the world as Jesus said it would. And maybe my story about the gardens in the midst of Ethiopian desert is about hope also. Hope that the branches of God’s Church intersect and cross over each other, somewhat chaotically sometimes perhaps, but always to demonstrate that God’s reach is far beyond whatever it is that we could possibly imagine. I think these stories, intertwined, are an incredible testament to God’s presence everywhere, in everyone around us, in the everyday. There are unlikely and wholly unbelievable apostles all around us. A miracle of God’s doing.

Back in my garden, I was bent over, under the canopy of this unknown tree, and a twig reached out and scratched my arm, and another twig decided that was a good time to grab at my hair and shirt, and I was snapped out of my wonderings and memories back to the reality of my garden’s tree and the pruning job that seemed to be getting a little out of control. Clip, clip, clip – the stack of pruned limbs was growing and my tree was shrinking. It was time to stop. However lopsided the tree might be in the now, I know that with some care, some tending, and some more pruning year by year – abiding, if you will – this tree will become lush again: full in character and life. Curiously, given time, I undoubtedly will forget which branches have been pruned, but I don’t think I will forget how a simple tree at the back of my yard helped me understand a little bit more of God’s Word in my life and how it abides in each of us. I won’t forget how the smell of wet soil reminds me of an experience half a world away and the encouragement to share that goodness of God as I experienced it, continuing to abide with a people who were Christ to me.

My hope with all of these stories is that you would come to see and know Christ in the unexpected. That you would feel bold to listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit.   That you would feel welcome to abide a time with the people around you. That you would feel courage to share the goodness of God as you have lived it. “With the Spirit at work, what is impossible for humans becomes not only possible, but immediate, compelling, and real. Places and situations that might seem God-forsaken become the sites of revelation and blessing.”[4] And those are fruits that have been created to be blessing to you and me. Fruits that are the goodness of God. Thanks be to God.  Amen

Ethiopian man

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor. “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide”.

[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber. “The Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch.” The Hardest Question (http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/yearb/easter5nt-2/), April 30, 2012.

[3] “Of Eunuch’s and Hope.” A Different Heresy (http://revplockhart.blogspot.com.au/2015/04/of-eunuchs-and-hope.html), April 28, 2015.

[4] Paul Bellan-Boyer. “The Word goes where it will.” City Called Heaven (http://citycalledheaven.blogspot.ca/2009/05/word-goes-where-it-will.html), May 5, 2009.

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