Sermon for November 3, 2019
Audio includes choir anthem, “Love is Love is Love”
“Fig trees have been on earth for about 80 million years longer than humans. They have seen off asteroid impacts and climate change that have wiped out millions of other species. Their story reminds us that we are just new here and between our kisses, our fights, our struggles and our smiles, we tend to break things before we realise how much we need them. It’s a story that tells us much about where we come from and where we might go from here.”
The Sycamore Tree Charles Mackay
O! for the shade of the sycamore,
That spreadeth its boughs at my cottage door!
O! for the kiss of my bonnie bride,
And the welcome glow of her warm fireside;
And O! for the smile of my bonnie boy,
And the pleasant sounds of its childish joy!
Here, rolling about on the pelting foam,
How my heart yearns for its quiet home!
O! I long to listen at morning’s time
To the sweet lark’s song, or the far bells’ chime;
For sad to mine ear is the sea-bird’s cry,
And the howl of the wind as it wanders by.
O! if ever I see my beloved one more,
And the friendly latch of her cottage door,
Never again from her trusting heart
Shall the sire of her bonnie babe depart!
Safe in the harbour of home at last
I’ll tell the tale of my dangers past.
O! for my cottage beside the sea,
And the peaceful shade of my sycamore tree!
Amos 7:12-15, 8:4-6
And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’
Then Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel….”
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, ‘When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’
Saved in a Sycamore
The story of Zacchaeus from the gospel of Luke is the lectionary text for today. I chose the reading from Amos to go along with it because both stories feature a Sycamore tree. The word Sycamore only occurs a few times in the Bible.
In 1 Kings chapter 10, the author describes the great wealth and wisdom of Solomon.
“The king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and he made cedars as numerous as the sycomores of the Shephelah. (I Kings 10:27) & parallel (2 Chronicles 1:15 & 9:27)”
In 1 Chronicles 7:28, the author discusses David’s cabinet and who was in control of what.
“Over the olive and sycomore trees in the Shephelah was Baal-hanan the Gederite. (1 Chronicles 7:28)”
Psalm 78 recounts Yahweh’s victory over Pharoah in Egypt and writes:
“He destroyed their vines with hail,
and their sycomores with frost. (Psalm 78:47)”
In Isaiah chapter 9, Yahweh has just announced judgment and destruction on Israel. But they reply arrogantly that they will rebuild even better than before. They say:
“‘The bricks have fallen,
but we will build with dressed stones;
the sycomores have been cut down,
but we will put cedars in their place.’”
But the passage goes on that the Lord raised up more enemies and destroyed Israel again.
That leaves the only other two references to the Sycamore in the Bible, the passage in Amos and the passage in Luke.
Amos is a dresser of Sycamore trees and Zacchaeus is a climber of a Sycamore tree. We know what it means to climb a tree. What does it mean for Amos to “dress” a Sycamore tree?
I learned what that meant from a book by Michael Shanahan called, Gods, Wasps, and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees.
He writes about figs and fig trees from both a biological and a religious perspective. Figs have been on Earth for over 80 million years. Figs were on Earth in the time of the dinosaurs. Talk about “back in the day.” Back in the day when dinosaurs ate figs…
There are 800 or so species of fig trees in the world. Figs have been nurturing all of life for tens of millions of years. This is deep time. Figs are featured in religion and mythology. Adam and Eve covered their nakedness with fig leaves. The forbidden fruit? Likely a fig. The tree of life in Revelation whose leaves will bring healing to the nations? Fig tree. The Buddha found enlightenment under the fig tree. Various gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon live in fig trees.
If you do a search for “fig tree” in the Bible you will find several passages in which the success or failure of a fig tree corresponds to the success or failure of the people. The great promise of redemption in the book of Micah is this:
“but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.”
And the fig even inspires romantic poetry such as in Song of Songs where the seducer says to the seduced:
“The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.”
In Michael Shanahan’s book, “Gods, Wasps, and Stranglers” he discusses the history of fig trees, their relationship with the rest of life including human life and their resilience and the hope they offer. I interviewed him for my radio program and he told me that on an island in Papau, New Guinea, there is an island called Long Island that is oddly enough, despite its name, shaped like a ring. It is a volcanic island. The outer ring is land. Inside is a lake that is the crater of a volcano. In the midst of that lake is a smaller island. What Dr. Shanahan found in the smaller island that is in the middle of the crater, an island made of lava rock–what they found growing there were some wild grasses and seven different species of fig trees. These fig trees can grow even on bare rock. He also said that fig trees are being used to reclaim mining sites. Fig trees, according to Shanahan are keystone species. We live or die as they live or die. Ecologicaly, fig trees are literally our salvation and perhaps our redemption.
The Sycamore is a species of a fig tree. Ficus Sycamorus. Back to the question of Amos, the herdsman and part-time prophet who dresses Sycamore trees. What does that mean to dress a Sycamore tree?
Fig trees pollinate by the means fig wasps. The Ficus Sycamorus or Sycamore Fig ran into a problem thousands of years ago in Egypt. There were no pollinator wasps. Something happened to them. Mike Shanahan writes: “Each year, the trees pushed out expectant figs, whose hundreds of tiny flowers never felt the feet of its pollen-bearing wasp.” No wasp. No pollination. No seeds. No dispersers. The figs would stay small, hard, and green and drop to the ground and rot.
