Spiritual Arborescence

Readings for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C)

This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka CA on February 13, 2022

Because I think we’re overdue for a cheesy joke, I have a question: What happens to maple trees on Valentine’s Day? They get sappy!

During this weekend of fun distractions like the Super Bowl today and Valentine’s Day tomorrow as well as less-than-fun news about political divisions and turmoil spreading across the globe, our Scripture readings invite us to be rooted in our identity as God’s beloved. The readings invite us to be rooted in our belovedness by using an image that might be the most dominant in all of Scripture, even though we tend to overlook it. This image is central within the first few chapters of the Bible (in Genesis) as well as the final chapters of the Bible (in Revelation). The image bookends our Scriptures and yet it is also the over-arching image in the book that is in the middle of the Bible: the book of Psalms, which was essentially the Book of Common Prayer for Jesus.

Today we prayed the first Psalm, which functions as an introduction to and summary of the entire Psalter. And the psalmist introduces this image poetically when he 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” (1:3). The prophet Jeremiah elaborates on this same image when he writes, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord …They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8). This image remains dominant in our Christian tradition, which venerates the Tree of Life upon which our Savior died: the Holy Cross. The idea of the Cross as a tree has roots within our Anglican and English tradition. One of the great Old English poems of the eighth century was called The Dream of the Rood (“rood” being the Old English word for crucifix and it’s where we get the term “rood screen.”) The poet says, “I beheld the sorrowful tree of the Saviour.” And the tree proceeds to speak to the poet and tell the poet its story of how it was cut down from the edge of the woods and made into a cross. And in our closing hymn today, we will sing the ancient words of the sixth-century poet Fortunatus: “Faithful cross, above all other: one and only noble tree! None in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit thy peer may be.” In fact, ancient and medieval theologians discussed the spiritual significance of trees so frequently that one historian refers to this theme as “Spiritual Arborescence.”[1] This same historian recounts the story of a 14th century Dominican nun named Alheit of Trochau who rushed from one tree to another in her convent in Germany, embracing the trunks of trees and holding them close to her heart and saying to her sisters, “Each tree is our Lord Jesus Christ.” Apparently, Christians were tree huggers long before the term was invented.

            Some of the earliest accounts of St. Francis describe him and his followers frequently wandering and praying in the woods, among the trees. I like to think that these trees were not peripheral but rather essential to Francis’s story and sainthood. Amos Clifford, the founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, says something similar about the Buddha. He says, “The more I spend time in the forest, the more I think about, ‘What did the Buddha do?’ He wandered around in the forest. Where was he sitting at the moment of his enlightenment? He was sitting at the base of a tree. Now I always thought of that in the past as just an interesting setting for the story. But the more I connect with trees and the more I’m in forest environments, the more I begin to suspect that it’s actually an essential part of the story, that there’s something about the combined sentience of the person and the tree being in relationship that supported the Buddha’s awakening.”[2] There’s something about the combined sentience of a person and a tree can support our spiritual awakening. One of the final invitations in a Forest Therapy walk is to sit at the base of a tree and befriend it.

            In the Gospel this morning, Jesus is clearly echoing the words of the Psalm and Jeremiah and thus the image of the tree when he begins his sermon with the word “Blessed.” It’s the same word used in the Greek version of Psalm 1: Makarios, which means “Happy, lucky, fortunate.” The original listeners and readers would hear his allusion to the tree image in the psalm. Just like many of you would hear the allusion to God knowing all our desires if I were to say, “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open…” Because you’ve prayed that prayer so often, you would automatically fill in the rest of the words: “all desires known and from you no secrets are hid, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts…” Jesus is alluding to the image of the tree. And when we look more closely at what Jesus is actually doing in the Gospel, we see that he is embodying the tree.

