Beneath the Trees, Second Sunday after Pentecost (A) – June 18, 2017

Proper 6

[RCL] Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7); Psalm 116:1, 10-17; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8(9-23)

Where do you go to encounter God? Do you have a favorite place for divine inspiration? Some of you will instinctually think of going to church. Another way to phrase the question is, “Where do you go when you really need to think and make a decision?” Perhaps some of you embrace nature by going to the park. Others prefer being by a body of water such as a pond, lake, river, or ocean.

Abraham sits by the oaks of Mamre when the Lord appears to him in Genesis 18:1. We do not know why he sat under the trees, but perhaps he needed to think about and heal from the covenant he made with God at the end of chapter 17. Abraham encounters God and receives a divine message under these oak trees.

Trees have been and continue to be important in Christians’ worship and spiritual lives. Some enslaved African Americans in the 1800s met to worship God under a canopy of trees commonly called brush arbors or hush harbors.[1] The faithful practiced Christianity in this holy and hidden manner. Many historically African American churches today trace their founding to believers gathering to worship God under these brush arbors. Today in Ethiopia, some Orthodox Christians worship God within “church forests.” Churches or monasteries sit in the center of a forest that ranges in size from five to a thousand acres. The clergy and laity believe the tree canopy shading them prevents prayers from being lost to the sky. Some of these churches are more than 1,500 years old. [2]

Abraham’s encounter with three visitors changed his life and life of his wife, Sarah. Both Abraham and Sarah show hospitality, inviting these unexpected guests to rest and eat under the oaks of Mamre. One of the visitors speaks to Abraham, saying,  “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son” (Genesis 18:10). Sarah laughs when she hears this as she stands inside the tent. Scripture continues, “The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son’” (Genesis 18:13-14). Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90 when their first child together, Isaac, entered the world. Nothing was too wonderful for the Lord when Abraham and Sarah received the manifestation of God’s promise. Abraham and Sarah had a religious and life changing experience connected firmly with the oak tree canopied landscape that sustained them.[3]

American theologian the Rev. Frederick Buechner wrote in his book Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[4] The Ethiopian church forests I mentioned earlier are examples of Buechner’s quote. Deforestation impacts the environment in many areas of the world, including Ethiopia. Church forests provide important ecosystem services to local people, including fresh water, pollinators, honey, and shade—and they also carry spiritual significance. Natural scientists across the world are partnering with Ethiopian clergy to help preserve these forests.  Locals often clear the forests for agriculture, timber, and firewood, and to use wood to repair church structures.[5] Scientists, clergy, and the laity are working together to make a difference. They are teaching Sunday School children culturally sensitive solutions to help reverse deforestation which will completely deplete these forests in a decade if the current rate continues. This is the place where their deep gladness for God meets the world’s deep need.

Churches in the United States are meeting one of the world’s deep needs by assessing their impact on the local environment. Recycling programs, energy audits, water conservation efforts, and energy consumption reduction are helping congregations decrease any negative impacts on land, water, and air. One midwestern Episcopal Cathedral has a rain garden at the center of a labyrinth. A rain garden collects rainwater runoff from parking lots and roofs, preventing water carrying pollutants from flowing into streams and rivers. A labyrinth is a meditation tool used by Christians as a walking prayer to receive insight and open us to God.[6]

This world needs more people of faith thinking about the human impact on the world. It is unimaginable to think of not having nature to enjoy and make alive our connection with God. Each of us can do something.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, in giving us dominion over things on earth, you made us fellow workers in your creation: Give us wisdom and reverence so to use the resources of nature that no one may suffer from our abuse of them, and that generations yet to come may continue to praise you for your bounty; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.ohio.edu/infocus/hushharbors/ Accessed May 21, 2017.

[2] http://magazine.africageographic.com/weekly/issue-43/ethiopias-church-forests/#sthash.nRGaU73U.dpuf Accessed May 21, 2017

[3] Excursus: Abraham. Harrelson, Walter. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Abingdon Press, 2003, p. 56.

[4] Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC Collins, 1973 p. 95.

[5] http://magazine.africageographic.com/weekly/issue-43/ethiopias-church-forests/ Accessed May 21, 2017.

[6] http://www.cathedralchurchofstpaul.org/features/labyrinth-rain-garden/ Accessed May 21, 2017.

