(a sermon for January 5, 2020, the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, based on John 15:1-11)
(a podcast version of this message can be found here)
We put the task off as long as we could, wishing to linger in the quiet afterglow of the season for as long as possible, but last night we finally decided that it was time to at least begin taking down the Lowry Family Christmas Tree (2019 Edition).
As always, this is a bittersweet chore; after all, it’s always kind of sad to “put away” Christmas for another year, and yet, even as we undecorated this year’s tree the precious memories of holidays past and present continued to fill the air even as few far-reaching plans for next year were discussed. And it was a beautiful tree, one that decorated with all our various and sundry heirlooms, helped to transform our house into a true home for the holidays. It was, in a word, perfect.
As you can imagine, the selection of a suitable tree has always been an important part of our Christmas ritual each year. Given that as a pastor’s family we’ve lived in a number of homes over the years with different kinds of rooms and ceilings of various heights, these trees have necessarily had a variety of shapes, sizes and forms; though, if anything, we’ve followed a tradition of choosing the biggest, fullest, most beautiful yet inevitably top-heavy Christmas trees we can find; which, at times, has led to difficulties that have bordered on potential disaster!
In fact, I remember one Christmas a few years back when we had a tree so big and so heavy (it was actually more of the Griswold Family Christmas Tree that year!) that early the morning after we put it up it came crashing down to the floor, literally snapping the bolts on the Christmas tree stand in the process! Luckily, we hadn’t yet hung any ornaments, so nothing on (or off) the tree was broken, but the incident did point up our immediate need of a bigger and better Christmas tree stand!
So, after a quick trip to Wal-Mart, I’m underneath the tree, preparing to transfer its trunk from one holder to another. I’m loosening the eye bolts that supposedly keep the tree in place, removing the wooden stays that we always put around it just in case – like that did any good (!) – and then, while Lisa and Jake are holding the tree upright, I reach into the well of the stand itself, so I can pick up on the bottom of the trunk and lift the tree out of the holder. That’s when I notice that, in fact, there’s still water there that I’d poured into the stand the night before–but not water, exactly, but rather a liquid substance that’s probably best described as “goo,” that thick, sticky mixture of water and pitch that even at that moment was permanently adhering itself to my hands and clothing.
Now I have to say, friends, that I hate pitch. I really hate pitch; I hate getting it on me, and I especially hate how hard it is to wash off! But I also have to tell you that as I finished securing our Christmas tree to its new stand (where, by the way, it remained strong and upright throughout the holiday season!), I’d found a new respect for the stuff, as well as the many and wondrous ways that nature takes care of itself. After all, what pitch really is is a healing ointment: whenever an evergreen is cut or one of its branches is broken, immediately those open “wounds,” if you will, start to secrete this sticky resin called pitch which seals the cut, so to preserve the life-preserving fluid and food that’s inside the tree. That’s why, properly watered, you can keep a fresh-cut Christmas tree inside for a couple of weeks, and why this tree could survive a tumble on the Lowry’s floor: the pitch helps it stay green and moist and fragrant the whole time. Without pitch, you see, the tree quickly dries out, its needles will fall, its bright green turns to a dingy brown, and it becomes less a festive holiday decoration than a serious fire hazard.
And that’s a pretty amazing thing when you think about it.
It’s no coincidence then, that the evergreen is often considered a symbol of the Christian life. The idea, as the old carol suggests, of “faithful leaves unchanging,” staying “ever” green in summer and winter does seem to evoke the on-going fruitfulness of a spiritual life. There’s actually an obscure verse of that carol, “O Tannenbaum,” that I’ve always loved and says this very well:
“O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
Your leaves will teach me also.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
Your leaves will teach me also.
That hope and love and faithfulness
Are precious things I can possess.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
Your leaves will teach me also.”
In other words, like the evergreen tree, in faith our lives are to be rich and full with the same qualities that are of God. Moreover, we are to maintain a “greenness” about our life and living that is fresh, vital and life-enhancing, times in which we are both saturated with and sustained by joy and love.
There are times, we must admit, that these qualities of life come easy: perhaps during the holidays when we’re surrounded by family and friends; maybe on vacation and out of busy-ness of life living; or in the midst of one of those all-too-rare times when we are profoundly aware of just how blessed we are. These are the moments, writes the Rev. David Oliver, in which “the sweet aroma of our lives is lavished on everyone. [when] Joy is not only something we yearn for, but also something we feel… [when] prayers are said with a deeper sense of meaning and thanksgiving [and] God… seems closer and more directly accessible.” It’s in times such as these that you and I are indeed like the evergreen; full of vitality, beauty and unchanging purpose.
