Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Healing Tree

[Sermon from a joint service with St. Andrew's Episcopal Church and United Missionary Baptist Church, Kansas City, MO, celebrating the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday.]
             I’m grateful for the chance to be here with you this morning.  I’m John Spicer – you can call me Fr. John or Pastor John or, even better, just John.  On behalf of the people of St. Andrew’s, those here and those who couldn’t be with us today – we’re so grateful for your hospitality and for the blessing of getting to worship with you.  It is a joy to be here. 
Last weekend, I was driving to Springfield, Missouri, the city where I grew up.  My parents still live there, and my father has been sick; so my wife, Ann, and I went to Springfield to see them.  The drive from Kansas City covers a lot of Missouri farmland and pastureland, interrupted by stands of trees.  Most of the way, there’s not much more than that to look at.  So I found myself paying more attention to trees than I would on a typical day.
Just north of Springfield, a striking sight caught my eye:  a tree split in half, with the two halves of the trunk lying on the ground, pointing in opposite directions.  It was quite dead, apparently having been split a long time ago, and it seemed to be lying just where it fell.  I wondered what caused the split – disease, insects, snow and ice?  Maybe a dramatic bolt of lightning?  Probably it was just the brokenness of creation: age and decay, which get us all, eventually.  In any event, the center could not hold, and the tree was now two, lying on the ground.
I said something about this to my wife, who’s a master gardener.  Ann informed me it actually had always been two trees.  What I’d seen wasn’t a single trunk split but two trunks that had grown up together, so close their bark had fused and made them one.  But, like I said, those trunks had split a long time ago. 
For a moment, I pretended that trees had memory.  And I wondered whether this one could even remember a day when it stood tall, united and strong.  Could those trunks remember a time of unity; or in their minds, would they have always been in opposition, in a geographic sense – each pointing away from the other, growing apart until the sap could flow no more?
For ages, trees have served as mileposts and landmarks, pointing people toward something that lies beyond them.  Like all signs and symbols, they stand for something more, something deeper, something larger than themselves.  Trees bear the rich fruit of metaphor, and we come upon them all through Holy Scripture.
We can begin where we all began, in Eden, in paradise, in the state God intended for us in the beginning.  Back then, in Genesis, all was paradise.  And in that garden of paradise stood two trees in particular – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life.  We humans took fruit from the first one, of course, and disrupted the connection that God had wired into us – the desire for relationship with God and with each other, the relationship that truly is life itself.  And so the split began.
The journey through Scripture is a tree-lined path, actually.  Later on in Genesis, when God comes to Abraham as three weary travelers, it’s by the Oaks of Mamre where Abraham meets his heavenly visitors (18:1-8).  In Deuteronomy, as Moses describes the Promised Land to a people wearied by decades in the desert, he promises them “a good land … a land … of vines and fig trees and pomegranates … [and] olive trees” – a land nearly as bountiful as the Creator’s love itself (8:7-8).  In First Kings, the prophet Elijah finds himself collapsed and exhausted under a broom tree, on the lam from an evil king who wants to see him dead.  There God finds him, and strengthens him, and blesses him, and sends him back into the fray against the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19:4-18).  In the story of Job, as poor Job laments his excruciating testing at Satan’s hands, he remembers the power of life.  And he speaks with prophetic truth that “there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again and that its shoots will not cease” (14:7).  The Psalms speak of the righteous as being like trees, growing tall “by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither” (1:3).  
And then in the prophets, we see two images of trees in particular.  In his vision of God’s heavenly temple, the prophet Ezekiel describes the trees that grow alongside the river of life, the river of God’s eternal bounty and blessing.  On the banks of that river will grow all kinds of trees, and “their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing” (47:12).  Keep those trees in mind, because we’ll see them again in a few minutes.  But first, we hear of trees from another prophet.  In the Book of Micah, the prophet dreams of a day when the peoples of the earth will come to the mountain of the Lord, learning God’s ways and walking in God’s paths.  On that day, God the heavenly judge will offer conciliation among the peoples of the earth.  And they shall “beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (4:3).  Instead, what shall they do?  The prophet says they shall rest in the shade of God’s loving provision, blessing offered freely to all.  “They shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,” Micah says, “and no one shall make them afraid” (Micah 4:4).  No one shall make them afraid.
