"Root and branch" - Robin Wardlaw - December 2, 2012
Advent 1, Year C
Readings: Jeremiah 33:14–16; Psalm 25:1–10; (1 Thessalonians 3:9–13); Luke 21:25–36
What are you doing on December 11th? I’m sure you’ve thought about this carefully because the next day the world ends, according to someone’s interpretation of an old, stone calendar of the Mayans. Always someone to prophecy a final ending, apocalypse. Last year it was a radio preacher whose forecasts had people selling their homes, giving everything away, ready for the Second Coming. And before that, and before that.
Cataclysmic endings are not something we spend much time on in the United Church. We have come to understand the Spirit at work in the world, seeking to make it more like the divine dream of a just and caring place. But if we lived near a coast and the ground shook hard, then the sea receded, then it came roaring back in a fifteen metre wave that went on and on, clearing everything in its path, we might have more appreciation for sudden endings. If we lived in Africa, suffered from HIV or AIDS and were waiting for anti-retroviral drugs we could afford, say, generic drugs from a rich country such as Canada. Or if we were huddled in Aleppo, or some other Syrian hot spot, or Gaza City, or Goma, as munitions rained down, and familiar streets and faces simply disappeared.
Or maybe if we lived in peaceful Canada and stepped back to look at the shifting fortunes of empires. We seem to be in a time of transition, the shifting of global dominance from West to East. We have become used to the wealth of the world flowing to our shores, along with the best minds. Art, science, medicine, technology–the best of it belongs here, in a handful of Western countries. That’s just the way it is. Until it isn’t. When things begin to shift, there may be a tendency to circle the wagons, put up walls, shows our claws and fangs more as we strive to hold on to what is slipping away. Wealthy, powerful countries are moving backward on carbon emission targets at the Doha talks right now, for example, as the great ice fields turn to water. We’re going to keep our fossil fuel addiction and lose our planet. The West is jockeying to resist Chinese power spreading out to harvest resources around the world. And so on. Apocalypse in slo-mo to some.
We would certainly have a feeling for apocalypse if we lived in Jeremiah’s day. Babylon was on the move. No one could stand up to it, certainly not tiny Israel or its neighbours. When smoke clouded the horizon, when you could feel the rumble of their cavalry before it even came in view, and everyone’s bowels turned to water. Shock and awe have a long history. Jeremiah is interesting. He forecasts doom for the leaders of Israel, for the whole nation because of their arrogant trashing of the covenant. And he tenderly consoles people, too: This will not last forever. The nation will survive this purging, and re-emerge as a beacon for the world. A branch will emerge, a righteous branch, to execute justice and righteousness in the land. God has not forgotten the covenant with David, even if you people...
Some of us have lived through times of war, earthquake, flood, hurricane and can imagine what the people of Jeremiah’s time, or Jesus’ time were experiencing. Many of us have not. These scriptures don’t speak as loudly to us. Violent death is a rare thing around here, thankfully. Mass death is even more rare. A man takes a gun into a school and picks off the women engineers. We have a day set aside to remember that horror, December 6. What would it be like to go through violent conflict, destruction on all sides when all the systems of our intricate society have broken down? No wonder people write about terrible endings.
What does all this mean for us, here? Advent means baking, extra flyers trying to lure us into buying this or that, parties, lights. Just the prelude to the big day. Here at church, though, it means more than this. A chance to think about how transformation happens. Big picture time. A time to recommit ourselves to a better world. A time to assess where we are–in our own lives, as families, as a church family. A time to pay attention to signs of the change for which we long. HIV infections are going down at last? Wonderful news. Businesses, even oil businesses are asking for some kind of taxation regime on fossil fuels so they can do their strategic planning. Good sign. People from a hundred nations are living peacefully in one neighbourhood? Another sign of what is possible.
In their kitchens, cooks are taking stock of their pantry and food cupboards, making note of things that are needed. If you were to take stock of your faith and the ministry and mission of our church, what would you need to fix or add? What is there to give thanks for, and what can be discarded or set aside? What signs of health or concern are there for the future? What disappointments or fears do we have that hold us back from following God? What do we anticipate or hope for the future that will sustain us as we go forward?
