Isaiah 55:10—13

John 15:26, 27 

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it… 

I wanted to pick up this week on a theme that we developed from the Isaiah passage last week.   That theme culminates with the image of clapping trees.  We said that the trees reveal something about the community that God is about to create and that the trees in this very field will applaud what the Spirit accomplishes through us.   That’s what we proclaimed at the initial dedication of this property—that the sacrifices and the efforts we make to start this congregation have cosmic implications!  But tonight I’d like to turn from that big picture scenario to the nitty-gritty details.  What does it mean practically (for us) that God’s word will not return empty, but will in fact succeed?    ·        Does it mean that individual people here will go to heaven when they die?·        Does it mean that Latah Valley will become a megachurch with numbers in the thousands?·        Does it mean that we’ll finally have a church building in which our children can be baptized, learn good morals and perhaps get married? At first blush each of these scenarios might seem to be very successful.  But then we have to wonder if that’s really what the prophet intends to describe when God sends out his word like the rain and the snow.   The word, he seems to say, is like weather—weather that eventually produces sustenance—“seed to the sower” and “bread to the eater.”  But, of course, that’s not all that weather does…  Hurricane Katrina is a case in point.  Weather can devastate us.  Weather can tear us to pieces and leave us strewn about the countryside. Robert Frost has this interesting poem, called Tree At My Window.  One stanza of it reads like this: But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,And if you have seen me when I slept,You have seen me when I was taken and sweptAnd all but lost. I really appreciate this piece of literature because it reminds me of the way many people experience their private lives.   Think about it.  Like the tree which is subject to what Frost calls “outer weather,” we are “taken and swept/ And all but lost” by “inner weather.”  And that kind of weather can devastate us. The story goes that Martin Luther had once been caught in a terrible thunderstorm.   All around him were violent lightening strikes.  The wind howled.  The rain pierced the skin of his face like pellets until finally in utter desperation, Luther shouts that he will become a monk.  It seems, of course, very superstitious and silly for him to make that decision based upon the weather, but maybe something had been brewing inside of him for quite some time.    That may be what’s happening with you and with me right now.   The Spirit of God, like the wind, blows memories, hurts and hopes to the front of our minds, but still we don’t actually do anything or say anything… until that same Spirit uproots something or obliterates something in the world around us.   I don’t know how many people have told me that they are thinking about Latah Valley, that they are curious, that they’re waiting and wondering about how God might want them to be involved…  We have a good many folks in that category, and I thank God for that.   But do you know how we will gauge the success of the word that God sends out like the rain and the snow?   It will be when something shifts and moves and changes beyond our private thoughts.   The word will be successfully sent when people like us experience genuine transformation inside and outside, when we try something we’ve never tried before in Christ’s name, when we risk a relationship that previously had seemed too scary…   At our previous church, a young woman had an experience with God around the events of 9/11.   She was having a drink at a bar in the middle of the day, and she and her alcoholic friends were talking about the end of the world and Bible prophecies.   She suddenly got up and went home and prayed, God, if you’re real, please show me.   That night she had the physical sensation of being lifted out of her own skin and then dropped back into the world in a new way.   She had heard about Crossroads, but now actually made the effort to come to worship.  She immediately rearranged her schedule to learn about prayer and Bible study and then she decided to respond to God when we announced a mission trip to North Carolina.   Cynthia made that trip with her son, her daughter and her husband, and upon entering the dorm room, where they would spend their vacation week, waking up at six in the morning and working on Habitat Houses all day—when she entered that room, with the overflowing toilets and the smelly kitchenette, she broke down in tears.  She described it as this incredible feeling—nothing like being drunk or intoxicated, but full, full of wonder and gratitude. …So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it…  Of course, predicting the future is a lot like predicting the weather.   We can’t say exactly what storms we’ll face in the days ahead.  But from this simple phrase from Isaiah, we understand that God is sending, sending, sending.   Have you been sent?   Amen.

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Read Isaiah 55:10–13

All the trees of the field will clap their hands…

Of course, we aren’t so naive as to think that trees have hands.  Nor are we narcissistic enough to suppose that (if they could) the trees would want to applaud anything that we do.  Literally speaking, a tree is a tree.  Trees are nice to look at, good for shade.   Ecologist will tell you that trees actually absorb carbon dioxide and give out oxygen and that too is good.  But in this passage from Isaiah, trees aren’t just good aesthetically, ornamentally or even scientifically.  Trees are good for us APOCALYPTICALLY.   Apocalyptic refers to revelation, God’s revealing or unveiling of the truth.   And all of this is to say that trees are good figuratively, metaphorically, imaginatively.   Trees are like people in the text, but in the prophet’s words, they are like people who will erupt in joy because of what God is going to accomplish through… through us!

The reverse of what Isaiah says might sound like Psalm 1:  “They are like trees planted by streams of water…”  In this verse, it is the people who are compared to the roots, to the trunks, to the branches and to the leaves of a very plush canopy.   And I guess I’m simply wondering tonight how you feel being part of this comparison either way.  

When the Bible describes your life and my life as if you and I were ponderosa pines, are we happy about that connection?   When we read about the cypress and the myrtle, and presumably the maple and the birch trees, bursting in to applause, is that so much non-sense?  Or does it resonate with something deep inside?

I love that scene in the movie, Castaway, in which Tom Hanks plays this guy who has been marooned on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean.   It’s night and in the thick darkness, he hears these thumps over and over again.  “Who’s that?” he shouts to the wind.  The next morning we learn it’s the sound of the coconuts falling from the trees, and that makes total sense.  But let’s return to that question–the question of that isolated and cut-off individual.   It’s the question that he broadcasts to no one in particular in the dead of the night.  Have you ever asked a question like that when faced with the mysterious presence of a tree?   Who is that?

