Sermon: “Like a Tree…” (Jer. 17:7-8) [11/4/18]

Something I said a couple weeks ago might have puzzled you.  When Spence announced the sessions on church finances, I called the first class “fun.”  I also said finance committee meetings are among the most fun meetings I’ve attended since coming to FCUCC.  Our Treasurer Spence does run a good meeting, but that’s not what makes the meetings fun.

What’s fun about finance meetings?  All the theological dialogue, of course!  Thinking together about how to use our financial resources to share the good news of God’s love?  Discerning how to be good stewards of the resources we have?  In many respects, our church budget is one of the most deeply theological texts we have.  Nothing shows us so clearly what we value as a community.  Nothing demonstrates so well our commitment to our mission.

So, as a pastor, I find stewardship season each Fall…well, fun.  If you’re a guest with us today, please don’t let that last sentence scare you.  It’s not like we talk about money all the time.  But we do talk about it the couple of weeks leading up to our annual pledge drive… because it gives us the chance to reflect on our church’s mission, our own personal financial resources, and how we might pool our resources to fulfill our mission.

Want to know our mission?  Guests, sit back while our members recite together–from memory–our church’s mission statement.  Ready, church?   On second thought, we don’t want to be rude to our guests and exclude them. J Let’s just all read it together.  It’s on p.6 of your bulletin. Join me.

Our Mission:  We believe God calls us to:  *Embody a forward-thinking, courageous, and diverse Christian community.  *Follow the ways of Jesus the Christ as a grace-filled, spiritual congregation.  *Practice affirming and radical hospitality.  *Engage our local and global community with acts of love, mercy, peace, and justice.

What do you think?  Does the prospect of fulfilling that mission still energize you?  I hope so, because, as mission statements go, it rocks.  In fact, when I was discerning whether to come serve as your pastor, you pretty much had me at the mission statement.  Forward-thinking, courageous, diverse.  Following Jesus.  Grace-filled.  Spiritual.  Communal.  Practicing radical hospitality.  Engaging “our local and global communities with acts of love, mercy, peace, and justice.”  That is a great mission for a community of people trying to follow Jesus.  And this time of reflecting on our commitment to funding that mission?  Doesn’t that just sound fun?

The Bible talks a lot about money.  “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”  “God loves a cheerful giver.”  “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse.”

On the face of it, today’s text isn’t a traditional stewardship text.  It’s an image the prophet Jeremiah uses to call the people back to faithfulness to God….the image of a tree.

Trees and stewardship?  Well, there’s the money tree.  That might work.  Or the refrain of some church treasurers:  “Money doesn’t grow on trees!”  J  Let’s delve a little deeper into this metaphor of the tree and see what it might teach us about stewardship.

Recall the words of the prophet: “Blessed are those who trust in God…They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.  It shall not fear when heat comes, its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, it does not cease to bear fruit.”


Painting by Lynn Dingle

If you’ve ever been to the Middle East, you’ll know what a radical image this vibrant tree is.  In most places in the Middle East, vegetation isn’t plentiful…and the vegetation that is in place either clings to Earth or is heavily irrigated.  To liken faith to a tree, sending its roots out to water—the source of life—would have been saying something to Middle Eastern listeners.

I’ve been reading up on trees.  Did you know that trees communicate with each other through their root systems?  If an insect attacks a tree in one part of a forest, it sends electric impulses through the root system to all the other trees so those trees can protect themselves. So, not only do trees send their roots toward water; they send them toward each other.

Allen and I were out at Diane Scott’s recently.  When Diane and Vic bought their house, their property backed up to 15 acres of trees. In the last 3 years, those acres have been developed.

A buffer of trees between the Scotts’ house and the new development was left…but in quick succession, three of those remaining trees fell onto the house.  Most of the buffer had to be removed.  Without the other trees, the trees that were left weren’t as strong.

One lesson from the image of the tree for stewardship is the recognition that no tree stands alone, especially trees in community (forests).  It’s not just that the roots of trees intertwine; it’s that they communicate with each other, care for each other, protect each other.

