given on 5th Sunday of Easter, April 24, 2016
Opening scripture: Genesis 2:8-9, NLT
8 Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and there he placed the man he had made. 9 The Lord God made all sorts of trees grow up from the ground—trees that were beautiful and that produced delicious fruit. In the middle of the garden he placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Kids’ scripture: Ezekiel 17:22-24, NLT
22 “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will take a branch from the top of a tall cedar, and I will plant it on the top of Israel’s highest mountain. 23 It will become a majestic cedar, sending forth its branches and producing seed. Birds of every sort will nest in it, finding shelter in the shade of its branches. 24 And all the trees will know that it is I, the Lord, who cuts the tall tree down and makes the short tree grow tall. It is I who makes the green tree wither and gives the dead tree new life. I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will do what I said!”
Scripture: Romans 11:11-24, NLT
11 Did God’s people stumble and fall beyond recovery? Of course not! They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles. But he wanted his own people to become jealous and claim it for themselves. 12 Now if the Gentiles were enriched because the people of Israel turned down God’s offer of salvation, think how much greater a blessing the world will share when they finally accept it.
13 I am saying all this especially for you Gentiles. God has appointed me as the apostle to the Gentiles. I stress this, 14 for I want somehow to make the people of Israel jealous of what you Gentiles have, so I might save some of them. 15 For since their rejection meant that God offered salvation to the rest of the world, their acceptance will be even more wonderful. It will be life for those who were dead!
16 And since Abraham and the other patriarchs were holy, their descendants will also be holy—just as the entire batch of dough is holy because the portion given as an offering is holy. For if the roots of the tree are holy, the branches will be, too.
17 But some of these branches from Abraham’s tree—some of the people of Israel—have been broken off. And you Gentiles, who were branches from a wild olive tree, have been grafted in. So now you also receive the blessing God has promised Abraham and his children, sharing in the rich nourishment from the root of God’s special olive tree. 18 But you must not brag about being grafted in to replace the branches that were broken off. You are just a branch, not the root.
19 “Well,” you may say, “those branches were broken off to make room for me.” 20 Yes, but remember—those branches were broken off because they didn’t believe in Christ, and you are there because you do believe. So don’t think highly of yourself, but fear what could happen. 21 For if God did not spare the original branches, he won’t[a] spare you either.
22 Notice how God is both kind and severe. He is severe toward those who disobeyed, but kind to you if you continue to trust in his kindness. But if you stop trusting, you also will be cut off. 23 And if the people of Israel turn from their unbelief, they will be grafted in again, for God has the power to graft them back into the tree. 24 You, by nature, were a branch cut from a wild olive tree. So if God was willing to do something contrary to nature by grafting you into his cultivated tree, he will be far more eager to graft the original branches back into the tree where they belong.
I had to give up on a tree this week. For three years I kept holding on to the hope the tree would survive, but the tree I planted died. Even though it attracted the attention of numerous tree trimmers, I could not give up.
The tree was something so unique and it grew so beautifully, but then it began to wither. I stumbled onto the tree one spring among the trees offered at Westlake’s, and since it was June, it was on sale. I had never seen one before, but it caught my attention. So, the tree went home with me, I planted it, watered it, and watched in awe as it grew.
The corkscrew willow grew upwards into a beautiful conical shape. The slim little leaves danced in the wind, and it quickly shaded the dogs’ favorite spot to watch the world pass by. I was proud of my tree.
Then one year, I realized the leaves were withering and falling off. Yes, it was a dry year and willows do like water, so I watered it. It did not improve. The tree was not dead, the seasons passed, and I thought it would revive come spring.
Faith is much like the trees. Trees begin as a seed that just happens to fall into a space on this earth that nurtures us. Our faith is not always formally planted; sometimes a seed of faith is just dropped into our hearts and takes root.
How we develop faith is as complex as the types of soil and climates that nurture the expansive number of tree species. Trees have common traits, but they differ in form, uses, strengths and weaknesses. Some grow wild, independent of any special care; some are carefully sculpted into the small bonsai trees for decoration.
