Sermon Transcript 12.3.23 Advent 1: Advent in Plain Sight: Trees
We light the candle of hope. We move into the new Christian year. We begin Advent, a time of preparation for the birth of Christ; for the return of Christ. An opening of heart and mind for the presence of Christ. This year we began a new tradition and became part of Christmas on the Bricks. We hosted a wonderful Nativity Showcase. We had 110 different nativity sets or parts thereof down in Fellowship Hall. We had about 80 members of the community come by to observe those. We truly exceeded my expectations and I'm looking forward to expanding on it next year. You may know that the nativity set that we so love was basically an invention of St Francis of Assisi in the 1200s. Most of the people he was ministering to could not read. Bibles were not readily available - that didn't happened until the 1500s and the invention of the printing press. So, how to teach the story… and so he developed the nativity scene from Matthew and Luke's stories and presented it as a festival. And if we get picky… I was talking last week about being picky… enforcing rules… when do you sing Christmas hymns. When is this permissible when is that? and well I think sometimes those boundaries are important. You know I would like us to start celebrating Christmas on December 25th and celebrate it for 12 days after… but that is not how our culture is wired. That's not how most of us are wired. I was talking to Pat this morning and she said you know if we don't start mixing in some Christmas hymns people will revolt. The Advent hymns are often dreary! Sing some Christmas hymns and then when we get to December 25th when we're supposed to start singing those joyful hymns most of us are done because we've been hearing them since Thanksgiving!
How important is drawing that line?... but back to the nativities… you may know that if you read Luke there are no wise men. Luke talks of shepherds. The lonely, the dirty and smelly, a kind of outcast become the first to hear! It is a profoundly important story and it is important to hold it on its own. The Angels coming to the lowly shepherds in the fields - come and see!
If you read Matthew… Matthew doesn't mention the shepherds at all. Matthew instead tells about the Magi, these mysterious, foreign, noble visitors from the East who have traveled for perhaps 2 years to find the Christ child. The Shepherds and the wise men according to scripture don't meet at a stable… they're different storie…s in different times. Both of those stories are important to hear on their own - and poinder and meditate on – each on its own and yet it is certainly also appropriate to proclaim the story of the wise foreigners and the lonely shepherds coming together even though Scripture never tells that story explicitly it is kind of the point of both. That all peoples and nations may see…
That's one of the reasons I want to talk about things like trees in Advent. You can find online… well… you can find an argument about anything online, but people will argue “well we shouldn't use Christmas trees because they're a pagan symbol” and there's some truth to that. Evergreen bows brought into the house around the solstice as a fertility ritual, there's truth to that… and yet we have taken that symbol and now the Christmas tree is a celebration of all that is Holy and one could further argue we have taken that symbol the Christmas tree is a celebration of all that is commercial.
You have to make your choices and identify your symbolism and proclaim what you believe while holding it loosely, for me it is about recognizing the sacred even in the midst of ordinary things. We talk about dividing the sacred and the secular and I don't really believe that's possible. We can ignore one or the other, but God is in the world. There is nothing that is absent from God's love. God waits patiently for us to turn, to embrace God's grace, to be transformed but we are never, at least as I believe, ultimately separated from God. Nothing can separate us from the love of God… except our own blindness to the sacredness that is all around us.
The scriptures talk often of trees. There are astounding number of verses that talk about trees and just the snippets we've read today, God uses trees as an example of God's favor; of God's creativity; of God's love in unexpected places. Different kinds of trees will sprout up together. The wilderness is transformed by the Cyprus and the Cedars of Lebanon, by the Myrtle that flowers so beautifully, by the Olive Tree that continuously expands and lives not just for centuries but for millennium, bearing good fruit that to this day drives the economies of the Middle East. These different kinds of trees. The Acadia that sprouts providing shade in the desert. When I was little I didn't have any of those kinds of trees available to me. I'm not sure I'd even heard of most of those kinds of trees. I was vaguely aware of cedar because it made closets smell really good, but I had no idea where it came from. But I had an oak tree in our yard and the neighbor had a maple tree and there was a willow at my friend's house, right by a creek that was one of our favorite places to hide. The branches would droop and they often look sad to people, but it's one of the most joyful memories of my childhood is playing all kinds of things under that weeping willow. And when I was a kid, one of our treats was to go out to eat at a place called Mesquite Grill. They were a novelty in Wichita because they imported their firewood all the way from Texas! Where they had these weird, gnarly trees that smell really good and made meat taste even better. I got to thinking … I I've told you before I grew up in a Protestant household in a Catholic neighborhood and when I was a kid Northern Ireland was the place that was in the news all the time and my best friend and I would talk about how if we had just been born somewhere else we'd be mortal enemies and at that time one set of my grandparents truly believed another of my grandparents, who they dearly loved and liked were going to hell because they didn't worship properly and we talked about that and I got to thinking about these different trees, this Oak and Maple and Willow and Mesquite that shaped my young childhood and I asked my friend Ken one time what's the right way to be a tree? Is there one true tree and the rest of them have it wrong? I don't think so. These are created by God. These are signs of God's life and favor. We are supposed to be different.
