As I share my reflections today may they be true to your love and grace.
May we all find ways to make safe spaces this Advent.
This is Advent, the season when we prepare for God to be born into the world. As we begin the Advent season many of us have, are going to, or just realized we needed to set up our Christmas trees. We begin the strange custom of bringing what belongs outside in, and artificially lighting and decorating that which nature decorates quite well. With many of us thinking about trees it seems good that we can root the beginnings of Advent in a scripture that invites us to learn how to branch out from God’s Love as we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child. Now that I have completed pining for your attention, I invite us to listen to today’s scripture from the book of Jeremiah.
Jeremiah 33:14-16 Common English Bible (CEB)
14 The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. 15 In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness.
This reading from Jeremiah encapsulates all of the hope the Jewish people in Israel had for the coming of their Messiah. The coming of the Messiah was to change the world, bring freedom for God’s people from the oppression of Rome, and bring safety to all. Scriptures like Jeremiah and others speaking of the coming of the Messiah were being shared as Jesus was born into the world.
Like many today, people in the 1st century claimed to know how God would be revealed to the world, or when the end of time would come. Each one of these claimants had different understandings of how the Messiah would appear. Some in the 1st century pined for a violent change to the world and sought vicious ways to attempt forcing the issue. Others sought to separate themselves and ritually purify their lives to be ready for the arrival of God. Still others did not worry so much and went about their daily work.
For the Christian church, Jesus is the culmination of this change in the world. For early Christians, Jesus’ birth represents the fulfillment of the words in Jeremiah. Jesus is the branch on David’s family tree, the continuation of the lineage of the great uniting King of Israel that brought peace by uniting the people of Israel and conquering their enemies with armies. However, Jesus’ methods of peace through disciple making were not what many expected. Like Jesus’ surprising birth as an unexpected child in a lowly place, Jesus surprised most everyone by being a peaceful change agent.
To help us understand more about the branch Jesus is for us as Christians, I would like to take us all on a dendrological tour of our scriptures. For your information, dendrology is the study of trees.
Early in our scriptures, in Genesis, we run into a tree called “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” (TKGE). There is also another tree, “The Tree of Life.” The “Tree of Life” we will get back to. The TKGE tree is one of the early trees in the garden when God places the first two humans. The story goes that if the humans eat of the TKGE’s fruit they will die. So one day the more biologically sound of the two humans is out and some serpent cons her into eating the fruit. According to the book of Genesis this is the moment when humans learn they can die, that life is full of work, and that people will experience pain. It is also described as the first moment humans felt shame. Shame is that feeling that despite our best efforts to be the authentic people God created us to be, we have done something wrong that we cannot control.
The second place in human history people felt shame was at Thanksgiving dinner. We laugh, but it is kind of true. I read a post last week that called Thanksgiving the “Final Frontier.” The post was referring to the fact that we most want to be the child-like, authentic and God-created humans we are around family. They happen to know all of our mistakes and use these to poke holes in the wholeness we start to find in God. Family is a hard place to be the peace-filled people Christ calls us to be because growing close to God involves change, and many times family tends to be about keeping us where we started. This usually happens around Thanksgiving dinner through Uncle Ned, or Grandma to say something that polarizes the room or takes us into a moment of shouting or stunned silence. They say something that makes us withdraw instead of branching out with support for one another.
One of the stories sometimes read the first week of Advent is the story of Zechariah. Elizabeth is described in the gospels as Mary’s cousin, and Elizabeth is married to Zechariah. Zechariah is a priest and while performing his priestly duties he is approached by an angel of the Lord. The angel informs Zechariah that he and his wife will bear a son, John (aka John the Baptist). John will begin to help people find God again, and prepare the way for one greater than him. Zechariah doubts this to be true because he and Elizabeth are older, and due to his doubts Zechariah is unable to speak until the events he has learned about come to pass.
Like Zechariah, some of us wish that we could claim we were mute until the good news of God came to pass. I think some wish they were mute at Thanksgiving when they feel the shame, and can’t share their true selves. It would be nice to just be able to sit quietly knowing that God’s blessings would arrive soon. In fact this may be a good first root response to the craziness around us. Take a deep breath, and find the silence.
