NOTABLE TREES

May 12, 2019

Luke 19:1-10

 Notable trees bear great fruit, not simply crates of apples and peaches, but also great tales of courage and drama. If trees could talk, as they do in C. Lewis’ tales about Narnia or J. R. R. Tolkien’s tales about Middle Earth, if our notable trees could talk, they could tell some great stories.

We citizens of Connecticut are heirs of a great story about one such notable tree. Back ages ago, in the 1660s, some thirty years or so after the first English settled along the banks of what we call the Connecticut River, these settlers sought written permission from the king of England to govern themselves, similar to the ways their neighbors did to the north in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1662 King Charles II granted to the settlers, living near what we now call Hartford, a very liberal minded royal charter guaranteeing such freedoms and rights.

Some twenty five years later a new king, King James II took a more hard line approach. He wanted to consolidate all the English colonies under more strict and closer royal supervision. He wanted to revoke all the charters and appoint in all the colonies new leaders who would keep law and order, law and order as the king saw fit. The king sent his tough minded agent, Sir Edmund Andros, to be the new governor of a united New England strictly controlled under royal dominion.

Andros requested that the leaders of the Connecticut assembly hand over their precious Charter so that the king could issue a new one. If they refused, Andros would hand over all of the colony’s land east of the Connecticut River to Massachusetts and all of the land west of the river to New York. The Connecticut officials refused. Andros, leading an impressive parade of armed soldiers, demanded that the Connecticut Governor and Assembly meet him at Moses Butler’s tavern on the evening of October 26, 1687 to hand over their precious Charter or else!

In the presence of such force, Connecticut’s leaders reconsidered their stance. That evening, when the shades of foreboding darkness descended on the tavern, Andros delivered his ultimatum. While the Connecticut representatives debated their options, the Governor sent Captain Joseph Wadsworth to fetch the Charter from its hiding place in the nearby home of Samuel Wyllys. Shortly after Wadsworth returned and handed the Charter to the Governor, suddenly the candles in the dimly lit room went out, whether by accident or by sleuth, no one knows.  In the darkness, someone grabbed the Charter and handed it through the open window to Captain Wadsworth, who raced back to the Wyllys house. Hiding the Charter inside the house would be useless, since Andros’ entourage would certainly search the house where everyone knew the Charter had been stored. Mistress Ruth Wyllys suggested instead that Captain Wadsworth hide the Charter inside the hollow trunk of an ancient white oak on the hillside. Wadsworth quickly wrapped the Charter in his cloak and stuffed it inside the cavity in the tree.

Wadsworth’s daring sleight of hand rescued the Charter from being confiscated, but his courage did not rescue the colony from Andros. The king’s strong man took over governing the colony, even without destroying the cherished document. Meanwhile, the Charter was safe within the ancient oak tree and one hundred years later served as Connecticut’s Constitution during and after the Revolutionary War. For years thereafter residents of Connecticut cherished the Charter Oak Tree as a symbol of their independence and their resistance against oppressive government. Crowds of admirers came to visit the legendary tree, an immense tree, measuring more than 33 feet in circumference, estimated to be from 800 to 1,000 years old.

On August 21, 1856 a great storm toppled the magnificent tree. On the day it fell, a military honor guard stood guard around the tree until nightfall, when all the church bells in Hartford tolled a funeral tribute to the tree. The Charter Oak was carefully cut up and its lumber was used to fashion keepsakes: goblets, bureaus, stools, jewelry, pianos, and chairs used in the Connecticut State Assembly. Acorns, which had been gathered during the previous years while the tree was alive, were planted, producing first, second and third generation offspring from Connecticut’s most notable tree, thus keeping alive in visible ways the historic story of courage and defiance.

Our Christian Bible keeps alive remarkable stories about some notable trees. Some stories warn us, some stories inspire us. One story comes near the beginning of the Bible, the story from the arbor of Eden.

A long, long time ago God had designed a home in paradise for the newlywed couple, a gentleman farmer Adam and his wife Eve. Surrounding their residence was a magnificent park, a private botanical garden showcasing orchards, groves, and exotic trees. Among the most prized trees were two unique specimens: one called the tree of life and the other called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The garden was a cornucopia—all kinds of luscious fruits and fresh vegetables, beautiful to adore and ready for easy picking. But God had set one type of fruit off limits. He warned that the fruit of the tree all about knowing good and evil was toxic. As my mother warned me, so Eve warned her husband: “You can look, but don’t touch.”

As you can rightly guess, in case you don’t know the story, being told what they could not do only stirred up the impulse in Adam and Eve to taste the forbidden fruit. They soon showed that they could resist everything except temptation. They tasted the fruit of guilt and lived to regret it.

God was so incensed that his tenants had broken the house rules that he evicted them. They lost paradise and never regained it. A notable tree, long fallen down, marked the spot of their downfall, yet kept alive the story that sometimes we likewise reach too far, take what is not ours, go out too far on a limb, and lose all afterwards. Legendary trees can bespeak danger and warning, as well as courage and defiance.

Our Christian Bible keeps alive remarkable stories about some notable trees. Some stories, such as the tragic story about the tree in paradise warn us, some stories inspire us. For Zaccheus climbing a tree became the story of his salvation.

Zaccheus was a crook, the white collar type. He ran an extortion ring. He had a legitimate front. He worked for the Roman IRS, which meant he collected taxes, passed along enough to keep the Roman revenue collectors happy, and then pocketed the rest. As long as the Roman Treasury received their projected revenues, they did not audit local tax collectors’ records. Zaccheus had a lucrative racket.

Everyone in town knew it, which was why everyone in town avoided him. To be honest, his Jewish neighbors actually despised him. Beyond selling out his soul to raking money off his neighbors, he had sold out his soul to those despicable foreign Romans whose armed soldiers occupied the Jews’ neighborhoods, flaunting their weapons, and shoving insults down the throats of the native Jews. In his neighbors’ eyes, Zaccheus was a lowly traitor, aiding the vile Romans by stealing money from his own kind.