Later I had the privilege of spending time in Colorado when I fell in love with the Aspen and Aspen are not trees as we think of them… those are branches the tree! The “trunk” of these trees is actually underground. It's a completely different way of being a tree. They stand tall and shimmer in the wind and they're so beautiful.
One of the playgrounds I played in as a kid there were Elm trees it was some sort of replanting to preserve the American Elm. There was a disease wiping them out and the City of Wichita had this park that was rejuvenating them and again one of those deep conversations my friend Ken and I had was how these Elms… if you take their leaf, if you study their DNA, they are identical and yet they're in the same place and yet they grew differently. Each one had a slightly different encounter with ground and air and light and so they would branch out differently even though they were exactly the same. Similar and different. The trees give us some insight into the God who is with us. God who loves. God who is unchanging and yet has the patience to wait for us to change. Too many of us read parts of scripture and we hold diametrically opposed ideas of God. We worship the infant in the cradle as if that God is somehow completely different from the angry vengeful God of Revelation. The God we proclaim does not change - perhaps our understanding is incomplete. Perhaps we have become fixated on one way of being a tree or we've forgotten that there are different ways of encountering light and air and soil that each reveals a part of the unchanging whole that is God's love.
We read scriptures of God's creativity in the beginning; of God's restoration at the end. I want to I want to share with you another scripture about trees. This from the first few verses of Psalm 1. The psalmist writes “happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked or take the path that sinners tread or sit in the seat of scoffers, but their delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water which yield their fruit in its season and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do they prosper….” like that Willow planted by a creek, its roots deep in fertile soil, nurtured. Those who study God's law, those who live by it prosper, the psalmist says.
These beautiful trees that show off their differences, that draw us into unity. Living Waters. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says “whoever believes in me, as scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” We are called to be diverse trees. We are called to be planted near the streams of God’s love. To become those who bear living water to nourish and encourage others. To live in community in the diversity of God's creation, as the body of Christ. We are called to transform the world, not by imposing what we believe, but by living it out so fruitfully that others are drawn to what we have seen. For us to be drawn to the fruitfulness of others, whose traditions and understanding and practices might be different than our own but reveal to us some part of the wholeness of God.
You know too often our way of doing Church in Western Christianity, teaches us that there is a right answer. We're supposed to learn it when we're very young, in Sunday school and then never ever allow our idea to change. To strike down those who disagree with us. I've been reading about trees and I'm reading this devotion and refusing to allow our ideas of God to grow is like taking the leaves that fall so beautifully from the trees this time of year and gluing or clothes pinning them on so that nothing can change.
It won't work! The tree will decay. It would actually harm the new growth next spring. We are not called to be stagnant. We are called to live and grow and to change, to bear fruit, to become more like the unchanging God - to become love itself that takes the other in. but we don't take that as an endorsement of all we think or do. The scriptures are full of cautions against God's wrath. My own theology emphasizes God’s grace, but we are to wrestle with these passages. That which is not fruitful is chopped down, pruned, winnowed - the chaff is burned but too often we take that literally and in a self-serving way. We think of the other people (who are, of course, wrong!) as the chaff and we as the whea…t in fact we are all a mixture of both! That process of learning and growing is to draw closer to God, to be more fruitful, to be more complete. We do not do it alone. We do it in unity with others. One who is coming, whose sandals we are not worthy to untie, and yet that God loves us. That God becomes like us! To show us the way. That God comes not in triumph and control but in the cry of an infant, born to a marginalized people on the fringes of society. The Magi from afar and the shepherds from the field are invited to come and worship. You and I are invited to come and worship… and to follow… and to be transformed. We're confident that God will judge not just the sheep from the goats, but those parts of ourselves that are not fruitful from those parts of ourselves that are. As Ezekiel said last week, the sheep themselves will be separated.
All these different metaphors for moving towards wholeness, to learning that which we have held dear that we turn out to be wrong about - to be transformed because we have a different kind of King we have a King that suffers with us. That calls us to wholeness. That calls us to humility. A kingdom that sprouts like weeds, that takes over the garden and provides shelter for the birds of the air. Wild things, untamed become part of the Kingdom. We do greater things if we are fruitful. If our lives produce the Fruit of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Then, to switch metaphors again, we are like trees planted by streams of Living Water, living water flows forth from us, the world is nourished by the hope of Advent, by the hope of our lives. That's what I believe. Thanks be to God. Amen!