Sunday, September 20, 2009

the greatest sermon ever

In the name of God, merciful Father, compassionate Son, Spirit of wisdom. Amen.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. — Mark 9:33-34

A capable wife, who can find?
— Proverbs 31:10


In her column in the newspaper last Friday, [“Clinging to Civility”, Boston Globe, September 18, 2009] Ellen Goodman reflected on a moment recently in a Virginia schoolhouse when a ninth-grader asked the president of the United States a question that had nothing and everything to do with his presidency — and nothing and everything to do with us today: “And if you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?’’

It was an interesting question – and it got an interesting answer. The president picked Gandhi, Mohandas Gandhi, a lawyer like himself — better known as the nonviolent leader of the movement for independence for India from Imperial Britain. Gandhi is revered among nonviolent leaders, as the model emulated by Martin Luther King, Jr., and as a practitioner of the teachings of both Buddha and Jesus — someone who tried to put into practice the seemingly impractical teachings of peaceful resistance to violent oppression.

It occurred to me, as I thought about this question, and its answer, that the president had more immediate access to a greater dinner partner than the one he chose. Any Sunday – and perhaps any day – he could look out the windows of the White House and then walk across Lafayette Square to St. John’s Episcopal Church, and share a meal with Jesus. The Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, is on offer that often – and in it we break bread with Jesus, and one another, and all those who have gone before us and will come after us, in Christ.

In Christ, in the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, we are present to all those who partake of that meal – and we are present to Christ, to Jesus, the living Savior, the Lord of Life. He is the greatest teacher of how to live, through his words and through his deeds, that the world has ever known. It’s just that easy – and it really is that hard. It is hard because the road that Jesus traveled is hard. It was so hard that the disciples rejected it out of hand when they first heard what it would really mean. It is not clear that they even understood.

No! Peter said. Must it be?
It must be, it must be, said Jesus.

And then he told them: the Son of Man will be, must be, betrayed, and suffer, and die – and then after three days be raised. The first news is unacceptable, the last unfathomable. How can this be?

With God all things are possible. Through God’s promise we know – what we cannot know, what we cannot imagine: that after the struggle, the passion, and the death, there is new life, hope beyond hope, that ends in a scene beyond dreams.

It certainly is not a human hope – not the triumph of the Cowboys over the Broncos, for example.

Who is the greatest, the disciples argue. The book of Proverbs has given a picture of greatness, of a life worthy of praise and admiration, which is already a change from what we might first guess.

A good woman, who can find?

In simple-seeming accomplishments, seen – if they are seen – every day, greatness exists.

The greatest, it appears, even in human terms, is not always the most evident. It is quite a picture the Proverbs paint, of a partner in life who is successful, productive, and wise.

Underlying all her accomplishments is strength of character. And yet – “it is for her fear of the Lord that a woman is to be praised.” (v.30, JSB)

Here is Jesus, remember – he has just told the disciples what is going to happen. He has told them that following the way of Christ means following the way of the Cross. He has told them that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” They don’t get it! They’re afraid to ask. And so they go back to something they know, something familiar and comfortable: arguing – who’s going to be Number One?

He tells them something strange – something a little bit hard for a self-respecting disciple to accept. He says:

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.

And then he does something a bit surprising. Who is the greatest? Let me show you… and he puts in front of them the last person they’d suspect, not even one of the twelve disciples.

He took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."

A child? – A child may be a picture of innocence to us, perhaps of ignorance or insignificance to others. A child? A child is certainly not great in the eyes of the world.

And yet at the Seder, the meal celebrated by Jews all over the world at the beginning of Passover, it is the smallest child who asks the greatest question: “what makes this night different from all other nights?”

The power of God, the faith of the people, the work of the Holy Spirit – and a child.

A child, asking innocently, to remind us of the work of God in our own lives, as God redeemed the people of Israel, delivered them long ago and led them through all the dangers and trials of their lives on a difficult trail that led at last to the land of promise.