One day Zaccheus heard that a charismatic faith healer was coming to town, a new celebrity preacher. Zaccheus was curious to see this luminary. As he approached the parade route, he realized that he couldn’t see over the crowds that were lined up on the sidewalks. Since he had no friends whom he could ask to offer him a spot beside the curb, he turned to go home, which was when he saw that tree, a sycamore whose branches offered him a bird’s eye view of the parade. Recalling his boyhood reflexes, he shimmied up the trunk and perched onto a branch and waited.

         Before long his efforts paid off. At the head of the parade came Jesus, strolling, smiling at the onlookers, waving at his fans. To everyone’s surprise, Jesus stopped, glanced up into the tree and made eye contact with Zaccheus. When Jesus opened his mouth to speak, the crowds expectantly hushed, waiting for Jesus to chew out Zaccheus, expose him for being a crook and the traitor everyone knew him to be.

No one can believe it when instead Jesus says, “Come down out of that tree right away, for I want to join you for lunch at your home today.” The crowd was shocked, to say the least. They started grumbling that Jesus was offering favors to a public villain. Jesus meanwhile stands and waits, watching Zaccheus barely avoid falling on his face as he flops down out of the tree. Zaccheus is beside himself, blurting out that he was sorry for whatever he did and promises to pay back in spades everyone he had cheated.

For years afterwards people walking down that street pointed to that tree and told the story of how once a good-for-nothing thief climbed that same sycamore tree and came down a saint. Trees can tell some memorable stories.

Back some sixty years ago our church building was open all day long. Because an on-site daycare did not start until 1969, no need to guard the hallways from intruders, instead the church leaders wanted to leave the doors unlocked so that people from Glenbrook could walk in any time during the day to visit or connect with the staff. On most weekdays Pastor Thorpe Bauer or one of the staff was in the office to welcome walk-ins. But when Thorpe went away on vacation in the summer, members of the congregation volunteered to sit in the office and greet guests. One day Charlene Holmes was on duty, offering a friendly welcome to anyone who walked through the door.

She was surprised to hear a knock, go to the door, and see a delivery truck parked outside. The courier explained that he had a special delivery to the Union Memorial Church, postmarked from Japan and addressed to the Rev. Thorpe Bauer. Charlene offered to receive any packages on behalf of the vacationing pastor. The driver pulled out from the back of the truck four oblong packages wrapped in bamboo and burlap. Charlene signed for the four packages and read the labels stating that the contents were live trees. She was puzzled to have received a shipment of trees from of all places, Japan. Charlene’s husband, Joe, had served in the Pacific theatre during World War II, when Japan was our country’s sworn enemy. Japan conjured up memories of members of this congregation who had died fighting to destroy that nation.

The Rev. Thorpe Bauer had entered the United States Army Air Corps in 1943 and served as a chaplain in the military for three and one-half years. He served in the Fifth Air Force in the Pacific arena. Thorpe was among the first American troops to occupy Japan after their surrender. Some years ago when the late Joe Holmes and I visited Thorpe and his wife Edna at their home in Washington, Connecticut, he told us about that stirring experience. He was among a group of American officers reviewing Japanese soldiers who had laid down their arms. As Thorpe walked before a long line of former Japanese soldiers, he and his colleagues were startled when a Japanese soldier stepped out of formation and approached Thorpe. The Americans quickly raised their weapons to fend off any surprise confrontation. Thorpe stood his ground, sensing no harm was intended. He was shocked when the Japanese soldier spoke in English, wondering if he could ask Thorpe a question. Thorpe braced himself for a tête-à-tête.

The soldier explained that he had lived in the United States for a time long before the war. Since he had not been permitted to listen to news from the United States during the war, he was anxious to hear how his favorite team, the New York Yankees, were doing. Thorpe recalled with glee his chance to update one Japanese fan on the sports news from the Bronx.

Thorpe met with Christians as he traveled through Japan. Christianity was a foreign religion in Japan and Christian churches were scarce. He conducted Communion services for some congregations who had not observed Communion during the war. Thorpe evidently gained a commitment for promoting peace and reconciliation because he was elected sometime prior to 1960 onto the Board of Directors for the Japanese International Christian University Foundation.

The Foundation was founded in June of 1949 for the purpose of establishing a top quality international university of distinctive Christian character in Japan that would educate leaders committed to promoting cooperation and international understanding. With support from mission agencies in North America and civic leaders in Japan, the Foundation secured funding, purchased land, constructed buildings, and welcomed its first students in March of 1953.

Thorpe served as Pastor of the Union Memorial Church from 1946 until his retirement in 1968. One day during that tenure a shipment of four Japanese cherry trees arrived at the Union Memorial Church in honor of Thorpe’s service for Christians in Japan. Folks in this congregation planted those four trees, three along Kirkham Place and one in the playground. Although the three remaining trees are showing their age, they still managed to sprout their beautiful pink blossoms a few weeks ago to adorn our grounds. Three notable trees remain, among the 81 other trees on our property.

Trees can tell some memorable stories. The story of the Charter Oak tells a story of defiance in support of freedom. The story of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil tells a story of regret. The story of the sycamore trees along Jericho way tells a story of repentance and saving Mr. Zaccheus. The story of our aging cherry blossom trees tells a story of promoting peace and understanding. We would do well to pay attention to the stories as well as to the trees, who have more to teach us than we realize.