The next tree in our journey is a tree that sneaks up behind Jonah, and gives him shade and comfort. Many of us know a big fish swallowed Jonah, but the story of Jonah is about God’s grace to people who Jonah does not think deserve it. The people to whom Jonah has brought the news of God are considered the most evil people in Jonah’s world. As Jonah is loathing this fact and wishing God would end the same people, a tree sprouts up to shade Jonah. In the next instant the tree dies and Jonah is upset. God points out that Jonah did not care about the tree unless it was doing him good, and the same of the people he went to serve. God loves all the trees and all the people.
These past few weeks following the bombing in Paris, Facebook and other social media are filled with conversations that have become polarized, and pretty vicious. The primary focus has been around immigration of Syrian refugees. One side claims that letting Syrian refugees enter our country tantamount to suicide. The other side seems to scream that those saying the former are bigoted idiots not worthy of this country. Not much middle ground is being sought, and people seem to comment on each other’s posts without thinking. Also, I have heard more stories of people’s family members of different political allegiances being the primary culprits. It is like Thanksgiving dinner challenges gone viral and virtual.
There is a great legend about St. Francis of Assisi in the early 13th century. In the legend St. Francis plans, during a lull in a Crusade battle, to sneak through enemy lines and attempt to convert the Caliphate of Egypt, a Muslim King. The King refuses to convert, but in awe of Francis’ bravery to cross lines and share of his faith the King invites a dialogue between the two during which they find common ground to respect each other. These two leaders represent faiths that like estranged relatives sought to find a brave and free way to relate, they provided safety for one another to share their own stories. In some of the accounts it mentions that both men changed their religious practice due to this experience.
This is our second task during Advent–be brave in our sharing, and create safe spaces for people to share their concern and hopes.
The final tree today is one that is found in Revelation 22, the tree of Life. This is the same tree described in Genesis, but as I said early we often ignore this tree. This tree in Revelation is described as connecting two sides of a river whose source is the throne of God. From the tree grows fruits, one for each month of the year. This tree has leaves from which the healing of the nations will come.
On the Wednesday following the Parisian attacks the following story could be found in the Upper Room daily devotional, keep in mind this publication is planned months in advance.
After a long flight a woman emerged from a Paris metro car feeling weary. She carried two large pieces of luggage and was looking for an escalator, only to find it was out of order. As she stood there being passed by many Parisians, someone reached for her suitcase. It took her a moment to realize the person was attempting to help her. She grabbed her other bag and enthusiastically followed the mysterious good Samaritan. The mysterious helper was a Muslim woman wearing a hijab. At the top of the stairs she set the bag down and headed on her way. The woman being helped shouted, “Shukran!” The Arabic word for, “Thank you.” Teresa Cannaday the author and woman who received the assistance shares, “Her actions reminded me that no matter who we are, where we come from, or the basis of our faith, in the end we are all God’s children.”
The tree of life and this story speak to an ancient part of the Christian practice. It is the very truth that it takes all of us, each of the branches, to reflect and share the fruit of God’s love. We all quite literally have to be able to share of ourselves at the table, and only then will we truly glimpse God. Only when we all can share our gratitude for God’s love in others can we truly grasp the tree of life.
Our final task this Advent is to learn to show gratitude for the love we see in others. It is through sharing gratitude that we graciously share of our branches’ fruit to help feed the world and its leaves that shade the safe spaces of healing.
The branch people expected for the coming of the messiah in the 1st century was a “big stick,” a big branch that could be used to conquer all. Instead what arrived was an olive branch bearing fruit of a promise that we all could live life, and live abundantly.
If you read a little more about trees you will learn that in the cold winter months, roots can grow and form as they are needed. This means that even when the world seems rough, or family seems tough we can provide space in the cold times for our roots to go deeper. While the ground is covered in snow during this Advent season silently waiting God’s arrival, let us: always let the chaos of the world catch us in silence, taking a deep breath like Zechariah, expecting good news. Always be full of the courage to share authentically, and courage to create safe spaces for others to grow their roots. Finally, let us always be filled with gratitude of the piece of God that can be found in each branch of God we meet in others.
As you put up your tree this season, may it be a tree of hope rooting us to peace, so we can experience God’s love born anew.
 Parker, Rebecca Ann; Brock, Rita Nakashima (2008-07-01). Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire (Kindle Locations 3190-3191). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.