Of the truly great – the ones that follow the way of the Lord and not the way of the world, the psalmist sings,

Their delight is in the law of the LORD,
and they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper.

This is a greatness that does not look to be great – it looks beyond itself, to where true wisdom is born. It is the stature of service, the power of prayer: an eminence of humility.

Then James asks us to look around and see:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.

James contrasts for us the wisdom of gentleness with the wisecracking foolishness of the world. What source can disorder and wickedness have, what place can they have in the heart, when wisdom and understanding are of the Lord?

Pure, peaceable, gentle, merciful, bountiful, and sincere – this is the wisdom that comes from God, this is the peace that falls on us like gentle rain; this is the source of justice.

This wisdom, this gentleness, this righteousness, is embodied for us in one human being, one sent from God.

There was one person who set aside all his possible glory, all his potential for great stature in the eyes of the world, and took upon himself a life and a passion and a death that he could have avoided. He could have turned aside. He did not swerve from the path; he kept straight toward the goal: the goal of eternal life, for us.

By his birth and suffering and death he embodied the hope of Glory – and this Glory can live in you. Take upon yourself the gift of Christ and enter into his love. Take into yourself his gift of life – through the common meal we share in the Eucharist. Remember his body and blood as you partake of consecrated bread and wine.

As we make Eucharist together the Lord’s Supper with his disciples becomes present to us in this place, in this time. We take communion together, with each other and with him. And in him we find life – life beyond what the world can know, peace beyond what the world can give, and an inheritance with all the saints that is beyond what we can imagine.

You are invited to the table of the Lord.

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let thy gifts to us be blessed. Amen.


Proverbs 31:10-31
Psalm 1
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

Jewish Study Bible (Oxford, 2003)

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Edmonds, Wash.,
The 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 16, 2009.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

the working of thy mercy

In the name of God, source of all being, eternal Word, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

O God for as much as without thee, we are not able to please thee; grant that the working of thy mercy may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Grace is to direct us. Mercy begets mercy.

In the readings today the Word of God challenges our thinking.

Proverbs tells us of the Wisdom of God, showing us how the Mind of God, the Holy Spirit, calls us into obedience to its teachings. It shows us the fruits of the folly of the life ‘in the flesh’, of thinking with the worldly mind of man – and calls us to release ourselves into the knowledge of the loving God. This knowledge it calls the fear of the Lord.

The fear of the Lord, the keeping of God’s law, which is the law of love, revives the soul, gives wisdom to those innocent as doves, rejoices our hearts and enlightens our vision.

His judgment is not condemnation – it is redemption. Obedience to his way is the road to perfect freedom.

To be rooted in, to rest in, the knowledge and love of God, is to be bathed in the sunrays of the glory of God. Everything points to joy, for God is the source of joy, the root of being, the giver of life. Our guiding principle is love – the love shown to us in Jesus Christ.

James shows us how bad it can be, if we follow our own desires, our lower nature – our selfish selves. The tongue, that mighty little instrument, can tell out our joy, or tell us off. A world of iniquity in a mouthful, a stain that spreads across our whole bodies, a match that lights a flame, that gives us our own perfect self-made hell. This is what the tongue can do. The words come out of our mouths and take on a life of their own. Like a forest fire set by a prankster, they gather speed and demolish – and like the prankster eventually we are caught in our own folly.

Or we can use this gift properly, if we do not keep it for our own use: we can praise and encourage and welcome and rejoice in God.

There is a story of a man in Eastern Europe who lived in a little house in a poor village. He had a dream one night, that there was a treasure hidden under a bridge in a town far away. He got up and traveled day and night until he reached that faraway town and saw the bridge. He came up to it, but there was a guard patrolling the bridge. How would he get to the treasure? He hung around, hoping for his moment, when he could slip in, spot it, gather it up and get away. He hung around all day, until the guard collared him. Okay, buddy, what’s your game? The man confessed. I dreamed there is a treasure under this bridge. The guard laughed at him. A dream! I had a dream too, that there was a treasure buried in a little house in a poor village far away from here. The man hurried home and began to dig.