As we imagine together how we here at FCUCC might live into a vibrant future, I’d like to introduce you to the largest living organism on the planet—Pando.   Pando, who is thousands of years old and weighs 13-million pounds, resides on 106 acres in Fishlake National Forest in Richfield, Utah.  “Pando is a forest of one: a grove of 47,000 quivering aspen trees — Populus tremuloides — connected by a single root system, and all with the same DNA.”

In an article about Pando, JoAnna Klein notes that “Pando is constantly reproducing, which is essential to its resilience. Lacking genetic diversity, it relies on having trees of different sizes and ages. That way, if one layer or generation dies off, there’s another waiting to replace it.

“But,” Klein notes, “Pando’s critical demographics are out of balance.  A recent survey of the forest found that older trees were dying, as expected, but that, on the whole, young ones weren’t replacing them. ‘If this were a community of humans,’ one surveyor said, ‘it would be as if a whole town of 47,000 had only 85-year-olds in it.  Where is the next generation?”

Did a shiver just go up your spine?  Where is the church universal’s next generation?  Where is our church’s next generation?  We’ve got a terrific start with the children here this morning…but are the children here today enough to sustain our community into the future?  What can we do to ensure that the work and faithfulness of our members in the past and present bears fruit in the future?

In so many instances of ecological decline these days, the story we hear is grim.  There’s little hope in turning things around.  Happily, in the case of Pando, there is hope.

Pando’s decline can be attributed to two factors—the foraging of mule deer and cattle and poor human management.  The good news is that as scientists discover what’s contributing to Pando’s demise, they’re able to shift their management practices and help Pando thrive again.

What shifts might we need to make to contribute to our community’s thriving?  The church (universal) has been on cruise control for decades.  We no longer have the luxury of doing church without thinking about what we’re doing.  We have to think about it now.  Our survival—and especially our thriving—depends on it.

As our collective hearts continue to reel from last week’s shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, two ideas from the 1st century BCE rabbi Hillel keep coming to mind.  The first is tikkun olam, literally, repair of the world.  Sometimes, Hillel said, compassionate action in the world is more important than following the letter of religious law.  Doing things as they’ve always been done, becoming entrenched in rigid interpretations of what it means to be religious– far from healing the world, those things only work to destroy it.  In this idea of tikkun olam, Hillel was inviting the faithful to a radical engagement of moral and religious imagination.  The fundamental question for Hillel was, How much more might we contribute to healing the world if compassion—rather than tradition or religious law—becomes our primary guide?

If tikkun olam is the mission statement, another quote from Hillel suggests a means of fulfilling the mission:  “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, tell me when?”

How do we repair the world?  How do we remain a vibrant community into the future?  If we follow Hillel, we’ll be for ourselves, that is, we’ll have a strong sense of our own gifts and power as individuals.  Then we’ll understand that none of us can repair the world by ourselves; that is a task for community.  I am because we are.  Just as Pando’s survival depends on all 47,000 trees working together, so does our survival depend on our 180+ members working together.  Each of us is because the rest of us are.  And figuring out how thrive into the future isn’t something to put off for the future.  Planning for the future is our task right now.

The best example I can think of right now for living the life of faith like Pando, like a tree planted, stretching out its roots toward water—and to other trees—is the two groups of Muslims who “teamed up to create a crowdfunding page that has been raising money for the victims and families of the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last week.”  As of two days ago, they’d surpassed their initial goal of $25,000 ten-fold.  The campaign page reads in part:  “The Muslim-American community extends its hands to help the shooting victims, whether it is the injured victims or the Jewish families who have lost loved ones.  We wish to respond to evil with good, as our faith instructs us, and send a powerful message of compassion through action.”

In these fraught days of divisiveness and incivility, the world needs faith communities “sending a powerful message of compassion through action.”  That is our calling.  That is our mission.  And if we use everything within our power, everything within our means to fulfill that mission…won’t that just be fun?

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2018

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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