The Garden of Advent 4: O Christmas Tree!

The Garden of Advent 4: O Christmas Tree!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY>/h2>

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Fourth Sunday in Advent • December 24, 2017

When I was a boy, Christmas began at a department store. Other children may have looked forward to Santa Claus; the high moment for me was seeing the new Lionel Trains layout for the first time. There, in the midst of the toy section, would be the loud clatter of wheels on tracks, the shrill whistle of the engine, the acrid smell of electric motors and simulated smoke. I never tired of watching the trains flash by, bright boxcars, shiny coal hoppers and, of course, the red caboose. Every year, there would the surprise of a new building. There was the log dump, where a car stopped and as if by magic, dropped off round brown sticks of wood which moved into a plastic building while model lumber came out the other side. There was the station with the little man in a blue suit who endlessly shot out of the station and waved and many others. Each year I’d go home, visions of trains in my head and Christmas magic in my heart.

So some years, I still set up a train around our Christmas tree. Not a Lionel train, not a large layout, just a circle of track, an engine, a couple cars, a caboose. I want to feel again that child’s faith in Christmas; I want to experience again the peace of knowing what Julian of Norwich said: “All is well, all is well and all shall be well,” or what we so quickly and casually say to each other sometimes: 
the peace of the Lord.

The peace of the Lord: it’s where we start every Sunday, it’s where we turn for that great inner stillness which smiles from inside and gives real rest. Where shall we look for that peace which bears fruit in true joy, in a character expressed in kindness? Isn’t it from souls nurtured in the confidence and experience of God’s providence? Isn’t it from knowing ourselves to be seeds growing in the soil of God’s love? Isn’t it from believing there is a power beyond our power that cares for us as a gardener cares for a garden? In one way or another, the message of today’s readings is simply this: if we allow our roots to dig down into the soil of God’s love, our souls will grow and bear fruit in the peace God planned.

Perhaps this need to feel rooted is why the Christmas Tree is so central to our celebration of Christmas today. It’s actually a recent import. Four or five hundred years ago, about the time German Lutherans were renewing their faith, they began to bring evergreen trees into their homes at Christmas and decorated them with roses made of colored paper and edible treats: apples, wavers, sweetmeats. They illuminated them with candles. From Germany, the custom-made its way to England in the 19th century, when the English monarchy was closely related to Germany. Christmas trees were introduced to America by Hessian soldiers during the American Revolution and became common in the 1800’s. Windsor Locks, CT, claims to have had the first Christmas Tree in the United States but several others challenge this. The first tree with electric lights was in New York City in 1882. The custom grew and in the 1920’s, it became an official national tradition with the lighting of a tree at the White House. Wherever the tree, they all draw on the same symbolism: the permanence of the evergreen tree.

Permanence is at the heard of the situation of David in the story we read. Here he is in the years of accomplishment, mortgage paid off, enemies defeated, security assured. “After the king was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him.”

Have you known such moments? Then perhaps you have known as well what David feels: he’s not ready to rest. He decides to undertake another great project, to build a temple for the Lord. Even his head prophet, Nathan, agrees this would be a wonderful thing. But in the night, Nathan receives a word from the Lord, and the Word is this: God does not need or want David’s temple, Instead of thanking David, the Lord discloses an even greater work: David’s line will be established forever. What a contrast! David thought up the biggest building project he could imagine, a huge temple built out of cedar; God sweeps it away with a brush of eternity. David hoped the temple would stand for a long time; God deals in forever.

But forever is a long time; we live day to day. What has this great broad canvas of eternity to do with day to day? How can it help us get through the crowd at the mall, the backache that makes just sitting short-tempered, the feeling of being burdened instead of lightened by Christmas?
Perhaps it will help to look at the Gorski’s, the family at the center of the play Greetings. In the play, Phil and Emily are middle-aged folks, living in a house where fuses blow, with dreams that didn’t pan out. One of those dreams is a son named Mickey who has never spoken. Their other son Andy comes home on Christmas Eve and introduces Randi-with-an-i, his fiancé, a woman who is Jewish and atheist and as far from their values as could be imagined. Then amidst one of those Christmas eves when everyone is tense and pretending to be happy someone else drops by, a visitor from eternity named Lucius who takes over Mickey’s body and begins to speak. What would you do if you were visited by an angel? What would you do if you walked down the street and witnessed a miracle?
What the Gorski’s do is fight and fuss and fume for a while but somehow the light of the miracle begins to change them. They learn to draw together; they learn there is more to life than they thought. At a pivotal moment, Lucius says,

Why do you suppose so many people in your world lead mixed up lives? I’ll tell you. It is because they look at the mixed up mess that’s all around them and they say, “There now. See? That’s reality. That’s what I’m about.” That’s not what you’re about. Reality is right in there. (points to her heart) That is where you’ll find your answers. And if you can’t hear them it is because you have allowed everyone else’s clatter to drown them out.

