Sermon: Learning to Live in Trees

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[Given on the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, June 14, 2015, by The Rev. Fr. Marcus Halley at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, Missouri]

“[The Kingdom of God] is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Mark 4:31-32 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and from his son Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord and Reigning Savior.

Many of you know that I just returned from a vacation to Europe a little over a month ago. While visiting both urban and rural Great Britain and France, I was struck by what these countries seemed to have in common irrespective of whether I was in rural or urban areas – the prominence of the great cathedrals and even smaller parish churches in idyllic French villages. The centrality of these structures seemed to communicate in a concrete, brick-and-mortar way that God was the center of life and that all else found its way around that reality.

It is fascinating to realize that these houses of worship which sort of anchored these communities where actually far more than places to encounter God – they were places to encounter one another. In a time before skyscrapers and interior steel framing, the spires of churches were the tallest man-made structures around. In a time before fixed pews, the naves of the great cathedrals or even humble parish churches served both civic and religious functions and could be used to host everything from community meetings, to academic lectures, or even local markets. Churches were the “third space” where the lines between secular and sacred were blurred, where mundane interactions were kissed with divinity, and where encounters with the Divine were brought down to earth.

It was an architectural expression of a deep belief that God is a gathering god, and that God desires to gather the whole community, the whole world even, unto God’s self.

I recently read an article by “Liberal Church Planter” – his name, not mine. This article underscored the modern reality that often “St. Arbucks” (or Starbucks as you might be more familiar with) functions as that contemporary “third space” – the space where the community gathers and where the lines between sacred and secular are blurred. If you don’t believe me, just visit any local coffee shop and notice who is in there – a priest writing a sermon, a community organizer meeting a community leader, a mom’s group meeting after dropping the children off at school, college students studying for exams, an entrepreneur taking advantage of the free WiFi, or a jogger taking a quick break. Coffee shops serve as examples of the modern “third space” where communities gather and where opportunities for relationship and ministry abound.

So maybe, if Jesus were a skinny-jeaned, luxuriously bearded, hipster and our Gospel was being told in our contemporary language it would read thus:

[The Kingdom of God] is like a coffee bean, which, when sown upon the ground, is the most insignificant of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and it is harvested and processed and brewed, it’s fruit gathers communities.

It’s fruit gathers communities.

God is a gathering god. Another way to put that is that God loves us into community. God is a loving God. C.S. Lewis suggests that, “God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures that He may love them and perfect them.”[1] God loved creation into existence for the “Heaven” of it. The arc of scripture that begins in Genesis and continues through Revelation can be seen as the story of a god who gathers – individuals, families, communities, and nations. God is a gathering god.

When we come into this place each week, we embody God’s call to community and relationship – we obey God’s call to live in trees. We come here with a variety of experiences and perspectives. We come from all directions, some single, some married, some divorced, some with children, some white, some black, some male, some female, some gay, some straight, some liberal, some conservative, and some floating between these binaries and these constructs. We bring all of that to the Lord’s Table and “into a sweaty, intimate, flesh-and-blood embrace where ‘there shall be no difference between [us] and the rest.’”[2] What unites us in that moment of sacramental embrace is not our generic affinity for the abstractness of Divinity, but our allegiance to Christ who stretched out his arms upon the cross that he might draw the whole world unto himself. God is a gathering god.

That’s what we sign up for when we participate in Holy Communion – embracing one another irrespective of our differences of opinion and identity because there is room for all of us at the foot of the cross of Christ. Sometimes, maybe most times that’s a lot easier said than done.

In a few weeks the Episcopal Church will gather for our 78th General Convention. Episcopalians from all over the world will converge on Salt Lake City, Utah for worship, reflection, fellowship, and debate as we as a church discern where the Holy Spirit might be moving among us and where She might be calling us to go next. The topics General Convention will take up will determine the future of our little corner of Christianity as we engage the:

  • report from the Task-force to Re-imagine the Episcopal Church which seeks to outline how we might restructure ourselves to meet the challenges and opportunities of a shifting religious landscape.
  • report from the Standing Committee of Liturgy and Music which calls a change to the current marriage canons of our church to gender neutral language therefore paving the way for clergy to officiate at weddings of gay and lesbian couples
  • election of a new Presiding Bishop who will lead our church into this new frontier.

These are very difficult conversations and there are many different perspectives on the way forward, and yet because God is a gathering god, I deeply believe that the way forward is together, not apart. As a microcosm of humanity, the church is a community where we must learn the art of loving one another in all our myriad differences and to accept one another as we are.

We hear the word “love” used a lot, especially in Christian circles, but what does it really mean? Among other things, it means acceptance and honor. Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests in Life Together, that “Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what [they are] and what he [they] should become. It takes the life of the other person into its own hands. Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which [they have] received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all [people].”[3] Putting it a little differently – Human love, or as C.S. Lewis calls it “Natural Love,” loves for the sake of loveliness, whereas “Divine Love” loves for the sake of love itself alone.

Learning to live in trees is really about learning to love one another – to see the image of Christ in another person, even someone you may deeply disagree with – and to honor them by accepting who they are, not trying to make them become who we think they should be. It’s about kneeling down at the altar and opening our hands and hearts to receive the broken body of Christ and to reflect on the broken body of Christ that is all around us. Learning to live in trees is about participating in the ever widening community of God and to have our hearts changed by every encounter with a stranger, a friend, or even an adversary.

God is a gathering god and insomuch as God gathers all sorts of people unto God’s self, we are challenged to offer our own imperfect love in sacrifice to God. Christian love challenges each of us to open our arms wider than we can we should to embrace a community exceedingly greater than we could possibly imagine. Just when we think we’ve stretched as far as we can, we hear Jesus say “wider… open wider.”

Beloved, are you listening this morning?

It’s not about private or personal piety. It’s about learning to love like God loves – foolishly. “God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures that He may love them and perfect them. He creates the universe already foreseeing… the cross.”[4] God loves us for the sake of love, not because we are so good, not because we are so worthy, not because we are so lovely, but simply for the sake of love.

It’s a perfect love that loves us into freedom, that loves us into wholeness, loves us to hell and back, and when our calloused human hearts failed to be open to this Divine love and placed Love itself upon the cross, Love destroyed the power of death and loves us into eternity.

And when we come into this place together, our common life – every smile, every handshake, every greeting – becomes a natural altar “on which the flame of agape love might descend” in order that our imperfect, selfish, human love might be sanctified and perfected by the luminous grace of God.

That’s why God gathers us together in community, because in community we both experience a glimpse of divine love and our own imperfect, fragile human love is perfected by God’s perfect love. “Love divine, all loves excelling,” love that descended deep into the muck and mire of human experience in order that we might know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is nothing that can keep it from us.

We have but to open our eyes, our ears, our hands, and our hearts and just receive.


[1] C.S. Lewis. The Four Loves.

[2] Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Life Together.

[4] C.S. Lewis. The Four Loves.

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