The Tree By The Side Of The Road

Here are the thoughts that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 1st Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2003. The scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16, 1 Thessalonians 3: 9 – 13, and Luke 21: 25 – 36.


It has often been said that you know you are really in a rural part of this country if the directions given you so that you may find a particular person’s house or business includes trees, rocks, or old buildings. And invariably the tree, rock, or building that is a reference also includes the conditional phrase that "at least it used to be there."

We look for signs to help in our journeys, both through time and distance. A lot of times, we make reference to those signs. Understanding the signs is often the problem.

When I first moved to New York back in 1999 and was driving up I-84 through Pennsylvania, I kept thinking that the trip was shorter than it really was. You see the exits off Interstate highways in most of the mid-western states are numbered according to the mile marker closest to the exit. So if you are looking for exit 334 and you pass mile markers 330 and 331, then you know you are headed in the right direction and have only three miles to go. But if you are looking for exit 334 and the order of mile markers that you pass is 331 and then 330, you know you are going in the wrong direction.

In Pennsylvania back in 1999 and even today in New York, the exits are numerical but not related to the mile makers. I noticed last spring as we drove through Pennsylvania that they were in the process of changing the exit numbers to match the mile markers. But in 1999, as I drove north, I kept wondering how far I actually had to go because my knowledge of the mile marking system was not helping me with the signs that I was seeing.

It is not just on the highway that we look for signs. We use the Dow Jones and NASDAQ summaries as an indication of our economy (even if it is not always accurate). The temperature outside on a particular day of the year is, or should be, an indication of what the weather will be. The Farmer’s Almanac is full of the signs that we use to predict what the weather will be like many months in advance.

It is not just in our secular, daily living that we look for and seek signs. Many people use the number of people who attend a church on any given Sunday as an indicator of a church’s vitality. Somewhere in the vast reaches of my memory is a statement that a church can begin a second service when its sanctuary is 70% filled.

I cannot say what the other Annual Conferences of the United Methodist Church do but in the New York Annual Conference the measure of a church’s vitality is in how it meets its annual apportionments and its mission activities. Our Annual Conference has already given a sign that it considers a church in trouble if it cannot meet its annual apportionments. It is going to be interesting to see what will happen when a particular congregation falls behind in its missionary obligations and is faced with the rather draconian measures imposed by the Conference. It will also be interesting to see what happens with those congregations who feel that their apportionments are too high or the money given is wasted in the bureaucracy of the United Methodist Church.

Back in September, we started the birthday collection. We haven’t collected much in the fund, since we haven’t celebrated many birthdays. I have proposed that we send any monies that we do collect to Habitat for Humanity, which does have a presence here in Putnam County. I have also suggested that the offerings collected on the four fifth Sundays of the year (of which this is one) should go to specific ministries in this area. To that end, I ask that you think about which organizations in this area should get those offerings. We have included additional mission support in our budget for the coming year; now, we must decide who shall receive the monies and we must decide if we are going to support them with more than words from the pulpit.

We need to be reminded of the people in the past that gave all that they had and how they received much more in return. In his book, A Walk Across America, Peter Jenkins wrote about the church in North Carolina that he attended while pausing on his trip across America.

Jenkins decided after graduating from Alfred University in New York, that he needed to find America or at least signs that what America was in the history books was still present. So he embarked on a walk, first from Alfred to Washington, D. C., and then southward along the Appalachian Trail into Alabama. In North Carolina he had to stop and find some work so that he could continue his trip. He found work at a sawmill in western North Carolina; interesting work for a liberal arts graduate from Alfred University.

But more interesting was that he, a white boy raised in the confines of Greenwich, Connecticut, found a place to stay with a black family in Texana, North Carolina. And where he was used to loafing around on Sunday mornings, this family made it a practice, a habit, and perhaps a ritual to attend church. And if he, Peter, were to live with them, he too would have to go to church.

