Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Lesson of the Pine Tree

Sermon Preached November 30, 2008. Text: Mark 13:24-37

Did you know that if you had purchased $1,000 of Delta Air Lines stock one year ago, you would have $49 left? If you had invested that same $1,000 with Fannie Mae, you would have $2.50 left. With AIG, you would have less than $15 left. But if you had purchased $1,000 worth of beer one year ago, drunk all the beer, then turned in the cans for the aluminum recycling refund, you would have $214 cash, and you would have enjoyed the beer. (Funny Times, December 2008, p. 10) By the way this story is told for illustrative purposes only, and no investment advice is to be inferred from it. You might say, however, that the story offers the lesson of the beer cans.
Jesus liked to use ordinary images in his teaching, common images to make a point. He was especially partial to images from nature. In today’s Scripture reading from Mark’s Gospel, we hear Jesus say, “from the fig tree learn its lesson.”
And what lesson was Jesus trying to convey? Keep alert. Keep awake. Just as you watch a fig tree to give you clues as to the change of seasons, so watch the world to see signs of the presence of God. Keep alert. Keep awake. Many of the early Christians, and maybe even Jesus himself had expectations that God was going to change the world dramatically in the near future, that the fullness of God’s dream for the world was going to become a reality. Even though the expectation was high, there remained a note of caution. “About that day or hour no one knows,” only God. So there would be no passive waiting around for this coming world-altering change. With waiting would come alertness and awakening – more active terms. The people were reminded that whatever might come, the teaching of Jesus would be part of that newer world – “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Almost 2,000 years later, we still wait for the world to be made right. We still hunger for a world that is just and peaceful. We still yearn for a world where differences are celebrated as part of a rich tapestry, instead of used to divide – a world of reconciliation and forgiveness. We desire a world of joy and love, where the very creation itself is embraced. The headlines about economic crises, about terrorist attacks in India, about violence closer to home all tell us that the world is not yet God’s dream for it. So we wait.
But our waiting is not to be a passive waiting. The season of Advent which begins today, that season of four weeks until Christmas, is meant to remind us that we are to keep alert, keep awake – that we are to be people who continue to try and live out the words and Spirit of Jesus. Advent invites us to prepare our lives to receive the Christ in new and renewed ways. In the spirit of Jesus’ own teaching, I think we can be reminded of some of the lessons of Advent by learning the lesson of the pine tree. If Jesus were teaching in Northern Minnesota today, I’m not sure he would ever appeal to beer cans in his teaching, but I think he would encourage us to learn the lesson of the pine tree.
So what might we learn from the pine tree? We might learn something about being alive and vibrant in a variety of circumstances. Pine trees are evergreen, displaying their life in every season – winter, spring summer, fall. They exist in a variety of environments – the cold of northern Minnesota, the heights of the mountains – many of the trees on the tree lines are evergreens/pines. Different species of pine are found in climates from frosty to balmy. But this morning I want to focus on the pine cone and the lesson it teaches us about preparing anew for the Christ in our lives, about being awake and alert. The lesson of the pine tree and pine cone I want to develop is openness. We prepare ourselves for the renewed presence of the Christ by cultivating the openness of the pine in our lives.
Pine cones open to give to the world. I did some research for this sermon and discovered, or re-discovered, that pine cones are distinguishable between male and female. No, you can’t tell which is which by picking them up and looking underneath them. Male cones tend to exhibit less variety from species to species, while the female cones’ structures vary more markedly between species of pine. I don’t think I want to draw any lessons there! Both male and female pine cones are open in giving. The male cones produce pollen which fertilizes the seeds in the female cones. That seed is nurtured and then the female cone opens its scales to release the seeds into the world so that new evergreens can sprout and grow.
We open our lives in faith when we risk sharing our faith story with others. Many of us have deeply appreciated the faith stories we have heard shared during our stewardship moments these past few Sundays, and I have had a number of people tell me they would like to hear more of that more often. I agree. To share something about the joys and struggles of one’s faith is powerful. When that happens it helps us all, the ones sharing and the ones listening. When we hear how faith has helped someone in a difficult time, or when it has given meaning and direction to a life, we hear something of our own stories in that, and we can say “yes.” When we hear how sometimes other struggle with deep questions of faith we no longer have to pretend that faith in God and in Jesus Christ provides us simple answers for the complex questions of life. It helps, but the way of Jesus is not always easy or simple. That kind of honest sharing in faith is important for us all.
Sharing our faith story with others also helps us live our faith more consistently. When I was a young clergy person, one of the most challenging lessons I had to learn was to get comfortable with the fact that whenever you are in public, you are a clergy person. You never know who may be seeing you. It took some time for me to grow into being comfortable with that responsibility, but I honestly think it has helped me in some ways. I always want to present the best face for our church and for Christian faith. Like all of you, I can get impatient in traffic or standing in line. I get irritated sometimes, like Friday when the three older women in the mall parking lot seemed completely at a loss for where to park, and I was right behind them. It helps me to remember that I am the face of the church and need to let go of my impatience and irritation. That doesn’t mean I am perfect or less than myself – it means I have an extra incentive to be my better self. When we share our faith, we have an extra incentive to be our better selves.
