It’s something of a riddle, isn’t it, that we enjoy the fruits of our labor when the trees look most dead? The orchards that bud in the spring and grow all year to finally give us such beautiful fruits bear their harvest just as the trees seem ready to die. It isn’t much time at all before their green leaves begin to brown and wither. Soon enough their branches are empty and lifeless, and all that energy that had been so obviously there in those leaves and that fruit has gone underground. Just take a drive in Eastern Washington these days and you’ll know what I mean. Only the silver, gnarled wood and thick trunks are there to testify of a greener time past and a future promise.
It seems to me this riddle is presented as well in the competing images of our texts today. Here comfort lives next to discomfort. Next to Isaiah’s tender speech: “Comfort, comfort my people” is the driving rhythm of John the baptizer, crying out in the wilderness apparently atop the booming bulldozer he’s using to carve a road to God. Second Peter holds the two together with language of waiting set beside hastening. We wait and we hurry. We hurry in our waiting, and we wait for the hastening. Sometimes it’s hard to know which we are doing.
It is hard to hear those dulcet tones of Christmas over the drumbeat of Advent desire and expectation, but the thing is they are neighbors all year long.
That to me is one of the most remarkable things, one of the greatest gifts of the community of God. That for me is what we need if we are going to make it. You might call it institutional memory—what that old apple tree speaks of, even in the dead of winter, or the buried energy that explodes into so many blossoms in spring and so much nourishing fruit in the fall.
These passages are a riddle because we are a riddle of memory and hope, of despair and fulfillment, of sorrow and joy, of courage and fear, of happiness and weariness. Look around you this morning and you will see lives that testify right now to each of these things. They sit next to each other, in fact. Winter is here with summer, and spring with fall in the living, breathing stories that you see around you. Harvest time passed the peace of Christ with the dead of winter just a little while ago. A spring shoot is nourished by a falling leaf returning its life to the earth.
In a little while we are going to celebrate with Linda Ferguson. Today marks something of a completion to a hope that even three years ago or so she didn’t know she was going to have or need. But her story is simply a taste of our own. It’s true with the rest of us as well.
Today we have people in our midst devastated by broken relationships, and others living as healing agents in this place, in the workplace, in homes and gathering places. In fact, desolation and burning life live in each of us all at once. We have people here today who can’t see even a dim light at the end of the tunnels they are traveling, and others who have no doubt the world is about to turn. Today we have people trying to hold up institutions that have served them, and others who are trying to break down walls that have prevented the path from being straight and level. We have it all right here, right now. This is an astonishing and wonderful thing, a thing of God! Do you see it?
Here is another riddle: we believe in God yet we are naturally troubled by the painful experiences, by the dark nights, by the unfulfilled hopes we know. We wonder, “If God watches over me, how could this happen to me?” It makes perfect sense to ask this question. It is a natural response to suffering.
And yet we have these apples here out of season for the taking, ready to feed us, here to remind us of a paradoxical wisdom. I hope you’ll take one if you hunger. As we ripen in our faith in this one who died on a tree, and yet waits to be born again in our lives, and is somehow no less alive at either point, we come to understand God as a presence that protects us from nothing, even as God sustains us in all things. Cross of death; tree of life. They are here together. This is your God.
God watches over us, and yet this does not mean God prevents the tragic thing, the cruel thing, the unfair thing. And yet God is there, a tender sweetness, a profound depth that carries us in the tragic thing itself and will continue to do so in every moment, whether we see it or not at this moment.[i]
That is the truth of this gospel which you have heard today. But you don’t have to just rely on your ears. Look around. It is present in this room. You can see it with your own eyes. Look around and you will see the whole story of God captured in time. You will see it singing and proclaiming. You will feel it holding you in your sorrow and laughing with you in your joy.
So hold on dear ones; receive your consolation. Comfort, comfort, you whose roots are deep and branches are full. Make the way straight with one another and in this world. We are pregnant with hope, and yet Christ is here even now.
[i] Adapted from James Finley’s article “Ripening” in the journal Oneing, Vol. 1., No. 2. See http://store.cac.org/Oneing-Ripening_p_304.html. Referenced in Richard Rohr’s daily email meditation, December 3, 2014.