He describes in this book an event that only those who have lived or are living in the south can truly appreciate; i.e., the coming of a tornado and that aftermath of death and destruction. And this included the total destruction of the new Baptist Church in the area. So it was that the people of Mount Zion Baptist Church, an all black church in rural North Carolina, invited the members of the Ranger Baptist Church, an all white church, to worship with them on the Sunday following the destruction of their new church. And, in a part of the country where poverty was the norm, the members of Mount Zion gave their offering that Sunday to the members of this other church so that the rebuilding process could begin.

The money gave surely could have been used by the Mount Zion congregation but, as Peter Jenkins wrote, "they all knew how much they needed and depended on their own church for weekly recharging and cleansing, so they gave with begrudging the Ranger folks.” (A Walk Across America, Peter Jenkins, page 162.)  He ended that chapter of his journey by noting that there was a feeling of peace and goodness that came with giving from the soul rather than the pocketbook.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that Peter Jenkins’ journey did not end in the hills of North Carolina. Shortly after the tornado story, he began his southward walk and ended up in Mobile, AL, where he encountered Christ much as Paul encountered Christ on the road to Damascus. Then, after pausing to reflect on the fact that he had in fact come into contact with Him throughout his whole trip, including a stop with a black country church in North Carolina, he moved on to New Orleans and then through the western part of this country to Oregon. He has gone on to other things but with the knowledge that he found the signs that America was alive and doing fine.

And, though it may not seem like it, Advent is a sign. It is a sign of the coming of Christ. Advent is more than simply a reminder of Christ’s birth. Advent is more than the prophecy of Isaiah or the birth narrative of the Gospels; it is a reminder that God’s presence among us in the form of Christ is a world-altering event. (Adapted from "Be on Guard" from "Living the Word" by Michaela Bruzzese, Sojourners, November/December 2003)

As we read and heard the words of the Gospel today, Jesus was speaking in terms of the apocalypse that would precede the coming of "the Son of God." But the apocalypse can only be seen in terms of time being linear; that is, with a beginning and an end.

And if time is linear then we are either compelled to act out of fear or we become apathetic and resigned to our fate. For Jesus, the time is short. For it is a matter of time before He must face what must happen if His work on earth is to have any meaning. But the ending of Jesus’ ministry is not the end for us; rather, it is the beginning.

For Jesus not only speaks of the end of things, he speaks of the beginning as well. For he refers to the nearby fig tree and the renewal of life that the tree is showing. (adapted from "Pent-up Power" from "Living the Word" by Herbert O’Driscoll, Christian Century, November 15, 2003.)

My favorite verse, as I have said before is Ecclesiastes 3, “For every thing there is a season, a time to be born and a time to die." Time is not linear; it does not necessarily have a beginning and an end. Time is much more cyclical, with each beginning a renewal. Jesus speaks of that very renewal.

And Jesus tells us that we have to be on guard and not let things weigh us down. For if the things of life weigh us down, we cannot see the renewal that life brings. There must have been times when Paul thought that his work was not worth it. As many times as there was success, there was also rejection. Ultimately, of course, there was the prison sentence that took him to Rome. Yet, as he expressed in his words to the church of Thessalonika, there was a reason to rejoice, that there was a community that held the promise of good things to come. And at a time when there is otherwise disappointment and a sense of despair, the knowledge that there is such a community can give a sense of purpose and enthusiasm.

In speaking of Advent as a sign of things to come, we are speaking of that same sense of purpose and enthusiasm.

There is, in the pictures in my mind that I have collected throughout my journey, a picture of a tree. The tree is no longer there and I sometimes wonder if I can go back to the place where it once stood. It is a very singular tree, alone on the plains of north Missouri. But when I see that tree I know I am near Kirksville and where I went to school. I did not know it at the time when I first saw the tree what the future would hold; I just knew that being there would bring me something that I might not otherwise find.

Jeremiah speaks of a tree and of the branch that will spring from the root of that tree. That branch is Jesus and his coming will bring hope and promise to all of His people.

That is why we celebrate Advent. It gives us that very sense of hope and promise. It gives us a sense that something special is about to happen and that it is worth sticking around to find out what it is.

Somewhere in our life, we have stopped to find our directions. Advent is a lot like the tree by the side of the road that someone tells us to look for as we go to where we are headed.

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