The Hope and Joy of the Tree
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 12 December 2021 [Advent 3]:
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do, John [the Baptist] exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin. And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father’. Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there – children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire… There was a lot more of this – words that gave strength to the people, words that put heart in them. [It was] The Message! [Luke 3:7-9, 18] – trans. The Message
What do you think? Would you want John the Baptist to be your priest? Would he be the one you would call in a hospital crisis? (Some among us believe that John the Baptist is already here!) Yet, whatever your feelings happen to be about John’s approach, his tone, his message, at the heart of his proclamation lies an important, albeit implicit question. How can we talk about hard, factual things without losing hope?
On this Advent 3, Rose Sunday”, “Rejoice” Sunday, I want to raise this question with you and apply its focus to our life at St. Philip’s, all within the context of rejoicing: that is, being thankful.
Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. [Luke 3:9]
At the November meeting of your Vestry, the trustees of this parish church made a hard and consequential decision. After over a month of pressing discussion, the Vestry decided to cut down the huge maple tree that graces our front door. That work will be accomplished before Christmas, with plans being established for the spring to remove the huge silver maple tree branch that looms menacingly over the high altar and choir rooflines.
It’s easy for us to take these two trees for granted. In their grandeur and longevity, it is easy to admire them but ignore their condition and even to ignore the danger they present. When finally the issue of the front maple was taken in by the Vestry, feelings ran high about the prospective loss of such a lovely part of our physical plant, especially to our little garden that surrounds the front portico. My own feelings emerged not simply from the impact of losing such an irreplaceable giant but more from a sense of frustration: frustration stemming from the fact that the maple tree has increasingly struck me as a parable for our church.
As any experienced arborist will tell you, a maple like the one out front will generally only last about fifty years or so; and then it quite often starts to deteriorate, especially if regular care is withheld. As David Haines has counseled us (David being not only a retired arborist but also someone who has been a member of St. Philip’s since that tree was a sapling) – as David pointed out, our tree has been in decline for some time now, and our reticence to look at its condition and its needs has left it in a very sorry state, with broken branches dangling overhead, like spears poised to be unleashed below on the unsuspecting.
I said that for quite some time (several years in fact), I have looked at that maple tree and begun to see it as a parable of St. Philip’s life. And the thoughts that have brewed within me from this imagery are not easy to mention; nor are they easy to hear, which speaks to the question I am raising with you in this sermon: How can we talk about hard, factual things without losing hope? without being defensive? without pointing fingers? without closing our eyes?
It took the Vestry a good deal of time and energy and even more emotional courage to face the tree’s condition. We were forced to move beyond our respective feelings and opinions to learn the facts, which meant getting involved. The hard facts contradicted what we wanted; but they were, nonetheless, faced; and as I said action has been taken. I am now standing here before you, using the maple tree as an outward and visible sign of our common life. Do we care enough to pay attention to our condition? Will we be willing and able to take action to renew our church? What’s our legacy?
Look around: In ten to twenty years from now who in this gathered congregation will be gone? What will we do to make room for a new generation to take our places? What’s our legacy?
As someone once said to me in describing the attendance at another church, “the church was comfortably filled…You could lie down!” Like our maple tree, will we simply allow St. Philip’s to be “cut down”? Unlike our maple tree, our church – you and I – still have time to make a difference.
During the Vestry’s discussion about what to do about our tree, renewed conversation surfaced about various suggestions for improvement. Planting replacement trees in our church yard was an immediate suggestion. This recommendation resurrected the three-year-old idea of relandscaping the church’s street view and expanding the size of our meditation garden, with the explicit purpose of inviting those who pass by to come and sit, quietly and safely. Through this past fall’s “In-gathering” conversations, we also received many creative and thoughtful ideas to improve our viability in the community. But at this point, I will take on the hard, challenging mantle of John the Baptist and say hard, factual words to you. Of all the suggestions offered (and these suggestions are not only good suggestions; they might need to be done), none of them got to the real issue. While changing the paint color of our buildings’ exterior; or sprucing up the landscaping; or reorienting the church’s street sign; or increasing the outdoor lighting to make us more visible to the Main Street traffic; or making our meditation garden more invitingly useful – while all these suggestions might need to be done, none of them truly hit the mark and addresses our deepest need.
If someone comes to St. Philip’s because it looks like an inviting church, if someone comes to St. Philip’s because it looks well-cared for, if someone comes to St. Philip’s even because we do so much to minister to the Easthampton city community, we will still have missed the real mark, the real issue: namely, paying attention to the meaning of our faith, to the extent that we feel confident in inviting others to explore the God-life with us.
By and large, we are not very confident in our faith, at least to be able to respond to people’s questions about why on earth we care about being the church. We are not in a good position to help others follow Jesus as a life-changing, life-sustaining exploration. And so, as a church we are at risk of mirroring the state of our maple tree and more to the point as people, we lack being able to appreciate and talk about and appreciate a life that is stronger than death.
It has been a long time since we were able to gather in our parish hall; and I know from the In-gathering conversations that in this pandemic time just about everyone misses meeting together socially, sharing food, drinking coffee, catching up with one another in conversation, and just hanging out together. It’s been a long time of separation indeed; so we can’t be faulted for forgetting the four challenging questions that hang on the wall near the entrance door. I will mention them to you now as a context for us all to come to grips with our faith, to take responsibility for what we believe as Christ’s disciples, to the extent that we are confidently able to give an account of why we follow Jesus here at St. Philip’s.
The questions are these: What is the nature of your God? What is the content of your faith? What is the purpose of your prayer? What is the function of your church?
Be very clear: These questions have no, one answer. This is not about being right or wrong. It is about being aware of the place that the Christian faith plays in our lives and being prepared to invite others to join us as we grow and become stronger as God’s people.
It is interesting that after the Baptist rips those who came to hear him, many were evidently cut to the heart by his scalding words and asked him what they should do next, what changes they needed to make in their lives. The Baptist’s responses to their heartfelt inquiries all entailed the same message, “repent’: that is, a changing in the way the people thought about what truly brings life. “Repentance” means “turn around”, change your thinking and therefore your life. (The earth is not flat! But so many of us live as if it were.). “Turn around” so that you can see God calling you, beckoning you, inviting you, loving you. And this is what you will see, if and when you do turn around to look at God.
[The preacher extends and holds his arms forward toward the people].
And that, my brothers and sisters in Christ, as hard as it might be for us to “turn around” and look at God, is the reason always to “rejoice”. Thanking God is always a cause for joy. So, no matter what, we don’t lose hope. Amen.