Sermon: An Oak, a Fig Tree, and a Burning Bush

oakBy Lydia Wylie-Kellermann, homily at Day House Catholic Worker on March 24, 2019

Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15
Luke 13:1-9

It took me a while to get my hands deep enough into this Gospel to feel the unsettling force. At first, the reading seemed simple. The disciples ask Jesus about current events in their time, about people who had been killed, and asked if it was their own fault. Jesus declares with clarity, “NO! But if you don’t turn away from sin, it will happen to you.” This logic didn’t seem quite right to me.

Reading the text within a circle of community earlier this week, allowed the current events of Jesus’ time to morph into our own.

What does it mean that Pilate mixed people’s blood with their own sacrifices? It sounds like Pilate murdered people while they were at prayer. How could we not hear that in light of the shootings in New Zealand while Muslims were at prayer. They died at the hands of violence, hate, and spreading white supremacy.

And then there are the people killed by a falling building? Perhaps this rings of deaths in our own moment by buildings brought down by climate catastrophy- flooding in Nebraska and cyclones in Africa.

I don’t know the historical context of the moments Jesus is speaking about in the Gospel, but if these whisper to the stories in our own context, it changes the questions.

Those who were killed in Christchurch or in floods and cyclones, it was absolutely not their fault!

But if we do not change. If we do not find a way to turn away from growing white supremacy and change the effects of climate change, then we are all going the same way. It is our sin (collective and systemic) that will be the cause of our own perishing.

Since, the youth climate marches around the world, I’ve been haunted by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s words:

“Adults keep saying “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act…I want you to act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.”

Our house is on fire. Change or we shall die.

Which leads to Jesus’ parable.

The owner comes to the vineyard and tells the vine dresser to cut down the fig tree because it has not offered fruit for three years. The vinedresser says “let me fertilize it and give it one more year. If it doesn’t bear fruit, then cut it down.”

I think the traditional reading is clear- turn away from sin, bear fruit or die.

If we do look at ourselves as the fig tree, it becomes the question of our own capacity for change. We require nourishment at our roots, but we can change. What do we need to change? What support do we require? And then there is the haunting question in this context of “If I had one year, what could I do?”

With white supremacy spreading like wild fire and dire climate reports, that question begins to feel not so untrue.

But there is another way of reading the parable.

The owner only values a tree for what it can produce, what money it can make him.

The vinedresser is the one who lives closer to the earth and defends the fig tree. He buys the tree time against the money-making owner. He cares for the tree.

In some translations it says that the owner asks the vinedresser to cut down the tree. He begs another year and says if it still does not bear fruit YOU cut it down. He throws a wrench in the economic system forcing the owner to do the exploitation himself.

In the first reading, we are confronted with another growing plant. One who does not seem to bear fruit or have any economic value, but becomes the conduit for the voice of God.

When Moses sees the burning bush, God’s first words are “Don’t come any closer. Take off your sandals. The ground where you stand is holy.”

This past February, I spent a week at the Bartimaeus Institute in California which was focused on Indigenous Justice and Christian Faith: Land, Law, Language.

We ended with a Eucharist led by Indigenous elders Randy and Edith Woodley. It was outside under the sun. We stood in a circle. Were cleansed with native sage. Then we went to the center of the circle where indigenous elders marked the four direction and the ground held the elements: Bread and water (reminding us of the sacredness of water).

But before we went outside for prayer, we were asked to take off our shoes because we were on holy ground. It is amazing how a small thing can feel so uncomfortable, vulnerable and intimate for a group of 100 mostly white folks. But what a different posture to step onto the ground with our bare feet and receive communion.

We stand on holy ground here in this room.

As I was reminded of Edith and Randy and that moment, it changed how I heard God’s next words.

First God hears the cry of the enslaved and begins work in partnership with Moses for the work of liberation.

But then God says “I will bring my people out of Egypt into a country where there is good land, rich with milk and honey. I will give them the land where Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites now live.”

This is the colonial script. These are the words used time and again for violently removing people from their land all with the illusion and authority that God ordained it.

In the fifteenth century, the political and religious dominion of church and empire took root within the Doctrine of Discovery which was used in the conquering of land and massacring of Indigenous people in this land. This religious document which gave European conquerors divine title over “discovered” land and peoples was written into our own law through the Supreme Court.

I hear Canadians wrestling with this history and beginning conversations around truth and reconciliation. I hear very little of that here in the US.

Edith’s father was violently stolen from his family and put into a boarding school where his culture, his language, and his history were erased through abuse. This was systemic across the country, but we don’t hear about it.

On facebook, I saw Randy post news about the children at the border separated from their families. He said  ‘this is unconscionable, but is not a new tactic for this country. We’ve been doing this for generations.’

The myth still rings that God has blessed us with land and wealth all the fruit that borne from exploitation.

Randy wrote a children’s book called “The Harmony Tree: A Story of Healing and Community.”

It has been a burning bush for me to hear God’s voice and move towards liberation.

It has been a parable about a tree that says that when the tree has not produced fruit, it because it has been hurt and exploited.

If I had time, I would read the whole book. But it is the story of a grandmother oak tree who lives in a beautiful forest filled with animals and trees. Slowly, all trees are cut down and only she remains. She drops acorns each year, but the seedlings are cut down and taken away. So, eventually she stops dropping her seeds.

One days brand new trees are planted around her as part of a subdivision. They have short roots and keep cracking and falling in the storms. At last, Grandmother oak breaks her long silence and says:

“Friends, you need deeper roots to be strong.”

“Deeper roots?” asked one of the young trees, ‘how do we get deeper roots?

Grandmother Oak answered, “Tell me the stories that connect you to this land”

….None had stories that went far, far into this ground. None of them had stories of how land came to be, stories that told the power of this place, stories of how the Creator was behind and inside it all.

“Grandmother Oak, do you know the stories of this land? Can you tell us what makes your roots so strong?”

Grandmother Oak begins to tell her stories and by the end, she drops a single acorn.

It is time for us to take our sandals off and remember that we are on holy ground.
It is time to listen to the oak tree, the bushes, and the fig tree.
It is time to grow deeper roots,
to learn the stories of this place,
And the Creator alive in it.

And then work with all our power to stop the spread of white supremacy and climate catastrophe.

To change our lives before we all perish.

And hope that in doing so it allows the fig tree to bear fruit and grandmother oak to drop acorns once more.

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