How big is a tree?

How might we measure
a mustard tree, Lord?
By metres or cubits?
Why, no, he replied,
For the measure that matters
Is this: hospitality.

How big is a tree?

Can it offer a perch to bird on the wing?
Can the pair of small sparrows
(once bought for a penny)
Have room here to build
an affordable nest?
Can they nurture their young,
In safety away from the predators
Prowling the night?
That is the way that we measure a tree.

Like the wilderness oaks
That offered their shelter
to Abraham, Sarah, and all that they had,
In order that he would be able
to offer the same to the visiting strangers
Who brought them the promise of hope
And the chance to fulfil the command
To be fruitful and fill all the land.

Like the wilderness broom bush
That gave to Elijah permission to stop,
And to sit and give voice to his grief and despair,
a place to find rest and be nourished
So he could continue his journey
To and come to the cleft in the rock
Where he met God in silence.

Like the sycamore tree
That was sturdy enough
To carry the weight
of a man who was rich
but had nothing of worth.

Like the tree that was felled
To be shaped like a cross
And offer a place
For all the world’s pain
to be faced and embraced
by the man who said,
That’s how you measure a tree.

When we measure with numbers
And money and cost
And reduce all the value
To what can be counted
We’ll find we have lost
All sense of what counts:

Our chances to offer the shade of a tree in the heat of the sun;
the grace to receive, sit down and admit that we cannot go on;
a way to stand tall when we’re burdened by all of the things we have done.
A place to feel safe, to love and be loved: a place to call home.

Hands holding a hazel nut

The seed is so small.
It’s a universe held
in the palm of God’s hand.
A hand that’s the only hospitable scale
for the measure of worth
For the God who loves everything.

 

Teach us to pray…

Some sermony thoughts on Luke 11.1-13

I’ve always found the parable of the persistent neighbour rather troubling. Our habit is to map parables onto the real world – us and God – as an exact one to one allegory, and in this case, that would cast God as the grudging friend with his own family safely behind a locked door who only responds to nagging.

This can’t be right, and setting the parable alongside the teaching of the Lords prayer helps us unpick it a bit.

The first thing to notice is that the late night request for bread isn’t out of the blue. The two are friends – they have an ongoing relationship, and there is probably more to that relationship than asking favours of each other. If the friendship in the story is supposed to tell us something about our relationship with God: relationship with God is not purely transactional, a series of favours being asked and granted. We go to God with praise, with our deepest desires and concerns about the world, with our basic needs, with our guilt and our bitterness, and our fear of the evil that others may do do us, or that we may do ourselves. In fact, all the things that the Lord’s Prayer describes, and which we can find unfolded both in our worship (try it, you’ll see what I mean) and in our daily lives.

The second thing to notice is the key phrase towards the end of the reading: ‘How much more…?’  What God does for us is more than we can expect from a human relationship. And the imagery switches back from the friendship model to the parent-child model, indicating perhaps that this is a closer comparison.  Jesus invites us to call God ‘Abba’ – an intimate, unguarded term, reassuring us that we are not randomly demanding neighbours banging on God’s door at midnight, but rather we are (or we can be) the children tucked up safely in the bed.

The friends/neighbours vs family issue here reminds me very much of the phrase ‘children of Abraham’ that appears a few times in the gospels. At the time of Abraham, God was experienced as the family God, and Jesus’ own contemporaries placed huge significance on their heritage as part of the family that God promised to Abraham would be more numerous than the stars in the sky and the grains of sand in the desert. And yet we can also read in the gospel that, ‘God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones’.  This story too, invites us to work out where we are in relation to God, and to reflect on our identity as children of God, members of God’s household, and all that that means, and all that might get in the way of that.

One of the things that that means becomes apparent if we let go of the one-to-one mapping of the parable, and instead mix things up a bit. What if the comparison is not so much that we can extrapolate who God is not by saying ‘God is like us in this story, but better?’ What if, instead, we say, ‘Our neighbourliness and our relationships must be modeled on God our heavenly Father, and what we know of God from the testimony of scripture and the life of Christ?’  What would it mean if we looked at the story not from the point of view of the neighbour knocking on the door, waiting for our prayers to be answered? What if we approached the story as the children in the bed, who, hopefully, take after their parent, and who know that their heavenly Father is a generous God, and that there is enough bread in the house to feed many neighbours and travellers?

Would we, on behalf of our Father, climb out of the bed and open the door, and offer God’s hospitality?  Of the many wise things Pope Francis has said, one of my favourites is this:
“You pray for the hungry. Then you feed the hungry. That’s how prayer works.”