Summary: For World Communion Sunday: Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom is large, but the weakness of the church makes it unlikely we shall see it fulfilled. Yet we must affirm the small beginnings that are being made, even by us, for they have potential, when they are
So how do you feel about trees? Did Hurricane Isabel change your feelings about living in a city of trees? When some of them fell on the power lines and cut you off – our house was out for six whole days – how did you feel about trees?
I didn’t ask you how you felt about Pepco. That’s another story, and maybe another sermon. But how did you feel about trees?
Some people are passionate about trees. We call them tree-huggers. Let a developer line up with his bulldozer to clear a space for building, and these folks chain themselves to the nearest oak to protect it from progress. Let a utility company come through to clear a path for those wires, and the tree-huggers will speak their minds to everybody from the neighborhood block captain to the District delegate. In the immortal words of the kids’ cartoon, “George of the Jungle”, they “watch out for that tree.” Great trees are a glorious asset.
The patron poet of trees was Joyce Kilmer, who was not merely an interchange on the New Jersey Turnpike, but was also a teacher, a soldier, and a writer. Those of us of a certain age can probably recite most of his poem, “Trees” from memory:I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks to God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wearA nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
That is the ultimate tree-hugging statement, isn’t it? And yet, there were all those trees that came down during the storm; all that power disruption, all that work to clean up, all those houses damaged. So how do you really feel about trees?
Jesus taught us to cherish trees as the symbol of the Kingdom of Heaven. He spoke of the Kingdom as like the greatest of trees, where the birds of the air find a nesting place. But Jesus was not so much focused on the immense size of the tree as He was pointing to its beginning as a small seed. Think, He says, about a mustard seed, the tiniest of the seeds, so small you can hardly see it. And yet, when someone sows that mustard seed, it grows and becomes not just a thin blade of grass, not just a squibby shrub. It becomes the greatest of trees, where the birds of the air make their nests. Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like the greatest and most majestic of trees.
That greatest work of God – the great tree of the Kingdom – is that God wants to bring together all sorts and conditions of people, all races, all nations, all ages, all opinions, all personalities. He intends to unite, in Jesus Christ, a wide spectrum of human diversity, not just folks that look like, sound like, smell like you or me, but all people. “Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” A truly remarkable, astoundingly great work, the greatest work of God. And He wants us to share in it. He wants you and me to participate in making it happen. Doesn’t that stir you? It stirs and excites me to know that I am supposed to share in growing this Kingdom.
And yet, sadly, sort of like poet Kilmer, I think that I shall never see the greatest tree. I think that I shall never experience the Kingdom of Heaven grown to be what Jesus said it will be. I think that I shall never see the greatest tree, because I know that right now there are so many shortcomings. Right now nation lifts up sword against nation. Right now brothers and sisters spit up gossip against one another. Right now public officials and private entrepreneurs alike are caught with their hands in the till. Right now the entertainment media seem bound and determined to make us a nation of sexual deviants. Right now there is so much that is off the mark that I think that I shall never see the greatest tree. I think that I shall never see the Kingdom of Heaven come to the full.
One reason I think that I shall never see the fullness of the Kingdom, is that the church, the harbinger of that Kingdom, is so weak. The church is pitifully weak. Not just our church, but the church overall – weak as water. Oh, I know about the millions on the church rolls. But how many are genuinely committed to Christ, and how many are just names and nothing more? You know, I always struggle with it when somebody asks me how many members Takoma Park Baptist Church has. I struggle with it because I do know how many names there are on the roster – 825! But I also know that many of those will not stand up to be counted, and nearly two hundred have absolutely disappeared, so that we don’t even know where they are. And we are not alone in this kind of mess – even the megachurches that count their members in the multiplied thousands have exactly the same problem, on an even larger scale. I read the other day that the Church of England has 25 million names on its rolls, but only about three percent actually worship in its pews. How’s that for weakness?