Well, at least circumcision isn’t the way we divide ourselves these days. Then I’d have to do a lot of talking about circumcision and that would involve using the word circumcision a lot and discussing the means of circumcision and the value placed on circumcision and how circumcision affects our daily lives and how circumcision shapes our national consciousness. Heck, I don’t even like saying circumcision so I’m glad that circumcision is not the point of this morning’s scriptures.
But it is about cutting.
About cleaving one thing from another, about the establishment of boundaries, about division. The apostles in this morning’s reading from Acts are all in a dither about Peter going and eating with gentiles, they who are unclean, not of the covenant, different from themselves, other, alien. I think we struggle to understand that as well as we think we ought, coming from this pluralistic world where people of all faiths are welcome in our public spaces.
But how many of you know a Sikh? Or a Muslim? Or a Hindu for that matter? Some of you are married to Buddhists but most of you could likely not name the primary tenets of Buddhism. We all have people we think of as other, but in this mornings reading, the others are gentiles ha’goyim, the nations, or, simply put, everyone who is not us.
I think we struggle, here in open and affirming Sonoma County, with the notion of discrimination in such bold and stark terms. We do not think of ourselves as a people who do such things, at least not simply for the sake of tradition, we do not have quite the same level of label for our own prejudices in that we allow a few more people into the tent of “us” when it comes to draw the lines between “us” and “them.”
An idea like that needs to be tended, and nurtured or it will die. You need to invest a thousand years into reinforcing something like that for it to carry such a power that it was not even questioned by those looking on. Peter was just in the wrong and everyone knew it. He could not participate in the rites and rituals because he had eaten with those who were unclean and alien and had joined them in their alien-ness.
You need to feed the idea of division, and water it and weed the garden in case tolerance should suddenly sprout up, as it tends to do.
It is spring and gardening has been in my mind lately. Facebook folks will have seen the pictures of the people waiting in line yesterday to get into the Harvest for the Hungry plant Sale down at Christ Church United Methodist. About three hundred people were there before the opening bell at nine to get all of their tomato plants for the year. I assume that they sold other things, but all anybody was talking about was the tomatoes.
It brought to mind all of the time and energy that we spend tending and nurturing our gardens, how much digging and sweat and love and dirty fingernails are involved. How much bribery of the younger kids with promises of ice cream or trips to the swimming pool are involved. We spend time building up the soil with manure and blood and bone meal, tilling it and mixing it until the feel is right, until the smell is right. We carefully select the plants we want, people had gone over the list for the plant sale online and had specific tomatoes that they had come to get, on little lists and they annoyed the rest of us by dragging the helpers at the sale around demanding to be taken to the green zebras, and the stupice or stupichka, depending on which person you ask, and they ask, blocking the aisles with their questions and problems.
See how someone can go in an instant from being “us” by which I mean one of the gardening family, to being one of “them” one of the nattering people blocking the aisles so that the rest of “us” the gardening family, cannot access our stuff, cannot get on with our day, cannot get moving?
Attitudes, like plants, need tending and nurturing too. Forgiveness is a skill and you can lose your edge if you do not practice. Compassion is a fragile plant with shallow roots and can be choked out in a minute if you are not paying attention, being overrun by weeds like greed, or envy. Faith, too, is a thing to be nurtured, something to be fed and watered, to be invested in and to be tended, not so that you can have more of it, or more salvation will be yours suddenly, but so that it can bear other fruit, can bear the fruit worthy of the Kingdom of God.
Almost everything we do as people falls into this single category, “stuff that needs tending.” we all acknowledge that gardens and roses and lawns need attention, but I wonder how many of us spend the same amount of hearts cultivating our friends, tending and nurturing our marriages, sowing seeds of love and hope and faith and peace and justice and then setting our faces toward the sun and getting to the business of tending our garden, the garden of our life?
People have asked me over the years about how they can stoke the fires of faith, how they can gain a greater connection with God and not one of them in eight years has ever believed me when I told them that coming to church was an excellent way to do that. It is not God, this place, but it is fertilizer for the relationship that you have with God.
