A Demonstration Garden for the Kingdom of God
The Rev. Canon Frank Logue preached this sermon at
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Douglas, Georgia on June 9, 2013
A Demonstration Garden for the Kingdom of God
1 Kings 17:8-24 and Luke 7:11-17
A mulberry tree grows outside the window of my office. I don’t know how long that particular tree has loved, but I do know the year that mulberry trees were first planted on the plot of ground where the Diocese of Georgia’s office is located. The year was 1733. I know this because the appropriately humble two-story brick building sits on the site of the Trustees Garden. This garden was created by the Trustees of the Colony of Georgia. On founding the colony, they created a demonstration garden to try out different plants and then to show good growing technique to the new colonists.
The colonies founders hoped to produce silk in the Colony of Georgia and hence the mulberry tree was among the first plants for the garden as the mulberry is the main food source for silk worms. Silk production did not work out. The mulberry trees in the area are remnants of a failed experiment. The garden, however, worked and became significant as the first place in Georgia to grow plants on which the colony could depend including cotton and peach trees.
Demonstration gardens are an important way in which farming techniques are tested and more importantly, taught. I share this concept as when I consider Jesus’ ministry, I see something similar taking place. Through his life, his teaching, his death, resurrection and ascension, we see that sort of demonstration.
Saint Athansius was a great champion of the Christian faith who lived in Egypt in the fourth century. He was a deacon then bishop working at the time of the councils which gave us the Nicene Creed. Athanasius’ wrote of Jesus, “Christ became like we are so that we might become like him.” The Second person of the Trinity became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, living as one of us so that we might become as he is, we might become Christ like.
In this way, Jesus certainly was a great teacher, but not through teaching Seven Spiritual Laws, or any other teaching to be mastered by memorization. Jesus was a teacher primarily in living among us a life of grace and love and forgiveness and in so doing showed us how to live. While Jesus would condense his teaching to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and Love your neighbor as yourself” it was in the way he lived this out that we gained the clearest picture of what he meant by that teaching. Jesus taught through his actions and so in that way his life was a demonstration of the Kingdom of God.
This demonstration of the Kingdom was to never end as Jesus’ first followers continued living this life. The Body of Christ today, as scattered as it is, and today in south Georgia the most segregated time we have is sadly the hour of church on Sunday, and yet every one of the churches in this community is to serve as a demonstration garden for the Kingdom of God.
We gather each week to be nourished by word and sacrament so that we might leave each week to live transformed lives. When we get this right, we can be more like the earliest Christians whose detractors even said of them, “See how they love one another.”
Being known for love and compassion was not a new idea that began with Jesus, but had always been a part of Jewish teaching. The Jewish High Priest serving in the time of Alexander the Great in 325 BC was Simeon the Just. Simeon defined Judaism by three acts. To be a faithful Jew one must: 1) Study the Torah, 2) Worship in the Temple and 3) Perform acts of compassion. If someone was missing any of these three, he or she was not a faithful Jew. So studying the Word of God is not enough. Worshipping rightly is not enough. Those teachings and that worship were to be made visible in acts of compassion, especially for those in need.
In scripture we read many examples of putting compassion into action. In our reading from First Kings, the Prophet Elijah takes the acts of service to their extreme. Elijah is sent to a widow in Zarepheth.
Widows were outside the power structure of the time as standing in the community came through one’s husband. As one without power, Jewish scripture taught that all were to care for widows. Care for the neediest was often exemplified in our Hebrew Bible as care for widows and orphans and the alien living among you. Jews were to show love for those who would not otherwise have someone to care for them as a sign of God’s love, God’s compassion.
The first miracle that takes place is that though the widow is convinced that she is making the last meal that she and her son will eat, she shares what she has with Elijah. He promises that if she does so, “The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” The widow does as asked, showing miraculous faith that she is not taking away from the last food she has for herself and her son. In sharing with Elijah, the man in need, she and her son never run out of food until the drought breaks and the famine ends. The whole household never runs out of meal or oil and so God’s care for the widow is shown. Then when her son dies, Elijah will resuscitate him, giving the child back to his mother.
We read of Elijah reviving the widow’s son today as it fits alongside our Gospel reading with Jesus bringing another widow’s son back to life. Moving to Jesus’ we are following just after last week’s Gospel passage in which he healed the Centurion’s servant without even going to the soldier’s home. As requested, he just said the word and the servant was healed. As Jesus and his disciples encounter a funeral procession as they enter the village of Nain.
