Bonsai, barns, and building a legacy

A sermon for Year C Proper 13: July 31 2022. In the news: devastating floods in eastern Kentucky

A few weeks ago, on my way to General Convention in Baltimore, I stopped off in Washington, DC, and visited the National Arboretum. That was where we found the bonsai museum.

I had not realized that such a wide variety of trees could be made into bonsai. Perhaps my favourite was the olive grove, a miniature version of the scene that greets visitors to the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. Some of the bonsai were relatively young; others were hundreds of years old. I got to thinking about the generations of trainers and nurturers who had tended those trees – how many hands must they have passed through? Then I wondered, when a bonsai is inherited, when its originator dies, is the inheritor expected to be faithful to the vision of the first owner, or does each generation add its own twist, as it were, to the trunk and the branches?

The readings that we hear today, particularly from the Teacher of Ecclesiastes and from the good teacher, Jesus, focus on legacies. 

Ecclesiastes rails against what he sees as his wasted work – he does not trust that his legacy will be respected or worthily received. “Sometimes,” he says, “one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it.” He declaims this as a great evil. (Ecclesiastes 2:18-23)

And yet, I think of the bonsai, hundreds of years old. I am told that bonsai take a lot of work, and daily attention. The trees signal subtly their needs, and their carers rush to interpret their signs and respond to them. True, it must be true that some, perhaps many, have been lost along the way, bequeathed to inheritors who had neither the skill nor the inclination to nurture them. And yet here are those that have been tenderly serviced and kept from generation to generation – and who can say that their first parent’s skill or wisdom or knowledge was wasted? Perhaps it inspired a new generation to learn something new about caring for the bonsai, about listening to the leaves, about selfless engagement with creation.

To consider our work wasted if another is to inherit it or reap the benefit of it is a terribly selfish and limiting point of view. This is exactly the parable that Jesus told, of the rich man who thought of nothing but enjoying the profits of his own work, and forgot to look beyond his own storage barns. (Luke 12:13-21) The joke is on him, though: God asks, “these things you have prepared, whose will they be?” The rich man will leave a legacy whether he likes it or not, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if those storage barns were opened up to the poor and the needful to take whatever they could use, and they celebrated him as a great benefactor, who had no thoughts of generosity in his own lifetime? Wouldn’t it be just like God to subvert his selfishness and redeem his legacy despite his limited outlook?

And wouldn’t the man have enjoyed seeing that redemption in his lifetime, if he had remembered to look beyond his own barns, if he had for a moment thought of the servants who built them and filled them and perhaps even went home hungry? “Didn’t toil for it?” they mutter, behind Ecclesiastes’ back. None of us survives or thrives without the labour of others; our legacy is not entirely our own.

And we have seen, all too clearly and nearly, how quickly a life can be swept away, and worldly possessions with it. Even that which endures is transformed: love into grief, faith into lament, hope into who knows what?

The precipitating scene for this parable of Jesus is the argument between two brothers over their inheritance. Jesus refuses to get involved, but he does warn against letting material possessions take precedence over relationship, with God and with one another. He warns against limiting our view of what we inherit, and what we leave as an inheritance; against being over-rich in worldly goods, but poor toward God and our neighbour.

The Book of Common Prayer has an obscure rubric tucked away at the end of the service of Thanksgiving for a Child – obscure because it is buried within that particular liturgy, even though it is not only addressed to parents or families. It provides that “The Minister of the Congregation is directed to instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provision for the well-being of their families, and of all persons to make wills, while they are in good health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.” (BCP, 445)

In other words, while Jesus will not tell you how to solve disputes over the distribution of inherited goods, the church advises that it is better to think ahead, in order to head off such arguments before they begin; to be as clear as possible about how you would like your goods distributed after you have no further need of them, to do so with a heart for charity, with a sense of responsibility toward family, and with the understanding that all things come from one Creator, and that nothing is ours forever, since we ourselves will one day return to the dust from whence we were formed.

The thing about thinking about our legacies generously, rather than complaining like Ecclesiastes or hoarding like the rich man in the parable; the thing about imagining those who will take on the bonsai, and continue to care for it and shape it and tend it, is that it lets us look at our lives now, the shape of them, the trajectory of them, and assess whether the legacy that we are nurturing is the one by which we would want to be remembered, the one we would want to outlive us, outgrow us.

This past week I spent some time with young people enjoying a summer peace camp. We gathered in a hot parking lot with a hot forge and they helped hammer gun parts into a garden tool and leaves for the healing of the nations, leaves for a tree of life made out of ammunition magazines. They are already thinking about the legacy they will bring to their community, not after they are gone but now, while they are young and vibrant and hot with the possibilities of forging a life for themselves and for their brothers and sisters and siblings.

They made a tree of life, not out of bonsai but out of gun parts, and I fixed it in a frame, but it will not be bound by glue and glass. It grows in them, with them, I hope.

The legacy that Jesus left us is life, and life with abundance. It is our inheritance, it is our joy and our salvation. It is ours here, and now, and it is not our own; but we are invited to nurture it, shape it, tend it, share it, so that all who pass by may see what hope there is in Christ, what resilience, what love.


Bonsai image: detail from photo by Sarah Dorweiler on Unsplash

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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