Here you will find the scriptures spoken out loud, sung and preached. When people ask what kind of music we have here at church I try very hard not to cringe at the question and then I reply that we have the kind of music at this church that actually says something about God and about faith. There may not be a rock band but I am not aiming at entertaining people, the rest of the world has that well in hand, I want to water the garden of your faith with the knowledge of God’s love for you.
Here you will find the sacraments rightly administered, the signs of God’s grace enacted in real time in front of your eyes so that you can see what it means to live out a faith, feeling the touch of God in water, wine and bread, tasting it, having it feed you.
I wonder if the ready-made world in which we live has blinded us to the notion that everything that we do is not a fait accompli, something that comes to us fully formed, but is rather a process, an effort, a garden if you will and if we do not tend and nurture what we have planted, it will grow wild and not bear the fruit we have been looking for.
Nothing comes to us right out of the package but salvation. Everything else is a job, a daily labor of love, like a tomato plant wending its way up the trellis in my side yard. It is shaped and espaliered and trimmed and watered and fertilized.
Marriages, children, careers, all of them, every human endeavor is like that and not like the television that you bought at Wal-Mart and is exactly all that it can be the second you take it out of the box. All human endeavor grows and if you want to get out of it something fine, something worthy, good fruit, so to speak, you have to take care of what you plant, and take care to tend and nourish what you have.
Marriages in this era are a tenuous proposition it seems perhaps because people have come to think of them as being like that TV, something that they get as a present and that it exactly the same the last day as on the first.
Pretty much anyone who has been married a long time, or who has been married and watched it come apart can tell you that it is a garden like the rest of the efforts of mankind. If you plant suspicion, you will not reap joy. If you plant hope but do not water it, do not expect abundance at harvest time.
Child rearing is another garden that people seem to be nervous about, too frightened to do the hard work that needs doing if you want a bountiful harvest. Sometimes a child needs pruning, so to speak, and that is hard but if left undone the child grows wild, unhealthy, even damaging to themselves and to others. It cannot simply be tons and tons of fertilizer, you can burn a garden that way just as pouring stuff, indulgences, toys and doo-dads can bring sour grapes at harvest time.
Kids and marriages and faith and family and gardens are not the answers to almost any question except “what are you working on?” They are themselves challenges, opportunities to grow and to prosper not only yourself, but the people around you.
We were at Terri Abramson’s eightieth birthday party yesterday and Debbie and I were talking to one of the neighbors and the subject came around to church and faith and we were asked how we came together, how I came to church, how we got here in Santa Rosa and so we told the story of Debbie’s massive evangelism campaign. “I’m going to church tomorrow; you can come if you want.”
But she planted that seed into soil that she had prepared, into the relationship that the two of us had been working on together for a while and so that seed had a place to grow where it might thrive and bear fruit. Nowadays those efforts work hand in hand, faith and family, marriage and child rearing, each garden occasionally growing a little weedy, but each day bringing more care, and more fruit.
So it is with all of our efforts. Work on faith and find family prospering alongside, children more secure, more sure of themselves and of their places in creation. It is in becoming accustomed to tending and nurturing that we ourselves learn to grow.
This gathering here is your initial garden, your test-plot so to speak. The soil is rich and filled with experiences and stories, of harrowing battlefield remembrances and placid stories of fishing along the lazy river. Generations of faith are seated here and in tending, fertilizing and nurturing this garden we can gain the strength to expand our garden to include people not yet seated here, we will have shared our stories and our lives so freely and openly here that we will be far more comfortable telling them anywhere. We will find ourselves able to speak those immortal words, “I’m going to church tomorrow, you can come if you want.” and so vivid and honest will be the stories we have told that people will want to add your story to theirs; your love will show them the way.
This is your fertile soil, the rich and dark earth of the creation. It is yearning to bear the fruit of the kingdom, love for one another and for the world, but it does not come out of the box that way, it is something that grows if you nurture it with stories of yesterday and of tomorrow; that bears fruit if you fertilize it with love of family and friends and of spouses; that bears the fruit of peace and joy if you invest your time into it.
Through Christ it carries with it the promise of eternal blessings, but it did not come out of the box finished, it takes you and it takes me and it might just take forever, but the journey will be one of faith and so will be blessed because it is not about boundaries, or borders, or cutting one thing from another. It is about growth, and passion, and faith and love and the promise, above all the promise: that the Kingdom of God is among us.