Sermon: Sunday, September 7, 2014: Forest Sunday, Season of Creation

Texts: Genesis 2:4b-22  +  Psalm 139:13-16  +  Acts 17:22-28  +  John 3:1-16

GivingTreeIt’s been 50 years since the publication of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree back in 1964.  How many of you have read it?  Did you know that Shel Silverstein grew up here in Logan Square?  Went to high school at Roosevelt, attended the University of Illinois.

The Giving Tree had a hard time making it to print.  Publishers thought it was too sad for kids and too simple for adults. Fifty years later it remains something of an enigma. Some people see in the story a parable about a mother’s self-sacrificing love for her child. Some see a story of narcissistic consumption. Some have called it a story of friendship, others a parable of Christ’s love. One reviewer called it a sado-masochistic fairy tale in which abuse is elevated to a virtue.

As we enter into the Season of Creation once again this year, a season in which we are encouraged to read scripture with a hermeneutic of creation or through the lens of God’s pronouncement at the end of each day that all that was made was “good,” I’m inclined to give the story a more straight forward reading as the tale of humanity and its relationship to trees.

The very fact that we might be inclined to read the story as an allegory for human relationships with one another, mother to child or friend to friend, shows how disconnected we have become from our sense of intimate interdependence with all of the rest of creation. The book of Genesis describes humanity and trees as coming from the same place,

Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being … Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food… (Gen. 2:7,9)

Like twins born of the same mother, humanity and the trees (which seem to stand in for all plant life) are fashioned from the same stuff. Furthermore, the author of this creation myth imagines that man was placed in the garden “to till and keep it.” (Gen. 2:15)  This sounds a little different than the creation myth that precedes this one, in which humanity is given dominion over the earth. Perhaps that’s why we give that other story precedence. Perhaps we prefer the idea of dominion over the more modest proposal that we simply take our place within creation as caregivers.


Shel seemed to retain that memory of common origins. At the beginning of his book the boy and the tree take delight in one another’s company. They play with one another, rest with one another, love one another. Anyone who uses these features as evidence of some deeper allegory really ought to spend more time watching children play outside. If you have, then you know that it’s perfectly normal to observe children taking deep delight in a tree, even loving one.

As the boy grows older, he loses interest in his first love and becomes preoccupied with other concerns. He needs to earn a living, so he takes the tree’s fruit.  He needs to build a house, so he takes the tree’s branches. Then, somewhere in the middle of his life, he finds that he has become deeply unhappy and he wants to escape, so he takes the tree’s trunk and builds a boat to get away. Stripped to a stump the tree is as unhappy as the boy.

McLaren_WeMakeTheRoadByWalking_smIn his new book We Make the Road by Walking, Brian McLaren discusses the tangled roots at the heart of our environmental crisis. He reminds us that billions of dollars are spent every year making us unhappy, which is the first step in getting us to spend our money on the solutions being proposed. “Wish you had a brighter smile? Ask your dentist about Zoom teeth whitening!” Well, I didn’t realize I wanted a brighter smile, but now that you mention it… Over and over again, in a million little ways, we’re being told to find fault with ourselves and to spend our time and our money chasing after the new and improved.

But it’s not just our pocketbooks or our time with family that takes the hit when we spend long hours slaving away as we sell those apples to buy that house, or that boat. It’s the forests, and the land, and the air, and the oceans that suffer right along with us. There is no way to address the environmental crisis in which we now find ourselves without addressing the addictive and exhausting cycles of mass consumption that degrade not only our souls but the planet as well.

I should say, by way of a plug for some of our fall programming, that McLaren also believes that one of the great gifts of our Christian faith is that it offers us practices, daily and weekly and seasonal and annual disciplines, that are meant to re-humanize us, to fortify us in the face of so many destructive messages that push us toward consumption as the answer to all our problems. If that’s a conversation you’d like to dive into more deeply, I can offer you two options.  One is to join the adult forum for the next six weeks from 9am to 10am, where we’ll be using a series of short video clips based on Brian’s book to structure our conversations about Christian faith, practice and identity. The other is to head to the bulletin board in the back of the sanctuary after worship and sign up to be part of a small group that will be reading We Make the Road by Walking together. But more on that later…

I suppose I read The Giving Tree as both descriptive and cautionary. To the extent that it describes humanity’s relationship with trees and the rest of God’s creation pretty accurately, it is descriptive.  Like partners in a crumbling marriage, we have grown apart from the rest of God’s creation which we were given to love and to cherish, to honor and respect. But it’s a children’s book as well, which suggests that Shel was aware that a new generation might make a new choice. That the boys and girls we seat on our laps as we flip the pages might notice how sad that man grew to be, how lonely he looked as he sat slumped over on his amputated friend’s stump. That our children are strong enough and sophisticated enough to handle a story that doesn’t resolve neatly. That its haunting images might linger with them, they way they’ve lingered with you and me for fifty years now. That we might remember how much we have loved the trees in our back yard, on the trail, in the forests, around the world. That we might repent of our rampant consumption and return to our roots, that place where we remember that we and all the rest of God’s creation come from the same ground.

