Sermon, August 7, 2022
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
If our gospel reading this morning sounds vaguely familiar - even recent - then you’ve been paying attention. If you find yourself thinking, ‘didn’t we just hear about this scripture from Jane about a month ago’, then you have an impressive memory. It is, indeed, a repeat this morning. What better weekend to revisit the parable of the Good Samaritan, on a weekend where we are taking a giant step forward in our refugee project.
Many have pity for the plight of those displaced from their home countries. The reality that most of these people live through - not just the trauma that causes them to become homeless, but the months and years spent in limbo living in temporary camps or tents - is more than most of us can bear - and makes it that much more difficult to get involved. They have been battered and beaten and stolen from - emotionally and psychologically if not physically. They are lying at the side of the international road, metaphorically. And few will cross the street to really take a good look and see what they need - but that is our calling and that is our plan, a true expression of loving our neighbors as ourselves.
In this well known scripture, when I read it there was one small detail that I never noticed before this week. In verse 34, it says that Samaritan tended to the beaten man’s wounds with oil and wine. This detail is almost an afterthought, so far removed from the point of the parable, that we usually gloss over it. But it caught my attention today because of the oil - the olive oil. And the olive tree in Psalm 52.
Many if not most of the Psalms are attributed to King David, and Psalm 52 is only different in that David is not yet King. In Psalm 52, it is believed David is admonishing a chief advisor to King Saul, his predecessor, for having a deceitful heart and evil ambition. The first seven verses are a caustic indictment of this advisor for being treacherous and boastful, and trusting in riches and wealth rather than God. And then, David sings this beautiful refrain;
I am like a green olive tree in the house of the lord…I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever.
That’s an odd symbol to attribute to your love for God, don’t you think? Why would David choose to represent himself with a green olive tree? Why not one of the mighty Cedars of Lebanon, standing straight and tall, a pillar to righteousness in the house of God? Or the colorful Acacia tree, with its evergreen nature signifying immortality and its wide spread of branches offering shade to all in need in the middle of the desert?
No, David chose the olive tree, a spindly, twisted, knotted, somewhat frail looking tree as his symbol in the house of God.
I remember the first time I saw an olive tree. There’s a picture of it on the front of your bulletin. I was in Israel, and we had just walked down from the top of Mt. Olive which is covered in thousands of tombs holding Jews from the past several centuries. We ducked into what seemed like a small, insignificant courtyard and were greeted by about a dozen of these gnarly-looking things that seemed to resemble the haunted trees in Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. They were all huge, bent-over masses of deep, entrenched furrows in between encrusted ropes threading together to make a scarred and tortured-looking trunk.
Now, I’m a lover of trees and tree imagery. I have at least 5 pieces of art hanging in my house celebrating trees. But these were like trees that only a mother could love - mother nature, I guess.
As I stood there bewildered at these nightmare-inducing trees, Jared, our guide, told us that these were olive trees. Olive trees are native to the desert and adapted to desert conditions. They have the amazing ability to withstand multiple years of drought by contracting their trunks, and expanding them again when there is a wet season. Their root system helps secure the soil in a place that might otherwise be blowing sand and dry rock. That’s they their trunks were so gnarled and bent over, because these trees were likely hundreds of years old. in fact, Jared continued as I gained new respect for my unsightly view, recently archeologists have discovered olive trees that have been alive for 3000 years.
Three thousand years. I was standing on a hilltop just outside the gates of Jerusalem, very likely in a similar spot to where Jesus once stood, and Jared was telling me that the trees I was scrutinizing may have been on earth when Jesus walked and talked with his disciples. In a daze, I looked up and noticed the plaque on the inner wall above the door where we entered: it said “Gethsemane”.
Jared, noting my gaze, leaned in to tell me that the Hebrew root of Gethsemane is two words that mean ‘oil press’. Oil from olives. The Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus went to pray, was an olive tree grove.
In fact, olive trees, olives and olive oil are all very sacred in the bible. Olive oil, besides being delicious, was used as lamp oil, medicinal oil, anointing oil, and sacrificial oil. Scientists today vouch for the healing and anti-infection properties of raw olive oil, and copied certain properties of it to create modern antiseptic ointments like Neosporin. When kings were anointed with their crown, they were anointed with olive oil. In 1 Samuel 10, Samuel ‘took a flask of olive oil and poured it on Saul’s head and kissed him, saying, “Has not the Lord anointed you ruler over his inheritance?” – 1 Samuel 10:1 And olives, of course, are a staple in middle east diets.
These are all central to biblical life in the ancient middle east. Olive trees, whether wild or cultivated, eased the ancient Israelites through the trials and tribulations of their lives; through drought and rain; through feast and famine; suitable for the highest of the high - the kings - and the lowest of the low, those wounded and needing healing. No wonder the olive tree was sacred in biblical life. In real terms, it signifies nourishment, healing, endurance and survival. And it also signifies rebirth and renewal.
It was common practice in the ancient to cut back an olive tree when it had stopped producing fruit. Once cut back, the tree would restart shoots that would again become fruit-bearing trees. So the olive tree really has staying power. They take more than 3 years to cultivate to produce fruit, but they can withstand storm, drought, tempest, even being cut down. Olive trees do not easily disappear. They do not grow for a season and then die. They are long lived, and have been known to survive years of neglect and drought. Their root shoots provide regeneration.
So when David talks about being an olive tree he's talking about being steadfast as a resource to those around him. He’s talking about nourishing his community, being a sacred balm to salve their wounds, and enduring through thick and thin.
And when Jesus tells us the story that the beaten man was anointed with oil and wine, you know that, because of the medicine he received, he survived his wounds.
And when the bird returns to Noah with a branch from an olive tree in its mouth, we know that new life is sprouting in the land. The promise of the dove’s olive branch was a new beginning for humanity, symbolizing peace and reconciliation with God, and renewal and revival on earth.
And when scripture in Isaiah, which we read every Advent in anticipation of our Christmas story, tells us that a stump grew out the root of Jesse, signaling renewal and revival of the covenant with God, biblical historians think that stump had to be an olive tree.
The olive tree’s ability to survive seasons of rain and times of drought, to feed and heal, to bing renewal, revival and rebirth are sacred values, indeed.
The Institution of church is a lot like an olive tree. It expands and contracts, as necessary. It nourishes and it heals. It’s not always pretty on the outside but its faithful commitment to life and abundance make its inner beauty ever present. And, on our best days, we bring the offer of renewal, the promise of revival, the hope for reconciliation and rebirth of a new humanity.
And so we are going to take some of the healing oil from this great sustaining olive tree that is the church and apply it to a few broken and battered people to meet some healing. We as this church, along with Colonial church, are going to offer some nourishment for their lives, some salve for their wounds, and the promise to help their lives rebirth here on American soil. We are going to help them start new shoots of life here, and hope that this new life will yield as much sacred meaning and fruitfulness as they once had at home.
Let us all try to find our inner olive tree, the inner blessings and beauty that outshines the exterior knobs and scars, and ground ourselves in the strength and staying power that God has given each of us, deep in our roots, while we search for areas in need of nourishment, healing, or renewal in our own lives, and in the lives of those around us. May it be so. Amen.