“Be Like a Tree”
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Acts 17: 1-19
17 When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2 As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. 4 Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.
5 But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. 6 But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, 7 and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” 8 When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. 9 Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.
2 Thessalonians 1: 1-10
1 Paul, Silas and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: 2 Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters,and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.
5 All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. 6 God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7 and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. 8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might 10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.
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This first reading in Acts, the conflict between the emperor’s decrees and the message of Christ, sound so similar to what is going on right now in the different governmental arenas. Almost at every level, what seems to be at the forefront is the various contradictory understandings of power, authority and control. Executive, state, city, municipal and local orders and ordinances many seem to be in conflict with one another…who rules over whom?
And then just this last week even a church is getting involved in the legal arguments about our rights stated in the First Amendment. The amendment that protects several basic freedoms in the United States: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to assemble, and the right to petition the government. Because of religious beliefs that have been compromised at different points in history. A clause was added to the First Amendment titled, “Separation of church and state.” The beginning seeds to this clause came from Thomas Jefferson in 1802 from a letter he wrote. Hear parts of his letter with edits, (please note it is not gender neutral) “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship…I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. It is a little difficult to understand but put more concisely this clause reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” So this does help us understand the basis of churches suing our government and I am not going to debate the perspective of this church this morning but I want to assure you that together, we are worshipping right here and right now, and nothing, nothing can prevent or separate us from engaging in God’s very presence that we know becomes active through the Holy Spirit.
Now interestingly enough, it sounds like the city of Thessalonica is dealing with what seems like legal religious issues too! There is a tension around power and authority between the Roman Emperor, the one they call their King and his laws and judgements, opposed to the message of Christ, the One who is King of the disciples, and our King too! They are preaching Christ’s message of peace and love, a kind of authority enacted in a different way, I would say. Some people were so threatened by the disciple’s message that they formed a mob causing an uproar! Think what kind of picture this paints; aggression, violence, most likely fear, all part of the ethos of those threatened the word of God!
In contrast to this aggression and belligerence described in the Acts passage about those following the Roman rule, Paul paints a totally different picture of the believers in 1 Thessalonians. He says this about them, “And you became imitators of us (disciples) and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers …Paul also said they welcomed others and turned to God.” I don’t want you to miss what Paul is telling these faithful people. They were imitators, filled with joy and became an examples for others. The question for us this morning is “How do we become imitators, joy filled, and an example of our faith in Christ if spite of the naysayers, spreading fear and worry?”
I think we need to become like trees! Yes, you heard me right, I think we need to become like trees!!! I can see you looking at me now with puzzling eyes, perhaps thinking that my mental state is questionable right now. No worries my friends, I just happened to read a lecture given by Kristen Deede Johnson, a Professor of Theology and Christian Formation at Western Theological Seminary. Johnson said this “Followers of Jesus should be like trees.” You who know me, know my love of nature and so this statement caught my eye and the more I thought about it the more I think Dr. Johnson has something to say about the way we are to live our lives as Christians.
She says this about trees; trees are humble. They are quietly there in the midst of other living things. They provide beauty, shade, fruit, and habitation for wildlife. They contribute to the world’s common good!
Most spectacularly, they breathe in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Trees don’t only offer life-giving oxygen to just fellow trees. The oak tree doesn’t say, I’m only going to do good for other oak trees. No, trees actually make everything around them a better place. Trees, in other words, provide a gift. It’s not for their own benefit, but for the sustenance of the world’s ecosystems. Can you see now the connection of trees to Christians lives? Kristen has a vision for the way we should be living. We are a people of God, invited into God’s family, rooted in Christ, reconciled to God, connected to one another for the sake of the life of the world to offer oxygen, life, beauty and goodness to the world.”
Paul lifted up those who were imitators of Christ. And Paul also knew the weight of the rules, laws and the drive for power and authority was heavy on their hearts and lead to violence, and persecution of many of those early believers. And Paul also knew that even in the midst of conflict, and abuse God’s plan prevailed. For because of the imitators, faith in God become known throughout the land.
I agree with Kristen, we need to be more like trees, offer oxygen when a person has lost the air they need to live, offer life that our very faith gives us to share, offer beauty through eyes that can capture the world with a vision of hope and renewal and offer goodness by providing for the needs of those who have less. We too can be imitators of Christ’s love and maybe it all starts with trying to be like a tree!