Sunday, September 10, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "A Tree Grows in My Bedroom"

Genesis 21:22-34

 At that time Abimelech, and Phicol commander of his forces, said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything that you do. 23 So give me your word under God that you won’t cheat me, my children, or my descendants. Just as I have treated you fairly, so you must treat me and the land in which you are an immigrant.” 24 Abraham said, “I give you my word.” 25 Then Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well that Abimelech’s servants had seized. 26 Abimelech said, “I don’t know who has done this, and you didn’t tell me. I didn’t even hear about it until today.” 27 Abraham took flocks and cattle, gave them to Abimelech, and the two of them drew up a treaty.[c] 28 Abraham set aside, by themselves, seven female lambs from the flock. 29 So Abimelech said to Abraham, “What are these seven lambs you’ve set apart?” 30 Abraham said, “These seven lambs that you take from me will attest that I dug this well.” 31 Therefore, the name of that place is Beer-sheba[d] because there they gave each other their word. 32 After they drew up a treaty at Beer-sheba, Abimelech, and Phicol commander of his forces, returned to the land of the Philistines. 33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba, and he worshipped there in the name of the Lord, El Olam. 34 Abraham lived as an immigrant in the Philistines’ land for a long time. (Common English Bible)

“Reconnecting with a Loving God: Healing Spiritual Wounds,” Week One

I began last week’s sermon that tied off our series on the judges with a history lesson from the mid-1800s. Today, as we start a brand-new sermon series, let’s begin with an even deeper history lesson.

When I say “the Sahara” to you, you probably automatically think “the desert.” (Or, alternatively, if you’re a real jazz geek, an album by Russ Freeman and the Rippingtons.)

Yet it was not always so, even just a few thousand years before the story of Abraham that we read about today. Because the earth is capable of wobbling in its orbit, the area of the Sahara desert vacillates between desert and grassland across 23,000-year cycles. I learned this week that we are about 7,000 years into the current desert cycle, leaving another 16,000 years of desert on tap before the region might shift into a grassland again. My understanding is that these orbital wobbles affect the entire world, not just the Sahara region, so this is simply the particular effect it has on the Sahara.

Such scientific understanding has, for me, never taken away from God’s creative abilities. Quite the contrary, it adds to my belief in God, and my wonder that God was able to create a world—and the vast universe beyond it—so complex and marvelous to behold. God created a world for us that takes the long game, even as we are only ever really focused on the short-term, like a desert that to us will only ever be a desert.

But looking at the longer, bigger thread is an imperative for us, and not just because God so created the world thusly. God also created us thusly, and sometimes, like the desert, it takes many, many years for us to change from a desert that has been scorched time and again into something that has become lifegiving. That, I think, is true for us as people, but also true for us as a church.

This is a new sermon series for the autumn season of our church calendar that takes us all the way to Advent. Earlier this year, my friend and role model, the pastor and author Carol Howard Merritt, released her latest book, entitled Healing Spiritual Wounds. She wrote it from a place of vulnerability that I rarely see from any writer—Christian or otherwise—in print, and she did so, I think, in order to give her readers permission to be vulnerable to the singular reality that sometimes, church hurts.

If that sounds like a depressing premise upon which to base a book, much less a sermon series, it ought not be. As Jesus says in John 8, you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. The truth is that the church can do a better job caring for, and ministering to, each other and the vulnerable, yet so often, we choose not to. Acknowledging that fact ought to be liberating to us because it means that a) we do not have to pretend otherwise, and b) we can actually get down to the sacred work of doing church better than we have before. Which is what we should have been doing from the off—always working on being better and doing church together.

This, then, is an excerpt from her first chapter, “A Tree Grows in My Bedroom:”

Something grew in the room beside my bed and bookshelves. It was a tree—a spiritual tree but still vivid to me. The gnarled, twisting roots burrowed deep into the rug and the foundation, and they kept plunging, through the earth’s crust and into the mantle. I could feel the branches hunched with the weary exhaustion of carrying the weight of the world for so many years, while the hardy trunk looked as if it had stood up to the most bullying hurricanes.

If I could get a good look at its vivisection, I had no doubt that the rings would prove its ancient history. But I had no desire to cut it down. Instead, I imagined plucking a great piece of fruit from its drooping limb and biting into it. It would be bursting with intense hybrid flavors, a genetic splicing of an apple tree with horseradish…

As I chewed on that fruit, it wasn’t as if the peace lulled me into complacency and made me want to stay in the house. Instead, it gave me a connection with God and strength to leave when I could.

