“Once there was a tree…. and she loved a little boy. And everyday the boy would come and he would gather her leaves and make them into crowns and play king of the forest. He would climb up her trunk and swing from her branches and eat apples. And they would play hide-and-go-seek. And when he was tired, he would sleep in her shade. And the boy loved the tree…. very much. And the tree was happy.
I’ll return to the tree and the boy shortly.
In our Gospel, Jesus uses short, provocative stories. In using these stories, Jesus recognizes the importance of the imagination. In fact, we’ll be using our own imagination as we hear the story of the giving tree and the little boy in these next moments. In our readings since Pentecost, we hear in our Gospel texts that Jesus flips the script and offer new perspectives to traditional Jewish teachings. Jesus stimulates his audience’s imagination so that they might perceive the power and presence of God in a new and immediate way. In the planting and mustard seed parables we hear from Jesus this morning, Mark is asking us not to close our imaginations too quickly, because there is a dynamic, vital power that is mysteriously beyond our comprehension.
But there’s a small element that we could easily overlook. Jesus spoke the word only in parables to the crowd but talked further and perhaps more straightforward to his disciples. A possible interpretation is that Jesus is looking for hungry souls, those longing for the bread of life, those for whom the world’s answers are not adequate. But if we were tempted to think that the disciples received an inside track that saved them from the pain and confusion of the gospel, the swift response extinguishes that notion. As soon as we learn that everything is explained in private to the disciples, we learn just how impactful those private lessons were! And then, there they are on a boat, and a huge storm comes up. And they are terrified. On the verge of downing, they wake up Jesus. He cannot understand why they were afraid. “Have you no faith?!” To Jesus, their fear is incomprehensible; to them, Jesus’ calm is incomprehensible.
And right then we realize the humanity of the disciples in their real-life walk with Jesus in contrast to our own as we hobble and wander the path of life. What we begin to understand, as theologian James Dunn notes, that being in Christ is not any kind of mystical removal from the real, everyday world. As a matter of fact, it becomes the starting point and base camp for a differently motivated and directed life. In Paul’s mind our faith in Jesus does not inoculate us against the reality of hardship, but reframes our life with Christ at the center — the Christ who suffered on our behalf.
Back to the tree and the boy. But time went by. And the boy grew older. And the tree was often alone. Then one day the boy came to the tree and the tree said, “Come, Boy, come and climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and eat apples and play in my shade and be happy.” “I am too big to climb and play” said the boy. “I want to buy things and have fun. I want some money?” “I’m sorry,” said the tree, “but I have no money. I have only leaves and apples. Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in the city. Then you will have money and you will be happy.” And so the boy climbed up the tree and gathered her apples and carried them away. And the tree was happy.
14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart said, “The spiritual life is not a process of addition, but rather of subtraction.” In the face of all of our trials and tribulations Paul reminds us transformation is possible when we invite Christ into our lives and enable him to make us a new creation from the inside out, subtracting our anxieties, doubts, and fears.
But the boy stayed away for a long time….
and the tree was sad. And then one day the boy came back and the tree shook with joy and she said, “Come, Boy, climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and be happy.” “I am too busy to climb trees,” said the boy. “I want a house to keep me warm,” he said. “I want a wife and I want children, and so I need a house. Can you give me a house?” ” I have no house,” said the tree. “The forest is my house, but you may cut off my branches and build a house. Then you will be happy.” And so the boy cut off her branches and carried them away to build his house. And the tree was happy.
For Paul, the ongoing process of hardship and suffering has its resolution in the transformation or new creation. The remade creation is the image for a community of people transformed in Christ. Their relationships with one another in the community of Christ’s body are reshaped toward mutual concern, grounded in confidence in God. As the argument continues, the transformation of relationships in the new creation will be described with another word, “reconciliation,” with one another and with God.
And at the end of our passage from Corinthians, we see that familiar yet still significant story of God’s reconciling work in Christ. God reconciling the world to himself, God in Christ, God entrusting us with the ministry of reconciliation, God making us ambassadors of reconciliation — and so Pauls bids you to be reconciled. Mark tells the story of Jesus’ rhetorical teachings reminding us that even his disciples struggled to be reconciled with the truth of the Word. Paul’s epistle here reminds us to regard no one from a human point of view; through Christ, we are no longer what we were and are being made new. Paul acknowledges that we will struggle and there will be those who question, but he also encourages that when we struggle, when we are stripped of our old self, that we will be closer to Christ.
And after a long time the boy came back again. “I am sorry, Boy,” said the tree,” but I have nothing left to give you – My apples are gone.” “My teeth are too weak for apples,” said the boy. “My branches are gone,” said the tree. ” You cannot swing on them – “. “I am too old to swing on branches,” said the boy. “My trunk is gone, ” said the tree. “You cannot climb – ” “I am too tired to climb” said the boy. “I am sorry,” sighed the tree. “I wish that I could give you something….but I have nothing left. I am just an old stump. I am sorry….” “I don’t need very much now,” said the boy. “just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired.” “Well,” said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could, “well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.” And the boy did. And the tree was happy.
*The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.