- Parish House
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B
The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield
Seven years ago, shortly after Emily and I moved into our house, we planted two apple trees. We didn’t know much about apple trees at the time–how far they needed to be apart; what sorts of diseases might challenge their health. We simply liked the idea of having free fruit in our yard and so we planted two varieties, one in the front and one in the back.
When we returned to the house, after being away for several years for seminary, one of the trees had grown to a height of fifteen feet. The other tree, however, was barely larger than a sapling, its growth stunted, its roots shallow. It seemed at first that one tree was healthy, growing large and blooming each spring, and that the other was diseased. That was before the rust set in.
It turns out that there is a common disease that affects certain breeds of apple trees. It is a strange sort of fungus that requires both a cedar and apple tree in close proximity in order for it to reproduce. The cedar is unaffected, but apple trees can be severely damaged by the fungus with low yields and brown legions spreading across their leaves.
With a large cedar in our yard, the larger apple tree was quickly covered with brown leaves and few apples ever formed on its branches. The smaller tree, however, seemed to be free of the disease even though it was still within the range of the fungus. It happened to be one of the varieties of apples that are resistant to this rust, a helpful trait given that its pedigree is from the cedar rich Ozark mountains.
In their different ways, then, I have two unhealthy apple trees–one with good roots and a strong trunk but with leaves and branches that become diseased each year; the other with healthy leaves and branches, but a shallow roots and a stunted trunk.
Since I don’t want to cut down either tree just yet, my solution to the problem of their disease is this: to join them together. Through the ancient practice of tree grafting I hope to combine my two apple trees into a new kind of whole, one that will be fruitful and able to live into the challenges of whatever limitations come its way.
I will cut some branches from the small tree and then notches in the branches of the larger tree. Then I will drive them together, binding them until they merge. Once they have grown together, I hope they will bear much fruit.
The man in the chariot along the road from Jerusalem was rich by the standards of the day, the trusted official of a great queen. But money and power did not change his status as an outcast. Whatever else he was, in the terms of the temple systems of holy exclusion he was a eunuch–a castrated man, an upper class slave who at a young age had been made safe to work among royal women. And in the patriarchal system of the day he was no better than a woman–he was allowed only at the edge of temple worship, never able to join in its central acts of praise.
His time in Jerusalem, then, must have been a mix of desire and displacement. He’d come over long and often dangerous roads to be there. His heart for God was deep. But when he’d arrived he’d been afforded only the shallow encounter of a bystander, catching only a glimpse of the holy energy inside.
Going home now, he turned to Isaiah, the later part of the book, the part that is not about coming destruction but instead offers the promise of God’s reconciliation and redemption. There he read:
Thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
Here the Prophet assured him, despite the practices of any priest, any boundaries within the temple courts, that his faithfulness would bring him into belonging with God. But how?
He twisted the scroll in his hands, watching the river, and then read aloud again: now the prophet was speaking of a broken man, a man who suffered injustice and exclusion and humiliation and yet was God’s own servant.
His reading was interrupted as a man came running along beside the chariot. “Do you understand what you are reading?” the man asked, his eyes bright. The Ethiopian man wanted to know what this stranger could offer and so he invited him up into the chariot.
This Jewish stranger started from the Prophet’s words, the passage about the suffering servant and from there told the story of Jesus, a man whose body had been broken in order to cross the divide of holy separation, creating a new community of God’s love.
The Ethiopian’s desire, his love of God, was kindled to its depth. He knew immediately that with Jesus there was no more waiting beyond the borders, he wanted to wade into the waters that would bring him home.
The story of the Ethiopian on the road from Jerusalem is a story of grafting. It is the story of a man who could only find wholeness by joining the vine of Jesus’ life. But the life of Christ, now embodied in the church, could not be whole and healthy by simply living on as a strange branch of Judaism. It had to take the story of Israel toward the fruit which it was always supposed to bear–God’s reconciliation with all people and all creation. And just as in our Eucharist, that first church had to be broken in order to be shared. The persecution of those first disciples in Jerusalem opened a space for the Spirit to take them out into the world where they would encounter the wounded people who would make the kingdom complete.
Our task now is to continue to live into that desiring, joining, grafting Spirit that first drove Phillip to run alongside the chariot of an outcast stranger and to invite him into the new wholeness that God was creating in Jesus.
To do this we must admit that here, in our churches, these outposts of the kingdom come, we do not have it all together. We are a weak and diseased and broken people and thus a weak and diseased and broken community. What we have is not wholeness but a story, the story of God’s reconciling love–those are the roots from which we can offer growth. But this story makes no sense without love finding its object; without, in the end, the whole world being encircled by God’s embrace.
So we must ask: who is it that has not heard, really heard, that this story is for them? Who hovers around the borders of our community but is never welcomed into the center of our life? Who does not fit our image of those worthy of God’s love or ours? Answer those questions and go find the people in your answers. Then tell the weak and broken and outcast people of this world–we need you, because without you we will never flourish, without you we will never bear fruit, without you we will never abide in this God who is love. Amen.