This weekend, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the prophet who took up the prophets’ mantle.  As he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Dr. King went back to these vines and fig trees.  Refusing to accept that we are “bound to the starless midnight of racism” and proclaiming that “the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood” will come, Dr. King saw the same trees Micah saw – the trees whose leaves bring healing.  “Every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree,” Dr. King said, “and none shall be afraid.”1
Of course, trees have their dark side, too.  Deuteronomy speaks of trees as instruments of execution, and it proclaims God’s curse for the one who hangs from its limbs (21:22-23).  Later on, one dark but good Friday afternoon, God, too, knew that curse, as Jesus took it on directly to remove the curse from us all.  But centuries later, in America’s own woods, trees would weep once again as bodies hung from their branches. 
Sometimes those were trees of iron rather than wood.  As I drove to my parents’ house in Springfield last weekend, and I found myself going through the old downtown square.  Three men were lynched there in my hometown on Holy Saturday in 1906, hanged from a metal tower.  The folks from St. Andrew’s will have heard me say this before, but here’s what I find personally astonishing about that abomination:  I spent my whole childhood in Springfield, and I never once heard about that lynching in school.  Not once.  It’s mentioned in a marker on the city square, but that stone sits silent. 
Not surprisingly, Springfield’s black population dropped drastically after the lynching.  By the time I was growing up, there were no black kids in my schools.  For me and most of most of the people I knew, the black experience was an abstraction, depopulated by past hate and present economics.  The story in Kansas City, of course, follows a similar path. 
So what I take from that history is this:  For many of the folks here this morning who look like me, being black is an abstraction.  Your story, and my story, are trunks long ago split, like that tree I saw on the way to Springfield.  We’ve grown in different, maybe opposite, directions; and I wonder how long it will be until the sap stops running.
All this reminds me of a conversation I had with Pastor Mike [Patton of United Missionary Baptist Church].  We were talking about the calls we often hear for racial reconciliation.  Pastor Mike made the point that you can’t have re-conciliation until you have conciliation in the first place.  Now, Webster says reconciliation means “to restore to friendship or harmony.”2  But conciliation means “to gain goodwill by pleasing acts” or “to make compatible”3 or “to overcome [someone’s] distrust or hostility.”4  As a nation, to the extent we’re working on racial understanding, what we’re doing is conciliation, trying to overcome conflict that’s always lurking and that sometimes comes out into the light, right there on the news channels.  We’ve been at this work – or not at this work – for a long time now.  Though we badly need the friendship and harmony of reconciliation, the task first is to work through the muck and mire of the moment. 
