Text: Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
Many of you are aware that we’ve just had a visit from John Witcombe, the dean (which means senior pastor) of Coventry Cathedral in the UK. The Community of the Cross of Nails centered at the cathedral is one of our international partners. Pullen’s cross of nails hangs on the back wall of the sanctuary. Our new friend John became dean just after the most recent Pullen pilgrimage to Coventry in 2012, so this was our first time to meet him and we had a delightful visit. Most gratifying for many of us is that rather than seeing CCN as one of many ministries of the cathedral community, John believes the cathedral’s most important Christian witness is its ministry of reconciliation embodied in the Community of the Cross of Nails.
As he provided an update of activities there, John mentioned that the cathedral is strengthening its relationships within the city of Coventry and renewing its local reconciliation efforts. “It’s not enough,” he explained, “to be the focal point of a worldwide network of reconciling partners. We have to do own our reconciliation work where we live. You can’t export what you don’t manufacture.”
Today on this second Sunday of our Creation Season, I want to suggest two things. First, we can’t export health and wholeness to other humans and the planet if we aren’t actively pursuing our own. Second, nature can assist us in this pursuit. Our text for today is an upbeat invitation to enter the summer of 2015. It reminds us that it is indeed good to give thanks and to declare God’s love and faithfulness to the sound of music. “At the works of your hands I sing for joy!” the psalmist declares. Then he or she goes on to tell us how we can identify God’s people:
The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap…
So that we don’t stumble at the get-go over the word “righteous,” know that the commonly-held belief that righteousness is about some kind of perfection isn’t the only understanding of this term. Translated from versions of the Hebrew word sedaqah, many scholars argue that it denotes not so much the abstract idea of justice or virtue, but rather right standing and the resulting right behavior within a community demonstrated by fairness, compassion and trust. Righteousness, therefore, is about being in right relationship with God and neighbor, not about living a flawless life. In today’s vernacular we would say the righteous are those who work hard at being in loving and just relationships with God, fellow humans and the planet.
It’s amazing how often our sacred scripture uses the cosmos as an actor itself (“The heavens are telling the glory of God…”) or compares what we are to be or do to nature’s patterns (“Consider the lilies…”) According to the writer of Psalm 92, the righteous “flourish like a palm tree and grow like a cedar.” That sounds nice. Go be like a tree. This reminds me of a middle school joke when I was a kid. We used to tell each other: “Go be like a tree and leave!”
But the psalmist isn’t referring to trees generally, but to specific varieties with which his or her listeners were very familiar – the palm and the cedar. They are very different, but both are very durable. I’ve learned that there are 2500 species of palms and this tree was an important religious symbol. For example, it was palm branches the people waived when Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey. In his day, the palm tree was a symbol of peace and plenty for the Jews. This makes sense because peace and plenty was what they hoped for when they shouted “Hosanna” on what we have come to know as Palm Sunday. The Koran also refers to palm trees dozens of times. And as we see here on the southern coast during hurricanes, the palm tree has one special characteristic that contributes to its longevity: it bends with the force of the storm winds, but it typically does not break.
Cedars are one of the most celebrated natural monuments in many cultures. Religion, poetry and history have all celebrated them. The Arabs developed a traditional veneration for these trees, believing that they possess an ‘intelligence’ which causes them to manifest signs of wisdom and foresight. They are said to understand the changes of the seasons so they reach their branches upward when it starts to snow so they can support the snow’s immense weight when it remains for long time. Because of cedar wood’s beautiful color, hardness, fragrance, and its resistance to insects, humidity and temperature, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks and many other ancient cultures used it extensively.
So the psalmist tells us that those who live in loving and just relationships are like the palm and the cedar. They are evergreen. They are durable. They adjust to changing conditions and they survive. But they are genetically programmed to do this. What about us? How can we endure and even flourish like these trees through all kinds of weather, through the joys and the tragedies that make up every human life?
I think the answer is in sabbath-keeping. We simply must take time, make time for leaving the hectic pace that is the nature of most of our lives these days. Even many of you who are retired tell me that you feel busier now than you did when you were working. We have jobs, school, families, volunteering, caregiving, feeding and clothing ourselves, of course, and for some, an equally frenzied social life. When and where in all of this is there time and space for sabbath? For being still? Be still and know that I am God, we are told. Well, if knowing that God is God requires being still, some of us are going to have a hard time learning this lesson because we never experience stillness. Even allowing for the differences between extroverts and introverts, high-energy personalities and calmer types, all of us need down-time. We need rest. Our bodies and souls demand rest. Lots of us can testify to what happens to our health when we don’t get enough rest. It isn’t pretty. There is no peace. And if we’re not working to find some semblance of peace in our hearts, how can we share it with the world? Like the Coventry Cathedral community that needs to do reconciliation in their own backyard, we can’t export what we don’t manufacture as a community and in our personal lives.
