Trinity 3

The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, and spread abroad like a cedar of Lebanon.

Sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Zachary Guiliano

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Just under a mile from here is one of the great treasures of Cambridge, the Botanic Gardens. It gathers into one place the humblest of flora and some of the tallest trees. On more than one occasion, I’ve strolled slowly through its great central avenue, and I remember the feeling of wonder that overcame me the first time I did so five years ago. It was a dry, warm day; the footpath was dusty; I was there with some friends, though I don’t remember precisely who. What I remember vividly was the moment my eye was drawn up: up to the top of one of the tallest, broadest trees in view. I saw then for the first time the cedrus libani, the cedar of Lebanon.

This tree loomed large in the imagination of the Ancient Near Eastern world; many religions believed the gods lived in the great cedar forests of the Lebanese and Turkish mountains. For example, it plays a part in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu go to the mountains to cut down cedars, and after passing over seven mountain ranges, they encounter Humbaba, the guardian of the sanctuary of the gods. After a lengthy battle, Gilgamesh obtains seven “radiances” or glories, which he then distributes to the earth. There was treasure to be found in the garden of the gods, among the cedars of Lebanon.

Hebrew Scripture also regularly evokes the cedar’s height and breadth as an example of vitality, health, beauty, and glory. It was considered a prized wood for building and for carving interiors. David’s palace was made of cedar, and Solomon’s stone temple was paneled inside with wood from the cedars of Lebanon. The book of 1 Kings 6 tells us that this wood was carved with paradisical images: palm trees, open flowers, and cherubim, all covered with gold. In this way, the God of Israel, in his temple in Jerusalem, dwelt like the Sumerian gods in a paradise of cedar.

As time went on, the legendary characteristics of the cedars of Lebanon continued to grow. It became ever more exalted, not less. Various Greek and Roman authors claimed that cedar was an incorruptible wood, impervious to rot and decay, and so it became a symbol of immortality among biblical interpreters in the Middle Ages.

This tree, this wood, the cedar: a material fit for the palace of a king or a God, a material symbolizing vitality, health, beauty, glory, and immortality. In associating all these things with the cedar, it is as if author after author, and religion after religion stopped, as I did that day in the Cambridge botanic gardens, to admire the tree’s great height. In Hebrew and Christian traditions, it became a central image for the prosperity of God’s people, as is reflected in our reading from Ezekiel.

This greatness is what Scripture offers to each one of us. This glory can be ours, corporately and individually. Psalm 92 says:

The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, and spread abroad like a cedar of Lebanon.

Such an offer or promise taps into some of our deepest desires as human beings. We all want to be healthy, happy and live long; we want to grow to our fullest potential, to thrive, to “be all we can be.” This is certainly something our culture grasps after desperately: to be beautiful, to be glorious, to be healthy and young forever.

It is why when you come into church on a Sunday morning, no matter how early you set out, you pass dozens of runners pounding the pavement, giving their bodies over relentlessly, religiously even, to the pursuit of health.

It is why we are always seeking the next medical advance, the next bit of health advice, the next technocratic or technological solution to human suffering. We are striving and seeking for health and life. We want to live; we feel that desire deep in our selves, in our souls, in our very bones.

However, there is a crucial difference between the way many people today strive for excellence and health, and the way that our faith lays out for us. Many think that human flourishing and growth is something that happens from our own striving, that we can seize it, with a little more money, a little more time, a little more knowledge, or a little more effort.

This is not just the impulse of materialists and technocrats. It is a temptation for the religious as well. I was in a conversation with someone on Twitter just this week, who argued that one can only become righteous before God by following the commandments, and giving all one’s possessions to the poor.

Now, I am not saying that either of these two things (pursuing human progress, and striving to live rightly) are bad in and of themselves. I enjoy my iPhone and modern dentistry and medicine as much as anyone, and we have incredible examples of sacrifice in the lives of many saints. But there remains a problem when we think that human flourishing will come about if we simply try a bit harder.

Consider the words of Ezekiel:

Thus says the Lord GOD:
I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out.

I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.

 

On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.

Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches
will nest wingéd creatures of every kind.

 

All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD.
I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.
I the LORD have spoken;
I will accomplish it.

In Ezekiel’s vision, the flourishing of the cedar that the Lord chooses…well, it doesn’t come about because the cedar decided it. It’s not like the tree said in its gnarled, hardened, treelike heart: What do I have to do to live and flourish? How can I throw my roots down and stretch my branches up? No, instead, we hear:

bring low the high tree; I make high the low tree; I dry up the green and make the dry flourish. I the Lord have spoken. I will accomplish it.

God is the key; God is the secret to real human health; God will make you “flourish like a palm tree, and spread abroad like a cedar of Lebanon.” It’s God who will do it; that is the full promise here, not that human beings generally will bud and bring forth shoots and flowers and fruits if they just give it a little more effort, but that God will do it for you, act upon you, move through you.

The Lord of life will do it for you. “How?,” you might ask. He did it first by sending his Son, Jesus Christ. He “broke him off” like a tender twig from the larger tree of Israel; he planted him in the ground on the high hill of Calvary; and there he rested for three days and three nights. Until suddenly, in Christ’s resurrection and ascension and in the coming of the Holy Spirit, he brought forth boughs and bore fruit. He chose his apostles and sent them out to proclaim him in all the world; he became “a noble cedar” in the sight of the nations. God has already done this for you.

And God will act upon you further; indeed, for many of you, he already has. If we have been baptized into Christ Jesus, we have been baptized into his death and his life. Or, as St Paul says in Romans 6:5, using a wonderful arboreal image: “If we have been planted together with him in the likeness of his death, we shall certainly spring up with him.” The Lord Jesus was cast like a seed or sapling into the earth, and we have been cast along with him. Our baptismal faith, strengthened and watered by prayer and the Word and the Sacraments, can cause us too to bear fruit. God will act upon you in the life of the Church.

Such as are planted in the house of the Lord, shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bear fruit in old age. They shall be vigorous, and in full leaf; that they may show that the Lord is true.

Yet, even beyond all this, God can and will move through you to cause life and health to spread throughout the soil of the world. He calls each one of us to be those who sow the Word of God, who scatter the seed of the Kingdom. I know that sounds like a wild or strange task, but just think how small it can be.

Pope Francis recently released a new apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate: On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World. One its best sections is called “The Saints next Door.” He writes:

I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families; in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbours, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence. We might call them “the middle class of holiness.”

He goes on to show how many of the things God calls us to do on a day to day basis can really be very small: one kind word of encouragement to someone who is downcast, one small deed of service at the right time, a little of our money put to charitable use, a short prayer offered for someone in need.

These are the beginnings of holiness, and much of its daily expression even for the great saints. These are the little seeds, the tiniest little seeds, but they can grow and become great. They can make for habits that last a lifetime, like the mustard seed that grows into a sheltering shrub.

The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, and spread abroad like a cedar of Lebanon.

True human greatness is within our grasp, by the grace of God. He acts for us, on us, through us, in baptism, in faith, in the Word and Sacraments, in small deeds and great. And he can make us, together, become like great trees, like a forest of mighty cedars: full of vitality, beauty, and glory in the Spirit – a dwelling fit for a king or even for God.

Last Modified on 17th June 2018
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