Remember the Tree of Life

Timothy E. Kimbrough

More than a decade ago now my father, working on behalf of the Methodist Board of Global ministries, auditioned young people from across the United States and put together a 30-voice teenage/college-age youth choir and band. They would spend six weeks that summer traveling across Africa and Asia singing the gospel at concerts hosted by two dozen local churches from Durban, South Africa, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Belarus.

It was hard work and in some sense a summer job like any other. They spent six hours a day for two weeks in rehearsal here stateside before setting out. Once they were on tour they would typically rehearse for a couple of hours in the morning (if the travel schedule would allow for it) and then perform in the evenings. They never sang for a crowd of less than 5,000! The videotape summary of the tour would bring tears to your eyes. People came hungry to hear the gospel preached, and many came to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior through this ministry.

There was one adult for every five young people on the trip, not just as chaperones but working as roadies or with the sound engineers or the video team. The adults had committed among themselves to experience as much of the different cultures they were to visit as possible. The young people were initially excited, but thousands of miles away from home in unfamiliar city after unfamiliar city, they soon began to long for the rhythms of life at home. They longed for their own beds, for the friends they’d left at home, and for food that perhaps was more comforting than nourishing. Rice at every meal had begun to seem like a life sentence. And the mystery meat that appeared in most goulashes, casseroles, and baked pies simply needed greater definition in their minds. This wasn’t culture they were experiencing. It was simply cafeteria food with labels they couldn’t read.

In any case, some began to complain some about the food. Then one day when they were preparing for a concert at a large arena in Mongolia, the young people took their daily allowance of approximately $5 into the city for lunch, resigned to eat another platter of food unfamiliar to their palettes. But lo and behold, as if it were a vision descending from heaven, three blocks into the city and to the left, there they were—the golden arches. That’s right, the golden arches of McDonald’s. No goulash this day. No mystery meat. No more lost among the unrecognizable. No, today they stepped eagerly to the counter and spoke the mantra to end all mantras, the refrain of many a lunch break from school, the words that themselves taste like honey fresh in the honeycomb: “I’ll take a Big Mac, fries, and a Diet Coke.”

Some speak of American cultural imperialism when it comes to our fast-food empire. The French, I believe, have sought to secure true French names for the various items on the McDonald’s menu. American nutritionists consistently announce the danger of eating too many Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers or of answering “yes” too many times to the question “Would you like fries with that?” American lawyers are just beginning to challenge the fast-food industry for the detrimental effects its menus have on the physical well-being of Americans.

Then there are the animal rights activists, green politicians, and those who are concerned about the ability of big business to squeeze out local mom and pop restaurants. Pick your angle. Pick your concern. In a sense it doesn’t really matter, because the kids on this tour, the young people visiting in outer Mongolia that one evening, preferred the golden arches to local fare. They preferred the empty calories to the food that had sustained generations in the local markets there. They had tired of what was good for them and likely even believed that their prayers had been answered by the sudden appearance of the “billions and billions served every day” sign.

Manna and quail were just what the Israelites needed while wandering in the desert. The Israelites, though disobedient, was not going to be left without nourishment while in the wilderness. God provided them with true heavenly food. Yet the Israelites would eventually complain about this gift as well, longing for the food of the Promised Land.

There’s what we need and what we want. Far too often they are at odds. Responding to Jesus’ declaration “I am the Bread of life,” the local leadership in his hearing is deeply offended. “Is he encouraging some kind of cannibalism? Surely he knows we are not to eat flesh with the blood still in it not to mention human flesh? This is an outrage, a scandal, even blasphemy!” Two chapters back, Jesus had spoken out in similar scandal as he addressed the woman at the well: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” ‘Where is that water? Where is the bread of which you speak? Where are the everyday staples that you will supply without end?”

Are you reminded here of what we were given in the Garden of Eden? I know I am. Are you reminded of the Tree of Life that stood in the midst of the Garden of Eden— the tree from which Adam and Eve ate and lived, the tree about which Adam and Eve cared so little that they disobeyed God, the tree from which Adam and Eve were banished after God confronts them with their wrongdoing?

