Worship Script (2 of 4)
We gather this morning as a people on a journey.
We gather this morning as a people of conviction.
We gather this morning as a people whose hearts
Are alive with a dream of this world transformed
By the power of love.
Let us breathe deeply. Let us rest for this moment.
Let us feel our souls nourished.
And let us sing out.
Because today is the day we move closer
To the dream out before us.
HYMN 12 O Life That Maketh All Things New
“A generous heart is always open, always ready to receive our going and coming. In the midst of such love we need never fear abandonment. This is the most precious gift true love offers - the experience of knowing we always belong.”
The classical medieval text known as “The Letters of Abelard and Heloise” contains these words, spoken by Heloise: “[A]s though mindful of the wife of Lot, who looked back from behind him, thou deliveredst me first to the sacred garments and monastic profession before thou gavest thyself to God. And for that in this one thing thou shouldst have had little trust in me I vehemently grieved and was ashamed. For I (God [knows]) would without hesitation precede or follow thee to the Vulcanian fires according to thy word. For not with me was my heart, but with thee. But now, more than ever, if it be not with thee, it is nowhere. For without thee it cannot anywhere exist.”
HYMN #88 Calm Soul of All Things
STORY FOR ALL AGES
The Story of Ruth and Naomi, from the Book of Ruth
A long, long time ago, there lived a woman named Naomi. Having moved far from home to Moab and lost everything there, including her husband and two sons, Naomi decided it was time to return home to Judah. It must have been heartbreaking for her to start the return journey without those she had come with. But she did have her two young daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. In those days they remained a part of her household, even though their husbands were gone.
Somewhere along the way Naomi must have considered how much the two girls were giving up in leaving what was probably the only home they had ever known. She entreated them to turn back and return to the homes of their mothers. At first both girls resisted, but eventually her persistence persuaded Orpah, and she kissed Naomi and made her way home. But the second daughter-in-law, Ruth, couldn’t be convinced. Her commitment to her mother-in-law was too strong.
Two widows wouldn’t have had an easy life in those days, and they probably experienced hunger and poverty when they came to Judah. But they did have a rich relative, a man named Boaz, and Ruth went to his fields, where the harvest was being taken in, to gather the leftover grain. Boaz noticed her there, and he had already heard of her devotion to and care for Naomi. So he took her under his protection, allowed her to gather from the sheaves, and gave her food to eat. In time Boaz and Ruth were married.
The story says that, because of Ruth’s commitment and love for Naomi, and her refusal to turn back from what she knew was the path she should take, God blessed her tremendously. There was something about the sacrifice of her own self-interest, to care for her mother-in-law, that opened up doorways in her life, and brought her into security like never before.
Spirit of Love, help us soften our gaze
When we find we have been judging others.
Help us learn patience, when we have been impatient.
Help us find the pathways broad enough to travel
With many and diverse companions.
And let our hearts open,
So we can welcome in the whole world.
So may it be.
CANDLES OF JOY AND CONCERN
Those who are so moved are now invited to come forward to light a candle, expressing a joy or concern in their lives. As you do, you may briefly share what it is. We ask that people coming forward speak for no more than a sentence or two, and that they speak from the heart about issues in their lives, rather than political issues, which we can take up at coffee hour or in the parking lot.
The Wisdom of Trees
by Ruth MacKenzie
This month we are taking on the gnarly topic of sacrifice. It is a concept that makes many of us uncomfortable, distrustful, and a little bit surly, and rightly so. The religious tenet of sacrifice has been used to keep women in abusive relationships, created the justification to wipe out whole nations of people, destroyed landscapes in an equation of loss versus gain that usually involves some form of violence or coercion, and is destructive in its nature.
But today I want to start with trees, trees that say over and over again, “How can I give my love away?” Trees that in essence live out love, and might just share some wisdom about how we can reframe and reconsider sacrifice.
In 1997 a young PhD student, Suzanne Simard, went out into her beloved forests of British Columbia, where she had been born and raised and shaped, to conduct an experiment for her doctoral project. She wanted to see how carbon moved from tree to tree. So she set up an experiment in which she planted a Douglas fir and a paper birch next to one another. She labeled the trees with isotopes, or markers. One tree got C14, and the other C13, so she could track what was being exchanged between the trees. She then went on to shade the trees with little tents throughout the multi-year experiment to create different scenarios to which the trees might respond.
In the first year of the experiment, with the trees growing naturally, the Douglas fir and the paper birch did indeed find connection with one another and exchanged nutrients and carbon in this beautiful reciprocity between species. They used the great underground highway which is made up of fungi or mushroom networks and their own root systems in this symbiotic communion.
