Bishop Bill McAlilly ~ Growing Deeply
This sermon was preached at the opening worship service of a November meeting of the United Methodist Council of Bishops.
For six years I lived among live oak trees on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, weekly, I drove down Highway 90 between Bay St. Louis and Ocean Springs, Mississippi – the “beach road” as we natives call it, where there were hundreds if not thousands of live oak trees that are massive in scope and scale.
These massive, majestic, evergreen trees (did you know they are from the evergreen family?) are the envy of every child who ever dreamed of the perfect tree to climb. The limbs hang low and those that have any age to them offer a sense of protection and permanence. If only I had had a tree house built in one of those when I was ten!
The interesting thing that I learned while living amongst these massive trees was that the reason they were so strong, grew so tall, stretched so wide and offered such shade, was that their root system was deep and wide. We know the central root of any tree is the taproot. In a live oak the root is called an anchor root. It literally anchors the tree deep then grows wide with a root system that stretches around and around the tree, often four to seven times the diameter of the tree.
After Hurricane Katrina, though, some live oaks died. In fact, you can travel along the “beach road” from Louisiana to Alabama and see a hundred or more of these live oaks that died. Some creative artists have come along with a chain saw and carved magnificent art out of them. Beautiful in their own way, they have become somewhat of a tourist attraction.
I’ve wondered if that might be a metaphor for where we see ourselves in the church today. Some congregations are deeply rooted, engaged in mission and faithful discipleship. Others, once beautiful places of vibrant and vital community, are now artifacts or museums. There are many causes of such a decline. Times of drought, lack of proper nutrients and too many storms threaten trees. In congregations, decline is the result of an unwillingness to engage the neighborhood with the good news of Jesus Christ.
So the question I ponder in this season is: “Lord, are we rooted deeply enough in you that when the drought and storms come we will continue to bear fruit?”
The roots of my faith and life come from places where water is plentiful and trees grow large and tall, roots grow deep and branch out. I’ve learned over time, however, that storms will stunt and heat will scorch trees and fruit is sometimes scarce. It seems to me, this might be a place where we in the church find ourselves.
Jeremiah is clear. Blessings come when one roots one’s life in trust in the Lord. Old Testament theology does not distinguish greatly between trust and faith. Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not on thy own understanding, in all thy ways acknowledge Him and He will direct thy paths. (Proverbs 3:5) Seems like a simple, easy thing to do – to trust, to have faith. There have been a few times over the last fifteen months or so, as I’ve stepped into this new life as an Episcopal leader, when I’ve wondered if I’m rooted deeply enough, if my anchor will hold, if I’m planted closely enough to the source of living water.
Jeremiah didn’t have a College of Bishops or Council of Bishops or even an appointive cabinet to lean on. He was on his own. I wonder if he had, might he have said some things differently, prophesied with less vim and vigor? No, times were desperate and he was passionate. In fact, if you look at the first six verses of chapter seventeen, he wasn’t doling out blessings; just curses. Which, these days, if you are a Bishop, you understand quiet well.
In Jeremiah’s time, there was turmoil and exile. Hearts were hardened. The enemy lurked just outside the gate. He longed for more for his people. He longed for them to be planted deeply in the soil of faith in trust in the Lord. He knew that if he could call his people to a deeper life and more faithful trust in God, that when the hard times came, and they surely would – as surely as I’m planted by beautiful Lake Junaluska amidst these beautiful mountains – they would come. He knew if one was grounded deep in the heart of God, not one’s own heart, but in the heart of God, when the dry seasons came, fruit would still be born.
Like Jeremiah, we are in an awesome and definitive moment in the history of the Church and the world. When Jeremiah came on the scene, there was great anxiety in Jerusalem. In 587 B.C., the party was over. If we are paying any attention to our rhetoric and to our activity, we are caught in a similar place of anxiety. We live with war and rumors of war. We ask, when will the shootings end? How many children have to die? We Imagine No More Malaria yet we grieve with Bishop Unda in the loss of his daughter to the dreaded disease of Malaria.
We wrestle with immigration and we wonder, “How long, O Lord?” Regardless of the places the Church has sent us, “How long, O Lord, how long?” So we come together, seeking to be rooted in something deeper, something more profound than the shield of the Office of the Bishop.
And here Jeremiah spoke in a time of great need for the people of God. As Jeremiah stepped onto the stage of Biblical history, he was deeply rooted in the old memories of Moses, as they mediated in the teaching of Deuteronomy. The covenant was central to all Jeremiah taught and believed. The covenant – deep, demanding and intimate in relationship. (Bruggeman: A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, pg. 328) Jeremiah’s words must have been shocking to people who believed that you should only etch divine or good things on the heart. The central passage of one of their central books Deuteronomy provided as follows: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.”
And yet, we struggle. We work to clarify our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ only to discover we take one step forward and two steps back. We get crossed up with one another because we differ theologically on how to best navigate the changing cultural landscape as it relates to our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers.
How shall we struggle to identify what keeps us rooted and grounded in our shared covenant even when we are not in agreement? How shall we “hang in there” with each other – not in spite of, but because of our different views? We share deep roots. Our Wesleyan heritage is rich and grounds us deeply in the love of God and love of neighbor. We share deep roots and from what I’ve noticed over the last fifteen months, our branches spread wide.
