Root & Branch

This is a sermon I preached in Union City, Michigan on the second Sunday of Advent. See if you can count the number of Ursula Le Guin references.

Back in 2014 I made a pilgrimage to Scotland. (I was ordained while I was there.) One of the places we saw was Glasgow Cathedral, in the center of the city, now a Presbyterian church: full of richly ornamented stained glass, of altar cloths and incense, of intricate woodwork and heraldry and portraits and symbols of worldly power.

But another place we traveled as our gang of misfit Christians was a small cave.

En route to that cave, we snaked down a single lane road and rounded a bend before our route took us through acres of Scottish timber plantations after a recent logging harvest. The whole area looked as though it were a Christmas tree farm after the December rush: nothing but stumps and short scrubby bushes of heather as far as you could see.

When we finally stopped the car and got out, we trudged through a thicket of heather and nameless weeds, down a nearly invisible rock path, and through an ancient wooden fence, we made it to the cave, where innumerable pilgrims before our group had left candles, rosaries, crosses, and flowers, caking the damp cave walls with prayers. Above the entrance to the cave, roots from the trees growing above had grown deep into the granite cliff face and seemed to be holding together the whole thing. This small cave at the end of a deep inlet from the sea was the place where an ancient saint, Columba, was said to wait and pray while awaiting permission from the local king to establish the now-famous monastery on the island of Iona.

The story of Christianity in Scotland (which we as the United Church of Christ are inheritors of) has as much to do with this forgotten, nearly impossible-to-find cave as it does with the cathedral in the city center—perhaps even more so. And it has as much to do with the gentle roots that hold that cave entrance together as it does with the gentle strength of roots that hold us together.

I imagine the seemingly barren hills of the timber plantations as I read this passage from the prophet Isaiah: he sees, as I saw, the hillsides barren, the forest felled. He sings of such devastation to a people weary of despair, of uncertainty, a people whose land has become a waste of stumps as far as the eye can see after wars and conquests and exchanges of power and the failed promises of politicians and kings.

Isaiah sang to an Israel who was continually caught in this boom or bust cycle that no king or governor or head of state could break. A king gets it right for a while. Then they start getting it wrong, then things get bad. It goes completely off the rails before a new king steps to the throne and does a better job. And then their successor screws it up again. And it happens again, and again, and again.

Such is the pattern of Israelite kings, such is the pattern of rulers and politicians throughout time and space, even today: they talk big talk, they falter, and they fail to keep their end of the deal. They fail to be what they are supposed to be. To Israel, kings were supposed to be champions of the people, defenders of the poor and widowed, protectors of those without other recourse. They rarely were.

To an exhausted audience, Isaiah sings of a coming ruler who will finally, put an end to this unending wheel of boom and bust. Someone who will finally make justice and equity manifest for everyone. Someone who will bring about a reign of peace that will completely change how the world works, turning enemies into friends, drawing us back to right relationship with the natural world, and healing the planet.

I don’t know about you but I’m not aware of any head of state who has successfully brokered a peace treaty between lions and lambs, between foxes and hens, between predators and prey.

Yet, we Christians have traditionally understood Isaiah’s dream as being fulfilled in Jesus… but we look around and see, gosh, extortion, predatory behavior, state-sanctioned violence that continues to push people to the margins for being the wrong color or the wrong gender or the wrong sexuality or the wrong tax bracket. If Jesus was supposed to fix all of this, it seems like he did kind of a bad job. So interpreters sometimes post-date the healing of the world: “well, Jesus will actually fix it all when he comes back, no big deal, right?”

What’s happening here?

Nothing is as it seems when we’re talking about God. Those of us who have been around church long enough should know that by now. And before we focus all of our attention and energy on may or may not yet happen, perhaps we should look down at the ground we’re standing on now to understand more deeply what it is that’s happening right beneath our feet. What has happened. For the God that Jesus shows us is a God who moves silently and sideways, springing new life upon us when we least expect it.

For though the Israelite vineyard, and the Assyrian forest that replaced it, have been brought down to the ground, felled and razed, Isaiah sings that there yet remains a shred of life in the roots of Jesse. Those roots survived the chaos, the war, the fire, the felling; out of the seemingly dead stump, a new shoot emerges when the spirit of God calls it forth.

