Sunday, June 17, 2012

Birds and Trees and the Living Stream

Last week, I met with your Senior Warden and Vestry and sent letters to members of the parish to share the news that I have accepted a position as chaplain to the Episcopal student center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My last official day at St Christopher’s will be August 14th, however the family and I will be taking some vacation time to move and rest, such that our last Sunday with our St Christopher’s family will be July 22.

I won’t preach about this news this morning - as Christians, it’s the Good News of Christ crucified and risen that we preach - but I do want to take a couple of moments at the outset to be present to a decision that obviously affects members of my St Christopher’s family whom I dearly love.

First, let me say a brief word about the ministry to which I believe God has called me. As I shared in my letter to you, I am very excited for the opportunity to work on a daily basis with university students at a uniquely formative time in their lives; I believe college ministry holds tremendous potential for the development of young, missional leaders committed to following the cross-shaped way of Jesus. My move to St Francis House comes in response to nudges of the Spirit toward campus ministry that Rebekah and I have been sensing in various ways for going on six years now. It’s an exciting, unknown step for us.

Second, I want to thank your Senior Warden and Vestry for their support of my decision, and I want to briefly let you know what you can expect in days ahead at St Christopher’s. At the next Vestry meeting, June 26, Bishop Lillibridge and Joann Saylors, our diocesan transitions officer, will meet with your Vestry to listen, speak, and partner with the Vestry to outline the transition process for St Christopher’s. Your bishops and the diocese are very committed to a smooth and productive transition for St Christopher’s. Following this initial meeting, your Vestry will share with you the next first steps as you seek the Spirit’s leading for St Christopher’s and as you begin discerning the call you will extend to the next Rector of St Christopher’s Church. As the process allows for congregational input and participation, I would encourage you to share your voice around the table. Your voice and your prayers are vitally important for the work of your Vestry and the life of your church.

Finally, I want to also speak briefly about St Christopher’s - our past three years together. As I reflected with Rebekah last week, she and I have lived with you and our Portland community together longer than any other community in our married life. You have very much been family and home to us, and it has been my joy and privilege to be among you as your priest. There have been challenges, of course, but also courage, resilience, patience, forgiveness, generosity, and love. In short, clear signs of Christ’ Spirit at work in our common life. I am grateful beyond words for the gift it has been to live these things with you. Thank you and bless you.

Now to the gospel...  It’s God’s sense of humor, I think, that the readings we are given this morning are full of trees. God’s sense of humor because the vision we shared when I first arrived was “Deeper in Christ. Wider for others.” And frequently this vision took the shape of a tree: deeper, roots down, wider in the reach of the branches. Roots down, walls down. A kind of meditation on Psalm 1 in which those who delight in the law of the Lord are called trees planted by streams of water; and, even 92, the psalm we read this morning, in which the righteous are said to flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Deeper and wider, we said, so that each one could go as deep in her faith as she had desire to grow and that the love of God encountered in this place would reach outside of this place with a breadth that could touch the lives of the larger community. Deeper and wider, with roots digging deep and branches reaching far.

In our reading today from Ezekiel, we learn that God will take a sprig from a cedar tree and plant it on top of a high and lofty mountain. And the sprig will itself become a noble cedar, and we learn enough about this cedar in the verses that follow to recognize the tree as Christ. And the tree of Ezekiel’s vision is quoted as it were in Mark’s gospel - the parable of the mustard seed - with the repeated language of a tree with branches broad and strong enough to bear birds of every kind.

Reading Ezekiel and Mark together, it is not hard to see that Christ is the tree in whom we have found branches on which to rest and make our home: Christ’s arms on the hardwood of the cross stretched wide enough to embrace the whole world; Christ on the cross becoming the second tree whose fruit is the return to paradise. And this is how he finds us, redeems us, and brings us like lost birds into the shelter and shade of the Father. “Behold, the wood of the cross: on which was hung the world’s salvation,” says the ancient hymn.

