A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Maundy Thursday, March 24, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day are Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:1,10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; and St. John 13:1-17,31b-35. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)
They have had their dinner during which, predicting his death, Jesus has instructed them to share bread and wine again and again in his memory. Jesus has washed their feet. He has given them his New Commandment, “Love one another.” Now, dinner ended, it is time for a stroll in the garden.
In 2014, when Evelyn and I were privileged to visit Jerusalem and spend some time in the Garden of Gethsemane, what struck me most (and I admit that this entirely pedestrian and not the least bit spiritual) was how very similar the trees there were the olive trees she and I had in our front yard when we lived in Las Vegas! And as I have contemplated our experience with olive trees, it has struck me how appropriate that location was, how illustrative and instructive it is that Jesus prayed amongst olive trees.
The first thing that I can tell you from experience is that olive trees are messy! They are a broad-leafed evergreen, which means they are constantly shedding leaves. The olive leaf is only about an inch or two long and about a half-inch wide. They have a lovely glossy deep green color on top, and a pale silvery green underside. They are tough and very stiff, especially as they dry out. This makes them impossible to rake up! Our life with olive trees was a constant battle with cleaning up leaves that didn’t want to be cleaned up. Furthermore, at the beginning of the growing season, the olive blossoms produce huge amounts of yellow-tan pollen that blows all over everything, and then the blossoms themselves fall off. We had a large in-ground pool in Las Vegas; keeping it clear of olive leaves, olive pollen, and olive blossoms was simply impossible! And, finally, there is the fruit itself. Olives seem to have a hard time holding on to their fruit; it drops about as often as leaves. I guess in commercial groves enough must stay on the tree to make their cultivation financially viable, but our ornamental trees seemed to lose more fruit to the wind than there was left on the tree to harvest.
And isn’t that what life is like. It’s messy! Jesus praying amidst the messy olives of Gethsemane reminds us that Jesus meets us in the messiness of life, that he redeems messy human life. There is not a single person on this earth, and never has been, whose life is not in same way a mess. Every one of us has problems, some worse than others; we all struggle with issues and circumstances. Some of them we share with each other and we get one another’s help, but some of them scared us so badly that we keep them to ourselves. We put on a brave face and we smile through them and meanwhile the messiness eats us up inside . . .
So we go someplace by ourselves and throw ourselves on the ground and pray, “God, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me….” (Mt 26:39) The truth is that that is the very place where God meets us: in the messiness of life, in the brokenness of life, in the painful chaos that we cannot, on our own, make orderly, and neat, and fixed. If you read the Bible, if you really read the stories of the Old and New Testament, that’s when God shows up in people’s lives; at the worst possible time, when everything is breaking down and going to pot, that’s when God shows up.
That’s what was happening that night in Jesus’ closest companions’ lives. They had “hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21), but after they made that great entry into Jerusalem everything had changed and gone from bad to worse, and at dinner instead of talk of overthrowing the oppressors and taking the throne he had spoken of betrayal and death and sacrifice. Instead of proclaiming a “new world order,” he’d gotten down on his knees and washed away the dirt from their feet. Not in their political dreams of revolution, but in the messiness that they had walked through, in the messiness they had tracked into the Passover Feast, that was where Jesus met them.
The messiness of the olive grove in which Jesus prayed reminds us of that: that God meets us in the messiness of life.
Olives are also long-lived. They aren’t the longest lived of trees. Those are the bristlecone pines (pinus longaeva) of my native state, Nevada. In my college years, as I have mentioned a time or two before, a common pastime of my friend group was backpacking and wilderness camping. During the late spring and summer months, one of our favorite places to go was an area called the Mammoth Lakes region of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. On the inland side of the Sierras in that area is a subsidiary range on the California-Nevada border called the White Mountains. This is the location of the oldest living tree on earth. The US Forestry Service claims that in the White Mountain forest there is a bristlecone pine that is over 5,070 years of age. They will not identify the particular tree, but they do acknowledge that it is in the southern part of the White Mountain range. That is exactly the area where we used to hike and camp, so it’s possible that I have sat beside that elder-statesman tree. I always marvel at old trees and what they must have witnessed!