There are, of course, plants in nature that do this naturally. It’s not that shocking when it happens. But what we overlook is that plants that do this aren’t desirable, pretty, useful ones. Pines, maples, birches, cherries, those trees don’t just grow back when you chop them down. Yet there are some that do: plants like kudzu, like paulownia, like Bradford pears—species that we consider “invasive.”

These plants carry the bulk of their growing power not in their trunks or branches, but in their roots. In their rhizomes, which spread out and gather strength until the growing season dawns again. They grow with such vigor that botanists call them invasive when it might just be that their wild ways are the wisdom we need in a burnt-over world. A Paulownia tree’s dumbfounding growth—40 feet tall in the course of one growing season—makes it one of the most efficient carbon capture technologies on the planet. And kudzu, the vine that ate the south and wiggled its way into my own heart, now holds together hillsides and mountains with vast networks of entangled roots that are nearly impossible to cut out entirely.

These plants, ones which we’d rather forget about—or worse, eradicate—are simply doing what God has called them to do: to grow, to flourish, despite what we humans expect good plants to do. So it is with the branch shooting upward, 40 feet in a year, from Jesse’s buried roots: this branch does not rule according to human expectations, but attends to matters unseen. So Isaiah says, “he shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.

Where is the strength of the branch to do all of this? It’s in the roots, which put out branches when the spirit of God calls them forward. And it is not the branch alone that does the work of healing the world, but indeed, the root system is what holds the soil together, that binds it, that purifies it, entangling all the other roots in the burned-over hillside in its grasp to heal the soil, to make it whole again.

Friends, we must remember our roots. The Church—you and I, ordinary folk—find ourselves entangled wholly in this holy root system called Christ. Because of that, we cannot judge by eye or ear alone. We can only judge by the heart.

So long as the roots of Jesse spread outward through all the soil of the world and send up shoots wherever they will, those roots will entangle ours too, connecting us to the wisdom of God that taught roots to grow in the first place. And because of that, the Branch might show up in the wildest places imaginable, breaking through the burned-over earth, the wreckage of war, barren thickets of hatred and addiction and scarcity. Places where only the heart, not the eye or the ear, can see as good.

Though the era of the institutional Church has died off, there remains yet life in the roots underneath the ground. Churches are closing. Religion is becoming an increasingly forgotten part of society. And still we find ourselves as a society in the boom and bust cycle of powerful men seeking power for its own sake at the expense of those at the margins.

Indeed, I have yet to see the wild promises of which Isaiah sings. I ask, we ask, “how long, Lord?”

To which God says: look around, kid. So let me tell you about the wild branches I have seen shooting up from the earth.

I’ve not seen a lion lie down with a lamb in peace, but I have seen enemies become friends, and I have seen estranged family relationships come back together in spite of all odds and quite in spite of individual egos. I have seen Churches say “no more” to unchecked voices of hatred and take a stand with those at the margins.

I’ve not seen children playing safely in the den of an adder, but I have seen children wounded by the world turn deadly poison into medicine for healing others who have suffered trauma or loss. I have seen Church communities throw open their doors to create safe, enriching spaces for children that the powerful would rather forget about.

I’ve not seen cows and bears out to pasture together, but I have seen strangers welcomed at a table where all are fed and there’s more than enough to go around. I have seen, through regular folks coming together, the land defended from capitalism run amok, and nature healed; new life sprouts up in pockets where God’s peaceable reign has spread its wild roots.

And just like real roots in nature do, the Root of Jesse, the power that we Christians call “Christ,” never forces, it never coerces: simply by growing does a root rend boulders. Simply by growing into our hearts does Christ rend the walls of fear and scarcity that keep us locked in a perpetual cycle of violence and exclusion against one another.

It’s not big and sexy, but it’s deeper magic, a more mind-bending miracle than all of the world’s weirdness.

Our celebration of Advent reminds us that the Root of Jesse and its Righteous Branches are too big to be contained to the confines of human government, as those who first heard Isaiah’s song expected them to be. They will, and have, so spread that they’ve worked subtle tendrils into the soil of our own hearts, of human hearts—we whose True Name means soil.

As we prepare once again for the flourishing Root of Jesse to sunder the rocky soil of our souls in this perpetual dance of growth, decay, and growth again, let us look to where righteous branches towering out of long-forgotten stumps signal the arrival of God’s reign of implausible peace. Amen.

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