“Roots and Shoots”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

December 23, 2018

Isaiah 11:1-10


Before we moved to Woodstock five and a half years ago, I spent the better part of a decade living in greater Boston.  I rented a series of apartments and lived with a series of roommates, most often in one of the ubiquitous triple-deckers that line so many streets in Jamaica Plain, and Somerville, and Arlington.

Each house was quirky in its own way, of course.  Clanging radiators and paper-thin walls… Kitchen floors tiled orange and wood paneling that hadn’t been updated in at least 45 years… Rickety staircases to basement coin-op laundry rooms… Storage areas filled with the detritus of renters past… Upstairs neighbors who were trying to form a rock band and chose 11pm as their favorite time for their out of tune and very loud rehearsals…

By far my favorite quirk in that long series of apartments, however, came in the last place I lived before we moved here.  In the basement of that house, which was tidy in all ways but this one, there was a crack in the concrete where the sewer line went into the floor and then out toward the street.  And from that crack, there grew a small, scraggly maple tree.  It didn’t get much sunlight, as the basement just had a few of those small windows up at the top of the wall, the kind that are not clear but a cloudy translucent.  It didn’t get much fresh air, as the windows didn’t open and the door to the outside was kept locked.  It obviously didn’t have much in the way of soil or nutrients.  But grow it did.  When I moved in, it was clearly several years old, and when I moved out two years later, it was still going strong.  Trees are persistent things.


A few weeks ago, we were visiting my in-laws at Thanksgiving, and we went out for a walk in their suburban neighborhood.  Because we were walking with a toddler and a curious dog, it was a rather slow and circuitous walk.  As we meandered up a nearby cul-de-sac, I was holding our son’s hand to make sure he stayed out of the road, when we both tripped and almost went down.  I caught myself and righted him, and then we looked to see what had caused the near-double-face-plant.  It was a crack in the pavement, where it was lifted up abruptly by a good six inches, all the way across the sidewalk and out into the road.  I looked ahead, and there were a series of such cracks, and when I followed their path away from the road, I saw that they all radiated out from a large shade tree in the front yard of the nearest house.  When we looked down into the crack we had tripped on, we could see glimpses of the long, strong root that had lifted up the sidewalk and cracked the pavement open as it grew.  Trees are powerful things.


Yes, trees are persistent things, and trees are powerful things.  And as you will know if you have ever tried to remove, for example, a willow tree simply by cutting it down and waiting for the stump to decompose, some species of trees know a thing or two about resurrection, about growing back from stumps that seem to be well and truly dead.  Trees are tenacious things.


The prophet Isaiah says God’s love is like that.  A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, he writes, and a branch shall grow out of his roots…  On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.  The prophet Isaiah says God’s love is like that.  Persistent, powerful, tenacious.  Concrete-cracking, pavement-lifting, death-defying, world-changing.

This kind of uncontainable love can be, well, challenging—for landlords, for urban planners, for those responsible for sidewalk maintenance, for those of us who might just have a wee bit of a tendency to want to keep everything carefully planned and under control.  But speaking as one such person, as someone who would vastly prefer to avoid nasty surprises like trees growing from cracks in the basement or roots disrupting carefully-constructed pavement… even such a type-A control freak as I will gladly take the disruption to my tidy little order if it means we also get the good news that comes with it.

The good news that even a lineage that had been gone, dead for generations, could be resurrected.

The good news that even a people who had been scattered, conquered, over and over again, could be gathered in anew.

The good news that even a long-dead stump could grow a new green shoot.

The good news that leaders could conduct themselves with honor and righteousness, that the poor and the meek could be treated with equity.

The good news that wolves and lambs could coexist peaceably, that leopards and kids could lie down together, that predators and prey need no longer hurt or suffer.

The good news that all children could be safe, could grow and flourish and play.

The good news that refugees could find sanctuary.

The good news that a broken relationship could be mended.

The good news that addiction could be overcome.

The good news that a lonely heart could find love again.

The good news that even a life that seems forsaken could be redeemed.

Because this is what Isaiah promises:  that the love of God is so persistent, so powerful, so tenacious, that even when everything seems dead, life and love will find a way to burst forth again.


So if there is a part of you:  a chamber of your heart, a facet of your soul, a piece of your spirit that feels as though it will never live again…

If there is a part of your story:  something you have done or left undone, something you have said or left unspoken, something that has been done or said to you, something that seems so awful that you cannot fathom God’s mercy extending even there…

If there is a part of your family, our community, our world:  some person, some place, some situation, some circumstance that seems entirely hopeless, completely devastating, cause for utter despair…

Then Isaiah’s promise is for you.

For the story we remember in this season, the story we hear echoing in these prophetic words from long ago, the story of the birth of Jesus the Christ, is a story of new life in the unlikeliest of places, in the most difficult of circumstances:  born to an unwed teenage mother from a minority ethnic and religious group in a rural, poverty-stricken region in an occupied territory.

And if God chose to enter into human life in such a time as that, such a place as that, such a situation as that, then surely God will also enter into your life, into our world, in exactly the places where death seems to hold sway, bursting forth like green shoots from an old, gray stump… like a sapling growing through a concrete basement floor… like roots that bend asphalt as if it were playdough.

Persistently.  Powerfully.  Tenaciously.  Miraculously.

Or, to borrow words from the great Persian Sufi Muslim poet Rumi, who died 745 years ago last week, “Don’t think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter.  It’s quiet, but the roots are down there riotous.”


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