Sunday, June 18, 2006

A church as lovely as a tree

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BTW, that's me in the garth at Nashotah House.

Homily for 18 June (Proper 6)

With the commemoration of the risen Christ ascending into heaven, and the birth and empowerment of the Church at Pentecost, followed by a celebration of the Church’s heritage of the Catholic Faith on Trinity Sunday, now the interior of the church is spotted with green, and we turn our attention to the kingdom that God has planted in our very midst and is even now bringing forth life and giving growth. So we now look at the parables of Jesus, and seek to learn lessons about how to be the kind of Christians that God would have us be.

"With what shall we compare the kingdom of God?" Today we begin with the story of the kingdom as a tree. Thinking of a tree, the story begins long ago, when our collective memory began, living in the lush garden of earthly delights, made for the king’s pleasure. We are told in Genesis 2:8-9, "And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he has formed. And out of the ground, the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil."

You are familiar with the story. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, in their vanity, distrusted and envied God our Father, transgressing the only law, partaking of the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Their knowledge came by experience; where once they had only known good, now they had tasted of evil—an appealing but bitter fruit. In his mercy, God did not want them to continue forever in this state of sin, so they were removed from the tree of life and cast from the king’s garden. With time for repentance, access to that tree would be restored.

It is perhaps from that early memory and longing that the Patriarchs of Israel naturally worshipped in the outdoor shrines of a sacred grove of trees. Of all places, the whisper of God would be best heard under a tree. When Abraham entered Canaan, his family stopped at Shechem. There, at a sacred tree—the oak of Moreh—Abram sees God who reveals, "I will give this land to your family." Abraham planted a grove of trees as Beersheeba. The Lord appeared to him again at the oak of Mamre in the guise of three angels who signified for the Christian Church the divine persons of the Trinity. The Isarealite thought it fitting bury the revered Prophetess Deborah close the Lord’s dwelling, under the oak tree at Bethel. Need we be reminded how the Lord first appeared to Moses?

These ancient trees were dressed with hangings to signify God’s presence (see 2 Kings 23:7). Graham Hancock, former reporter for the Economist gave this description of the sacred groves of the Qemant, a judaized animist group in Ethiopia: "Gnarled and massive, the acacia was so ancient that it would have been easy to believe it stood there for hundreds and perhaps even for thousands of years. . . . what made this site so different from any other place of worship I had come across in my travels—was the fact that every branch of the tree to a height of about six feet off the ground had been festooned with woven strips of vari-coloured cloth. Rustling in the wind, these waving pennants and ribbons seemed to whisper and murmur—almost as if they were seeking to impart a message." You can imagine how it this ancient tree would recall the voice of God calling out from the flames of fire in the midst of a bush.

A tree (which can wither, be pruned, or even chopped down) is also used as a sign of God’s judgment throughout the scriptures. In our Old Testament reading today, the tree illustrates God’s prophetic warning against the nations. In this oracle against Egypt, Ezekiel warns Pharaoh of his impending downfall. Using the imagery of a magnificent cedar tree, Ezekiel compares Egypt’s inevitable demise to that of Assyria, saying because "its heart was proud of its height", the Lord made an example of the tree by allowing it to be cut down and destroyed by foreigners.

The fall of this once mighty tree serves as a warning to Egypt and others that would "grow to lofty height or set their tops among the clouds". Ultimately, the lesson of Assyria’s fall contained hope for Judah’s rise, but the rebuilding would have to be done in humble obedience to the Lord’s revealed purposes as the planter and grower. God will not accept our replacement tree—that is the sin which goes back Eden. And he may in righteous judgment give our attempts to make our own church apart from his will over to those who are foreign to the values of the gospel, to be cut down and trampled upon like that great cedar of Lebanon. But he does offer us redemption, seeking to graft us into his own tree of life. He plants this tree with the seeds of the gospel, waters it with grace, and tends this tree with his guidance and fatherly discipline, as St John described, pruning off dead branches that do not bear the fruits of the Spirit’s life within them.

In today’s gospel from St Mark, Jesus gives us first a parable of the seeds, pointing to the growth of God’s Kingdom as a divine mystery rather than as the result of human accomplishment. The one who scatters the seeds does nothing about its growth. He sleeps at night and rises in the morning to observe that seemingly without effort, the grain is ripe. He then takes his sickle to harvest the crop. In like manner, the seeds of the Kingdom have been planted through the ministry of Jesus, and will inevitably produce a harvest that the disciples must reap, so they are to be ready when the crop is ripe for harvest.

Jesus’ second parable, about a mustard seed, shows how great things come from small and seemingly unpromising beginnings. A mustard seed is so small that it is barely visible—yet the mustard plant itself grows much larger than plants from larger seeds and spreads quickly. We cannot explain how God's Kingdom, like the mustard seed, is able to grow to so many times its original size and so rapidly. We can only say that it is the Lord's doing.

By proclaiming that God’s Kingdom is like a mustard seed, Jesus is declaring his confidence that the work he has begun will grow and sustain life. The shrub grows so large that "birds of the air can make nests in its shade". What might appear to others as a pesky little weed is really the beginning of God’s new garden. Unlike the lofty tree in the passage from Ezekiel for today, the mustard plant is a symbol of God’s grace and abundance rather than of pride and judgment.

Jesus has proclaimed that the Kingdom is near; yet its fullest manifestation is in the future. And the same holds true for us. The divine King has raised wonderful things in his garden, yet there is more watering and pruning and growth to come in this new Eden, surrounding that tree of life in the midst of the garden.

Remember we said before that the tree of life from Eden would be restored to us. In God’s time, we came to see that tree as the life-giving cross of Christ. Indeed, we may say that the tree of life is Christ himself. Solomon’s bride, the Sulamite woman, sings of her lover in Song of Songs 2:3, "As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste."

An early American folksong also captured this idea, sung by the bride of Christ (the Church): "The tree of life my soul hath seen, / Laden with fruit, and always green: / The trees of nature fruitless be / Compared with Christ the apple tree." The tree of Christ brings grace and healing to hurt and suffering, undoing the wound of sin, bringing life where death once reigned. St Peter wrote, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness" (1 Pet 2:23).

One of the earliest Anglo-Saxon poems (the "Dream of the Rood") calls it the the "triumph-tree" on which the great warrior conquered sin and death winning for us the victory of salvation by shedding his blood. As we in God’s household are the mystical Body of the living Christ—living members joined to the Son—so also we are grafted into the tree of life, into Christ, the living and true vine, to live and grow and bear his fruit. It is through Jesus that we bring forth life and give growth.

One thing that intrigued American poet Joyce Kilmer, is the tree’s constant and intimate communion with God. Before such a powerfully reverent creation, he can only sense his own inadequacy and weakness. We humans can produce wonderful, eloquent poetry, but what is a poem, which emerges from our frail quills; compared to the timeless wisdom embodied in a something like a tree, a simple yet infinitely complex creation wrought by the marvelous hand of God? So it is with the mystery of the Catholic Church—the marvelous Kingdom of God in paradise, in heaven, and on earth. It is a fruitful green tree which the Lord himself has created, planted, watered, and raised up in bodily growth to his glory.

With that application in mind, let us consider again Kilmer’s words:

I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the earth’s sweet flowing brest;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray,
A tree that may in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain,
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

Only God can make a church.

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