David let the clatter of his own accomplishments drown out the pure song of God in his heart he heard when he was a shepherd boy. Reality is not the marble of an imperial palace but the kingdom of God.

What about us: what clatter goes on in our lives? When will we listen to the quiet voice of God in our heart instead of the clatter of the world around, when will we seek the true peace of the Lord? It doesn’t take much: Moses only got to see God’s back rushing away, but it was enough, he shown with the light of that moment the rest of his life. Jesus preached for three years or so but people drew such power from him their lives were changed forever. They stopped letting the clatter drown out God’s Word; they lived as God’s people, in the power of eternal life—forever life. Forever: that’s the canvas on which God works, that’s the soil in which God means our souls to be rooted.

So we have this story: Mary, a young woman, recently betrothed, is going about her day and in that day from nowhere with no warning, an angel drops in. A messenger from eternity stops by and quiets her fears. He tells her of great events about to be born and what does she say? Just what Lucius predicted; she explains reality to the one who created reality. And the angel replies: “Nothing is impossible with God.”

This is the point of celebrating Christmas. Because day to day, where we live, we forget forever and assume things will stay pretty much the same. But out there is something being born, something new, something wonderful, something powerful. When will we see it? When will we believe it? When will we embrace it?

We know the day to day reality; we know the world is old that things stay pretty much the same. When will we know it is at the same time new? Annie Dillard says,

That the world is old and frayed is no surprise; that the world could ever become new and whole beyond uncertainty was, and is, such a surprise that I find myself referring all subsequent kinds of knowledge to it.

The surprise that the world can be new: that is the reason for Christmas.µ When we see God recreating, when we know God’s renewal, then we see Christ born not only in our world but in us. And then indeed, as Dillard says, everything else is governed by this knowledge. Everything else is known with a peace that knows forever is assured; day to day is only day to day.

Jesus said: Unless you are born again, unless you become like a child, you will never enter the kingdom of God. I take this to be not a summons to one particular spiritual experience but rather a comment on the facts of spiritual life, an invitation to stop listening to the clatter around us, as Lucius says in Greetings, to stop pointing at what is and triumphantly saying, “See, that’s reality!”, and to believe in the possibility of surprise and the promise of newness. So God has given us this gift: a greeting wrapped in Christmas, a message to say, “Nothing is impossible — there is no one and nothing I can’t make new.”

What will you do? This is what I do: I get out the electric trains, I know it makes no sense, who plays with trains in their 60’s? I give my oldest daughter, who is 41 a Barbie just to remind her of when she was nine, I refuse to ask people what they want for Christmas because I am much more interested in surprising them than getting them what they want. I want that surprise: I want that moment of wide eyes, of pure joy, of hearing through the clatter the notes of eternity’s song. I want to see not by the headlights of the cars on errands but by the star of eternity. I want to see through to this great, inexpressible true thing: that as John says, the true light is coming into the world. I don’t know where your trains are or what will make that light shine for you.

I hope, I pray that this Christmas, that light will light your life and you will hear not the clatter of this day but the song of the angels which is the music of the peace of the Lord. May the peace of the Lord be with you this and every day.


The Garden of Advent 3:
Rejoice Always

The Garden of Advent 3:
Rejoice Always

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Third Sunday in Advent/B • December 17, 2017