 

The Reverend Jemonde Taylor is the eleventh rector of Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church, Raleigh, N.C. Jemonde serves the Diocese of North Carolina by co-chairing the Nominating Committee for the XII Bishop Diocesan. He has served as a member of Diocesan Council and on the Disciple Board. Jemonde is a board member of the Gathering of Leaders, an Episcopal organization that assists in the empowerment, support, and development of church leaders. He is a consultant to the Office of Black Ministries of The Episcopal Church. Prior to serving Saint Ambrose, Jemonde was priest missioner at Saint Michael and All Angels Church, Dallas, Texas, as part of the Lilly Program. Jemonde studies the spirituality, worship, and history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and leads pilgrimages to Ethiopia for Epiphany.

 

Download the sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost.

Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do, Pentecost 5, Proper 6 – 2008

[RCL] Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7) and Psalm 116: 1, 10-17 or Exodus 19:2-8a and Psalm 100; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)

“Jesus went about all the cities and villages.” — Matthew 9:35
Scripture is replete with images and stories of journey. We could site, for example, the epic journey of Abraham and Sarah from Ur in present-day Iraq – the center of ancient civilization – to what was to become the promised land of Israel. Later, the Israelites escape from slavery in Egypt, trekking for many years through “the wilderness of Sinai” on their return to a promised homeland, which likely none of them had ever seen. And in the New Testament, Paul makes his way across the Mediterranean world, spreading the good news of the gospel and proclaiming, in the profound words of our second reading today, “that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

It sometimes must seem as if the people of the Bible cannot sit still. They are always on the road. But these are not tourists or sightseers on holiday. There is purpose behind each journey recounted in scripture. Each crossing comes with promise and proclamation. “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant,” the Lord tells the Israelites in our first reading, “you shall be my treasured possession … a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” The journey will have a purpose. It will be worth the effort. Israel must only keep “all these words” that the Lord has commanded. In response to the Lord’s challenge, the people proclaim – perhaps a bit too enthusiastically – “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” As the Israelites were to discover – and as we ourselves know only too well – that is often easier said than done.

Jesus is also on a journey in our gospel account today. He travels “about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.” There is a note of urgency in his travels, for our Lord knows the anxieties and helplessness of the people. “The harvest is plentiful,” he observes poignantly, “but the laborers are few.” And without the harvest to feed them, the people will starve. Jesus commissions his newly minted apostles to enter the harvest and to journey to the people with his message of the kingdom. His instructions to the apostles, direct and insistent, begin with one word: “Go.” No ifs, ands, or buts. Just go. And, “as you go, proclaim the good news.” Avoid, for now, gentile and Samaritan alike. Make a bee line instead for those in need of the Lord’s comfort, “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

To these “lost sheep,” the apostles are to proclaim that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” To those who are infirm or anxious, they bring the healing and hope of the kingdom. And to those without means, they are to “give without payment.” This is indeed good news. The apostles travel afar to proclaim that the kingdom “has come near” – not a kingdom of territory and frontiers, but a moveable kingdom accessible to those who yearn for it, a kingdom where the fearful are welcomed in, where everyone sooner or later belongs. No immigration problems ever.

Unlike earthly kingdoms, which are subject to war and dissension, the kingdom the apostles proclaim brings reconciliation and peace. Yet this kingdom of the heart is not pie in the sky. It is the promise and proclamation made anew to each generation of God’s people. It is the fulfillment of covenant. The kingdom is still near to those who seek its comfort today. It is not bound to this earth any more than we are. Its gates are opened wide in spite of – or perhaps because of – our sin and despair.

We have a share in this kingdom, as God’s people by adoption. If the crowds of Jesus’ day were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd,” as our Lord describes them, the people of our world are hardly less anxious and fearful. Two thousand years may have come and gone, but the human heart has not changed all that much. Our communities are still fractured by mistrust and suspicion. Violence and war tear us apart. Diversity and distinctions among peoples and individuals do not bring joy and wonder at the greatness of God’s work among and within us but become instead stumbling blocks to understanding and harmony. But in the midst of human misfortune and pain, the kingdom has still “come near” to each of us.

The harvest of which our Lord speaks is full and ready to be gathered in. Then as now, it is not so much a harvest of grain and grape as it is of spiritual nourishment and the sustenance found in the nearness of God. The laborers are still few. But “go, and proclaim,” commands our Lord nevertheless. “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” No small task, but then we need not travel far to find those in need of the good news of the kingdom. They are as near to us as is the kingdom itself. In fact, they are the kingdom. For our part, we need only brave our fear, and with the Israelites of old zealously proclaim, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”

Written by the Rev. Dr. Frank Heeds
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is interim rector of Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church in Del Mar, California. He welcomes your comments at frankhegedus@hotmail.com.