Bishop Koenig’s homily on the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2022. It was a Mass of celebration of Black History Month at St. Joseph Church on French Street in Wilmington on Feb. 13.
As we gather today to celebrate Black History Month, I invite us to begin by reflecting upon Jeremiah and trees. In our first reading today, the prophet Jeremiah introduces us to two trees. One is planted in a lava waste, on a salted and empty earth. It is barren and enjoys no change of season. The other tree is planted by waters where its roots ensure that its leaves will remain green and its branches bear fruit. In delivering this prophecy, Jeremiah was warning King Zedekiah of what would happen if the king, in being threatened by the Babylonian empire, made a covenant with Egypt to battle Babylon instead of trusting in the covenant with God. Unfortunately, Jeremiah’s warning fell on deaf ears, the king made the ill-fated covenant with Egypt and, within ten years, Israel had fallen to the Babylonians. Israel became that barren and lifeless tree.
It would be especially nice, would it not, if things were always as simple as Jeremiah’s prophecy? It would be nice, if by staying close to God, you flourished and never floundered, grew strong and never strained, were victorious and never vanquished. Before dismissing Jeremiah as some pie-in-the-sky dreamer whose head is in the clouds and who has no clue as to the curveballs that life at times throws our way, please know that Jeremiah’s life was filled with adversity and hardship. His life was more like the life Jesus holds up to us in the Beatitudes we heard in today’s Gospel where those who follow God’s command hunger and weep at times and are even hated.
For while Jeremiah himself was an extraordinary person and his prophetic calling in 650 B.C. began with enthusiasm and hope, his mission to bring God’s word to people fell quickly on deaf ears. Arrest, imprisonment, and public disgrace were his lot. Jerusalem was ultimately captured and Jeremiah was exiled to Egypt where he died. We can unreservedly say that Jeremiah’s influence was much greater after his death than during his lifetime.
And so what kind of tree was Jeremiah? Since he seemingly does not fit into either of the trees that he holds out to us in today’s reading, I introduce to you a third tree: the 9/11 tree that was replanted and grows at the site of the 9/11 memorial in New York City. For those who may not be aware of this tree, it was found under the rubble of the twin trade towers by rescue workers about a month after the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center. It was a Callery pear tree and was still holding on to life, albeit barely. Its roots and branches were twisted and broken. Its trunk was severely damaged from the destruction that had taken place all around it. Nonetheless, the rescue workers who found it held out a glimmer of hope that it perhaps could be saved.
It was removed from Ground Zero and sent to the Arthur Ross Nursery in the Bronx where caring professionals tended to it. While initially there was little hope of its survival, it gradually began to flourish and grow. By 2010, nine years after it had been found at Ground Zero, the nursery’s staff felt it was now sturdy enough to survive being replanted once more — back at Ground Zero.
Now known as the “Survivor Tree,” it was replanted at the site of its near-demise and became part of a 9/11 Memorial. The tree is far from perfect, and one can clearly see the memory of the trauma the tree once suffered. Its new branches shoot off a stump that reminds all of New York and the United States that wounds can heal, but memories remain.
As we celebrate Black History Month, and are mindful of the past, I am very conscious of the great contributions made for the betterment of all by men and women like George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, Thea Bowman, Pierre Toussant and Maya Angelou, to name just a few. But while I recall their lives, I am also aware that we, like that 9/11 tree, bear the scars and memories of past hurts that are also part of our history. May the scars from past traumas help us never to forget our past and how much we still need to go. But may they never limit us choosing to live as God calls us to live as brothers and sisters in Christ.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that the poor are blessed -— for the kingdom of God is theirs. It is not material poverty and destitution that Jesus is holding up to us, but rather a simplicity of life and a reliance not on material things but on the strength and grace of God. It is in that trust in God that we are called to live with and for one another.
I end today with an epilogue on the 9/11 tree. Over the years since the 9/11 tree was planted in the 9/11 Memorial Garden, it has been sharing the hope of survival with communities that have experienced devastating losses in their own way. The 9/11 Memorial gives three seedlings from the Survivor Tree to communities all over the world that are coping with tragedy of all kinds. In 2013, seedlings were sent to Prescott, Ariz., where 19 firefighters died battling an Arizona wildfire. In 2015 seedlings were sent to Newtown, Conn., where 20 schoolchildren and six adults who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In 2020, seedlings were sent to Christchurch, New Zealand, where a Mass shooting took the lives of 51 people.
The seedlings are then planted as a sign of hope and the possibilities of renewal and recovery.
As we gather at Mass today, we are mindful of how society and, in particular Americans of African descent, like the survivor tree, bear the scars from the evil of the past. But we are also like the 9/11 Memorial visitors who, gazing upon the Survivor tree, behold its vibrancy, beauty and resilience. And we are above all grateful for the ways that the lives and contributions of Black Americans, like the seedlings from that 9/11 tree, have been the been the seeds of understanding, healing, hope and ultimately love. The call to greatness is answered by living such a life. It is seen in the example of Martin Luther King, the joy of Thea Bowman, the courage of Jackie Robinson, the grace and artistry of Sidney Poitier. It is seen in the lives of world renown figures, it is seen in the lives of Black Americans who, while far removed from the world stage, have made an impact upon their families and communities.
As we celebrate Black History Month, may all of us be strengthened in seeing one another as brother and sister and may we, like a tree planted beside the waters of God’s grace, produce seeds that flourish in places of need.
Bishop William E. Koenig is the tenth bishop of the Diocese of Wilmington.