The grace of God that we seek is not far from us. It is quite near. The holy spirit of God is close at hand. His kingdom is nigh. The grace of God indeed dwells with us, in us, if we are open to its presence. If we are open to his grace, and open our lives and eyes and hearts to the word, we find his blessings are hidden within us. He is that close. God is with us. We have only to dig. We have only – only! – to set aside our own ideas and plans and desires and follow him. Go with him, on his way.

We have only to – live in Christ. And he will live in us.

But how are we to go with him on his way? This is the hard part of the good news.

If you would be a follower of the way of Christ, you must follow the way of the Cross: you must deny your self – your pleasures, your loneliness, your pain, your plans – and take up your cross, and follow him.

In other words to be with him you must follow him – and that means following him all the way through suffering, rejection, death, … and then! resurrection.

New life. Having gone through giving up yourself and gone through life with him beside you and you beside him at last you receive the golden prize of eternal life.

And yet that golden prize is yours now: because he is beside you, guiding you through the presence of the spirit, and to be with him is the obedience that is perfect freedom.

Pick up your cross and follow. To live in Christ we meet at the foot of the cross. And it is there at the foot of the cross, in the presence of him who died for us, that we lay down the burdens we bear with us, that we carry as our own personal baggage, and all that we as a people drag along as our corporate baggage train.

Our baggage – our attitudes, that reflect what we have already left in the past, our nostalgia; our ego-laid plans, our close-held desires for the future: our ambition; our behavior now, that reveals what we hold so dear that we cannot let go of it even to receive the blessing of God: our sins.

You remember the story of the monkey and the hazelnuts? Aesop told it. A monkey got his hand into a jar of filberts – hazelnuts – but he could not get it out. He had grabbed a hold of a big handful and now his fist was too fat to get through the mouth of the jar. He had to let them all go, to receive his own life, liberty, and freedom.

We need to leave all this behind us at the foot of the cross. Then we are free to follow him, as individuals and as a people of God. When we stop taking it all for ourselves then we can make room for Jesus, to live in our hearts forever, and for us to live in his.

God lives in the world, dwells in the world. God is with us. God lives right in our own dwelling place. He lives in our hearts, if we let go of sin and let him in.

If we seek him he comes, filling our hearts with his love, so there is no room for false witness, slander, malice, gossip, envy, and jealousy – but there is room for gentleness, mercy, compassion, and wisdom.

Jettison the cargo of selfishness and there is room for the fruits of the Holy Spirit and the grace of God.

The way of the Lord, as we have seen in the first half of the gospel of Mark, as Jesus traveled through Galilee, begins as the way through the wilderness. Then, at this moment of Peter’s confession and the hard teachings with which Jesus responds to him, we learn that the way of the Lord is the way to Jerusalem, the way of the cross. Jesus travels from the edge of the Jewish world right to its center, from the far north – the villages of Caesarea Philippi – south to Jericho and up the long mountain road to the city of David.

He goes there not to triumph, not the way Peter planned it, but to bear first his cross – and then to carry through to the end.

Peter refused to hear it, to accept the fate Jesus foretold for himself. This is not the Messiah we expected! But Jesus is asking, who do you say that I am? Here is what it truly takes to be my disciple, to live. The way leads through the cross to resurrection.

The revolution, the coming of the Messiah, the in-breaking of the reign of God into our world, begins within our hearts, at the core of our being.

The long march, the long pilgrimage, to Jerusalem, begins at this moment. The Messiah is shown to be the Son of Man, the Human One of Daniel and the suffering servant of Isaiah, who is despised and rejected of men. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.

Do not fear the powers of the world to harm you. You are by my side. I will be with you, always, to the end of this age.

In short, who is Jesus? He is the Messiah, the Son of Man.

