Grandfather White Pine, by Pastor Kinsey
I rarely saw my parents argue about anything. But, they had a pretty serious disagreement once about cutting down trees along the driveway to their northwoods retirement home – of course, they did it with characteristic jocularity. There were some very old 100-120 foot white pines, and many slightly shorter red pines, there were sugar maples and red oak, a scattering of aspen, and a few beautiful white birch, not just around their property, but stretching for hundreds of acres all around.
All their neighbors had banded together in a state program called Firewise. It was meant to protect their property from the danger of fire, a risk that was greatly enhanced by the dense woods surrounding them. And so, underbrush was cut back everywhere, and then, all their driveways were tested to make sure that fire trucks could easily access the house. My parents’ driveway was long and winding, and so they had a half dozen trees marked for removal. But this alarmed my mother, who loved each and every tree on their property, and she spoke up, advocating on behalf of her beloved pines and oaks. My dad was much more utilitarian about the matter, a Life Insurance Actuary, who believed the safety of family, trumped the life of a mere handful of trees.
They went back and forth about it for months, until my mom finally took her stand for the biggest and oldest white pine in the middle of driveway close to the house. She could part with every other marked tree, but not that one. And that’s just the way it was going to be! And indeed, that’s what the compromise ended up as. And so, for a number of years she enjoyed that great-great-grandfather white pine. Until one day, one of the grandkids accidentally backed right into it with the Dodge Caravan, causing thousands of dollars of damage. And not long after that, the old white pine ended up in the woodpile, cut up and stacked for firewood! Mom had done her best to stand up for her children. Now her favorite would give its life to warm her and her family, on many a winter’s night.
The Tree of Life, is introduced in the very last chapter of Revelation. Or, should I say, re-introduced, being clearly named after the Tree of Life mentioned in the beginning of Genesis, in the Garden of Eden. In the renewed Messianic age to come, according to Revelation, the new Jerusalem will come down out of heaven to earth, and there will be a “tree of life on either side of the river, with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
The promise of the tree of life, then, is that God provides enough to feed everyone year round, a very traditional motherly thing to do, something my mother was proud of doing for her family all her life. But the tree of life also had leaves that were for the healing of the nations. And the seven churches that John wrote to in this Revelation letter, were so embattled from the ways they were persecuted and stigmatized, and left for dead, that leaves of healing must have sounded as good to them, as they do to us today – leaves with a healing balm for our pain and fears, our losses and hopeless days. The tree of life, transformed from Christ’s cross, provides peace and prosperity for all.
But sometimes healing can cause new pains. (Be careful what you ask for!) Paul and Silas, heal a slave-girl in Philippi, in our Acts reading, and end up in jail for it! The dishonest owners are the ones who press charges! Their slave-girl may have been liberated – which you’d think is a good thing – but actually, that’s the last thing they wanted, and they’re furious because she was their capitalist goldmine, their dream come true. The slave-girl, says Acts, “brought them a great deal of money by fortune-telling.” But when she was healed, set free and made a whole person again, instead of walking away with their tails between their legs, the owners showed no shame or remorse, whatsoever. Instead of filing a truthful claim about their lost income, they sought revenge on Paul and Silas, who indeed follow in the footsteps of Jesus, when they are arrested, beaten and incarcerated.
The healing of the nations’ will begin with our liberation, and our confessions that we play a part in a whole system of sin, even, at times, for our own benefit. Only whole-hearted confession and breaking free of the chains that imprison us from loving others, can enable us to begin to live out the gospel, as Paul and Silas do.
After being flogged and jailed, and left for dead in the innermost cell, their feet fastened in stocks, Paul and Silas, instead of blaming the slave-owners or magistrates, reportedly were praying and singing hymns to God, while the other prisoners listened to them. And then, when an earthquake shook the foundations of the prison so violently that all the doors were opened and their chains were unfastened, it was like a miracle! But the jailer had been sleeping, and so they easily could have fled for freedom, which is just what the jailer assumed when he awoke in the darkness! And that struck him with such a deep sense of guilt about it – the exact opposite feeling of the opportunistic slave owners – that he drew his sword and was about to kill himself… until, Paul intervened, and shouted in a loud voice, do not harm yourself, for we are all here. And with torch lights relit, the jailer was so relieved that he fell down trembling, before Paul and Silas. And when he regained his composure, he brought them outside, asking what he must do to be saved, like them?
What was, like them, of course, was the uncharacteristic restraint, in response to their mistreatment; The praying and hymn singing, despite their bruised and shackled bodies; The doing unto the jailer as they would have the jailer do unto them, even though he was more like their enemy; The saving the life of the jailer, who was executing the orders of imprisonment, and possible death for Paul and Silas! Sometimes our faith, when it is lived in the way of loving sacrifice for others, is the strongest and most powerful word we can speak as Christians.
The jailer then leaves his post to take Paul and Silas to his own house and wash their wounds, as a sign of reconciliation. And Paul tells the whole household the story of Jesus’ saving gift of life. And finally, the jailer and his entire family were baptized without delay, and setting food before them, they rejoiced together in a meal of celebration! Gathering, Word, and Meal!
What happens to the slave-girl, liberated from her chains of oppression, we don’t know for sure. I’d like to think that she too, sees the light, and follows Paul and Silas, and becomes a believer, and was maybe, just maybe, invited to the communion feast of the jailer. That is my eschatological hope, at least, because I wonder: is she really liberated, if she doesn’t have anyone to show her the new life of Christ? Are there some who escape the darkness of their past, but still live lives in the shadows, not quite engaged, not quite fulfilled? Unsure of the good news and what it means for them?
Sometimes it’s difficult for us to share our faith. We may think we don’t know the right words, or may be afraid of rejection. But when we show it, in our living, if we take the courage of our convictions, even in the smallest things, and people begin to notice, then we only need invite them to come and follow. “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’” “Let everyone who is thirsty come,” as Revelation concludes.
Our believing, is not a perfect knowledge, for we know now only dimly, as Paul said. Believing is following, one day at a time, one foot in front of the other, renewed by the community of believers, who know the degree of difficulty of trying, too.
For some, following will be protecting every tree under our care because of its intrinsic value, while for others, following will be protecting the forest and the integrity of the whole, no matter what the sacrifice. No one can say who is more right, or declare who is wrong. The challenge is for the many intertwined roots of our faith to hold strong, that we all stand together, even as we risk walking on the very vulnerable road toward the Messianic tree of life, where one day, the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, will claim us in a song of joy, and in the bounteous feast, forever.
Alleluia, Christ is risen!