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

“I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart…” You know this song, probably. It’s often sung around campfires; I learned it at church camp in August, maybe you did too. It’s easy to sing around the campfire, in the midst of that adolescent mix of exhausted, energized, ecstatic about friendships and crushes. Yet today ought to be the real day for this song; this is the Sunday in Advent when the theme is joy and the candle is pink. It’s a little harder to sing it today, isn’t it? No campfire, no warm days, and a Christmas coming that for so many is an ambivalent presence, lurking just off stage. For those grieving, for those lonely, for those in the darkness of depression, the relentless demand of this season to be happy can become a barrier to even going out. Yet if we look at the meaning of the joy of Christmas, we will find it is quite different than the happy faces our culture puts on Christmas
I usually draw from the gospel reading for inspiration but today’s reading again offers John the Baptist. We’re going to come to him in a few weeks, so I’d like to turn with you to the reading from First Thessalonians. Just the word is hard to say! The letter from which we drew is actually the oldest document in the New Testament, earlier than any of the gospels, earlier than any other epistle. Paul wrote it about 51 CE, less than 20 years after Jesus’ earthly ministry. Thessaloniki is a city in Macedonia, the northern part of Greece; today it is the second largest city in Greece. In the first century, it was a port that sat on a major highway. The city had a great diversity of religious groups and participated in the cult of the Roman Emperor. Because it was a port, people from many nations passed through. Doesn’t such a richly diverse cultural diversity sound like our city? The people of the church to whom Paul writes are mostly new Christians, former pagans. In this section of the letter, Paul is teaching them—and us!—the basics of Christian life and he begins with these three principles: Rejoice always,
pray without ceasing,
give thanks in all circumstances.

There are some things to notice about these things. First, they are all things we do sometimes; Paul is expanding them to all the time. Second, they are not a creed, they are a program for mindfulness. Mindfulness means noticing our internal conversation; mindfulness means consciousness of what’s going on inside as well as outside us. Our yoga instructor always begins instructions with one word: “Notice” and frequently goes on to say, “Notice the breath”. Now to talk about mindfulness, we must talk about the one for whom it is a pillar principle, the Buddha.

These past few weeks in Advent, we’ve been using other religious practices and faiths to hold a mirror to our own. Surely Buddhism does this. Like Islam and Christianity, Buddhism comes from a historical individual, a man named Siddhartha. Born about 600 years before Jesus in Nepal, Siddhartha lived a life of luxury in a princely family. Just as we have a cycle of stories about Mary and the special birth of Jesus, Buddhists look back to a special birth for Siddhartha. His mother died seven days after his birth and his father received a prophecy that he would become a religious leader. For this reason, it is said, his father kept him isolated in the palace. Still, Siddhartha managed to go on a trip to the village where he was profoundly affected by the suffering he saw. At 29, he left his sheltered life, determined to seek a solution to the suffering he had seen by seeking enlightenment.

Siddhartha followed the path of his culture in living a life of extreme asceticism. That means he sought to free his spirit by disregarding and torturing his body. He is said to have lived on a grain of rice a day and he soon gathered a group of disciples. But he didn’t find enlightenment in his practice and one day when a little girl offered him a bowl of rice, he ate it. His disciples were shocked and scandalized and soon left. Siddhartha, for his part, had come to an insight: neither the relaxed life of the palace not the extreme discipline of fasting had produced enlightenment; another path was needed. He called this the Middle Way. Soon after this, Siddhartha sat under a large Bodhi Tree and determined to meditate until he found enlightenment or died. After a long struggle in his mind and soul with temptation, he awakened to find that he had become an enlightened soul, now called the Buddha. He had a new awareness. He announced a set of truths and principles and began to preach them. The former disciples returned to him and became the foundation of a community of monks that also admitted women and was open to other classes and races.

The heart of Buddhism is solving the problem of human suffering. Buddhism’s foundational ideas are called “The Four Noble Truths” and they say that there is suffering, that suffering is caused by our desire, suffering has an end, and that there is a path to that end. The path for Buddha begins by understanding that we live in an illusory world; in that world, our lives revolve around desires for both things and happiness. Instead, Buddhism invites each person to an intense focus on what is happening inside us. Called mindfulness, it means watching ourselves be ourselves; it means listening to our internal conversation. “Notice the breath”, a Buddhist says and means: start with the littlest, most common thing. Give thanks for it; be conscious of it.

This is what Paul means as well when he says, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” To give thanks in all circumstances may seem impossible or flippant. How am I to give thanks when things are falling apart? How am I to give thanks when I’m angry or hurt? The first step is often to stop: stop what you’re doing, stop the rush to the next thing. Notice the breath; notice where you are, why you are angry, what wound hurts. In that moment, notice other things, things that don’t hurt—and give thanks for them. Surely this letter came from Paul’s experience. He was a man beset by so many troubles. In one of his letters, he lists the number of times he has been arrested, beaten, dragged before magistrates. Yet he’s also the one who never stopped preaching the love of God in Christ, never stopped opening doors to new Christians, never stopped giving thanks.

