A Bluegrass Eastertide: In the Garden with Stephen

This Eastertide I have been connecting the narrative lectionary texts to a gospel song, loosely defined as “bluegrass gospel.” I married into bluegrass royalty; my lovely wife’s parents were (and still are) part of The Hotmud Family, a band that originally included legendary songwriter Tom “Harley” Campbell. Much more on that next week, but suffice it to say I am not a picker and a singer, as true bluegrass musicians define it. I do play a mean guitar and I’m told my singing voice makes people want to stay in the room, which is always nice, but I’m not claiming festival-worthy gospel. However, on Easter a confirmation you and I sang “Hard Times Come Again No More.” The next Sunday, my amazing wife Miriam joined me for a sendup of the Staley Brothers’ version of “Angel Band,” and this past Sunday a member who grew up in this congregation and sings with Soul Stirrers group, joined me for “In the Garden,” my maternal grandmother’s favorite hymn. I did my best Johnny Cash meets Hank Williams interpretation to match the amazing voice of my singing partner, and it was a pure joy. Sadly, I did not record any of the songs BUT this Sunday I am going to Facebook Live the end of worship when we play a very special tune. I’ll link it in a future blog. Click here for the scripture selection    

The problems of the present often have interesting effects on the past, don’t they? Our contemporary woes can seem so potent and acute that we yearn for a time before they emerged. We humans have a remarkable capacity to forget previous pains, to produce in our minds a time in which things were better. Perhaps they were, but often our woebegone present can produce rose-colored glasses through which we gaze upon a time that never really existed. This is frequently the case with talk about the early Church: we imagine a holy assembly when in reality, as Acts 6 makes clear, it was a hodgepodge, not unlike today. There is something both comforting and deflating about this: the Body of Christ has always been a tenuous community trying to make a go at following the example of Jesus, and we’ve never quite gotten it right.

Today’s passage begins with griping; the Hellenists—the Gentiles, the non-Jews—are complaining against the Hebrews that the work of the Church is not being done: widows are going without food. The Twelve—Judas having been replaced by Matthias—gather everyone together and say, “Look, we can’t all do everything and there’s lots of important work. The community has made it clear that we need new ministries, so let’s select some people from within the community to focus on feeding those in need.” What we encounter here is remarkably telling; while the Church is moving more toward hierarchy, with a top-down approach, this need for ministers comes from the bottom-up. While Luke, the author of Acts, does not use the word “deacon,” literally meaning “servant,” that’s essentially what we see: the ordination of our first diaconate. And notice that the seven deacons each have Greek names. This also is telling: in order to address the concerns of the Hellenists, the community selects servants from among their numbers. The community recognizes that being invitational means bringing as many voices and perspectives to the table as possible; it means not vesting power in the majority alone, but rather it is offering equity to all who submit to God’s call.

Thus, we encounter Stephen. A deacon. A servant of the second generation; the biblical witness uses descriptions that were originally applied only to Jesus’ disciples: successful healings, effective preaching, signs and works. The power of the Holy Spirit has not skipped a generation.

This is not the only language that is repeated from earlier in Luke’s work. Stephen’s arrest, trial, and execution are remarkably similar to that of Jesus; while Stephen is not accused of claiming to be the Son of God, the dynamic is the same. The religious council does not recognize that God is working in new ways; they claim to defend tradition, but Stephen says that there has been nearly constant rebellion against God since the time of Moses, and like Jesus he is to be a rejected prophet for pointing it out. Stephen criticizes King Solomon, about whom he charges apostasy for claiming that the Jerusalem Temple contains the presence of God. Stephen quotes Isaiah and uses the oft-repeated refrain, “you stiff-necked people,” eliciting the words of Amos and Jeremiah, before accusing the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council, of murdering God’s agent.

Many scholars believe that the story of Stephen’s trial is a narrative archetype rather than the minutes of an actual event; the story is written at least 50 years after Jesus’ death at a time in which it appears that the Hellenists and the Hebrews were splitting from one another. The harsh words of Stephen most likely are those of a Gentile-Christian community that feels persecuted by their Jewish siblings. This is common in the New Testament; many scholars believe that Jesus’ harshest words against the Pharisees don’t actually come from him, but rather from the second-generation follows who wrote the text. Ditto with Acts 6; what we likely have is an argument between two religious groups using the same scriptural traditions to accuse the other of doing it wrong.

We are a people of stories. Each week we gather to hear stories of sacred scripture; during prayers of the people, we tell ongoing stories from our individual and collective lives, asking for spiritual solidarity; as a congregation, we honor those who came before us by learning about our history and continuing to emphasize the spiritual, ethical, and moral principles that have carried us through seven generations. Each day, we add to the story and we can rest assured, for good or ill, future generations will talk about what we have done. during our own time.

The story in Acts reflects a community making sense of rejection; a community trying to manage fear by discerning meaning out of even the most dire of circumstances. The story in Acts is a reminder that no matter what is going on, our basic tasks remain the same: we are to take care of one another. Amidst clashes, even deadly ones, the widows still need to be fed. The Word of God needs to be proclaimed. There never was a time in which that wasn’t the case, and there never was a time in which doing that was not difficult.

Part of following God is wanting—needing—to feel that there is a place of safety, even as danger abounds. Our song today, “In the Garden,” reflects just such an experience on the part of its composer, C. Austin Miles. He wrote:

One day in March, 1912, I was seated in the dark room, where I kept my photographic equipment and organ. I drew my Bible toward me; it opened at my favorite chapter, John 20-whether by chance or inspiration let each reader decide. That meeting of Jesus and Mary had lost none of its power to charm.

As I read it that day, I seemed to be part of the scene. I became a silent witness to that dramatic moment in Mary’s life, when she knelt before her Lord, and cried, “Rabboni!”

My hands were resting on the Bible while I stared at the light blue wall. As the light faded, I seemed to be standing at the entrance of a garden, looking down a gently winding path, shaded by olive branches. A woman in white, with head bowed, hand clasping her throat, as if to choke back her sobs, walked slowly into the shadows. It was Mary. As she came to the tomb, upon which she place her hand, she bent over to look in, and hurried away. John, in flowing robe, appeared, looking at the tomb; then came Peter, who entered the tomb, followed slowly by John. As they departed, Mary reappeared; leaning her head upon her arm at the tomb, she wept. Turning herself, she saw Jesus standing, so did I. I knew it was He. She knelt before Him, with arms outstretched and looking into His face cried “Rabboni!”

I awakened in full light, gripping the Bible, with muscles tense and nerves vibrating. Under the inspiration of this vision I wrote as quickly as the words could be formed the poem exactly as it has since appeared. That same evening I wrote the music.

Christianity is a religion that requires us to face the world and not ignore the ugliness. At times, that is terrifying. But in our submission, in our dedication to following the man from Nazareth, in our willingness to walk the Jerusalem Road there is an assurance that God is with us. That’s really what is happening in Acts. And also in Miles’ song: Christians turning to our shared sacred story and expressing the unshakable faith that following God means we are never alone.

There is no perfect Church. There is no perfect person. There is always more to a situation than what we see, whether we want to admit it or not. There is always the possibility that we are wrong; it will always be the case that there are people who want to kill us: spiritually, emotionally, physically, mentally. But God never leaves us, even when we’ve made a right mess of things. Sometimes, that’s all we’ve got and all we’re going to get. The secret is to realize that it is enough. Amen.


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