I felt that way amongst the old olive trees at Gethsemane. But while the domestic olive tree (olea europea) can live for hundreds of years, they do not live as long as bristlecone pines. None of the trees currently in the Garden of Gethsemane were there at the time of Jesus. The eight oldest olive trees in the grove (which, by the way, what it was and is, a grove not a garden) have been analyzed and the scientists who did so say they date from the early 12th Century. They are genetically identical; they share the same DNA. They appear to have been cultivated from a single parent tree which, in the 12th Century, was reputed to have witnessed events of Holy Thursday night. Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land, has suggested that that 12th Century cultivation of these eight trees was “a deliberate attempt to pass on a precious heritage for future generations.” (Reuters news article, October 19, 2012)
In any event, Jesus at prayer amongst the long-lived olive trees reminds us of the promise that he will make to his disciples after his Resurrection: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:20) Indeed, it is true that God has been and always will be yearning to be with us. As one of our Eucharistic prayers puts, “Again and again, [God] called us to return. Through prophets and sages [God] revealed [God’s] righteous Law.” (Eucharistic Prayer C, Book of Common Prayer 1979, p 370)
The longevity of the olive trees under whose branches Jesus prayed reminds us of that: that God has always been there, has always wanted to be in relationship with us, and in Jesus has promised to be with us always, longer than the life of the olive, longer than the life of the bristlecone pine, longer than we can imagine.
The third thing we know about olives is that they are nutritious. Dozens of health-protective nutrients have been identified in olives. The high monounsaturated fat content of olives has been associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. They are very high in vitamin E and other powerful antioxidants. Studies show that they may protect against osteoporosis and cancer. Olives are good food.
Many years ago I read an interview with the abbess of a Zen Buddhist convent in Tokyo. The interview had to do with the convent’s reputation not only for spiritual nourishment, but for very good food as well. Abbess Koei Hoshino said in that interview, “We receive three graces from food. First, we become healthy in mind and body; second, we have the ability to be thankful for all things, and to maintain that state of mind; third, we are able to work for others with our mind and body. We will be able to give to others. Those are the virtues we receive.” (T. King, The Spiral Path, Yes International:1992, p 161) A Christian monastic, Brother Peter Reinhart makes a similar point: “Food is not only a basic human need, it is also a sacred symbol: God in a multitude of forms and bodies. It is a focal point of fellowship and celebration.” (Sacramental Magic in a Small-Town Cafe, Running Press:1994, p xxii)
When we end our Eucharist this evening, we will go into the Parish Hall for a short time of fellowship, a simple meal recalling the Passover meal Jesus shared with his friends. We share simple foods: bread, cheese, wine, fruit, olives. We do not presume to call our meal a Passover feast; we give it a different name: The Agape Meal. Agape is one of the Greek words translated into English as “love”, so the meal is sometimes called a “love feast.” Scholars tell us that in early Christian practice a similar meal was nearly always shared whenever the faith community gathered for the Eucharist; the two rituals when hand-in-hand. A core tradition in the early church, the Agape Meal explicitly recalls not only the Last Supper, but all the meals Jesus shared with his friends and disciples, including the post-resurrection meals recounted in the Gospels of Luke and John. “It is a focal point of fellowship and celebration.”
The fruit of the olive trees amongst which Jesus prayed reminds us of that, of the Christian sacramental view in which ordinary things – ordinary food shared with ordinary people – can be instruments of grace embracing us in God’s immediacy, God’s intimacy in our lives.
On Maundy Thursday, Jesus took ordinary food, the bread and wine of a meal, and instituted the Holy Eucharistic. He took an ordinary towel and a basin of water and commanded his disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you.” He prayed in an ordinary grove of trees and reminded us that God comes to us in all the messy ordinariness of life, always and forever, and with immediate and intimate grace.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.