Second Sunday of Advent

December 4, 2022
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

As we were preparing for our capital campaign project a few years ago, and figuring out what needed to be done – how we wanted the church to be able to function – we wanted to make the entrance of the church more attractive and more usable. And part of that included making broader walkways and patios with seating so the area in front of the church could become a natural gathering place, both for us on Sundays, and for our neighbors, who would find our gardens to be an inviting space to pause and rest.

And so that got worked into the plans. As you know.

But expanding the narthex and preparing those walkways meant tearing up the existing garden and digging down below the soil level. And as the workers were doing so, they warned us, “We had to cut through some pretty significant roots on your dogwood tree. We’re not sure if it’s going to make it.”

But it did make it, at least for the remainder of that year. Then this spring, when it was time to burst into leaf again, there wasn’t any “bursting” going on. It was dead. “Don’t cut it down yet,” Linda Broun advised us. “Just leave it alone and see what happens.”

Well, it didn’t grow again. It was dead. But midsummer, it began to send up new shoots. The root structure wasn’t enough to support the whole tree. But it was enough to start a new one. So just a few weeks ago, when some men in the church were finally cutting down the old tree, I told them, “make sure you don’t cut the shoots. We’ll pick the strongest one and train it to become the new tree.”

On the one hand, it’s the cheapest and easiest way to replace the tree. But on the other hand, there’s deep satisfaction in knowing, this new tree comes from the old. The past gives way to the future with a tenacity of life. And continuity.

For so it is in God’s creation. Nothing comes from nothing (to quote Julie Andrews – nothing ever could!). In one form or another, everything that lives is the gift of what came before. Life produces life, even when that requires the giving of one life for another.

It is true of the trees, growing from their old roots, like our dogwood, or from a seed that merges with the soil of a thousand other long-dead plants, to merge with water and sunlight to become a new tree.

It is true of us. We came from our parents and our grandparents and an untraceable line of ancestors, each of whom was essential for our own existence. And our bodies are formed each day from an untraceable lineage of thousands of plants and animals that lived and died and became our meals which became our bodies. As does the bread and wine of each Eucharist.

It is true of nations and cultures and churches, each generation birthing the next – her artists and philosophers and theologians, her politicians and inventors – who will forge the way forward, eclipsing (and sometimes repudiating) the generation who formed them.

This is the way of the created order, ordained of God. The arc of creation, this unquenchable progress forward, is always beholden to the generation that came before, and laid down its life for the next.

Even when that “laying down” came from violence – from wickedness and destruction, from warfare and evil and greed – even then, there remains this determined pulse of life, insisting on life and life and life again.

And into such a world and such a life, did our God join us:

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.[1]

Jesse, of course, was the father of King David, and from David came every king of Israel – kings who were faithful; kings who were not – even unto the demise of Israel’s sovereignty as a nation. But in their destruction, in the cutting down of that tree, the root was alive, until centuries later when a new shoot would arise – Jesus of Nazareth.

But even he – the holy one of God, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords – even he gave himself over entirely to the way of this created order, rising as the new shoot from that old stump, only in time to be hoisted upon that tree at Calvary, himself now a tree felled by the wickedness of humankind.

For this, too, is the constant of our human condition: a species that cannot stop itself from perpetrating evil. From Adam and Eve to Cane and Abel and onwards through every successive generation. It resides in each of us, manifesting at various degrees. And, given the right circumstances, can galvanize and multiply with alarming speed and deadly effect.

And so war rages in Ukraine; anti-Semitism is reappearing again in our midst; the right to bare arms is interwoven into American Christianity, such that Jesus is paraded as an advocate for violence and his disciples have itchy fingers; financial policies foster more and more poverty and all the sorrow that comes in its train.

And in the path of such violence, dwell countless men and women and children, powerless to endure the onslaught of evil. And the testimony of human history and the cruelty we have inflected upon one another is unimaginably wicked. There has been so much human suffering. And it keeps marching on.

And people of faith – not just the Christian faith, but those seeking God and the ways of God throughout time and throughout religious traditions – continue to ask the same, basic question, “Why aren’t you stopping this, God?”

In our Christian tradition, we’ve refined this question and given a name: theodicy. Theodicy asks, “If God is all powerful, and God is all good, why is there evil in the world?” And to be clear, this is no impertinent question. Indeed, it’s quite reasonable. Perhaps even necessary, for any thinking, honest person.

Why is there evil, God? And why aren’t you stopping it?

And to be clear, there is no satisfactory answer. The question will persist and be asked so long as our species endures, sometimes from a posture of comfort (like ours today), simply trying to make sense of this world we share; sometimes it will be screamed from a posture of desperation – from the gas chambers and killing fields.

And though there is no answer, there is wisdom. There is the testimony and witness of those who – even in the face of atrocity and suffering – have perceived and clung to a tenacious belief in something more powerful than the evil assailing them: God is with us. Which is no trite answer. At all. For those who have found it to be true, it is the only answer that stands in the end and has any worth. It is the answer and testimony of the 23rd psalm, rediscovered as true, generation upon generation:

Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;

thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;

thou annointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

It is an extraordinary faith, and yet ours for the taking, to know and be sustained by: God is with us – living with us; suffering with us; dying with us; rising with us.

So the pattern repeats, and the roots have their life, and we shall be raised to that day,

when the wolf shall live with the lamb…

the calf and the lion and the fatling together…

and they will not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord,

as the waters cover the sea.[2]

And until that day, so long as we live in this world, in this valley, with this suffering, with this cycle of violence and death, even should we fall victim to its cruelest onslaught, that spirit of God who shall raise us, remains the spirit by which we shall live: and that is the spirit of mercy.

Like Gandhi in India knew, “Conquer the heart of the enemy with truth and love, not by violence.”

Like Nelson Mandela in the face of apartheid knew, “There is no future without forgiveness.”

Like Christ on the cross knew, “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.”

For when we repent of the violence of our hearts, and turn to walk in the way of love, in the way of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness, we become the shoot coming forth from the stump of Jesse; we are God’s tree that bears good fruit.

And this must be, it must be, the choice we make and the future we work towards. Our society is in desperate need of moral revival, a moral revival which understands and believes our duty to seek the well-being of our neighbor. Our American creed and its promise of the pursuit of happiness has narrowed and shriveled, and become a selfish and violent virtue. Now “the ax is lying at the root of the tree; and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut and down and thrown into the fire.”

Bear good fruit, St. John’s. Bear the fruit of mercy. Bear the fruit of compassion and forgiveness. Bear the fruit of humility in community with those who differ from you. Bear the fruit of modesty and generosity.

And lest you be overwhelmed with the scope of sorrow and injustice that saturates the soil of this earth, let this be your guide: Love the one who is before you. Love the one before you in the pew, before you at the stop light, before you in recognition at work, before you in privilege, before you in the stirring of your conscious. Love the one before you, your neighbor whose well-being is now interwoven with your own.

And as the daylight fades, and the doors are closed behind you, when you settle in your chair for the night, one-by-one, hand them each to God and God’s care. You have loved for the day; you may rest in peace. And where you have failed, repent. Receive God’s mercy. You may rest in peace.

In slumber, we seek renewal, healing, restoration,

rebirth, from this unkind world. We wake with gifts,

talents, not ours alone, but presents filled with grace,

so all may be remembered, be protected, be respected,

be free, be healthy, and flourish with God’s love.”[3]

 

[1] Isaiah 11:1

[2] Isaiah 11:6-9

[3] Josie Turner, “Advent II,” a poem commissioned by the Worship Committee for St. John’s Advent, 2022