Sermon at Northern California's Diocesan Convention in Redding, CA
Have you ever thought about what it would like to be a plant? Consider one of those great redwoods growing just over the mountains west of us. How do they get to be nearly 400 feet tall? The sheer effort thatâs required to pump water from the roots up to the top of a tree like that is just about physically impossible. Those trees can get so big only because theyâve figured out some creative ways to get a little more water, like harvesting the fog that condenses on their branches way up there. The very biggest ones grow by year-round streams in the fog zone.
Other kinds of plants have solved the water problem in equally creative ways. Barrel cactuses can actually expand their tissues, in big pleats, when thereâs water available. Those pleats contract slowly over months and even years between rainstorms, providing a constant supply of water.
Bromeliads can grow high in the air, on the branches of other plants, because they capture water and nutrients in little bowls made of their own leaves. Their roots are pretty much used only to hold them in place on a tree.
Others, like the pitcher plants in a few places over on the coast, have responded to the challenge of growing in swamps, with their feet in places that often lack nutrients, by getting nitrogen from attracting and trapping insects, and slowly digesting them.
Each and every living being has to figure out how to get the stuff of life, in easy circumstances and hard ones. Jeremiah reminds the people of Israel that their life comes from putting down roots close by streams of living water. Itâs an image that Jesus takes up later, telling the woman at the well that he can connect her with that living water.
Thatâs what baptism is all about â getting connected to the water of life. In the early church, and still in some places today, it actually means getting your feet wet, and all the rest of you, being drowned in that living water. I have a good friend who tells of her own baptism at age 9, in a Baptist church. She says that the pastor pushed her down hard into a deep pool of water, and she went down, down, down, until her feet finally touched the bottom and pushed off, desperately seeking air at the top of the pool. Her gasping first breath was a reminder of her need for connection with the source of all life.
You and I are baptized into Jesusâ death, which is what that near-drowning is all about. We are also baptized into his resurrection, that rich and deep breath of life. But we are also baptized into his baptism, which is something we may not think about very often. The water of baptism is a connection with the Jordan River, and Jesusâ own recognition of his connection to the source of living water. When Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavenly voice reminds him, âyou are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased.â Well, my friends, God says the same to each one of us, âyou are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased.â
That is our living water, our connection to the wellspring of love and life. When we know ourselves beloved, we discover that life is not a zero-sum game. Like Jesusâ disciples jockeying for position, we can learn that competition isnât really necessary. Itâs like a sweatshirt I saw in a nursing home years ago. On the front it said, âJesus loves you.â On the back it said, âbut Iâm his favorite.â The reality is that each one of us is Godâs best-beloved, infinitely valued for who we are, and not for what we do or make or earn. In fact, we canât earn that infinitely positive regard. We can only let our roots keep growing deeper into that source of life.
Living beings that have their roots well-supplied with water bear abundant fruit. In the Christian ecosystem fruit looks like service, healing, feeding, and caring for the neighbor who is also Godâs best-beloved. Whatâs the connection between being well-watered and caring for our neighbors?
I read a remarkable little article recently that talked about how altruistic behavior might evolve. Sarah Coakley is a British theologian who thinks about such things, and she points out that the cooperative behavior in less-complex creatures like bacteria is a prelude to the kind of human behavior thatâs usually called sacrificial.
How do we move from competition to cooperation to sacrifice? It happens in creatures that came along before we did â itâs not simply the product of so-called âhigher consciousness.â Even plants like redwoods have evolved in cooperative ways. Those great big trees usually bear other plants, like ferns and even small trees, high in their branches. For a long time people thought they were just parasites, costing the redwoods something but offering nothing in return. It turns out that those epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants) arenât just freeloaders â theyâre providing more surface area to catch fog, and they actually produce nutrients that the redwood can use. Itâs a cooperative system, and each member is significant.
The human challenge is to learn to choose this kind of behavior, the sacrificial or making-holy behavior thatâs involved in loving others. Some people think sacrifice is just giving up goodies so that somebody else can have them all. Godâs economy, the divine ecology, is a whole lot more complex and mysterious than that.
James and John are out to get the seats of honor, competing with the other disciples for the only âgoodiesâ they can think of. Itâs classically competitive behavior: âlet me get mine before anybody else can steal it.â Jesus calls them back to the holy act that seeks the well-being of others in addition to their own â friends of Jesus are here to serve, to offer self on behalf of others. Thatâs what weâre baptized into, thatâs the water we drink in with our roots. And before long we discover that what seems to be giving up actually produces more â we discover our lives by giving them away. That is âholy-making,â which is what sacrifice means.
This is the sacrificial behavior that Jesus models for us. The one who is best-beloved loves others in the way that God loves, seeking the utmost well-being of others, and offering self for others.
Living water makes holy, and actually makes more of us and more life. When our roots extend deep into that source of life, we discover far more abundant life than we could ever have imagined. All around us.
A 14 year old girl in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania started an animal food bank when she realized that many of the people being fed by her churchâs food bank also had pets, and if their human beings were hungry, then the pets likely were as well. Today that animal food bank feeds about 1000 creatures a month.
In Kansas City, the stream that flows through the middle of town shelters lots of homeless people under the bridges that cross it. The big congregation in Mission, Kansas (what a name!) began to take them meals on Thanksgiving and Christmas when the soup kitchens were closed. When they asked these folks with nowhere to lay their heads what they most wanted, the answer came back, âsomeone to pray with us.â Now theyâre working to start a worship service for people who feel uncomfortable inside â they havenât yet found a vacant lot or a park where welcome. I think they will figure out how to convince the mayor he needs to help â they will help him make holy.
The water in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has connected Episcopalians with Sudanese refugees resettled there, people whoâve been Anglicans since they can remember. Together theyâre building schools and churches and digging wells in the villages in Sudan.
In Atlanta, the water is flowing out into an arts program for the mentally disabled, a program which outgrew the local Episcopal church and is now sheltered in a Baptist one. Itâs amazing what that water can do when your roots drink deep. What is that water making holy through you?