Paul’s letter to the Romans uses the process of grafting a tree to share how Christianity was grafted onto the Jewish faith. Paul’s mission grafted Gentiles onto the holy Jewish foundation: For if the roots of the tree are holy, the branches will be, too. (Romans 11:16)
Chopping down the corkscrew willow felt wrong because some branches were still green. Yet the main trunk was dead, so dry that it sounded hollow. Upon close inspection, I discovered that the green was coming from new trunks growing from the roots, right up along the dead trunk. They were grafted onto the trunk and I could not see any way to cut out the dead and let the green continue.
What do I do? Mom always said to trim trees in September or April—sap drains down or sap rises. The weather already showed that the sap was back up the branches, but only about a fourth of the branches seemed to be green. What should I do?
A little research on line provided me new ideas and inspiration. The corkscrew willow was easy to start. In fact one website indicated that one inch of a willow twig had the growth hormone equal to the powder growth home sold in a bottle. One inch of that willow in a pot of soil could make anything grow.
The same site explained that just a sprout of the willow could be put into water and it would sprout roots within a week although it recommended letting it stay in water at least two weeks before trying to plant in dirt. What could I do?
I pruned some of the healthiest green branches and went to work. I cut some pieces that had a leaf joint and planted them in the dirt. I took some small pieces and placed them in water. I even took longer branches and stuck them directly into potting soil, watched and waited.
It worked! The roots in water were visible within a week. In fact it has been three weeks and now I am wondering where I should put them.
The branches stuck into the potting soil are not looking very good. The temperature since I did cut them dropped a couple of nights and the green leaves look as though they froze. The twigs have some green, but I am not sure I followed directions successfully and they may not survive.
But the biggest surprises are the one to two inch pieces of twigs, stripped of the leaves. The pots into which I pushed them are showing brand new growth on all the twigs. What I did, worked!
The effort to try something new is paying off. The original corkscrew willow is now a pile of brush on the curb waiting to be picked up. I had to make a tough decision, but each little branch I worked to save is a promise of a new corkscrew willow to grow tall once again.
Faith is a tree in our lives. We must do whatever we can to see that it grows. Sometimes we have to prune out the dead in our lives or even restart from just a glimmer of faith and build it up again. Sometimes the faith seed we plant, takes much longer to root than the one-inch piece of the willow, but the promise of new faith is there.
The metaphor of the corkscrew willow is an example of how faith grows, dies, and regrows in our lives and the lives of others. As a gardener, I must do whatever I can to nurture faith grows strong and hearty even if that means having to prune, root or cut down the tree.
Paul’s mission took Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection grafting God’s message of love into new cultures. His work sharing the story and continuing God’s mission established a church that is now the global church. The Christian faith tree did not grow trouble free, and it continues to survive despite human plagues trying to cut it down.
Each one of us must grow our own faith tree, but we are also gardeners who have a responsibility to nurture faith trees around us. The corkscrew branches may grow straight up the trunk reaching for the sun, or they may reach outward to the east, the west, the north or the south.
If you study the patterns of the twigs, you can also see that it twists and turns much like our lives do. Faith in God, when carefully tended, makes it possible for those twists and turns to turn into strong, beautiful twigs, branches, trees, and groves. Whatever we do, we must learn to grow faith trees as beautiful as the corkscrew willow. It takes faith, it takes knowledge, and it takes a faith community to keep the faith tree growing.
- Analyze the health of one’s faith
- Determine what is needed for healthy growth
- Prune the deadwood and/or cut it down
- Re-root or graft as necessary
- Turn it over to God with prayer
- Nurture the new growth
- Be prepared to do it again
You are the gardener who planted seeds of faith.
You asked Abraham and all his descendants
To be gardeners, too, keeping evil away.
We, too, whether Jew or Gentile,
Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran or not,
Our faith brings us together in your garden.
Teach us the story and equip us
So we may tend your garden
In a world filled with evil weeds.
Open our hearts and minds
So we identify the challenges
To healthy faith and Christian lives.
Prune out the dead and the disease
In our faith tree
So we might be renewed.
Thank you, Lord,
For the trees and promises
Of life eternally. –Amen