But the way to glory is a hard road. The powers of this world get their hands on him.

He must suffer under Pontius Pilate, be rejected at the hands of the scornful priests and scribes of the Temple, be crucified by the Romans. He is dead and buried, and then, wrenched away comes the door of the tomb – and he is set free by the one who is really in charge here: God raises him from the dead.

Peter: NO!
Jesus: Get away from me with your sinful thoughts— it must be!
Divine things – redemption, glorification – are what count now.

To become his followers, Peter, you and I, followers of the way of Christ, is to follow the way of the Cross, all the way through Good Friday, the grim silence of holy Saturday, and then Easter morning.

Deny themselves, take up their cross, follow me – on the Via Dolorosa – to glory.

Either I preserve mine, my own life, my goals and plans and dreams for my personal happiness, what I grasp to myself, to make my own identity, and then find I have lost LIFE itself, or —

I give up MINE, my precious, my birthday gift to myself, my pride and folly, let go, be relieved of that burden, set it at Jesus’ feet, and join him on the way of the cross – and then receive LIFE.

Freedom and Liberty – choose LIFE.

What you grasp, what you hoard, will not save you. Remember whom you follow: the one who did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, a status to be cherished, but emptied himself and became one of us, and suffered death, even death on a cross, to lead us to true LIFE – life in the presence, life in the abundance, of God.

For what does it profit anyone to gain the whole world if you lose your life in the process? You cannot buy it back with anything. There is nothing you can redeem it with once you pawn your life.

There is a treasure – true life and true freedom – that you cannot have by grasping; it is the free gift of life in God, of mercy, joy and grace.

That treasure is abundant life, true life, the grace that just comes, comes from God – and it is closer than you think, as close as your own heart.

Lay not up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust can consume it and thieves break in and steal it; lay up treasure in heaven, free gift let go from your hand and given to God, and you will receive again LIFE itself, life eternal, life in joy and glory.

When we realize our true identity in the source of all being, God the creator, when we open our ears to the joyful news of the eternal Word, and when we invite Jesus in, to live in our hearts forever, then we truly begin to live.

We breathe in, the Spirit — breath of God, and we breathe out, JOY.

All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.


The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 13, 2009
Saint Alban's Episcopal Church, Edmonds, Washington.


Sunday, September 6, 2009

Open up!

Lord, open our lives to your goodness.
Open our eyes to your presence.
Open our ears to your call.
Open our hearts to your love.
Open our lips to your praises.
Open us to your glory. Amen.*

Three weeks ago, on a Sunday night, I was standing in the middle of a river in northern Wisconsin, knee-deep in the center of the stream. I was there to say good-bye and thanks, the night before we left. It was beautiful that evening.

The river moved toward me, around me, and past me, and it went on. It went on as it has for millennia, as it will until the next Ice Age. It will go on flowing whether I am there or not. It does not change because I am there. It is indifferent to me. It flows. On.

Life may seem to be like that sometimes but our God is not like that. Our God is not indifferent. The God who ultimately reveals himself in the living person of Jesus Christ is not indifferent.

God has sent his Son to us, to stand with us in the middle of the stream, in the middle of life. The living Word, the Lord Jesus, is with us. And he listens to us and responds.

So it was for Jesus. Like Elijah he was inspired by the Spirit of God to travel beyond the borders of Israel, his own country, and beyond the boundaries of what he knew. He went into a far country, a land of Gentiles. He kind of tried to hide out there, maybe – like Elijah in the cave— but it didn’t work.

A woman of that country sought him out. With great respect, even deference, she implored him, heal my daughter: cast out the demon that is within her. No — he said. But she persisted in faith — she persisted in believing in him — that he could do and would do what she asked — and she told him what she wanted.

Like Jacob wrestling with the angel on the bank of the river she would not let go until she had received the blessing she knew, knew, that God could give her through this person, this man standing before her. He was truly God and he was truly human. And he changed.

