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The sermon for week August 11, 2013

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Oaks of Righteousness

Mark 9:30-32: Jesus predicts his death a second time.

At the UCC General Synod, the Reverend Quinn Caldwell said in his meditation, “If you go to the west bank, to Hebron, there’s a monastery. And growing there for some 600 to 800 years is this great oak tree. Tradition long held this tree was a descendant of the tree under which Abraham and Sarah once entertained angels. Long a pilgrimage site for both Jews and Christians, often called the most sacred tree in the Middle East. And here’s what happened… in 1996 it died.

“But two years later in 1998, this great 800-year-old dead tree sprouted a shoot from its roots. Small, tender, precarious, and undeniably alive. What will happen next, nobody knows.

“Tradition stated that salvation looked like a tree. Tall and great and strong. It was one long stem and it grew up from Jesse, up from David, and Solomon, and beyond, and it would stand forever. And then it got cut down.

“Way back at the beginning of the book of Isaiah, long before what we read today, the prophet says this: 'A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.' Jesse was the father of David, the most revered of Israel’s kings; God’s promise through Isaiah was that the chosen, anointed line of leaders, which by Isaiah’s time had been cut down by foreign powers, would one day sprout forth again. The Christian claim, of course, is that it did exactly that in the person of Jesus Christ, the shoot of Jesse. The 'Jesse Tree', an image with Jesse reclining and a tree growing from him with Jesus sitting in its upper branches, has been a staple of Christian art for centuries.

“And Isaiah believed that God was faithful and that a shoot would come forth from the stump of Jesse and salvation would come again to the people of Israel. And it did, did it not? And it grew straight, and strong, and tall and then they cut it down, too.” (Caldwell)

Jesus predicts his betrayal and death three times in the Gospel of Mark. Many Christians believe this is evidence of how Jesus was magical. How he was divine and God-in-the-flesh. While I do believe God was pleased to dwell in Jesus, I don’t think he’s magical in this instance.

I believe he was logical. This is probability. How many times do you need to poke a bear before you get mauled?

How many times do we see people get run over by oppressive or corrupt institutions of power? Martin Luther King Jr., Dietrich Bonnoffer, Oscar Romero, The protester at Tiananmen Square. The early abolitionists, those who fought for voting equality for women and African-Americans, the LGBTQ-rights activists. They were all cut down.

This is what happens when you face off against evil. This is what happens when you question long held prejudices, ideologies, and oppressive systems. That’s what Jesus was doing in his ministry. He was loud, and he spoke out against repressive religious systems as well as repressive political systems. He didn’t get crucified because he was too nice a guy or he was too spiritual. He would have been stoned for blasphemy if that was the case. But no, Jesus got the political punishment for enemies of the state.

And it wasn’t a magical thing that Jesus predicted his own death three times in Mark. He knew the risks. And for some of his disciples, maybe he was too on the edge. Too out there. Too visible, too public. For Judas, he wasn’t out there enough, he wasn’t violent enough. After all, Judas' last name was Iscariot. That’s a name for the knife that was carried by the zealots, those who believed in violent resistance to Rome and the Temple. Jesus was too wild and out there for the scribes, Pharisees, the Herodians, who benefited, as we heard last week, by keeping people apart. They were yeast that divided what should be whole. And the zealots were another type of yeast who benefited from keeping people apart. And Jesus wanted nothing to do with yeast. He was too nonviolent, too slow moving for Judas who ended up betraying him.

That’s what happens when you mess with the system of “us v.s. them” and state “there is no us v.s. them, only us.”

A root shall come out of the stump of Jesse, Isaiah said. Isaiah was Jesus’ favorite book, he quotes it more than any other book in the bible. And from reading the prophet’s words time and time again, I think Jesus had something bigger in mind. You see, I like to think that Jesus knew about Jurupa Valley, California.

Reverend Caldwell's said he would like to think that Jesus was somehow able to look halfway around the world to the place that would one day become the city of Jurupa Valley, and that there he saw the Jurupa Oak.

