I am a tree (lectionary musings for Year A, Proper 17)

The Collect for Sunday gives us God as a gardener, and each of us as a tree:

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

Graft in our hearts the love of your Name – this is not a seed planted in us, to grow from infancy.  Rather, God is grafting God’s love within us.  God’s love is already growing, already fruitful, already successful, and so we ask God to bind that love to us, within us, so that it can take root and grow.  When the graft “takes,” then the two plants become entangled; they become one.  So in time, our hearts and God’s love become one tree, entwined, enmeshed.  Inseparable.

Increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness – and then, once God has bound that love to our hearts, we ask God to help our heart to grow.  We ask for nourishment, for good nourishment.  This is the nourishment we seek each Sunday, when we come together for the Feast at God’s table.  True religion, good nourishment – these are found in the bread and the wine, very ordinary gifts from creation, to make our bodies and our hearts grow.

Bring forth in us the fruit of good works – This prayer does not ask God to make us beautiful ornamental trees, works of art and grace and beauty, but trees that do not pass on God’s love and nourishment to anyone else.  Rather, we ask God to help us bear fruit.  The fruit that our hearts bear, after being grafted with God’s love, is fruit that is good, fruit that is nourishing, fruit that is true.  Our hearts can bear within them the gifts from that bread and wine, the gifts from prayer, the gifts from coming together with our brothers and sisters – yes, even the ones we disagree with.

So… what might these good works be?  Well, we’re given a hint in the letter to the Romans, which just begs to be written out as poetry.  However, rather than rewriting the passage as it appears in the NRSV, I’m going to take the version from The Message, which I found incredibly beautiful and inspiring this morning.

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it.
Run for dear life from evil;
hold on for dear life to good.
Be good friends who love deeply;
practice playing second fiddle.

Don’t burn out;
keep yourselves fueled and aflame.
Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant.
Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder.
Help needy Christians;
be inventive in hospitality.

Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath.
Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy;
share tears when they’re down.
Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up.
Make friends with nobodies;
don’t be the great somebody.

Don’t hit back;
discover beauty in everyone.
If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody.
Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do.
“I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”

Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch,
or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink.
Your generosity will surprise him with goodness.
Don’t let evil get the best of you;
get the best of evil by doing good.

That’s some good advice, huh?  Love everyone, and do good things for even the people you don’t like – and not just vague good things, but specific ones – buy them lunch and get them a drink.  Don’t be stuck up.  Laugh and cry with the people you love.  Find beauty in every person – you know, like the vow we make at our baptism to seek and serve Christ in all persons – and make friends with nobodies.

I especially love the advice saying Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame.  It can be very hard to keep ourselves from burning out, but God wants us to burn with God’s love.  God wants us to remain aflame, but not to be consumed by the fire of that love.

In the Old Testament lesson this week, we hear the old, familiar story of Moses and the burning bush – the bush that remains aflame but does not get consumed by God’s fire.  We’ve heard this story since we were children, and it is comfortable for us.  The thing is, this story should be anything but comfortable.  I mean, this is a BUSH, on FIRE.  It is hot.  It is smelly.  It could catch everything around it, killing all the vegetation so that the sheep in our herd have nothing to eat.  It could destroy the tents, our homes, and drive us away with nothing left – no tents, no clothes but those we wear, and no sheep.  When Moses saw this, it must have frightened him greatly.

Until he looked closer, that is, and saw the marvel.  This bush was fueled and aflame, but did not burn out.  And then, at least from the perspective of Moses, it spoke.  And the voice that came from the bush was God’s voice, and it grafted the love of God’s word within the heart of Moses.

Beloved friends, we are called to be that burning bush.  We are called to catch the attention of those around us, to show them that we can burn and burn and burn, but never be consumed.  We may frighten them, because God’s love and attention can feel threatening to us – the life of a Christian is a life of continual change, continually turning toward God, a never-ending conversion of life.  We are called to bless, to laugh, to be cheerful, to cry, to find beauty, to allow God to do the judging, to be generous, to get the best of evil by doing good.

We may believe that a burning bush could never bear fruit.  After all, that’s preposterous, isn’t it?  It’s downright silly!  Of course, once we are grafted with a love for God’s word, once we are nourished by God, we are fueled and aflame.  And as long as we don’t burn out, we will bear God’s fruit, the fruit of good works.  So we get to be burning bushes, and we get to bear fruit.  We get to burn and burn and burn, but never be consumed.  And not only do we get to, but this is what God wants for us.  How very silly!

Let’s be silly together, my friends.  Silly trees, silly burning bushes.  Let us bear fruit aflame with God’s amazing silliness, God’s amazing love.