It’s been a number of years now since our friend Sally Levin had her funeral service here at St. Luke’s. I thought of her as I read Paul’s words to the Athenians from Acts,

The God who made the world and everything in it, [the one] who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is [God] served by human hands, as though [God] needed anything, since [God] gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. (Acts 17:24-25)

As her body gave way to the pancreatic cancer within her, Sally and I talked about how she would have wished that her funeral could have taken place outside, among the trees, where she loved to spend her days. She knew that the God who made her and loved her wasn’t locked behind the doors of the church, but in and throughout everything that grows up from the ground. She believed there was nothing we could build that could improve on what the Creator had already planted. Even as her body released its hold on life, her mind was already being renewed. She had a sense of that second birth that Jesus was trying to describe to Nicodemus, the being born that happens after we have grown old.

Since we could not hold her funeral outdoors, we decided to bring the trees inside, and as her friends entered the sanctuary on the day of her funeral they processed carrying fallen branches from the trees all around this neighborhood where she had raised her children, the same neighborhood where Shel Silverstein grew up. Who knows? Maybe even the same trees they had both loved.

As we move through this season of creation; as we chart the journey of creation, alienation, passion and new creation that is our story as Christians; as we reconnect and reconcile with our siblings — the forests, the land, the wilderness, and the rivers — we are invited to open our hearts and minds to the Holy Spirit, which is always reaching out, working its tendrils into the spaces between our past and our future to renew and restore us here and now.



Sermon: Sunday, February 5, 2012: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Texts:  Isaiah 40:21-31  •   Psalm 147:1-11, 20c  •   1 Corinthians 9:16-23  •   Mark 1:29-39

It’s hard for us to remember, when we gather in such a beautiful, majestic sanctuary that for the first three centuries of the church, we Christians met for worship in people’s homes. In fact, the oldest known site of Christian worship, which was discovered almost a century ago by French and American archaeologists in eastern Syria – just over the border from Iraq in the ancient city of Dura-Europus, was a house church.

Dura Baptistry Jesus Walks on WaterThe Dura-Europus house church is a significant archaeological find because of what it teaches us about early Christian worship. The building was first and foremost a home. A family lived there. Joined to the family home was a separate gathering hall, which would have been the gathering place for the Christians of that community. There was a baptistry attached to the main hall, and the painted frescos in that room are very likely the oldest Christian paintings in existence – sort of like our version of the Paleolithic cave paintings in Lascaux, France. These paintings depict Christ as the Good Shepherd, the stories of the healing of the paralytic, Christ and Peter walking on water, and the Samaritan woman at the well – wonderfully appropriate paintings for a place where baptisms take place, reminding us that Jesus came to tend for the lost, heal the sick, strengthen faith and reconcile divisions.

The gospel of Mark seems interested in what goes on in people’s homes as well, as this morning’s reading demonstrates. Following directly from the text we read last week, where Jesus entered the synagogue to heal the man with the unclean spirit, Jesus moves immediately to the home of Simon Peter and his brother, Andrew, where Peter’s mother-in-law is sick in bed.

You’ll remember that in last week’s text, people marveled at how Jesus taught with authority, though we aren’t told just what it was that Jesus was teaching. Something similar happens here. Jesus enters Peter’s home, and is told that the woman of the house is ill. He takes her by the hand and lifts her up and she is healed. Immediately she begins to serve him. Word gets out and by evening every sick or possessed person in town has been brought to Jesus for healing, and Jesus is seen working overtime to meet the needs of the people.

The next morning Jesus has to get up early to find a moment of solitude so that he can pray. When his disciples finally track him down and tell him that there are still people looking for him, presumably seeking the same healing Jesus gave to so many others, Jesus says, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also.” As in the synagogue, we still haven’t heard what the message is. Jesus is teaching by his actions. Where he is, the powers of evil are pushed back and people are healed. It is all the preaching anyone seems to need.

So the story so far in Mark’s gospel is that Jesus has gone to the synagogue only to find people suffering there under the power of unclean spirits, and Jesus has gone into people’s homes where they are suffering under the powers of sickness and death, and wherever Jesus goes people are healed. This isn’t the last time Jesus enters private homes to teach and to heal (which, in Jesus’ classroom seem to be tightly related). Soon afterwards he returns to Capernaum and word gets out that he is home and people are drawn to him for healing. Then Jesus is seen dining in the home of Levi, the tax collector, with many sinners and tax collectors in his presence. In the 7th chapter of Mark, Jesus enters a home in Tyre and the gospel says, “he entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice…” and what happens next changes the course of his ministry. A Syrophoenician woman brings her sick daughter to Jesus for healing, and Jesus is challenged to make the blessings of his healing ministry available to all people, regardless of their background, ethnicity or nationality.

These things all happen in homes, not in synagogues. The frequency with which the home is depicted as the site of Jesus’ ministry has led some biblical scholars to speculate that Mark’s gospel was written among and directed toward the many early Christians gathering in house churches throughout the ancient Roman world. Over and over again, Jesus is seen challenging the public piety of the people in the synagogue and temple, and meeting people in the everyday circumstances of their lives, in their homes, for teaching that looks like healing.

