Friday, September 21, 2012

Once Upon a Tree--A Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost

"A few summers ago I went to that famous March on Washington, And the clearest memory that I have of it is standing near the Lincoln Memorial hearing the song 'We Shall Overcome' sung by a quarter of a million or so people who were there. And while I listened,  my eye fell on one very old Negro man, with a face like shoe leather and a sleazy suit and an expression that was more befuddled than anything else; and I wondered to myself if, quite apart from the whole civil-rights question, that poor old bird could ever conceivably overcome anything. He was there to become a human being. Well, and so were the rest of us. And so are we all. Poor old bird, poor young birds, every one of us. And deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome some day, as he will, by God's grace, by helping the seed of the kingdom grow in ourselves and in each other until finally in all of us it becomes a tree where the birds of the air can come and make their nests in our branches. That is all that matters really."
  --Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat   

Carlyle Marney, great preacher used to say when I find myself in trouble I always turn to the Psalms. The Psalms were the first worship guide for the people of God. They were also the first hymns the worshippers ever sung. When their plea went up to God in hard times asking: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” those songs were from the Psalms. But they taught us that the Psalms of praise and lament and thanksgiving could be sung in even the hardest of times. In fact, we might say that if we were to trace back to one of their secrets of survival we would find the Psalter as part of the answer. Dr. Marney was right—when we get into trouble we believers can find help and hope in the book we now call Psalms.  

When the editors collected the Psalms over many years—Psalm 1 was not the first Psalm that was written—but it became a prelude or overture of all that would follow. The Psalm begins talking about how one might find happiness. I am struck by the analogy which the writer used to describe the person of faith. The happy ones are “ trees planted by streams of water...”  What can we learn from this image of a tree?
Rooted in the Earth

The tree is rooted in the earth and tied to the world. And if this is true it means that this tree is planted in the midst of the world. Funny how people faith have always had a hard time with this concept. And so much of our talk has been on the spiritual—as opposed to the worldly. Through the years in hard times God’s people would talk about heaven and the end times and when Jesus would come in the clouds and Armageddon would take place. Such talk ignores the hard-living people because so much of what goes on inside the church on Sundays is a far, far cry from the hurting needs of their lives. Our Lord said, "go into all the world...” to preach that "God so loved the world...". 

Jesus came and lived his life among ordinary people. He became one of them and in that incarnation--he learned something of who they were and they discovered something of God. And the church is to be an extension of that incarnation in the world. And if we make any kind of impact on the world we will speak the language of the people. We cannot ignore the soil in which we are all planted. Jesus consorted with common people. He invited riff-raff to dinner. He spoke to prostitutes on the street. The little people loved him. His parables were about things they could understand--no holy words--just simple stories about birds and boys that left home and people going to Temple to pray and seeds planted in the ground. And later when the New Testament was written it was written in koine Greek--which was the language of everyday.  

So the tree is planted in the soil of our lives. And if this is true this tree is to reflect the day and age in which we live. How in the world should we come away on Sunday never hearing a single word about poverty or health care or those without jobs or addicted to one of many things around us. Why you can go into many churches and you might as well be back in the twelfth century.  

In an old book by Howard Clinebell he asked some basic questions about the church. The way we answer these questions just might tell us if we are rooted in reality or not. This is what he asked: 

"Does the church in thought and practice build bridges or barriers between people?

...Strengthen or weaken a basic sense of trust and relatedness to the universe?

...Stimulate or hamper the growth of inner freedom and personal responsibility?

...Provide effective or faulty means of helping people move from a sense of guilt to forgiveness?

...Increase or lessen the enjoyment of life?

...Handle the vital energies of sex and aggressiveness in constructive or repressive ways?

...Encourage love (and growth) or fear?

...Give its members a `frame of orientation and object of devotion' that is adequate in handling their     problems and pain constructively?

...Encourage the individual to relate to his unconscious in living symbols?

...Accommodate itself to the neurotic patterns of the society or endeavor to change them?

...Strengthen or weaken self-esteem?            
     --Howard Clinebell, Mental Health Ministry of the Local Church

You see, a tree rooted in the reality of our lives helps us in a great many ways. We are a worldly people. But this only part of the story.

