The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Choral Evensong      17th March 2019
Possessing the Tree of LIfe
Ayla Lepine

'People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centred.  Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.  Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.  Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.  Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.  Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.'


This guidance, both spiritual and practical, which inspired no less than Mother Teresa of Calcutta, focuses on God while being attentive to the injured and frail parts of ourselves. What if we are misunderstood, or rejected? Love God anyway. Letting God to look upon us with eyes of love and indeed of merciful judgement, can be a painful experience. It’s painful because in revealing our whole selves to God, we recognise aspects of ourselves that we know we need to work on. Shining a bit of light, even tentatively and with love, into a dark corner of our lives, takes courage.


Both of our readings tonight are focused strongly on shining that light into the darkest of corners, personally and socially. 


Jeremiah proclaims:

'Act with justice and righteousness

do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.

….But your eyes and heart

    are only on your dishonest gain,

for shedding innocent blood,

    and for practising oppression and violence.'


In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus proclaims:

'Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple

…none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.'


What does Jesus mean by ‘give up all your possessions’? These are things – whether objects, ideas, or practices – that get in the way of our relationship with Jesus.


Some obvious possessions (perhaps too obvious) are those ‘treasures on earth’ Jesus talks about elsewhere as contrasted with the ‘treasures of heaven’ – money, cars, clothing, plastic products, reliance on oil, anything that may be acquired out of greed, not need. Anything we get for ourselves because we think it will impress other people or make us feel better about our status. Virtually all of us possess more than we need. We’re all subject to vanity and desires that keep our minds and hearts closed rather than inspiring us to seek the Kingdom of God above anything else. Most of us would benefit our spiritual life and liberate our souls – just a little - by simplifying, and by consuming and buying less stuff. Try to go through a whole day, three days, a week, without buying anything. Impossible, probably. What does that say about our need for things, how we live now, and our desires?


That said, there are other possessions more insidious than these. Addiction is a kind of tragic possession that can create terrible chaos and pain. Fear is a kind of possession – when we let go of our fear, particularly of people who look, behave, or practice their faith differently from us – we are more free to love and to follow Christ. Prejudice, even, is a kind of possession. These are possessions that no one seeks, but that seek us out and claw into us. When Jeremiah tells people to stop oppressing those whom they hate, he accuses the oppressors of harbouring the worst possession of all. Their most treasured possession is their own pride.


When hearts are cold, it may be because prejudice stops people from seeing the face of Jesus in our neighbour. Prejudice and death can, in a sudden burst of horrific terrorist violence, collide to shatter a society and leave its communities shredded with grief. We are praying for the people of Christchurch, for those who commit acts of terror as well as the dead and those who mourn them. We pray an end to prejudice against our Muslim sisters and brothers. We resolve to be a community of mutual respect and mutual love. We can do no less.


Jesus says, together with the prophet Jeremiah, let go of the things that damage individuals and societies. Oppression, rejection, hatred, exclusion. Welcome people who are different because there is, in truth, no ‘us and them’ but one diverse humanity under God. Commit to compassion where meeting hatred with hatred might be a more tempting response. Then God’s light can shine into the darkest of places.


When we cling to the cross, take it into ourselves as the truth of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, what kind of object do we hold onto as the source of our salvation and the turning point for resurrection? The cross is a political tool of shame and torture. The cross is wood and nails, blood and tears. When Jesus takes up the cross, dragging it through the crowded streets into a place of total humiliation, his actions are the ultimate labour of love. How dare the Romans and the Jewish authorities and everyone who misunderstood him and didn’t accept him subject him to this public death? How dare they? We’re right to be angry, but we need to look inside ourselves honestly, too. When people choose to cling to their possessions – prejudice, rejection, fear, greed – there is an invitation again and again towards forgiveness. All God asks is that we see the cross Jesus carries as ours too, and that his body, broken for us, is our only road out of the slum of our own pain. This wood and those nails, the body of Jesus marked with wounded agony, are the Tree of Life.


Here is what St John Chrysostom wrote of the cross 1600 years ago. Let this be our own experience of the cross that liberates us:


'The Tree is my eternal salvation. It is my nourishment and my banquet. Amidst its roots, I cast my own roots deep. Beneath its boughs I grow. Flying from the burning heart, I have set up my tent in its shadow and have found there a resting place, fresh with dew. I flower with its flowers. Its fruits bring perfect joy, fruits which have been preserved for me since time began, fruits which I now freely eat. This tree is food, sweet food, for my hunger and a fountain for my thirst; it is clothing for my nakedness; its leaves are the breath of life. If I fear God, this is my protection; if I stumble, this is my staff; this is the prize for which I fight, the reward of my victory. This is my straight and narrow path; this is Jacob’s ladder, where angels go up and down, and where the Lord himself stands at the top.' 

 

Let us cast our roots deep down into the Tree of Life. There we will find what we need to carry on. Because our most precious possession is the love of Jesus. 


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