Monday, December 5, 2016

Yes, it's been forever since my last post.  A couple of hard, unbloggable years, followed by a year too joyfully busy for blogging, thanks to my new job at Phippsburg Congregational Church...and The Piper is now managing our farm full time, and it's thriving--as are we!  Still, the world shifts around us, and this week's sermon was an exercise in exploring the challenge of love in diverse communities:

Light In The Forest: An Advent Sermon
(based on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-9)

John the Baptist: prophet of Advent, preparer of the way for the coming of Jesus. Like most prophets, he's a sand-in-the-gears, nails-on-the-chalkboard kind of guy. Not exactly the sort you'd want at your Christmas party. John the Baptist, there in his camel-hair tunic and leather belt, like some wild dervish wandering the wastelands, or like a street-corner preacher with his fire and brimstone sermons, his cry to repent, repent...
He makes me uncomfortable because he's different. He has chosen a strange discipline, setting himself apart, dedicating himself only to pleasing God. He survives on locusts and wild honey: sounds like some weird Paleo diet. His choice of food and clothing, his behavior and his wild hair, all hint that he's likely a Nazirite, a particular type of Jewish spiritual athlete. Do you remember the story of Samson, the great and powerful hero who lost his strength when Delilah cut his hair? Same deal. Samson was a Nazirite too. Guys who became Nazirites avoided certain foods and did not cut their hair. They wore the original version of dreadlocks, to show their dread or awe and respect for the mighty power of God.
The Dread(lock)ed Prophet, John the Baptist

So here's this guy with dreadlocks on the riverbank, telling us we'd better repent, we'd better turn our lives around. I don't like his style. I don't like his attitude. I don't know what to do with his anger: this wild, wise, rooted, righteous anger. 
I don't know how you are with anger, but I struggle with it. I know it's part of being human. If I pay attention to Jesus and the prophets, it's even part of being holy. But anger makes me want to freeze, or hide, or just close my eyes and wish it would go away. It's like fire, and I'm not sure how to handle it—in myself or others—without being burnt.

But what is he saying? “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” This dreadlocked prophet is holding a sign that says, “the beginning is near!” And—as I hear reports of hate crimes on the rise, and every headline seems to trumpet the world's instability—any hint of hope, any news of beginnings grabs and holds my attention. 
He echoes another prophet, Isaiah: “a shoot will come from the stump of Jesse...” in other words, an old family line cut off, declared extinct, will send up a tiny green flag of life's renewal, a joyful giggle in the face of the power of death. Like the sprouts that come up from that weathered, ancient Linden tree outside our church every year...yes, prophet, tell me more about the God who has this power!
What the prophets know, and what the trees know, is that you can't welcome new life at all until you touch death--until you face it, study it, reckon with the parts of your life that have become hollow, the parts that have been cut off. To prepare the way of the Lord, to make room for Love to show up and shift things around, you have to spend some time crying in the wilderness.

Suzanne Simard knows about wilderness. She's a scientist—a forest ecologist—at the University of British Columbia, on the west coast of Canada. And she went into the forest to research the relationship between different trees. What she expected to find—her hypothesis—was that the tallest, most powerful trees in the forest became so tall and powerful—and stayed so tall and powerful—because they could out-compete all the shorter trees for resources. Some of the giants, which the scientists refer to as "mother trees," were hundreds of years old, and the youngest seedlings on the forest floor beneath them looked like they were headed for sure death, blocked from spreading their roots to find water and nutrients, unable to gather energy from sunlight under the giant trees' shade.

Mother Tree in the woods of Tir na nOg Farm
But the longer Dr. Simard spent in the forest, the more she started to notice other things happening, other forces at work. There were old stumps that should have been rotting away to nothing, but they weren't. And there were spindly seedlings that should have been starving for lack of light, but they were thriving. Wasn't nature about competition? What about Survival of the Fittest? What was going on?

It took her a while to discover, not because the answer was over her head, but because it was under her feet. There, in the soil, a fragile, lacy network had spread throughout the forest. It was mycelium: the bodies of mushrooms, branching underground, their tiny filaments touching and wrapping the finest ends of the tree roots all around them. And that fragile living lace, draped across the forest floor, made it possible for the trees to do something no one had imagined: they weren't competing for resources at all. They were sharing them. 

Mycelium in the forest: sharing the carbon, sharing the love!
Through the underground fungal network, the powerful giant trees were sending carbon and nitrogen from their own bodies out to the struggling stumps and seedlings around them. They were somehow communicating, somehow sensing the suffering of other lives around them, somehow choosing to give of themselves—and it wasn't only for trees of their own species, either. Pines were sharing with hemlocks, firs sharing with alder, cedar sharing with birch, and beyond. And sometimes, the same carbon molecules were being passed along to two, or five, or seven or more different trees and plants that needed them. The researchers struggled with these findings. What could they call this shimmering network that helped trees grow in deep shadows? I'll give it a name they might be afraid to use: love.

This is a season of darkness—dark, like the depths of the forest. But listen to the voice in the wilderness: repent--turn yourselves in a different direction. Repent--turn your ears to hear other voices. They may need you to survive. You may need them. Repent--turn to each other, and learn from the forest: only when we reach out with love can the whole community begin to thrive. 

Love the stranger. Love the prophet. Love the one who challenges you. Love the one who eats strange things. Love the one who opens your heart. And you will find yourself sharing the sacrament of communion. You will be offering food to the hungry and light into darkness, over and over again.