She told him what she wanted. Your God is my God: she seemed to say. Wherever you go, God is with you, active in you, active through you. You can give me this blessing. And he did.

Jesus — truly divine — was also truly human. He learned, and grew, as a human being. He responded, and he changed, in answer to her petition — her prayer.

Jesus taught that it is not by what goes into you that makes you unclean or impure, but by what comes out of your heart — your words and deeds. That is what he was just teaching the disciples, before this incident. Now the lesson continues.

It is not who you are or where you are from — Israelite or Syrophoenician or Canaanite — it is what you do by placing your faith in the hands of the living God. That is what makes you whole.

I was not alone in the river always, not even alone with God and the fishes. No, sometimes, there were others in the water with me — people, young and old. And sometimes there was a dog.

Hound Dog got knee-deep in the river too—lapping up that country water. Then he got hungry. So when the dinner bell rang and the ham was carved he was Houndie on the spot. He looked up at me with those big brown eyes — hoping for a scrap…

Is there a veterinarian in the house?
- No? Okay, just a little bit. Catch!
- There is? Ahem. NO, Hound Dog, it is not on your diet! Not kosher…

It’s kind of like Jesus’ before picture, before the woman responded. But really – what would Jesus do? (Probably what was best for the dog’s health)? For all his importunity Hound Dog was not like the woman of Tyre, the woman with the afflicted daughter. He was not asking the Lord to heal somebody or to include them in the Kingdom. He’s just a dog, trying to beg a living. (He got fed – his food.)

Let me tell you another story. The mystery is the same – the mystery of God’s loving provision for us. But this is a story we usually tell at Christmas-time. Let me tell you a little early — about a character from Swedish folklore called the Tomten.

The Tomten is a mischievous little gnomic fellow, who shows up in response to Christmas wishes. He’s a bit brusque about it, and mysterious. He gives you what you need, all right, but not how you expect.

A man had a broken door on his barn. What was his Christmas wish? That it be fixed. The Tomten came! The door of the farmhouse banged open, the wind swished the fire flames. In through the door flew some boards and some rope. Bang! The door shut. And there it was — everything he needed, needed, to have a newly mended barn door. All it needed was a little faith — and a little sweat equity.

Jesus was, I believe, more abundant and (in the case of the woman) eventually more gracious, in how he gave. Go, he said: for what you have said, go — your daughter is well. She is free. She has been restored to health and wholeness. Peace be on your home.

Then, after that, Jesus went, too; up the coast to Sidon then around and back south through the towns on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the Ten Towns of the Decapolis. Greek towns. He is in Gentile territory there, too. And the people of that country have a request as well. They bring him someone to heal, a deaf man with a speech impediment. He did not hesitate this time, but got ahold of the man, and set him free. Ephphatha! (Be opened.) Open up!

Strange — having made someone able to speak, he then says, Tell no one! And yet the more he protests, the more eagerly they proclaim the good news: They were astounded! He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.

Jesus went out of his way, away from the children of Israel, the people who knew about the promise, to the people of the nations around them, people who had never heard of God this God before. There his mission was expanded. Certainly our understanding of his mission is expanded. God comes to all with his healing touch.

Can Jesus change and grow? Can he learn? Can you? Can you learn to take him in, as your Lord and as your Savior, the source of healing and health, and the one who sends you on a mission — go tell the world: the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

And — Go, show the world: this is what it looks like when you live in the sure faith that God’s kingdom is real, that God keeps his promises, that God is here among us, with us, you and I, standing with us here in the middle of life, ready to heal, powerful to save.

Rudyard Kipling wrote a book about a boy named Kim. Kim lived in British India. When we first see him, he is straddling the great gun Zam-zamma in front of the big official building in the center of Lahore. He approaches a tall man on the street, hand out: “O, Protector of the Poor!” he greets the man, giving him a most noble title. Noble indeed: blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

And who is the protector of the poor, really, but God himself? Blessed are the poor…but how are you part of the blessing? How do you respond to poverty and need? Not to the sturdy beggar or the clever boy, in your face with his demand, as if he were entitled to the contents of your purse, but the quiet one, the hidden one, whose face you cannot see, who cannot ask.

