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March 2, 2022

Back in January I read about the tallest tree in New York, a white pine known as Tree 103.[i]  It wasn’t the biggest tree – just the tallest.  Apparently, the size of trees is measured by combining their height, their circumference, and the spread of their crowns.  So, as a white pine, tall and thin and pointy, Tree 103 couldn’t compete with other species that have larger trunks and more room to spread their branches – the oaks and the cottonwoods and the sycamores.

Tree 103 was the tallest, though – and among the oldest.  Experts date its beginnings back to 1675.  Think about that for a minute – all those events of history that this tree outlived.  The Salem witchcraft trials, countless wars, space exploration, the invention of trains and planes and automobiles, the emergence of the internet, more than one pandemic.

Tree 103 was a survivor.  It continued to grow out there in the New York wilderness without much attention at all.  It wasn’t a glamorous life.  As writer Susan Orlean observed:  “Tree 103 was scarred and scabby; it creaked in the wind; it sagged in the rain. It had lost the dewy glow that it had back in 1675, but haven’t we all?”

Last July, one of Tree 103’s neighbors fell over – and Tree 103 broke its fall.  By the time hikers came to check on this grove of trees in December, Tree 103 was officially a goner.  There had been no one there to witness its end.  After almost 350 years, this towering pine was now returning to the soil from which it had grown, providing a home for bugs and a place for mushrooms to sprout up.

There’s something about that tree that has stayed with me.  It survived all those centuries.  It grew in the ways it was meant to grow – tall and scrappy.  And then it died.

All of us will die.  And there won’t be much of a fanfare when we do.  People will be sad, of course.  There will probably be a memorial service of some kind, where those people will gather to tell stories and to thank God for our lives.  We will live on in the hearts of those who have loved and known us best.  And we will enter into eternal life, which we trust is more perfect than this life.

All of us will die.  That’s a part of what Ash Wednesday is about: our mortality, though I suspect few of us need those reminders this year.  When we gathered on February 26 of 2020, we had no idea just how much mortality would be on our minds for the next two years, more than we could have imagined.

We come to this Ash Wednesday a little dustier than usual.  Exhausted from two years of figuring things out and making it work and then having to figure things out all over again.  We’re tired of toxic politics and weighed down by layers of grief that we can barely name.  We’re worried about war.

So when Jesus warns us in tonight’s gospel to beware of practicing our piety flamboyantly and publicly, our natural impulse might be to say, “I get what you’re saying, Jesus.  Whatever we do to practice our faith – donating to those in need, praying, giving up something – we don’t need to do it in the most show-offy way possible.  But look, Jesus.  I don’t have much left to show off at this point.  It’s all I can do to get to church.  Or to remember to say something to you occasionally while I’m in the shower, which is one of the few quiet moments of the day.  I’m not about to go praying on the street corner.”

Maybe this Lent we don’t try so hard.  Sure, give something up if that’s what you want to do.  Take on a practice if you would find it helpful.  But don’t do it because you think you’re “supposed” to do it.  Do it because you find it renewing in some way.

Maybe this Lent we try just to rest in God’s mercy and love, to remember that the One who created us out of dust is there to dust us off when we are worn out and frayed around all our edges.

For this season don’t worry about polished prayers or dramatic demonstrations of your faith. Just come to church.  Even if your clothes don’t match or you’re running late. Try out some of our Thursday evening times.  Just show up and see what happens.  You’ll at least get some soup.  And I think you’ll find that you’re in good company with other folks who are feeling pretty dusty.

What Jesus is calling us to is humility.  The word humility comes from the root word humus, which means “earth.”  So being humble means remembering that we come from the ground.  Like dust.  Nothing flashy or attention-seeking.  Just being aware of our limitations and grounded in our complete dependence on God.

Like Tree 103, let’s grow as exactly who God has created us to be, whether or not anyone else is paying attention.  Let’s use the truth that we will die to nudge us into some more present living.

This Lent let’s focus on walking humbly with our God.  One step at a time.  Kicking up some dust along the way to remind us that even though we won’t be here forever, we are still here now, grounded in God’s grace.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ


[i] https://www.newyorker.com/news/afterword/the-tallest-known-tree-in-new-york-falls-in-the-forest

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