Bare Root Jesus
Isaiah 43:1-7, Colossians 2:8-19
I love fruit trees. Nothing makes me feel that the world is right the same way that fruit trees and perennial vegetables do. With the right care they just make food, year in and year out. Sorrel, berries, and my ever self-seeding winter red kale are the cornerstones of my garden. I also have, packed onto our tiny 4000 sq foot lot five fruit trees. Now they’re all on dwarf stock and I keep them well pruned. It wasn’t until after I had planted them all that I learned I did it wrong. Reading the easily recommendable book, “Growing Small Fruit Trees,” I learned to forget about dwarf stock which keeps trees small by being well, an inferior root system. If we were drawing theological analogies here, dwarf stock would be like the prosperity gospel. Instead, the thing to do is get the strongest, most fruitful tree variety you can find and either plant it in a clump for pollination or for self-pollinating varieties, get a bare root plant and lop off it’s trunk about eight inches off the ground. Both techniques take a robust tree and give it freedom to grow in a new way.
One of my early learnings in gardening was the importance of breaking up a root ball when transferring a plant from pot to ground. As a gardening pacifist, it seemed to me counter-intuitive that I should disrupt anything the plant has done, that spreading out its roots, tearing and breaking some, would ultimately produce a healthier plant.
Those of you who read my sermon teaser this week know where I’m going with this. This practice of unpotting plants is exactly what that Sri Lankan Christian, DT Niles, was talking about when he said that Christianity has been brought all over the world as a potted plant, rather than being allowed to grow in the native soil of each culture it encounters.
I was set on this path as I read this passage in Isaiah. Initially I had selected it because of it’s uplifting character. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine,” declares the LORD. This is a powerful image of God’s faithfulness, through all the trials of life: through waters, rivers, fire and flame God’s faithfulness will persist.
But then I noticed something disquieting. This line about Egypt, Ethiopia and Seba struck me. God giving “people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life,” is a particular promise to the people of Israel. The idea of God ransoming one people with another, particularly with African nations, left a bad taste in my mouth. Now references to God’s particular love for the Chosen People are not uncommon in the Old Testament. Even in the Gospels, Jesus had to be prevailed upon by the Syrophoenician woman that she was deserving of Jesus’ attention like a dog finding scraps at the table.
This is a little uncomfortable. It’s been called the “scandal of particularity,” God’s willingness to choose a particular people in time.
Now the chosen people, the nation of Israel, was never rigidly defined by modern constructs of race or even kinship. Faithfulness has always been the threshold by which people entered the covenant. We see this in the stories of Rahab and Ruth, both outsiders who not only join the covenant people of God, but who are named in Jesus’ own ancestry.
How is it that we understand this promise from God to also be for us?
Through the early history of the Christian faith, the church adapted as it encountered new cultural enclaves. From the small community of Palestinian Jews who were Jesus’ first followers, to the Greco/Roman and Ethiopian communities to which it first spread, through centuries of growth in North Africa and Europe, through the reformation and on to today’s North American pop culture, Christianity adapts to new cultural norms.
We can see some of this evolution in the names we use for Jesus, from the Hebrew “Yesua” to the Greek “Iesus” from which we get our English name, “Jesus.” Yes, barring his divinity, the human person we call Jesus wouldn’t recognize his name if we said it to him. It doesn’t even carry the same number of syllables!
The cultural markers we often associate with Christianity--stained glass, organ music, pews -- these are all just European cultural norms with nothing distinctly Christian about them.
Last month marked the 500th anniversary of Conquistador Hernán Cortés arrival in Mexico which led not just to the downfall of the Aztec empire, but also to the forcible conversion and effective enslavement the native population there.
Throughout the Colonial era, Europeans delivered Christianity all over the world with much worse cultural baggage than pews and stained glass. The individualism of our post-enlightenment Western culture doesn’t fit within many community-oriented native cultures.
Aboriginal children in Australia, like Native American children here, were taken from their homes and placed in “Christian” boarding schools where they were forced to adopt European cultural practices. In some places these schools were in operation into the 1980s. The first U.S. school of this kind was founded with the slogan, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Native children were shorn of their hair, stripped of their language, given new names, and forbidden to practice any part of their native culture. These schools, while well-intentioned, were a practice of cultural genocide. In just 2016, at the 222 General Assembly, our own denomination issued an apology to the stolen generations of Native Americans for our complicity in the Indian-assimilation movement. This is from that statement:
In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ, our hearts and minds were closed to the value of your wisdom and lifeways. We did not understand the full extent of the Gospel of Christ! We should have affirmed the commonality between your spirituality and our understanding that God’s sovereignty extends with length from East to West, with breadth from North to South, with depth throughout the Earth, and with height throughout the Sky and Heavens.
