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A Root Shall Grow

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Dec 04

Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12

“A shoot shall come out from the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.”

Isaiah’s beautiful, poetic words about a future promise were written in a troubled time. It was between 740 and 700 BCE under the threat of the Assyrian conquest of Israel and Judah, just as a powerful and dreaded king was coming to power—Tiglath-pileser of Assyria—who took power through a palace coup. This founder of the Assyrian empire was known as a brilliant military strategist, who controlled populations through forcible relocation. Things were looking bleak for Israel and Judah when Isaiah wrote these words.

Yet Isaiah knows that, with God, all things are possible. He uses the metaphor of a stump—something that appears dead and lifeless—to make a point about hope. Out of the stump of Jesse, shall come new life and promise. A shoot shall grow, and then branches—lush, green, and filled with new life. Perhaps this is a promise we need to hear in these darkening days: God’s power surpasses our own limited vision. Even our finest imagination.

This morning I have placed a stump on our communion table. You’ll see it again in a couple of weeks in the Un-pageant, starring as the stump of Jesse. This is the stump of a yellowwood tree that once graced the front lawn of our church, planted over a century ago by famed Harvard botanist, Asa Gray. (Hunter Dupris, Asa Gray’s biographer, is with us today, as he is most Sundays.) Two years ago, we had to remove two trees that had come to the end of their natural lives. Ancient trees, they dropped seeds every year, sprouting new growth, but their trunks and massive branches were hollow on the inside, as the trees were gradually dying.

We harvested hundreds of seeds, and now—in the Arnold Arboretum—dozens of sproutlings are growing from our yellowwoods. Laurie Friedman and Barb Hume have set up a yellowwood nursery and are carefully caring for a dozen small saplings at their home. We gave one of these saplings to Dick and Gay Harter when they moved away in September—a symbol of our mutual love and faith, our shared heritage, of our hope for the future of the church.

There is a strong, mature yellowwood growing along Garden Street in the corner of the property adjacent to the Sheraton. Next year when we get our exterior renovations underway, we hope to create a yellowwood heritage garden in the shade of that tree. These are gentle, hopeful images of a real tree, whose branches span many generations.

Yet we should look beyond the shade of this one tree. As our mission statement suggests, being grounded in God is accompanied by growth in community and action in the world. As we are drawn deep into God’s nourishing Spirit in these darkening days of Advent, we must also look outward.

Isaiah’s vision of the “peaceful kingdom” is not limited to the people of Israel and Judah. His images speak of the reconciliation of all creation—people, animals and land. He proclaims a coming time when “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

Our relationship with each other and with the land is so very distant from this vision of harmony, where predators and prey lie down together. More often we are at each other’s throats over attempts to control the land and its resources.

The standoff at Standing Rock is a painful case in point, going on right now, as Indigenous peoples and “water protectors” attempt to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from encroaching on sacred ancestral lands and threatening the water supply. The pipeline is designed to carry thousands of barrels of crude oil from its origin in North Dakota to a facility in Illinois.

Critics say the pipeline puts water ecosystems at too great a risk. They claim environmental racism, as the initial proposed route for the pipeline took it across the Missouri River, just north of Bismarck. That plan was scrapped. Dave Archambault, Standing Rock Tribal Chairman, also points out that “of the ten poorest counties in [the U.S.], two of them are on Standing Rock.” (1)

As Christians, we should be alarmed when indigenous people and the poorest of the poor suffer in this way. Our gospel has some strong things to say about caring for “the least of these.”

The Sioux are calling the pipeline “the black snake,” and using the slogan, “kill the black snake,” for their opposition to the pipeline. A far cry from Isaiah’s vision that “the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.” And a far cry from the Sioux’s own relationship with the beloved earth. No peaceable kingdom there.

Native peoples and activists have been in a standoff with local authorities for many weeks. They have been targeted with rubber bullets, tear gas, fire hoses and water cannons in freezing temperatures. One activist, Sophia Wilansky, a friend of Susan Redlich, nearly lost her arm when she was hit by a concussion grenade. And now the Amy Corps of Engineers and the Governor or North Dakota have set tomorrow, Monday December 5, as a deadline for the protestors to leave the site or be forcibly removed.