Let me be clear that I’m definitely not saying that one has to have found “inner peace” before one can offer peace to others. I’ve heard this assertion before and I think it’s hogwash, to use one of my father’s favorite words. That is, if finding inner peace means we have to have it all figured out and be calm all the time before we can be peacemakers and planet-keepers. If this is the case, we and our planet are in trouble. So don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not advocating for us to withdraw from the world until we’ve achieved some ultimate internal peace. Instead I’m suggesting that we have to resist our consumeristic, therapeutic culture’s call that we be self-indulgent navel-gazers at the same time that we make sure that there are spaces and places in our lives for rest and reflection.
A personal case in point. This spring has been the busiest in my 14 years as a member of the Pullen staff. Last fall my calendar told me there were a number of events that would happen close together in the spring of 2015: a trip to Idaho for my aunt’s 90th birthday; the Alliance of Baptists Gathering in Atlanta where I was tasked with overseeing the Georgian worship service where one of our partners was to preach; and my 40th college reunion all within about a month. Then some visioning exercises for our local Congregations for Social Justice group got postponed to the middle of this period and interviews for the new leader of the NC Justice Center where I was chairing the Search Committee were dropped into this mix as well. Throw in my every-day responsibilities here and in my personal life and you can see where this is going. It was all good, important work or so I believed. But too much of good thing is still too much. And then an otherwise minor “bug” gets into my otherwise very healthy body and you guessed it. Something minor turned into more than that and I am very clear that it’s because I waited too long to take time for sabbath.
Sitting on the porch overlooking the beautiful North Carolina mountains with a cup of tea, my journal and a good book several weeks ago was the remedy I needed. And it reminded me of John Witcombe’s words: You can’t export what you don’t manufacture. You have nothing to offer a peace-thirsty planet and its inhabitants if your well has gone dry. The palm and the cedar endure because their roots are grounded in what they require to nourish them. They adapt to conditions over which they have no control because they are hard-wired to get what they need to stay strong.
According to Catholic sister Joan Chittister, “scholars of the Talmud tell us that the reason God created the Sabbath was not because God needed rest but in order to model rest, to sanctify rest, to demand rest of us so that by regularly resting in God we could ourselves become new people.” Ironically, I was half-way through writing this sermon when I parked my car to attend a meeting downtown one day this week. I was a little early and some ideas for the sermon were bouncing around in my head, so I took a couple of minutes to record some notes in my phone. As I began, a song from Taizé sent from my phone to my car’s sound system came on. You can guess which one: My soul is at rest in God alone… I think that’s what some would refer to as a “word from the Lord!”
So I hope you will make some time for sabbath this summer. I don’t mean use it as an excuse to disappear from church for three months or even three weeks. But do take some soul-restoring time off. I also don’t mean that you should get away to places where you will be worn out by rushing from activity to activity or exhausted by entertainment. I mean go somewhere that you can rest in the beauty of God’s creation – the mountains, the beach, a city park or your own back yard. If being outside isn’t an option for you, sit by the window and enjoy nature’s beauty. I have a picture in my head of a glorious view of old trees you can see from one of the windows at Springmore. Seniors, don’t forget that the psalmist said, “In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green…”
So please go to a place where you can lie down in green pastures and sit beside still waters – if not literally, then in your mind – so the Holy One can restore your soul. And teach your children to do the same. They know nothing but the frenetic, plugged in culture they were born into. Teach them how to experience quiet and stillness so they can appreciate the spiritual nature of nature and pass it on. Learning this is critical for both their lives and for the planet’s survival. When we are gone, they will be no more able to export what they haven’t manufactured than we have been.
As Marcus Borg reminds us in his book “Convictions,” being a person of faith is not about having a correct theology by getting your beliefs right. It’s not about believing in God. It’s about knowing God, centering in God, loving God and our neighbor and the planet as best we can. Someone has said, “We will not protect what we do not love.” When you allow nature to feed your soul, you can’t help but love it and work to save it.
So I leave you with words from Wendell Berry that echo the words of the psalmist:
If we will have the wisdom to survive
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare
will live here.
A more just and loving present and future is what our children and the planet desperately need. Resting in God will help us make it so.