David A. Davis
February 17, 2019
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Almost every Sunday, after each service of worship, I spend a few moments out front, at the top of the steps, talking to the trees. Some will remember that I have told you that before. It happens in the very minutes right after the benediction, while you are listening to or joining in on the benediction response; just before the first notes of the postlude, just before the greeting line at the door begins. In that time all by myself, I stand out there and talk to the two trees that stand watch like the gatekeepers of Palmer Square. Sometimes I look at the other trees up and down the street but it’s those two over there with the bench in the middle; they’re my best tree friends. It’s not that I talk out loud or anything, you don’t have to start worrying about me. But every Sunday I look at how those trees mark the steady march of time with their beauty and their changing color and their now barren branches. I notice how the trees age too. After all, I’ve been talking to them for 18 years or so now. I see how they have weathered the storms and how they offer sure and certain signs of the coming of spring and how they absolutely shine on a stunning October Lord’s Day morning.
I look at those trees and I think of all that they have witnessed standing tall over there. All the “Communiversities”, and jazz fests, and graduations, and reunions. All the times the community is out there for a rally or a march, not just the one a few weeks ago, but for generations. I have a picture in my office from the newspaper of a huge crowd gathered out there the day of Dr. King was shot. There must have been a crowd out there when World War II ended. There was crowd out there the night after 9/11 when everyone was coming in here for prayer. And it was quite a stream of folks of all faiths that passed under those trees to come in here not long ago after the Tree of Life shootings. A generation of protests and concerts and celebrations. And those trees stood tall.
The trees must look back over here at the church too; a witness to all that has gone on here. I bet the trees stand taller on a wedding day, saluting the couple as they stand on the steps for a picture before heading down the steps into a life together. How many Christmas Eves have those trees stood in the quite darkness joining all of creation in somehow remembering and honoring that first night when everything stopped to worship and bow down? On Easter day, the trees try their best to look like spring even when a whacky Easter calendar tosses one of those curve balls of a way too early Easter Sunday. When a casket is walked down toward the hearse parked at the curb, as I lead the procession across the front plaza I always look up wondering about the silent prayer of thanksgiving for life coming from the trees.
“They are like trees” the psalmist writes. Like trees. “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its seasons, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, the prosper.”
Those who delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on it day and night, “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its seasons, and their leaves do not wither.”
Those who avoid the seat of scoffers, those who stay away from scoffing and mocking and ridiculing, not just directed at God, but at other people. Those who don’t choose the jam-packed bus load of scoffers, “they are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its seasons.”
The ones who find a different path, who try to choose the narrower way, the ones who over and over again search not for the road well-worn by sinners, not that way but rather the pathway of righteousness, “they are like trees planted by streams of water.”
Those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, who turn from the way of evil, who yearn to discern what comes from light rather than darkness, those who seek advice about goodness, and kindness, and mercy, “they are like trees.”
Like trees. Blessed are they. They are like trees.
Keeping watch. Marking. Leaning in. Pointing. Along the way of righteousness. The pathway of God. Planted solidly in the kingdom of God, where roots are fed by the Living Water of God’s Spirit, where nourishment comes from the rich soil of the Word of God, where strength and guidance and passion, they are all drawn from the flowing stream of God’s righteousness and God’s justice and God’s peace. Thriving both in season and out of season, bearing fruit when the Spirit calls for the harvest. Standing tall when the very promise of God requires a quiet, persistent, almost dormant presence. Leaning into the storms of life that shall surely come, holding on to the roots of faith for dear life, clinging to nothing other than the strength of God, knowing that no season, no storm, nothing in life or in death shall splinter the love of God. Like trees planted by the streams of water are those who stand along the righteous pathway of God.
My wife, Cathy, and I went to McCarter Theater on Wednesday night to hear a wonderful jazz vocalist whose name is Dianne Reeves. It was one of those concerts you could listen to all night long. The song performed for the encore was called “The Grandma Song.” She wrote it in memory and in honor of her grandmother. When I looked it up, the official title is “Better Days.” Listen to these lyrics:
All day, I’d ask questions
At night I’d ask more
But whenever, she never, would ever, turn me away/
I’d say how can I be sure what is right or wrong?
And why does what I want always take so long?
Please tell where does God live?
And why won’t he talk to me?
I’d say, Grandma, what is love?
Why are we so poor, what is life about?