Rich and poor alike, we are made by God. The blessing comes when we share the bread God gives us with the poor.

It comes when we do not take advantage of the vulnerable, nor exploit the needs of the needy. Those who sow injustice reap calamity, those who work for justice sow the seeds of peace. God has indeed expressed what the late John Paul II called a ‘preferential option for the poor’ right here in these Proverbs. God is indeed ‘protector of the poor’.

The psalm reminds us, that the just shall live by faith; the Lord will encircle them with his care as the sheltering hills surround Jerusalem. The society that seeks justice, the Psalmist proclaims, and not the society that seeks gain, is the society that will last.

And James exhorts us: he paints a picture of favoritism, of special treatment, of box seats for the rich and famous, and a cold shoulder for the down and out, right there in church. He sees one person fussed over because they look rich, another shunted aside because they look poor.

The poor treated as of no account: it’s easy to do, who hasn’t done it? Look at the salesman selling a car, talking to the man and ignoring the woman right next to him. Watch the customer with hard-to-fit feet waiting for the shoe clerk to stop ignoring her. Look at the deli counter, where they call on the tall guy first, not the kid in the front.

And you give preference, says James, even to those who oppress you! What good is it, he asks, if you say that you believe but what you do does not show it? What kind of faith is that?

Acts of compassion show faith at work. Faith that does not give does not live.

And Mark, in the Gospel story today, shows Jesus, who has just been teaching that it is what comes out of you, by what you say and what you do, that defiles you; not what you take in. Jesus has been drawing a line between clean and unclean, pure and impure.

And yet here he is sent by the Holy Spirit, like Elijah to the widow, right out of Israel to the Gentile country, the port cities of Tyre and Sidon on the Syrian coast, and the Greek towns east of Galilee.

Mark shows us in these stories Jesus living out and apparently learning the truth that what really matters to God is a clean soul, a pure heart, shone in action. It is not who you are or where you are from, it is what you do in faith, putting your trust in God, and how you act in faith, that shows your true heart, that reveals your true self, that proclaims the mystery of God to others and to you yourself.

So Jesus went, possibly for a break, but his fame followed him, and God was there before him, in a woman’s call for help. At first he put her off, with a rude comment.

The woman responds with courage and dignity and faith – she makes no obsequious plea but gives him a bright and strong reply, as sharp as his own words back to him.

And he relents and the vision expands — for him perhaps, for the disciples certainly, for us — God willing.

The good news, the grace of God, is for all. In these stories Jesus has gone beyond the Pale, outside the boundaries of Israel, and of the religion they knew and practice there.

Our God is beyond all that, loving us, calling us forward, beyond our own boundaries and our self-made walls, into living relationship with a living God, into health, into healing, into gifts we have to give to really receive.

Next time Jesus does not hesitate — he heals. Ephphatha!

Lord, open our lives to your goodness.
Open our eyes to your presence.
Open our ears to your call.
Open our hearts to your love.
Open our lips to your praises.
Open us to your glory. Amen.*

*A prayer by David Adam.


David Adam, Traces of Glory: Prayers for the Church Year, Year B (SPCK, 1999) p. 117.

Fred B. Craddock et al., Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year B (Harrisburg PA: Trinity Press International, 1993) p. 399-406.

Barbara Crafton, "A Jesus Who Grows and Changes", The Almost Daily eMo from, Thursday, September 3, 2009 (

Rudyard Kipling, Kim (London: MacMillan, 1901)

Karoline M. Lewis, “Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost”; David B. Lott, ed., New Proclamation: Year B, 2009, Easter to Christ the King (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2008) p. 189-195.

Thomas Long, "Living by the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary (Sunday, September 6)", The Christian Century, August 25, 2009, p. 21.