Were that it was always that way, however! Because let’s face it; we all know how quickly a life can turn from green to brown! It happens amidst any number of severe difficulties of life that tend to blindside us with its intensity – a death in the family, the end of a relationship, an unexpected job change and on and on – or maybe it’s simply a result of the accumulated and overwhelming amount of stress that builds up in the course of daily life. Whatever the cause, the end result is the same: we are sapped of our strength and enthusiasm and left feeling not unlike tired, worn-out evergreen boughs that have been cut off from the tree; branches that are dry, brittle and ready for the fire. If you’ve ever felt this way – like an old Christmas tree that’s seen better days (!) – then you also know what it’s like to feel within yourself somehow withered and lifeless, in need of deeper nourishment and healing.
But here’s the good news: Just as the fir tree has that pitch to promote its healing and wholeness so that it can stay evergreen in the face of any and all injury and danger, so you and I are given such a gift. And while we don’t have tree sap oozing from our pores (!), what we’re given is no less healing and life giving. It is a gift that comes to us from Jesus himself; the one who says to us, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
What we so often and easily is that it has always been God’s intention for us to bear the fruit of the Spirit. Each one of us is meant to be full and green, with the sap of the Spirit flowing through us that we might know true life, growing each day a bit closer to becoming all that the Lord intends for us to be, feeling the gift of healing and renewal when we’ve been hurt and wounded by the harshness of the world around us. But the thing is that this comes about only in that connection to Christ and thus to God: as Jesus himself told his disciples and tells us, “I am the true vine, “and my Father is the vinegrower… abide in me as I abide in you.” Abide – meaning “to remain in,” “to continue,” or “to dwell” – suggesting that the on-going health and vitality of our lives is contingent on the day to day presence of our caretaker; or, as Jesus goes on to say, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” In other words, just as the fir tree needs its sap to thrive, you and I need to be rooted, grounded and well-established in Christ in order to live fully the life that God intends so to bring us fullness. It is our faith in Jesus Christ that keeps us evergreen; without that faith to nourish us and strengthen us, one way or the other, be it the wear and tear of the world or the fear that lingers in our hearts we’ll eventually dry up and become brittle to the living of life.
It makes me think back to the tradition we had in a previous church of a yearly “Epiphany Bonfire” that was fueled by discarded Christmas trees. Not only was it a fun time and a beautiful fire, it served as an object lesson about the danger of trees left to go dry in your home: to wit, one match and whoosh! Every tree in that pile goes up in flame and is destroyed literally in moments! And I’m watching this and thinking, well, there’s a parable for life itself. If everything’s dry and brittle about your life, you will be consumed!
That’s an important truth for us to consider, friends, especially considering that it’s the first Sunday of a new year (not to mention the first Sunday of a new decade!). Seems to me to be a good time for each one of us to think about what it means to abide in Christ, and to live as persons of faith. The question we need to ask is, are we doing what we need to do stay evergreen? Are we in fact staying connected to Christ who is the vine to our branches? Who is Jesus Christ as regards our own lives: is he Savior and the Lord of all, or is he just another philosopher with a take-it-or-leave-it message? And how does that play into life as we actually live it? How does “abiding” in Christ inform the kind of decisions we make for ourselves (and not just on the major pathways of life, either, but also on each and every intersection that we routinely cross in the course of a day), and how does that connection affect the way we treat others? Does it lead us to make good use of the gifts we’ve been given? And does it – really and truly, now – inspire our generosity of both spirit and resources, and will it lead us to place our whole trust in God and in God’s provision for our lives and living?
How we answer such questions says much as to how we truly abide in Christ, and ultimately about the fruitfulness of our Christian faith. Truly, the ways that faith exists at the heart of our real, live day-to-day existence are the signs of our health, vitality and freshness, yours and mine. These are the qualities of life that even in the cold and barren days of winter (winter here in New England, yes, but also and most especially winter in the soul) will make us evergreen.
Perhaps you’re starting out the new year feeling a bit like the trees that even now are being thrown to the curb to be picked up by the city this week: old, dry, used up, needles shedding all over the place (!) and without anything that’s useful left for whatever’s ahead. Maybe now that all the chaos of the holidays has come to an end for another year, you’re feeling a bit at a loss as to what happens next, especially as regards your heart. Well, if that’s the case, this is the time you need the care of the vinegrower the most; this is where you most need a connection to the vine. It’s fitting, then, that we come now to the very table where we feel that connection the strongest, in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the fruit of the vine.
It’s a promise sure and certain, and it comes from Jesus himself: that if we abide in him, he will abide in us…
… and in the process, making our lives purposeful, powerful, joyful… and green.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry