June 7, 2020 – Pastor Teressa Sivers
Ezekiel 31:3-7 (Inclusive Bible)
Ezekiel 31:3-7 from the Inclusive Bible
Look to Assyria, once a Lebanon cedar
[beautiful branches, dense shade, towering height;]
it is top among the clouds.
Springs nourished it,
and deep waters made it grow tall;
their streams flowed around its base,
sending their channels to all the trees in the countryside.
So it towered high above every other tree of the field.
Its boughs grew larger and its branches extended out,
nourished by an abundance of water.
All the birds of the air nested in its boughs;
under its branches wild animals gave birth to their young.
All the great nations thrived in its shade.
It was majestic in its beauty with its spreading boughs,
its roots reaching deeply into an abundance of water.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
(Trees, by Joyce Kilmer)
The maple tree behind my house has a next of robins in her hair. They surprised me the other day. I was sitting on my back porch, looking out over the backyard, church playground, and beyond. Suddenly, a robin parent landed on a branch of the maple tree, and from among the leaves several little heads popped up, peeping with open beaks, ready for dinner. There is a redbud tree in my backyard, directly across from where I like to sit on the porch. It is a little one, but just the right size for my Adirondack chair to fit under the edge of its branches, so I can be in the shade in the afternoon. How glorious was that little redbud tree earlier this spring when it was covered, Covered!, in red buds. One of my morning spiritual practices is sitting on my back porch with my coffee, watching the wind move through the variety of trees—moving the leaves in spring, summer and fall, and dancing the branches in the winter months: black walnut, maple, redbud, honey locust—the wonder of trees!
Ezekiel knew the wonder of trees. His prose in our reading today paints a glorious picture of the tree of trees, the world tree, the cosmic tree, the tree of life! Ezekiel is known for his rich, extended metaphors. Here he uses this ultimate tree to depict human community, a nation, specifically the nation of Assyria when the nation ‘got it right.’ They were rooted, immersed, in the abundant waters of grace. They lifted their lives in praise and pray. They sheltered all sorts of life. They were a nation focused on the divine, on life, on compassion for all. Look to nature, Ezekiel says. See the Lebanon Cedar. Model your communal life on the example of the life of this great tree—given and receiving life, sustaining and sustained.
What we don’t see in today’s reading is how this metaphor plays out for the rest of the chapter. What we miss is the fall of this great tree, the fall of the nation. Ezekiel is speaking of and to Pharaoh and ‘his horde.’ He is using Assyria as an example, as a warning. Yes, he says, Assyria was great. It was that life-giving, life-receiving, sustaining and sustained community. It was a place of shelter and nourishment and compassion. But then…but then…the king and the leaders became self-focused. They pulled their ‘roots’ out of that which was truly life giving, pulled away from those abundant waters of grace. They lost sight of the beauty of all things, the beauty of God’s holiness in all things. And they fell, they were pulled down, and so great was their collapse! The king and the leaders lost sight of their purpose, and looked only to themselves and their own power and glory. They no longer immersed themselves in the beauty of Divine Goodness.
Dr. Wendy Farley, a professor of Christian spirituality, has a new book soon to be released, entitled Beguiled by Beauty, like the name of this worship series. Her title is based on a phrase coined by an ancient, ancient spiritual leader named Pseudo Dionysis. Wendy, and Dionysis, lift up that God is beguiled—charmed, enchanted—by beauty, and God imbued all creation with holy beauty—divine goodness (remember ‘tov?’ And God saw that it was good…tov (Hebrew)). This beguiling beauty isnt’ just about appearances, and it isn’t about being ‘pretty,’ certainly not the ‘pretty’ our consumer culture tries to sell us. No, holy beauty is the essence of God’s joy, love and purpose in each of God’s wondrous creations. We, God’s stewards, God’s caretakers on this planet, are called to discern this beauty in all which God created: birds and trees, animals and all humans, water and earth. We do this by being fully present with God’s creation, taking time to connect with the world around us…through contemplation.
Our world often tells us that prayer, meditation, contemplation, being present isn’t that important in the scheme of things. I mean, look at the world right now! We are in the midst of a pandemic the likes of which no one living has ever seen. We are divide on our thoughts and feelings about safety measures and when and where to lift restrictions. We are in the midst of a moment when the pandemic of racism has become painfully clear, and we are overwhelmed by the enormity of it. Though our black and brown neighbors would remind those of us who are white that it has been painfully obvious to them all along. It is June and Pride month. This virus and the unrest in our nation is complicating a time for lifting up and celebrating the beauty of our LGBTQIA+ siblings in our human family. Those of the queerly beloved would remind those who seek to be faithful allies that the pandemic of homophobia and heterosexism is alive and strong. With these social justice needs, these life and death matters, do we really have time to ‘be present’ with the beauty of the divine in all things? Can we really take time, make time, for contemplation?
YES! We must! Awareness of and connection to beauty is the source of true, radical, transformative compassion. I quoted Wendy Farley at the opening of our service, “The difficulty and crisis of the world is overwhelming. It is virtually impossible to bear it without very deep resources.” Those resources are found in connection our hearts, our souls, our lives with our Source, our Creator, our Divine Beloved. God is found in our holy scriptures, certainly. God is discovered and revealed in narrative, poetry and prose, written upon the sacred page. But God is also profoundly experienced and made real within all that God lovely created and called good…Tov…very good.
Our world does need us, desperately, right now! Our world needs us to model and advocate safe practices, wearing masks the correct way (nose and mouth covered) and keeping six feet apart in all directions as the world slowly ‘reopens.’ Our world needs us to work alongside those struggling with grief and loss in this pandemic, with economic hardship, with fear and anxiety. Our world needs us to come alongside beloved people of color and engage in the hard work of dismantling pervasive and deadly systemic racism; to say and live with conviction that Black Lives Matter! Our world needs us to be strong and sensitive allies with our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual family; to say and live with conviction that each is beautiful and beloved children of God. But we can only do this AND stay the course if we are rooted in the abundant waters of grace. We can only do this if we see the holy beauty and goodness in each person, and are moved with God’s radical love and compassion.
These next several weeks, we are going to seek ways to be beguiled by beauty, enchanted by the holy goodness of God all around us. We will search for spiritual practices that work for each of us, in all our uniqueness, which will connect us to God’s goodness, open us to beauty, and nourish us for the work of justice that needs to be done. And in doing this, we will be formed into a community like that tree of trees, that world tree, cosmic tree, tree of life; giving and receiving life, sustaining and sustained. We will be the Lebanon Cedar, and also the sweet maple, the nutty black walnut, the lovely redbud, the tall honey locust.
I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree…
Breathe deeply and let us spend just a moment in Visio Divina (divine vision), see in the beauty of the tree, the glory of God’s dream for all humanity, all creation.
(In the worship service, we enjoyed a short video of a Cedar of Lebanon and the water that nurtures it. Spend a few moments simply enjoying a tree from your window, or sit outside for a moment contemplating a tree.)