"Tree of Life," based on Genesis 2:4b-9, Revelation 22:1-5, and Luke 13:6-9 (readings follow the sermon)
During the summer of my senior year at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, I worked on the grounds crew. One hot summer day that June, a tornado passed right over our campus.The next day, I had to help with cleaning up a number of downed trees. Two students and I were working on one large trunk that was a couple feet thick. After cutting it up, we faced the task of carrying it to a dump truck. Now you would think that three seminary students could figure out how to safely move a tree trunk a few hundred feet. But sometimes graduate-school education doesn’t equal common sense.
Anyway, the three of us decided that it would be a lot easier to just roll the log down the hill. So that’s what we did. But, of course, the log got away from us. Kind of like a scene from an old Laurel and Hardy movie…. It took off quickly, gaining speed, heading right towards a parked car. And all we could do was stand there wide-eyed and watch it happen. I guess you could say it was proof that God really does answer prayers—or maybe just plain old dumb luck—but, about ten feet before reaching the car, the log hit a bump, suddenly veered to the right, and stopped—preventing what could been a very embarrassing accident. Instead, it was an unexpected happy ending. So, that’s my seminary tree story. There are a lot of stories about trees in Scripture. Many with happy endings, others not so much.
Our first reading from Genesis is the introduction to the story of the Garden of Eden, which has two famous trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge—the latter most of us Christians and Jews remember as the tree with forbidden fruit. Fruit that Eve and Adam ate, which led to their expulsion from the garden. (Not a happy ending.) In another story, the prophet Elijah seeks refuge under a broom tree when Queen Jezebel tries to kill him. But God saves Elijah. A life-saving ending.
Again, in our second reading from Revelation, there’s a tree in the passage from the very last chapter of our Christian Bible. The tree of life grows along a river that flows grows by the throne of God, the ultimate home for the faithful. Quite literally, a happy ending. And in our reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells his story about the fig tree. You don't have to be a genius to understand what this parable is about. The vineyard owner is fed up. It’s been three years, and tree hasn’t produced any fruit. So, why not just cut it down? Give up? However, the grace-filled gardener wants to give it just one more chance. Just a little more cultivation. Just a bit more manure. Just one more year of growing and developing.
But the fig tree story doesn’t have an ending. Jesus finishes his parable with a question mark. We don’t hear what happens. Some of you know I’m a gardener. So, I get this tree story. For we gardeners can be terribly stubborn optimists who believe that growth can happen, no matter what. Even when we don’t know if the seed will actually sprout. Even when planting bushes in our hard, clay soil. Even when facing long brutal North Dakota winters. Even when seeing a dying tree, we still dare to hope for a happy ending.
The late comedian Gracie Allen, the wife of George Burns, once famously stated, “Never put a period where God has put a comma.” And so, it is for all of us. God, the holy Gardener, offers each of us opportunities for new growth. The grace of unexpected endings. The grace of just one more chance. One more time. To begin to view our fellow humans—despite the evil around us—not from the perspective of despair and hopelessness, but faith and possibility—one more time. To choose to treat others not with hatred and judgment, but with compassion—one more time. To see the world not with pessimism, but through the eyes of the One who created it and us—one more time.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, commented on this when she wrote, “What if faith is about recognizing that when something is not expected… and 100% surprising—perhaps it’s the work of God. Because honestly, we can manage the expected… all on our own. When it’s weird and seemingly impossible and somewhat out of nowhere—now that feels like a God thing.” I believe St. Mark’s is an example of that. Six years ago, our congregation could have let the story of St. Mark’s end with the sale of our old building. We could have decided to fold and allow others to carry God’s light into our dark world. But this community heard a different voice calling. A voice that uttered strange things. A voice told us that the tree of St. Mark’s is not dead. A voice that spoke a reviving word to us, about God doing something totally unexpected. And St. Mark’s heard God’s voice. And we said, “Here I am, Lord, send me. Send us.”
And now, look where we are today! Thanks to members of Temple Beth El, we have a new home. And instead of a period, God put a comma at the end of our story. A comma that speaks grace for this community. Grace for people here. Grace for someone like me—a gay man who never thought I could be a pastor in a congregation like this. Grace for Temple Beth El, to see life reborn and an exciting partnership unfolding in this place. Grace planted like a seed in our hearts, which will grow into a tree of life. Here. Among us. God’s story for us today—a happy story that has not ended. Amen.
1 Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Sermon on Empty Tombs and the Suddenness of Dawn”, April 9, 2014; http://www.patheos.com/…/sermon-on-empty-tombs-and-the-sud…/
FIRST READING: Genesis 2:4b-9
This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens. Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 13:6-9
Then [Jesus] told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So, he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ [The gardener] replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”