Strong Root System 

The tree is fed by a strong root system. I am told that the roots of most trees are as long underground as the tree is tall. The tree cannot stand without a strong root system--it will just topple over.    So, the tree planted by the rivers of waters was fed by a stream that kept it strong. "It yields its fruit in its season, its leaf does not wither...” in all that he does the tree prospers..."(Ps. 1.3b)

What feeds the tree will determine its strength and weakness. And this is why I love that verse in Psalm 104.16: "The trees of the Lord are full of sap." Or those trees that Jesus talked about: good tree and corrupt tree--the good tree brought forth good fruit and the corrupt tree brought forth sorry fruit. (Matt. 7.17) And so I keep coming back to our text today. "He is like a tree planted by streams of water..." (Ps. 1.1.) Jeremiah understood this when he wrote of the faithful: "He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when the heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit."(Jer. 17.7-8)

Once Paul looked out at the church he loved at Ephesus. And this was his prayer for them: "...that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God." (Eph. 3.17-19) And then, in the next chapter, Paul talked about those tossed to and fro, like trees blown over in a time of storm. And then he added: "Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love." (Eph. 4. 15-16) 

So we are to draw power from the great source something powerful happens to us. We endure.  We continue to flourish despite the winds, the rain, and the elements.  We stand tall. But the Psalmist was not finished.
Growth and Fertility

The tree is also symbol of growth and fertility. No wonder when the writer looked for a symbol of life--he chose a tree. For this is  life-in-process. This business is largely unfinished. So I see in this symbol a great deal of hope and possibility.  As long as the tree grows it will live. When the tree ceases to grow--it begins to die.

Jesus cursed the fig tree because it did not bear fruit. This was a parable of Israel. Because they did not live up to their potential they had outlived their usefulness. And so our task here is to bear fruit. For Jesus reminded us that by their fruit you shall know them. 

One day a friend took me out in his side yard and showed me a tree. They were supposed to cut it down, he said. There was a hole in the tree--and it was rotten. And everybody advised him to cut it down. But he never got around to it. And a wonderful thing happened. This tree broke all the rules. This tree continued to grow around that rotted out hole. If you were to go  there today you would see a tree wounded--but yet growing.

And there are people that sit on our pews—and sometimes even stand in our pulpits who carry heavy burdens. The good news is that the gospel holds out new life especially for the wounded. Hope and possibility. God is not finished with us yet. That, too, is part of the symbol.  But there’s more tree talk.
 Shade and Protection

The tree provided shade and protection. In a desert land trees were a premium. They were places to pitch a tent, to build a shrine and to settle disputes. The tree was a place to hide from the blaring desert sun. Without an oasis from time to time--life in the desert would have been unbearable.

One of the great city planners of America was a man named Olmstead. He understood the power of green living things. He planned Central Park in New York City and green acres in many other cities of this country. In the middle of all that concrete he purposefully carved out some green space. He said these special spots would give the city a soul. And if you have ever visited one of those parks on a Sunday afternoon and seen the kids playing and the lovers under the trees and people on bicycles, jogging or just sitting there laughing--you understand. The park becomes a place of renewal where people get in touch with their roots again.  

People in Bible times, traveling through the hot, desert climate would suddenly come upon an oasis. It was a place of shade. It was a place of water. It was a place of refreshment. A stopping-off place. And there, at the oasis, they would rest for a while and then they would be on their way.  And this is what the church is to be. An oasis--a stopping-off place. A time when we can come in and discover peace and refreshment and then go on our way. 

This is why I love a picture I discovered one day in Charleston. This watercolor hangs in my office reminding me of what church ought to be. It is a scene of St. Philips in downtown Charleston. In the picture--it is a rainy, rainy day. The streets are wet and it is gloomy. And the robed choir is out in front of the church getting ready to process in. Each choir member has an umbrella--standing there in the rain, getting ready for the procession to begin. And it seems to me that church, more than anything else, is helping people to come in out of the storm. To provide a place of protection from all the elements out there. We could almost call that a tree. 

No wonder they talked about a tree in that first Psalm. We are all to be rooted in the reality of our time. We are to find ourselves fed by a strong root system that will not fail. And for as long as we live we are to be people of growth and hope and possibility.  


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