Christmas Cactus 1995


Tarrytown United Methodist Church

February 19, 1995

Wayne Danielson

Christmas Cactus

Luke 12:16-21.    Then he told them a parable.  “There was a rich man who, having had a good harvest, from his hand thought to himself, ‘What am I to do?  I have not room enough for my crops.    Then he said, ‘This is what I will do;  I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones, and store all my grain and goods in them, and I will say to my soul:  My soul, you have plenty of good things laid by for many years to come; take things easy, eat, drink, have a good time.  But God said to him, ‘Fool!  This very night, the demand will be made for your soul; and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?’  So it is when a man stores up treasure for himself, instead of making himself rich in the sight of God.” 

Luke 18:9-15.  He spoke the following parable to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else.  “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee,  the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, ‘I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of of mankind, and particularly, that I am not like this tax collector here.  I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.’  The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner.’  This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Matthew 16:13.  When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi he put this question to his disciples, “Who do people say the Son Son  of Man is?”  And they said, “Some say he is John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”   “But you,” he said, “who do you say I am?”  Then Simon Peter spoke up, “You are the Christ,” he said, “the son of the living God”  Jesus replied, Simon, son of Jonah, you are a happy man!  Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.  So I now say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.  And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.  I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever  you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.”  Then he gave the disciples strict orders not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.

I thought you might like looking at our Christmas cactus.

It has been very good this year.

It kind of struggled along all summer on the shelf behind our sink.  It looked pretty pitiful actually.  But I had faith in it.  Along about the first of October I put it in the hall closet for a month -- no food, no water, no light.

I wasn’t being a  plant molester.  You are supposed to do this with Christmas cactuses.  Being without light changes their chemistry so they form flower buds.

It must have worked really well.  When I got the plant out of the closet it had lots of tiny white buds on it.  They grew and swelled, and the cactus started blooming right after Christmas.  It has been blooming ever since.

What a pleasure on these dark days of winter to come home to such lively color in the kitchen.

People have been asking me for cuttings, and I am happy to oblige them.  But the truth is, a Christmas cactus is kind of a weird plant.  It may bloom, and then again it may not.  It’s hard to tell.  It has to have the right situation, and it has to be properly taken care of, and even then you can’t be sure.

Miss Josephine Wooten, my sixth grade teacher, had a remarkable Christmas cactus in her classroom.  It sat on an old pump organ near the windows.  It was a large straggling plant.  It must have formed a ball about two feet in diameter.  She took good care of it.  She said she watered it only when the newspaper reported rain in Phoenix. 

What a pleasure it was for us students when it came into bloom in January and February, the coldest and darkest months of winter in Iowa.  It was a kind of miracle for such an ordinary looking plant, so plain and ratty looking most of the year, to bloom in such a spectacular way.

But as we used to say in Iowa, “You never know what will run out of a bush until you kick it.”

I’ve kicked a lot of bushes in my time, and I must admit that I have been surprised more than once by what ran out.

Take G. C. Wilhoit Jr., for example.

Of all the doctoral students I have advised, he was probably  the least promising. He grew up in the boonies of Eastern North Carolina.  Today, we might say he had been culturally deprived.  I took him and some other students on their first trip to New York City.  He walked around with his mouth hanging open.  He had no idea that people even existed like those he saw in Times Square.

As a student, G.C. was acceptable, but certainly not spectacular.  He turned his work in on time as a rule, but it was far from being brilliant.  G.C., I think, was  more interested in what his girlfriend, Frances Goins, was thinking than in what I was thinking.  One afternoon we were planning for  a demonstration of a new computer technique for some visiting publishers the next day.  G.C. spilled a whole tray of computer tapes all over the lab floor -- the guts of our demonstration.  As we looked at the mess,   G.C.  told me that he couldn’t possibly get the demonstration ready on time.

I did something I seldom do.  I lost it.  I told G.C. that I was fed up with his sloppy ways.  I told him that if he wanted to be my student he was going to have to hop to it.  Not only would he have the demonstration ready when the publishers arrived at noon the next day, he would have it ready by the time I got to the office at 8 a.m. the next morning. I turned and walked out of the room.

You might say I was kicking the bush.

That night I worried quite a bit about what might run out.

But when I got to the University the next morning, there was a sleepy G.C. Wilhoit waiting for me with everything cleaned up and ready to go.

“I really  do want to be your student,” he said. 

I have to say that I was proud of G.C. Wilhoit that day, and I have been proud of him ever since.   He has never quit running from that day  to this.  He has had a spectacular career -- with the lovely Frances always at his side.  It goes to show, I think, that you can’t always tell what’s on the inside of a person by looking at what’s on the outside.  And people don’t necessarily turn out the way we think they will.

Things happen.  People change.  Sometimes they change fast, and they change a lot.

All you have to do is kick the bush a little bit, and all kinds of things will run out. 

This past election was like that, don’t you think?

It wasn’t much of an election or anything.  Nobody was running for president.  It looked like pretty much more of the same old thing.   People weren’t even very much interested in the election.