Eugene Kelly was an aggressive CEO of a major corporation when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and told he had only a few months to live. He says,

Before the diagnosis, my last thought every night before falling asleep usually concerned something that was to happen one month to six months later. After the diagnosis, my last thought before falling asleep was…the next day.

Kelly goes on to say that he attained a new level of awareness. It’s strikingly like Siddhartha: his life is enlightened by a clear understanding that desire and the next thing are not sufficient.
If we truly begin to consistently give thanks, surely it will lead us to a different kind of prayer. Annie LaMott famously said there are two kinds of prayer: “Thank you, thank you, thank you” and “Help me, help me, help me”. If we make the first our constant prayer, it produces a growing appreciation of simple things and then of those around and then of all of creation. And in that appreciation is joy. “Rejoice always”, Paul says: the path to joy leads from noticing to appreciating, to giving thanks. Walking the path, we find the joy God intended.

That joy waits to become an exuberant presence in us when we stop seeking happiness through our own desires. David Grayson says in his poem, Mornings Like This,

Mornings like this: I look
about the earth and the heavens:
There is not enough to believe—
Morning like this. How heady
The morning air! How sharp
And sweet and clear the morning air!
Authentic winter! The odor of campfire!
Beans eighteen inches long!
A billion chances—and I am here!

Mornings like this: rejoice always!


The Garden of Advent 2:
Planting Peace

The Garden of Advent 2:
Planting Peace

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Second Sunday in Advent/B • December 10, 2017

Many of you know I love sailing. I grew up reading sailing magazines that always featured beautiful boats and tanned, short-haired, smiling men who were clean cut and had great sunglasses. Last summer, I went sailing for five days on my own, At the end, I was exhausted, tanned, hadn’t eaten much in a couple of days and hadn’t shaved in a week. My hair was dirty and grey and wild and I took a selfie. It was at least disappointing. I didn’t look anything like those intrepid young men in the sailing magazines with $300 sunglasses and perfect hair. So I put the two together with the heading, “What sailors think they look like…and what they really look like.” Just a joke, but one with some truth. We all have a picture in our minds of what we look like and it may not be accurate. Since we don’t really know, we all use mirrors to get a reality check. Of course, there are the ones that simply reflect light but people can be mirrors as well, they make comments, they tell us things about ourselves. Institutions need mirrors too, ways to take a real look at themselves. I’ve always thought one of the great things we learn from studying other religions is how to see our own better. So today I want to hold up Islam as a mirror to help us understand deeper the coming of God into the world.

Just as Christianity comes from a specific individual named Jesus, Islam comes from Mohammed, who was born almost about 1,500 years ago. Even as a child, he sought out a unique connection to the divine. When he was 40, he had an encounter he described as a visitation from the angel Gabriel and received a series of visions. A few years later he began to preach these. The core of this teaching was simple. To the pagan people of the time who believed in many gods, he proclaimed that Allah, God, was one, and that right action consisted simply in complete surrender to God; ‘Islam” literally means “surrender”. He said he was a prophet. This occurred in the city of Mecca and, like many prophets, Mohammed was met with resistance and hostility; soon he fled with his followers to Medina. There he organized a community and a war band that conquered his former city and within a few years spread this new faith throughout the Arabian peninsula.

The Qu’ran contains the text of the revelations that Mohammed received, summarized by this fundamental creedal statement that every Muslim proclaims: ”I testify that there is no god but God, and I testify that Muhammad is a Messenger of God.” In practice, Islam focuses on life as a struggle to conform the self to submission to God; this process is the real meaning of the word ‘jihad’. This is done through acts of mercy and charity and through a discipline of five prayers daily. Submission to Allah leads to ultimate peace and the Qu’ran spends a great deal of time detailing the difference between the fate of those who succeed at this and those who reject it. Muhammed saw and understood his connection to older sources of inspiration, calling Jews and Christians people of the book. He believed Moses, and the other prophets known through the Hebrew scriptures along with Jesus were also prophets; he saw himself as the final prophet, completing their work of revelation. In that sense, like Jesus, Mohammed is a prophet of the gospel of God and the goal of that gospel is peace.

Both Jesus and Mohammed are part of a response to the human ache to see God coming into the world. We heard another prophet, Isaiah, say,

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. [Isaiah 40:9-11]

“Here is your God”—How do we proclaim that with our lives?