Luke does not record Jesus’ care for the son who he will revive. The Gospel tells that Jesus had compassion for the mother. She has lost her husband and now her only child and Jesus feels compassion for her. Jesus shows care for the widow.
Jesus shows her mercy in bringing her son back to life. This is not resurrection as Jesus was brought back bodily from death, resurrected to never die again. This is resuscitation in that the widow’s son came back to life, lived and later did die. Even so it is a sign of Jesus’ power over death. This also showed, in an extreme way, compassion for the widow.
Jesus got himself in trouble teaching in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth when he proclaimed that there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, and yet Elijah was sent only to Zarapeth and there were many lepers in the time of Elisha and none of them were cleansed but only Naaman, the Syrian (Luke 4). God does not come into creation continually breaking the laws of nature to take back every hurt ever caused. Many widows have buried their only child with no miraculous raising from the dead to take the grief from the mother. Even the widow of Nain’s son did die on another day.
Jesus showed us the loving kindness of God in exceptional miracles, but that care was not to be confined to miracles alone. As he showed God’s love for the widow, we too are to show compassion for widows, orphans, the alien living among us and all in need. While you and I can’t make oil and meal last until a drought ends and we can’t raise a son back to life, we can nevertheless through acts of compassion make God’s love real and so demonstrate the Kingdom of God on earth.
Miracles do happen. We pray and trust God and we sometimes see miraculous healings and in other ways experience changes that could never occur without the power and presence of God. God also works through the more mundane miracles which happen when someone reaches out to show the love of God to another in need. This acts can be quite small and yet be life changing nonetheless.
As I prayed through these passages this week, I could not help but recall how my own mother’s first hours as a widow came with the care of this church to uphold her. My father had a heart attack and died at his office at Douglas Asphalt on 441, not a half mile from where I stand now.
News of this tragedy tried to reach me first as I was in a meeting when my phone vibrated. It was my Dad calling. I noted it, but didn’t go to take the call. I could phone him back later. Then within a couple of minutes, my mother was calling me. Both knew where I was and what I was doing and this got my attention. I said I needed to take this second call, and went out to hear my Mom in anguish saying, “I think your father is dead.”
I assured her that he couldn’t be as he had just called me. She said, “Those were the EMTs. You were the last number dialed. They called me next.” The ambulance was en route to Coffee Regional Medical Center, but the word she heard made her think that they were not going to be able to bring him back.
I knew the priest who served here at that time, Father Joseph Daly. I called his cell phone and her dropped what he was doing, drove to the hospital and confirmed for me that my father had been pronounced dead on arrival. I related this to my Mom and arranged for my sister to bring her down from Athens and Victoria and I made our way from Honey Creek. Joseph had remained at the hospital and was there with my father, praying with us and upholding us in prayer as my mother, sister and I identified the body and spent some last minutes with him.
So in the first hours that my mother was a widow, she was supported by the loving care from this church. No, my father was not raised back to life, but yes revealing the power of new life in Christ as the love of God was made visible. That is what we are called to do.
In that same way that a colonist could go to the demonstration garden and see cotton growing and say, “Yeah, I think I can do that” or see peach trees growing and say, “I want to try my hand at that,” we come and are nurtured by word and sacrament and leave to try to live a Christ like life. We may not always get it perfect, but we are always called anew to the attempt.
We are called as Christians to not simply study the Bible and gather to worship, but to also embody our faith in God as found in Jesus Christ. We are to put love into action and in so doing make our faith real.
God cares for and loves all those people we might be tempted to overlook. When scripture teaches us to care for widows, orphans, aliens and those in need, we are being shown that anyone you might be tempted to look past matters deeply to God. This is someone for whom our Lord died. When you notice that you are looking past someone, it can be God showing you who you are to love in that moment.
We so often fall short. We name that we want to be like Jesus and then miss the mark, yet if we will return again and again to the stories of scripture and understand them to be our story, then we can find the courage to try anew. We are to live into the Gospel not only with our lips but with our lives and in so doing reveal the Kingdom of God in the here and now. In this demonstration of the love of God we may merely do small things, but their effects can be miraculous.