Sermon–Back to the Garden or the City? May 26, 2019


Easter 6—Year C–May 26, 2019

William Bradbury

Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5, John 5:1-9

Way back in the late Sixties, my generation saw the crumble of the fairytales we had been raised on. We watched the Vietnam War escalating for no good purpose as our leaders lied to us. We watched the Civil Rights Movement gain some ground, but then Martin Luther King, Jr is assassinated and the Privileged, those who were born on third base and thought they had hit a triple, learned how to work around the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and keep down those who were powerless so they couldn’t even get into the stadium.

Much of our music was protest music, and much of that was idealistic. Like Joni Mitchell’s classic song “Woodstock” with the refrain: “We are stardust. We are golden. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”  Communes cropped up that were filled with the idealistic and well-meaning who were trying to get to the garden of peace and beauty where there is harmony among God, creation, and human beings, no matter their color, class, or country.

We can make fun of their naiveté, but there is also something we can learn from the long-haired flower children: they had a picture in their minds of a future that was more just and less violent than the status quo.

Maybe there’s something in all humans that imagines an idyllic past in the face of the horrors of Empire run by the few who control the many.

It is interesting, however, that the Biblical story, which begins in a Garden,  ends in a City: “In the spirit the angel…showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.”

A city in which there is no temple because God’s presence is experienced everywhere, so there is no separation between sacred and secular.    

A city in which there is no sun or moon because everything is ablaze with the glory of God. 

A city where the gates never close so the nations can stream in.

A city that has a garden in the middle of it, where a River runs through it, the River of the Water of Life, and the Tree of Life produces different fruit 12 months a year and heals the nations with its leaves.

The New Jerusalem, the City of God, is run, not by the fear of death, but by the abundance of Life.

And of course this image of the City of God on the new earth is not just about the future, but about what God is doing in the here and now for those with ears to hear and eyes to see, for those who are already Baptized citizens of the City of God which is becoming.

So we might ask what is the Church’s role in our current cities and towns?

I like how Brian Zahnd puts it in a tweet last night: “It’s the task of every  local church to be a suburb of New Jerusalem.” 5/25/19 What does that look like?

We have an image in the gospel today: Jesus is walking amongst a crowd of the blind, lame, and paralyzed. We see these places in photographs of medical field stations in refugee camps that are over-crowded with the sick and injured.

Jesus is wandering around a place where the smell alone will keep out most of us.

He has been announcing the arriving of the City of God but that doesn’t keep him from visiting those places where God’s reign has clearly not arrived. Yet, Jesus is not just an observer, for he engages a man who has been sick for 38 years.  

And Jesus’s asks: Do you want to be made well?

Some readers wonder if Jesus is rebuking the man, as if it’s obviously the man’s fault for being sick so long. He doesn’t want to get well, because he is, as my grandmother used to say, “enjoying poor health.” He’s getting so much attention from friends and family for his illness that were he to get well, he fears the attention would disappear and no one would invite him to dinner or send him a card.

But this poor man has the opposite problem: he has no one to help him get into the pool when the waters are ripe for healing.

He’s alone, which is not an indictment of him, but of his city. See Marianne Thompson Commentary on the Gospel of John

Someone could have organized a team of helpers to get these folks into the water, but apparently they didn’t think of it, or just didn’t want to go into that sad place. Jesus doesn’t discuss it with him further, and simply says: “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”

We notice a couple of things: Jesus gives a command, which the man, if he is now physically able, can obey or not obey. He still has a role to play even though his healing is a free, unmerited gift.

Second, Jesus doesn’t heal anyone else there, far as we know, but he also doesn’t get caught in the mental trap that often paralyzes us: “Oh, the problem is so big, my effort wouldn’t make any difference at all. Take the suicide epidemic—from 1999 to 2017 suicide rates increased by 45% for men ages 45 to 64, and 62% for women in that age group. Washington Post

The loneliness epidemic is also growing so fast with 35% of those over 45 are chronically lonely.

Jesus is one man and can’t heal everyone, but he is willing to heal this man as the Father directs.  In so doing he changes that man’s life forever and points to what the City of God will look like when it comes in its fullness.

The writer Iris Murdoch says, “Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture.”—quoted in The Second Mountain by David Brooks

If our inner picture of the future is not some dystopian nightmare like we see in the movies, but is the image of the City of God come down to earth, we know even the smallest act of kindness is striking a blow for a future of justice and beauty.

I think of a woman living in Inglewood in Chicago David Brooks highlights in his powerful book The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. She’s moving out because it’s dangerous, but then she looks out the window and sees two little girls playing with broken bottles in an empty lot and tells her husband, we’ve not leaving, not going to be a another family who runs away. Now she’s the head of a non-profit that is fixing up neighborhoods.

Brooks lists six stages when a person undergoes when a motivational shift happens in their lives:

  1. Material pleasure: having nice food, a nice car, a nice home.
  2. Ego pleasure. Becoming well-known or rich and successful. Winning victories and recognition.
  3. Intellectual pleasure. Learning about things. Understanding the world around us.
  4. The pleasure we get in giving back to others and serving our communities.
  5. Fulfilled love. Receiving and giving love. The rapturous union of souls.
  6. The feeling we get when living in accordance with some ideal.

The task of “every local church is to be a suburb of” of the City of God.

Without a living image of the City of God we end up building the City of Me and My Tribe. With the image of the City of God burned into mind and heart we have a blueprint of God’s dream for creation, and we follow Jesus who leads the way because he is the way.

We are stardust. We are golden. And we have to go forward to the City being built by God.