5,000 years ago, humans learned a trick. If you pierce the unripe fig with a sharp blade the fig will think it has been pollinated and has seeds to disperse. In a few days, it swells and becomes sweet. In this way the Sycamore tree would produce several crops of fruit throughout the year. That is what Amos is doing. Another word beside dresser is gasher. He is gashing the fruit with his blade so that it ripens and can be eaten.
Amos is not a professional prophet. He doesn’t belong to the school of prophets. He doesn’t make his living as a prophet. He makes his living gashing fig trees. Because that is a unique detail about Amos, that he is a dresser or gasher of Sycamore trees and his preaching which is largely about economic justice, that one could say his preaching is like his gashing of the Sycamore. A sharp knife to cut a hardened heart and allow Spirit to ripen the fruit of the heart so it becomes sweet.
What about Zacchaeus? He climbs a Sycamore tree. Why that detail in the story? When the Bible provides details like the kind of tree Zachaeus climbs, the Sycamore Tree or the job that Amos has, a gasher of Sycamore trees, the detail begs for attention. What is the storyteller calling our attention to by specifying Sycamore tree?
The Sycamore tree has a history. It has a mythological history. The Sycamore is a sacred tree. It carries that meaning with it into the story.
It could be that it is just a tree. So Zacchaeus climbed a Sycamore tree. So what?
In Egyptian mythology, the ficus sycamorus or Sycamore fig tree was the abode of the goddess, Hathor. When the pharaohs and as well as other common Egyptians died, their souls traveled to Hathor who lived in a Sycamore tree at the edge of the underworld. She would offer them figs and water. By accepting these gifts they would achieve salvation and “feed for eternity on the figs of paradise.” Salvation in a Sycamore.
The Sycamore tree that Zacchaeus climbed has spiritual significance as the abode of the goddess, Hathor. In fact, every morning, Hathor would give birth to Horus in the Sycamore fig tree. Horus would rise to the top of the tree and be transformed into Ra, the sun god, and travel across the sky.
The Sycamore Tree carries with it a lot of sacred, symbolic weight. It is a tree of life.
Zacchaeus is a greedy man. Unholy. He is rich because he is a tax collector, that is, he makes his living on the suffering of the children of Abraham. He collects crippling taxes for the occupying power, Rome and he pads his own pockets in the process. He is like Amos prophesied, one who “sells the needy for a pair of shoes.”
The tree does nothing. It is a setting. Zacchaeus climbs up the Sycamore tree to get a look at Jesus. For what is he looking? What does he expect will happen?
Jesus walks along and spots him. Tells him to come down. Invites himself into Zacchaeus’ house. The people grumble that Jesus is going to the house of the hated, the thief, the tax collector, the sinner.
Then the moment of redemption. Zacchaeus says:
“‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’
Then the punchline from Jesus.
‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’
The Sycamore Tree is the setting for salvation yet again. Not exactly like Hathor in Egyptian mythology, but in this case, the salvation of sanctification. To be sanctified means to be made holy. It means to have one’s character changed for the better. To grow in faith and holiness.
This is what Amos was preaching, so that people might be transformed. People would not be transformed by Amos, but by Spirit. He preached what the Lord told him, about justice, truth and compassion, that people might hear the invitation to become saved or whole or sanctified.
Amos, the dresser, gashes the fruit of the sacred Sycamore with his knife so the fruit produces.
Amos, the prophet, gashes the heart of sacred Israel with the word of the Lord so the heart produces.
A few centuries later, Zacchaeus is transformed.
He is met.
He has an encounter.
He is changed.
The Lord summoned him while he was in a Sycamore tree, the sacred tree.
For Zacchaeus, he doesn’t even hear preaching.
Jesus doesn’t preach. He invites.
Jesus simply invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house.
Zacchaeus has a change of heart because of that encounter,
Because of that invitation,
He becomes a new person.
As Jesus says, “Salvation has come to this house.”
The story of Zacchaeus is a story of encounter and salvation.
I used this poem by Mary Oliver in the monthly newsletter.
“Green, Green Is My Sister’s House.”
Don’t you dare climb that tree
or even try, they said, or you will be
sent way to the hospital of the
very foolish, if not the other one.
And I suppose, considering my age,
it was fair advice.
But the tree is a sister to me, she
lives alone in a green cottage
high in the air and I know what
would happen, she’d clap her green hands,
she’d shake her green hair, she’d
welcome me. Truly.
I try to be good but sometimes
a person just has to break out and
act like the wild and springy thing
one used to be. It’s impossible not
to remember wild and not want to go back. So
if someday you can’t find me you might
look into that tree or—of course
it’s possible—under it.
Mary Oliver knew a lot about trees and what it means to climb them literally and symbolically. She knows about holy trees and their capacity for transformation through encounter.
All I want to suggest is that being encountered is a real thing.
It is possible to be encountered by the holy one and to have one’s life changed.
You cannot predict in advance how that will happen or under what conditions.
You cannot predict exactly how that encounter will change you.
You cannot predict what your life will become.
Do know and be warned, dear Beloveds,
that if you happen to find a Sycamore tree,
and think you might want to climb it in order to get a good look at the Lord,
you may be setting yourself up for an encounter that will change your life.