As Winona Laduke says, “What we see is, we have militarized the energy industry.” (2)

Lord have mercy. I know that we are all implicated in U.S. patterns of energy consumption. And I’m not here to propose a specific policy solution. But I also know that I don’t want more violence to be done in my name, to secure fossil fuels for my consumption. I pray for the people of Standing Rock, for activists, for local law enforcement, for the Army Corps of Engineers—for a peaceful resolution.

Sometimes it is hard to see our way forward, to imagine a good thing, to believe that new life might break forth in a situation that seems a dead-end. During the season of Advent, we are invited to look deep within, to look at who we are collectively—and to allow ourselves to experience the gulf between the world as it is and the world as it might be. Advent is a subjunctive season, where we dangle in awkward hope and expectation of what we might become.

There is a deep quietude in the season of Advent. In our quiet preparation, we are invited to bring ourselves fully before God—with all our pain, sorrow, heartbreak and longing, with all the glimmerings of hope and the seeds of peace within us, the tender green shoots of new life.

This morning we lit the Advent candle of peace. It’s fairly easy to see how our Isaiah passage speaks to the theme of peace. But what of John the Baptist? The wild prophet in the foothills of Judea who calls his followers to repentance? Is this scripture about peace in any real sense?

If we seek the peace of God, which passes all understanding, then perhaps some repentance is in order. Recall that the essential meaning of “repent” is to return. In what ways might we need to turn back toward God? To turn our attention to caring for our neighbors?

One of the hard lessons of the November election season is that “progressives” need to listen carefully to the voices of people who do not share their life experiences or ideology, and especially to the voices of those who feel economically dispossessed.

We need to “turn back” and try to understand. Not for the sake of ideological agreement. Not because we will forsake our core values. Not because we intend to abandon our policies. And certainly not in order to make concessions to hate.

We need to repent of the kind of “othering” that keeps us so deeply divided. It is relatively simple to lift up the “abstract other” as the object of our care and compassion. But loving our actual neighbors is not such and easy thing. Especially if we are standing face-to-face on a protest line, as they look into our eyes with bewilderment—or contempt. Or if they are yelling hateful vitriol at us inside the corridors of the Statehouse.

To love our neighbor is not an easy thing. To make peace with our neighbor is not an easy thing. It’s not an abstract ideal, but hard, face-to-face work with people who may bewilder us, or terrify us, and who may, in turn, actually despise us.

Many of you have wondered aloud about what to do in the aftermath of the election.

For one thing, we need to see each other across our divides. Not to compromise cherished ideals, but to understand each other on a human level. And we need prepare ourselves for deep, sustained, savvy, and nuanced work that brings together care for our communities, care for the land, and respect for persons.

In the late 1980s and early 90s some of you will remember the campaign to save the spotted owl, whose habitat was being destroyed by the clear-cutting of old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. The spotted owl controversy pitted local, working-class loggers in a region with no other industry—against environmentalists. Species extinction and habitat destruction, against massive economic dislocation.

The controversy occurred the same year the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the sound, killing hundreds of thousands of marine animals. Back in 1989, “fake science” was used to argue, “it’s not really so bad,” as the oil industry mocked environmental concerns.

Things got pretty ugly. Driving through the Olympic Peninsula that summer, my husband and I saw local bumper stickers that read, “I heart spotted owls, fried in Exxon oil.”

I know now that I need to understand the loggers who are so “pissed off” that they make that bumper sticker, so “othered” by the environmental movement that they felt invisible.

Even in the urgency of this moment, as protestors face off against law enforcement in North Dakota, we need to be wise and savvy, and prepare to do the painstaking, nuanced work that keeps us in dialog, helps us understand each other, and takes the long view.

In this season of Advent, some of us are anxious. Some are broken-hearted. Let us remember that it’s good to organize. It’s essential that we stand in opposition to ideologies that destroy, and policies that damage peoples, communities and ecosystems.

Most of all, it’s good to come together in worship, to hear stories of our forebears who made it through impossible times, even to contemplate a dry stump. And to remember that with God, all things are possible.

1) Dave Archambault II, Standing Rock Tribal Chairman.
2) http://www.motherjones.com/media/2016/11/short-film-standing-rock-dakota...

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