            Last Sunday we read about Jesus calling his first disciples: Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Our reading today skips over several events in Luke’s Gospel. Since last Sunday’s reading, Jesus has healed a leper and a paralytic; he’s called Matthew (also known as Levi) to follow him as his disciple. He’s been accused of eating and drinking too much; and he’s performed healings on the Sabbath, which has made his fellow Pharisees furious. The night before preaching the sermon that we begin to hear today, Jesus stays up all night on a mountainside to pray. When morning comes, he calls his disciples and designates them as his twelve apostles: Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James (shells), John (chalice), Philip (cross and bread), Bartholomew (flaying knife on other side), Matthew (money bags), Thomas (carpentry tools), James son of Alphaeus (saw), Simon the Zealot (fish and book), Judas son of James (boat), and Judas Iscariot (who is not represented on the stole). Jesus designates these twelve as his apostles; and “apostle” literally means “one who is sent out,” one who extends the influence of the sender, not unlike branches that extend the reach of a tree.    

            After appointing his apostles, Jesus went down with them to a level place. That’s why this sermon in Luke is called the “Sermon on the Plain” rather than the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew’s Gospel. There are similarities in the teachings, but differences in the geography and topography. After healing people on the plain, the Gospel says he looked up at his disciples. This isn’t Jesus on a mountain top looking down. It’s Jesus perhaps sitting (which was the traditional way that a rabbi taught) while looking up. Here, Luke is describing the arrangement of bodies in a way that resembles a tree, with Jesus at the base and root and with the apostles as the branches stretching out from the shared center. When Jesus looks up at his disciples, he is looking up at the branches of this new tree of life that will change the world. In Luke, Jesus and his disciples are embodying the image that Jesus describes in the Gospel of John when he says, “I am the vine [or tree] and you are the branches” (John 15:5).[3]

            From this position, he echoes the words of the Psalm and Jeremiah and says, “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. Blessed are you who weep now for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people don’t like you. Rejoice and leap for you for your reward is great in heaven….And woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full now, woe to you who are laughing now, woe to you when everyone likes you and speaks well of you.” Now Jesus is not shaming us or trying to make us feel guilty for laughing or having money or receiving compliments or eating to our satisfaction (as I imagine many of us will do while watching the Super Bowl). Jesus had just been accused to eating and drinking too much so he’s not against the enjoyment of food and drink.

            What Jesus is doing here, with his poetry, is teaching us and warning us not to find our true identity and blessedness and rootedness in wealth or even health or fleeting happiness or popularity. If we feel like our deepest spiritual needs and desires are being met with money, food, and popularity, then that’s all we’re going to get and we will quickly learn how empty and vapid and unsatisfying these things actually are, how they will ultimately leave us hungry and miserable and painfully aware of our own fabrications and falsehoods about ourselves. Woe to us when we try to find our rootedness in such things. It is often poverty and hunger and sadness and ostracism that compel us to find our true identity and blessednesss and rootedness in God’s love for us. When we connect to the Source, we become part of the Tree of Life and we become branches (like the apostles) reaching out to the world and bearing fruit in due season. Apart from our connection to the Tree that is Christ, we can do nothing. But when we connect to the Source through faith in God’s Love as revealed in Christ, we become filled with a joy that is no longer contingent upon wealth and health and popularity because we have received the kingdom of God, the reign of the voice of love, which empowers us with the same power that healed the sick and brought Jesus back from the dead so that we can branch out like the apostles, as integral parts of the tree of life, which, according to Revelation, yields its twelve crops of fruit every month and grows leaves that are for the healing of the nations. Amen.

[1] Sara Ritchey, “Spiritual Arborescence: Trees in the Medieval Christian Imagination” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality (Johns Hopkins University Press) Vol 8. No. 1. Spring 2008, pp. 64-82.

[2]Amos Clifford, https://www.ttbook.org/interview/bathing-beauty-trees, accessed February 12, 2022.

[3] A portion of John 15 is read on the feast day of the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church Absalom Jones (d. Feb 13, 1818), which we celebrate today while also reading the Propers for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (Year C).

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