THE TREE OF LIFE AND THE LIFE OF TREES

May 5, 2019

 

Revelation 22:1-5

 To start I want to ask you to write down a number. You can use the pencil in the pew rack in front of you. I am going to conduct a contest. I will give you the answer later during my sermon. To join the contest, I want you to write down what you think is the age of the oldest living organism on earth. I will give you a clue. The oldest currently living being is a tree. How old do you think it is? Write down the number you guess on the bulletin and we will discover who came the closest later during the sermon.

For the next several Sundays I will preach about trees. My impetus for preaching about trees was prompted by a simple statement that I read a few months ago. Other than people and God, trees are the most frequently mentioned living beings in the Bible. In the Old Testament trees are mentioned over 330 times. They are among the leading cast of the Bible, among the most prominent props, but we overlook them. Sadly, when we read the Bible, we miss both the forest and the trees.

There is a host of trees in the Bible: the acacia, box, broom, cedar, cypress, juniper, oak, pine, poplar, tamarisk, willow, almond, apricot, date, olive, sycamore, pistachio, and walnut, to name only a few varieties.

One variety has a particular place of honor among the trees in the Bible because this tree is mentioned both at the beginning of the Bible and the end of the Bible. On the first page, in Genesis 1, in the poetic narrative recalling God’s master plan for engineering creation, the first living organisms God creates are plants and trees (Genesis 1:11). In Genesis 2, in the complementary prose narrative detailing God’s creative handiwork, we learn more about one particular tree, a special tree known as the tree of life.

In Genesis 2, immediately after God fashioned the primal human, Adam, God designed a garden paradise where Adam could live and work. In this beautiful garden, “the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.” God designed trees to keep Adam alive and to make his life pleasant. Fittingly, God even called one of these original trees the tree of life.  One might call it the life-giving tree.

Turning to the last page of the Bible, when the visionary John foresees the climax of history, he espies God seated on a majestic throne at the headwaters of a dancing river on whose banks is a majestic tree bearing fruit year-round (Revelation 22:2). That remarkable tree bears a familiar name, a name we heard way back in the opening scenes of the Bible. It is another tree of life, another life-giving treeThese two trees of life are matching bookends flanking the entire drama of the biblical epic, two matching bookends holding together the long story of God originally giving life to us and later restoring life in us.

What intrigues me about the appearance of the tree of life at the start and again the end of the Biblical drama is that God would specifically select a tree as the most fitting symbol, as the metaphor for life. As the author God may have simply exercised poetic license in selecting any metaphor for life. Maybe God could have as easily symbolized life in a lily or an egg or an Easter bunny, as we do each spring. But I think that the connection between life and a tree is purposeful and moreover is fitting. The tree of life is a fitting metaphor because the life of trees is so remarkable.

Using a tree as a metaphor for life is fitting in part because trees are the longest living creatures on earth. When God wanted to teach people about life, God selected a reference for the metaphor that captured life on a large scale, on a scale far beyond our short lifetime. 

 Let’s get back to the numbers you wrote for the contest. Remember that I asked you to write down how old you think is the oldest living tree. Let’s start with some guesses. Raise your hand if you guessed more than 100. Keep your hand up if you guessed more than 500. Keep your hand up if you guessed more than 1,000. Keep your hand up if you guessed more than 2,000. Keep your hand up if you guessed more than 4,000. You are on the right track, but short by about one thousand years. The oldest living trees are over 5,000 years old. Bristlecone pine trees, found in California’s White Mountains, can live over 5,500 years!

The key to the bristlecone pine living so long comes from its incredibly slow growth, which results in very dense wood. The wood is so dense that the trees can withstand insects, rust, and winds up to one hundred miles per hour. That enables the tree to live and thrive under extremely harsh, dry conditions on the edge of the Great Basin in California. Raising temperatures due to climate change over the past few decades has put the bristlecone pine at competition with their neighbors, limber pines, for the ideal growing sites. These upstart neighbors are relative newcomers, since they live roughly between only 1,600 to 2,000 years. The longevity of both varieties of trees gives short-lived humanity a more grand sense of life

We can see the use of a tree as a metaphor for life and specifically for long life in a poem contained in the Bible. Psalm 92:12-14 describes the life of the devout in terms of trees growing and aging. “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age; they will stay fresh and green.” A tree is a fitting metaphor because the life of trees is so long lasting. 

Using a tree as a metaphor for life is also fitting in part because trees are so resilient. Trees keep trying to stay alive. Even after being cut down, trees fight to survive.

A few years ago Peter Wohlleben, a German forester, stumbled across a patch of strange-looking mossy stones among a grove of old beech trees. He carefully lifted the moss on one of the stones to see what was underneath. He was startled to find that the moss was not growing on stones, but on tree bark. When he tried to lift the bark, he could not pry it loose. He carefully scraped away some of the bark until he found a greenish layer underneath. Since the color green is only found in chlorophyll and chlorophyll is only found in living trees, this piece of wood was still alive!

As he examined the stones more carefully, he realized that they were the hardened remains of an enormous tree stump, more than five feet across, probably felled at least some four or five hundred years earlier. He theorized that the stump was getting chlorophyll through a web of interconnecting fungal growths coming from live trees nearby. The surrounding beech trees were pumping sap and sugar through roots into the stump to keep it alive. The stump with help from its neighbors had been clinging to life for centuries.

Even trees that are cut down still struggle to live. For a Biblical example, we can look at the story of Job. Job had suffered a series of terrible tragedies. In the course of his struggles to keep his faith in God’s fairness, he wished that he were a tree: “For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its roots grow old in the earth, and its stump dies in the soil, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put out branches like a young plant” (Job  14:7-9). The tree of life is a fitting metaphor for life because the life of trees is so resilient.

Using a tree as a metaphor for life is also fitting in part because a tree can seemingly “come back to life” from the dead.

