Psalm 113 (all)
Luke 22:19-20; 24-27
Thursday afternoon, I headed east from Enumclaw on Hwy 410. The sky was gray and dark and wet. On both sides of the highway industrial forests spread out in various stages of their life cycles from current harvest to thirty-year-old woods. Snow littered the ground.
Eventually, I reached the national forest. There were fewer clear cuts. Between the cuts, the trees were larger. Still, No individual tree stood out. They were indistinguishable bits in the sea of green.
Just past the Skookum Falls viewpoint. I parked, pulled on my micro spikes and headed up the Palisades Trail. As usual, I had snowshoes strapped on my pack. But if you had been there watching me, you would have noticed an additional odd item strapped on top of my snowshoes. A stool!
About a mile up the trail, I dropped my pack. Set up my stool. Pulled out my stove and heated some water. Then sat down to eat a sandwich, sip my hot water, and keep company with a great tree. The greatest tree in the Dalles Creek valley, maybe the greatest tree in the entire White River drainage.
It is a huge Doug fir. Winter or summer, even when I’m running and trying to make time up the trail, when I come to this tree I stop. I take a moment to pay respect to this great citizen of the green world. It is nearly invisible, standing in a forest of large trees, its top hidden in a jungle of green overhead. It’s trunk is one among thousands in the valley. It is ordinary. Until you stop and pay attention. The more attention you pay, the grander the tree becomes.
How big? Yesterday, I took a tape measure with me. It has a circumference of 21 feet. is 18 feet around. Much bigger than I had previously guessed.
I spent half an hour yesterday in the company of this tree, letting its greatness touch me, inspire me, awe me.
I let words run through my mind. Dignity. Longevity. Immense. Magnificent. Huge. Wondrous. Elegant. Quiet. Enduring. Alive.
I gave the tree my full attention, letting my eyes and mind drink in its grandeur. I traced furrows in the bark, noting their patterns. I drank in the color changes up and down and across the trunk. I used my imagination to climb higher in the tree, above where the trunk was obscured by the green, feathery canopy. In short, I practiced contemplation. Sitting on my stool, I quieted my soul and kept company with this truly great tree. I gave it intense, persistent, respectful, affectionate attention.
I contemplated its patience and endurance. Its dignity and strength. It’s grandeur and beauty.
The tree’s greatness is stealthy. I have passed it dozens of times. I’ve stopped and touched it. Paused and admired it. But yesterday I went further. I climbed the slope behind it and found places where I could see its entire height. I watched its perfect trunk climb skyward, tapering slowly. As I studied it from this distance, I could see that even among its large neighbors, this tree was unique.
I imagined having a conversation with a younger Doug fir in the forest: “Young tree, if you are looking for a model for your future, be like that tree. If you dream of being a truly great Doug fir, practice living like that one.”
But enough about trees. Let’s talk about people.
A week ago I spent half an hour in the presence of a truly great person. We were standing in someone else’s kitchen chitchatting and I asked about her work. Not the work she gets paid for. I already knew about her career. I asked about her other job. Being a mother.
The longer we talked the larger she grew.
I thought of all the times I walked past that Doug fir, never realizing how truly great it was until I stopped to measure it, spent time sitting beside it in contemplation, climbing the slope to survey it from different angles.
As I listened to this mother, with every paragraph she became greater and greater and greater. Yes, she benefited from the assistance of professionals. But at nearly every step, she had to fight for that help. She had to fight entire systems to get the help her child needs.
It was not the first time I’ve been in the presence of human greatness. A geologist friend in Colorado has cared for his son for fifty, going on sixty years now. A carpenter friend here in Washington, shaped his entire life for more than two decades around the needs of his daughters. And mothers. I cannot count the mothers I know who have loved and served and cared and hoped and fought for years and decades. With no applause. No acclaim. No obvious reward.
At some point in our conversation last week, I said to the mother, “I could never be a mother.” I was struck by her response.
“Yes, you could. You would.”
She was dismissing her heroic service as the natural, instinctual goodness that God has planted in the human heart. If your children have special needs, you become a special provider. That’s the way God has made people.
And the reason God made people that way is because that’s how God is. That’s who God is.
When we enter the kind of service good mothers give, we are entering most deeply into greatness—human greatness and divine greatness. At least that’s the way Jesus saw it.
Jesus took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this to remember me.” After supper he took another cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people–an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you. . . .
Then they began to argue among themselves about who would be the greatest among them.
Jesus told them, “In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they call themselves ‘friends of the people.’ But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves. Luke 22:19-27
Great people serve. Great people take care of others.
Where did Jesus get this idea? Did it originate with him? Was this a brand new idea that Jesus invented? No. Jesus’ idea that serving others is the highest mark of human goodness came from his vision of God—a vision rooted in the words of the Old Testament prophets and in the actual care Jesus received from Joseph.
The great tree that Jesus sat under, the tree that provided the inspiration for his magnificent moral vision was the magnificent tree of divine goodness.
In Matthew 5, Jesus noted that God sends rain to good people and to bad people, to the just and the unjust. The gifts of seasons are not pulled from heaven by worthy people, they are poured from heaven by our generous God.
In Matthew 6, Jesus pictured God as an attentive parent who is aware of children’s needs before the kids themselves are.
In Matthew 7, Jesus insisted that the goodness and generosity of ordinary, decent parents is a pointer toward the profound goodness and generosity of God.
These presentations by Jesus are an echo of the Hebrew prophets. Throughout the Old Testament, over and over and over, the prophets picture God as the champion of the poor, the friend of widows and orphans. God’s greatness is explicitly described as his character of providing for poor people and animals. God is not pictured as the friend of the rich. Not because the rich are bad or because God doesn’t like rich people. There are plenty of good rich people in the Bible. But God does not go out of his way to announce his friendship for the rich because they do not have such an intense need his friendship. They’re doing all right. Life is going well for them.
Like a good mother, God gives special attention to the children who need special care. So the poor, the falsely accused, the sick, the people who can’t afford a lawyer, the people who cannot buy a place at the table—these are the people specially befriended by God. At least, that’s what the prophets say.
Over and over and over again.
One of the most important functions of religion is to help us pause in the race of life and pay attention to authentic greatness, especially the most magnificent greatness of all—the greatness of God.
Church is like a stool set on the trail beside the greatest Doug fir inviting passersby to pause, to stop, and spend some sweet moments in contemplation of true greatness, divine greatness.
This is why we come together in worship. Here we spend time in contemplation of the character of God. We give close, sustained, communal attention to the mightiest tree in the universe. We worship the God who sends rain on the just and the unjust. We worship a God who delights far more in reconciliation than in vengeance, a God who prefers mercy to punishment, a God who finds ways to save sinners, and restore the fallen.
Here in worship we delight in the truth of the beautiful God, the true measure of what is great.