But my goodness look what happened.

A lot of feelings had been building up inside of people.

You couldn’t tell by looking, but lots of people were ready for a change.

And they certainly got it.

Marvin Olasky of our faculty has been advocating conservative policies for years.  Nobody ever paid him a lot of attention around the University.  But all at once, after the election, he got called back to Washington, and now Old Marvin is one of the fellows who’s advising  Newt Gingrich on what to do. 

It’s amazing.

You never know what will run out of a bush until you kick it.

You think some ideas are dead and gone,  but watch out -- here they come again.  They weren’t dead at all.  They were just kind of lying there waiting for a chance to grow and express themselves.  Kind of like the cactus flower.

You just can’t tell.

Matt, my oldest son,  was pretty wild as a young boy.  He was so bad the minister didn’t really want to confirm him in the church.  But I was insistent and so he did.  Now of all the four children, Matt is the one who is down the hall today teaching the two-year-old Sunday school  class.  His wife Marty has a lot to do with getting him here -- let’s admit it -- but it’s amazing nonetheless.  Matt is the one in church, asd during the week, he’s the one who works with the really bad kids in the Austin schools, helping them mend their ways.

As a young boy, Ben was deathly afraid of airplanes.  He got sick just looking at one standing on the runway.   On vacation trips, you had to kind of drag him on the plane kicking and screaming.  People would ask to have their seats changed rather than sit next to him.  Now he’s the international financial officer for South America for Dell Computers.  I never know what country he is in.  He flies all the time.  Over the Andes.  Over the Amazon.  Into the heart of the drug cartels in Colombia.  It’s amazing.  You never know how someone will  turn out.

Paul was not exactly a champion student in college.  He had a fine memory and he went to class -- I will say that for him.  But he was determined to make it through without reading any of the books, and, unless I am mistaken, that is exactly what he did.  It took him a couple of extra years, but eventually he got his degree.  And now he  is regional manager in Houston for Sun Life of Canada, bidding for health and life insurance contracts for major companies all over the state.   It’s an exacting business, and he is good at it.   He can tell you exactly what it costs to die of almost any disease you can name.  He’s surprising.  Of all the children, he’s the one who will be best able to take care of me in my declining years.  I never would have expected it.  It’s remarkable.

You might say that Grace changed the least of all the children.  She was sweet and kind as a child, and she is still sweet and kind as a grownup mother of three.  But don’t let that sweetness fool you.  When it’s necessary, Grace can go for the throat.  When Houston developers planned to turn the nature center near her home into a subdivision, Grace helped organize the neighbors, found all kinds of endangered species in the area, and put the project on hold.  When she discovered that poor kids were not getting their shots because of bureaucratic hangups in Austin, she burned up the phone wires to get the vaccines moving again.   She drives alone into some of Houston’s toughest neighborhoods bringing medical care to Spanish-speaking moms and their kids.  Not exactly what I would have expected from sweet and shy Grace.  You just can’t tell how kids are going to turn out.  What you see is not necessarily what you get.

I think my children are pretty surprised with  me, too.  They had me figured out.  I would probably change, but not all that much.  Now they’re not so sure.  “Dad, you look different,” Gracie says to me.   “It’s all due to my design consultant,” I tell her.   “She picks out my ties and makes sure they match my coat.”   Paul calls me up on the car phone.  “Where are you going this month, you World travelers?” he says, “I never know where you’re going to be any more.”   Ben drops by my office, “I’m your No. 2 son,” he says, “You do remember me don’t you?”  Matt and Marty and the kids visit on Sunday just to check up on me.  “What’s different in your house this week?”  the grandchildren want to know.   “Everything is always changing.”  Paul says I used to be a “patter,” and now I’m a “rubber.”   “I just don’t believe it,” he says, “Once a patter, always a patter.  What’s going on?”

They can’t believe  that I am changing, that I have changed.  They can’t understand that a new life is possible anytime we really want to make it so.

But we’re all like cactus flowers. 

We may seem pretty ratty and scraggly.  But put us in the closet for a few months, and we might still be capable of blooming.  Some of us clean up pretty well.   We can surprise people.

Christianity, among the world’s religions, is recognized as being one of the most optimistic and outgoing.   It is at its heart, enterprising and enthusiastic and upbeat.

It is ambitious.  It seeks converts.  It wants to change things.  It looks forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God.  But it does not simply wait for that day --  it works to bring that day about.  It works to achieve that kingdom.

Christianity is other-worldly, some people say.  That is, it imagines a world that is different from the one we see around us.  It imagines people who are different from the people that they once were.

Some other religions say, “ You can’t change people.  You can’t change the world.  The best thing to do is just learn to accept what happens.”

Christianity  may be other worldly.  But it is not like that. It is not passive.   It is an active force.  It does not simply accept.  It acts. It does not feel that God is distant and unattainable and whose will is unknowable.  It feels that God is an active force for good in the world, and that people should line up on God’s side and get the things done that need to be done.

