Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost 1 October 2017
(Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 Psalm 25 Philippians 2:1-13 Matthew 21:23-32)
“A Parable for all Time!”
[When this sermon was preached on a Sunday morning, the telling of the story, The Giving Tree, was accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation]
Some people say it is too sad to be a children’s book. Others say it is too simple to be an adult book. When it was written in the early 1960s, critics said it would never make it! One person wrote, “this is the dumbest tree I ever heard of in my life, giving everything and getting nothing in return!” From another perspective, a person wrote, “…that was the most ungrateful boy I’ve ever met.” Today, more than 200,000 copies of the book have been sold!
Of course, I am referring to the book, The Giving Tree.1 Many of you know the story. Some of you may not. Let’s look at it. Allow yourself into the story.
Once there was a tree . . . and she loved a little boy very, very much – even more than she loved herself.
And every day the boy would come and he would gather her leaves. And he would climb up her trunk and swing from her branches. And when he was tired he’d sleep in her shade.
And the boy loved the tree very much . . . and the tree was happy.
But time went by and the boy grew older. And the tree was often alone.
But the boy stayed away for a long time. And the boy wanted a home and a boat; and the tree said to the boy to take her wood to build a home and build a boat.
And the boy cut down her trunk. And the tree was happy. But not really.
Finally the boy came back after a long time, and the tree said, I wish I could give you something more. I have nothing to give but an old stump.
And the boy said, I don’t need much, I just need to rest. And the tree straightened herself up as much as she could and said, come sit down and rest.
And the boy did.
And the tree was happy.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…” [Philippians 2:5-7].
The Greek word for emptying is kenosis. It carries with it the understanding of abduction, in the sense that it was not worthy of a god (Greek god, specifically) to abduct a human being, as there are stories in Greek mythology. The idea being that God did not abduct Jesus to become human, but rather, that Jesus chose to become a slave of love to humanity, the complete dedication of the lover to the beloved.
It was in this self-emptying of the lover to the beloved that the story of God in Jesus becomes for us the greatest love story ever told. It reminds me of the tree and the boy.
Paul is writing to his beloved community from prison, “Have the same mind in you that was in Jesus Christ.” Think like Him. His mind, his intentions, his self-understanding to give himself up for the purposes of God in the world. “ And you,” he says, “I’m asking you to think like Christ Jesus!”
And, although we do not know exactly what was going on in the Philippians faith community, we do know that there were two women who had worked with Paul in the past, who were at odds with each other, causing division and dissension. The result was brokenness, pain and discord.
Paul is writing to these closest friends about how to think and imagine and act and live in the church . . .do it the way Christ did. He says, “Do not look to your own interests; look to the interests of others.” And let your mind be filled with compassion, sympathy, love, and humility, without selfish ambition or conceit. He reminds his listeners that the people gathered around Jesus live in the world differently, fully committed to God’s love, fully confident in God’s love, and so not needing to use energy for winning, or controlling, or having our own way.
Most often we want to believe that God’s people always have on their mind the will of God for the well-being of the world. But the Bible knows differently.
The prophet Ezekiel in today’s first reading knows that other stuff enters our minds, and so he scolds by asking, “What could you have been thinking?”
The lines that are left out from Ezekiel are some of the best because the lines left out tell us that the Israelites did not have their minds on God.
Three things we are told were on their minds: 1.) shrewd economic cheating to exploit the poor; 2.) abusive sexual relationships that dishonor others; 3.) idolatry, making things so important in our lives that we worship them.
Basically the prophet is saying what is typically on our minds is how to get ahead with money, how to have our ways with other people, and how to take what we treasure most and make it most important in our lives. That, the prophet says, is a recipe for wickedness.
So Ezekiel says, if that’s what is on your mind, you need to change your mind. Get something else on your mind. Paul invites us into a new mind, to get the important stuff into our heads with the life of God.
The Good News I want you to hear this morning is that in Christ Jesus we are invited to a new engagement with each other and the world.
Once again, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, who poured out his life at the hands of the Nazis because he refused to allow the church to be the tool of oppression, wrote: “The church is the church only when it exists for others. . .it must share in the problems of ordinary human life . . .and never underestimate the importance of human example which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus.”2
Our world is not crying out for more intolerance but rather, for greater mercy and loving-kindness.
I would also want us to hear in this text not only the invitation to like-minded servanthood, but the promise that in God’s time, in God’s reign (which is already here in our midst), there can be and will be (and already is!) a unity of purpose and vision. In that sense, the story of The Giving Tree truly is a parable for all people, for all ages, for all time. Amen.
1. The Giving Tree. Shel Silverstein. 1964. Harper & Row.
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1971). p. 203.