"It’s of a species called the Palmer’s oak, just a little thigh-high shrub. It doesn’t look like just one tree, but a bunch of them, some 70 stems spread out in a wide oval. Periodically a fire will rage across the hill where it lives, reducing this particular tree to ashes; the species has evolved in response to the pressure placed on it by these fires, so when one comes through, this normally slow-growing tree, which has been storing up its energy for just such an occasion, regenerates itself, quickly sending up new sprouts. With each fire, the sprouts spread further and further. Because there are no wood rings or old wood left behind, we can’t date the tree accurately. But scientists can estimate. While some claims to its age are three times as much as this, scholarly consensus is that the Jurupa Oak is right in the neighborhood of 13,000 years old.

That’s older than Jesus, older than Isaiah. That’s older than agriculture. If these estimates are correct, the Jurupa oak is one of the oldest living things in the world." (Caldwell)

For 13,000 years, time after time after time this tree has been patiently growing along, waiting for a crisis to reduce it to ash, and then exchanging beauty for ashes, spreading ever outward.

Generations and generations after Isaiah made his prophecy, the young man Jesus would astonish everyone in his hometown synagogue by standing up, reading a passage out of Isaiah, and claiming that it was fulfilled in him. He was the good news, he said, he IS the binder-up, the proclaimer of liberty, the comforter. “I am the oak of righteousness,” he said, “and I have good news for the oppressed.

“I will free the captives. I will hand out forgiveness and mercy,
and where you create ashes,
I will give beauty.
And loveliness, and gentleness:
these will be the salvation of the Lord.”

He said these things, and they did not happen, and so the ruling powers laughed at him. But he kept saying them, and so the ruling powers did what corrupt systems always do whenever people threaten them with justice or with beauty, with forgiveness or with mercy: they killed him. And Jesus told his followers this would happen and that he would come again, but each time his followers, his disciples were afraid, and I would argue are still afraid to ask him what he means.

They cut down the last shoot of Jesse, the last branch of David. They cut down the last and only heir of God’s anointing.

But here’s the thing. Maybe once upon a time the Tree of Jesse was like that old Oak of Abraham in Hebron: maybe once upon a time it would put all its hope in one lonely shoot every 500 years, so small and frail it could be snipped off by a child’s safety scissors, or by a crucifixion. But not anymore. God had seen the fire roll across this earth too many times, had watched the wars and the famines and the violence too long to not be ready for it. And so you see, by the time they cut Jesus down, the Tree of Jesse had evolved.

When the fire passed over and cut him down, he was like the Jurupa Oak in California: suddenly, there were 12 of him, all with the same DNA, all with the same heart. Those disciples who were afraid to ask finally got it and they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they said, “I have been anointed to preach good news: Free the captives! Release the prisoners!”

And when they cut them down, 70 sprang up and said, “I have been anointed to preach good news: let there be building instead of devastation, peace instead of war.”

And when they cut them down, 70 times 70 sprang up and said, “I have been anointed to preach good news: this is the year of God’s Jubilee, the year that debt will be forgiven and persons will matter more than corporations, that poor farmers and struggling workers should eat, and we will organize, and we will sign petitions and write to Congress and we will occupy until every prisoner is free and righteousness springs up before the nations.”

And if they cut them down, he will spring up again and again and again until all the world is a green, rustling grove of God’s own planting, everyone chanting, “I have been anointed to preach good news!”

Yes, they cut down the last shoot of the Tree of Jesse, they betrayed him and said that he was too political, too radical, a heretic, but he sprang up high, and he was you. And the same DNA, and the same heart, and the same Spirit that was in him is in you. And this will be the green saving of the world. From ash shall come beauty.

The Jurupa Oak is one of the oldest living things in existence. God’s promises are older still, and they do not die and they can’t be betrayed fully, and they can’t be killed; they will never stop growing back.

“For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.”

Church, I need you do to something for me right now. Can you say a few things?

Can you say, “I have been anointed.”?
Say, “We are the shoot of Jesse.”
Say, “Amen.”

Works Cited
Caldwell, Quinn. Theological Reflection Monday Evening, July 1, 2013.

Caldwell, Quinn. Oak. Sermon given at Old South Church in Boston on 18 December, 2011. Fourth Sunday of Advent. Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-10

Further Reading
Reilly, Mark. Ancient Tree (Almost) Older Than Dirt. 12-23-09

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