I have always loved trees. I love looking at them. I loved climbing them as a child, even though it wasn’t allowed. I love planting them and watching them grow and I love walking among trees and seeing magnificent Sequoias and Redwoods and Live Oaks.
John the Baptist wants a tree cut down--destroyed at the roots and burned. Jesse is nothing but a stump, but there is enough there to send out a shoot that is healthy and vibrant. And I have enjoyed some stumps in my time. After moving to the Pacific Northwest, I have enjoyed looking for those old stumps with the springboard notches: evidence of the people who were here before us. The trees gave their lives to build homes all over the country and off in foreign lands. We even had a home with such a stump in the backyard and a mountain beaver would sometimes emerge from the base of it. I think of the maple tree in the yard of the Bachtels’ house, and how it was cut down a few years ago after it was damaged in a storm. There is now a good-sized tree growing from that stump. I pass it frequently.
On Thursday and Friday I went to postulancy retreat again. Friday morning I read the lectionary for today and last night I sat down with my ideas in a jet-lagged and weary state and wrote them down. As is usual, I have read an awesome book so I am melding it into this sermon.
When I read about the stump of Jesse sending out a new shoot from its roots, I thought of The Hidden Life of Trees--What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben. I have spoken of this book to a few of you. Then I saw that John the Baptist said that the tree would be destroyed, cut off at the roots and burned. It can be hard to destroy a tree, completely knock it dead, when it lives in community. And, Jesse lived in community and his son, David, lived in community.
Herr Wohlleben writes about a circle of brown stones he passed by in the forest he manages. He passed this circle of stones for many years until one day, and he has no idea why, one day he stopped and scuffed one of the stones with his foot. It didn’t look like a stone--there was green there. He examined this stone and the others in the circle and realized they weren’t stones, but they were the remnants of a tree--the last of a tree stump. Yet, Peter was taken aback when he realized these bits of an ancient tree, long dead, were living. Jesse’s stump never died and this tree, though it no longer looked like a tree was still alive--its DNA was still there. Peter realized that because this ancient tree lived in community, it had been nurtured even after its apparent death, by trees around it. Food had been sent out through the roots of the companion trees and the fungus network that thrived in this forest. So, yes, the stump of Jesse could rise out of death and put forth a new shoot. New growth. And, of course, when a tree falls or loses limbs or dies, light reaches the forest floor and the small trees will grow and reach toward that light.
Maybe that is the sort of action John the Baptist is speaking of when he says the tree without fruit, the tree producing evil, the tree that only thinks of itself will be cut down at the root. Light will be brought to the forest floor and the new trees, the trees that live in community, those trees will have light and nutrients to thrive. This is, after all, the Advent Sunday called “light” and I speak of trees that reduce the light on the forest floor. Under the trees, where we pause to have a break from the sun, where we can smell the rich soil.
Yet, the trees at their crowns are absorbing that sunlight--the light determines how much food they can produce, how big they can grow and where their leaves will thrive. And because I love trees I love walking in such places. These places are sacred cathedrals to me. Jesus talked of bringing things from the darkness into the light. Perhaps that is part of what John the Baptist was trying to do. Prophets don’t usually tell us so much what is going to happen as they point out the things that are wrong. John wanted people to understand that they needed to align their lives with God--stretch their branches up to the light. And, he was telling their leaders that their corruption and self-interest was depriving the people of the much-needed light. He was telling them since they lived in community, since they profited from the community, they needed to nurture the community and stop hoarding all the food and light for themselves. They needed to send some nutrients out to the trees that were standing next to them. They needed to remember that their roots were intertwined with the community living around them.
So, I have been thinking of trees the last couple of days--well, the last few months. I went to a funeral yesterday for a priest I admired, Sheila Crisp. And, lo and behold, when the bishop got up to give his homily, he said Sheila was a righteous oak. While we were in Florida, the last few weeks we walked among live oaks and they were casting off their acorns. They were every where, I even got pinged on the head a few times with an acorn. We also made a special trip so I could visit the Fairchild Oak Tree that is believed to be over 2000 years old. I posted a picture of Jim with the oak tree while we were there. Oak trees tend toward magnificence and strength. Think of all the hurricanes that Fairchild Oak has survived over 2000 years! I saw this tree in a different light this time because when I looked around that oak tree, I could see it lived in community with other live oaks.
One could say Sheila was an oak that perished but she was ministering to others down to her last days. She asked the bishop if she could baptize one of her nurses at the hospital--if that would be okay. He told her it was. And, those of us who knew her won’t forget the way she nurtured us and so many and her legacy will live on.
Jesse’s stump had value and was nurtured by the community around it. The kingdom of Israel was dead but would rise again. I think of St. Christopher at Westport. It died and there was a building and beautiful items left behind. And now there is a new shoot that has sprouted from that stump. This new shoot is completely different but the altar table is the same piece of driftwood--a tree. This new shoot is feeding and housing the community in which it lives. Chaplains on the Harbor is the new shoot from the stump of Jesse.
All this gives me hope that even though something or someone would die, there can be good come of it. Even when we think we are alone, we still live in community. We live in the community of God. We live in a forest of trees that can nurture one another. Let’s remember not to be selfish and forget to share the light and what we have with the other trees around us. God is watching over us and I am astounded at the systems in a healthy forest. If God cared so much to provide for the trees in the forest, how much God must care for us. Let’s nurture one another as children of God and let’s not forget the other trees around us.