Now, in the second year she tried something different. She shaded the Douglas fir to different degrees with her tents. The more the fir tree was deprived of light and air, the more stressed out the fir became, and the more nutrients and carbon the birch gave to fir tree.
This was the exact opposite of everything science had said so far, that competition was and is the driving force of nature, that evolution depended on survival of the fittest, and exploitation is baked into our DNA. Instead, Suzanne was coming to understand the deeply cooperative nature of life, that one species would sacrifice for another’s well-being in some kind of great exchange.
She characterizes this pivotal experiment as elementary, in comparison with what we know now, and yet was such an important awakening in forestry and science. She recounts how people threw rotten eggs at her after her paper was published, because it so upended their notion of the order of things.
In those days no one used the word “communicate” when characterizing the relationship between trees in a forest, but that is exactly what’s going on. Scientists are coming to understand what indigenous folks have been saying for a millennium or more: the trees talk.
When you step onto a forest floor there are hundreds of miles of fungal and root networks below your feet, hundreds of miles of communicating software.
● What we call a forest is actually a fraction of what a forest really is. Most of it is below the surface of the ground, far from the human eye.
● Forests have elders, trees who nurture their community of neighbors and young, and provide defense, nutrition, support and structure.
● We know that when a tree is sick or is experiencing some kind of insect infestation, it sends out an alarm message to the other trees around it saying: “Protect yourself, I’m sick.” And they do.
● Trees carry legacy from previous times, that regulate genes for themselves and other neighbors.
● We are coming to understand the incredible give-away that happens at the end of a tree’s life. When a Douglas fir understands that it is dying it sends out a storehouse of chemicals, and dare I say, love, back down into its roots, so that it can donate its riches to the forest for generations to come in a profound last will and testament.
● The forests store massive amounts of carbon and in fact are doing their best to counterbalance the lopsided ratios of greenhouse gases. Scientists are coming to understand that plants and trees are actually stepping up their game in carbon collection, trying to deal with the imbalance they sense in the world.
This is not what I say as a theologian, this is what scientists are discovering about forests, and indigenous peoples have lived and breathed in their cultural and religious patterns since time immemorial.
The forests are telling us something about love, and sacrifice, and this great exchange that is available to us all if we would but root ourselves in the question, “How can I give my love away?”
I once sat with an old priest as I was trying to figure out my path in ministry. We were talking about living life as a sacrament, that is, making my life a visible sign of an invisible spiritual truth, which is the age-old definition of sacrament.
He stopped me mid-sentence and asked: “May I?” My journal was sitting open between us, so I could take notes. He took my pen and drew an infinity sign. And then he said, “Sacrament is more than making the spiritual visible. It is more than giving up or sacrificing in order to be spiritually good. There is something in the giving that increases the gift, and comes back on itself in this experience of receiving, an offering that expands the well-being, the life force in the exchange. It is the exact opposite of coercion, or violence or exploitation. It is a way into unitive living.”
I can’t help but think of the forests as I think about that conversation and the concept, the practice, of sacrifice, which means to make holy, a holy exchange.
Love is many things. It is energizing. It is joyful. It is intimate. It is powerful. It is life changing, and it demands sacrifice. Love has costs—that’s the honest truth of it
I think this is what Jesus was talking about when he was describing the kingdom of heaven, or this idea of right relationship, a network of justice and peace that can emerge in the here and now of human community through love. I imagine him taking us on a walk in a forest, and talking to us today about the trees, who know that you love your neighbor, all the hundred thousand species of your neighbors, as an extension of yourself, and when you do that the community is transformed, and health and wholeness of the forest abounds.
If a sacrifice looks and smells like exploitation, then it’s not sacrifice. It’s just exploitation dressed up in some kind of religious garb to disguise its purpose, and its true meaning.
If we don’t get our heads around sacrifice, I don’t know how we are going to address the huge issues staring us in the face. How are we going to address climate change without coming to grips with love for our planet that costs something?
If we don’t get our heads around sacrifice, I don’t know how we as white people will ever get our heads around reparations, by which I mean, as TaNehisi Coates writes, “our collective biography and its consequences as the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely...more than recompense for past injustices, more than a handout, a payoff, hush money or a reluctant bribe...but a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” Coates is talking about sacrifice, in its true form, an offering that comes back on itself and is experienced as unitive living.
I for one, will go to the forest. I will look for a mother tree, and ask her to teach me. I’ll sit at her feet, and say, “I am open. Would you tell me about the meaning of love, and sacrifice, and the great exchange of which you and I are a part.” And I know she will share her wisdom because trees talk and they know the true meaning of sacrifice.
HYMN #100 I’ve Got Peace Like a River
As we go from this hour,
May we be emboldened
To give ourselves over
To the workings of love
In this world.
Go in peace.