June 13: A sign of the times

Rev Neil Whitehouse Sermon
June 13 2015 – Third after Pentecost
A sign of the times

Readings, Ezekiel 17:22-24, Ephesians 3: 16-21, Mark 4: 26-34

We have a sign – a new street sign – to let people know about our worship service. In an age of multi-media communication the choice of the image and the words is important. It is also authentic I believe to the particular features of who we are. These first two points were quite intentional in the decisions we took to make the sign. But now that it is here I realise it has another function to leads us on; ‘this way lies our future’.

I hope you will follow my explanation, and find more in this sign of the times.

Did you notice the common themes in the Bible readings today. They all draw on tree imagery. Nature is important as inspiration.

So Ezekiel takes the image of a cedar tree, several times and we read the final culminating verses. It is a symbol for the whole people of God: In fact the cedar tree has been part of the Hebrew faith long before Ezekiel; it’s mentioned more than 70 times in Old Testament and the branch of the tree often represents the promised Messiah.   So in the verses we read, Ezekiel is giving a tradition a particular tweak: God lies behind the life of the Hebrew people, to destroy freedom when it has become corrupt and to restore it.  The trees are inspiring so it still features today; where? in the national flag of Lebanon since 1943 where it represents hope freedom and memory.

Of course in an agrarian society images of plants and trees are going to be used but there is something deeper at work here, that brings us to the present day, and explains why the one quote from scripture on our sign, from the Ephesians passage we read, uses nature, being ‘rooted and grounded in love’. What is this deeper ‘something’?

Just yesterday I read of research by the University of Melbourne. Quote: the psychological benefits of green roofs to busy office workers may be substantial. In a study published in the journal Environmental Psychology, the University of Melbourne’s Kate Lee and a group of colleagues found that interrupting a tedious, attention-demanding task with a 40-second “microbreak” — in which one simply looks at a computerized image of a green roof — improved focus as well as subsequent performance on the task. The research adds to a growing scientific literature on the health advantages— psychological and otherwise — of being exposed to views of nature in urban settings, for instance through the presence of parks or trees. Research in this area is so far along, in fact, that researchers are considering whether it might be possible to identify the right “dose” of nature that people need to receive in order to actually reap significant health benefits.

So even looking at a green roof on a computer screen helps people to be well. When I have asked congregations a very important question ‘ where do you experience God’ the replies are varied but the most popular is in nature.This deeper something, is that we find Faith in nature, that God is in nature. We have been taught God is in all things, being God, but God is often felt in nature. So it was easy to find this in The Gospel, The Epistle and The Old Testament, as we have read today, because every generation of human beings has found it to be true.

It is true now.

The Creator God is providential we say, using traditional language, but drawing on scientific studies, the Evolutionary story places our very existence upon an extraordinary series of events long, long before us: we have been given life. Another classic teaching comes from John Wesley to talk about ‘Prevenient Grace’ an unmerited free gift of life and love, before we came into being. Wesley uses this to talk about Jesus Christ but when we listen to Jesus we hear him teaching using nature too, sowing seeds, and growing in response to what is given to us. So the experience of Faith in Nature is deeply felt in individuals and widely experienced and in choosing Rooted and Grounded in Love, we identify with this ourselves, and communicate with others that their experience is our experience too.

Did you see the 2010 french Australian film called the Tree, the story of a family who move to a house with a huge tree beside it and the drama that ensues when one of the children find it whispers words from her recently deceased father. Interestingly it is taken from the novel ‘Our Father who are in the tree’. Faith in Nature is on message for common human experience.

Rooted and Grounded in Love, is written to the church in Ephesus as part of a prayer for the church. One commentator observes that this bridges the natural and the human worlds. Roots for plants and Grounded for buildings.   Both are being drawn upon for the sake of human beings to flourish. to know the breadth, length, height and depth of the love of God. Now let me get very specific: the gospel for here and now, in its very title Westmount Park United Church, has plants (Park) and building (Church), and the title is true; we are located on the edge of a magnificent park with a beautiful church building in urban Montreal, so much so, we can forget we are in a large city.   But rooted and grounded in love, also can refer back to the parables Jesus told, you know the parable of the sower, that is told earlier in the same chapter of Mark, and its found in our stained glass windows in Webster hall: we are recipients of seeds being sown, we are in the parable of Jesus, we live it, to realise barren, weedy, hard, and fertile soil within us, within our responses to Jesus. What we read today reminds us of how much we take life for granted in a good way, in a way that gives us security, to act, and then with the second parable of the mustard seed, even if its exaggerated to the point of being untrue from smallest seed to biggest tree, its point is made: a great tree harbours so much. So in addition, to the the longevity of this community, 85 years this year, we have the individual faithfulness of many worshipping in this place: and there is an experience of seeing seeds becoming trees. Of maturing in faith.   The ups and downs, joys and sorrows of life, we witness them in this very place; as individuals and as a community, we have matured, but the life goes beyond us as a church, we literally house many others, bringing life to a whole variety of people.

Yes Rooted and Grounded in Love, is accurate to who we are, its authentic. So the sign is real communication and authentic to us but how is it a way for the future?

When the sign arrived, even though we had carefully chosen the words, the layout, the image, no one knew what it would actually be like to look at: especially how the photo would seem when transferred from computer screen to full scale.

It was a lovely surprise to see the photo come out so full of light and colour. It has helped me to reflect: Look again at the image.

Although the photo shows the beauty of what you can find here in our sanctuary, it also has a movement to the outside.   The light from outside is giving beauty to our church.   That is true for the angels in the photo, for all our stained glass, and of course true for our life as a Christian community too. Our praise, our renewal, our faith, comes from outside, in Nature, in human affairs, we simply give it a focus and deliberate attention for our worship time together on Saturdays. The future for us as a community, our way ahead lies in the relationships we can make beyond ourselves, outside, which have a quality to them, because we have authentic faith that does communicate the Grace of God, before our birth, beside us every step, and ahead of us in Glory.

We are Rooted and Grounded in Love. It’s natural; thanks be to God.