In the 1960s archaeologists were excavating the great fortress Masada in southern Israel. The fortress was the site of a standoff between the Roman armies and Judean zealots in the late first century. When the Jews saw that they had no chance of withstanding the Roman army’s siege, they committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the foreign troops. While archaeologists were exploring the site, they found a jar containing seeds from a date tree. Based on scientific evidence, they calculated that the date pits were over 2,000 years old, from the time when the last Jews occupied the fortress.

After completing their excavation, the archaeologists put the date pits into drawers for the next forty years. One day someone had a curious idea: “Why don’t we see if the pits will sprout?”

A scientist treated the seeds with hormones that stimulate germination and one sprouted. Over time a tree grew, which the lab called the tree Methuselah, the figure who, according to a genealogy in Genesis 5:27, lived 969 years. The Methuselah date tree stands over ten feet tall and is producing pollen, which scientists have used to pollinate a female date palm and produce baby date trees.

It seems unbelievable that a tree could “come back to life” after 2,000 years! This miraculous turn of events attests to the life giving and life restoring power of trees. When the prophet Isaiah painted a picture of how God would revive the hope of some despondent Jewish refugees, he envisioned a grove of trees springing from a desolate landscape: “The poor and needy search for water, but there is none…But I the LORD will answer them…I will put into the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. I will set junipers in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together.” (Isaiah 41:17-20). When God makes the trees spring back to life, the whole landscape would change. 

We, who affirm the resurrection of Jesus, can readily appreciate the imagery of trees coming back to life, turning life around, restoring life. For we know someone who, after being crucified on wooden cross beams, came back to life.

We find the miraculous tree of life mentioned at the beginning of the Bible and again at the end. This mysterious tree of life makes a set of matching book ends for the drama of the entire Biblical drama. For when God wanted to teach people about life, God appealed to the remarkable life of trees.

A tree is an apt metaphor for life because trees are the longest living creatures on earth. A tree is a fitting metaphor for life because trees are so resilient. A tree is an appropriate metaphor for life because trees can seemingly come back to life.

Jesus once told his followers to “consider the lilies of the valley” as a resource for them to discern what God was like and how God took care of people. Considering the trees of the forest can be equally instructive. For God has given trees a place of honor in the Bible. They exude life. They exhibit God's handiwork. They inspire us. They teach us. May we treat them with all due respect and in doing so honor their Creator.

LAUGHING AT EASTER

April 28, 2019

 

Luke 24:41

An older married couple was watching TV. The man stood up and started walking out of the room.

Wife: “Where are you going?”

Husband: “I’m going to the kitchen to get some ice cream.”

Wife: “Oh that sounds good. Bring me some too.”

Husband: “Okay.”

Wife: “I want vanilla.”

Husband: “Okay.”

Wife: “And put some chocolate sauce on it.”

Husband: “Okay.”

Wife: “And a little whipped cream.”

Husband: “Okay.”

Wife: “Sprinkle a few nuts on top.”

Husband: “Okay.”

The husband left the room and after a while returned and handed his wife a ham sandwich.”

Wife: “Oh, you are so forgetful!”

Husband: “Why do you say that?”

Wife: “You forgot the mustard!”

 

A guy in an old Volvo is driving home from work when his wife rings him on his cell phone. “Honey,” she says in a worried voice, “please be careful. There was a bit on the news just now, some lunatic is driving the wrong way down the highway.”

“Oh, it’s worse than that,” he replies, “there are hundreds of them.”

 

         Laughing and telling jokes at Easter time is an old and wonderful tradition. In the early days of Protestantism, ministers traditionally began their Easter sermons with a joke. In some Greek Orthodox churches, members gather on the Monday after Easter for the purpose of trading jokes. In past centuries, in some Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant countries, Christians gathered for the week after Easter to celebrate at parties and picnics. The faithful played practical jokes on each other, chased each other around their sanctuaries, sang, dined, and danced. The week after Easter was a time-honored Christian precursor to our April Fools’ Day antics.

         Christians joked, danced, and laughed to celebrate that Jesus had risen on Easter. The “Easter laugh,” as some ancient Christian teachers called it, was to celebrate Easter as God’s supreme joke played on that demonic enemy, death. The enemy thought he had the upper hand, thought he had done away with God’s Son once and for all, had locked him up in the tomb, and was free from God looking over his shoulder, when God pulled off a colossal “practical joke.” He sprang Jesus from the tomb. When the disciples first met the resurrected Jesus, as Luke tells the story in 24:41, they could not believe it because they were overcome with “joy and amazement.” They were laughing so hard and smiling so much, they could barely believe what they were seeing.

         For that reason, laughter is as much a part of the gospel as anything we preach. For laughter makes life livable for it awakens a sense, even if only fleeting, that God’s goodness is greater than our problems. Our laughter at Eastertime is a muted echo of Christ’s uproarious laughter when he rose from the grave. Defying the grave then and defying our gravity now, Jesus enjoys a good laugh.

         Charles Schulz, the creator of the famous comic strip Peanuts said: “Humor is a proof of faith.”

 

Two members of the local synagogue were sitting on a bench outside the entrance to their temple.

The first said, “Oiyee.”

The second replied, “Oiyee.”

After a short time, the first again said, “Oiyee!”

The second replied, “Oiyee.”

A little while later the first said, “Oiyee.”

The second replied, “Oiyee.”

A few minutes later the first replied, “I thought we promised not to talk about politics any more.”

 

         The British essayist G. K. Chesterton wisely noted, with his own sense of dry humor tossed in, that “life is serious all the time, but living cannot be. You may have all the solemnity you wish in your neckties, but in anything important (such as sex, death, and religion), you must have mirth or you will have madness.”

 

Mrs. Donovan went into the confessional booth and was about to start when she noticed an unfamiliar face behind the shutter.

“You’re not Father O’Leary. What are you doing here?” she asked.

“I’m the furniture polisher, Ma’am.”

“Well, where is Father O’Leary?”