Our scripture lesson today starts with this line: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” It’s actually a poor translation of the original line; there is no “The” at the start, the line actually reads simply: “Beginning the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God.” So we gather today and the text asks us: how will you begin the gospel?

What is gospel? It literally means ‘good news’. The term had a specific political history before Mark used it here; it’s the term that was used when the Roman armies reported battlefield victories. It’s the term the Roman Emperor Augustus used about his successes. So first, we should understand that when Mark chose these words, he was making a political statement: that good news came from God, not from the empire. Second, is making a claim with his statement: we are at the beginning, we are beginning, the good news brought by this child of God, Jesus.

One thing Islam can contribute is the series of disciplines which form the core of its practice. Consider the discipline of five prayers a day. Could we do that? Could we stop what we’re doing, five times each day, and intentionally, seriously pray, seek God’s presence? There is a force to external disciplines. Christian practice has them as well, of course, and Islam reminds us to go look in our own closet. When we do, one that we might find is the Advent Calendar. These come in so many shapes and sizes and often today they’ve been taken over by the notion of a little gift or reward each day. But the real Advent Calendar is simple: a specific list of something to do each day that will begin the gospel in your own life. It’s a list of seeds to plant in the garden of Advent.

One of those is certainly peace. We are living through a moment when the dark clouds of war threaten and it’s more important today than perhaps ever before for us to say this: Christian faith leads to peace. Today so many Christians are taking up the sword of the Crusades; one Alabama preacher talked recently about “the Christian God” as if God was not one, as if there was somehow a unique God for Christians. That’s heresy; that’s a lie.

In Deuteronomy, Moses teaches, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one”; Jesus teaches that loving God is the ultimate path and as we saw Mohammed proclaims the one-ness of God. There is no Christian God, there is no Jewish or Moslem God, there is only the one God and creator of all. And in that unity, we are called to find unity and peace, to become channels of peace in our acts, in our lives.

Last week, I talked about the symbol of the Tree of Life as a way of understanding God’s love. Mohammed is also interested in trees and one that has particular significance in his testimony is the date palm. Planting a date palm is a special act of charity in Islam, a sign of hope in the goodness of God, of submission to God’s goodness. What are the ways we are proclaiming in action the goodness of God in our lives? What trees are we planting?
We have so often focused on belief in churches; it’s time for us to focus on what we do. Today we read the story of John the Baptist and it’s important to hear in that story one word that rings out like the bell in the morning: “Repent”. Now repent means changing direction: changing behavior.. Taken with the opening of Marks’ book, it means to get ready for something new, something wonderful.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not that good at new. When I start to plan a new season of worship, I often look back at what we did last time. When I come to Christmas, I expect things to be put where they were last year. I value the security of tradition. But I hear these words: repent—begin the gospel. And I know it means me. Does it mean you?

The Garden of Advent 1: The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

First Sunday in Advent/B • December 3, 2017

Mark 13:24-37

I grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, in one of those sprawls of postwar houses that turned farms on the edge of a city into communities of families. The builders knocked down the trees but there was a little wood lot a few blocks away. I call it a little wood lot now but in those days, to small boys, it seemed an endless primeval forest where trees loomed and shadows held secrets. Later, I moved to Michigan, with its rolling hills and trees and still later to Massachusetts and then Washington, places where trees were as common as grains of sand,, part of the canvas on which lives were painted. Perhaps you also grew up where hills define a horizon and trees are scattered, so you may understand the shock of my first encounter with the desert. A few years ago, Jacquelyn and I flew to New Mexico and drove north through the great southwestern desert and I was overcome by the space and light. Flat, reddish ground spread out and neither sight nor sun were limited. Wherever you looked, the trees were small and struggling or absent. It was shocking, it was stunning, to be without towering trees and when we finally reached the forests of the Colorado mountains, I was happy to embrace them again.

All this is simply introduction, an invitation to the vision of Genesis we heard this morning. Because it may be that you also have taken trees for granted, have passed green gardens without noticing. But the people for whom Genesis was written were desert people, people more familiar with the flat, treeless wastes of wilderness where the presence of an oasis and a garden was not only remarkable but miraculous. Come listen to Genesis with their ears; come see its story with their eyes.

