What then shall we do? I was pondering this question as I picked up my tree from Kate Sabatini yesterday. She's the one who coordinates ordering the outdoor trees for our neighborhood. She creates community once a year on her driveway as neighbors who don't know each other come to pick up their trees. Now, if we can organize a neighborhood to decorate for Christmas, why can't we organize it to practice Christmas the rest of the year? If we can buy trees, why can't we feed the hungry? Why can't we come together to find solutions to the housing crisis in this city? All I know is that if we don't come together to save others, we will not be prepared for God to come and save us.
Here in the Gospel of Mark we learn that exorcisms were a hallmark of Jesus' ministry. "And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons." [1:39] The practice sounds perfectly medieval to us, but it is not. In fact, casting out demons is making quite a comeback in Christianity these days.
You might say that Ruby is strong and independent, and that would be true. But as a spiritual redwood, she has always been interconnected, too. Consider this: Have you ever seen a redwood growing all by itself? Redwood trees need each other or they would fall over. That's because they have no taproot. Their roots are shallow and grow laterally. But as they grow, they intermingle with the root systems of other trees to form a strong foundation for the whole grove. I think that's a wonderful metaphor for Christian community, and no one practices it quite like Ruby. She knows that you can't be a Christian all by yourself. You can't learn how to love others if you have no others to love. For her, the church has always been her big extended family. And how firm a foundation!
What we have in Paul's letter is an image of the persuasive power of God and the attractive power of the Gospel. Paul doesn't need any threats. He simply says, "our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours." Likewise, God's heart is wide open to us. There is no restriction in God's affections, only in ours. There's no wrath or violence in God's heart. Only in ours.
As John Wesley kept reminding his followers, if it goes on for any length of time, physical pain will cause emotional pain which usually ends up causing some kind of relationship pain and without a lot of grace, will result in spiritual pain. Chronic pain can make us feel physically depleted, emotionally depressed, socially isolated and spiritually forsaken. And no pill or procedure, no matter how much it costs, can make all those layers of pain go away.
President Obama's favorite philosopher is a 20th century Lutheran theologian by the name of Reinhold Niebuhr. For more than thirty years, Niebuhr was a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, but before that, he was a preacher in Detroit, during the late teens and twenties.... One day, while walking past a Methodist Church, he looked up at the signboard and read: "Good Friday service this afternoon. Snappy song service." That day, he wrote in his diary, "So we combine the somber notes of religion with the jazz of the age. I wonder if anyone who needs a snappy song service can really appreciate the meaning of the cross. But perhaps that is just a Lutheran prejudice of mine."
To challenge the assumption about money and power, Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury." And what did he mean by that? She had what the rich don't have: nothing. She gave what they could never give: everything. And that tells us something: that Jesus is always messing with our values! Maybe that's why he's such a hard sell in Silicon Valley. But there's something else. Jesus is telling us about this widow: she is not just a victim, but she's a very different kind of hero.
We are like climate change deniers: good at seeing the signs of the coming danger and explaining them away... I do see the signs in others and in me, and frankly it's scary. That's why I am so insistent about getting out of the valley and up into the hills and spending time with trees. I didn't know that the Japanese have a word for what I do. They call it shinrin yoku, or "forest bathing." Spending time with trees was first promoted by the Forest Agency of Japan in 1982 as a way to reduce chronic stress in the workplace. Mindfully walking in the forest has been shown to reduce the level of the stress hormone cortisol by 16% and to increase the activity level of cancer-fighting white blood cells by 40%. That's because trees emit chemicals called phytoncides, and regular exposure to them is very beneficial to our health. Think of it as Mother Nature's aromatherapy. So, we now know that trees have a positive impact on our physical health, but they do the same for our spiritual health, too. Trees make good doctors and good teachers, and many of their spiritual lessons can be found in our Bible.
That's something I want everyone, especially our new members to know. It's never too late to start living life. You are never too busy to embrace the blessing or to become one. And to those who have been hurt, I want to say: you can never be so burned by people or circumstances or even churches that God can't throw some baptismal water on those scars and give you baby skin again.