This is the stock-taking Church Council has decided we need to explore as a congregation. What season of faith is approaching? Are there leaves on the fig tree, so to speak? What might we be doing as a community of faith to respond to the signs around us? Our mission, if we decide to accept it, is to be Christ in the world, whatever that means. No, really. Whatever that means. It’s an easy phrase to say, but to get inside it, to live it out, means discerning where Christ is leading around here, and where Christ is bleeding. Careful discerning, full of imagination, and the asking of questions.
This congregation has done so much in recent years to discern this mission–interim ministry, needs assessment report, the list goes on. You have committed yourselves to social justice, and you pour your hearts and souls into sharing food with others. These are our roots. What else might social justice mean in these parts? What sign are our neighbours, the ones who share your deep values and don’t attend here yet, awaiting to make them say, “I want to help with that mission? Let me in.”
I was at 40 Oaks last month, the beautiful new hub in Regent Park that emerged from the old Christian Resource Centre. Presbytery met there to tour it, and to dedicate the ministry. Just inside the door there is a stylized tree made from pieces of wood on the wall to celebrate donors, each with their own square leaf. They have had some big support, so there is much to celebrate. This shade of little wood leaf indicates this level of support, and that shade a different level. It’s a lovely tribute. And it hangs from the ceiling. Why is it upside down, I asked myself. I came up with a couple of theories to explain it. Then I asked. It’s not upside down, the manager explained, those are roots.
Perfect. The part that’s normally hidden, underground, covered up. Apocalypse is Greek for ‘uncovered.’ The wall art is apocalyptic. It reveals the hidden. Donors are like roots. They sustain the tree up above. The branches, the visible parts, can bear fruit then. We would love for this place to be a crazy, active centre of social justice. Children, youth, adults, seniors getting in touch with their inner Jeremiahs, committing themselves to the struggle for a different world. That will be the fruit of our stock-taking, perhaps, of uncovering our roots, the network of feelings, thoughts, histories, dreams, resources, skills, faith and love that make up the roots of this tree called Glen Rhodes United Church.
A process to do this has begun. More steps will likely come along in the spring. Church Council is taking one step at a time, wanting to be sure we’re on the right path. Many of you will be getting a letter this week explaining the steps involved. If you are not on the church’s mailing list yet, there will be copies available at the back next Sunday to pick up. If we decide to go ahead, we could be knee deep in handouts, chart papers, time lines and lists next spring. It can all begin to feel like some kind of file folder/flip chart hell. The trick is to remember in the midst of the blizzard of pages and processes words like these ones from Jeremiah and Mark today about branches and trees and being ready. To remember that as we are down in the dirt with trowels and toothbrushes doing the picky work of examining life-giving roots. That the point is not to become experts at toothbrush work down there, but to get ready for the tree to bear life-changing fruit.
That’s this church. What about your new Christian year? Is there some stock-taking to do in your own life? Jim Wallis, the modern day prophet at Sojourners notes that more Americans plan to spend more on gifts this Christmas, but fewer are going to give to charity and ministries that help the poor, 45% instead of 51% last year. So Wallis is calling on his fellow Americans to tithe their Christmas spending. Donate 10% of your gift spending to the people Jesus calls, “the least of these, my brothers and sisters.” A thought about your giving, which is a cornerstone of your spiritual life. What about the rest of it? How do you want to grow spiritually in the coming year? Become a stronger advocate of peace and justice, say, or work on some relationship or issue in your life that has been niggling–or staring you in the face–for years, perhaps. Advent is for that kind of reflection. What will be born for you this year?
Reformers of the church used to talk about reform “root and branch.” We might say top to bottom, or system-wide. How are the roots of your faith, the parts that give life to the tree up above? And what fruit are you bearing, will you bear, in this exciting, turbulent, puzzling world that so needs champions of non-violence, sharing and hope?
Oh, by the way. Think twice about cashing in all your savings in the next ten days. That Mayan calendar? It just stops on the 12th. It was as far as the designers imagined to go, the end of an age, not the end of the world. Wait for the astero