June 26, 2016

Towering Trees and the Fruit of the Spirit

Later this summer, on August 25th, the National Parks Service will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding. President Obama used the opportunity the First Family’s recent vacation to Yosemite National Park in California afforded him to draw attention to this historic milestone as well as to highlight some of the challenges facing our parks—budget shortfalls and climate change being their most formidable foes.

Seeing the beautiful photographs of the President’s visit and listening to his remarks took me back to some of the great times I’ve spent in the National Parks. Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Acadia, the Badlands, the Smokey Mountains, Yosemite, too—each park is unique, each beautiful in its own way, and all of them are profoundly moving and awe inspiring places.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in California is another place that stretched my mind and imagination. The park is home to the giant sequoia trees, and it’s just amazing.

I saw the sequoias when I was seventeen on a church youth group bus trip. The pictures I brought back from that trip don’t do these trees justice, and neither, I suspect, will my words this morning, but I’m going to try.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon is the place to go if you want to feel like you’ve stumbled through the looking glass into a fairy tale world of giants. The trees are just ridiculously large—the tallest approach 300 feet and are over 30 feet wide. They can weigh two million pounds.

I live on the tenth floor of my building, so these trees would just tower over my apartment, but imagine living on the 30th floor and having a tree right outside your window. That’s crazy!

And they’re ancient. Sequoias can live up to 2700 years. That means that some of the trees that are alive today have been around since before the Greeks and Romans built their empires. That means if Jesus and his disciples would’ve taken a road trip to California they could’ve said, “Wow! Look at these really old tress!”

Sequoias are biological wonders. They are freaks of nature and if you ever have a chance to see them in person, you should.

I learned another fascinating thing about sequoias this week, though, that isn’t obvious when you’re up close with one. Even though they’ve some of the tallest living things on earth, their roots are surprisingly shallow—10, 15, 20 feet below the surface. That’s it.

What they lack in depth, however, they make up for in outreach. A single tree’s roots can cover the area of a football field. And when the roots of trees in close proximity to one another become tangled and intertwined, not only is it not a bad thing, it actually makes the trees able to stand taller and stronger.

These underground connections help the trees to withstand blustery winds, to take in needed water and nutrients, and help sustain the conditions in which future generations of sequoias can thrive.

In other words, these roots are exactly the kind of anchor that these giants need, and that’s a lesson from nature that helps us better to understand the ways of God’s Spirit and the kind of relationships that should define the Church.

Saint Paul’s beliefs about what the Holy Spirit can accomplish among us is intimately tied to his expectations for the community into which Jesus will build Christians, and Paul’s expectations for our community are as impressive as California’s towering forests.

Paul believed that this community—the Church—was the community for which the world had been waiting. This was the place where old enemies become friends, the place where outcasts are warmly welcomed, and where the holiness of God revealed in Jesus Christ conquers all the selfish and destructive tyrants we permit to rule over our hearts.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
These memorable words from the Letter to the Galatians give us a glimpse of Paul’s grand expectations.

The Church is to be the community where barriers fall and whose members are Christ’s ambassadors and agents of reconciliation. According to Paul, these are some of the Church’s essential characteristics.

To extend our metaphor a bit, evidence of the reconciliation that Christ accomplishes in our midst is the Church’s strong trunk and expansive leafy branches, and when the Church is healthy, we will experience the bounty of God’s goodness, the harvest of faith, the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.

We’ve read a passage from Galatians this morning that gets to this point.

In Galatians 5, Paul compares what happens when communities give themselves over to selfish ambition to the community in which Jesus is truly Lord. In making this comparison, he contrasts what he calls the “works of the flesh” with “the fruit of the Spirit.”

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.
Take note that Paul encourages us to consider the source of these things, to consider where they come from. Sure, Paul wants us to be less angry, less jealous, less obsessed with sex, but, ultimately, he’s trying to lead us to a healthier source than the unholy root that would feed these things within us.

Paul wants us to avoid actions and attitudes that weaken the community by reducing our interactions with one another to selfish transactions between self-serving parties rather than the self-giving actions of people who recognize one another as beloved children of God.

“If…you bite and devour one another,” he writes, setting up the list, “take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

For when we consume one another and treat each other like means to self-serving ends, our community will never amount to anything more than a puny, brittle-branched shrub.

But Paul continues,

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
This is life’s good stuff. These are the works of God. These are the actions, attitudes, and pursuits that define us.

Saint Paul’s beliefs about what the Holy Spirit can accomplish among us is intimately tied to his expectations for the community into which Jesus will build Christians, and Paul’s expectations for our community are as impressive as California’s towering forests.

The Spirit empowers us to be a strong, vibrant, verdant community—like a grove of majestic sequoias—a community committed to reconciliation, forgiveness, mercy, and hospitality yielding a harvest of the Spirit’s fruit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

And Jesus—God’s love incarnate—our root beneath the surface, makes it all possible, for from him we receive new life and in him we are drawn toward one another.

Thou hidden source of calm repose,

Thou all sufficient love divine,

My help and refuge from my foes,

Secure I am if Thou art mine;

And lo! from sin and grief and shame

I hide me, Jesus, in Thy name.

In Galatians and throughout his writings, Saint Paul presents us with a vision for the people and community God calls the Church to be. And it’s a stunning vision of lively and loving relationship that tower over our lesser ambitions. Inspired by his vision, Paul also invites us to consider the holy root makes the vision reality. He leads us to Jesus, our hidden source of holiness.

You see, if Jesus is our root, then we are fed by God’s love, and if we are fed by God’s love, then we will have the faith and strength love others in Jesus’s name— especially the poor and vulnerable, especially the hurting and the neglected—and if we love in his name, then we will taste and see the goodness of God—the life giving fruit of God’s Spirit.

Thanks be to God for this this fruit.

Thanks be to God for Jesus.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

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