It’s not so incomprehensible that we would not recognize the Tree of Life in Christ’s body. It’s not so incomprehensible that we would not see the eternal Bread and eternal River of Life in his Body. It’s not so incomprehensible that we couldn’t recognize it when generation after generation after generation has been barred from sampling the fruit of the Tree of Life. We had not only forgotten what it looked like but what it tasted like and felt like and how it satisfied like nothing else.

The lure of fast food in our culture can quickly deaden our palettes to foods that are better for us, foods with substance, foods with body, food that nourish. We can see how in a matter of weeks our taste buds can be trained to accommodate and desire foods that only do harm to our bodies. How much more so could we be inclined to forget the Tree of Life, the Bread of Life, the food upon which our whole being depends.

Jesus calls us today from this forgetfulness. He calls us from our banishment back to the promised Land to hold his Body, to be held by his arms, to eat the Bread of Life, and drink the cup of salvation.

Some parents will remember several years back, when the youth of the parish were charged to memorize the section of the catechism on the Holy Eucharist. Over the next several weeks, wherever you might be on the church campus, you were likely to be accosted by one of our grade-school youth who would come up to you and say: “Okay. Okay. Ask me. I’m ready. Ask me about the Holy Eucharist.”

And we would begin as per the Catechism, “What is the Holy Eucharist?”

A. “The Holy Eucharist is the sacrament commanded by Christ …” It was amazing to see the children put their brains and hearts to work. One afternoon as one of the children was reciting the answer to the second question in this section, I remembered how often this question is overlooked in our teaching:

“Why is the Eucharist called a sacrifice?”

A.: “Because the Eucharist, the Church’s sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, is the way by which the sacrifice of Christ is made present, and in which he unites us to his one offering of himself.”

The food without which we cannot live, the Bread of life, the cup of salvation, unites us with the Messiah, the Son of God, the hope of all creation. Every hope of unity, every hope that righteousness and peace might kiss each other, every hope that steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, is presented to us in this moment.

Depending on the Christian tradition on which you were weaned, you may remember, or at least have read, some Southern novelist who recounts, the anxiety and anguish experienced by the young man who sits on the back pew of a small countryside church during a revival. Moved by the words of the preacher, inspired by the Holy Spirit, searching his heart and life for the will of God, he wonders what he will do next. Before he realizes what had happened, two hours of worship have passed and the congregation was singing “I’ll Fly Away” and the preacher was standing in the middle of aisle calling forward all who would give their life to Jesus that night.

“Would you come? Would you come tonight and receive the Savior?” The young man wants to go, but he’s not sure if he should. The young man wants to walk down the aisle, but he’s not sure if he can hold to life it will require of him. The young man wants to stand up and ask Jesus to save him then and there. But suddenly the hymn comes to an end and the preacher moves on the benediction.

In traditions that have no altar, this is often referred to as the altar call. Holy Family has an altar call every week when the celebrant says, “The Gifts of God for the People of God.” He asks, would you come, today? Would you come and receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation? Will you leave the life of sin and shame behind and come to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord? This, I dare say, is the original altar call.

All of the struggle that the young man on the back pew of that country church went through, in essence, is the struggle we must experience in making the decision to walk down this aisle today. “I want to come down that aisle. I want to stand up and shout his name. But I’m just not sure I can hold to the life he will require of me.”

The questions may be many, concerns may abound, but do not hesitate. Do not remain seated on the back pew. It is this food that will be your strength. It is this food that will empower you to live the life of a disciple. It is this food that will bind you and me together as brothers and sisters. It is this food that will bind us together in the arms of God.

Do not settle for anything less. Anything less than this Bread and this cup will not satisfy, will not heal, and will not nourish. Leave your life of wandering behind. Come to this altar rail and taste real food. For as Jesus says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells in me and I in him …whoever eats this bread will live for ever.”

The Very Rev. Timothy E. Kimbrough is dean and rector of Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville.


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