You’ve probably heard that famous philosophical dilemma:  If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?   Some answer yes and other say no, but this passage from Isaiah might frame the scenario differently:  If the trees in the field are about to clap their hands, are you prepared to join them?   Are you prepared to give those trees a reason to clap?

Think for a moment about Romans 8, where it says “all of creation groans in labor pains until now, waiting on the revealing of th children of God”–and maybe that’s the reason these trees are going to applaud.

God is about the business of rooting us–of creating communities of trees and people and all of creation.  That’s what Latah Valley is about.   We’re talking about isolated and marooned individuals–rootless people–who are about to discover their roots in the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  

And, “all the trees of the field”–perhaps this very field–“will clap their hands…”

A few weeks ago, I sat outside at Comstock Park, listening to the Spokane Symphony play their Labor Day concert.  One of the compositions they performed included the traditional melodies for the Army, the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines.  It was a very energetic montage of music, and as the orchestra explored the various themes, members of each branch of the service were invited to stand.  Moreover, as these aging men and women stood up, some on wobbly legs, the rest of us clapped our hands with fantastic abandon!

We clapped our hands, not simply to be nice, but to express our deep appreciation for the sacrifices they’ve been called upon to make…   And so, I’m wondering about these trees.   Are they about to clap for us, for the sacrifices we’re about to make in starting this new congregation?  Are they about to applaud us for the battles that we’ll fight in the name of Christ?

Let me suggest to you one very, very likely possibility.   God has planted something here in this place, in this specific, beautiful and breezy place.   That something includes the trees of the field… and the community of men, women and children who will sink their roots here.   Amen.

To Wallace Stevens With Love

September 10, 2007

In 1923 poet Wallace Stevens published Sunday Morning.  You may read it in its entirety here:

http://www.web-books.com/classics/Poetry/Anthology/Stevens_W/Sunday.htm.

Anyway, what’s remarkable about the verse is the way that it captures the impending spirit of North America.   Think about what the culture likes to do on the typical Sunday morning and you will sense how insightful Stevens had been in his depiction:

She dreams a little, and she feels the dark/ Encroachment of that old catastrophe…

Yes, we can see it.   An affluent woman is sipping coffee in the suburbs.   For good measure, she also has fresh oranges and an exotic bird at her disposal.   Intruding upon this sunny solitude is the story of Christ’s crucifixion, what Stevens calls “that old catastrophe.”  

This intrusion then leads to this commentary: 

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?/What is divinity if it can come/Only in silent shadows and in dreams?/ Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,/ In pungent fruit and bright green wings, or else/ In any balm or beauty of the earth,/ Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?

This poetic text allows us a glimpse into the mind, not only of the affluent woman, but of countless men, women and children, who on a Sunday morning contrast sensual beauty with the esoteric stuff of faith…   My argument focuses squarely on the contrast.  I don’t believe there is a contrast.  I believe that God loves sensual things that chill our spines and caress our eyes just as much as God invites us to hope for glory beyond those tangible experiences.  

Stevens writes, in the early twenties, for generations of people yet to be born.  He writes in sympathy for them in the face of an institutional church that would want to espouse God and the Bible and the Sacraments without feeling the passion of personal experience.   I challenge that juxtaposition.  As God is depicted in the Holy Scriptures and evoked in the chalice and the baptismal font–human beings sweat, bleed and yes, doubt.   We doubt with bells on.  We doubt and wonder about the clownish pageantry of Christian worship and service.   Is it all a facade?  Or, like Jacob of Genesis 32, do we genuinely wrestle with a wildly tenacious angel of God?   And, are we (so created) equally tenacious?

Sunday morning is awesome.  Beyond the poem of Wallace Stevens, the sheer rhythm of the day eases me into the writing and the speaking of my own words.   These words are not to be kept to myself.   I long to share them, encounters with sun and moon and stars, with coffee!  With ripe oranges!   All this and more I count as gift–as grace!   And then I go on, seeking a story, a compelling narrative which might make sense of that grace!  I don’t presume or pretend to know the full story.   But somehow Christ comes near and when I’m among the messy people at church–ugh–ahh–ooh–eeck–that Christ keeps telling me a riveting, comic, tragic, romantic tale…

Wallace Stevens–do you want in?

LABOR DAY MUSIC

September 6, 2007

I’m about ready to attend a concert in Comstock Park, where the Spokane Symphony Orchestra plays every Labor Day.  We’re going with the Mimms family who invited us over for dinner and then onto the park…

Anyway, with the invitation came this odd memory:  in 1991, just prior to our departure from Spokane for Ohio, where I served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Ada, Sheryl and I lounged on the plush grass at the same concert.   Of course, it wasn’t exactly the same.  I weighed a lot less and we didn’t have our children, Ian and Philip.  Moreover, that event (sixteen years ago) struck a unique chord.   Listening to the live music–whether it’s classical or rock ‘n rock–makes me wonder about NOW.  

conductor_small.jpg

Music, you see, occurs in the moment.   Unlike the notes, written on the pages, and unlike the lyrics to songs that we know so well, the sheer vibration of sound happens and cannot be exactly duplicated years hence.  

In this sense, of course, we might say that music marks an intersection with eternity or God’s transcendance.   C.S. Lewis once wrote that the only point in time which intersects with eternity is NOW.  Stuck in days, weeks, months and years as we are–it’s impossible for us to truly rise above the fray and get a glimpse of the whole story.   Yet, on Labor Day, every once in a while, the artist or the composer takes us on a journey. 

Listen up!