“I couldn’t tell you, but if he’s heard anything like the stories I’ve been listening to, he’s gone for the police.”

 

Little Debi picked up the telephone and murmured something before slamming down the receiver.

“What was that, Debi?” her mother said, “I’m expecting a call.”

“Only some man from Alaska. He said it was a long distance from Alaska. I told him I already knew that.”

 

         Laughing came naturally to Jesus. Charles Schulz also noted that no one would have been invited to dinner as often as Jesus was unless he was interesting and had a sense of humor. For Jesus knew how to tell a good joke. Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Jack Benny, and Billy Crystal were not the first Jewish comedians. Jesus told jokes years before they did. Did you ever hear the joke Jesus told (Matt. 7:34) about a fellow who tried to take a speck out of his friend’s eye while peering through a 2by4 stuck in his own? Or (Matt. 19:24) a farce as outlandish as threading a herd of camels through the eye of a sewing needle? Or, if you think smoking in bed is inviting trouble, then what kind of fool (Mark 4:21) puts a lighted candle under a bed, then lies down to take a nap?

         Jesus told these ridiculous jokes in part because he couldn’t help laughing at the ridiculous behavior of some people, and in part because he wanted people to laugh at themselves and come to their senses. At times, Jesus probably did not know whether to laugh or cry at the stupidity of people. They were so serious about God that they could not see their human comedy or laugh at themselves.

 

Fred asked his teenage daughter if she had seen his newspaper. She told him that newspapers were old school. She said that most people use tablets nowadays and handed him her Ipad. The housefly didn’t stand a chance.

 

Taking ourselves, our image, and especially our faults too seriously is the work of the devil, not the work of God. Laughter is good for the soul. Being too serious is good for the psychiatrist. When we laugh we capture the grace of God. One theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Humor is, in fact a prelude to faith and laughter is the beginning of prayer.” For in laughing we can sense someone is bigger than our problems.

 

What do Alexander the Great and Winnie the Pooh have in common? Same middle name.

 

If you want to find out who loves you more, stick your wife and your dog in the trunk of your car for an hour. When you open the trunk, who is more happy to see you?

 

People need levity lest we take ourselves too seriously. The Sioux Indians have a very wise saying. According to their tradition, the first thing people say after dying is “Why was I so serious?” I have often quoted what G. K. Chesterton wrote: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. The devil, however, fell by force of gravity.” The devil took himself so seriously that the gravity of his self-importance brought him down from heaven into the confines of earth. Defying the grave on Easter and defying our gravity now, I dare say Jesus enjoyed a good laugh.

 

“Do you have any keepsakes in your locket, Mrs. Murphy?”

“A lock of my husband’s hair.”

“But he’s still alive.”

“Yes, but his hair is all gone.”

 

In our effort to uphold the serious side of religion, we have shortchanged our Christian faith, God, and the Bible. We are wrong to exclude from Christianity strains of humor, laughter, and mirth.  These are traces of God’s presence. As we heard in Psalm 2:4, God has had many reasons to laugh, especially at the antics of people. The American novelist Frederick Buechner traces his initial commitment to Christ to a sermon in which [George Buttrick], a famous preacher proclaimed that Christ is crowned in the hearts of believers “among confession and tears and great laughter.” It was that final phrase “great laughter” that caught Buechner’s attention and stirred him to pursue Christ.

 

A prisoner escaped from a jail by digging a tunnel that came out in a school playground. As he crawled out of the hole, he couldn’t help but shout at a small girl standing nearby, “I’m free. I’m free.”

“That’s nothing,” she said scornfully, “I’m four.”

 

Religion that is void of laughter is hardly worth pursuing. Genuine religion is intended to lift you up, not drag you down so you can take yourself more lightly, not more seriously. The devil is the expert at dragging people down. The devil is great at making you feel miserable, about yourself, about life, about your past. The devil is great at making everything deadly serious.

The British scholar C. S. Lewis concocted a collection of make-believe letters known as The Screwtape Letters. These letters were ostensibly a correspondence between a senior demon, named Screwtape, and his protégé, a junior demon named Wormwood, on how to tempt and corrupt the faith of a fairly new Christian. In one letter Screwtape, advises Wormwood that his patient’s exposure to “laughter should be discouraged.” Plus, the tempter should eliminate all fun and joy because they promote “undesirable tendencies” from the devil’s point of view, tendencies such as “charity, courage, contentment and many other [what the devil considers to be] evils.”

On the other hand, God wants to lift us up. Lift us up now and in more ways yet to come. For laughter is an echo of heaven. No levity can last in hell, but there will be endless laughter in heaven.

John 3:16 is sometimes described as the “gospel in a nutshell.” The verse states that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” A five-year old boy recited the verse in slightly differently words, but quite accurately in its impact. He said, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have ever-laughing life.”

God will have the last laugh. Everlasting life will be ever-laughing life.

 

A woman by the name of Gladys Dunne was visiting a church for the first time. After the service, as the church members were exchanging greetings, she extended her hand to a parishioner and said, “Hi, I’m Gladys Dunne.” The parishioner replied, “I’m glad he done, too.” 

 

By now you may be glad that I’m done too.

The comedian George Burns once said, “A good sermon should have a good beginning and a good ending, and they should be as close together as possible.” My beginning and ending may not have been as close as you may have wished, but I trust you had a few laughs, and more importantly, a few incentives to believe, as George Buttrick said, that Christ is crowned in the hearts of believers “among confession and tears and great laughter.”

“Jesus, I believe you laughed as Mary bathed you and Joseph tickled your toes. I believe you giggled as you and other children played your childhood games and when you went to the Temple and astounded the teachers. I believe you chuckled as all children chuckle when they stump adults. And surely there were moments of merriment as you and your disciples deepened your relationship. And as you and Mary and Martha greeted Lazarus from his tomb, laughter must have been mirrored on your faces. Jesus, I know you wept and anguished. But I believe you laughed, too. Create in us the life of laughter and joy, which can only come from the one true God.”[1]


[1]Based on prayer by Lois Morgan, printed in Cal and Rose Samra, Holy Humor (Guideposts, 1996) p. 238-239.