Naked SpiritualityThis feels like a serendipitously timely text, given that we’re about to begin a set of small group studies this coming week. You’ve read in your bulletins and you’ve heard during the announcements that beginning this Wednesday and Thursday, members of St. Luke’s and members of Luther Memorial (a sister site up in Lincoln Square) will be gathering together to read and discuss Brian McLaren’s new book, Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words. The Wednesday group, which is Co-Ed and at which there will be childcare, will meet here at St. Luke’s from 6:30pm – 8pm. The Thursday night group, which is for women and at which there will not be childcare, will be meeting in people’s homes from 6:30pm – 8pm.

As many of you who have participated in previous small groups here at St. Luke’s, and perhaps elsewhere, can attest – these gathering times are often filled with teaching that feels like healing. Sunday morning worship, the heartbeat of Christian community that gathers us in and breathes fresh life into us through Word and Meal before pumping us back out into circulation in the world, is only one – though the primary one – practice or habit of Christian discipleship. Gathering in each other’s homes for study, and shared meals, and prayer is another practice – and one that connects us with the experiences of the earliest Christians.

Listen again to what happens when Jesus enters the home of a disciple, in this case, Peter. When Jesus enters Peter’s home he discovers that someone in that house is ill. How often we hide our illnesses from the world, whether they be literal injuries or illnesses, or figurative ones. Our congested heads or our congested lives. Our broken bones or our broken relationships. Jesus enters the home and takes Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand, lifting her up from her sick bed.

What would it look like for Jesus to enter your home? If we take seriously what we declare to be true every time we baptize an infant or an adult, that in these waters we become a part of the body of Christ, then what would it look like for Jesus to enter your home? Might it look like one of the people here, in this room, this morning, knocking on your door and asking to come in?

What would it look like for Jesus to enter your home and take you by the hand? If we, seated here, are members of the body of Christ, might it look like one hand holding another, joined in prayer for the members of your household, of every household?

And, what might happen if the body of Christ were to enter your home and heal you? What would you do next? Would you stay in bed, happy for a few more hours of rest? Well, perhaps. I mean, just to catch up on lost sleep, and we could let that slide without making too much of it. But then what? What would you do if the burdens of your life were made lighter by the healing presence of the community of Christ in your home?

I’m not certain, but my hunch is that you would rise to your feet and put yourself in service of the many others in this church, and in our community, that are in need of healing. I am willing to venture that guess, because it’s what I’ve seen you do. I see you shouldering the heavy loads of insane work demands and painful ailments in your bodies, and still you show up to feed our hungry neighbors and make this place warm and inviting for the many who share our church home for their own ministries of healing and art.

There’s a strand of biblical criticism that chaffs at the story of Peter’s mother-in-law rising from her illness only to immediately begin serving Jesus and the disciples. In Mark’s gospel however, everything is happening immediately, as if to suggest to us that the world is being transformed before our very eyes. There is, what our seminarian Francisco has been saying to the small group he leads on Thursday nights, a “breathlessness” to the gospel of Mark – a sense that something amazing is happening, and that we are being drawn into it. When Peter’s mother-in-law rises from her illness, the Greek word describing her service to the disciples is diakonia, the same word from which we draw the title “deacon.” This woman, whom Jesus heals, is subtly named a deacon of the church.

I’ve seen that happen when members of St. Luke’s gather in the home as well. I recall that, about a year ago, some of the young women here at St. Luke’s were gathering in each other’s home to read Joan Didion’s memoir of the year of grief that followed the death of her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking. In the book, Didion remembers the many people who just showed up at her door with hot meals so that she wouldn’t have to worry about preparing meals as she wandered, lost in her grief. The women in the small group recalled the many times they’d seen their own mothers prepare a meal for someone in the church or in the neighborhood after a surgery, or a death in the family. And it dawned on them, that they too were now deacons of the church, people drawn from healing into service. They came to me and asked if they could please be made aware of people who might need or enjoy a home cooked meal. I know that some of you here have enjoyed the blessings of those meals.

This is what happens when Jesus enters our homes. We are healed and we are called into service. This is why we are working hard to create new and different opportunities in the coming weeks and months for you to gather in one another’s homes. It is a part of your Christian education and formation, to be sure, but it is more than that as well. Like Jesus, who teaches with authority even when we don’t know the content of his sermons, we are discovering that the learning that lasts is the learning that meets us in our homes; in the intimate places of our lives, the places where unclean powers need to be named and driven out; where sickness is keeping us from service.

Sisters and brothers, the house church is alive and well in our day and age. It is not an alternative to the synagogue or the sanctuary, it is an extension of this place… like the extension you add to the dinner table so that it can fit just a few more people around. The words on which we here feast, the meals which we here share, are too rich to be digested in just one day. Open your doors, open your hearts, open your lives to the body of Christ waiting to enter your home. Rise up and be healed.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.