I give thanks to God that all of our branches don’t grow in the same direction. I wonder what it might mean to model personal integrity and authenticity in our differences while modeling how we commit to staying at the same table? In my own conference, I have reconciling congregations and congregations that hold “True Love Heals” conferences. Some of us feel called to be prophetic; others of us feel called to hold the tension of the opposites while we wait for God to reveal a solution. Others of us feel strongly that God has spoken.
What are we to do? How are we to navigate this impasse? We come together as a Council of Bishops, active and retired, torn by our own inability to find agreement on the best way forward and deeply divided by how best to live into the covenant of our ordination as elders and the covenant of our consecration as Bishops. As a Council, we mirror the great divide that exists politically and socially. We agree to disagree. We bend our covenants. Do we deepen our roots in Christ and in one another?
Then, here is Jeremiah; a poet who is acutely sensitive to the pain and failure of his community. Window dressing was not going to address the problems Judah faced. Window dressing will not be adequate for facing our differences this week and beyond. So Jeremiah sets out to tell a better story, to help Israel live a better story. To reposition and imagine a better future in terms of its commitment and reliance upon Yahweh.
Between a blessing and a prayer, Jeremiah spoke. Our trust in God draws us to trust in each other as rooted in God’s hope and love as people, as the Council of Bishops, as a Church. Blessed is the One who trusts in the Lord. Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed. Save me, O Lord, and I will be saved. (Jeremiah 17:14) This is one of several that Jeremiah prayed, really, as confession. Praying out of hurt, grief, anger, and a sense of acute danger, the poet prayed. How do we lead the church in this time in a great cultural change? What is our heart’s desire? How do we hold this tension between doing no harm and doing good?
Pain forces us to seek out a doctor. It is a characteristic of our human psychology that we only look for a savior when we are in trouble. (~Celebration, February 1983) Friends, we are in trouble. I’m reminded of the story of a man lying by the pool of Bethsaida who knows that the only time the healing will come is when the waters are stirred. Well, it’s been a long time since the waters have been this troubled in our church. How will we be made well? The constrictions of the human condition ‘force’ us to acknowledge our ultimate powerlessness. Nothing, nothing is sufficient for us – except God.” (~Celebration, February 1983)
We must risk being a part of the story. We can trust in ourselves, our priorities, our strengths and become like a shrub in the desert, with no relief, living in the parched places of the wilderness. (Jeremiah 17:6) Or, we can listen to Jeremiah who calls us to place our trust in the Lord who is the fountain of living water. So that we are like a tree planted by the water whose roots grow deep in loving God and loving what God loves. For me, it is incredibly difficult – this notion of surrendering. Every day I wake up and pray, “Today, Lord, I surrender,” but by lunchtime, I’m large and in charge! Is this really what Jeremiah is after in his prayer for healing? To surrender?
I believe Jeremiah is calling us to a deeper life, a deeper place than we have been. Shall WE be so bold to proclaim that WE have all the answers? On the one hand we don’t want to give way on important moral issues. On the other hand we don’t want to give way to our need to be right, to be superior, and to be in control. Sounds a bit like original sin to me. My sense in this moment is that our task is at a minimum to learn to withstand the storm, the winds, the rain, the flood, and become who God is calling us to be in this moment.
In recent days, I have turned to the familiar words of Thomas Merton, “I don’t know if I’ve ever done your will. All I know is that I want to do your will. I’m not certain I’m pleasing you. All I know is that I desire to please you.” Isn’t that what we ALL desire? To live in God’s will like a tree planted, deeply rooted and grounded in God’s love.
Wherever we find ourselves on this theological continuum, we are called to a mystery of transformation. (Richard Rohr, pg. 36, Hope Against Darkness) It is a mystery, this life with God in Christ Jesus, who for the sake of all of us, walked the way of suffering all the way to the cross. So when we place our lives before the cross, none of us is in charge, none of us in control, nor was Jesus. On the cross, someone else is in control. Someone else is in charge. Someone else understands.
After Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi Gulf coast, we were no longer in control. Gone were our homes, cars, stuff and churches. All we had was each other and our faith in Jesus Christ. Today, a storm is brewing around us, maybe in ways that we have not seen in forty years. It is a storm that we cannot control, try as we might.
This morning I received a devotion in my email inbox. It captured my mind with these words: “We are not going to solve today’s difficulties with “either/or” thinking.” That will lead to more information but will also lead to splitting. Splitting institutions, even splitting within an individual. It will not lead to wholeness, which is the understanding of salvation in the Old Testament. In fact, most of us are divided within ourselves this week. So we must go down on our knees and into the mess in order for us to move through to that new place where God is leading.
At the end of the day, if we fail to hold on to one another, if we fail to surrender to God, and if we fail to be deeply rooted in the deep love, the love of Christ Jesus, we will miss the grand opportunity that lies before us. How shall we live together and what shall our witness be?
Heal us, and we will be healed.
Save us, and we will be saved.
And then, then our hearts will be pure.