IT IS FINISHED

April 14, 2019

 John 19:30

 It was the last day of track and field competition at the summer Olympics in Mexico, back on October 20, 1968. As shadows crept over the stadium, a few thousand spectators were watching the end of the marathon competition. The last batch of the marathon runners, slumping over and exhausted, were being escorted to first-aid stations. More than an hour earlier, Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia had crossed the finish line, the winner of the 26-mile, 385-yard event.

As the remaining spectators prepared to leave, those sitting near the marathon gates suddenly heard the sound of sirens and police whistles. All eyes turned to the gate. The last runner in the race, John Stephen Akhwari from Tanzania, was entering the stadium. He had fallen during the race and injured his knee and ankle. Now with his leg bloodied and bandaged, he grimaced with each step as he hobbled around the 400-meter track. The spectators rose in applause.

After crossing the finish line, Akhwari slowly walked off the field. Later, a reporter asked him the question that was on everyone’s mind: “Why did you continue the race after you were so badly injured?”

He replied: “My country did not send me 7,000 miles to start the race. They sent me 7,000 miles to finish it.”

         What a sense of obligation! What an accomplishment! What a sense of relief! Having completed his race, Akhwari was done. Having discharged his Olympian duty on behalf of his homeland, Akwari could go back home. It was finished. Akwari could go.

         According to the Gospel of John, Jesus’ dying words were “It is finished.” To be precise, Jesus spoke only one word, “Finished.” To those of us who have seen a loved one expire after enduring severe pain, the end of their suffering brings some degree of relief. At last the ordeal is over. At last his ordeal was over. We can imagine that with some degree of relief for the suffering coming to an end, Jesus mutters a parting word, “Finished.”

         Yet, coupled with a feeling of relief came an even deeper sense of accomplishment. He had achieved his goal. He had finished his race. As those spectators who applauded Akwari realized, even a beleaguered competitor finishing last can have a sense of triumph. Carrying through the end can bring more than relief for the cessation of pain, it can bring the reward for an arduous task finished. “Moving into the new apartment is finally done!” “After 20 hours of labor, the baby is finally here!” “Recovering from surgery is finally over!” A chord of triumph resonates through announcing that a monumental task is finally done.

Jesus’ last word, “Finished,” likewise suggests not simply relief for the end of tortuous pain, it also suggests the final fulfillment of his God-given Olympian task. Through his life, his career, his teaching, and finally his crucifixion, he had completed the arduous task God had assigned to him. Embodying for people to see and sense what the invisible God is like was finished. Securing a means for people to live in guilt free connection with God was finished. Loving his friends to the uttermost was finished. Exposing our misuse of religion to save ourselves rather than serve needy people was finished. Breathing life and a renewed spirit into our deadened responsiveness to God’s interests was finished. Training a handful of disciples to carry on was finished. Jesus had finished all his God-given tasks.  

What a sense of obligation! What an accomplishment! What a sense of relief! Having completed his race, Jesus was done. Having discharged his Olympian duty on behalf of his heavenly Father, Jesus could go back home. It was finished. The trek was over. Jesus could go.

Once he spoke that gratifying word, “Finished,” in the next moment, Jesus bowed his head and gave up his spirit. Finishing was a triumph. Now, he was free to go, leave the troubles behind, resume life with his Father, the same as they had enjoyed it in the past. Being over meant that Jesus could now go on to a better place.

For several Sundays in my sermons I have reflected on what many Christians call the seven last words — the final statements Jesus Christ said while on the cross, as recorded by the four Gospels in the New Testament. 

“Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing,” (Luke 23:32-38).

“Today, you shall be with me in paradise,” (Luke 23:39-43).

“Woman, behold your son… [Son] behold your mother,” (John 19:26-27).

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:33-34).

“Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit,” (Luke 23:46-49).

“I thirst,” (John 19:28-29).

“It is finished,” (John 19:30).

I have shared how these words still speak to us about Jesus offering preemptive forgiveness, about God accepting even our meager, misinformed measures of faith, about care giving and care receiving, about Jesus sharing our God-forsaken experiences, about bedtime prayers teaching us how to “let go and let God” take care of our small and big worries, about Jesus thirsting to become like us so that we can become like God, and finally about how Jesus finished on a note of triumph for completing his duties.

I have aimed to make Jesus’ seven parting words relevant and meaningful for us, for contemporary Christians living, frequently struggling to make it in prosperous lower Fairfield County.  In the course of my research, I have learned that these same seven last words can be relevant and meaningful in different ways to different types of people. I have seen that sometimes different people can hear in those words what I am deaf to notice. 

David Carr, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, teaches a course called “Trauma and the Bible” to female inmates at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York state’s only maximum security prison for women. Half of the students in his course are prisoners finishing degrees in sociology in the Marymount Manhattan College Bedford Hills College program, while the other students in his class are enrolled at Union Seminary.

Although Carr has spent years studying, teaching and writing about the Bible and trauma, he said teaching the course at Bedford Hills has been illuminating for him.  “Each week these students, many of whom have experienced traumas of their own and been incarcerated for years, have taught me,” he said.

For example, one student, Claude Millery, who was enrolled in the Marymount Manhattan College Bedford Hills College Program, described her reaction to hearing Jesus say “It is finished” as follows:

This verse is powerful and gives me hope that there is an end to suffering. I chose this verse because it signifies that nothing is permanent and an individual’s suffering is only temporary. Just as there is a beginning, there is an end to everything. When I first began the sentence issued to me of 25 years to life, I did not have hope and I did not believe I would ever say it is finished. As a 19-year-old, I could not imagine what my life would be like. Now that I am 42 years old and at the end of this prison sentence, I have a hope restored that I did not have before. I can finally see the end of not only this prison sentence, but of my suffering.