Even worse, we arrogantly thought that Western European culture and cultural expressions were necessary parts of the Gospel of Christ. We imposed our civilization as a condition for your accepting the Gospel. We tried to make you be like us and, in so doing, we helped to diminish the Sacred Vision that made you who you are. Thus, we demonstrated that we did not fully understand the Gospel we were trying to preach. (link)
This may be hard to hear. But, here in the season of Lent especially, it’s ok for us to feel a sense of lament. It’s ok for us to lament first because only then can God do the deep work of healing and restoration. It is discomforting to be sure, but God can work in our discomfort too.
Now, my broad impression of the church through the sweep of history is that it has been very concerned with its doctrine. Wars have been fought over beliefs about the divine/human nature of Jesus (and to this day we aren’t quite on the same page there with our Orthodox kin).
This is why I find the Colossians reading so intriguing. Here we turn a corner. Not only does it answer Isaiah’s exclusiveness, but doctrine is not its primary concern. The writer of Colossians, whether Paul or one of his successors, is chiefly concerned with preserving Christian liberty.
“16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. 17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
And so we consider that substance.
Imagine. Imagine Christianity like a teabag, infusing into the water it sits in. For 2000 years Christianity has been infusing the cultures around the Mediterranean. For 500 years it’s been steeping in Mexico. Or imagine that Christianity is a grape, like say Chardonnay, that takes on the characteristics of its environment--or as the French (and your wine snob friends) would call it “terrwa.” When allowed to grow in local soil instead of in a pot, unique flavors particular to the region infuse the fruit of the plant.
Look at Christian churches that sit atop Aztec temple sites. Look at an Orthodox sanctuary and watch people there venerate icons. Consider the Mayan priests who offer sacrifices on the grounds of Catholic churches in Guatemala--I’ll confess, this one made me nervous!
Consider Aboriginal Christians in Australia. When the first cave painters in Europe began to decorate their world 30,000 years ago, Aboriginal people had already been in Australia for 20,000 years. Their experience of the world is radically different than ours. The Western notion of linear time is foreign. Distinctions between the sacred and profane, the holy and the dirty don’t exist. What could Christianity look like in that world without its Western pot? Well, they’re doing their own theology. They’re figuring it out. Rainbow Spirit Theology and the Jesus Dreaming are two approaches. One Aboriginal man said,
"I learned from my father one of the most precious things to live my life with. He once said to me, 'Bubbi, just think, you come from a people that used to walk with [the] Holy Spirit across this land because this is His country and we Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are His children. That is why our lands own us and give us our spiritual connections. Our Creation Beings walked with Him and with our ancestors for thousands of years.'" (link)
At the NEXT Church Conference that pastors Ken, Erin and I went to a few weeks ago, there was a presenter from the Yakama Nation named Corey Graves. Now Corey has been a Christian since he was seven, and for decades he participated and then worked in a “Western” church that preached a “replacement theology.” While not as extreme as the philosophy of “kill the Indian, save the man,” it is on that end of the spectrum. In the last ten years, Corey had an epiphany, a vision from God of a ministry to native youth that honored their traditions and drew them into relationship with Jesus, or Yeshua, his tribal name. This path of Yeshua involves unlearning the abusive theology and toxic gospel of cultural eradication imposed on so many Native Americans. Corey and the leaders of his “Mending Wings” ministry have created a bridge between the longhouse faith and the path of Yeshua.
Is there room in the body for such as these? Is their room, with Christ as our head, for us to be nourished and held together in all our diversity? With our European organs, Aboriginal djembes, and Native drums? Can we allow others their own festivals, new moons, amd sabbaths? Can we trust that the same Spirit animates our seeking? Will we break away the pot, exposing the bare root of Jesus and allow the plant of faith to grow into new forms? Can we trust with the author of Colossians that in this body we are all alive together, that the substance belongs to Christ?
Can we trust that all mission is merely participation in the redemptive mission of God, who declares in Isaiah 43:1, “I have redeemed you! I have called you by name!” Can we trust that God has gone before us?
Can we have an even bigger, more liberating concept of God?
In this body, held together by the ligaments of baptism and the sinews of communion, there is room for the Rainbow Spirit Theology of the Aborigines, and the Yeshua Path of the Native Americans, there is room for our Orthodox brothers and sisters, for Catholics, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and yes, even Presbyterians. And thank God there’s room for you and me too.
God did not give the Egyptians and Ethiopians as ransom for Israel. Nor for us. God did not sacrifice the lives of Native Americans in favor of our European ancestors. God did not give these as ransom because God chose instead to give Jesus, God’s own son. And God gave Jesus as ransom for not just the covenant people of Israel, but for the Egyptians, Ethiopians and the people of Sheba. God gave Jesus for the Native Americans, the Aztecs and Aborigines. And yes, God gave Jesus for Europeans too.
On Easter we all celebrate the saving death of our risen Lord, whether we call him Yeshua, Joshua, Yeasou, “Hesus,” Iesus, or even just Jesus. In every language, his name ALWAYS means, “The Lord is salvation.”