Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Promise of Trees
(Goodbye to Dear Friends)

Sermon preached at St. Francis House on the 7th Sunday of Easter, Year B. The readings for the day are these: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26Psalm 11 John 5:9-13John 17:6-19. Tonight was also the last worship service of the 2014-15 academic year.

Tonight’s readings - assigned by the lectionary, which is completely oblivious to this being graduation Sunday - are nevertheless chock full of reminders, naming the truth that tonight we say good bye to good friends; tonight we say good bye to one another. Call it God’s sense of humor; maybe a wink from God to us through the scriptures this evening.

A mentor of mine, a long time ago, said to be sure to always say good bye. “That way,” he said, “you’ll know what to say when you see each other next: ‘Hello!’ If you don’t say good bye, though, you’ll wonder what to say later because you’ll wonder what you said last. When you inevitably come across each other in an unexpected moment, your hesitation will steal your joy.”

In our first reading, from Acts, we find the disciples, staring blankly at each other in the absence of the one that chose to leave them, Judas, wondering how they’ll ever replace him. Wondering if they can. He had been like a brother to them. He’d even kept the books! Replace the treasurer? Impossible. Unthinkable. Then, in a moment of brilliance, someone decides to draw lots. Done. Huh. Replacing a dear brother in Christ turned out to be easier than any of them imagined.

Of course, none of you is Judas. And if only it was that easy.

Sarah observed to me, as we walked out of the Engineering Building Monday morning - after watching Noah become Dr. Van Dam - that our community will have a Noah-shaped hole moving forward. Indeed. A Claire-shaped hole, too. With any luck, your friendship in the lives of our graduates will leave a you-shaped hole in them. A St. Francis House community-shaped hole in them. I hope so. That’s what love does. I hope you’ll stay in touch with each other. You better believe I’ll stay in touch with you, too.

So there’s Judas and the lots, in the first reading tonight. Then, in the gospel, the stakes of tonight’s good bye moment are ratcheted up, because Jesus is praying before leaving his friends. But, let’s be clear: you may be leaving, you might even be praying; none of you is Jesus. And yet, we aren’t without connection to this passage: as a faith community, sharing ordinary life together one semester at a time, God has sanctified us - has made you holy - in truth. And the God who once sent you into the world when you first landed here is sending you out once again, just like in Jesus’ prayer, out, into the world. Into the summer for some, before returning next fall. Into new jobs, new careers, for others. So tonight’s gospel reminds us that the love of Jesus’ prayer in these verses - the love that makes God’s children holy and sends them out into the world - is the same love that we share tonight.

Next week is the feast of Pentecost - the day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. So the readings today are really only secondarily about sending off friends, however well the theme fits. It’s not unrelated, but the primary theme is God’s promise not to leave you alone in the moment or place of your friendlessness - even the friendlessness that comes, for the disciples, with the departure of Jesus. 

Friendlessness doesn’t just happen when it feels like you don’t have friends. Friendlessness sometimes happens when your life’s journey begins a new chapter, when the adventure begins a new leg, or when a friend begins her new chapter and her adventure begins a next leg. Of course, even there, you are not without friends. They just aren’t as readily visible or accessible. 

When you begin a new chapter, a new leg, that feels daunting, unknown - toward the uncertainty of faithful next steps - God gives God’s promised Spirit. The Holy Spirit. So we prayed to God this evening, saying, “Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before…”

You may think you don’t know where you're going. In fact, you may be certain you don’t know what comes next. But your prayer, already, is to go, with God’s help, to the place where our Savior Christ has gone before. Your prayer, already, is to be made nearer and more like Christ. As you embark on the next leg of that journey, the Spirit of the living God goes with you. Promise. You are not alone.

I think that is why, for all the coming and going of friends in the scriptures tonight, the image that stirs my heart most comes, finally, from the psalms. 

Not surprisingly - when you look around this building, at the art - it’s a tree.

Strange, maybe, to appeal to a rooted tree in the heart of a season of transition and rootlessness, but I believe it is for exactly the rootless season, the time of transition, that the psalmist gives us the symbol of the tree, planted by streams of water, yielding fruit, flourishing, with un-withering leaves, and prosperous; a symbol for those being uprooted, in transition, because, after all, it is to the thirsty that our Savior comes as living water, and it is to the ones between homes that Christ comes, promising to make his home with them. This is the promise of trees.

In the beginning, the tree marked the center of the garden. In the shade of this tree, Adam and Eve knew friendship with God. Later, with Jonah, the tree served as a symbol that God’s friendship was meant for more than just Jonah. When Noah set the dove loose to bring back some sign of hope in a turbulent time, the sign of that hope was a branch from the tree, stretching high against the receding waters of hopelessness and despair. For Zacchaeus, a tree was the perch from which he found a view of the Savior he couldn’t have managed alone.

Friendship with God and one another. Hope in high water times. A perch from which to see the salvation of God. The cross of Christ, that most holy tree, became all these things for us and made possible John’s vision in Revelation in which we see the restoration of the friendship of that first tree’s shade:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Anticipating this vision in his mustard seed parable, Jesus tells about how, once upon a time, a seed grew up and into a tree in whose branches all the birds of the sky found a home. 

All of our homes before the final home we find in God are echoes and foretastes of the life we will only fully know beneath the shade of that tree by the crystal river. Along that journey, the community of faith is, with God’s help and through the rhythm of Word and sacraments, a miracle in which anticipation touches our current reality, where we experience friendship with God and one another. Signs of hope in high water times. A perch from which to see the salvation of God, and we nest in the branches of the love of God and the community of faith, love which calls each of us outside of ourselves and into the daring of love for others.

I thank God for the opportunity to have lived that rhythm with you in this place. 

Good bye. Christians say good bye because Christians expect the Spirit to move us. Grow us. Lead us. We are rooted pilgrims. Planted wanderers. Wandering and yet rooted. You are rooted as you leave. Planted by the stream. Remember the One whose waters sustain you, whose love for you goes with you, and whose life we have shared together. Thank you for trusting God’s love with one another.

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, 
nor lingered in the way of sinners, 
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water, 
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not whither;
everything they do shall prosper.


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