When Jesus spoke these last words, “It is finished,” His time on earth ended. Many see it as a time of sorrow or sadness, and yes, His pain and suffering did warrant sadness, however, His time on this earth was only temporary; just as our time here on earth is temporary. Jesus experienced betrayal, violence, and abuse as a human. All these are things that we ourselves have experienced. When Jesus died on the cross, His life as we know ended, but in truth, His life began and He was free. He was beginning a new chapter in a better place.

When an individual sees the words spoken by Jesus, “It is finished,” they may see the words as negative. After serving 23 plus years in prison, I can look at the words that Jesus spoke in a positive light and find comfort in them; knowing that nothing lasts forever and the end to suffering is near. The words give me hope and strength to get to the ‘end’ of this chapter of my life. I know that once I am released from prison, I too can speak the words, “It is finished” and begin my life anew; in a better place.

         Unless you have served time in prison, you may find it hard to identify with Claude’s take on Jesus  saying, “It is finished.” For she imagines herself saying those same words, “It is finished.” As she wrote, “I know that once I am released from prison, I too can speak the words, ‘It is finished’ and begin my life anew; in a better place.” She caught a feature of the story that I had overlooked. I had looked at those words as a statement Jesus made about his past. But the words signaled more than finality, they signaled forward progress.

Once Jesus spoke those words, “I am finished,” he began his life anew, for he soon went to a better place, back to where he had lived alongside his heavenly Father. His finish line was the start for a new day. Hearing his parting words in that way, Claude found hope in Jesus’ final statement, for she envisioned that upon her upcoming release from prison, she could begin anew in a better place.

Through her words I saw a connection that I had not seen previously in Jesus’ parting words. His final words were not simply an ending. They signaled a beginning. Just as John Stephen Akhwari was free to go home after finally completing his marathon, so Jesus was free to go home after finally completing his mission. His parting words, “It is finished,” looked backward at what he had done and forward to where he was going.

Through what Claude wrote from prison I heard Jesus’ parting word resonate in a new way. Her words from prison spoke to me also because one need not have served time in prison to be a prisoner.

One can be a prisoner to the effects of abuse or traumatic experiences. One can be entrapped in shame or remorse. One can be locked in depression or addiction. In which case, one may readily take to heart Claude’s take on Jesus’ parting words, “It is finished.” Possibly you can imagine yourself, as Claude did, echoing Jesus’ words in saying: “I know that once I am released from whatever imprisons me, I too can someday speak the words, ‘It is finished’ and begin my life anew, in a better place.”

Since Jesus put himself in our shoes, we can put ourselves in his. As he releases us from whatever imprisons us, we too can say, even if only in fleeting measures for passing moments, “This is finishing,” and in those moments we can begin to experience dimensions of divine life anew bringing us into better places, where we can sense relief, healing, freedom, and hope.

Besides hearing the triumphant words, “It is finished,” may we take courage from the companion words, “It will finish.” May those words give us hope and strength to get to the ‘end’ of this chapter of our lives as we await life anew when we will be free to go home.

Permit me to conclude by reciting a prayer ascribed to Sir Walter Raleigh, who wrote: “O Lord God, when you give your servants to endeavor any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same to the end, until it be thoroughly finished, which yields the true glory; through him who for the finishing of your work, laid down his life, our redeemer, Jesus Christ.”

THIRSTING

April 7, 2019

 

 

John 19:27-38

 Fred Craddock, a renowned preacher, tells a story about his friend Rachel. At the time he first told the story, Rachel had recently entered a retirement home where others could be to her a family that she never had. Rachel had taught for forty years in the grade school of a small town. By the time she retired she had taught boys and girls, and their boys and girls, and even some of their boys and girls.

Over the course of her tenure, she had threatened to retire many times, but every one knew that threats from Rachel were as likely to come true as were threats from little children to run away from home. No one took her seriously spring after spring when she said she was too tired to continue teaching.

What really bothered Rachel about springtime was that she felt pained at the loss of another class of her beloved boys and girls at graduation. Though she dared not admit it, she was pleased sometimes to see one of her favorite students, as she called them, detained for another year. She simply adored introducing children to art and music and books. So her summers and weekends were spent gathering objects to help her children learn. Year after year she pasted flags, turkeys, valentines, bunnies, and Santa Clauses on her classroom windows.

Rachel was at a loss for words when the chairman of the school board told her that the superintendent was giving her early retirement. She knew she was a good teacher, a wonderful teacher, so she did not take the action as a criticism. She did not find fault with the board for letting her go. She simply felt sadness that they hindered her from pursuing further the one ambition she treasured in life: namely, to become a child.

Not that she had a desire to become childish. She was old-fashioned in that regard, no tolerance for trying to navigate adult life with childish reasons and foolish behavior. She desired to become like a child in that she wanted their laughter, delights, fears, joys, pains, games, and friendships to become hers. At Halloween, at Christmas, on Valentine’s Day, she was caught up in being a child—full of giggles, play, and wonder.

She was shocked at the board’s decision because after such a long time, her passion had come true. She had finally done it! She had entered her children’s world. No more air of importance, no more sense of being different, no more using big words. She was lost—no, she was at home—in her pupils’ world. Without pausing to analyze what changes overcame her, she smiled, danced, and sang from among them, not from above them.

The adults, who had once been her pupils, but were now responsible adults, repeated to one another: “Poor Rachel, poor Rachel.” They had so completely moved out of the child’s world that they did not recognize in Rachel the full flowering of those childlike qualities they had so loved in her when they were in her classroom years ago.  They did not see that Rachel had become what they once were: free to be carefree, happy to be awed. After forty years, out of her desire to reach children, and in her mind for the sake of the children, Rachel had become one with them.