Genesis means origins or beginnings: it’s the story of where we come from, told with a purpose: so we will understand better where we are going. Long ago, according to Genesis, the Lord God made a misty rain fall on the desert and, as deserts do, parched and waiting forever, the desert bloomed and everything that is was created. There were flowers and fruits and bugs and bunnies and things we can hardly name. And God, wanting to share creation, made a human being, breathed in the soul of life. Then, seeing the human was lonely, God made another, and created the possibility of love, mirroring the way God loved the creation and the beings. God placed them in the garden, in a garden where the central feature was a wonderful, huge tree, the tree of life.

The Genesis story wanders off to another tree, the tree of the experience of good and evil and its choices but I want to stay with the tree of life today. Do you know about trees? Have you ever laid in the shade of a tree in the summer? Have you climbed a tree, making the branches into a ladder that becomes ever more precarious the higher you climb until someone stands at the bottom and calls, “Come down from there!” Genesis says the garden was full of things that were beautiful to look at and good to eat: trees produce both.

For eight years, I lived in a part of northern Michigan were the principle business is growing trees, cherry trees mostly. All of life revolves around those trees: when they are pruned, when they blossom, when they are sprayed, when they bear, when they are picked, how well they are doing. A cherry orchard takes about five years to reach maturity and then it bears for another five years and begins to die off. Cherry farmers pluck the trees then and burn them and plant new trees. I left that place in 1995 and it’s amazing to think that none of the orchards I used to see and enjoy both for their beauty and their fruit still exist. In 20 years, they have borne and died and been plucked and new ones planted who in turn are perhaps now being plucked.

For gardens have a rhythm and so does creation. It’s easy for us, gathered in cities, to forget this; it’s easy to imagine the monuments we have built, unlike the garden’s trees, are permanent and everlasting. Jesus’ disciples are from small, rural places, and Jerusalem is the first great city they have ever seen. They are dazzled by its towers and the shining, golden dome of the temple King Herod had recently built. Yet its narrow streets and its plazas were a simmering cauldron of conflict. Less than a decade after this gospel was written, Jerusalem was destroyed and its people scattered after a great war.

In today’s reading, Jesus has describes the terrible violence he sees coming, the destruction of this great city, the suffering of its people. He goes on to offer this image about a tree.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. [Mark 13:28-30]

We live in a rhythm of creation; we look to creation to tell us where we are, in the season of blossoms, in the time of harvest, in the season when we, like trees, seem to lose life. Yet even in that time, there is something permanent, something that can sustain our roots and it is the tree of life, which is the word of life he brings.
God creates a garden, a place: we are meant to care for it and learn to care for each other. Robert Frost says in his poem Birches,

I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate willfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

If earth is the place for love to flower like a fruit tree blossoming, then indeed we should take our cue from the tree, just as Jesus said. The Shakers, one of the great spiritual communities of Christian history, were captured by the image of an arching tree. For the Shakers, the Tree of Life reminded them that we are sheltered by God’s love like a traveler pausing to sit under a tree. The Shakers believed passionately in the nearness of God, in the presence of God in moments. They knew God the way a cherry farmer knows trees: not as a distant principle but as a living presence. The United Church of Christ has a slogan that God is still speaking; the Shakers lived that reality.

Jesus invites us to something much harder than action. To act, to do something, that’s always our instinct isn’t it? Fix the problem, right the wrong, fight the good fight. But see what Jesus says at the end of this long story of violence. There is no call to take up arms in a fight, even a fight for justice. Instead, he calls us to awakened waiting. He doesn’t tell his followers to hide or choose a side; he tells them to live in the rhythm of creation. Like someone watching a fig tree get ready to blossom, he says, the collapse of the world in violence is a time for awakened waiting because God is near.

Awakened waiting means living day to day aware that we are sheltered by the tree of life. It means listening to God each day, hoping to hear God’s direction, believing that God has cared for us, will care for us but most importantly cares for us today. This is the hardest, I think. It’s easy to look back and see where we’ve been; it’s harder but still possible to chart a course forward. But now, right now, what about now? Can we live in faith right now, this day, this moment? Can we remember to appreciate how our lives are lived in the shelter of the tree of life?

This is Advent faith: to believe we live in the shelter of the tree of life, to believe we live in the arms of a loving God, to believe that even in death we are held firmly by a love that will not let us go. This is the word of life: like a tree that blossoms and then gives up its leaves, yet continues to give life, we are living in the shade of the tree of life, in the creation of the loving God. This is the season of Advent, a time when we are invited to live like the tree of life, getting ready to blossom, getting ready to wake, waiting in faith for the cry of a baby as God comes into our lives anew.