Like An Olive Tree


Some of my sermon ponderings from yesterday:

“Here now is the one
who did not make God her stronghold
but trusted in great wealth
and grew strong by destroying others!”
But I am like an olive tree
flourishing in the house of God;
I trust in God’s unfailing love
for ever and ever. ” Psalm 52:7, 8)

Devouring or trusting. Committing or continually moving, searching, never settling. Living with gratitude or with distraction. This is the question of the Psalmist. What is the nature of true security, of wealth, and power? Security can be sought in asserting one’s self at the expense of other people—part of the definition of evil—or in God’s love. In the Psalm, the Mighty One is willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead, regardless of how destructive, the essence of wickedness. The portrait is of a person who turns human capacities and possession into the basis of her life. It is a choice to live for my self rather than for the love that is God.

Trusting in God is both increasingly difficult and increasingly important.

The contrasting image to the mighty, devouring one is of a green olive tree in the house of God, the tree of your soul. My Dad knew trees. Not olive trees, but the trees of the Northwest. He taught me to see trees. Imagine a circle of good, rich soil on the ground. Picture a sprout coming from that rich soil that grows into a strong tree. Now imagine this tree branching out, blossoming, and bearing fruit. Your soul is like this tree.

Many of the desert mothers greatly valued stability, a spiritual practice that simply means to stay put. Stability is still one of the vows taken by those who become monastics. The vow recognizes that in committing ourselves to a particular place and staying rooted despite changes around and within us, we grow in a way that is different than if we are constantly on the move. ….
This doesn’t mean we should never go anywhere; the Christian tradition, and most other spiritual traditions, offers many stories of those who find God on the journey. Rather, Amma Theodora and Amma Syncletica challenge us to examine what prompts our perpetual motion. When we hit the road, literally or figuratively, is it because of distraction? Fear of what’s before us? Boredom? Resistance? Restlessness?

Olive trees symbolize years of slow growth, maturity, and aging producing good olive fruit that provides so many things for life and health in the life of the Psalmist. Stability is not just about physically remaining in one place. The practice of stability impels us to find something worth giving ourselves to for a long, long time – a place, a community, a person, a path – and in that, to grow deeper in relationship with the God who dwells there.

At the Home of Martha and Mary, Luke 10:
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed.  Mary has chosen, and it will not be taken away from her.”

The sisters respond to the rich soil of Jesus’ presence in kind, each according to her gifts: Martha is making and doing; Mary is laser-focused on the presence of God in her midst. And though Jesus refuses to ask Mary to conform to Martha’s standards of busy hospitality, neither does he indicate that the making and doing of hospitality are entirely beside the point. …Provisioning is a piece of the calling: a community prepared to wash, feed, offer drink, and model collective vocation. So is space and time for—and interest in—real and profound relationship.
Christ, bearing the fullness of the mystery of God in human flesh, moves into the neighborhood and embodies the holiness of both giving and receiving hospitality. Jesus both sets and attends the table. Jesus both anoints and is anointed, washes and is washed. Jesus both serves the disciples and empowers, even demands, their service.

Worry and distraction, devouring, restlessly seeking to get ahead; these are the enemies of both meaningful action and attentive relationship. By naming the worries and distractions that possess us, we can hope for the grace and freedom to live as an olive tree in the house of God.

In her memoir, Devotion, Dani Shapiro writes, “Abraham Heschel makes a distinction between the world of things and the world of time. “Things, when magnified, are forgeries of happiness,” Heschel wrote. Forgeries of happiness. I was surrounded by the accoutrements of my modern life. I lived in the world of things, and honestly, I didn’t want it any other way. I mean, what was I going to do? Become one of the desert ammas? “Things, when magnified,” Heschel wrote. The problem wasn’t the stuff of fast-paced life itself. The problem, he seemed to be saying, was one of emphasis. And the remedy came in the form of the seventh day—the Sabbath. Herschel described the Sabbath—as a cathedral of time. The Sabbaths of my childhood had not been cathedrals. They had been exercises in boredom.
“The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments,” Heschel wrote. I wanted to face sacred moments.

We took a drive—the three of us—up north, into the Berkshire Hills on a random Sunday…I was longing for the moment I was in, even as I was in it. I was mourning it, as if we were already a yellowed photograph in an album: my family together on a country drive, young, healthy, happy, whole. I knew better, of course. Time was all we had. It didn’t have to be Sabbath for this moment to be holy. It was holy precisely because there was no other. We stopped at MASS MoCA, a museum in North Adams, Mass., where we met a couple of friends and sat outside on that glorious fall day.
“Let me feel this,” I found myself thinking—asking, wishing. Or maybe even praying, if this was praying. Let me live inside this cathedral of time.” I didn’t want to think about the latest newspaper headlines, or what had happened yesterday, or might happen tomorrow.
It was then that I looked above me, and realized that we were sitting in the midst of an art installation. Suspended high overhead were six cylindrical aluminum planters hanging upside down by wires. They hung from an armature made of steel telephone poles. Out of each planter, a tree grew downward. These trees were not small. Their trunks must have been eighteen inches around. They had clearly been growing this way for quite some time—perhaps years. Their leaves were a rich, autumnal red. They hung in what seemed a precarious way. It looked, in equal parts, beautiful and wrong. How could the trees continue to thrive? But wait—there was something more. As I adjusted to the sight of the dangling trees, I saw that they had begun to shift shape, their branches bending and twisting, so that they could grow away from the earth and back up toward the sky.
I felt it all, all at once—the way that time can slow to a near standstill simply by existing inside of it. By not pushing through it, or past it–by not wishing it away, nor trying to capture it. It was a lesson I needed to learn over and over again: to stop and simply be. To recognize these moments and enter them–with reverence and an unprotected heart–as if walking into a cathedral, the house of God.” (Devotion, Dani Shapiro,
A green olive tree in the house of God even when our world is turned upside down, roots growing deep and trusting on, branches reaching out; or a wildly growing weed, ever restless, distracted and worried, ever consuming and devouring? How is it with your soul?

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