Readings for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka CA on February 17, 2019.
This last Fall I attended a conference at the WayCross Conference center in Morgantown Indiana for Episcopal clergy across the country sponsored by the Church Pension Group. The purpose of the conference, which is called CREDO, is to promote clergy wellness by equipping priests with tools for physical, emotional, and spiritual health and wellbeing. The Church Pension Group started offering these conferences in the mid 1990s when research began to show that many clergy were suffering from problems of poor health and that clergy were (and are) overweight in numbers that are disproportionate compared to other professionals. Moreover, burnout is fairly ubiquitous among priests and younger clergy seem to be experiencing burnout more frequently than older priests.
At the end of the conference, we were expected to write and share a Rule of Life, which is an intentional pattern of disciplines that provides structure and direction for holiness and health. Although I already had a Rule of Life, I felt invited to add a particular component based on a presentation from one of the CREDO faculty members. The Rev. Dr. Bill Harkins, a priest and professor in Atlanta, talked to us about the healing and therapeutic power of simply walking slowly through nature. He shared some of the best advice that a doctor or therapist could give: “Take two hours of pine forest and call me in the morning.” Bill then taught us about something that has become standard preventive medicine in Japan, called shinrin-yoku, which literally means “forest bathing.” It’s a very simple practice of walking slowly through the forest and absorbing the forest environment mindfully through all of our senses. Bill spoke about all of the long-term neurological, emotional and physical benefits of walking through the woods. We were all mesmerized and we felt it rang true with our own experiences in nature and we all wanted to do it, but then we started quickly listing off all of the reasons and excuses why we can’t go forest-bathing very often. There’s no forest close enough. It’s too cold. There are too many bugs. There’s too much work to do. There are too many emails to respond to. Too many sermons and letters to write. And so on. But I felt determined to add forest-bathing to my Rule of Life, especially since I live in a deanery named after our trees: the Semper Virens deanery. And I live only a couple miles away from Sequoia Park and very close to some of the most beautiful redwood forests in the world. So I made a commitment to stroll through Sequoia Park at least once a week and I’m glad to say that I’ve been mostly fulfilling that part of my Rule of Life these last several months. Like the poet Mary Oliver, I’ve been trying to receive the “hints of gladness” which the tress give off, as I walk slowly and bow often and listen as the trees stir in their leaves and say to me, “Stay awhile” while the light flows and glitters from their branches.
This morning, I am especially encouraged by the Scripture readings because they compare spiritual health and wellbeing to a tree. The prophet Jeremiah says, “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD…they shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.” (Jer 17:7-8). The first Psalm, which functions as a kind of summary for the entire Psalter, says, “Blessed are those who delight in the law of the LORD…they are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper” (Ps 1:2-3). And Jesus and his Jewish listeners who were all steeped in the words of the Psalms and the Prophets clearly had this image of the tree in mind as Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” Just as the Psalmist and Jeremiah contrasted the tree with desert shrubs and chaff in the wind so too does Jesus contrast the poor and hungry with the rich and well-fed. This is Jesus’s way of saying that true strength and stability and health is not found in golden halls of opulence and luxury, but rather in those places where we discover our vulnerability and our absolute interdependence on each other and on the earth and on God. That is when we are invited to rejoice and leap for joy for our reward is surely great in heaven. One of the places where I discover my vulnerability and absolute interdependence on others and the earth and God is in the forest. That is one place where I try to deepen my trust in the LORD and meditate on his Law so that I can be like that tree planted by streams of water.
Although Jesus does not explicitly mention the tree imagery in his Blessings and Woes, he certainly does embody the great Tree of Life when he offers himself to us completely with arms wide open in self-giving love on a tree, which one of our ancient hymns calls that “faithful cross, above all other,” that “one and noble tree! None in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit thy peer may be.” On the cross, Jesus reveals that the greatest power and strength and stability and health in the world is found in vulnerability and love. If we want to be as healthy and as prosperous as a tree by streams of water, not only are we called to meditate on God’s law day and night, we are also called to be vulnerable and loving, aware of our interdependence on each other, the earth and the Lord.
If you look at that paintings of the Stations of the Cross in our chapel, you will see that several of them include images of trees. This is appropriate because, as we have seen in our Scripture readings this morning, trees are enormously significant symbols in our tradition. The final station of cross, which represents the resurrection, includes a tree with a burst of light shining behind it. In her commentary on this image, Sister Teresa of the Community of the Transfiguration says, “The tree of life is a powerful and universal symbol of incarnation, with its roots reaching deep into the earth, bringing energy and strength to the whole tree. The branches reach out in intricate patterns in all directions, seeking light and nourishment, reminding us that the Resurrection is a part of the whole flowering of new life that runs deep into the one source—the Divine Mystery of Love. Alleluia!” (82). I invite you to discover light and nourishment by spending time with this powerful and universal symbol of the incarnation: the Tree.
This Lent, on Saturdays at 11 AM, I will be celebrating an outdoor Eucharist while walking through Sequoia Park. We will use the trunk of a redwood as our altar. I will try to be walking slowly and mindfully. In fact, I’m not even going to call it “hiking.” I’m going to call it “sauntering.” John Muir preferred that term too. We’re calling these outdoor Eucharists “Sacred Saunters” and I hope you consider joining us as we together discover true strength, stability, health and refreshment in our vulnerability and in our interdependence so that we can deepen our trust in the Lord and be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. Amen.