Growing in Faith
Sept. 17, 2017
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
How has your week been? Some might say “Good.” A few “Great!”
Still others might say “it was a hard week; I’m glad it’s over.”
For me, honestly, it has been a hard week. It started out on Monday with taking my son to the ER and ended on Friday with praying with my sister’s mother-in-law on her deathbed. In between I was overwhelmed with images of devastation of Hurricane Harvey and Irma.
While we are all feeling grateful that we still have our homes intact and power on and stores and schools and churches open for business, I know that some weeks feel like a hurricane:
Some of you face winds of change in your life that are strong and seemingly unrelenting.
Some of you are overwhelmed by the rains of despair as you face children’s addictions or parents’ dying or suffering of your own.
Some of you feel like the palm trees that are tossed and turned, feeling like if you have to bear one more thing, you just might break.
God knew there would be weeks like this. And so that’s why God calls us together to read the Word of God and be encouraged and uplifted and reminded of the promises of our faith.
In the Exodus reading, Moses is having one of those weeks, when he feels overwhelmed. His burden is too much to bear and he is at the point of breaking. His father-in-law Jethro comes to see him and says, “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out.” He told him to share the work with the people: “they will bear the burden with you; then you will be able to endure and live in peace.”
Jethro is wise to remind Moses—and all of us—that we cannot bear our burdens alone; they are lighter when shared in the context of a community.
Church is the place we come to get nourished, to be reminded of what is really true, to connect with other people who care about us, to have faith and find joy and share love, to know that we are not alone in the world.
In the midst of the overwhelming images of devastation from the hurricanes, we look for signs of hope. In the midst of mother nature at its worst, we saw human nature at its best.
In Houston, I saw those who volunteered their boats and their time to rescue people from flooded homes—even pets and livestock. In Florida, I saw the story of the nun, dressed in full habit, with chainsaw in hand, cutting down trees to clear the roadways around the high school where she was the principal. Sister Margaret Ann’s “act of kindness” spurred others to pitch in clearing debris, reminding them that they are all part of the same community. Showed us Resilience…inspires us…
In the John reading, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches; abide in me. In me you can bear much fruit, apart from me you are nothing.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to himself in many different ways. “I am the light of the world.” This helps illumine our path and show us the way through the dark. “I am the resurrection and the life.” This gives us hope that death does not have the last word; God does and it is a word of eternal life. “I am the vine and you are the branches.” This is a concrete image of a tree—strong and secure. It is a vine that is connected to the vinegrower, who is God. And it is also a living tree that produces fruit. This vine will live and bear fruit, if it abides in God. It cannot grow on its own; it needs to be connected to the Spirit of Life. Jesus is wise to remind us that we cannot grow and thrive and be healthy alone; we need to be connected to God and to one another.
In the midst of the overwhelming images of Houston, there were signs of hope. One was in the form of a tree.
Christian Cotroneo wrote this article for Mother Nature Network:
Hurricane Harvey first made landfall as a category 4 storm, in the town of Rockport, Texas. Winds of up to 130 mph and more than 40 inches of rain destroyed houses, churches and schools. But a 1,100-year-old oak tree was left standing at Goose Island State Park.
Maybe that's because the Big Tree has been there before. For more than 1,000 years, this mighty oak has held steadfast to its patch of earth.
It's seen fire. It's seen rain. It's likely seen more than a few aspiring lumberjacks. And, according to local lore, it even stood tall in the middle of a Civil War battle.
There was a moment — barely a flicker in this oak's long life — when people thought the Big Tree might need a hand. Back in the summer of 2011, the area was hit by a harsh drought. There were concerns that this living landmark might finally be fading. But the fire department came to the rescue, dousing the tree in 11,000 gallons of water— essentially simulating about a half an inch of rainfall. The parched tree lapped it up and since then, it has been a living symbol of unshakable resolve.
Then Harvey came knocking. And the Big Tree was undaunted — reminding us that not all heroes leap over tall buildings. Some simply stand their ground to inspire.
If the Big Tree's very sight — its massive, sheltering branches and impenetrable trunk — doesn't already inspire us with a sense of perseverance, then there's always the nearby plaque.
It reads: "I am a live oak tree and I am very old ... I can remember hundreds of hurricanes, most I'd rather forget, but I withstood." And Harvey, too, shall pass.
And there's some more good news: After nearly three weeks, the landscape is starting to turn a bit greener as trees begin to grow their leaves back at Goose Island State Park. This story of resilience and rebirth inspires us to stand strong together in the midst of our storms.
That’s why we have a tree in our sanctuary today. It is the Jethro Tree, named after Jethro who reminded Moses and all of us that we cannot bear our burdens alone; they are lighter when shared in the context of a community. It also reminds us that when we abide with Jesus and stay connected with one another, not only are we stronger and more faithful together, but we also bear fruit and do good in sharing God’s love with others.
Today is an opportunity to leaf our Jethro Tree—to put one leaf on with your name, to offer your time or talents to support the ministry of the church. Jethro Tree gives life to the church.
So whatever your week has been like, whatever your life is like right now, know that you are not alone. You are part of a community church, you are part of the body of Christ, you are part of God’s family, you are the tree of life. Together we can endure storms and inspire faith and even change the world for good.