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.

June 5, 2016

Tearful & Slobbering

Luke tells us that Jesus raised up a woman’s only son in a place called Nain.

Psalm 146 identifies God as a friend to outcasts and the put-upon, the One who “lifts up those who are bowed down” and “upholds the orphan and the widow.”

First Kings recalls a moment in the ministry of Elijah in which God heeded the prophet’s prayer and raised up the widow of Zarephath’s son.

From the life of Jesus to Israel’s ancient prophets and beyond, the witness of scripture invites us to ponder the mercy and grace God shares with those who suffer. However, in light of this witness and confronted by a generation predisposed to skepticism, people of faith do well to ask an essential question.

If God cares for widows, orphans, outcasts, and all who suffer, then why do they suffer in the first place?

Why tragedy?

Why cancer?

Why miscarriage?

Why suffering?

Why, God, why?

“Why?” is a bedrock question. It’s one of the first questions children learn to ask, yet it fuels some of life’s greatest quests for meaning and understanding.

“Why?” is a profound question that deserves an honest answer. It’s often the case, however, that humanity shies away from this question by pressing down inquiries and lashing out instead.

We come up with platitudes to spare ourselves from wrestling with the reality of pain and sorrow.

We identify scapegoats and assign blame.

We convince ourselves that horrible things can’t happen to us.

Ultimately, our desire to avoid suffering and those who suffer can even lead us to inflict more pain.

We judge.

We shun.

We assume that they must’ve done something to cause this.

I think this is particularly true for believers who often succumb to the temptation to respond to the reality of suffering as if it were a referendum on God’s fitness to be God and act as if we must keep the sorrowful at arm’s reach lest we be accused of second guessing God’s inscrutable wisdom.

This is, of course, the exact opposite of Jesus’ example.

A passage from one of William Sloane Coffin’s most memorable sermons illustrates this point well.

Rev. Sloane Coffin was the pastor of Riverside Church in Morningside Heights from 1977 to 87. During his ministry there, he had to carry the heavy cross of eulogizing his own son, Andrew, who died a few months short of his graduation from Boston University.

On January 11, 1983, Andrew’s car careened into Boston Harbor. His passenger escaped, but Andrew did not.

Ten days later Andrew’s father spoke these words from Riverside’s historic pulpit.

The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister's house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, "I just don't understand the will of God." Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. "I'll say you don't, lady!" I said.
I think it’s worth noting that there’s nothing uniquely awful about the brunch-bearing family friend Sloane Coffin took to task. In fact, given the decades he spent in pastoral ministry, I suspect that the noted preacher could provide a few examples from his career in which the roles were reversed and he played the part of the person trying to fill an uneasy silence with an unhelpful platitude.

I know that I’ve done that and I’m also sure that some of you have been on both the giving and receiving ends of empty efforts at comfort.

Our experience, then, proves the truth of words C.S. Lewis wrote in the wake of his wife’s death.

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand.
At our core, I think suffering scares us—we don’t want any part of it—and that fear impedes our ability to be truly present to those who are suffering by producing the wall of clich├ęs behind which we try to hide our true selves.

“God wanted another angel.”

“You’re young. Just get pregnant again.”

“Everything happens for a reason.”

Back at Riverside Church, Rev. Sloan Coffin sought to keep his flock from peddling in phrases like these. In doing so, I believe he led them, as he leads us now, to a point of powerful encounter with the living God.

The sermon continued.

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels…The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is "It is the will of God." Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.
If our faith speaks anything to us about the reality of suffering—if our faith speaks anything at all about our deepest needs—it isn’t that God offered us lengthy treatises and precise philosophical proofs about human suffering.

If we have anything to say it is to allow Jesus—God’s gift of God’s self in the flesh—the same Jesus who loved those who suffered, who ministered to those who suffered, who cried real tears with those who suffered, and who ultimately suffered, too—if we have anything to say it is to allow Jesus to speak through our actions.

From the life of Jesus to Israel’s ancient prophets and beyond, the witness of scripture invites us to ponder the mercy and grace God shares with those who suffer, for it is in pondering these things that we find our courage, our hope, our comfort, our mission, our Lord.

So, why suffering? Why tragedy? I don’t know.

But my faith shows me that Jesus walked with those who suffered and sat with those who suffered, and I believe he walks and sits with us in our sorrow, too.

He loved people who were in the midst of life’s tearful and slobbering mess and offered them himself, and so should we.

Having drawn so much from Rev. Sloan Coffin today, it seems right to allow him to have this last word. This is how his sermon closed.

As the grief that once seemed unbearable begins to turn now to bearable sorrow, the truths in the "right" biblical passages are beginning, once again, to take hold: "Cast thy burden upon the Lord and He shall strengthen thee"…"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

I know that when Alex beat me to the grave, the finish line was not Boston Harbor in the middle of the night. If a week ago last Monday, a lamp went out, it was because, for him at least, the Dawn had come.

So I shall — so let us all — seek consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.

Let it be so with us and let us give thanks to God for this Good News. Amen.