We open our lives in faith when we sow seeds of love and joy, healing and justice in the world. This is a time of year when we often decry the excesses of our culture, and there is good reason to do so. After worship, the Sustainability Group is going to be distributing a guide to celebrating a simpler Christmas and we need to pay attention to that. For all of our excesses and missteps, though, I still appreciate this season of the year. I was reading the blog of a friend the other day and he was saying how he has really come to dislike Thanksgiving – we eat too much and too much of what is bad for us. The history of the holiday often masks the darker side of the relationship between Native Americans and European Americans. I agree with what he said, but I cannot dislike Thanksgiving and Christmas if for no other reason than that they seem to evoke in so many people the openness to sowing seeds of love and kindness, healing and justice. Make sure part of your celebration of the holidays this year involves giving yourself generously, sowing seeds of love and joy and healing and justice.
To learn the lesson of the pine cone, we also need to know that pine cones open to receive from the world. We prepare our lives for the renewed presence of the Christ when we open ourselves to the world around us, to receive its gifts.
One of my favorite prayers is the prayer that has come to be known as The Serenity Prayer. It is a staple of AA, but I prefer its original version, as written by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. God, grant me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed; the courage to change the things that should be changed; and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. I like this version of the prayer best because it is rooted in God’s grace. It is a prayer for grace – the grace of acceptance, the grace of serenity, the grace of courage, the grace of wisdom. When we seek to sow seeds of love, joy, justice and healing, we seek the grace of courage to change the world. This prayer asks us to be open to the world in giving. This prayer also asks us to be open to the world in receiving, and I often find that more difficult. God grant me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed. I cannot change my height, I cannot change where and when and to whom I was born. I cannot change my DNA. I cannot change the fact that at 21 I was diagnosed with a chronic colon condition. I cannot change other people, at least not directly. I cannot change the past. There are more things in the world that cannot be changed than we sometimes like to admit – things wonderful and frightening, things beautiful and ugly, things that bless and things that curse. Part of the lesson of the pine is that we need to be open to receiving from the world as it is – from God, from others, from reality itself. We will want to change much, but I think change begins with an openness to things as they are.
In the most recent issue of Ode magazine, a woman named Hilary Hart wrote a piece on “receiving” in which she argues that one of the greatest gifts we can offer someone is “the willingness to receive fully and freely.” Giving and receiving are fundamental aspects of experience, connecting all life in an interdependent whole. Just as many of us long to experience moments of pure altruism, when we offer our hearts with no strings attached, we also long to receive deeply and freely, experiencing what it means to be given to – touched, nourished and even transformed by life. Some of her reflection was prompted by the receipt of a scarf from her mother – a gray cotton scarf with pink flowers – and Ms. Hart does not wear pink. So she mulls over what it means to be a good receiver – our longing for it, the difficulty of it. “Receiving isn’t easy. If it were, more of us would do it with grace and gratitude.” She is insightful about what makes receiving difficult – that it sometimes comes with strings attached (quid pro puo), that it sometimes seems to put us in a weaker position, e.g. the March of Dimes wants me to call everyone I’ve helped to see if they will give a donation to the March of Dimes for me. We are concerned about receiving because we are concerned that others may not be getting enough. Receiving is complicated, yet necessary for fullness of life. In Hart’s article a woman named Miriam Greenspan shares her insights and story. Life is a gift we receive each day, but the gift can be terrifying when we don’t get what we want or want what we get, when there is disappointment and even catastrophe. So we close down. And when we are close, it’s as though we are asleep to the gift of life. These might seem like nice sentiments, but coming from Miriam Greenspan they are more than that. Miriam Greenspan was born in a displaced person’s camp in Germany where she lived for four years after the Holocaust. Her first child was born with a brain injury and lived only 66 days. Her third child was born with complex physical and cognitive disabilities. The gift in grieving for our losses, for example, is deep gratitude. From fully experiencing despair we go on a journey for new meaning and find a more resilient faith in life. When we befriend our fear, we discover the joy of living fully.
Hilary Hart tries on the scarf her mother has sent and is surprised to see how good it looked.
This Advent season, let us learn the lesson of the pine cone. Let us learn that to be ever green and growing and full of life is to be open to giving – sharing our faith, sowing seeds of love, joy, healing and justice; and open to receiving – from others, from reality, from God. Advent reminds us that the Christ comes again and again and that we know this Christ in ever new ways as we give and as we receive. Amen.

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