“She will have to be retired,” muttered the school board. “For the sake of the children, we will have to let her go.  We cannot have someone like this teaching our children.”

None of the parents, none of her former students who had known her in years past as their favorite teacher, none raised an objection. They accepted the decision as necessarily right. Only one person raised a question. A newcomer, with more curiosity than history, asked, “Why are you getting rid of this teacher?”

 “We had to let her go because she had finally become like the children,” chimed the grownups.

After finishing the story, Craddock adds: “And He [God] became in every way as we are. Of course, we had to get rid of Him.”

For reasons all his own, God wanted to be with us and wanted us to want to be with him. That desire put God in a bind. It is often a bind when you want something or, to be precise, when you want someone, because that person may not want you. As the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink it.” You can’t force a horse to drink and you can’t compel a person to love.

How to make us want to be with God put God in a bind. On top of that problem, how to make us fit to live so close to God put God in a bind. One problem is that God lives forever, but, as we all learned from Puff the Magic Dragon, not so little boys, or little girls. For we all grow up and worse than that, we all pass away. So God was in a double bind: how to make us want to live with God as much as God wanted to live with us, and how to make us fit to live with God for as long as God will live.

One way God saw to resolve the first dilemma was to come as close as possible to us, so we could realize how much God wanted us close to him. Maybe showing how much God thirsted for human companionship could stir our hearts to reciprocate in kind. So devoted was God to the cause that God took the resolve to the extreme. More than simply coming to be with us, God decided to became one of us. God acquired a new thirst, to become a human. Somehow, mysteriously, this pursuit might resolve the two-fold dilemma. By being just like us somehow God might prompt us to like God, which would go a long way in making us fit to be with God. After all, there was no sense being with someone forever if you do not like them in the first place. And, if you like them that much, you might find a way to make it last forever.

The logic behind this ambitious plan may not seem apparent, but the intent was clear. God would become like us so that we could like and become like God, wanting to live with the divine being and fit to live close to divine perfection happily forever after. I can’t explain the mechanics of this divine plan, nor has anyone else satisfactorily. Even if we cannot explain the mechanics, we can readily appreciate God’s desire. God would become like us so that we could like God and become like God.

For that purpose, God became a human being, and people called that unique person Jesus. Mingling deity with humanity, God shrank to our size. God desired to become like a human. God wanted our laughter, delights, fears, joys, pains, friendships, and struggles to become his. Over time, over thirty years or so, he pursued his thirsting desire.

Deities, like magic dragons, may live forever, but not so little boys and little girls. Boys and girls grow up. All finally pass away. Thus, to become one of us, totally one of us, in every way one of us, Jesus finally had to pass away. Dropping the euphemism, Jesus had to die. The selfsame God who gave the breath of life to humankind had to breathe his last. For his lifelong thirst was to become one of us, at which time his thirst would consume him.

At the end, at death’s door, his passion had come true. Thus near his end, Jesus utters his parting word, “I am thirsty” (John 19:28).  All his life he had long been thirsting to become one of us. Even at the very end it was still his passion. Every step of the way he had complied with God’s plan in completely becoming one of us. To his dying breath or, more precisely, in his dying breath he finally became one of them. Ironically, for Jesus, death became the final step in sharing life with us.

Long ago in Hawaii there was a place on the island of Molokai where people went if they had a disease called Hanson’s disease or leprosy. In those days doctors did not know what caused leprosy or how to treat leprosy, so they quarantined victims of the disease on a deserted island.

Leprosy is a dreadful disease. It attacks the nervous systems and erodes a person’s ability to feel pain. Without feeling pain, people are prone to injure their hands, bruise their feet, cut their skin and not realize that they need medical help. Sores fester on the skin, and in worse cases, skin, fingers and toes turn gangrene. Out of fear and ignorance, lepers were ostracized and confined on the island of Molokai.

A priest from Belgium, Father Joseph Damien de Veuster, felt such deep compassion for the lepers that he decided to move onto Molokai. His friends thought he was crazy, thought that he had a death wish to settle there. They warned him that he would catch their disease.

“But they need me,” was all Father Damien said. Since he was not a doctor, he could not treat their disease, but he could stay with them and befriend them. In the course of his service among them, he came to love the residents of Molokai deeply.

One morning Father Damien was pouring some boiling hot water into a pan. As he poured the water, some of it splashed onto his bare feet. He was astonished, for he did not feel any pain. Then he realized what had happened. He had caught leprosy.  He knew his health was doomed, for there was no cure for the disease. But, in a strange way, he felt happy.

Father Damien ran to the church building and rang the steeple bell. Alarmed by the incessant clanging, people came to see what the problem was. Father Damien motioned for them to sit in the sanctuary pews, and then he mounted the pulpit. He silently spread his arms out, as if to embrace the people, and said, “Fellow lepers—my fellow lepers!” The lepers understood instantly Father Damien’s words. He was one of them.

Father Damien loved the lepers on Molokai so much that he thirsted to become one of them. Now they could grasp how much he he loved them. Becoming like them in every way, of course, meant the end of him. But Father Damien did not look at catching their disease in that way. Since his passion was to be with them, becoming one of them meant he came closer to them.

Rachel thirsted to become like her students. She wanted their laughter, delights, fears, joys, pains, games, and friendships to become hers. Father Damien thirsted to befriend the outliers in the leper colony. He felt complete when their suffering became his.  Jesus thirsted to become in every way as we are. God had planned it that way. Somehow God figured that by the deity becoming one of us, we finally could become at-one with God. Although the mystery may baffle me, let us embrace it as a way to assuage our thirst for being close with God.