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Sunday, June 23, 2024

The Lesson of My Willow Tree

A Sermon preached at
The Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist
Milton, DE
Pentecost V - June 23, 2024

Job 38:1-11
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

I was about nine years old when we moved to Westport, MA. We had our own home, not an apartment above my grandparents in the city. I had my own bedroom - all four of us kids did - which looked over our next door neighbor’s yard. In the middle of her yard, in between our two houses, stood the most majestic, most magical tree I had ever seen in my life.

It was a Weeping Willow Tree and it stood taller than our neighbor’s house and almost as tall as our house. She was a real beauty. Elegant. Stately. Like an ancient character drawn by the pen of a skilled artist; a mythical goddess with long, flowing, delicate hair. And yet, she was warm and inviting and welcoming and alive.

There was a perfect indentation in the side of her truck that looked like it had been molded especially for my scrawny but sturdy young body. Edie and Lou Rego, our wonderful neighbors, said I could read under that tree any time I wanted. As the eldest child of four, I can’t tell you what a thrill it was to have unfettered access to my very own reading nook in the Spring and Summer and Early Fall - away from the squabbling of my younger siblings.

And then, one day, late in the month of May, there came the hurricane. It was a Category 4 named Helene with 150 mph winds that slammed the Atlantic Coast, causing multiple millions of dollars in damage. My nine-year-old self was mostly in awe of the sound of the wind and the rain, but I was safe and sound in my new home in my own room and I had my books and my radio with my favorite broadcaster, Salty Brine, giving us updates on the weather.

Something called me to the window. A low sound. An eerie sound. Like the cry of a scared or wounded animal. It sounded far, far away and yet it was right outside my window. I looked out and saw My Willow Tree. I was horrified. She was being shaken like a rag doll in the mouth of an angry animal. Her beautiful, long, tender branches were flying this way and that.  I remember a small cry of despair rising out of my throat as I witnessed her distress.

And then, there was this second or two of calm before another gust of wind hit her like a sucker punch. Then slowly, gently, with a sense of calm dignity, she seemed to groan as she surrendered to the elements that were no match for her. I saw it first in the left hand corner of her base, which lifted and then fell, lifted a little more and then fell, rocking her back and forth until more and more of her shallow root system was cracked and broken and exposed.


Suddenly, I knew. I knew what was happening. Without thinking, I jumped up from my bed, opened the door and ran down the stairs. My parents were in the living room and were startled to hear me in the kitchen. I was barefoot. Nothing but my jeans and tee-shirt. I opened the kitchen door with the full intention of saving My Willow Tree. In my nine-year-old mind, I just knew - indeed, I was quite certain and convinced - that if I pushed my body against her trunk in the other direction with all my might and willed with all my will, I could save her.

I remember my father’s voice. It was a mixture of anger and alarm and concern. I remember gasping at the sound of the wind. I remember being picked up by an invisible force and carried down the four concrete steps. I remember my body being slammed hard against the side of the house. I remember the wind in my chest being sucked out and into the wind of Helene’s wrath.

I don’t remember much else. The family story that was told was that my father rushed out of the house, his body cutting through the wind like a hot knife through butter down the concrete steps. He said I looked like one of my paper dolls, lying crumpled on the sidewalk. He scooped up my scrawny body, holding me close to his chest and, as he told it, had to fight against the wind to finally make it up, one, two, three, four concrete steps and into the kitchen where my mother was waiting with towels and blankets.

I do remember crying inconsolably the rest of the day. My Willow Tree was gone. Just like that. I couldn’t even bear to look out the window. Her dead body looked exposed and obscene. I wanted to cover her with a burial pall. Mommy stroked my hair, trying to comfort me, and said that it was God’s will. When I heard her say that, I froze for a few seconds before being filled with an emotion I had never felt with that intensity. I later learned the name for it. It was rage.

I was furious. How DARE God take my precious Willow Tree? What possible, good, earthly or heavenly reason might there be for such a senseless and cruel act? I remember saying, “If God took My Willow Tree then I HATE God.” Mommy gasped and said, more shocked than she could muster a parental admonishment, “Don’t say that. Don’t ever say anything like that.”

But, I meant it. With everything I had in my little child’s heart, I hated what I had been told God had done. Later that night as we repeated the nightly ritual of daddy reading us a bedtime story, I took special comfort in snuggling with my dad and two sisters in his recliner chair. It was a children’s book of Bible Stories. My brother, the Little Prince, was at his feet on the floor. Big boys didn't snuggle with their dads.

That night, he chose to read to us from the Book of Job. It was a version meant for children so it was highly edited but I do remember my father saying that Job was a very prosperous man who lacked for nothing. I remember that God was tempted by Satan to let Satan test Job but no matter what happened to Job he never cursed God.

I think I was smart enough to have figured out my father’s reason for choosing that particular story on that particular night. I remember listening to my father with my face and my ear pressed up against his chest. As I listened to daddy’s voice through his chest, I was both distracted and fascinated by the sound. There was something about it - the vaguely familiar tone and sound of my father’s voice - yet, it was very mysterious. The sound was pressed close to my face - right into my very ear - and yet it was far, far away.

It was very much like the sound I heard outside my window, the sound of the wind in my Willow - distant and yet close, familiar and yet strange.

I heard my father say the very words we heard this morning, "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant but it sure sounded like God was saying, “Why do you talk without knowing what you’re talking about?” And, suddenly, it felt like God was talking directly to me, through my father’s chest.

Tears fell from my eyes as I heard God in my daddy’s chest say, “Where were you when I created the earth?  Tell me, since you know so much.  Do you know where Light comes from and where Darkness lives? Have you ever traveled to where snow is made, seen the vault where hail is stockpiled? Can you find your way to where lightning is launched, or to the place from which the wind blows?”

And so it was that on that day in late May, when I was nine years old and lost my beloved friend, my precious Willow Tree, that I learned a similar lesson to the one the disciples learned in that boat on the lake, which we know as The Sea of Galilee. That was the day I learned to say the words the disciples said to themselves as they witnessed the power of God in Christ Jesus, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”


That was the day my sorrow and sadness and grief - and yes, my rage - became transformed. I grew up a little that day, maybe a little ahead of schedule but right on time.


That was the day I learned something about the nature of God and the real meaning of majesty and magic that was reflected in one creature of God’s own creation which I called My Willow Tree.  That was the day I learned to have a sense of awe at all of God’s creation.

Sure, it took being lifted up by hurricane-force winds and having the wind knocked out of me, but it was a force from the creation God had made. It even had a name. Helene. I learned that the same force that creates life is also capable of taking it away and no matter how smart I am, no matter how hard I studied, no matter how much I learned, I could never have the intelligence or the power or the authority of The One who created it all. I learned humility.

I learned that there are some things in this world that I will never understand, that will always be a mystery to me. Like the mystery of the power of love; that the same love that can break a heart is the same love that can heal that same broken heart.  Listen to the mystery and magic of that: the same love that can break a heart is the same love that can heal that same broken heart

I learned the wisdom of the old saying that “The heart has reasons which reason will never understand.”

That was the day I found in My Willow Tree the courage to listen to Jesus. “Peace! Be still!” he said to the wind and the sea. And, when the winds of change and the raging terrors of the seas of our lives roar and threaten to destroy all that we hold dear, Jesus still comes to say, “Peace! Be still!” Because no matter what happens - whether the absolute best or the terrible, unimaginable worst - the greatest mystery is this: Love never dies. Love always lives on, as My Willow Tree lives on in my heart.


We would do well to listen to Jesus, as the disciples did in that boat, with awe and wonder and genuine humility.



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