Herbert O’Driscoll, The Word Today: Reflections on the Readings of the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, v. 3 (Toronto ON: Anglican Book Centre, 2001) p. 96-100.

Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 1988)

Marie Noon Sabin, The Gospel According to Mark: The New Collegeville Bible Commentary, New Testament, v. 2 (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2006)

Scott Gambrill Sinclair, A Study Guide to Mark’s Gospel: Discovering Mark’s Message for His Day and Ours (North Richland Hills TX: BIBAL Press, 1996)

Paul Weston, ed., Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian: A Reader (SPCK, 2006) p. 17-28.

Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (SPCK, 2001, 2004)


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The meeting tree

Traditional cultures around the world speak of the meeting tree. African tradition includes the meeting tree – as does Native American tradition. In one place the people gather under the baobab tree, in the other they meet beneath the Council Oak.

Under the sheltering branches of the meeting tree the people gather to tell the stories that build their common life and to talk about the business of the community, about who they are and what they are called to be.

In America in places like South Bend, Indiana, the tree is the Council Oak. In 1681, under the shade of a great oak tree, the French explorer La Salle held a council with Indian leaders, which led to the Miami Treaties.

For nearly three centuries, a Council Oak tree stood near the Little Niagara Creek in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The large tree served as a shelter, marker and gathering place for generations of Native Americans who lived in the area. During the 20th century university students met and studied under the branches of the grand old tree.

In Africa is kept the tradition of the meeting tree, a baobab tree, under whose capacious branches the village gathers to meet, trade, teach, and talk with one another. There they discuss community matters, relate the news of the day, or tell stories, thus the expression ‘under the baobab tree’. Children grow up to recall evenings spent listening to storytellers with their families, gathered under the baobab tree, illuminated in the glow of the moon.

This is the place the community gathers, the tree the focus – or rallying point – around which they gather. It is there under the tree that the community is unified, in conversation around significant issues, in confrontation sometimes, finally in concurrence about what really matters.

What kind of tree does our community gather under? The answer is easy to obtain and yet difficult to accept.

The tree we gather under is the tree upon which Jesus hung: we gather at the foot of the cross, with his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene; with his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her.

That is where we gather. Whatever else we are, wherever else we might be, wherever we go, we end up here. At the feet of Jesus— as he hangs on the tree of Calvary, the cross, crucified.

The Son of Man— the Human One, as Walter Wink calls him; the representative of all humanity— and the Son of God: that is the one who gathers us, that is the one who calls us together. It is at his feet, acknowledging our common humanity and our common need, that we find ourselves together in community, and alone, each of us, where all that we have, all we have done and all that we are, is laid down like an unwanted burden, to rest.

It is at the foot of the cross that we discover our common humanity and our uncommon salvation, our despair and our hope. We find there peace, grief, and grace— at last. We find our true calling. And we find it together, made one in Christ.

Collect for Holy Cross Day

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Prayer for Mission

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

Prayer for our own Reshaping

All: O Christ, the master carpenter, who at the last, through wood and nails, purchased our whole salvation, wield well your tools in the workshop of your world, so that we who come rough-hewn to your bench may here be fashioned to a truer beauty of your hand. We ask it for your own name’s sake. AMEN.

—Fr. John

On July 22, 2009, the Very Rev. Victor Atta-Baffoe, Canon Theologian of the Anglican Diocese of Cape Coast, Ghana, came to St. Mark’s Cathedral to discuss the Anglican Communion, where we are in the Anglican covenant process, and what we are called to be as a global church. He reminded us where we all meet: at the foot of the cross.

The collect for Holy Cross Day was written by the Rev. Dr. Massey H. Shepherd, Jr., for the Book of Common Prayer (1979). The prayer for mission is found in Morning Prayer. The prayer for our own reshaping is from the prayers of the Iona Community.

For St. Alban's Grapevine, September 2009