The tree that Carol conjures up for us in these pages is a tree so wizened and sturdy that it, like God, like the deserts and grasslands that God has created, is fully capable of playing the long game. The fruit it offers is a peace that comes from such longevity, much as we may try to resist it ourselves with each new quick fix for whatever we are told ails our lives. And yet, what God offers to us is eternal. We know this from what Abraham’s own story in Genesis 21 offers us.

Abraham’s own life is one of playing the long game as well—he and Sarah are advanced in years and remain faithful despite a lack of children even though the desire to have them is clearly there, in an era where a lack of children wasn't cause only for emotional heartache, but potential economic ruin in the absence of our modern-day safety net for our elders in the form of Social Security and Medicare.

Yet Abraham remains faithful; he has traversed the continent for God, he has bargained with God, and he will even horrifically attempt to sacrifice his son for God.

Here in Genesis 21, Abraham strikes a treaty with the Philistines on the basis of their mutual respect that comes from the regard for immigrants that illumines throughout the Scriptures (and which we would do well to remember in the wake of this past week’s decision by the White House to rescind DACA). Abraham, having made these treaties, plants a tamarisk tree where the treaty was made—Beersheba—and he worships there, Genesis says, in the name of El Olam, the Lord.

Or, more precisely in the Hebrew, the Eternal Lord or the Eternal God. It is one of many titles, names and epithets assigned to God in the Hebrew Bible, but it is a fittingly appropriate one here.

And tamarisk trees, they live for decades. This one was clearly meant to outlive Abraham himself.

In a manner, this harkens to Martin Luther’s own (potentially apocryphal) pronouncement that if he heard that the world would end tomorrow, he would plant a tree. It is a tribute to creation’s existence long before us, and to its endurance in spite of the use and abuse we continually inflict upon it.

So I think of the Eagle Creek fire that has set our beautiful Columbia Gorge on fire, and the carelessness with which the fire was started, and the consequences it has had for our home and for the millions of our neighbors who have had to see and inhale the smoke and ash for days, and I remember that God is still bigger than our mistakes, even if we are unfeeling in committing them.

Relying on God’s own endurance, rather than our own, is one small part in first acknowledging the spiritual wounds we inflict as well as healing from the spiritual wounds inflicted upon us. As we walk through this sermon series, we will be discussing together in more specific terms what that looks like, but as is so often the case for my series, especially ones that last for several weeks or more, this first one is about getting the rest of them up off the ground and flying on their own power.

What fundamentally underlies this series—and, I think, Carol’s book—is a faith in God as eternal, and eternally enduring. God suffers with us, but God also endures with us, and even beyond us.

Put a different way: our wounds are God’s wounds, but God is also capable of healing and transcending woundedness in ways that beget resurrection, including that of Jesus Christ…and not in a manner described by the quick-fix premise of prosperity theology or commercialism, that promises a new you in 30 days, or 60 days, while working from home and buying into your friend’s multi-level marketing scheme. No, there are far too many faithful, loving people who have been beat up by life for those promises to be even remotely true. But those promises are small. God is not.

That may come as small comfort—or even, initially at least, as no comfort at all—in the face of so many wounds we see and experience in the here and now: not only those wildfires that have wreaked havoc and destruction upon our sacred earth, but also those wounds we see in our community every day: addiction, homelessness, poverty—wounds that we could do more to heal on both individual and systemic levels, and that we have not done so only adds to the pain suffered and experienced.

But if today’s science-slash-history lesson about the Sahara is any indication, God is still fully capable of putting a lush grassland where previously a desert existed. And wherever the deserts are located in your soul, God remains capable of adding life to them. I have no doubt that in the wake of the destruction of Irma and Jose that God, through us, will be able to add life where life was lost; part of the reason I know is because I am beginning to see those stories trickle out of Texas after Harvey.

Yet it still hurts immensely in the here and now. Lives and homes and livelihoods are lost while we as people steadfastly refuse to acknowledge our collective culpability in those losses, even as we demand such culpability and accountability for the Eagle Creek fire.

The fires in the Columbia Gorge this week wounded us, many of us deeply. But take a moment and see if, in those flames, you can also comprehend the sheer pain and hurt of those for whom religion has been like a wildfire—with no water with which to salve the burn.

Do that, and the trees and wildlife may not come back right away—but, like the tamarisk tree of Abraham, the hope that they represent something far bigger and far greater will remain intact.

That hope alone will not fix everything—or even necessarily anything, at least not right away.

But for now, it is a start. A good start.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson

Longview, Washington

September 10, 2017

Original image credit: Shutterstock

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