Dr. King was in that kind of a moment when he wrote “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”5 He and his compatriots had engaged in nonviolent direct action in Birmingham, and he’d been jailed for civil disobedience, parading without a permit.  In that moment, white church leaders published a letter criticizing him and the other demonstrators for using disruptive means to achieve freedom, which is sort of like criticizing someone pinned under a wrecked car for causing a ruckus as he tries to get out from under it.  Dr. King responded that he was using direct action only because calm, orderly conversation had been denied.  He wrote to the white clergy, “You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. …  The purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.  We therefore concur with you….” The social disruption was a means to the end of conversation.  And conversation was a means to the end of conciliation.  And of course, conciliation is a means to an end, too – the end of reconciliation, the beloved community of Dr. King’s vision, “a new relationship [that] comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor,” as he later described it.6
And here we are, people from two everyday congregations in Kansas City, Missouri.  The cameras don’t shine on us.  What we do here won’t spark a movement.  But it matters anyway.  It matters anyway.  It matters that we come here together this morning, hands and feet of the Body of Christ, to worship the Lord and Savior who makes us one.  It matters that we’re in the same place at the same time during the most segregated hour of public life in America, the hour of Sunday-morning worship.  It matters because it’s the start of relationship, and relationship is the bridge from conciliation to reconciliation.  Let me say that again:  Relationship is the bridge from conciliation to reconciliation.  As a society, we need to keep doing the work of conciliation, managing conflict and trying to “gain goodwill through pleasing acts.”  But Dr. King would say we can’t stop there.  The prophet Micah would say we can’t stop there.  Jesus Christ would say we can’t stop there.  Beloved community is not built by checking off the box of obligation.  Beloved community is built when I hear your story and you hear mine.  Beloved community is built when I hear your songs and you hear mine.  Beloved community is built when I hear your take on Scripture, and you hear … that I don’t know Scripture nearly as well as you do because you’re Baptist and I’m Episcopalian.  Beloved community is built when relationship is built.  That’s what we’re doing here this morning. 
In my own way, I am like the white pastors to whom Dr. King was writing in that letter from the Birmingham jail.  None of those religious men – and they were men, definitely – none of those religious men thought he was racist.  None of them had turned a hose on a demonstrator or laughed at a lynching.  They probably opposed segregation, at least intellectually; but they also, perhaps unintentionally, advocated for the dream deferred and thus the dream denied.  Well, by the same token, I don’t make racial jokes.  I don’t use racial slurs.  I don’t hire only white people.  But I also don’t get the dynamic of race like you do [the people of United Missionary Baptist].  I can read statistics about incarceration or traffic stops – and I’ve had people come back to me with competing statistics, seeking to disprove the data; because, you know, you can prove or disprove anything with statistics.  I can know the numbers, but I can’t know your heart until I know your story.  That’s what we’re doing here this morning.  We’re taking another baby step toward learning each other’s stories.  And from our stories comes beloved community.
Well, here’s the end of the story.  (Yes, for you St. Andrew’s people, you can stop worrying whether this “long” sermon will ever end.)  Remember that passage I read from the prophet Ezekiel?  Ezekiel had a vision of the temple of the Lord – not an earthly temple made with hands but the dwelling place of the Most High God.  And in his vision, Ezekiel saw the river of life lined with trees – trees whose “fruit will be for food and their leaves for healing.”  Well, come with me now to the end of Revelation, to the end of the ultimate story.  In the vision of John of Patmos, God has restored heaven and earth back to the paradise God made “in the beginning.”  What Christ revealed in his incarnation among us, God brings to fulfillment, saying, “The home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes” (21:3-4).  Well, in that restored creation, in that new heaven and that new earth, John of Patmos saw what Ezekiel saw:  “The angel showed me the river of the water of life,” John writes, and “on either side of the river is the tree of life…; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:1-2). 
That tree is the same tree I saw on my drive to Springfield.  The difference is, in the new heaven and new earth, God has healed it.  In reconciling us to God and each other, Jesus Christ has lifted up those split and broken trunks, and bound them in the Holy Spirit’s love.  And in that new heaven and new earth, they have grown back together – still two trunks, still different in many ways, but tapping into the same root and fed by the same sap.  There is no reason God can’t take us from conciliation to relationship to reconciliation and thereby heal our racial tree.  It can begin here, today, and spread through our two churches, and across this city, and across this land.  For the leaves of our tree “will be for the healing of the nations” – starting with the healing of our own hearts.

1.       King, Martin Luther Jr.  “Acceptance Speech at Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony.”  Available at:  Accessed Jan. 15, 2016.
5.       King, Martin Luther Jr.  “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”  Available at:  Accessed Jan. 15, 2016.
6.       King, Martin Luther Jr.  The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.  Chapter 13: Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.  Available at:  Accessed Jan. 15, 2016.

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