I want to know the answers before I fall off to sleep.
She sort of smiled as she tucked me in.
Then she pulled up that old rockin chair once again.
But tonight she was slightly, remarkably
Slowly she rocked , lookin half asleep
Grandma yawned as she stretched
Then she started to speak.
What she told me, would mold me and hold me
She said all the things you ask
You will know someday.
But you have got to live in a patient way.
God put us here by fate.
And by fate that means better days.
She said, child we are all moons in the dark of night.
Ain’t no morning gonna come til the time is right.
Can’t get to better days lest you make it through the nignt.
You gotta make it through the night, yes you do
You can’t get to better days
Unless you make it through the night.
Oh you will see those better days
But you gotta patient.
Blessed are those who yearn with patience for better days, and know that God is with them, and they will make it through the night. For they are like……trees.
Not long ago my local clergy bible study group was discussing the gospel lesson from Luke that you heard read just a minute ago here in worship. “But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek offer the other also, from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you, and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do so to you.” In the conversation I said, “Maybe Robert Fulgram was right 25 years ago when he wrote that book “All I Ever Needed to Know in Life I Learned in Kindergarten.” And that when it comes to trying to live the gospel, I said, all you needed to learn you learned early on in Sunday School.” A colleague responded with something along these lines, “You better learn it then because trying to be faithful in life only gets too blasted complicated every year after that!”
Blessed are those who crave the gospel Jesus taught and offer a witness with their lives, affirming the most basic, simple, yet essential testimony to the Christian life; do to others as you would have them to do you, for they are like….trees.
A few weeks back I gave the charge to Lukata Mjumbe, the new pastor at Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, at his installation. One of the stories I told was this: I spent the summer of 1983 working at an internship with a ministry called “Voice of Calvary Ministries” in Jackson, Miss. The ministry was an intentionally integrated congregation and community service agency started by an influential author and preacher in my life named John Perkins. John Perkins wrote a book back in the day called “Let Justice Roll Down”. I had applied with a parachurch organization out of college to do mission work somewhere, someplace overseas in fact, I think I requested Zimbabwe. They sent me to Jackson, MS, which, for a public school kid like me from a middle class white suburb outside of Pittsburgh who had never been anywhere accept my college campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was indeed a foreign land, somewhere, someplace. Voice of Calvary brought 15 or so college kids from around the country to the city of Jackson to live in one big old house and work in the various agencies and bible schools and bible studies and worship services. By far, the hardest part of that summer of cultural immersion and living with a diverse group of Christian college kids from around the country was…..living in the same house with Christian kids from around the country. We hit a low around the end of July when we would go to the grocery store and keep our food all separate and labeled because we couldn’t agree on what to cook, how much to pay for it, and whose turn it was to do the chores. One of the saints of that community, and African American woman who seemed like she was 134 at time, she asked me how things were going. I told her living all in the same house was really hard and I shared how disappointed and how frustrated I was. She laughed, sighed, and said me, “Oh sweetie, didn’t you ever read your bible? Living with the other Christians is always the hardest part! You can’t let it get you down.”
Blessed are those who learned a long time ago that living with the Christians is sometimes the hardest part, and yet, they don’t let it get them down because they know God will make a way. And when it comes to church, and living in Christian fellowship, and being part of the Body of Christ somewhere, someplace, they never give up. They are like……trees.
This morning as I baptized Charlotte, I offered this prayer, a traditional prayer of baptism, a prayer used in our congregation over each and every young person being confirmed in the faith:
“Defend, O Lord, your servant Charlotte
With your heavenly grace
That she may continue yours forever
And daily increase in your Holy Spirit more and more
Until she comes to your everlasting kingdom”
In other words, O God, in your grace and mercy, may Charlotte be like…..a tree.
Along this journey to which each of us have called by Great God Almighty, along this journey of faith, God knows and you know, sometimes it can feel like your in such a forest full of the thick realities of everyday life. And I want you to know it helps to look for the trees, to look for those mighty oaks of faith, the well worn maples who been through every season, the steady pines who tirelessly stand for the other, the weeping cherries who have known both joy and sorrow, and the young dogwoods whose blossoming faith is the most beautiful you can imagine.
When you try to walk down this path of the Lord’s way of righteousness, God gives you these trees planted by the streams of the living water of God’s grace.
You ought to talk to them. You have to talk to them.