Where does this energy  come from? 

It seems to me that it comes directly from Jesus Christ, its founder and head.

The teachings of Jesus are filled with examples of change and activity.

Nothing is what it seems.  Nothing is what we “expect.”  Everything is different.  Everything is upside down.  Everything is changing.  Jesus pays scant attention to tradition.  He pays scant attention to appearance and prestige and rank and status.

Who is a wise man?  The man who builds new houses and barns on earth?  The man who is always getting ready for the future?  The man  who is afraid of the future?  The man  who spends nothing now?   No.  In the parable God calls him a fool, and Jesus advises his flock to lay up treasures in heaven.

Who is the righteous man in the synagogue?  The good looking fellow who stands up front saying his prayers and hoping everyone will notice his expensive clothes?  Not at all.  Jesus notices the Christmas cactus.  The scroungey looking fellow in the back row who beats himself on the chest and says “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Who contributes the most to the Lord?  Those who make their ostentatious way into the temple, throwing their gifts into the bowl with great gusto and show?  Not at all.  Jesus says God is interested in that poor widow, who modestly casts in all she has -- a mite, a penny, into the collection.  Hers is the real gift, Jesus says.   What you see is not what you get.  Appearances mean little.  Intentions mean all.  Righteous action means all.

Of the disciples, which one does Jesus recognize as holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Is it James or John -- the sons of thunder -- the  talented preachers with the ambitious mother?  Are they the ones?  Is it Judas, so good with money?    No, it is poor, bumbling Simon -- the one who never seems to know what is going on.  It is Simon, the one who always puts his foot into it.  And why is this?  It is because Jesus looks beyond appearances and sees to the heart of the man, and knows that that heart is pure and faithful unto death.  Simon says to Jesus,“You are the Christ,” he said, “the son of the living God.”  Jesus replied, “Simon, son of Jonah, you area happy man!  Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.  So I now say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.  And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.  I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever  you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.” 

Who is honored in the parables of Jesus?  In the story of the man is lying hurt and injured by the side of the road, who is honored by Jesus?  Is it the priest?  No, he hurried on by, off to do some holy office.    The man whom Jesus honors  is the despised Samaritan, the one who stopped to help.  Jesus honors the one who took some action for good.  That’s the one.

Who is honored among the servants who were left money by their lord to invest during his absence?  Was it the conservative one who hid the money in a napkin?  Not at all.  It was the one who did something with it.  It was the one who invested it and got a return on that investment.  It was the one who acted.

The energy in Christianity, the glowing heart of the religion, came from Jesus

himself.  And in all the ages since it has come from men and women who, disregarding appearances, disregarding tradition, have been willing to change themselves and to encourage change in others. 

The glowing heart of the religion came from  Paul, who defying tradition, allied himself with the outcast Christians and spread the word of God across the face of the Roman world.

The energetic heart of the religion came from Francis, who gave up a life of power and luxury to become  God’s servant in love to the poor and outcast of his time, so overflowing with the desire to spread God’s word, that he even preached a sermon to the birds.

The glowing heart of the religion, its purest expression,  came from John Newton, a ship’s master, bringing slaves to the United States from Africa, who one day found he could no longer do this, could no longer be this kind of man.  He sat down and wrote one of the most beloved of all our hymns, Amazing Grace, an enduring testimony to the power of God to change our lives.

The heart of the religion, its essential expression,  came from Dietrich Bonhoffer, imprisoned by the Nazis for daring to challenge the morality of their actions, who went forth to die with courage in his soul and with blessings  for his execuktioners on his lips.

The heart of the religion comes from  MotherTheresa, in the slums of India, whose life is a continuous reminder to all the self-satisfied citizens of the rich nations that three-fourths of the people of the globe live in hunger and want and die in disease and suffering.

The heart of the religion, its essential expression and meaning,  comes from us, in our daily lives, when we look at our children and grandchildren and see not what has always been there, but what might be there -- what is there, certainly, waiting to happen -- what will happen in God’s good time.   Tthe heart of the religion, its essential expression, comes from us, in our daily lives, when we look at our cities and our schools and our universities, and see not the way it has always been, the way that it is , but the way that it could be, and we set out to help bring change about.  The heart of our religion -- its essential meaning --   comes from  us in our own lives, when we look at ourselves in the mirror, and see not what has always been there -- what is there certainly -- but what might be there,  if we are willing to acknowledge the changing power of God. 

Jesus knew, and he taught, that things are not necessarily what they seem.   The least promising students sometimes tukrn out to be the best.  People can change.  The traits we see in our children are not necessarily those they will have as adults.  People change.  You never know what will rukn out of a bush until you kick it.  The plainest folks may be beautiful inside.   God sees the human heart -- the inside of us, and not just the outside.  He knows us, and yet he loves us still, and he believes in us.  He has faith that we can change, outside and inside, for the better.  Do you believe that?  I do. Belief in the the miracle of change lies at the very heart of our faith, and  I only have to look at the Christmas cactus on our window sill to know that miracles happen all the time.