But wait, there is more to the story. As you know, you and I are reading this gospel lesson after the great feast of Pentecost, on which the Holy Spirit finds Jesus’ disciples and sets a holy fire to their souls. The Spirit comes among them and grafts them into the great vine of Christ. You and I are likewise grafted into the great vine of Jesus by virtue of the Spirit’s work at our baptisms. It’s not unlike the children’s game called ‘Octopus’ - or Red Rover - in that those whose who have been touched by the Kingdom now become an extension of the Kingdom’s reach. Having been washed in the water and having received Christ's Body on our hands and on our lips, we become the Body of Christ. You are the Body of Christ. You have not just found a safe home in the tree that is Jesus; you are a partner in the work of that tree.

So let’s look again at the mustard seed.

In 1906, Mabel Dearmer published a paraphrase of this morning’s gospel. Mabel was a clergy spouse and writer who wrote this particular paraphrase from the perspective of a teacher of small children one can imagine gathering around her as she unfolds the gospel story. Here’s how she tells it:

“The Kingdom of Heaven,” says our Lord, “is like a little grain of mustard that a man took and sowed in the ground. Now the mustard seed was so tiny that people had made a proverb of its tininess: they said, ‘small as a mustard seed.’ And yet tiny as this seed was, when grown it became the greatest of all the garden herbs, in fact, compared to the other herbs, it became a tree so that the birds could even sit in it.”

“The tiny seed of God’s truth planted in your heart, and in mine, may grow into such a mighty impulse that our whole character may be changed, it may go on growing until we become like a great living tree giving quiet shade in the heat and affording a resting-place to the birds of the air.”

The tiny seed of God’s truth - Christ himself - planted, received in your heart and mine, that it may grow into such a mighty impulse that our whole character may be changed. Make no mistake, Christ is the seed and so also the tree in which we find our salvation. But Mabel is also writing about the miracle of Christ alive in us - become a great living tree in and through us - the People of God - to give quiet and rest to the birds of the air. Mabel’s words bring the reminder that the tree is not simply a static, life-giving oasis to be discovered by a lucky wanderer but it is an active producer of shoots up and out and into the world, and you and I are the shoots that seek and grow into and  bear the image of Christ to and for others. The mighty impulse of Christ in us changes our character to be like his. The word Christian means a little Christ, and you embody the Body - God’s Church - in the world.

As I imagine the seed of Christ planted in my soul and yours - this mighty impulse - I think of St Paul, writing to the Ephesians concerning the purpose of the gifts that God gives his saints - every gift given so that the saints would be equipped for the building up of the body of Christ until all of us grow - and here I am imagining trees again, deeply  rooted and far reaching - into the measure of the full stature of Christ.

That glorious and mighty impulse: a character shaped after and at the hand of the one we worship and adore.

This is what the Spirit does, living in you, making you (making us) more and more to resemble God’s Son. Making us Christians - literally, little christs - or sibling trees, if you like, in the arbor of God. So planted, we drink of the Spirit, the living water of God, and remember the waters that first gave birth to this life at our baptisms.

Let me ask you: what does such a tree look like? What exactly do we grow to look like as the Spirit grows in us - by that mighty impulse - the character of God’s Son?

Surely, I think, a tree can be known by its fruit, and we remember the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Still. if this is what we hope to look like, how do we hope with God’s help to cultivate our lives to yield this fruit?

(There’s a hint in my question: “with God’s help”.) Of course we’re talking about baptism again - the waters which begin and sustain our life in Christ, our life in the Spirit. We’re talking just now about five questions we’ve talked about before - questions that have everything to do with the depth of our roots and the reach of our branches. Questions that embody our belief that in Jesus Christ, incarnate, crucified and risen, God has reconciled all things to himself.

And these are the five questions: Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?

May we forever be people - and one people together - who are planted by the stream of the Spirit and the waters of baptism. And may we grow to bear the character of Christ to the world - the world he saved through that marvelous, holy tree.


Sermon preached at St Christopher's, June 17, 2012.

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